It Is Wood, It Is Stone by Gabriella Burnham

Aside from its pretty cover It Is Wood, It Is Stone doesn’t have a lot to offer. It is one of those novels that is very much all style, no substance. Plot and character development are sacrificed in favour of gimmicky narrative devices and flashy metaphors. I finished this less than a week ago and yet I have retained almost nothing about its story or its characters. Not a great sign.

The novel is narrated by Linda, a bland American woman who follows her husband, a professor (?), to São Paulo after he’s given a yearlong teaching position there. Linda refers to Dennis as ‘you’, a gimmick that gets old fast (the kind of literary stunt that is more suited to a creative writing class). Anyhow, Linda isn’t sure if she still loves her bland husband but she nevertheless follows him because why not. In Brazil, Linda has to adjust to having a maid, Marta, an older woman she finds fascinating because of reasons. She then meets a woman in a bar and allegedly falls for her. More navel-gazing ensues with a few sprinkles of a half-hearted social commentary. The narrative doesn’t really provide much insight into issues of class, race, and sexuality. It thinks it does but really, the author is more intent on impressing their vibrant language on us (which often consists in clichéd imagery involving blood or the abject body and fake-deep realizations). The author doesn’t do much with her setting either. Much of the novel takes place indoors, which could have worked if our protagonist Linda had been an interesting narrator but her observations managed to be both dull and predictable. The author’s portrayal of marriage dynamics also failed to engage me. The author doesn’t maximise her story’s domestic setting, and rather than painting a convincing portrait of an increasingly disaffected married woman she presents us with a series of digressions (on the body, dreams, sex) that amount to nothing. The affair she has with this woman was rendered in such a vague manner that I never really bought into it. It seemed a plot-device more than anything.

There is nothing subversive or original about this novel. If you don’t mind affected and purply language, maybe you will find this more rewarding than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

“There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was that there was no getting used to.”

Boasting her signature writing style State of Wonder is a captivating and thought-provoking read. Ann Patchett’s quiet yet graceful prose drew me in from the very opening page and I found myself enthralled by the calm rhythm of her storytelling. As with many of her other novels, State of Wonder portrays the aftermath of the death one, capturing the shock, grief, and sorrow of those affected by loss.
Patchett’s restrained style belies the complexity of her narrative—from the characters to the story. In spite of the unassuming quality of her prose, there are many moving passages to be found in State of Wonder, nuanced characters (who cannot be easily labelled as being either good or bad), realistic dynamics, and thought-provoking reflections (on death, life, love). The realism created by her unadorned prose is counterpoised by a dreamy ambience, one that gives the narrative an almost palpable sense of melancholy. There is also a sense of the fantastical, but, as with anything Patchett, it is not overt, and its subtlety …
The story follows Marina Singh, a 42-year-old scientific researcher. Other than an unremarkable affair with Mr. Fox, her company’s C.E.O, she leads a fairly uneventful and sedated life. However, when her colleague and friend Dr. Anders Eckman dies of a fever in a remote part of Brazil, she reluctantly embarks on a journey to the Amazonian jungle to complete his assignment; she has to find her elusive and former medical-school mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will allow women to bear children well past their seventies.
So we follow Marina deep into the Amazon, on a physical journey that also involves embarking on an emblematic quest: in fact, the repercussion of her friend’s death combined with her ‘task’ raise a series of questions and doubts in someone, who is—from the very start of the novel—in a perpetual state of uncertainty (over a past accident in her medical career, over her future with Dr. Fox).
On top of that, the psychological side effects of the antimalarial medicine Marina must take during her search give her vivid nightmares. While in her sleep Marina faces past fears, when awake she voyages into an unknown future. And it soon becomes apparent that to reach Dr. Annick Swenson, she can no longer rely on past resolutions. More than once she is forced to reassess herself, especially when faced with morally problematic scenarios.
Alongside Marina there are many vibrant and memorable characters, all of whom, regardless of their roles, are incredibly believable: Patchett captures their essence, giving us glimpses into their inner turmoils, their fears and desires, or simply conveying the kind of person they are through the way speak and/or comport themselves. The individuality of her characters is all the more genuine because of their inconsistencies. Each type of relationship that Marina experiences, wherever it is that of a brief exchange with the passenger next to her in her flight to Brazil or with the indigenous child, who is under the care of Dr. Swenson, leaves a mark on her story.

Marina herself is one of the biggest strengths of the novel. And it is precisely because Marina is far from perfect that she feels so genuine, so incredibly real. Her authenticity made it easy to relate and care for her. This just goes to show Pratchett’s brilliant characterization: despite her main character being rather introverted, it was impossible not to connect to her. Although Marina does change in the course of her ‘adventures’, she does so in a subtle, and most importantly, convincing way. Moreover, she is still herself at the end of her journey.

The story carries a sense of the outwordly, of the magical, which is emphasized by both the remote and ‘unfamiliar’ (to marina and me at least) setting and by the artful analogies Pratchett makes with mythological tales. This surrealism is carefully balanced out by the authenticity of her scenarios. Patchett deftly juxtaposes simple concerns against a unique backdrop. Once in the jungle, Marina is forced to confront in person the ethics of Dr. Swenson’s studies, showing that in spite of the woman’s claims, her presence is interfering with the Lakashi, or that under the flag of ‘for the greater good’ other doctors there will readily resort to unethical practices. Marina too sees the Lakashi as ‘other’, and struggles to reconcile herself with their customs and ways of living.
Patchett’s prose is exquisite, both for its clarity and for its ability to transport me alongside Marina on her journey. By honing in on those ordinary moments and interactions, not only did Marina’s story become all the more vivid but we also come to realise how often these ‘small’ everyday instances can and will affect us.
The slow but affecting story, the atmospheric and evocative writing, the author’s careful descriptions and observation make State of Wonder an enthralling tale in which I will gladly lose myself again into.

my rating: ★★★★★

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CREMA by Johnnie Christmas

I won’t lie, the main reason why I picked up Crema was the f/f romance (the pretty cover also helped). Sadly, although Crema had the potential of being a sweet love story with a touch of the supernatural, the execution left a lot to be desired. The plot felt hurried and the undeveloped main characters lead to a rather uninspiring romance.

The first few pages give us some speedy exposition about Esme’s past (she can see ghosts) before we move to the ‘present’ when Esme, now a young adult, works as a barista. In the space of a few pages she meets and falls for Yara and the two go from 0 to 100 in way too fast. One moment they are checking each other out, the next they have moved in together. Neither of their personalities really came across, as each page seemed more intent on advancing the frankly predictable plot than giving some depth to its characters. The bad guys are conveniently bad 24/7, our couple has an avoidable misunderstanding before the last act, and the ghost situation gets out of hand.
While the supernatural elements felt kind uninspired, I did like the design of some of the ghosts. The art in general was very pretty, although, if I had to be 100% honest I’ll admit that the way Esme is depicted is kind of…meh.
All in all this was a quick and forgettable read. Maybe those who haven’t read a lot of comics or ghost-stories may find this to be more rewarding that I did.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey — book review

25746685.jpgWays to Disappear tries hard to evoke the absurd and surreal atmosphere that is often associated with Latin American magical realism, the end result makes for a rather dismal homage. The lack of quotations marks and the inclusion of word definitions hardly make Ways to Disappear innovative. A nondescript American translator flies to Brazil after Beatriz Yagoda, a ‘brilliant’ writer, disappears having been last spotted climbing into a tree. The translator’s relationship to Beatriz is opaque at best. Their relationship was clearly no ordinary author/translator relationship but I never got an impression that Emma (aka the American) was concerned for Beatriz. She wants a reason to leave her unmemorable fiancée. In Brazil ruffles the feathers of Beatriz’s daughter (who quite rightfully wonders why Emma has inserted herself in her mother’s life) and predictably ends up entangled with the author’s ‘sexy’ son (his one defining quality is that he is ‘smooth’, a ‘lover’….which is kind of stereotypical). The plot goes nowhere, the characters fight amongst themselves, and make skin-deep realisations.
The only redeeming quality of this novel is its short length. Other than that…it offers little (if anything): the characters are unfunny caricatures, Brazil is simplistically painted as being hot and corrupt, and the story, if we can call it such, was a combination of meaningless and slapdash.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

A novel that is both challenging and hear-rendering, and Allende showcases her skills for creating vivid characters and riveting storylines. This translation carries through a rhythm that is resonant with the one of writers such as Alice Hoffman.
But before I delve into a review…who thought that cover was a good idea?
I can’t believe that someone who had actually read this novel would decide to put this corny cover and add that cheesy inscription (‘every friendship leaves a trace’). No. Just no. This is badly marketed. You miss out on a readership that would actually enjoy and appreciate this novel while making readers who will end up giving it poor reviews because it isn’t what it advertises. This isn’t a light, fluffy, romcom. Allende talks about rape, torture, violent deaths, drugs, and many more topics that do not fall under the type of genre which that cover suggests.
Couldn’t you have used an image that at least evoked the ‘winter’ ?
No?Alright…you have the power Scribner. Rant over.

Allende handles challenging topics in a way that renders the reading process far from painful: balancing small everyday trifles with the most toxic aspects of our society. And she does it so well. She is a swift storyteller: the language and phrasing make each page incredibly compelling (kudos to the translator). The atmosphere created by Allende is enriched by graceful descriptions and wistful observations. She handles horrific situations in a upfront and honest way, she does not shy from portraying the ugliness of the world, and yet, the story doesn’t suffer from it. Far from it. The seriousness is contrasted by the incredibly sympathetic and ‘real’ main characters. I was engrossed by their pasts and by their present. The nostalgic tone of the novel is heightened by the characters contemplations. Allende’s expressive prose make this novel a true pleasure to read, despite that it explicitly depicts difficult – if not downright horrible – scenes. There is an element of humor that contrasts the character’s painful experiences. I recommend this to fans of Ann Patchett and or Anne Tyler.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars