Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an engaging start to an action-driven fantasy series that is written in a winsome prose that is guaranteed to appeal to fans of Rick Riordan. Like Riordan’s books, Zhao combines an action-driven quest with a coming of age tale exploring the highs and lows of being a 12yr boy. I loved the way the author managed to incorporate—with varying degrees of self-awareness—existing tropes of the ‘chosen one/kids with powers’ genre whilst adding new dimensions and elements to their story. Additionally, unlike a lot of MG books, Zhao addresses serious and topical issues/realities in a very clear-eyed and straightforward manner.

Zachary Ying, our main character, has tried to distance himself from Chinese culture in order to fit in his white majority school. His mom, who is his sole carer, works long hours, so Zack spends a lot of his time playing Mythrealm. One day at school he comes across Simon who seems eager to get to know Zack. Turns out that Zack, the host of the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who, alongside Simon, host to Tang Taizong, and later on Melissa, host to Wu Zetian, are tasked with a crucial mission: they have to seal the portal to the Chinese underworld before the Ghost Month. Zack doesn’t really want to be part of all of this but with his mom’s life in jeopardy, he has little choice in the matter. Unlike Simon and Melissa, however, Zack’s emperor was not fully able to possess him and was forced to tie himself to Zack’s AR gaming headset (which lends many of the action sequences a gameplay quality). To rectify this Zack flies to China to strengthen his bond with his Chinese heritage, all the while being chased by baddies…but as their mission unfolds and Zack learns more about the emperors’ reigns, he begins to worry that he is not working for the good guys either.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the author references superhero comics, games, anime (i mean, code geass gets a mention which will always be a win in my books), as well as, you guessed it, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The narrative is quite self-aware in that these references often come at an apt moment, and usually poke fun at the existence/perseverance of said trope/storyline (for example with the ‘fridging’ of zack’s mom). I liked this meta aspect of the narrative as it gives the storytelling a playful edge that serves to counterbalance the more serious themes/scenes. Through Zack’s storyline, the author is able to explore the everyday realities of being a Chinese-American kid who feels pressured by his white peers to distance himself from his own Chinese heritage. Additionally, Zack is Hui, an ethnoreligious minority group with Islamic heritage and/or adhere to Islam. Like other minority groups in China, the Hui can be and are discriminated against by the current Chinese government. Zack’s father was executed after protesting the government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and this makes his journey to China all the more fraught. While the author criticizes the current Chinese government, through Zack’s quest they are also able to showcase their love for Chinese culture and history, presenting us with a complex image of this country, its past and present. The author’s depiction of and discussions around China oppose the kind of monolithic and homogenous image of this country that sadly seems to prevail in a lot of western media and public discourses. The China that emerges from these pages is enriched by its expansive history and many idiosyncrasies (other MG authors, please take notes!).

I loved the way they incorporate historical facts in the action sequences, so when we are introduced to a new historical figure we get a punchy introduction giving us an overview of their life. There were instances where I wish the author had not added American, or otherwise western, equivalents when introducing a certain figure or when touching upon a certain historical period (we often are given enough context to understand the cultural/historical significance of said person/period). Still, I really appreciated how the author avoids the usual good/bad dichotomy that tends to be the norm in a lot of MG books. Zack repeatedly questions the past behaviours and present motivations of the emperors.
The chapters all have funny titles that were very much a la Riordan. The banter between the various emperors and historical figures was very entertaining, even in those instances where it was trying a bit hard to be ‘young/relatable’. I loved the way the narrative includes and discusses historical-related things, as it very much reminded me of the author’s youtube content, which—as you may or may not know—I am besotted by. While I thought that the historical characters were equal parts interesting and amusing, the contemporary ones, except Zack, were not quite as dynamic. Simon and Melissa in particular lacked dimension and seemed the type of stock characters you find in any ‘trio’ (melissa in particular is the kind of aggravating sidekick who is meant to be a ‘spunky girl’ but comes across as kind of a jerk). I didn’t like them that much either, even before the latter half of the novel. Zack deserves some real/better friends.

Anyway, Zack steals the show as this is ultimately his story. He goes through a lot in this book and is forced to question the kind of person he wants to be/become. He makes mistakes, and he learns from them. He knows he wants to be stronger but finds his notion of strength to be challenged more than once. I wish that the narratives had called out a bit more people like Melissa who mistake his moments of vulnerability or hesitancy as signs of weakness or a ‘lack of moral fibre’. Dio mio, he’s a KID, leave my boy alone. I don’t know, I felt protective of Zack and because of this found myself rather peed off by anyone who tried to make him feel ashamed of being sensitive. But I digress. Overall I thought this was an enjoyable book that manages to blend together history and technology. If you a fan of heroes’ quests you should definitely give this one a try. Added bonuses: hints of casual gay rep + positive Muslim rep.

I for one liked it a lot more than the author’s debut novel, which I sadly was unable to enjoy (i know, don’t get me started if i could actively control and change my response to that book i would). I found the author’s prose to be a lot more confident in this one and their style really worked for this MG-type of storytelling. This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a 12yr old as I would have been able to love it, whereas now I can only just ‘like’ it. Anyway, I liked the humor and the historical facts, so this gets a thumbs up from me and I look forward to its follow-up.

ps: i just remember but some of zack’s reactions to learning some of the horrific things the emperors did are gold

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Lacklustre and monotonous, not only did How High We Go in the Dark fail to grip my attention but it also failed to elicit an emotional response on my part. It was a bland and repetitive affair, which is a pity given the hype around it. It didn’t help that a few weeks ago I read another ‘Cloud Atlas-esque’ novel. And while I didn’t fall head over heels in love with To Paradise, I cannot deny that Yanagihara’s prose is superb. Here instead…Sequoia Nagamatsu’s prose brings to mind the word turgid (examples: “Moles and freckles dance around your belly button like a Jackson Pollock painting, and I fight the urge to grab a marker and find a way to connect them into a Tibetan mandala, as if that would unlock some secret about who you were and what, if anything, I really meant to you.” and “your ass the shade of a stray plum spoiling behind a produce stand”).
Additionally, to compare this to the work of Emily St. John Mandel seems misleading, as How High We Go in the Dark lacks the atmosphere and subtlety that characterizes her books (and this is coming from someone who isn’t a devoted fan of hers). Anyway, even if I were to consider How High We Go in the Dark on its own merits, well, the verdict isn’t good. While this is by no means the worst novel I’ve read, it has been a while since I’ve been confronted with a novel that is so consistently and thoroughly mediocre. I will likely forget about ever having read this in a few days. Already I struggle to remember most of its stories (let alone its characters).
Even if I was tempted early on to DNF this, I kept on reading hoping that the next story/chapter would deliver something more substantial than its predecessor but no such thing happened. I guess I could say that it was ambitious? I mean, it doesn’t pull off what it’d set out to do but at least it had aimed high? Of course, as we know, if you aim too high you end up crashing down (a la Icarus).
Ugh, I’m really trying to think of some positives to say about How High We Go in the Dark but it seems that I have nothing good to say about it other than it has an ambitious premise (whether it actually delivers on its premise is up to debate…). I guess, I like the book cover…not sure if that counts as a ‘positive’…

So, to give prospective readers an idea of what to expect: How High We Go in the Dark takes place during and after 2030. A lot of the population is decimated by the Arctic plague which is unleashed onto the world after some scientists ‘stumble’ upon the thirty-thousand-year-old remains of a girl. Additionally to the plague climate/environmental disasters are causing further chaos. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story. While some characters, we learn, are connected, or even related, to each other, these stories ultimately fail to come truly together. By the end, what we have isn’t a tapestry but a series of samey fragments that don’t really succeed in bringing to life the characters or relationships they are supposedly focused on. Out of 14 stories only 4 are centred on female characters. If the characters we are reading of are shown to be in romantic and or sexual relationships, these will be painfully heteronormative ones. It seems that Nagamatsu’s vision of the future has no place for the gays, let alone for those who do not identify with their assigned sex at birth. That we get so few female voices also pissed me off. Like, come on, 4 out of 14?

Anyhow, the first two stories actually held some promise. In the first one, we follow a scientist whose daughter, also a scientist, died while ‘unearthing’ of the thirty-thousand-year-old human remains. This father goes to Siberia to resume his daughter’s work. Here we hear the first echoes of the plague: after these remains are found the facility goes under quarantine. Like the majority of the stories in this novel, this first one is all about parents & their children. There is the dynamic between the narrator and his now-dead daughter as well as reflections on his daughter’s (non)parenting of his granddaughter.
The following one, ‘City of Laughter’, almost succeeds in being memorable but ends up falling similarly short. The central character is once again a bland and inoffensive man, just an average Joe who is only slightly interesting because of his job. This guy works at a euthanasia park. The plague initially affects children and those with vulnerable immune systems (i think? we never gain an entire picture of this plague so what do i know) so some governor proposes the construction of “an amusement park that could gently end children’s pain—roller coasters capable of lulling their passengers into unconsciousness before stopping their hearts”. The main guy falls in love with a woman who is there with her son. The juxtaposition between the amusement park setting and the true purpose of this ‘park’ does give this story an air of tragicomedy (at one point a distraught and grief-stricken parent hugs our protagonist who is wearing a furry animal costume).
The following stories are harder to set apart from each other. There is one with a scientist/lab-person who has lost his son to the plague. He ends up forming a father-son bond with a talking pig whose organs will be used to save/help those with the plague (once again, i don’t entirely remember because it wasn’t made very clear). You would think that the talking pig storyline would be far from boring but you’d be wrong. That this ‘son-figure’ is a pig is a mere gimmick. The pig could have been a monkey or a doll or a robot. I would have preferred for the pig to be more of a pig. This story has even the gall THE Pig movie (with the scientist telling the pig: ‘that’ll do’). Anyway, once again the author explores this, by now, rather tired parent-child dynamic: what does it mean to be a good parent? Do you protect your child from the harsh realities of their world? Maybe if he would have allowed for more subtlety in his storytelling and character interactions, maybe then I could have felt more connected to the parents and their children. But that wasn’t the case. The conflict is made so obvious, that there is little room for interpretation or even nuance.

We have a couple of stories where boring men fall for boring women and vice-versa (here the writing veers into the overwrought). Some do so online, but the author doesn’t really add anything new or interesting to the VR experience. I mean, if anything, these VR-focused ones read like subpar Black Mirror episodes. Social media goes largely unmentioned…
We then have quite a few that go on about new funerary traditions because apparently so many people have died of the plague and cemeteries cannot contain so many bodies. Here Nagamatsu tries to be inventive but I found the idea of funeral hotels and funerary towers rather, eeh, underwhelming? Even that one chapter that follows a spaceship on its way to make a new Earth failed to be interesting. There are two chapters that try to subvert things: one is intentionally disorientating in that the narrator and some other people are someplace else, another one tries to tie things back to the 1st chapter, to give this novel an overarching story, but t it just came across as jarring.

I don’t understand why the author chose 2030 as his starting point. The future he envisions feels generic and wishy-washy. There are self-driving vehicles (i think?) planet earth is dying, and this plague is decimating the human race. How refreshing. Maybe I’ve read too much speculative fiction but the sci-fi & dystopian elements of How High We Go in the Dark felt tame, vanilla even. Been there, done that kind of thing. While Nagamatsu strives to achieve that quiet realism that characterizes the dystopian novels of authors such as Mandel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ling Ma, he misses the mark. Tone-wise too these stories seem lacking, especially if I were to compare them with the unsettling work of John Wyndham. In addition, the future he envisions pales in comparison to the ones you can find in the stories penned by N.K. Jemisin. Throughout my reading experience of How High We Go in the Dark I just kept being reminded of better speculative books & films.

Almost all of the narrators sounded exactly like the same dude. Which was odd given that these characters are meant to be at different stages of their lives. Additionally, it seemed sus that all of the characters used the same vocabulary, articulated themselves in identical ways, and they all shared a love for ‘vintage’ music (we have the Beatles, Patti Smith, The Strokes, Smashing Pumpkin, Siouxsie and the Banshees). The story is set in 2030. The characters are in their 20s, 30s, possibly early 40s. Yet, they all came across as belonging to the same generation. While I know that the whole idea of there being different generations is somewhat reductive, you can admit that people who are born in the same time ‘periods’ and in the same countries (the majority of the characters are Japanese American and live in America) share certain experiences/similarities. Here, none of the characters came across as believable older millennials or gen-zers. The popular media that is mentioned too was ‘old’. Why not then set your Artic Plague during the 90s or early 2000s something? It would have been made for a far more convincing setting. At least then the characters (from their worldview to their vernacular) would have not felt so out-of-place (come on, these guys do not sound like they are born in the 2000s).

The parent-child conflict that was at the heart of so many of these stories was cheesy af. We have a parent trying to connect to their child. The child is like, NERD. Okay, I’m joking but still, you get the gist. The children are grieving and confused, the parents are grieving and confused. Yet, what could have been a touching book about human connection reads like a parody, starring difficult children who wear headphones 24/7 and answer back because of teenage angst, and emotionally repressed parents who happen to be scientists and because of this, they are cold and clinical. On that note, there is one character who is not a scientist and is in fact ‘an artist’ and her art was beyond ridiculous (it gave me the impression that the person who had created said character had only a vague and clichéd idea of the kind of person that goes on to become a painter).
This book is full of grieving people, which should elicit some sort of reaction from me but nada. Nothing. My uncle and grandfather died respectively in November and December. I was unable to attend one of the funerals due to travel restrictions. The other died soon after testing positive for covid. Surely a book about losing your loved ones to a pandemic should hit close to home….except that it didn’t. I felt at a remove from the characters who were often defined by their job and or whether they had children.

The world-building, as mentioned above, was full of lacunae. Some of the gaps in the world-building seemed intentional as if to provide us with too much information on the plague and the state of the world during and after it would take away from the ‘human’ relationships and the existential quandaries experienced by the characters….but still, I could not envision this future nor could I bring myself to believe in it. One of the stories seems to suggest a lack of resources but later on, this doesn’t seem the case. I also found it hard to believe that the relatives of those who could easily be seen as culpable of this whole plague (the wife and granddaughter of that first scientist) would be allowed to go off to Earth 2.0 (as far as i can recall of course, maybe the narrative does address this…).

Choppy and repetitive, How High We Go in the Dark is a rather subpar novel. I would have almost preferred it if had just been your bog-standard speculative fiction book but no, this one aims higher and it shows (not in a good way). The dystopian elements are gimmicky and given our current pandemic…derivative (apparently the author wrote this before covid but i am reading it now so..).
The writing vacillated from decent to unintentionally hilarious to plain bad (“Aki still avoided speaking to me when he could avoid it.”…this book had an editor? really?!). We get a few clumsy attempts at the 2nd person which were…the less said about them the better actually. Nagamatsu’s prose was not my cup of tea.

This was not the genre-bending novel I was hoping for. The supposedly interwoven storylines did not feel particularly ‘interwoven’. There are characters who are mentioned in more than one chapter, or we read of someone who is close to a character we previously encountered but that’s about it. These chapters and characters failed to come together in any meaningful way.

Anyway, just because I thought this was an exceedingly bland affair does not mean in any way that you will feel the same way. If you loved this, I am happy for you. At least one of us was able to enjoy this book.
If you are interested in this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.



View all my reviews

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Having recently enjoyed reading Kevin Kwan’s A Room With A View re-telling, I was seriously expecting to love Crazy Rich Asians. I went into it hoping for a light-hearted and fun read but was instead met with a snooze-inducing story, a horrid cast of poorly developed characters, and an abundance of crass humor. I grew to hate all of the characters as well as the so-called plot and the tacky dialogues. Whereas I found Sex & Vanity to be a funny comedy of manners, Crazy Rich Asians struck me as garish and grating.
Rachel Chu, our supposed heroine, joins her boyfriend Nicholas Young as he travels to Singapore to be the best man at his best friend’s wedding. Nicholas has not informed Rachel of his family, who happen to be ‘crazy rich’. Because of this Rachel isn’t prepared to contend with his relatives’ opulent lifestyles nor is she expecting to encounter such cut-throat people, whose weapon of choice is malicious gossip. Although Rachel was raised in America her mother is from mainland China. Both of these things make her ‘undesirable’ to the older people in Nicholas’ family. His mother and grandmother in particular are set against her, so much so that they are willing to sabotage their relationship by any means necessary.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the story as much if it had focused on the conflict between Rachel and Nicholas’ mother. But, alas, hundreds of pages are dedicated to Nicholas’ horrid relations: there is Astrid, a spoiled yet self-pitying woman who will spend hundred of thousands on jewellery only to then bemoan how extravagant young people are. Her husband has a huge chip on his shoulder because he feels that her family treats him like a servant. She eventually comes across her first love who materializes from nowhere only to play the role of self-sacrificing cupid and gives Astrid some ‘advice’ on how to salvage her marriage, because he ‘knows’ men. There is Eddie, who is even more spoiled and obnoxious than Astrid. The narrative goes out of its way to paint him as a vulgar idiot who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There are plenty of additional characters who seem to share the same personality: they are mean, wasteful, vain, stupid, back-stabbing…the list goes on. I don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters. Some of my favourite novels, such as Madame Bovary or White Ivy, focus on less-than-likeable characters. However, the ones in Crazy Rich Asians are so painfully one-dimensional as to be utterly ridiculous. This slapdash satire is lazy and worst of all, painfully unfunny. All the husbands were dicks in the same way: they are cowards, weak, and possible cheaters. The women were divided into four categories: Rachel, who is Not Like Other Women, in that she uses her brain, she’s intelligent, she has a job, she (allegedly) doesn’t know or care about fashion or money; the ‘not so bad’ rich women such as Astrid and Rachel’s friend whose characters nevertheless revolve around what they wear or the fact that they like to spend money; the nasty set, which includes almost all of the women invited to the wedding, and these ones, well, they are Mean Girls who bully Rachel because they are jealous, and for all their love of fashion they do not possess Rachel’s innate simple yet elegant fashion sense; and the older women, which includes Nicholas’ mother, his aunts, and his grandmother who are also horrible and scheming (but are meant to be more ‘classy’ than the Mean Girls).

The plot goes in a circle forever. We see no meaningful interactions between Nicholas and his family, in fact, he gets less page time than most characters. He is Not Like Other Men in that he doesn’t care about money or status. Puh-lease. I found his denial of his wealth truly off-putting. I get that he was (somehow) the only one to be raised to be modest about the family fortune but the man has lived abroad and on his own, surely he must have gained some sort of perspective when it comes to his family’s wealth. But no! Time and again he denies that his family is rich, and I hated that. It made me want to reach into the page and slap him. This fake modesty is not pretty. I feel a similar type of rage when I think of those celebrities making videos where they say things along the lines ‘we are all in this pandemic together’. Bleargh. Fuck off, really. And Rachel, what a disappointing character. She was bland, painfully so. She never stands up to anyone, which, fair enough, given that maybe she doesn’t want to be disrespectful or aggravate certain situations but I found her passivity infuriating in the long run. Especially when it came to those Mean Girls. She also lacked ‘history’. It seemed that before her name appeared on the page she did not exist. With the exception of that one friend and her bf she has formed no other meaningful relationship…which is saying something given that she’s not a child.
Characters keep saying offensive things and no one really challenges their comments or views. If anything, the story goes to prove them ‘right’. Take the whole Kitty thing for example. At one point one of the female characters says that shopping can solve any problem a woman is having and I wanted to gouge my eyes out. The amount of girl-hate also drove me up the walls. I hate when male authors do this. It is as if they are compelled to write women as ‘catty’ and ‘competitive’ (whereas their male characters aren’t).
The book consists of characters gossiping, bicker, and bitching about one another. He said that she said that they said…etc. The one gay-coded character is portrayed as a snake (kwan, wtf? what is this, downton abbey?). The book exalts the characters’ extravagant lifestyles without anything meaningful to say about it. In fact, it just glorifies the ways of rich people. The constant name-dropping of fashion brands threatened to turn my brain to slush.
Anyway, this book has no redeeming qualities (for me of course). Rachel and Nicholas’ relationship felt like an afterthought almost. I never believed that they cared for each other and I think that Rachel should have not forgiven a man who lied by omission (about his past, his family, etc.). The last act was pure soap-opera. To use a possibly problematic term, that ‘twist’ was demented. Seriously so. That we don’t get any real scenes between Nicholas and his mother or even Rachel and his mother made their whole conflict bathetic.
This was meant to be an entertaining and escapist read but I was certainly not diverted. Maybe if you like shows like Gossip Girl you will find this more rewarding than I did. I, for one, do not care for this mindless glorification of the rich. Their ‘antics’, such as xenophobic, classist, and sexist comments as well as their ostentatious tastes and their constant need to travel by jet (who cares about the global carbon emissions!), are played up for laughs. This kind of mindless and gaudy satire achieves nothing. Bah. Maybe the film is more tolerable but this book is the definition of banal.

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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Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

In many ways Sex and Vanity was exactly the pulpy light-hearted read I was in dire need of. Kevin Kwan’s engrossing and entertaining storytelling made me speed through his book and I ended up finishing it in less than a day. As retellings go, this manages to be both (fairly) faithful and rather refreshing. What kept me from wholly loving this book was Lucie, the book’s central character. She’s the kind of self-absorbed, self-pitying, and milquetoast type of heroine that I have come to abhor, so much so that I actively root against them (especially since they are presented to us as likeable/good heroines who are not wholly responsible for their ‘bad’ actions).

Kwan’s reimagining of Forster’s A Room With A View features a contemporary setting and focuses on Lucie Churchill, a Chinese American young woman who is tired of feeling like the odd one out in her social circle. Her deceased father’s relatives are insufferably wealthy WASPs who see and treat her like an ‘oddity’ (the grandmother repeatedly refers to her as a ‘China doll’…yikes). To avoid being the subject of further gossip Lucie, now aged 19, has cultivated a good-girl image. Whereas A Room With A View opens in Florence, Sex and Vanity transports us to Capri where Lucie is staying to attend the wedding of her friend Isabel Chiu. Lucie’s chaperone is the snobbish and fussy Charlotte, her older cousin on her father’s side, who both in name and character is very faithful to her original counterpart. The wedding is decidedly over-the-top and Kwang certainly seems to have fun in envisioning the opulent foods & beverages and extravagant activities that would seem like musts to filthy rich ppl like Isabel and her cohort. As with the original, the two cousins end up in a hotel room with no view and are offered to trade for one with a view on the Tyrrhenian Sea by two other guests, George Zao and his mother (in the original it was George and his father). Lucie dislikes Gergeo on sight. She tells herself it’s because he’s too handsome and too un-American, but, over the course of the wedding celebrations, she finds herself growing intrigued by him.
As with the original something happens between Lucie and George that could very well lead to a ‘scandal’. This is witnessed by Charlotte who makes it her business to separate the ‘lovers’.

The latter half of the story takes place 5 years later in New York. Lucie is engaged to Cecil, who is ‘new money’ and therefore not wholly accepted by Lucie’s set. We are introduced to Lucie’s mother and her brother, who due to his gender and possibly his ‘WASP’ appearance, isn’t as scrutinized as Lucie herself is. Lucie’s future is jeopardized when George and his mother arrive in town. Lucie is horrified at the discovery that George knows her fiance and that the two will be forced to be in each other’s proximity at the various social gatherings they attend. Of course, even as Lucie tells herself she’s not interested in George and that he and his mother represent everything she does not want to be (the gal sure has a lot of internalized racism to deal with) she can’t stop obsessing over him.
Whereas the tone and atmosphere of Forster’s original struck me as gentle, idyllic even, Kwan’s brand of satire is far louder and sensationalistic. This suits the kind of people he’s satirizing, their obsession with status, brands, and reputation, as well as their lack of self-awareness. The rarefied world he depicts is certainly an insular one and while Lucie does experience prejudice, for the most part, the problems his characters face are very much rich people problems.
Given that this novel is far lengthier than Forster’s one I hoped that George would get his time to shine, or that his romance with Lucie could be depicted more openly. But Kwang prioritizes gossipy dialogues over character development.
Most of the conversations and scenes in this novel are of a humorous nature, and Kwang is certainly not afraid to poke fun at his characters (their hypocritical behaviour, their sense of entitlement, their privilege). Still, he keeps things fairly light, and there were even a few instances where the narrative veers in the realms of the ridiculous.
While there is no strictly likeable character, Lucie was perhaps the most grating of the lot. Whereas I excepted Cecil to be a conceited, condescending, wannabe-aesthete (kwang and forester’s cecils pale in comparison to daniel day-lewis’ cecil), I wasn’t prepared for such as wishy-washy heroine. While I could buy into the motivations of Forester’s Lucy (her self-denial, her inability and or unwillingness to articulate her feelings towards george), I could not bring myself to believe in Kwang’s Lucie’s ‘reasonings’. She acts like a child experiencing their first crush, not someone in their mid-twenties. Her antipathy towards George and his mother also made her into an extremely unlikable character. Her actions towards the latter, which as far as I can recall were not inspired from the original, made me detest her. Not only was her ‘plan’ was completely inane but inexcusable. She struck me as bratty, self-involved, superficial, vapid. At times she acts like a complete cretin. I could not see how other people could stand her, let alone how someone like George could fall in love with her.
Even if her character lowered my overall opinion of this novel, I nevertheless had a blast with Sex and Vanity. I liked how Kwang adapted certain plot elements to fit with his modern setting (instead of a book revealing that ‘scandalous’ moment, it’s a film; instead of the carriages there are golf carts). Part of me would have preferred it if Kwang had not made George and his mother ultra-rich given that in the original George and his father are certainly not well off. I also liked that in the original Lucy refuses Cecil twice, whereas here (as far as my memory serves) Lucie immediately accepts Cecil’s request.
Sex and Vanity is a gleefully ‘trashy’ comedy of manners. Kwang’s droll prose and drama-driven narrative make for the perfect escapist read.

my rating: ★★★½

Chemistry by Weike Wang

“Chemistry, while powerful, is sometimes unpredictable.”

Chemistry makes for a quick yet compelling read. While the narrative tries a bit too hard to be quirky, I did find certain scenes and or sections to be fairly amusing. Chemistry implements those ‘in’ literary devices such as an unnamed narrator and a lack of speech marks that I find somewhat predictable. Still, the story focuses on a Chinese American woman in her thirties who is studying for a PhD in chemistry. She’s in a relationship with a seemingly ‘good’ white guy who seems ready to take their relationship to the next stage (marriage). But, like a lot of contemporary female narrators, our mc is not feeling sure of anything. She’s struggling to keep up with the demanding hours of her PhD, overwhelmed by the pressure of other people’s expectations, and confused by her own feelings and emotions (she feels too much, nothing at all). While our narrator is initially able to go through the motions of her everyday life, she eventually slips behind her PhD. Her partner begins to grow restless at our narrator’s perpetual ambivalence towards the future, and soon enough our protagonist’s life begins falling apart. As we read of her present tribulations we are given insight into her experiences growing up. Her focus on academic success was instilled in her by her parents who always seemed dissatisfied with her, even when she studies what they want her to. In examining her relationship with her parents and the way they brought her up the narrator discusses the stereotypes about Asian parents. She also talks about the everyday microaggressions she experiences, particularly working as a woc in a field that is predominantly male. The author also captures those quarter-life crisis uncertainties that make you question whether the ‘path’ you are on is leading somewhere and if it is, whether you really want to reach that destination. The narrator’s growing discontent over her studies certainly resonated with me as I’m currently in my final year of my masters and I feel academically exhausted to the point where I considered (and still am) dropping out. It is particularly frustrating to see that no matter how hard you work or try, you don’t get the results/grades you hope for. On top of that, the narrator also has a dissolving relationship to cope with. While her partner is presented as this supportive nice guy he repeatedly fails to understand where she’s coming from, seems unable to understand her point of view, and remains blissfully unaware of his own privilege (as a cis straight white man from a financially and emotionally stable family).
Our main character’s best friend, who is also nameless and referred to as ‘the best friend’, is also having troubles of her own as soon after giving birth discovers that her husband is betraying her.
While these may all sound like heavy topics the tone of this story is very much light and comical. As I mentioned above, the narrative goes for this offbeat kind of tone that at times comes across as contrived. There were numerous instances where I did not find the narrator funny. There is a running-gag of sorts where she explains a joke to someone because her sense of humor is just so quirky that people don’t always get it. I did find her somewhat endearing. For example, in this scene, where her best friend is once again venting about her cheating husband: “This is all your fault, she says to one of the posters. You did this to him, you and your female wiles. Then she moves on to next poster. I follow and apologize to each woman in turn.”. Or when she imagines what her best friend’s baby is thinking: “The baby has become sentient. When we walk, she screams across the street at other babies, baby expletives, we think. Something along the line of Goddamn it, other baby, don’t try to out-cute me. To make matters worse, she is very cute, so we have a hard time correcting her.”. The writing could certainly be effective and I appreciated the way the author articulates these difficult to pin down feelings & fears. The narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated by scientific anecdotes that certainly fitted her background. While some of her jokes were misses, and her never-ending silly witticism did detract from her actual story, there were a couple of times where I found her genuinely funny.

“It is a double-edged sword.
To be smart and beautiful, says the best friend, and this is probably very close to what every woman wants. I too had high hopes of growing up into both a genius and a bombshell.
To be Marie Curie but then to also look like Grace Kelly.”

While the dialogue often rang true to life (in a mumblecore sort of way), some of the characters struck me as thinly rendered. The boyfriend for example is incredibly generic and exceedingly dull to the point where I did not feel at all affected by his departure. And, while I believed that the narrator is lonely, I wasn’t at all convinced that she loved him. Similarly, I didn’t buy into her bond with the math student she’s tutoring. I would have liked to see more of her parents or that they had not been painted in a negative light for 80% of the story. Still, overall, I liked Chemistry. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Julia Whelan, who, bear in mind is one of my favorite narrators, wasn’t the best ‘voice’ for this. That is to say that there are plenty of talented Asian American female narrators who could have narrated Chemistry.
If you are looking for a humorous take on failure, self-fulfilment, parental and self-pressure, loneliness and connection, Chemistry might be your perfect next read. I can see this novel
appealing to fans of Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu, Edge Case by YZ Chin, and Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, all which also focus on young(ish) alienated Asian American women who feel stuck or caught in a directionless spiral. If you are a fan of the contemporary literary trend which is disaffected/directionless female protagonists who don’t feel so good, well, this title may a great addition to your tbr. I look forward to reading whatever Wang publishes next!

my rating: ★★★¼

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

Weirdly enough, at first, I rather disliked this book but, the more I read, the more I found myself warming up to its protagonist Willa Chen.
I initially picked this book up because of its ‘nanny’ premise as Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid and Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson are all-time favourites of mine. After reading the first few pages I was reminded of Luster by Raven Leilani but here I found the narrator quite irritating. The prose too tries too hard to be snappy and edgy, both through its imagery and its, often flowery, metaphors. I am not too keen on narrators who present themselves as wronged on all fronts, and, for quite some time, Willa struck me as self-victimising, especially when it came to her parents. Her passivity too was a source of frustration but, as I continued to read, this unwillingness and inability to act on her part endeared to me. She’s so used to minimising or straight up dismissing her experiences and encounters with racism and sexism that her immediate response to someone saying something offensive is to doubt herself (is she overreacting? is she misperceiving their words/actions? are they just being ignorant or malicious?).

Willa is one of those main characters who is in her early twenties and leading a rather directionless life. Her divorced parents have gone on to have ‘new’ families and she rarely is in touch with them. Willa feels conflicted about her Chinese American identity. She often doesn’t feel or is made to feel, neither Chinese nor American enough. Willa’s sense of otherness and aloneness are further exacerbated by her disconnection from her parents, in particular her father.
After a lukewarm college experience, Willa ends up working for the Adriens, who are a wealthy white family based in Tribeca. Willa looks after their only daughter, Bijou. Similarly to the narrators of Luster and Lucy, Willa feels drawn to Nathalie, Bijou’s mother. Willa tries to act as the nanny the Adriens’ want but tries as she might to fit in with them she cannot reconcile herself to their extremely privileged lifestyle. They, in turn, seem wholly unaware of Willa’s true family history, partly because Willa herself omitted and or lied about quite a few details, partly because they are rather self-absorbed. They also make unfortunate remarks about Willa, at times patronising her or making her feel small and obscure. The novel strings together many every-day moments from Willa’s life as Bijou’s nanny so we get quite a lot of scenes revolving around cooking or that take place during mealtimes. I liked the tensions that the author is able to create in these seemingly ordinary environments (such as the kitchen). There are many instances where Willa messes up or makes some (sometimes downright idiotic) mistake that make me feel both embarrassed on her behalf and rather sympathetic towards her. The author captures the confusion and anxiety many people feel in their twenties. Time and again Willa is made to feel as if her job as a nanny is not a ‘real’ job or that she has yet to become a fully-grown adult. While the Adriens’ are often oblivious of Willa’s real feelings and when with them Willa does put a front, she does become infatuated with their family. Her routine as a nanny offers comfort, in fact, it shields her away from actually confronting her parents and or her future.
Of course, as I said, the Adriens’ home is not a perfect refuge. Willa is often confused by Nathalie’s confiding in her, only to, later on, treat her like ‘house staff’. She also comes into contact with their relatives, and they turn out to be pretty vile. She endures humiliating jabs and or dismissals at her expense and has to put up with looking after sexually inappropriate young boys. The worst of the bunch is Nathalie’s younger brother whose microaggressions make Willa feel understandably ill at ease.
I can see how many readers will find Willa infuriating. She rarely acts or speaks up for herself. Her fear of rejection and abandonment are such that she retreats inward, keeping her true self hidden from others. Her general confusion about her identity is exacerbated by her Chinese American heritage. Time and again she’s asked questions on the lines of ‘what are you’, which serve only to alienate her further from others. Willa makes plenty of stupid choices along the way (do not read if you can’t stand second-hand embarrassment) and rarely thinks things through. Even so, I ultimately found her to be an endearing character. She’s so lonely and alone that you can’t quite bring yourself to judge her as you would someone with a ‘solid’ support system. And, boy oh boy, the discomfort she feels around others, especially Nathalie’s brother was so well-conveyed. His looks plus the way he accompanies his offensive comments with plenty of ‘I’m just joking’ smiles and laughs, well, they succeed in making Willa doubt herself.
Willa’s story arc was truly compelling and I appreciated just how self-critical she comes to be by the end. I did find myself wishing for her to confront certain people but I guess that we don’t always have the opportunity to do that in real life.
I will say that not all of the characters were as nuanced as Willa. Bijou’s father is more or less a non-presence. Bijou, well, she didn’t strike me as a, particularly believable child. I get that the author was being satirical, but she sacrifices authenticity in her attempts to poke fun at this type of wealthy, white, & wannabe-sophisticated American family. Quite a few chapters take place during Willa’s childhood and they struck me as a bit artificial. This type of narrative structure (alternating between now and then) is a bit overdone and here it wasn’t wholly necessary.
I think that readers who enjoyed YZ Chin’s Edge Case and Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distractions and are looking to read more books exploring the realities of being a young Asian American woman in contemporary America should definitely check this one out. Additionally I can see this book appealing to fans of Brandon Taylor, Rachel Lyon, and even Lily King.

re-read: as I suspected re-reading this made me like it a lot more. I loved Willa’s introspective nature, the way she articulates her loneliness and sense of otherness, and the remote yet intimate quality of her voice. I also appreciated the flashbacks a lot more this time around and I found the moments they explored to be quite fitted to whatever was just happening in the ‘now’. The ending was both believable and satisfying although part of me still wishes that we could have seen Willa become less passive.

my rating: ★★

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