If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

…a big fat nope from me.

DISCLAIMER: Like with any other negative review that I write I feel the need to remind ppl that my opinions/thoughts/impressions of a book are entirely subjective (mind-blowing i know) and that if you are interested/curious about said book you should definitely check out more positive reviews.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English implements many trendy literary devices. The two central characters remain unnamed and are referred to as the ‘boy/man from Shobrakheit’ and the ‘American girl’, there is a lack of quotations marks (although, although most dialogues appear in italics), and the narrative is structured in a supposedly experimental way so that when the pov switches between ‘him’ and ‘her’ we get a question that is somewhat related to the content of their chapter. As you can tell from my tone I was not a fan of these devices. They can work but here the sheer combination of all of them struck me as deeply affected and not even that innovative. The story, in broad strokes, could be summarized as: an alienated millennial Egyptian American woman goes to Cairo in an attempt at reinvention. Her shaved head and ‘western ways’ however make her feel like an outsider. She questions the way she is perceived in America, and how being in Cairo challenges her long-held identity and beliefs. We are never given too many specifics about her stay but the author does give us an impression of the ‘mood’ permeating her days in Cairo. Her navel-gazing does provide the occasional pearl of wisdom, but more often than not we are given the usual platitudes about belonging and its opposites. While the author does succeed in articulating her struggles with her dual heritage and her efforts and frustration to ‘master’ Arabic, I found her speculations to be, more often than not, all-flash and not substance. There are attempts at being edgy which come across as somewhat cringey and fairly prosaic.
‘His’ chapters are far worse. The man is a talking, breathing, living red flag. His traumatic experiences and drug addiction do not make him a nuanced character. While I appreciated that ‘she’ understands that his upbringing informs his misogynistic beliefs, which leads him to objectify women and much worse, I could not understand why she remains with him. She tells us that the man in question is a multifaceted individual, but we never see these ‘facets’ on the page. His sections, if anything, only show us his ‘vices’. His exaggeratedly perverted point of view also struck me as not entirely believable. He often refers to ‘her’ lips as genital-like or sees her lips and wonders what color her labia will be. The man is incredibly possessive, sexist, offensive, you name it…this results in a rather one-note cartoonish character. Their chemistry wasn’t there and their arguments left me feeling quite unmoved. The ending of their ‘troubled’ relationship feels rather anticlimactic. Maybe if the author had spent less time pursuing metaphysical questions and dedicated more time to fleshing out the voices of her two central characters I would have ‘felt’ more but since we get a recap of a relationship more than the actual relationship itself, I just could not bring myself to care. The occasional vulgar language was not thought-provoking or subversive and the author’s experimental structure and style were fairly banal. It’s a pity as I found the subject matter interesting (languages, identity, dual-heritage, cultural dissonance, etc..). I did not care for the way the author discusses queerness. She allows (as far as i remember of course) a page to the matter. The girl says she’s queer, but the context in which she says this is weird as she seems to equate her shaved head and desire to move in queer spaces as being queer. I would have liked for the author to spend more page time on this subject. That then we have the ‘lesbian’ character in love with ‘her’ frustrated me somewhat as she only seems to be mentioned to emphasize ‘her’ desirability and to fuel ‘his’ jealousy. That ‘she’ only shows interest/pursues a relationship with toxic men was a bit tiring. Maybe if the author had spent more time articulating the motivations/feelings that lead ‘her’ to self-sabotage, like Zaina Arafat does in You Exist Too Much, maybe then I would have those relationships more realistic.
There is also a mini-rant against cancel culture and its brevity does it a disservice as the author delivers a rather surface-level and rushed commentary on the dangers of this ‘practice’.

SPOILERS
Here comes the cherry on the poorly baked cake. When the climax happens, we are taken out of the novel and into a writing workshop of some sort. The people there are discussing the novel, while the author remains silent. We learn that the novel is based on her experiences and the people who have also just finished it give their various opinions. Many of them are celebrating her achievement and giving her some truly fantastic feedback. The few dissident voices point out all of the book’s flaws (the experimental style, the ending, the use of dual perspectives to tell what should have been just ‘her’ story) but it just so happens that said ppl are shitty so their critique is made moot. This supposedly self-aware wannabe meta chapter pissed me off. It seemed a preemptive attempt at rebutting any criticism, and in this way, it reminded me of a certain passage from Mona Awad’s Bunny, where we have awful people give some valid criticism to the narrator’s book which happens to be stylistically and thematically similar to Bunny. I am all for autofiction, and some of my favourite books are inspired by the author’s own experiences (the idiot, you exist too much, caucasia) but here I question the author’s choice to add the pov of the man she was in an abusive relationship with. The people in the workshop argue that this is an empowering move and that she has the right to tell her own story etc etc, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with that, I found the way she chooses to portray him and his inner monologue during ‘his’ chapters to be at best lazy, at worst, of poor taste. The florid metaphors that dominate his pov ultimately amount to a caricature of a man (“her water breasts slipping to the sides of her rib cage like raw eggs”). I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this to the jaw-dropping finale episode of I May Destroy You or the section in Wayétu Moore’s memoir where she convincingly captures her mother’s perspective.
I dunno, I felt this last section was smugly self-congratulatory and for no reason tbh. Nothing really stood about this ‘novel’: the structure was uninspired, the prose was mannered, and the characters were flimsy at best. The issues and themes had potential, and as I said, the author does on occasion proffer some keenly observed passages on American and Egyptian social mores, on cultural and linguistic barriers, on occupying a female body in contemporary Cairo, on being ‘othered’, on the ‘desirability’ of whiteness (for example she notes how in america her mother has recently ‘reinvented’ herself as white), on the privileges that come with being America (by emphasizing the opportunities that are available to ‘her’ and not ‘him’), and on the dangers of self-victimization (with ‘him’ trying to gaslight ‘her’ for his emotionally abusive behaviour by painting himself as a victim).

I’m sure other readers will be able to appreciate this more than I was. Sadly, I was not a fan of the overall tone of the novel nor did I like how the author portrays her story’s only lesbian character. Lastly, that meta chapter pissed me off. I didn’t think it was half as clever as it wanted to be, and it had the same energy as those successful authors who bemoan their book’s few negative reviews on Twitter.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


Mad about You by Mhairi McFarlane

2022 is proving to be an underwhelming reading year. With the exception of Either/Or by Elif Batuman and re-reads, I have only dished out 3, 2 and even a few 1 star ratings. So, when I got an arc for Mad About You I was convinced that McFarlane would be the one to break this cycle…regrettably that did not happen. Having loved her last two releases, If I Never Met You and Last Night, I was fully prepared to fall for Mad About You. After all, in my review for Last Night, I described McFarlane as a writer who outdoes herself with each new book. Sadly, Mad About You proved to be the exception to that rule as it felt very much like a step back rather than forward. It actually reminded me of McFarlane’s early releases (by no means bad but definitely not as good as her later ones). The pacing was rather meandering, Harriet was not a particularly memorable main character, and the romance was, to be quite frank, subpar.
Like most of McFarlane’s releases, the book begins with a breakup, this time initiated by our heroine rather than her partner. Harriet is a wedding photographer in her thirties who has no interest in getting married. She lives with her boyfriend, who is from a very posh and snobby family who have never shown her any warmth or genuine affection. We learn that Harriet is an orphan who was raised by her grandparents (who have also passed away). Additionally, early on in the narrative, there are hints that point to Harriet having had a traumatic experience in her 20s. She doesn’t really open up to her boyfriend and feels guilty about it. When he puts her on the spot however Harriet realizes that he isn’t the Nice Guy he tries so hard to make himself out to be. Harriet rushes to find somewhere else to live and ends up living with Cal Clarke. When they find out that they are exactly strangers to each other things get a little bit awkward and Harriet overhears Cal making some rather disparaging remarks about her.
Turns out they both have rather complicated relationship histories. Cal’s ex is very cartoonish and a lot of her inappropriate behaviours are played up for laughs. The story doesn’t take Harriet’s exes as lightly and much of the narrative delves into the repercussions of having been in an emotionally abusive relationship. Harriet eventually bonds with women who have experienced what she has and together they decide to confront their abuser. Things don’t go smoothly and the story also touches on the way internet mob mentality works. Harriet and Cal’s relationship didn’t entirely convince me as we get few ‘domestic’ scenes where we just them hanging out in the house or interacting while doing everyday things like cooking etc. That would have added realism to their living situation but we always seemed to get scenes where they are either confronting their exes or dealing with some other drama. I did find the way Harriet’s abusive relationship is handled to be a bit a la daytime tv. Usually, I love the way McFarlane portrays friendships but here Harriett’s friends amounted to nothing. There is the good-funny friend and the backstabbing-bad friend. There was no nuance to them and consequently, they did not come across as believable people. The love interest was such a non-person and consequently I never felt any chemistry between him and Harriet. It would be nice if McFarlane didn’t always go for a white handsome guy as her lead…
I found the pacing slow and repetitive. The story spends too much time on Harriett’s shitty exes and very little time on developing her character. Her relationships with Cal and her best friend felt very superficial.
Also, at one point someone references Netflix’s Bridgerton which came out in December 2020…and yet no mentions of covid (as far as i remember of course). Is this book set in an alternate reality? it was a minor thing but it took me out nonetheless.
I’m sorry to say that I found Mad About You to be a surprisingly disappointing read. Hopefully, McFarlane’s next book will see her going back to form.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

Fiona and Jane is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that left me wanting. While the author is certainly a decent writer, I found myself dissatisfied by the friendship that was meant to be the core of her book. Their relationship did not feel complex or nuanced, in fact, it did not even come across as particularly credible. More page time is spent on the inane arguments they have with the wishy-washy men they have sexual and or romantic relationships with than their friendship. The majority of the book is all about characters bickering with one another (which i would have not minded as much if said characters had been realistic or if, at least, their bickering had been somewhat entertaining….).

This book follows two Taiwanese American girls Fiona and Jane as they attempt to navigate girlhood and later on adulthood. While the earlier chapters give us a glimpse into their family history, the later ones are more concerned with their dating lives. They either end up dating manipulative men or end up pining for emotionally unavailable guys. While Jane is queer, her sexuality is very much depicted in a way that left a lot to be desired. At first, some of the chapters imply that she’s a lesbian but then it becomes apparent that she’s probably bi, pan, or queer. Nothing wrong there but for the fact that none of the chapters really focus on her same-sex relationships. These are mentioned, or even appear briefly, but they are not given the same weight as the relationships she has with men. Maybe if the men she ends up entangled with came across as fully-developed characters, I wouldn’t feel so frustrated but they did not and in fact, they were very similar to the men Fiona is with. Rather than expanding on a particular moment in their lives, these chapters usually hone in on a series of silly arguments they have either with each other or the men they are with. These arguments did not always come across as believable and they struck me as staged. As Fiona often takes the role of self-victimizing quasi-hysterical woman, I did not feel particularly engaged in the highs and lows of her romantic life. It did not help that her chapters were narrated in the 3rd person while Jane’s in the 1st one. Because of this I felt distanced by Fiona’s chapters in a way that I wasn’t with Jane. That is not to say that Jane was likeable or a good friend. She was merely the less annoying of the two. At the end of the day only one chapter really honed in on their bond, and the rest spend more time recounting the horrible men they end up with. Their bond was by no means intense or fraught, and there was something very lukewarm about their dynamic. We are told that they are, allegedly, friends. But did this friendship really come across in the actual story? Not really. Early on Fiona does something quite unforgivable to Jane and this is never truly addressed by either party.
I would have liked more time spent on exploring their family dynamics and I think their inner lives could have benefited from being more developed too. We see them at dinners or parties having the same mean-ish conversations with their friends (who make cameo appearances), moaning about the men they are (allegedly) deeply drawn to despite the way they treat them and having exceedingly millennial concerns. I disliked certain plotlines, especially the one involving Jane’s guilt over her father’s death. His sexuality and death become her ‘sad backstory’, something to make her character appear deeper than what she truly is. You might argue that the reason why their friendship features so little in their chapters is that in their adult lives away from one another etc etc…but then why, when the two are once again in the proximity of each other, would you dedicate the chapter actually titled ‘Fiona and Jane’ to Jane’s relationship with a traumatized veteran?
I found both of the titular characters to be selfish, ridiculous in the way they paint themselves as the wronged party, boring (they lack drive and seem to have no real passions/interests), and petty. All in all, I found them to be singularly unlikable. The way Fiona and Jane is formatted too made their relationship appear all the more insubstantial. The book consists of self-contained chapters that can be read like short stories. This type of structure can and does work if in the hands of, say, authors such as Zalika Reid-Benta, Sang Young Park, or Patricia Engel, but here this mode didn’t work so well. The halfhearted attempt at nonlinearity felt pointless, especially since, with the exception of the first three chapters/stories, the rest all take place in an ambiguous time and I was never quite sure in what phase of Fiona and Jane’s lives we were. Doubtlessly, the string of dickish men they become involved with made these chapters rather samey. Additionally, with the exception of the first 3 chapters, Fiona and Jane did not have a strong sense of place.
I will say that the author does highlight the stereotypes attached to women with Taiwanese heritage (at one point one of them dates a korean guy who says taiwanese girls are more ‘promiscuous’ than korean ones). And, despite all of my criticisms, towards the structure of the book, the underdeveloped friendship between Fiona and Jane, I did find the first 3 chapters compelling. The first one is narrated by Jane and reminded me of Mariko Tamaki’s Skim. The second one, if memory serves, is about Fiona’s early years in Taiwan and we see how her grandparents try their best to shelter her. The third one is certainly hard-hitting as it shows how in their efforts to be ‘grown up’ Fiona and Jane end up in a potentially dangerous situation, this one made me think of T Kira Madden’s memoir. But the rest? Meh. They brought to mind Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw . While the two belong to different genres, they both feature thinly rendered millennial-ish characters who have stupid arguments with each other. The trajectory of these arguments did not ring true to life. The characters’ responses to the so-called betrayals also struck me as melodramatic and inconsistent. At one point Jane is insulted and enraged at Fiona after the latter asks her whether she’s had an affair with the man she’s currently seeing. She dramatically storms off but then we learn that Jane knew that he was cheating on her and she is the one who is now begging Fiona for her forgiveness. Surely when Fiona first accused her of being the ‘other woman’ Jane, the friend that up to this point had been painted as the more reasonable and forgiving one, would not have either felt a niggling of guilt over the knowledge that Fiona is right about the cheating, just wrong about the other woman’s identity, or understood that her secrecy and complicity over the affair had made her suspect in her friend’s eyes? No. None of this goes through her head. She just becomes rather hysterical and childish, like, How dArE ShE, wE aRe FriENds.
Another thing that annoyed me is how the author depicts queerness. I did not like the avoidance of words such as bi/pan/and queer. These are not bad words. No one is saying that Jane had to talk about her sexuality 24/7 or wear a badge but that when someone calls her a lesbian in front of a guy she’s into, she later ‘reassures’ him by dismissing him, on the lines of, Who? Me? A lesbian? Nah, you know Whatshisface, he’s full of it. As if ‘lesbian’ were an insult of some sort. While she’s confused over what she feels for this guy she has a kind of rebound relationship with a woman who is given very little page time in comparison to her male partners…why?!
It seemed that time that could have been spent on developing Fiona and Jane’s characters, their backstories, their fears/desires etc., is sacrificed in favour of wannabe gritty and realistic scenes involving their time with forgettable assholes.
It makes sense that some of these chapters were originally published separately. The work feels disjointed and directionless, the vapid discussions of the characters were boring and I found the whole book to be deeply lacking in humour. The sex scenes came across as cheesy because they were trying really hard to be edgy and real. The last few lines, where Jane is all like, I will write a book about us or whatnot, was just..unnecessary.
All in all, I did not care for this novel. If you are interested in books that actually explore the themes this book was supposed to, I recommend you check out Kyle Lucia Wu’s Win Me Something. If you liked Fiona and Jane, well, I’m happy that you were able to appreciate it more than I was…so pls don’t @ me.

my rating: ★★½

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The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Cheesy, boring, poorly executed. While there is indeed a murder and the identity behind the culprit is, supposedly, a ‘mystery’, The Widows of Malabar Hill struck me as something in the realms of a third-rate period drama. The first part of the novel introduces us to Perveen Mistry, our protagonist, and works to establish the setting, which is 1920s Bombay. While the author succeeds in depicting the realities of colonialism, of being female in India at this time in history, and in providing her readers with some degree of insight into Zoroastrian and Muslim traditions, the setting wasn’t particularly vivid. There are some info-dumpings now and again which read like something straight out of a textbook (aimed at younger audiences due to the dumbing down of certain facts). Anyway, Perveen’s family is Zoroastrian and has begun working at her father’s law firm. Being the only, or one of the first, female lawyers in India comes with many challenges but thanks to her father’s endless belief in her capabilities and her law degree from Oxford Perveen feels ready for what’s in store. She becomes involved with the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a well-off Muslim man who had three wives. As these recently widowed women reside in a purdah, a secluded and strictly, children aside, strictly female space, Perveen is the ideal go-between. Perveen is worried that they are being taken advantage of as they seemed to have signed over their inheritance. We also read of Perveen’s British friend Alice who has returned to India after spending time abroad.
The flat if occasionally ridiculous writing (at one point Perveen is telling someone not to touch her briefcase and instead of having her ‘shout’, to indicate her panic, this happens: “It’s mine!” she bleated. what is she? a goat?!) was bearable but the slow-moving plot was a chore to get through. When the murder finally happens we get a flashback related to Perveen’s past lasting 50+ pages or so that bares little revelance to what had so far happened. The author paints a sloppy picture of an abusive marriage which seemed very much soap opera material. The abusive husband is one of the most one-dimensional characters that I’ve come across in a while, and that’s saying something.

Perveen is portrayed as Not Like Other Girls because she’s smart and interested in the law. The murder mystery is a mere blip in this melodrama-driven narrative. We don’t even get to spend that much time with the widows and their characters suffer because of it. The last scene was pure cheese (“To the power of women!” Alice toasted. “To the power of women” Perveen answered as their glasses clinked.).
I was hoping that this would be something in the realms of Agatha Christie or Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries but this book was anything but. It was more focused on Perveen’s married life and it wasted a lot of page-time in rehashing how it started and how it ended. As I found the author’s general delivery to be dry I had a hard time caring about anything that was happening or that was being recounted. Perveen grated on my nerves as she acted without thinking and did not strike me as particularly clever or caring. Alice’s personality was being English and gay. Perveen’s mother plays barely a role in the story, her father is largely overlooked, and her uni friends we briefly meet in that first flashback, well, they were mere background figures.
If you are interested in reading this I recommend you check out more positive reviews. I, for one, will be giving its sequels a large berth.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

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Revival Season by Monica West

“Papa had carefully cultivated our belief in him. He never said it outright—Believe in me as you believe in God—that would have been obvious blasphemy and idolatry. But he was the all-consuming presence that had filled my entire life, taking up all the space in the house and in revival tents. In its absence was a black hole that seemed bigger than the presence that had inhabited it.”

Thoughtful if sad Revival Season is a novel about faith and healing. Written in a quietly elegant prose Revival Season paints an intimate, if troubling, family portrait. The Hortons are an Evangelical Black family. The pater familias is a renowned preacher who has healed and saved hundreds of souls. Miriam, his fifteen-year-old and our narrator, has been brought up under his rigid rule. She’s homeschooled, seems to exclusively interact with members of their church, she has to dress modestly and comport herself in a respectful way. Miriam is used to this way of living and doesn’t long for a different lifestyle. She looks up to her father and is close to her mother, she cares for and is responsible for her young sister Hannah, who was born with cerebral palsy, and she gets on as best as she can with her brother. Every year during the summer the Hortons travel across the South for ‘revival season’. The previous year Reverend Horton was involved in an altercation, one that Miriam has tried hard not to dwell on. But when her father’s healing powers fail him once more Miriam becomes once again witness to his violent outbursts. When they return to their hometown Miriam is unable to forget what she was. Over the course of a year, Miriam becomes painfully aware of how dangerous her father is. As her faith in him begins to waver Miriam discovers that, unlike him, she now has the ability to heal others. Forced to hide her gift from her father, Miriam has to decide whether to keep her healing a secret or cure others and risk her father’s ire.

Revival Season presents readers with an intimate look at a family that is unravelling. Monica West does a fantastic job in capturing Miriam’s voice. Not only does Miriam’s tender narration convey her young age and sheltered upbringing—without making her sound wholly naïve—but it is also succeeds in being introspective and perceptive. In articulating Miriam’s conflicted and shifting feelings towards her father West demonstrates great sensitivity. I could sadly relate all too easily to Miriam and found West’s nuanced portrayal of her father to be incredibly realistic. In fiction there is a tendency to paint abusers as one-dimensional monsters, but in real life things are not so clear-cut.
As the narrative progresses West explores Miriam’s faith in God and her self-belief. As Miriam is forced to question the image that she has of her father, she begins to tests the boundaries and rules he had long imposed on her. During this time Miriam also learns more about her mother’s past and begins to see her in a new light.

I think part of me did find the narrative to be slightly slow-moving and I did find myself wishing for a story with a broader scope. I was also a bit disappointed by the lack of revivals (ever since watching Carnivale and True Detective i have been oddly fascinated by them, go figure). Most of the narrative (70-80%) takes place in Miriam’s home and her father’s church, which resulted in some rather limited scenery. I think my lack of faith (i know i know, i am heathen) also played into my not being wholly captivated by what I was reading given the amount of Bible passages we get and that one of the novel’s primary concern is Christianity. Readers with stronger ties to Christianity will probably be able to appreciate this novel more than I was.
Last but not least, we get the dreaded “I released the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding” line which I have come to despise. Scratch that, I feckin hate it.

In spite of my reservations about the novel’s pacing and ‘breadth’, I can say with certainty that this is a well-written (- that one line) and poignant debut novel, one that should definitely appeal to fans of Purple Hibiscus (which is also narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in a religious and abusive household).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★¼

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

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Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

“Desire places people in dangerous positions. This was a fact I’d yet to learn and something Richard knew all too well.”

Dio mio, this book was so stressful.
Equal parts gripping and horrifyingYes, Daddy is one hell of a debut novel. This is not the kind of book one enjoys reading. In fact, most of the things that happen in this novel are horrific. Yet, thanks to Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s superb writing skills, Yes, Daddy is the definition of unputdownable. The more alarming and distressing the story gets, the more impossible it was for me to tear my eyes away. Given the novel’s explicit nature and painful subject matter, I would recommend it only to those who are willing/prepared to be disturbed by what they will read.

In the novel’s prologue Jonah Keller, our protagonist, is a witness at a high-profile trial. One of the accused is Richard Shriver, a celebrated playwright and former boyfriend of Jonah. The story takes us back to 2009 and recounts the events that lead to that courtroom. Jonah is a twenty-five-year in badly of a break. He’s an aspiring playwright who works as a waiter at a horrible restaurant where he is routinely bullied and groped by his boss. Jonah’s relationship with his mother is strained, understandably given that his parents sent him to conversion therapy. In an attempt to improve his circumstances Jonah orchestrates a meeting with Richard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright in his fifties. Their relationship is intense, and soon Jonah becomes acquainted with the more disturbing aspects of Richard’s nature.
When Richard invites Jonah to spend the summer with him in his Hampton estate, Jonah jumps at the opportunity. Richard’s estate however proves to be the opposite of haven. Not only is Jonah forced to spend time with Richard’s horrible friends who take any opportunity to toy with him (expect many painful dinner scenes) but Richard begins to exhibit some alarming behaviours.
Soon, Jonah begins to feel that something sinister is going on. Why does Richard’s staff entirely consists of young and handsome men? Why do some have them have bruises? And what this all this talk about a basement? …..aaaaaaand here the story takes a nightmarish turn.

I will not say much else about the novel’s plot as I do not wish to spoil other readers’ experiences. Suffice to say: ‘bad stuff’ goes down but you will be unable to tear your eyes away from the page.
The novel ruthlessly explores the realities of being a victim of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Jonah’s time at the estate irrevocably changes him. And yes, he, later on, makes some selfish choices, terrible even. But why should we expect victims to be paragons of virtue? If their trauma manifests itself in ugly or disturbing ways, what, they are no longer deserving of empathy?
Through Jonah’s story Parks-Ramage challenges this kind of thinking and I really admire him for it. He also shows that movements like #metoo have their limits/flaws and how easy it is for anyone to play judge, jury and executioner on social media.

If I had to rate the first 40% of the novel it would have probably been close to a 5 star however a major character in this novel (who Jonah addresses as ‘you’) really didn’t ring true to life (his character seemed to serve the role of a plot-device). And I also found certain other characters a bit OTT, so much so that they would have been at home in an episode of American Horror Story. There was also a son-mother relationship in this book that was a bit too a la Psycho and I can’t say that I believed in that much either. Lastly, towards the end, the narrative takes a direction that I wasn’t too enthused with. By then I had grown a bit wary of seeing Jonah suffer and I just wanted him to be left alone.

All in all, I found this to be an edge-of-your-seat kind of read. I was immediately drawn in by the narrative’s gothic undertones and won over by the story’s nods to The Talented Mr. Ripley and Rebecca. The more I read the more perturbed I became. In spite of its cover this novel is dark, disquieting, upsetting, and by no means an easy or enjoyable read. Still, I found Parks-Ramage’s prose captivating and I appreciated the way he combined an electrifying narrative with a thought-provoking commentary (on trauma, power, abuse, class, forgiveness, #metoo, the way the media treats victims of sexual violence). As debuts go this is an impressive one and I can’t wait to see what Parks-Ramage has in store next.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora

Written in spare yet unflinching prose Consent, as the title would suggest, is a memoir that examines its author’s relationship’ to a renowned French author, Gabriel Matzneff. At the time Springora was 14 and Matzneff was 50. Springora looks back to that time in her life, evoking the feelings and emotions her teenage self was experiencing, and observes the way in which most of the adults around her did not bat an eye at her relationships with Matzneff. Her father no longer lived with her and her mother seemed under the delusion that her daughter was mature enough to be in love, and loved by, a man 30 years her senior. Springora describes in shuddering detail Matzneff’s behavior towards her and I would not recommend this memoir to those readers who cannot stomach explicit scene (there were many instances that nauseated me). It was horrifying to read of how Matzneff preyed on Springora, alienating her from her peers, controlling the way she dressed, who could she spend time with, separating her from her own mother. Matzneff would also talk extensively to her about his many ‘sexual exploits’, presenting himself as a cavalier who rescues young girls like her from the rough clutches of inexperienced boys. He also wrote and talked openly about his perverse inclinations without any serious backlash. French literary circles seemed to find his pedophilia almost amusing, a sign of his being a really Casanova. Springora questions why literary men such as Matzneff were able to get away with things other men couldn’t. Was it because he produced ‘art’? Springora also discusses the impact of the sexual revolution on French culture and of how many French intellectuals encouraged or agreed with Matzneff belief that having sexual intercourse with a minor should not be a crime.

Springora offers snapshots from her time with Matzneff, most of which made me feel queasy. While I did appreciate the sentiment behind her narrative (before it was Matzneff who wrote about her and their relationship in his books, now she is finally able to take control of her own story) but I did find some parts of her memoir to be a bit heavy on the self-dramatization. While I understand that she wanted to evoke her teenage mind, at times this was a bit heavy-handed. The imagery too was clichèd, such as that passage in which with “blood” running down her thighs she has finally become a “woman”. And I do wish that Springora could have provided some more interactions or thoughts on her mother. Her behavior in the whole ‘affair’ is abominable and part of me just could not wrap my head around how she could believe that her daughter was ‘mature’ enough to be with a man old enough to be her father.
Consent is a short but brutal read. It shines a light on sexual abuse and exploration, and a country’s worrying attitude towards a pedophile.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

For a book published in the 90s The Kitchen God’s Wife comes across as strangely outdated. And I guess in spite of Tan’s writing—which is far from mediocre or incompetent—I could not look past the fact that her story was the antithesis of female solidarity.

At first I was taken by Tan’s storytelling. The first 40 pages or so, those that take place in the ‘present’, were enjoyable. We learn that Pearl, a woman in her thirties, has always had a difficult relationship with Winnie, her mother. Some of this is due to generational and cultural differences but, as we soon learn, both mother and daughter have kept secrets from each other. When Winnie’s sister-in-law Helen/Hulan announces that she can no longer keep silent about their past, Winnie is forced to recount her many trials and hardships to her daughter. This is where the novel lost me. I find this kind of cheesy melodrama meets misery porn to be exceedingly frustrating. Winnie is basically Cinderella or the classic Mary Sue: 99% of people around her use her and abuse her. Every female character, with the exception of Grand Auntie Du, is cruel, vain, stupid, ugly, and or ungrateful. Winnie, on the other hand, is an angel. She is not like other girls. She endures and she suffers because she has aspirations to martyrdom.
Given that she is recounting past experiences directly—ie we get a 1st pov—you would think that at one point or another Winnie could express uncertainty over the accuracy of her memories or wonder if others recall things differently. But no! She keeps insisting that ‘this is what happened’ and that Helen is a liar who remembers things wrong. And, speaking of Helen, rather than painting a complex and fraught friendship, Tan presents us with the goody two shoes Winnie and the ugly, stupid, and venal Helen who is not only a horrible friend to Winnie but a lousy human being.
Anyway, Winnie recounts her tragic past: her mother abandons her, she is shunned by her wealthy father and raised by cartoonishly wicked relatives. In relating these experiences Winnie alway makes a point of emphasising her inherent goodness and beauty, often by making little digs about women’s failings. Winnie ends up marrying a horrible man who possess only vices. Her reminded me of the ‘bad’ men from The Giver of Stars and novels by Kristin Hannah. Personally, I prefer more nuanced characters. Tan also often conflates a characters’ physical appearance with their personality—so if one has an ugly character they will be indeed ‘ugly’ on the outside—which feels a tad…old-fashioned? Maybe it would be more suited to a novel dated from the 19th century than the 1990s.
The only sections that were somewhat interesting and whinging-free were the ones that stuck to facts. For example, when Tan writes details statics and about the Sino-Japanese War (as opposed to Winnie’s own experiences in it). When she writes of Nanking I felt much more horrified and moved than I was by anything related to Winnie.
Sadly, Winnie’s narrative is more intent on dissing on Helen than anything else. Here are some the lovely things she says/thinks about Helen: “Her mouth dropped open to let this thought come in and nourish her brain. I was thinking, Good, even though she is uneducated, she is quick to learn something new.” / “She was plump, but not in that classical way of a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. ” / her hair was “lumpy” / she had no sense of fashion, none at all.” / “a simple country girl”.
And Winnie goes on to tell Pearl that: “I am not being critical in remembering her features just because I am angry with her now”. Sure hon, go on and keep lying to yourself. Winnie never takes any responsibility. Everything is and or always was all Helen’s fault. Helen is ugly inside and out, “she broke harmony between us. I tell you, that day Hulan showed me her true character. She was not the soft melon head she made everyone believe she was. That girl could throw out sharp words, slicing fast as any knife”. And of course, “She’s the complaining one, not I”. I’m not so sure about that one Winnie…the story ended up being less about domestic abuse, war, and survival, then a woman going on and on about how her ‘supposed’ friend is a trash human being.
I swear, every few pages, Winnie would say something such as: “Who is the better cook? You see! I am not boasting. It’s true. ” / “You know what I think? When Jiaguo got his promotion, Hulan gave herself a promotion too! In her mind, she was more important than I was. ” / “She was always unhappy until I was the same level of unhappy as she was.” / “You would think Hulan would remember those hard little cakes, and then put a few coins, or maybe some food, into the beggar girl’s bowl, which is what I did. I’m not saying I did this all the time. But Hulan did not do this even once. Instead she put more food into her own mouth. She added fat onto her body the same way a person saves gold or puts money into a bank account, something she could use if worse came to worst.” / “So you see, I think it was some little river crabs Hulan wanted to eat in Changsha. That’s what made us sick. It stayed in our bodies and broke out one day.” / “She will probably tell you it was instant true love. Maybe for him. But I think she was being practical”….and I cannot stand this lousy portrayal of female ‘friendship’. Women, with the exception of Winnie, are catty and fake. Men, with the exception of Winnie’s Chinese-American second husband—are stupid, cowardly, or abusive sadists.
Other girls Winnie encounters also receive a similar treatment to Helen’s one. Winnie sometimes pretends to be nice (claiming that she didn’t hate a woman before stressing how selfish or unkind that woman was) but, in actuality, she is anything but. She describes a girl she dismisses as “stuck-up” as having “red as a demon’s” eyes. Her first husband’s new wife is not only “bossy” in both attitude and appearance but “stupid” (“You see how stupid his new wife was?”). Winnie also makes some weird comments about Burmese and Cantonese people, seems to relish the idea that Peanut, yet another cruel/vain girl, “who used to pride herself on the paleness of her skin. And now she was almost as dark as a Cantonese!”.
And yes, sure, Winnie suffers. Her husband is a monster with no redeeming qualities and with the exception of Grand Auntie Du and her American-born husband…well, everyone else is bad news.
I dislike this kind of ‘girl-on-girl hate’ and the whole Winnie=Cinderella thing was hella annoying.
Thankfully, I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand shop (then again, I will never get back the hours I spent reading this). While I wouldn’t recommend this novel to anyone in particular I’m aware that Tan is an extremely popular writer so….maybe it’s just me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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