Solo Dance by Kotomi Li

“There’s a limit to how much misogyny and heteronomrative bullshit a story can have.”

Solo Dance follows a millennial woman from Taiwan working an office job in Tokyo who feels alienated from her colleagues and their daily conversations about marriage, the economy, and children. Chō, our protagonist, is a lesbian, something she keeps ‘hidden’ from her coworkers. While Chō does hang out with other queer women in lgbtq+ spaces, a traumatic experience causes her to be self-doubting, distrustful of others, and perpetually ashamed. When she opens up to a woman she’s sort of seeing, the latter brutally rejects her, not only blaming Chō for having been attacked but accusing her of having been deceitful (by not having spoken about this before). This leads Chō to spiral further into depression and suicidal ideation, her disconnection further exacerbated by an ‘accident’ that occurs at her workplace. Chō’s arc brought to mind that of Esther Greenwood in <i>Bell Jar</i>, that is to say, things seem to just get worse and worse for her.


As we read of her experiences working and living in Japan as a gay woman, we are also given insight into her teenage years in Taiwan, her slow recognition of her sexuality, her first encounter(s) with women, and that devasting night that resulted in an irrevocable self-disintegration. Chō blames herself for her attack, and not only does she sabotages her relationship with her girlfriend but pushes away one of the few people actively trying to help her. Chō’s uneasy relationship with her sexuality and the physical and emotional violence she experiences over the course of the narrative make for an unrelentingly depressing read.

Throughout the course of her novel, the author links Chō’s experiences to those of Qiu Miaojin and of her fictionalised counterpart, Lazi. Both tonally and thematically Solo Dance shares a lot of similarities with Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile: both works interrogate notions of normalcy and alterity by exploring the experiences of women whose sexuality does not conform to societal norms.
Whereas Miaojin’s writing has a more cynical and satirical edge to it, Solo Dance is mostly just depressing. Immeasurably depressing. I knew going into it that the novel would not be a happy read, but, dio mio, for such a short read this book sure is brimming with queer pain & suffering. Because of this, I’m afraid I found Solo Dance to be a very one-note read. Sure, the realities it explores are sadly realistic, but, the storytelling has this flat quality to it that made it hard for me to become immersed in what I was reading. I can’t pinpoint whether it is the author’s style or the translation at fault, but while reading this I felt not so much transported into the story as merely…well, as if I was ‘just’ reading a text that didn’t quite elicit any strong responses beyond finding r*pe, lesbophobia, and suicidal ideation upsetting to read of. The story never reeled me in, which is a pity as the topics it explores are ones close to my heart (i am a lesbian and grew up in a very catholic and not particularly lgbtq+ friendly country).
The dialogues were a mixture of clumsy and dry and some of Chō’s internal monologues struck me as trying too hard to mimic Lazi’s brand of nihilistic angst. Other times it just sounded off, unnatural (“is the stigmatization of my sexuality the source of all my misfortune? This illogical question had plagued her for a long time”, “her rational thoughts returned to life and began to talk to her”). The narrative also seemed to go way out of its way in order to make Chō suffer, and while I can sometimes buy into the type of story where one character experiences trauma after trauma (a little life), here I didn’t. A lot of the interactions she has with others either struck me as unlikely or just plain unbelievable (from the words spoken by the woman who ‘rejects’ her to her encounter with another suicidal queer woman).

If you are interested in reading this book I still recommend you give it a shot (just bear in mind ‘tis dreary affair).

my rating: ★ ★ ½

The Dove in the Belly by Jim Grimsley

in The Dove in the Belly, it’s all about the 𝔂𝓮𝓪𝓻𝓷𝓲𝓷𝓰

“A moment of happiness could feel almost like a wound.”

The Dove in the Belly is a work of startling beauty that presents its readers with a piercing exploration of male intimacy and a mesmerizing study of queer desire that beautifully elaborates the many gradations of love. Jim Grimsley captures the pain of longing, articulating with exacting precision love’s double-edged nature, from its capacity to hurt and anguish us, to its ability to transfigure and revive us. The Dove in the Belly is a romance that is equal parts tender and brutal, one that is permeated by ambivalence and angst, but also affinity and ardor. As my boy Lacan would say, it’s all about the jouissance, that ‘backhanded enjoyment’ that ‘begins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The love story that is at the heart of this narrative, which is as tender as it is fraught, is characterized by an exhilarating sense of impermanence. It is admirable that the author is able to breathe new life into what could easily be seen as a tired dynamic, that between the ‘straight’ jock and the more introverted intellectual. Perhaps the setting, mid-1970s, made me more amenable to become invested in these characters, despite their behaviour and attitudes, or maybe it is thanks to Grimsley’s unrelentingly gorgeous prose. Fact is, I fell in love with this book.

Most of the narrative takes place on the campus of the University of North Carolina, where both Ronny and Ben are enrolled. Ronny is studying English literature and journalism whereas Ben is there on a football scholarship. In many ways two are very much opposites, however, they form an unlikely camaraderie one that eventually sparks into a more meaningful friendship. Ronny’s attraction to Ben soon leads to a harder to shake infatuation, one that Ben is not only aware of but he seems to relish the power he has over Ronny. Of course, this kind of dynamic is not a healthy one, and Grimsley renders the confusing and contradictory jumble of emotions experienced by Ronny, the anguish and titillation he feels at being ‘seen’. While Ben’s unsparing words often hurt Ronny, we also see how often his cruelty is undercut by genuine affection. We also glimpse in his actions an ache that hints at something ‘more’…

Over the course of the summer holidays, their relationship transforms into something more charged, and the moments of playfulness and banter give way to a more (in)tense if tentative connection, one that is made all the more fragile by Ben’s deep-seated homophobia and by having to cope with his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health. Ronny, who is becoming more comfortable with his sexuality, struggles to maintain their relationship afloat, especially with Ben’s unwieldy temper. While the possibility of violence threatens many of their moments together, we also see the comfort they can give one another. Although I don’t like the word ‘frisson’ (i can’t explain it, it just makes me wanna exit the chat) it is a rather apt word to describe the current underlining many of Ben and Ronny’s interactions.

My heart went out to Ronny. While some may find his fixation and devotion to Ben strange or frustrating, I understood it all too well. I loved how quiet, sensitive, and contemplative he was, as well as the way he observes the people and environments around him. While initially Ben stands in stark contrast against Ronny, as more of his character is ‘unveiled’ to us, I found myself softening to him. Make no mistake, Ben was still capable of upsetting me (he has a temper on him, he’s possessive, and when confronting things he doesn’t want to he goes into fight/flight mode) but, and this is a testament to Grimsley’s storytelling, I found myself unable and or unwilling to dismiss him as ‘toxic’ or ‘bad’.

Grimsley populates his novel with fully-formed individuals, who have lives, fears, and wishes, of their own (as opposed to serving as mere background ‘props’ to our main characters). I loved the rhythm of his dialogues, which reveal moments of discordance, whether a pause in the conversation is a sign of unease or contentment, the difficulties in expressing feelings that are ‘off limits’, and the feelings of desperation that sometimes motivate us to speak with seeming cruelty or indifference. I appreciated how empathic the author was, in not condemning his characters for their mistakes, and in his compassionate treatment of characters outside of Ronny and Ben.
The prose is something to behold. It had the capacity to move me to tears, surprise me with its delicate touch, inspire me with its elegantly turned phrases, and lacerate me with its fiercely observed insights into love, grief, desire, and heartache.
Grimsley’s prose brought to mind An Ocean Without a Shore by Scott Spencer, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and authors such as John Boyne. The all-consuming relationship between Ronny and Ben brought to mind These Violent Delights, Apartment, Carol, and especially the work of Brandon Taylor, who simply excels at portraying uneasy relationships and unclear feelings.

2022 has not been a great reading year for me. With the exception of re-reads, I have only given a single 5 star rating (to Elif Batuman’s Either/Or) so I am so thankful to have come across this unforgettable book. It may have singlehandedly saved my reading year. The Dove in the Belly explores a messy love story between two young people who are by turns the ones being hurt and the ones doing the hurting as well as rendering the nuanced connections between family members, friends, and acquaintances. This is a remarkable and layered novel, one that struck me for its prose, its sense of place and time, its characters, and its themes. The Dove in the Belly is a heart-wrenching yet ultimately luminous novel, one that I can’t wait to re-experience.

ɴʙ if I had to use one word to describe this book it would be ‘struggente’, which can be translated as 1. entailing or revealing an inner torment; melting, tender, moving, aching, painful, heart-rending. Or if I had to describe this book with a quote I would turn to Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia: “And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded ”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


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The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper

“Yes, of course. It is always him they want to know about—the father, not the other mother.”

The Other Mother is an affecting and nuanced multigenerational tale unearthing long-buried family histories. The author’s interrogation of motherhood challenges the heteronormative archetype of the nuclear family, as she focuses on the experiences, choices, and parenting of single-women and same-gender couples. Throughout the course of the novel, readers will witness how parental love is not dictated by blood and the complexities that arise from that. Within these pages, motherhood is a multivalent term, one that changes from mother to mother. The two mothers that are at the chore of the story are flawed and imperfect individuals, who make mistakes believing that they are doing what’s best for their child. The author however is never not sympathetic towards them, nor does she condone their behaviour, allowing instead her other characters within her narrative, and readers as well, to reach their own conclusion about some of their choices. We are made to understand their states of mind, the events leading to them making those choices or the circumstances that aggravated certain ‘bad’ habits. The ‘democratic’ structure of the novel allows for all of the people connected to Jenry Castillo to be given a perspective, to give their side of the story and the rift between his two families, the Pattersons’ and the Castillos’.

“What Jenry does know is that he doesn’t belong here, which is how he’s felt about almost every place he’s been. Call it the mark of illegitimacy. But somehow this campus feels different. He’s come here to find something; more specifically, to find someone, which alone gives his presence a purpose. He has come to find his father.”

The narrative opens with Jenry starting his 1st year at Brown University after earning a music scholarship. Jenry was raised by his mother, Marisa, a nurse. While thanks to his grandparents he feels a connection to his Cuban heritage, neither they nor Marisa can fully understand his experiences as the only Black kid in his neighbourhood or fill the absence of his father, Jasper, who died when he was two. He has learnt that his paternal grandfather, Winston Patterson, is none other than a renowned professor of African American history at Brown, so once on campus Jenry sets out to find him, wanting to know more about the kind of person Jasper was. When he does speak to Winston, the encounter is far from the bittersweet reunion between two estranged family members. Winston seems not particularly interested or surprised by his estranged grandchild’s existence, and is unwilling to reveal more about Jasper. In fact, he asks why Jenry is so focused on Jasper when it was his sister, Juliet, who was involved with Marisa. Upon learning this Jenry is shocked and confused, angry at Marisa for having hidden the truth from him, and unsure what it even means that at one point in his life he had two mothers. The following sections, focusing on Marisa, Juliet, Jasper, Winston, and Victor, Jenry’s maternal grandfather, give us a retrospective of what occurred between Marisa and Juliet, their love story and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. We know from the start that Marisa took Jenry away from Juliet without any warning, leaving her with no way of contacting them. Since then Juliet has struggled with addiction and has only in recent years been able to find a stable relationship and job. Her career as a musician seems to have gone astray soon after Marisa left, leaving Juliet bereft and alone. And what role did Winston and Victor play in their daughters’ stories? Both men disapproved of their relationship and their ‘unconventional’ family, but, did they eventually try to do what’s right by them and Jenry?
I really appreciated the uneasy questions this narrative raises in terms of doing right by others and yourself. If you do something terrible (whether it is taking them away from a parent, pressuring them academically, or forcing them to deny who they are) but you have convinced yourself it is the best thing for your child, can you and should you be forgiven?
The narrative shows the many ways in which parents hurt their children out of ‘love’ or because they are unable to accept them and their choices, without exonerating them or villainizing them. Other characters may blame them but thanks to the book’s structure we can’t really favour one perspective over another. If anything, the author is able to show the justifications and fabrications some of the characters make in order to justify to themselves, and others, their actions. I appreciated how imperfect and messy the characters were and the different forms of love we see in this story. The author captures the longing, heartache, and regret experienced by her characters in a melodious prose.

“The loss of him fills her body, courses through her veins. And now, as her memories replay over and over, she can’t help but feel it all—the sadness, the loss, the love she had and perhaps still has for him—flowing into her limbs, making her skin twitch, her fingers ache, till it spills from her eyes as tears.”

The uneasy character dynamics that are at play within the story were deeply compelling and enabled the author to incorporate larger discussions on gender, sexuality, race, class, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Additionally, grief underlines much of the narrative. It may be grief at the death of a loved one (Jasper) or grief resulting from physical and emotional separation (Jenry being taken away from Juliet, the unbridgeable rift between Marisa and her mother, the distance between Juliet and Winston and eventually Jenry and Marisa). I loved much of the story and found myself particularly moved by Juliet’s portion. The author beautifully articulates her sorrow, without romanticizing her struggles or painful experiences. Initially, I found myself also feeling sympathetic towards Marisa, despite her choice to take Jenry away from Juliet. We see how unrequited love and rejection can eventually alienate you from the ‘object’ of your desire. But then in the latter portion of the book, any affection I held for Marisa perished when she behaves in a really crappy and unfair way to her son. Jenry, upon learning that she had lied to him for years, is obviously angry and upset. She is initially shown to be desperate to make amends, and I really felt for her especially given what she is going through. But then when she eventually reaches Jenry she tries to force him into forgiving her by threatening to make him leave Brown, saying that this place had clearly ‘changed’ him and he’s clearly not ready or something…and cristo dio. Wtf?! What a fcking stronza. Really. When she said that sht and the narrative glosses over it I just could not move past it. It infuriated me beyond measure and soured the remainder of my reading experience. Additionally, there was a predictable soap-opera reveal that was hinted at earlier on that just made me roll my eyes. The ending sequence was tonally a lot different from the narrative so far and struck me as mawkish and really jarring.

But hey ho, I did love most of the book so I would still recommend it to others. If you are a fan of multigenerational sagas, such as the ones penned by Brit Bennett, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, or authors such as Hala Alyan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Danielle Evans, and Francesca Ekwuyasi, you should definitely not miss The Other Mother.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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The Four Humors by Mina Seckin

“THE FOUR HUMORS THAT PUMP THROUGH MY BODY DETERMINE my character, temperament, mood. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler. The excess or lack of these bodily fluids designates how a person should be.”

The Four Humors is a rather milquetoast addition to the young-alienated-women subgenre that has become all the vogue in the last few years. Like most books that belong to this category, The Four Humors is centred around a 20-something woman leading a rather directionless existence. Sibel is a 26-year-old Turkish American woman who is a bit morbid, somewhat disaffected, and prone to self-sabotage. Similarly to other protagonists of this subgenre such as My Year Of Rest and Relaxation (here we the mc’s believes that a prolonged ‘sleep’ will ‘cure’ her of her ‘malaise’), Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin (here the mc is obsessed with death), and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey (here the mc is in reverence of florence nightingale and prescribes herself an outlandish cure in order to pass her exams), the narrator and protagonist of The Four Humors has a quirky obsession: she looks to the four humors theory of ancient medicine to make sense of her recurring and persistent headaches as well as the ‘malaises’ affecting those around her. Like the other disconnected women populating these disaster-women books, Sibel is grieving the death of one of her parents and uses her new obsession as a coping mechanism. Her remoteness, inwardness, and navel-gazing are yet other traits exhibited by these self-destructive women.
The majority of the narrative takes place in Istanbul during the summer. Sibel, alongside her inoffensive ‘all-American’ boyfriend, has gone to Istanbul to, allegedly, visit her father’s grave. Here she stays with her doting grandmother whose declining health is a source of further apprehension for Sibel who finds herself seeking comfort in the idea of blood, bile, choler, and phlegm as being the cause for human beings’ physical and emotional troubles. Meanwhile, she’s unable and or unwilling to visit her father’s grave, but repeatedly claims that she has to her loved ones.
Time and again she will go on about the theory of four humors but rather than making her into an interesting character, her obsession with this ancient physiology resulted in a lot of repetition. Sibel’s narration was boring, and her constant asides on bile, phlegm etc., further bogged down her story. Her narration lacked the wry social commentary and dark sense of humor that make reads such as Luster, You Exist Too Much, and Pizza Girl into such engaging reads.

Nothing much happens. Sibel avoids going to her father’s grave, she lies about it, her boyfriend seems to grow weary of how closed-off she’s become, and we are later introduced to her cousin and sister, both of which are beautiful or possess something Sibel feels she lacks. Her sister is anorexic and this whole subplot irritated me profoundly as I disliked the way her ED is depicted and treated by other characters. The latter half of the novel then is more about old family ‘secrets’. A portion of the book is dedicated to Sibel’s grandmother’s story, but this is related by Sibel whose voice failed to catch my attention.

This novel brought to mind The Idiot, but if I were to compare the two The Four Humors would not come out on top. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Mina Seckin has, in fact, read The Idiot, and both the tone of her story and her mumblecore dialogues seemed a bit too reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s novel.
The Four Humors is not a memorable addition to the alienated young women literary trend. If you’ve read any of the books from this list, well, you won’t be particularly blown away from The Four Humors. While I could have probably forgiven this book for its lack of originality, the narrative had a humorless quality to it that was harder to look past.
Ultimately, the novel’s only strength, or most appealing aspect, lies in the grandmother/granddaughter relationship. There were the occasional passages that stood out to me but for the most part I found the author’s prose, and the content of her story, to be rather forgettable. The novel does have a strong sense of place and I liked the lazy dreamlike summer atmosphere permeating much of Sibel’s story. So, if you are looking for a read set in Turkey or one that tries to articulate complex things such as grief, numbness, and heartbreak, well, The Four Humors might be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Perhaps I should have not read Goodbye, Vitamin on the heels of finishing Chemistry by Weike Wang, maybe then I would have found Khong’s novel to be more witty and original than I actually did. The scenario too brought to mind another novel I read fairly recently, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which also centres on an Asian American woman in her 30s moving in back temporally with her parents because her father is showing signs of memory loss. Still, even if Goodbye, Vitamin didn’t quite strike me in the way Chemistry or even<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1682569828
Edge Case by YZ Chin (which is yet another similar read) it was by no means an unpleasant read. The humorous tone was fairly engaging and the complex father-daughter dynamic that is at the heart of this story was certainly poignant. The questions the narrative raises and tries to answer (what we owe to each other? what does it mean to care for someone? is forgiveness always possible?) were certainly thought-provoking and I also appreciated the author’s portrayal of love, break-ups, and illnesses, as well as her depiction of the every-day realities of looking after an ageing parent.

Characterized by an offbeat and occasionally surreal tone, Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated by Ruth, a thirty-something woman reeling from her recent break-up with her longtime partner. Add to that the fact that so far she’s been leading a rather directionless career and Ruth is far from okay. Her mother, who works full time, asks Ruth to move back home so that she can keep an eye on her father, a history professor whose Alzheimer diagnosis has resulted in his ‘temporary’ dismissal from his college. Ruth and her mother try to help him in the only ways they can: they give him supplements and vitamins, design an ideal diet with foods that have plenty of health benefits. Additionally, they try to be ‘stealthy’ about their efforts to look after him as he seems unwilling to admit that he is experiencing any of the symptoms related to Alzheimer. In an effort to make him feel normal again Ruth teams up with her father’s former students and organize unauthorized lessons.
Ruth’s ‘quirky’ narration did at times feel a bit heavy-handed and it seemed a bit of a stretch that all of the various characters would share the same silly & weird sense of humor. The bittersweet nature of the relationship between Ruth and her father was perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel. Her father is not a particularly likeable person to start off with but to see his ‘change’ through his daughter’s eyes definitely made me more sympathetic towards him. Part of me would have liked for Ruth’s mother to be in the picture more as her presence is often relegated off-page.
Despite the subject matter—Alzheimer’s, breakups—Goodbye, Vitamin makes for a breezy read. I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

“Talking to strangers can be riskier than it is rewarding; even people who know each other well talk at cross purposes and derange each other’s perceptions.”

Peaces is the type of freewheeling novel that fully embraces its own weirdness, taking its readers along a madcap sort of adventure, one that is guaranteed to be equal parts amusing and confounding. What drew me to this novel, zany premise aside, was that it would take place on a train. It just so happens that I am a sucker for works set on trains (they can be classic whodunnits—Murder on the Orient Express, The Mystery of the Blue Train—or animated series—Infinity Train—and films—The Polar Express—or anime—Baccano—or short stories—Mary Ventura and The Ninth Kingdom—or genre-defying mindfucks such as Snowpiercer). I’m not sure why I find this setting so appealing (enclosed spaces? The idea of a journey?) but chances are if a story is set on a train, I will be checking it out. Oyeyemi makes the most of her setting and I absolutely loved the slight but present Wes Anderson-esque feel of ‘The Lucky Day’, the train boarded by Otto, our narrator, his partner, Xavier, and their pet mongoose. Once inside the train, Otto & co find themselves in increasingly perplexing scenarios (a woman named Ava may possibly be in need of help), as they come across some eccentric figures who seem to know all about them and each carriage they walk through seems more peculiar than its predecessor. Otto and Xavier become inevitably embroiled in The Lucky Day’s growingly peculiar goings-on.
Otto’s narration is delightfully sardonic and so very British. His wry and frequently mystifying inner monologue is deeply diverting. The characters’ nonplussed responses towards the many fantastic and outlandish things that happen on The Lucky Day added an extra layer of surreality to the overall story and brought to mind the kind of absurdist works penned by Lewis Carroll (or even Beckett). The puzzling conversations that populate this train journey are as entertaining as they are baffling.
Peaces was a fun if discombobulating read that bears the signs of a marvellously inventive and talented storyteller. In addition to a cast of wonderfully queer & quirky characters, Oyeyemi presents her readers with a unique take on love and heartbreak, on sanity and insanity, on being seen and unseen. The novel adopts this matryoshka doll-like structure so that with each chapter we come closer to the heart of this bizarro mystery. The last few chapters did come across as rushed and even somewhat bathetic.
Still, Peaces makes for a decidedly droll ride. Oyeyemi has crafted a nonsensical if strangely modern fairy-tale, one that I look forward to revisiting (and maybe a second read will make me understand more fully what went down in that final act.). Anyhow, if you are a fan of experimental and deeply surreal narratives (think Piranesi) Peaces may be the perfect read for you.

re-read:
The latter half of this novel still has me confused. This is certainly the desired effect but it does become a bit frustrating. While I liked the absurdists elements that dominate the narrative, towards the end I found all of the characters (especially the ‘villains’) to be much too much. The side characters did not remotely come across as actual human beings but the type of one-dimensional figures befitting cartoons aimed at small children. Despite this Peaces was certainly a fun ride.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Split by Laura Kay

minor spoilers below

To be honest, The Split was a wee bit disappointing. Not only did the MC got on my nerves big time but most of the characters came across as very one-dimensional and the narrative’s attempts at humor were puerile. On the plus side: a sapphic rom-com in which the main tension does not originate from our MC or her love interest’s queerness. While the author does acknowledge the realities of growing up gay the story is not about queer suffering. Which, dare I say, was refreshing?
Sadly, the author’s characters leave a lot to be desired, characterization-wise. Our narrator is twenty-nine-year-old Ally who after quitting her teaching job has been in a bit of a slump. When her longtime girlfriend breaks up with her Ally leaves London, taking her now ex’s cat Malcolm with her, and seeks refuge in her hometown of Sheffield. Her dad, also a teacher, is incredibly understanding and supportive of Ally but also encourages her not to spend her days’ longing for her old life and ex. She reconnects with a childhood friend, Jeremy, who is also recovering from a breakup. It is Jeremy who ‘ropes’ Ally into taking part in a half marathon partly in the hopes of getting back to her exes partly in hopes of winning them back. Ally sends many emails to her ex, and their exchanges were painful. Ally offers idealized visions of their shared history while her ex sends emails that came off as entirely unconvincing, voice wise at least. I just didn’t buy into her. Kay tries to make her seem kind of mean and logical, but, for the most part, her emails were the equivalent of an actor flatly reading some not-so-great lines (she also delivers the really clichèd line: “you were in love with an idea of me”).
The story follows the usual romcom formula, which I wouldn’t have minded (after all I am a fan of some of Kinsella’s books), but, jaysus, Ally was unbearable. Okay, her moping and being pathetic about her ex is ‘understandable’. But, I am so tired of female protagonists who are the embodiment of the Not Like Other Girls™. Other women in this book care about clothes, the way they look, their diets, but Ally hates vegetables, loves donuts, wears old knickers, is sometimes a slob, etc etc. The author’s relentless attempts at making Ally into a relatable character end up making her into yet another Not Like Other Girls™ girl. Her ex and her new gf are vegans, they fake-care about the planet, they exercise. Ally likes take-outs and brownies and vies running as torture. Ally’s attempts to force her ex to travel to Sheffield were…cringy? Creepy? The worst thing about this book is the way Ally treats Jo. Jo doesn’t have a personality other than being younger than Ally, into running, and beautiful. Ally is immediately attracted to her and their relationship might have developed into a cute romance but no, I guess we can’t have that, Ally decides to use Jo to make her ex jealous. She crosses many lines and by the end, the narrative excuses her behavior by saying “oh well, good people make mistakes”. Except that Ally is not good. Yet, the narrative casts her ex into the role of villain, painting Ally as merely ‘misguided’ as opposed to manipulative and exploitative.
If you were able to enjoy this, I’m happy for you. The above review is expressing my personal thoughts towards this book and I am afraid that these were less than favorable.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½

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The Dragon Keeper: A novel by Mindy Mejia — book review

The Dragon Keeper tells a very specific type of story. This the third novel I’ve read by Mindy Mejia and it certainly has a unique premise. Mejia’s books differ in style and subject-manner, yet genre distinctions aside, each one of her story is underlined by a tense atmosphere. Most of The Dragon Keeper takes place in the zoo where Meg Yancy works. Meg is the keeper of her zoo’s Komodo dragon, Jata. Having never been close to her parents or her phlegmatic sort-of-boyfriend, Meg finds fulfilment in looking after Jata.51IxZjmAE2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
When the zoo discovers that has produced viable eggs, without mating, Jata begins to receive attention from the media and the scientific world. It becomes clear that Meg, who is closed-off and often abrasive, isn’t versed in zoo politics. While Meg may be Jata’s keeper, she has little control over the Komodo dragon’s future.
Moving from the time before and after the hatching of Jata’s eggs, The Dragon Keeper depicts Meg’s relationship to Jata. Meg wants the best for Jata yet she finds herself bending rules and ignoring signs that point to Jata’s predatory nature. Meg’s entanglement with a veterinary, who also happens to been her sworn enemy, further clouds her judgment.
There are a lot of interesting discussions in this narrative: on parthenogenesis, on Komodo dragons, on animals who are raised in zoos, on the advantages and disadvantages of zoos, on the way media manipulates facts, on parenting and on abortion.
There is also a sense of unease pervading the story. Meg makes quite a few hasty or questionable decisions and readers are given the impression that her behaviour will get her in trouble.
While I do wish that some of the characters had been more fully fleshed out, I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which certain minor characters were portrayed.
Given the narrow scope of this story, I don’t think that it will appeal to a lot of readers. Still, it is an interesting examination of a woman whose loneliness is assuaged by an animal who is often regarded as a threat. Mejia succeeds in making us care for Jata, without romanticising her or ascribing unrealistic attributes to her.
Poignant moments aside, The Dragon Keeper left me wanting more.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane — book review.


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“The trouble with liars, Laurie had decided from much research in the professional field, is they always thought everyone else was less smart than them.”

If I Never Met You is the fourth novel I’ve read by Mhairi McFarlane and I’m happy to say that it is my favourite book of hers. McFarlane just keeps getting better and better, and this time round she gives a new spin to the tired ‘fake-dating’ trope (which prior to this book I considered to be one of my least favourite romcom tropes).

“This Greek God was prepared to anoint her his Phony Goddess? It did feel like the most longed-for boy in school asking you to prom.”

Once again McFarlane writing combines laugh-out-loud moments with an insightful narrative that taps into deep-seated issues. Blending humour and realism McFarlane’s story is as witty as it is topical.
Our protagonist, and narrator, is Laurie, a thirty-six year old lawyer. Her world collapses when her partner of eighteen years leaves her. Having spent half of her life with Dan, and not knowing why he no longer wants to be with her, Laurie is hurt and confused. Worst still, Dan works at the same firm as Laurie so she is forced to keep up a happy front at work.
Laurie has barely had time to process Dan’s departure when, within weeks of their break up, he announces that he
1) has a new girlfriend (who happens to work at a rival firm)
2) is a father-to-be as said girlfriend is now pregnant.

Laurie soon finds that both her social and work life are affected by her new single status. As a woman in her late thirties she is subject to unwarranted comments regarding her future (such as ‘isn’t she too old now to find a new partner or start a family?’)
A rightfully angry Laurie makes a deal with her firm’s local Casanova, Jamie Carter, in order to put a stop to the fake-pity and gossip that her coworkers and acquaintances are showering over her. And maybe also to get back at Dan.

“If you wanted plumbing done, you hired a plumber. If you wanted your roof fixed you hired a roofer. If you wanted everyone to erroneously believe you were at it like knives, you recruited Jamie Carter.”

As they spend more and more time together, in order to make their fauxmance believable, Laurie and Jamie find themselves forming a bond of sorts. Although Laurie realises they are as different as chalk and cheese, she is surprised to discover that Jamie is far from the superficial all-looks-not-much-else guy he’d pegged him to be.

With dialogues that are simultaneously funny and clever If I Never Met You is hard to put down.
I loved Laurie. After her breakup with Dan she begins an introspective journey as she is forced to find herself in a reality that feels alien. She also experiences first-hand the double-standards of being a single woman rather than a single man. Colleagues and friends who prior to her breakup seemed relatively affable reveal their true colours.
Thankfully her best friend and Jamie provide the narrative with much needed positivity. They are both nuanced characters, with fears and desires of their own, and their relationship to Laurie present us with many tender scenes.
There is a bit of banter, which was a delight to read, and a few disagreements but for the most part Laurie and Jamie’s budding maybe-not-so-fake-romance had me smiling like an idiot.

Laurie’s trials and tribulations are both endearing and entertaining. There are some heart-breaking moments nestled in this otherwise light-hearted narrative. Laurie realises that sometimes it is better to choose carefully who you let into your life, and that perhaps some people aren’t worth forgiving.
From the humour to the romance, this novel simply stole my heart. I would call this type of book escapist fiction as it is sure to satisfy readers’ romcom requirements but to do feels like doing it a disservice. It isn’t all fun and games, and McFarlane doesn’t shy away from portraying the way in which rumours, gossips, and false impression affected both women and men. Laurie in particular goes through quite a few hardships and I felt immensely proud of her character growth.
Jamie too was surprisingly vulnerable, and I appreciated the way they supported each other.

“She’d never been called a survivor. She turned the word over her in mind: she liked how it sounded, applied to her. It wasn’t victimhood and it wasn’t self-aggrandising, it was about coping. And she had definitely done that.”

The only thing that I didn’t like was the predictable and avoidable ‘misunderstanding’ that awlays occurs around the 80/90% mark in romcoms.

I thoroughly recommend this novel to fans of contemporary fiction and I’m really looking forward to reading this again.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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