Circa by Devi S. Laskar

Circa had the potential of being an immersive and compelling read. Sadly, the structure and length of the narrative do the story no favors, as the final product ultimately struck me as formulaic in a-MFA-program type of way. Sure, Devi S. Laskar quite effectively utilizes a 2nd pov, which is no easy feat. Beyond this stylistic choice, the novel doesn’t have a lot to offer. This is the kind of narrative that strikes me as being more interested in presenting its readers with a certain evocative style than introducing us to dimensional characters. The structure of the novel struck me as somewhat inconsistent. At first, it brought to mind books like All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running, Friends & Dark Shapes, and Another Brooklyn, in that it honed in on specific moments of Heera’s youth, but as the story progresses the narrative loses its atmosphere as it switches to a telling mode where it covers large swathes of time with little fanfare so that I felt at a remove by what Heera had experienced.

Circa is centred on Heera, ‘you’, an Indian American teenager who is coming of age in Raleigh, North Carolina during the late 80s. Heera hangs out a lot with siblings Marie and Marco, often in secrecy as her parents do not approve of her friendship with the Grimaldi children. Together they rebel the way some teenagers do, disobeying their parents, and sneaking behind their parents’ backs. Sometimes they steal from their parents or strangers, other times they do edgy eff society type of graffiti. Anyway, Heera is smitten with Marco, kind of. Eventually, something bad happens that changes their dynamic, and Marco reinvents himself as Crash, while Heera finds herself having to grapple between her sense of self-fulfilment and her parents’ desires. Should she go to college? Marry? Can she or does she want to do both? The author does highlight the limited possibilities available to a woman, specifically a woc, at the time, juxtaposing her path to Crash’s one. Sure, the author does provide an all too relevant commentary on the American Dream, stressing its elusiveness, and a poignant enough portrait of a family caught between generational and cultural differences, however, the whole Crash/Heera dynamic really was deeply underwhelming. Marie is very much a plot device, someone who is used as a source of trauma for Heera and Crash, someone who is supposedly meant to make their bond all the more complex…but she was so one-dimensional and served such a disposable function in the story that I really felt like she wasn’t a character, let alone a rounded person. Crash seemed the male version of a pixie girl, not quite as extra ‘that’s literary me’ type of guy (who is thinks he is the narrator from fight club or the joker), more of a vanilla sad-meets-bad boi. Heera in many ways is rather a passive presence, and I was unable to understand her obsession with Crash, let alone believe that the two shared an intimate bond. I think the story is at its best when it hones in on domestic moments, in particular in Heera’s interactions with her parents or when exploring the tension between her family and the Grimaldi. I think I would have liked this story to have solely focused on familial and platonic relationships, rather than going for this wattpad type of romance (‘i can fix him’…come no). The latter half of the novel strays into melodrama, with quite a few characters disappearing because of actual reasons and or no reasons. A whole portion of Heera’s story is delivered in such a rushed and dispassionate way that it really pulled me out of her story.

Given the premise, I was hoping for something with more oomph. The ‘crucial’ event isn’t all that important in the end, as the distance between Crash and Heera could have easily happened without that having to occur. The ‘betrayals’ mentioned in the summary lead me to believe in a story with more conflict, whereas here the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Crash and Heera brought to mind the milquetoast straights-miscommunicating-or-having-0-communication that dominated in much of Normal People. I think it would have been more effective if the author had either opted for a longer and slower-paced storyline (which would have allowed her to expand certain scenes, rather than just relating important moments in a couple of sentences, and made the characters more rounded) or if she had fully committed to a snappier snapshot-like narrative (a la What We Lose or Ghost Forest). I mean, this wasn’t a bad read but it is the type of book I will forget about in a few weeks or so.

If this book is on your radar I suggest you check out more positive reviews out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

“America is only routinely good to women, especially Black women, when it wants something from them.”

Having recently read Megan Giddings’ intriguing sophomore novel, The Women Could Fly, I decided to revisit Lakewood, a book that I have picked up and put back down on and off since August 2020. Each reading attempt saw me lose interest during Lena’s first ‘interactions’ with Lakewood. Whereas The Women Could Fly drew me in from the very first pages, I had a much harder time becoming invested in Lena’s story. The writing was solid enough but lacked the polish of the prose that I encountered in The Women Could Fly. Still, this time around I was determined to finish what I’d started, and so I persevered reading, despite my waning interest. Now that I have finally ‘made it’, I can definitely pinpoint why this book didn’t really grab me like The Women Could Fly: whereas in that novel Giddings maintains a delicate balance between her subject matters (authoritarian & patriarchal regimes, female bodily autonomy) and her character development, here Lena never comes into her own, she sadly remains fairly one-dimensional, and her character often struck me as a vehicle through which the author could explore a horrifyingly unethical human experimentation.

I will begin with the positives: I think Giddings excels at atmosphere, and most of the narrative is permeated by a subtle yet unshakeable sense of unease, one that morphs from a feeling of not-rightness into downright horror. Lena’s story also retains an ambiguous quality, one that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. Many of her experiences at Lakewood appear to us as fragments, with no clear chronological order, certain events or memories are distorted. The people involved with the Lakewood project and the people of Lakewood themselves remain opaque figures, their names and faces a blur. Their perturbing vagueness exacerbated the narrative’s eerie atmosphere, their perpetual unfamiliarity a source of unease and potential danger. So, in terms of ambience, Lakewood certainly succeeds in making for an alienating and murky read. There were also some very clever descriptions (“Inside, a white woman with a haircut that looked as if she had shown her stylist an image of a motorcycle helmet and said, “That’s the look,” was waiting.”), and I appreciated the narrative’s discourse on sacrifice & freedom.

“Maybe the hypothesis is how much do people value money over themselves?

Where this book lets me down however was the way the Lakewood project is presented to us. Much of the narrative, most of the narrative it seemed, consists of the questions Lena has to answer as part of this experiment. And these questions were by turns weird, seemingly arbitrary, and intrusive. Yet, they bored me. I would have preferred the narrative to be heavier on introspection, as Lena was in much need of, well, a personality (besides being a dutiful daughter). She responds to her environments as you would expect: at first she’s perturbed, then disturbed, and finally horrified. But her responding to the questions and the experiments at Lakewood in this manner did not make her come across as a rounded character. The third-person perspective makes her feel further at a remote, which lessened the impact of her narrative. While we do understand the circumstances that lead Lena to ‘participate’ in this project, I did find her initial compliance odd. I would have liked to see more of an internal monologue on her part, rather than having to see her function as a mere plot device through which the author can show how dehumanizing medical experimentation can be. I mean, you could read an article discussing actual unethical medical experimentations, if I have to read about a fictional take on these, I would like for these to be explored through nuanced characters (or a compelling main character at least). Still, the author is able to address the type of circumstances that might lead someone to take part in medical experimentation, and the difficulties in extracting oneself from it. Lena is never quite certain of what is happening to her, and is very much restricted by nda she has signed. She does now and again ask why certain questions are being asked to her, the point behind her answers, but she receives no replies or unsatisfying ones. With the exception of one person, we don’t learn much about the other people in the experiment, and the time Lena spends at Lakewood acquires a blurry, almost feverish quality, one that makes it often difficult to grasp how much time has passed from one scene to the next and determine Lena’s reactions to what she is subjected to and witnesses there. There is a lot f*cked up stuff that happens there that is just glossed over, and in a way, I get that the author was showing that the participants in this experiment had been desensitized to the weirdness of the questions and rules there, but I would have wanted the author to expand some more on Lena’s feelings about a lot of stuff, to be honest.
There seemed to be neither a lot of telling nor showing bizarrely enough. What we do get is a lot of question-and-answer scenes which are profoundly repetitive and dull. I would have liked for the narrative to incorporate more portions of Lena’s life prior to Lakewood, as I believe that her relationship with her now-deceased grandmother, her chronically ill mother, and her best friend, would have added an emotional layer to the story. Again, maybe the cold, detached, somewhat clinical tone was intentional given the focus on Lakewood, however, I personally would have preferred some more depth from Lena.
Still, the author does focus on the way racial minorities, in particular Black people, and disadvantaged groups, such as poor and/or disabled individuals, are often the targets of these experiments, and how they are lied to, abused, and ultimately treated as ‘disposable’. The author also shows the hypocrisy of institutions and corporations that perpetuate physical and psychological violence in the name of ‘progress’.
The denouement was anticlimactic and in some ways predictable. That whole last section, which is presented as a letter if I recall correctly, in some ways ruined the surreal atmosphere so far established by the narrative.

I would have liked more. More from the story, the plot, and especially Lena. The premise was certainly intriguing but the execution left a lot to be desired. I went into this excepting something along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos or Get Out, and while the book does have Black Mirror and even some Severance vibes, the storyline ultimately feels incomplete and it severely lacked in oomph.

Still, just because I didn’t find this to be as gripping a read as I’d hoped does not mean it was a bad book. If you are interested in it I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

You Are Free by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna has a knack for unsettling her readers. The stories collected in You Are Free are a testament to her ability to create and maintain an atmosphere of disquiet, one that adds to the ambiguous characters populating her stories. The people Senna centres her stories around seem perpetually uneasy and their behaviour—which ranges from being slightly worrisome to downright perturbing—is often a source of confusion to other characters and readers themselves. Like in her full-length novels, Senna hones in on race, racism, and racial identity. Her caustic social commentary is as piercing as it is unstinting. Senna spares no one and this adds to the murky tone of her narratives. As much as I love Senna’s writing, her short stories pale in comparison to her novels. The stories here are not as disturbing as Maria’s spiralling into obsession in New People, or as disconcerting as the narrator’s experiences in Symptomatic, or as compelling as Birdie’s story in Caucasia.

The first story is probably the most accomplished one, as we are introduced to a young couple who, as a ‘joke’, apply for their son to attend one of the country’s most distinguished private schools. When their son is actually offered a spot, the mother finds herself giving the school some serious consideration, while the father is adamantly opposed to it and wants his son to attend a local public school. What makes this story so effective is the increasingly creepy behaviour of the school’s member of staff. The other stories are less memorable, and many of them focus on new parents. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook version of this collection and I can tell you that there are few things as irritating as an adult mimicking the voice of a whiny child crying for their ‘mama/mummy’. Anyway, the people within these narratives are varying degrees of terrible. Which was expected, but they did seem to share many of the same unlikeable traits, which made them rather samey. The short format also didn’t give Senna much time to flesh them out or to give them some nuance. I also could have done without the animal cruelty which seemed thrown in as an afterthought, or worse, for mere shock value. At times the character descriptions here verged on being lazy, which is quite unlike Senna (a character’s eyes are described as ‘asian’…). The focus on the parent-child and wife-husband dynamics had potential but ultimately the author prioritizes ambience over characterisation (also the lack of queer characters…). Senna is a fantastic author but this collection isn’t quite it…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Happy for You by Claire Stanford

The premise for Happy for You made me think that this would be something in the realms of titles such as Temporary, The Factory, and Severance, which present their readers with wry commentaries on the gig economy and the modern workplace, or, satires about social media, the tech industry, and wellness culture, such Followers and Self Care ….so I was slightly disappointed by the trajectory taken by Claire Stanford’s character arc and, consequently, the direction of the story. If you are approaching this thinking it will be something in the realms of shows like Black Mirror or Severance, well, you may want to readjust your expectations. The speculative element within the narrative is barely there and mostly appears in the form of a few skits featuring invasive personalized adverts and apps, which, to me, was a bit of a letdown. Still, there were parts of the narrative that I did find engaging, even if I was frustrated by how our main character’s arc becomes exclusively about the possibility of marriage and motherhood, her life outside of the ye old woman=wife/mother equation is given little to no page time.

Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto is a burnout PhD student who is offered the opportunity to work as a researcher at ‘the third-most popular internet company’. The company is currently working on an app that is meant to track and improve its user’s happiness. To ‘quantify’ happiness the company has employed various researchers, including Evelyn whose research allegedly focused on the mind-body problem. While she does meet two of her colleagues, the narrative barely explores the realities of working for this company. It may seem bizarre but I like or am intrigued by books that explore, in whatever capacity, office dynamics (a few examples: Edge Case, Luster, Severance, If I Never Met You, The New Me, Promising Young Women, and Days of Distraction) maybe because I do not work in such an environment, and I was under the impression that convinced that Happy for You would focus in equal measure on Evelyn’s working and personal life…but it doesn’t, not really.
She is employed by this company, picks up on some weird vibes (which lead nowhere), and at some point goes on a work trip/retreat of some sort to discuss the app and happiness. That’s kind of it. The narrative does highlight how male-dominated the tech industry is, the commodification of non-western religious and cultural practices in the west, and the many microaggressions experienced by a person of dual heritage (for instance, the fetish-y comments about ‘how cute your babies will look’). Evelyn is routinely questioned by strangers in regards to her ‘background’ and at times feels a sense of alienation when moving in predominantly white spaces. Readers will also notice that because she has always been at the receiving end of ‘guess their ethnicity game’, she too at times does the same (except she exclusively plays this ‘game’ in her head), which seems to point to the loneliness she experiences as the only woc in many predominantly white environments and how exposure to certain attitudes may eventually lead to you to imitate/perpetuate said behaviours/mentalities. Though Evelyn’s experiences the narrative touches on the realities and many microaggressions experienced by poc in a society that deems whiteness to be the norm.
The author’s social commentary could be quite effective, and her stylistic use of repetition adds to the sense of otherness and claustrophobia that Evelyn experiences in this modern age.

Her work life and her experiences as a student remain largely unexplored, which is a pity. The narrative doesn’t really give us any information in regards to Evelyn’s actual contribution to this ‘happiness’ app. Her relationship to the academic world is also given little consideration, which is a pity as her character supposedly had already spent a few years on her dissertation.
I did enjoy those sections that focused on her somewhat awkward relationship with her father, who was born in Japan and spent most of his life in the United States. Evelyn seems to feel a certain degree of jealousy that his new partner is Japanese, especially when she perceives changes in his routine and beliefs, changes she attributes to his new partner, and worries that her presence in his life will erase her mother’s memory. The sections focused on the dynamic between them all were my favorite as I appreciated how the author is able to render an undercurrent of unease in their various interactions and to create poignant moments of mutual understanding or empathy.
Now, as I mentioned above, I went into this thinking that it would be a book about this ‘happiness’ app and the tech industry (on a related note, i’d definitely recommend ‘why does everyone want to break into tech?’ by the lovely amanda), however, the story offers only a surface level understanding of modern workplace politics…instead we have pages and pages spent with her boyfriend who is easily interchangeable with the male ‘love interests from The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and Days of Distraction who, funnily enough, are named respectively Jamie and J….in Happy for You we have yet another Jamie, of the white straight cis American male variety whose personality resembles that of sliced bread. He is well meaning-ish and fairly supportive, has a stable job and comes from a financially & emotionally stable family. He often isn’t aware of his own privilege and seems to either be oblivious or dismissive of the microaggressions experienced by Evelyn. Yet, while the narrative tries to paint him as this fairly innocuous & insipid guy annoyed me when the story concludes with him managing somehow to convince Evelyn to do things she initially was opposed to or unsure of doing.

spoilers below

We are told that Evelyn enjoys the financial stability offered by her new job and even if she’s not convinced by the app—from whether it is feasible to ‘quantify’ happiness, to the meaning and desirability of happiness itself and the actual benefit an app like this would have—she naturally feels a sense of satisfaction and pride when her boss implies that she is talented etc. We also know that at this stage in her life Evelyn doesn’t want to get married and is unsure of ever having kids…by the end of the narrative, we are somehow led to believe that after becoming pregnant Evelyn has somehow reconciled herself to both of these things. She spends the latter of the narrative worried that she will be a bad mother, and eventually gives up her job because she doesn’t believe in it (it wasn’t clear to me whether she was interested in picking up her studies again). And, at the end, she also says yes to Jamie, who’d proposed early on in the book. Like..ugh. I am tired of narratives where the female protagonist initially doesn’t want marriage/kids and by then ends up marrying (or about to marry) and with kids (or about to have kids). This type of narrative feeds into ‘you will change your mind’/‘it is natural for a woman to be a wife/mother’ reactionary rhetoric. That is not to say that there is no palace for narratives where female characters go on to do so things should not exist, but given their abundance, I found it frustrating when a character who says they don’t want those things for themselves, ends up being persuaded into doing/becoming those things. Evelyn lacked agency, and I wasn’t convinced that she really had had a change of heart.

Back to the app. This was very disappointing. Employees like Evelyn are ‘encouraged’ to be beta users for this app so we get to actually see it in action..and it basically consists of the classic questions you would get in any type of happiness quiz. Yes, Evelyn gets a lot of push notifications and she’s urged to improve her results but I wish the author had gone heavier on the speculative elements when it came to her portrayal of this company and app.
And, I almost forgot, Evelyn has one single friend who is given two appearances where he exists only as an object of not quite ridicule but his depiction felt cartoonish. Later on, his character is completely forgotten by both Evelyn and the story, which made it really seem as if he was included as an afterthought.
The narrative often doesn’t name things directly. From Evelyn’s company, which is constantly referred to as ‘the third-most popular internet company’, to things like Facebook and Ikea or even a book she’s reading (missing husband? greece? i’m fairly sure the book in question was Katie Kitamura’s A Separation)…anyway, the point is that this device was implemented in a rather gimmicky way.

I have rather mixed feelings about this debut. On the one hand, I found its themes compelling and thought-provoking. I liked that the narrator questions the origin of some of her behaviours and attitudes, for example, there are several instances where she realizes just how pervasive and insidious stereotypes perpetuated by the media are. I also thought that the author truly captures her dissonance and her sense of discomfort. That is not to say this was a bad book, in fact, I would probably recommend it, especially to fans of the ‘she’s not feeling so good’ subgenre. I did find the resolution to her story and arc frustrating, as they were predictable. I would have found it more satisfying if Evelyn had left Jamie and truly focus on herself, her career, her studies, and her friendships (which were painfully absent). Her relationship with her father and her tentative bond with his new partner was far more emotionally stimulating than her bland and generic romance.
Lastly, I would have appreciated a more intersectional approach to certain discussions as I found it a bit sus for a story exploring contemporary social issues that lbgtq+ related issues are very much not addressed or even mentioned.

Anyway, if this book is on your radar I recommend you check it out for yourself as Claire Stanford is clearly a promising author. Sometimes her prose is a bit heavy-handed on repetition and her satire does stray into silliness but some of the ideas that are at play in the story and her storytelling herself have definite potential…personally, I just prefer when these types of books don’t conclude with the mc getting married and having children.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

Lightseeker is a propulsive thriller that combines a who/whydunnit with a thought-provoking social commentary. Set in Nigeria, Lightseeker is predominantly narrated by Dr. Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist who has recently returned to Nigeria after having spent years in the United States. A husband and a father of two, Philip struggles to readjust to Nigeria’s sociopolitical climate. When he becomes convinced that his wife is cheating on him, he finds himself giving in to his father’s request to investigate the mob killing of three university students that occurred a few years beforehand. Their deaths were linked to their being members of a confraternity, but one of the victims’ fathers, who is connected to Philip’s own father, is adamant in his belief that his son would never join a cult. Philip takes the opportunity to get away from his marriage troubles and finds himself travelling to a village near Port Harcourt. Here he is aided by his driver and guide Chika, who is employed by the victim’s father, and who seems to have many hidden skills. The two soon pick up on the hostility that locals harbor against outsiders, especially those who are seeking to unearth a recent and tragic occurrence. Not only are the local authorities unwilling to help them, but they seem intent on obstructing their investigation. The locals instead see them as a threat, often refusing to talk to them. The students at the university seem more open to discussing the killing but it is only when the rapport between Philip and the locals worsens, to the point where his well being is at stake, that he begins to understand what occurred.
Not only did the story have a strongly rendered setting but the author was able to incorporate diverse and numerous issues within Philip’s investigation. Religious tensions between the town’s Christian and Muslim communities, class and educational disparities, cultism and herd mentality, politics and corruption, as well as the long-lasting consequences of colonialism. Because Philip is not from this town and has yet to fully readjust to Nigeria, we mostly glimpse and understand things through his ‘naive’ eyes, which makes for an immersive experience. The shifting dynamic between Philip and Chika was compelling and I appreciated the way their bond develops.

Now, on the things that didn’t quite convince me. One, well, it’s a crucial one. Once Philip decides to accept this request to investigate the Okriki Three he never seems to really doubt that their deaths were not ‘simply’ the horrific result of a mob killing. And the thing is, he believes this with no substantial proof. The locals’ unwillingness to discuss it or the police’s general shadiness can be understood as a sign of their guilt over their role in the mob killing. Yet, he ‘knows’ that something else is going on…and I didn’t really buy it. Early on he really had nothing to consolidate this belief and yet throughout the course of the narrative, he operates under that assumption. The narrative also shifts to a different point of view, and these chapters are very brief and intentionally ambiguous…and I found them cheap. I have never been a fan of mysteries that provide us with short, and corny usually, chapters from the ‘bad guy’s’ perspective. That the bad guy in question here is clearly experiencing a severe mental disorder was also…dodgy. True, this time around the person is not a psychopath but their (likely) disorder is still routinely stigmatized in the media and popular culture.

My last issue has to do with the female characters in the novel. On his flight to Port Harcourt Philip just happens to be seated near an attractive girlboss who, quelle surprise, is somehow connected to his case. He seems to entertain the possibility of cheating on his wife because this woman is such a girlboss. Fair enough, I don’t particularly mind reading about characters who behave badly or have bad thoughts. However, the language he uses to describe her and refer to her combined with the story’s running gag (Philip declaring that a happy marriage can be achieved by never contradicting your wife in an argument/discussions because “women be like”…especially ‘nagging’ wives who are often mad about nothing…and the thing is, his wife seems far more reasonable and clear-eyed that he is. She barely has any ‘page-time’, but I wondered why Philip would brag about his ‘tactics’ when the only conflict in his marriage seems a result of him having (recently) seen something that has led him to jump to certain conclusions. I hated that he is not quite ‘proven’ right but that what he had seen had escalated into something to be concerned about. Even more frustrating, she blames herself! Like wtf! Also, how could Philip, an investigative psychologist who is shown to be fairly intuitive, be so ready to believe the worst about his wife? Especially given the fairly banal nature of what he’d seen? The woman who helps Philip in the investigation serves the function of a plot device: adding further tension to the troubled marriage subplot and aiding Philip in his investigation when the story needs it.

While the resolution to the mystery was a bit dragged and not particularly satisfying, I did find the majority of this story gripping and I look forward to whatever the author writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin

“The expectations and ambitions, possibilities and hopes concerning my daughter – they still remain and torment me no matter how hard I work to get rid of them. To be rid of them, how skeletal and empty do I have to be?


Despite its short length Concerning my Daughter is by no means a breeze to read. It is a candid and stark study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. In Concerning my Daughter Kim Hye-Jin examines generational differences, cultural conservatism, and the realities of being an lgbtq+ person living in a heteronormative and traditionalist society.

The story is told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, a widowed careworker and mother to Green, who is now in her thirties. When Green asks her to rent out a room to her, she reluctantly obliges and is horrified to discover that Green will be joined by her long-term girlfriend, Lane. The mother wants her daughter to be happy, but her vision of contentment does not align with Green’s. The narrator longs for Green to lead a ‘normal’, expected, life: husband, children, a house. But here she is in her thirties and living with her. Worst, she is ‘unapologetically’ and ‘unabashedly’ gay, and has no intention of hiding her relationship from the prying eyes of others. In fact, Green is fighting for lgbtq+ rights, protesting the discrimination and unfair dismissal faced by members of her community at the university where she was employed at.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the mother fails to understand her daughter, and to a certain extent vice-versa. The author never condemns the mother for her lack of knowledge or her unwillingness to understand her daughter’s sexuality. Without excusing her homophobia, she identifies instead the harmful rhetorics promoted by her society. Additionally, we are shown repeatedly that it is this desire to protect her daughter from discrimination and injustices that leads her to reject Green’s ‘unorthodox’ lifestyle. Being in her head was by no means pleasant but her perspective rang sadly true to life.

The narrative swings between the mother’s uneasy relationship with Green and her girlfriend, to her taxing workplace. There she witnesses how uncaring and downright neglectful the staff is towards one of her elderly dementia patients. The patient has no family to speak of and therefore no one but our narrator looks out for her. The mother fights against the idea that this patient should be treated this way because she did not conform to society (the patient was a diplomat of some renown who travelled the world). I found the parallelism between this patient and Green banal …
I also disliked the gratuitous descriptions of the patients’ bodily functions and wounds. The author could have made us understand her neglectful living conditions without lingering on scenes detailing these things.
Her experiences with this patient lead to some depressingly bleak questions about mortality and ageing that at times came across as a wee bit too predictable.

I think I would have found this to be a more compelling story if the narrative had focused exclusively on the mother-daughter relationship but neither of these characters struck me as particularly fleshed out. It would have been nice also if the perspective could have alternated between the mother and Green’s girlfriend, just so we could see Green both in the role of daughter and partner.
Still, I appreciated the issues raised in this narrative. In some ways, it hit a bit too close to home as I am a lesbian from a fairly conservative country that has yet to legalize gay marriage and cares little about the wellbeing of its lgbtq+ citizens and I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and needs full-time care…so yes, maybe readers who are more removed from the events described in the narrative, or are not as ‘thin-skinned’ as I am, will find this to be a more poignant read than I did.

my rating: ★ ★ ★

Ru by Kim Thúy

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

Ru is a short read that blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (autofiction..i guess?) and is comprised of very short chapters, most of them consisting of a couple of short paragraphs. These chapters, which often barely last a page, capture an instant or impression experienced by our Vietnamese-Canadian narrator. The feelings, thoughts, images, and anecdotes, that appear on these pages have a snapshot quality, both because the author is able to capture these in a concise yet hauntingly evocative prose. The narrator is now married with two children, one of whom is neurodivergent. While we do gain an understanding of her life in the present, the narrative is mainly preoccupied with her past. The narrator’s recollections of her ‘disrupted’ childhood are unsparingly unsentimental. She remembers her experiences at a refugee camp in Malaysia, the difficulties of trying to assimilate into a culture that sees you as ‘other’, her early years in Vietnam, her beloved Uncle Two, while also reflecting on the limitations of language and of memory, on history and alternate histories, on trauma, and on cultural dissonance.

The vignettes her reminiscences present to us have a fragmented quality, so that much of the narrator’s personal life and past remains shrouded in ambiguity. There is also an aloofness to her narration that made much of what she was recounting feel remote, intentionally so I believe. By distancing herself from her past the narrator is able to approach it with, curiously enough, far more clarity. There is a neutrality to her inner monologue that could easily lead one to believe that she too is like us merely a ‘witness’ as opposed to the person to who these things have happened to. I liked the stark imagery, the narrator’s cool tone, and the ideas and issues weaving her ‘retrospective’.
If you like proses that are so sharp you are liable to cut yourself or have a preference for non-linear narratives composed of a character’s past and present impressions (be it autofiction such as All Men Want to Know and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, or literary fiction like as Ghost Forest) you should definitely add Ru to your tbr pile.

While I understood that many of the things the narrator divulges to ‘us’ are meant to elicit feelings of discomfort and unease, the way she sees her son’s autism gave me pause (she is “waging war against autism, even if I know already that it’s invincible”). While I understand too well that many countries still have a negative view of autism here it struck me that the narrator was creating an unfortunate parallel between her son’s autism and the Vietnam war that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure other readers will not be as ‘bothered’ by this but to be perfectly honest this aspect of the narrative detracted from my overall reading experience. Nevertheless I will definitely read more by Thúy.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Rouge Street: Three Novellas by Shuang Xuetao

Rouge Street presents its readers with three novellas by Shuang Xuetao which have been translated by Jeremy Tiang who once again has done a stellar job. The prose of these novellas is smooth and engaging, contrasting with the sometimes stark realities experienced by the characters populating these stories. The backdrop to most of these stories is Shenyang, which the author renders in gritty realism. The characters struggle to find stable employment and fulfilment as they attempt to navigate a perilous social and economic landscape. Many experiences or are close to people affected by poverty, addiction, and domestic violence. Some find themselves embroiled in murky businesses, while others attempt to make their dreams come true even when the cards are stacked against them. An element of magical realism reminiscent of the work Murakami comes into play in some of these narratives, lending an air of surreality to many of the events and scenes being described. The humor present in many of the character interactions also made me think of Murakami’s books, as Xuetao effectively incorporates humorous asides or funny lines into his otherwise bleak narratives. These moments of levity also add to the surreal, occasionally dreamy, atmosphere of these stories. The author’s insights into contemporary Chinese society also are characterised by an almost rueful tone, one that lends itself to his novellas’ subject matter(s). The family dynamics were lively and I appreciated how the author establishes generational gaps without resorting to the usual clichès.

What I struggled with was the shift in perspectives. I have never been a fan of shifts between 1st and 3rd povs, and here I sometimes had difficulties telling who was speaking and their connection to the other pov. To be fair, this issue I had may have something to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook version of this collection. I think I would have been able to follow the storylines better if I’d read it for myself. I will probably revisit Rouge Street as I would like to gain a more in-depth understanding of its novellas.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Anything But Fine by Tobias Madden

I had quite hopes for Anything But Fine and the first few chapters promised a ya coming-of-age in the realms of The Sky Blues, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, and You Should See Me in a Crown. As the story progresses however I found myself growing weary of the unnecessary miscommunication. If you are a fan of Netflix teen comedies/dramas, Anything But Fine will likely be your next favourite read however, if you prefer more nuanced characters and more realistic scenarios/dynamics well, this may not deliver.

Set in Australia Luca Mason, our 16-teen-yr-old narrator has dedicated his life to ballet. His hopes of being accepted into the Australian Ballet School are thwarted after a bad fall results in a broken foot. After his doctors tell him that he is unlikely to ever be able to dance again Luca is more-or-less booted out of his fancy private high school. A lost and confused Luca distances himself from his ballet friends, three girls who do not seem to truly understand the irreversible consequences of his fall. At his new high school, Luca is befriended by Amina, an affectionate, dorky, genius. Luca also falls hard for Jordan Tanaka-Jones, the school’s handsome, popular and allegedly straight jock.
While the novel does rely on insta-love Luca’s crush/obsession with Jordan did strike me as fairly believable. Luca is a horny teenager whose life has recently experienced an unwelcome drastic change so he decides to focus his attention on the seemingly unattainable Jordan. Luca’s dad, who is still grieving the death of his wife, Luca’s mother, tries to reach out to Luca and talk about how his ballet-less life is affecting him but Luca is quick to shut down this conversation. He spends most of his time daydreaming about Jordan and only on occasion allows himself to think about ‘what-ifs’ where he is able to dance again or has never fallen in the first place.

Some positives: the writing was fairly engaging and there were even some well-delivered moments of humor. I appreciated that Luca was portrayed as flawed. He makes mistakes, he is rather self-involved, a bit desperate when it comes to Jordan, and could be a more attentive friend/son. The author also shows that while he is often at the receiving end of homophobic ‘jokes’ and verbal abuse, he has a lot to learn about other people’s experiences. He does grow aware of this and works to improve himself, which was nice to see. Amina, for 70% of the novel, was a very sweet lovable character. Yeah, she had the type of personality that is often given to secondary characters in teen movies, so some of the stuff she does/say is a bit ott but overall it kind of worked (or at least it did until that scene…). She had her own arc, which made her character more rounded.

And the negatives (spoilers ahoy): we are told that Luca’s raison d’etre is ballet and while he does now and on occasion think about I didn’t really buy into this aspect of his character. Look, I get that he would avoid thinking about it too much but surely he would notice how different his everyday life is now. He only comments on this once or twice which isn’t entirely credible. Like, the guy dedicated most of his life to ballet, something that requires a certain amount of devotion. He would have been performing/practising daily and followed a strict diet etc., yet he seemingly adapts to his new life with no problem. Also, while he does one time acknowledge to his father that he is in pain due to his foot, the author seems to gloss over his physical recovery. He has physio but those scenes are all about developing his romance. I just would have liked for ballet (or lack of ballet) to play more of a role in his story. As things stand, we are told he love(d) it but there were few scenes showing this. His former ballet friends are portrayed in a very mean girl way. And sure, there are girls who behave like they do but I did not appreciate that Lucas is dismissive of them from the start. He uses certain terms that were low-key sexist and the story doesn’t challenge any of them. Even the popular girls at his new school receive a similar treatment, and even Jordan and Amina dismiss them and imply that ‘popular’ girls are promiscuous/bitchy/and-other-negative-descriptors-almost-exclusively-used-for-women which seemed a bit out of character if I’m honest. Also, while I am a fan of media that falls under cringe comedy, and I am aware that one’s teen years may be filled with plenty of embarrassing/awkward moments, here there were several scenes that just seemed gratuitous. I am not keen on adult authors going out of their way to embarrass their teenage characters. And here we have a major plot point involving a character doing something very unbelievable and utterly embarrassing themselves and the people around them. Amina has a crush on Jordan and suspects that Lucas is hiding something from her, possibly something that has to do with Jordan. Lucas tells her he has a girlfriend but Amina doesn’t seem to believe him and decides to declare her feelings to Jordan in front of his teammates who have bullied her and Lucas. Why…why would she ever do such a thing? While I am willing to believe that she would confess her feelings to Jordan despite Lucas’ attempts to stop her, I didn’t believe that she would do it publicly and seemingly on the spur of the moment. Her refusal to listen to Lucas’ pleas not to go ahead with her plan also struck me as inconsistent with her characterization so far. Sure, she is shown to be a tad naive and very wholesome, her fangirling over one direction comes across as a tad childlike at times but she is also portrayed as empathetic and in many ways more mature than her peers. I struggled to reconcile her actions at that party with her character. She’s obviously turned down and made fun of by the one-dimensional-jock-goons. Both Jordan and Amina take it out on Lucas, which wasn’t entirely fair. In fact, this whole section strings together scene after scene where Lucas is made out to be an ‘awful’ guy. The boy is not perfect sure but I didn’t think it was fair that he was blamed for so many things and rather than communicating/explaining himself to Amina, Jordan, or his dad, he just chooses not to. After being blamed by Amina and Jordan for making her embarrass herself, he inadvertently outs Jordan to his homophobic teammate. In an attempt to warn Jordan about this he forgets that he and his dad are meant to be celebrating his mother’s birthday (i think it was her birthday). Rather than explaining what was going on, he lets his dad think he is simply ‘boy obsessed’ and too busy to care. The dad also insinuates that Lucas ditched his old ballet friends, and the boy doesn’t think of telling him that said friends mistreated him and were racist to Amina.
Now, onto the romance. Jordan was a slightly one-note character, and I am a bit tired of lgbtq+ YA novels where the lead falls for the popular and ‘totally straight’ person who isn’t ready/or sure they want to come out. But rather than discussing this with our protagonists, they make them feel ashamed of who they are. While Lucas does call Jordan out, he is ultimately made into the bad guy because hey ho he outs him!!! Like…ugh. I am not a fan of that plot point, at all. It would have been more suited to a show like Glee or something. But here it just comes across as totally unnecessary. While I do acknowledge that the author does allow both Jordan and Lucas to have valid opinions on the whole being ‘out’ and dating someone who is not ‘out’, towards the end he seems to just dunk on Lucas. Amina too after that whole confession-gone-wrong thing is angry at Lucas. Surely, the following day or whatnot, once she learns that the two were in a secret relationship, she would understand why Lucas couldn’t tell her? Best friends or not, Jordan told him he wasn’t ready to be out, so Lucas respected that. And Lucas even tries to stop her from making a fool of herself…and she blames him? Argh. The drama and miscommunication really annoyed me.
I would have liked for this book to be less focused on the romance with Jordan and more on Lucas’ character growth. His personality was not particularly well-defined, and I would have liked some moments of introspection where he truly thinks about ballet, what it means to him, etc. His character instead is more or less defined by his crush on Jordan, which ultimately does his storyline a disservice.

I’m sure a lot of readers will love this but I am just not a fan of the latter half of the novel.


my rating:★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆