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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater

“Your Boyfriend Called, He Thinks You’ve Joined a Cult, Please Advise.”

Mister Impossible may be Stiefvater’s trickiest novel. I inhaled it in just a day and part of me knows that I need to re-read in order to truly absorb everything that went down. This is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling pretty devastated. It seemed like nothing and everything was happening. Plot-wise, well…Ronan, Hennessy, and Bryde go galavanting across Virginia while committing ecoterrorist acts. Sort of.

Ronan and Hennessy are pretty chaotic characters who have a predilection for self-destructive behaviours and self-loathing (a great combo). Ronan’s chapters in Mister Impossible are particularly elusive and hella unreliable. I read somewhere that Stiefvater’s said that this trilogy was about the stories we tell ourselves and ouch…that is exactly what we are getting in Mister Impossible. This was as intense as The Dream Thieves but far more brutal. Things don’t get better, people don’t always learn from their mistakes or know how to break away from vicious cycles…I don’t know, this has me rambling already. Ronan is such a conflicted (and conflicting) character and I found myself wanting to shake him because he does and says some really fucked up shit and whisk him away from Bryde and anyone else who hurts/messes with him.
Declan, Jordan, and Matthew’s chapters were welcome respites. Matthew is struggling to adjust to the fact that he is a dream and is understandably sick of being treated like a child by Declan. I really liked how Jordan and Declan’s relationship developed, their scenes were truly a salve to my weary soul. Their chemistry, their light banter, their art talk. I just loved them together.

The narrative is very much about self-divide, art, forgery, reality vs dreams, miscommunication (or even 0 communication), loneliness, chronic illness, and not so great coping mechanisms. A sense of unease permeates the narrative, Ronan’s chapters were especially anxiety inducing.

The writing was Stiefvater-levels of clever (funny, exhilarating, surreal, fairytalesque), the pacing was relentless (even if nothing seems to happen…tis’ a mystery how she does it), and the characters are as compelling as they are frustrating (Ronan, please, stop breaking my heart).

SPOILERS
And that ending,wtfStiefvater, who told you to go all Fight Club/Mr. Robot on us?

my rating: ★★★★★

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Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

“My stepmother had broken me. She’d cast me away from my brothers, my family, my home. Even from myself.”

First things first: that cover. I mean….words cannot describe how beautiful it is.
Ever since watching early 2000s Barbie movies reading Juliet Marillier’s spellbinding books I’ve had a soft spot for retellings and I’m happy to say that Six Crimson Cranes makes for a truly wonderful take on “The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds” type of tales (which include the six swans, the wild swans, and even marillier’s daughter of the forest). Fans of Ghibli and even Disney should definitely consider picking this up as Six Crimson Cranes is a truly magical novel.

“We were seven, and seven was a number of strength. An uneven number that could not fold unto itself, large enough to withstand many threats, yet small enough to stay devoted.”

In Six Crimson Cranes Limm transports her readers to the Chinese and Japanese inspired kingdom of Kiata. Here Princess Shiori, the only daughter of Emperor Hanariho, is not looking forward to getting married to the son of Lord Bushian, someone Shiori considers to be a barbarian. In spite of her sheltered upbringing, Shiori’s adventurous streak (read: foolhardiness) often lands her in trouble. Thankfully for her, she has six brothers who dote on her (even if they do enjoy teasing her now and again) and are more than happy to watch out for her.
On the day of her betrothal ceremony, she uses magic—which is, you guessed it, forbidden in this kingdom—to cheer herself up. And then her magical friend lands her into the palace’s Sacred Lake. Luckily, Shiori is saved by Seryuu, a dragon prince (okay, this whole dynamic gave me some strong spirited away vibes) who offers to help her with her magic. Shiori’s lake mishap raises her stepmother’s suspicions. And it turns out that mysterious & aloof Raikama also dabbles with magic. When Shiori witnesses Raikama getting up to no good she runs to her brothers to warn them about their stepmother’s true identity. Alas, the siblings don’t stand a chance against Raikama who uses her dark magic to curse them. Shiori’s six brothers are transformed into cranes. Shiori too is cursed: no one will be able to recognise her and if she were to utter a single word one of her brothers will die. Voiceless and alone, Shiori travels the lands hoping to find her brothers and a way to break the curse.

“Ironic, wasn’t it, that I—a girl who always wanted to make her own choice—now for nothing more than to surrender to fate?”

What follows is a compelling tale of resilience. Lim has spun a truly enchanting fairy tale one that feels at once familiar and unique. While her story implements quite a lot of archetypes (the protagonist on a quest, a curse, a magical companion who offers wise words of advice, hidden identities, evil stepmothers) she also subverts quite a few of them. Lim’s storytelling is so engaging that even if I predicted most, if not all, of the twists and revelations that occur along the way, well, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of her story. In fact, I actually found myself looking forward to Shiori figuring things out for herself. Shiori is a truly lovable heroine. To start she’s a bit of a hothead and until her curse, she was leading a rather cushy lifestyle (okay, the arranged marriage wasn’t great but it was also very much the norm in this kingdom). After the curse, Shiori endures quite a lot of hardships. Her love for her brothers and her desire to set them free sees her overcoming the many trials that come her way, and by the end of the narrative, Shiori has undergone quite the character development.
I loved the setting, the magic, Shiori’s voice, her bond with her brothers, the folktales and myths Lim incorporated within her story.

“I would not have you be alone, […], not in your joys or your sorrows. I would wish your strand knotted to mine, always.”

Six Crimson Cranes is a truly delightful and dazzling novel. Not only is Lim a fantastic storyteller but I felt really invested in Shiori and her brothers. There is a hint of romance which added a sweet note to the overall narrative (i am just praying it won’t turn into a love triangle…) but the story’s focus remains very much on Shiori’s quest.
Marillier herself described this novel as a “gorgeous” take on an old fairy tale, and “a must-read for lovers of folkloric fantasy”…and well, she’s spot on.

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

“How unrecognizable America had made them, she was thinking, all of them.”

Subtle yet deeply evocative Things We Lost to the Water is a novel about belonging and displacement. In a similar fashion to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Eric Nguyen’s novel does not adopt the traditional structure that characterises family sagas (which usually offer an all-encompassing view of a family), honing in instead on specific periods of her characters’ lives. These moments do not always reveal crucial aspects of their identities and or experiences but they do succeed in giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a particular moment in their lives.

“How much could they remember? There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back.”

The narrative, which spans three decades, from 1978 to 2005, and alternates between Hương, a young woman who was forced to leave Vietnam, and her two sons, Tuấn, aged 6, and Bình, who was born at a refugee camp in Singapore and is just a baby by the time they relocate to New Orleans. Công, Hương’s husband and the children’s father is still in Vietnam with the plan that he will join them at a later date. In New Orleans, Hương not only has to adapt to a new culture and language, but she has to provide for her two sons.

“The world was cold and wild. A country could collapse. A father could disappear. She would have to protect her sons, she was thinking, protect them from all the cruelties of the world.”

Although Hương moves to a Vietnamese neighbourhood in New Orleans she feels deeply isolated. She attempts to keep loneliness at bay by sending tape recordings to Công. Soon these tapes become a lifeline, a connection to her husband and to Vietnam itself. As time passes however Hương is forced to confront the possibility that Công will not be joining her in New Orleans after all. Later on, and to her sons’ chagrin, she begins dating a car salesman, who is also Vietnamese.
Meanwhile at school Tuấn experiences racism, from being bullied for his accent to being treated as if he were ‘slower’ than his peers. Unlike his younger brother, Tuấn has memories of their father, he can speak Vietnamese, even if in time he loses his fluency, and during their early years in America he does seem to yearn to return ‘home’, that is Vietnam. He eventually begins dating a Vietnamese girl who soon pressures him into joining a gang.
Bình decides to go by Ben, a name more or less thrust upon him by his teachers/peers, and unlike his older brother and mother is quick to embrace American culture and values. His storyline, sadly, was the most predictable of the three as it seems a step-by-step queer coming of age/sexual awakening.
Over the years the three begin to drift apart as they embark on incrementally diverging paths. Yet, they are united in their longing for something (be it the roads not taken or Vietnam or Công or to feel like they belong).

“Wanting—what a strange feeling, what a queer idea to have toward another person! You could want food, you could want rest, you could want safety, and—it dawned on him—you could want a person, too.”

Each chapter presents us with a different period in these characters’ lives. At times these glimpses felt too brief or inclusive. We may witness an argument or some other conflict, and we never really see how those fights/disagreements are resolved. The next chapter will jump ahead in time and to a different character without providing us with an explanation/summary of what has happened since the last chapter. This gave their storylines a rather elusive and fragmented quality. We never truly gain a full picture of their lives or of who they are. Consequently, this made me feel at a remove from the characters. I wanted more from them but before I could get invested in what they were experiencing the narrative would march onwards, leaving so many things up in the air.

For the most part, I really liked the author’s prose. In its apparent simplicity, it brought to mind authors like Anne Tyler and Jhumpa Lahiri. I also appreciated the author’s focus on the quotidian; the snatches of conversations and or interactions we get are far from monumental but they provide us with an insight into the characters’ everyday realities.
The dialogues were a hit or miss sometimes. Some brought to mind Benjamin Alire Sáenz (a favourite of mine), so that we have characters echoing each other, or speaking about nothing in particular. I found these to be extremely effective in conjuring specific moments as they really rang true to life. But, when it comes to exchanges of a more argumentative nature, these came across as somewhat forced, their rhythm was slightly off.

Still, this novel has a lot to offer. There is some beautiful recurring water imagery (which seem to serve a similar function to the trains in The Namesake) and plenty of atmospheric descriptions of New Orleans and Vietnam (alas I found the author’s portrayal of France to be a bit too quaint: the wine, the bread, the man riding a bicycle). The novel is also characterised by an almost palpable sense of longing and offers a thought-provoking exploration of identity and family. Longer chapters would have probably made me feel more invested in the characters. By the time I began warming up to them or to gain a fuller impression of who they were the novel had come to a close.
As debuts go this is nevertheless a solid one and I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★¼

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The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page

The main reason why I read The Witch’s Hand was Maggie Stiefvater’s 5-star review for it (what can I say, I trust in Stiefvater). And I’m so glad I did! Way back when I had an ahem Scooby-Doo phase (not only did I watch 20+ Scooby-Doo animated films but I also ended up devouring the two Mystery Incorporated seasons…all over the course of one summer. I know, I had a problem.) so I was immediately drawn to The Witch’s Hand: we have the small-town setting (with a, you guessed it, creepy lighthouse) + a bunch of kids trying to solve a mystery. We follow orphaned twins Pete and Alastair Montague who spend most of their time solving mysteries. Their latest case may be more complicated than their previous one as it may involve a witch and magic.
The retro art really suited the setting (1960s) and I liked the banter between the various characters. Yes, the bad guy was a bit too Disneyesque for my taste but I also appreciated the YA tone of the story (as opposed to middle-grade) and its atmosphere. I look forward to reading the next instalment as I would be happy to read more of the Montague twins and their antics.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Survivors by Jane Harper

Alas, figuring out the murderer’s identity in the first 15% made this book kind of a drag.

Having highly enjoyed Jane Harper’s The Lost Man, The Survivors felt by comparison vaguely uninspired. While the setting is just as atmospheric and vividly rendered as the ones in Harper’s other novels, the characters and mystery were very run-of-the-mill. In many ways it reminded me of Tana French’s latest novel, The Searcher: we have a not-so-young-anymore male protagonist who thinks he is a regular Joe and a crime forces him to reconsider his past behaviour/actions/attitudes. The Survivors begins with a juicy prologues that is meant to intrigue readers but I was not particularly lured by it. A lot of the dynamics in this novel seemed a rehash of the ones from The Lost Man and The Dry. Our protagonist, Kieran, returns to his small coastal hometown where a violent crime brings to light secrets from his own past. Kieran is happily married and a new father, and there were a lot of scenes featuring him being a soft dad and they just did nothing for me. I guess they were meant to emphasise the gulf between teenage-Kieran, who acted like a typical Chad, and father-Kieran. The ‘tragedy’ that irrevocably changed his life did not have the same emotional heft as Nathan’s family struggles in The Lost Man. Kieran tells other characters that he feels guilt-ridden but…it just didn’t really come across. Anyhow, Kieran returns to his home, he catches up with two best-friends, one is a bit of a loudmouth and kind of a douchebag while the other one has always been the more sensible and mature in the trio. The discovery of a young woman’s body lands the community in crisis. There is a lot finger pointing and gossip on a FB-knockoff. Kieran, who is not a detective nor a crime aficionado, wants to know what happened to this young woman as he seems to be acting under a sense of misplaced obligation towards her (and her death reminds him of his own tragedy). While he doesn’t starts snooping around he’s lucky enough that he happens to hear people’s private conversation, which often reveal something essential to the mystery. For some bizarre reason the person who is actually officially investigating this young woman’s death confides in Kieran, which…I had a hard time getting behind (job integrity? None).

Anyway, chances are you’ve read this kind of story before. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded this type of boilerplate plot if the characters had been somewhat interesting or layered. But they remain rather one-dimensional. Dick guy acts like a dick because deep down he’s insecure. The cold mother is cold because she’s still suffering the loss of her son. Artistic woman fears she will never leave her ‘dead-end’ job and ‘make’ it. Kieran is they type of character who is blandly inoffensive. After the trauma he experienced and now that he is a father & husband he realises that as a teenager he acted badly. Most of the conversations he has with women seemed to exist only to make him reflect on ‘toxic masculinity’ and the harm caused by the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. And these realisations he has about sexisms seemed forced. Also, Kieran is meant to be in his thirties…and he comes across like a middle-aged man. I understand that there are people in their thirties who may as well be luddites but really? Kieran’s voice just wasn’t very convincing.
The male side characters like that writer, Kieran’s friends, and that impertinent young guy, were rather dull. The female characters were so obviously meant to be ‘strong’ and ’empowering’ but that didn’t really make them into realistic or likeable characters.
The culprit was obvious, so I did not feel any real ‘suspense’ or curiosity. Sometimes, even if you know who did it, you can still be able to enjoy the ride…but here I just wanted to get it over and done with. The murderer was extremely underdeveloped and their explanation at the end was very Scooby Doo-ish.

All in all, this was a disappointing read. While it wasn’t all that bad, and the story had at least a strong sense of place, I expected more from Harper.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
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The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

“Creature was a good word for him, Ronan thought. What the hell am I?”

Every time I read this I am

blown

away.

This novel, I swear, is something else.

The Dream Thieves is pure adrenaline. Ronan Lynch is my favourite asshole, which is probably why The Dream Thieves is my favourite book in The Raven Cycle series (and one of my favourite books period). Ronan is such a complex character. On the surface he has this ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude that often results in him saying or doing rude and or reckless stuff. He’s addicted to trouble and makes no compunction about saying what’s on his mind. In The Raven Boys we don’t get his pov so this novel provides us with our first glimpses of his inner workings. His ability of course is very much a central part of who he is and I love how ‘dreaming’ works in TRC.
I love the shifting dynamics and knowing looks that take place between the various members of the Glendower gang. I also really appreciate how Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters or their motivations/feelings. She hints at things but always leaves room for ambiguity, and I love her for it. The friendships between the various characters are intense and as complicated as the characters themselves. The fracturing that occurs between Adam and Gansey always gets to me, especially as Stiefvater makes it so that neither boy is exactly to blame.
There are a lot of car chases, many dreamed things, a surprisingly endearing hit man, and so much yearning. The phone calls between Blue and Gansey always succeed in giving me the feels. And don’t even get me started on Ronan and his longing for a certain someone.
Stiefvater’s writing is as phenomenal as always. The rhythm created by her prose always brings to mind that of a fairy tale (there is repetition, names are important).
To say this novel makes for an absorbing is an understatement. Every time I’ve read it I manage to inhale it in the arc of 24 hours. Ronan is my favourite fictional character and this novel is in many ways just like him.

P.S. I’m not a car person, I don’t drive, I know nil about cars…but damn, every time I read this book (or think about this book) I find myself agreeing with Ronan: cars are sexy.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters

“Secretly, he wants to be the hero. He wants to be the difference-maker. All his life, he’s wanted to be the person rescuing someone or something. But who rescues the rescuer?”

The Summer of Everything tells a very wholesome story, part coming of age, part romance, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Our protagonist, Wesley Hudson, has just graduated from high school and is eager to make the most of his summer. While his parents are abroad, he has plenty of freedom and time to figure out what he wants to major in at UCLA. Wes hopes that during the summer he will just enjoy his time working able at Once Upon a Page, an indie bookstore that means the world to him, and maybe finally confessing his feelings to his best-friend, Nico.
When he discovers that a coffeeshop franchise is intent on buying out Once Upon a Page, Wes is crushed. When his attempts to come clean to Nico also don’t go as hoped and his older and ‘golden’ brother begins checking up on him, Wes feels understandably stressed.
Alongside the other Once Upon a Page employees Wes hatches a plan to save the store, and the experience brings all of them closer together. When the end of summer approaches however Wes feels the threat of ‘adulthood’ all the more strongly.
This book is a truly enjoyable read. Wes’ geekiness make him into a likeable protagonists, while his insecurities about his future make him all the more relatable. The mega-crush he harbours towards Nico will have him pining, a lot. Thankfully he has plenty of friends to keep his mind occupied, and while romance doesn’t play a part in his story, character growth and platonic relationship are at the fore of his narrative. Wes contends with family pressure, wanting to succeed or to choose the ‘right’ path, as well as with his misgivings towards his older brother, whom he sees as an impeccable adult.
The friends in this novel are wonderful. Their banter is entertaining, especially when they are working together and talking about music, and their conversations are guaranteed to make you smile.They are also incredibly supportive of one another. While Wes is the focus of the novel, his friends are also given their own storylines, which made them all the more dimensional.
I loved the self-awareness of this novel, the way Wes would often compare his life to a Netflix movie (usually in a ‘I wish’ sort of way), and while the structure of his story is very reminiscent of those movies, the narrative didn’t feel clichéd (perhaps because it was so meta). I also really appreciated the comic book references (I was a former comic aficionado) and to YA books & authors (even Holly Black gets a mention!). Winters treats his characters anxieties and fears without condescension and without minimising their feelings. And this book is so wonderfully diverse: we have a gay mc, bisexual, lesbian, ace, and non-binary side characters. Winters also has scenes in which Wes discusses race and privilege with his colleague, Zay (Wes is biracial and ‘passes’).
I wish we’d gotten more scenes between Wes & Nico and Wes & his brother but that is a very minor ‘criticism’. What I could have done without was the quasi-love-triangle, but hey, it didn’t really interfere with my overall reading experience (which was very positive).
Overall, this one was a sweet read. The romance was cute and so were the friendships, there is humor, there is some drama, and an overaching theme of self-acceptance and self-discovery.
If you are a fan of Kacen Callender, Lev A.C. Rosen, or YA books like You Should See Me in a Crown, you should definitely consider picking this one up.

MY RATING: 3 ¾ stars

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Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer

“After nearly a decade of delirious revenge, rations, war, and death, we saw the world in shades of blood.”

In Man of My Time Dalia Sofer makes a fascinating and unsettling inquiry into morality. The novel is centred on and narrated by Hamid Mozaffarian. When Hamid, a former interrogator for the Iranian regime, travels to New York he reconnects with his younger brother, Omid, who he hadn’t seen or spoken to since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As the day passes Hamid finds himself looking back into his past, tracing his history with his family and his country.

“The point is that in the autobiography there is a time-honored tradition of redemption and repentance, which is a concept dear to all: towbeh for Muslims, teshuvah for Jews, penance for Christians—who doesn’t appreciate a good metamorphosis story, a passage from wickedness to virtue? Even the contemporary secular tale, say, of the disillusioned drunk or the wayward hustler, hasn’t escaped this familiar trajectory, of darkness to light, anguish to liberation.”

From the very beginning readers will be aware of Hamid’s dubious morals. To label him as antihero however seems inadequate as Sofer’s protagonist challenges easy definition. He’s capable of betraying and self-betraying, of committing reprehensible acts and of shirking accountability.
As Hamid revisits his childhood we are shown contradictory episodes: at times Hamid seems like a sensitive child who is made to feel ashamed of his own fragility, and then we see the same child becoming obsessed with the “demise” of insects. Hamid’s formative years are shaped by his difficult relationship with his father and by Iran’s growing unrest. As a restless teenager Hamid’s unease towards his father morphs into contempt, and he finds himself projecting his hatred towards his father’s authority towards those who rule the country. He becomes entangled with rebels, agitators, and idealists, and seems eager to prove himself to them. When Hamid’s family flee the country during the revolution, he refuses to go with them.
From mutinous teenager (“there was something consoling about being maligned, having a grievance, and maybe even dying misjudged”) Hamid grows into a deeply alienated man who leads a solitary existence. His wife wants to divorce him, he has become estranged from his daughter, and he has parted ways from the man he considered to be one of his only allies. His cynic worldview and the rancour he feels towards everybody and everything (from every generation to Iranians who live abroad to Western ideologies) give his narrative an unsparing tone.

“We were, all of us, funambulists skywalking between the myth of our ancestral greatness and the reality of our compromised past, between our attempts to govern ourselves and our repeated failures. We were a generation doused in oil and oblivion, the city expanding in steel and glass around us, erasing at dizzying speed the alleys of our grandfathers, hemming us in along the way.”

As Hamid recounts his life-story, his growing disillusionment towards the revolution and his generation becomes apparent. His interrogation into his past doesn’t provide easy answers. There are plenty of instance when Hamid seems to consciously choose to do something he himself considers to be wrong. But we are also shown the sway that one’s family and one’s country have on a man.
Sofer’s erudite writing was a pleasure to read. Hamid’s adroit narration provides us with plenty of shrewd observations about his country and history in general. He analyses his past behaviour and that of others. Hamid offers plenty of interesting, if not downright disconcerting, speculations about a myriad of topics.
Through Hamid’s story Sofer navigates notions of right and wrong, good and evil, judgment and forgiveness. Troubling as it was, Hamid’s narration also provides plenty of incisive observations about human nature. The way he describes the feelings he experiences (love was a sweet interruption in the lonely march toward nonbeing) could also be startlingly poetic.
Yet, while Sofer succeeds in making giving Hamid nuance and authenticity, her secondary characters often verged on the unbelievable. We aren’t given extensive time with any other character, which is expected given our protagonist (Hamid repeatedly pushes others away, from his family to his partners and his daughter: “I heard the sound of my tired breath inside absences I had spent decades collecting, with the same diligence and fervor with which my father once amassed his beloved encyclopedia”). However, the fact that they have few appearances made me all the more watchful of those scenes they do appear in…and I couldn’t help but noticing that the way they spoke at times seemed more suited to a movie. What they said often didn’t really fit in what kind of person they until then seemed to be or their age (Hamid’s daughter speaks in a very contrived way).
I also wish that the story had remained more focused on Hamid’s childhood and that his relationship to his mother could have been explored some more.
Still, this was a nevertheless interesting read. Sofer has created a complex main character and she vividly renders his ‘time’.

“What was to be said? Absence was our country’s chief commodity, and we all had, at one time or another, traded in it.”

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

The opening lines of this novel are wonderfully theatrical:

image (1).jpg

“All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.”

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent is a gleefully dark novel, filled with mean, selfish, and cruel individuals. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Nugent’s latest novel features one of the most unlikable casts of character

s I have ever encountered in a book. And yet, while the Drumm brothers and most of their social circle, are certainly detestable, the satirical tone that pervades Nugent’s narratives makes her characters’ nastiness a lot more ‘digestible’. Also, by exaggerating their worst traits and inflating the behaviours and reactions of nearly every-single character, the author gives her book a darkly humorous quality that keeps the story, and its characters, from being taken too seriously.

“You see, in our family somebody always had to be the butt of the joke.”

The alternating point of views and the non-linear structure of this novel add some spice to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill dark family drama. We have three brothers from Dublin:
William, a film producer who believes that his only ‘weakness’ are women and that he is the “most successful and least screwed-up” Drumm brother; Brian, the middle-child, who, as the only non-famous and rather forgettable brother, feels like the underdog of the family (but before readers begin to feel sympathetic towards him we soon see him for the greedy skinflint he really is); lastly, there is Luke, the youngest brother is perhaps the only one who isn’t a wholly repugnant being. He has his moments of dickishness but readers are soon confronted by the troubled state of his mental health. His life is punctuated by unhealthy behaviours: as a boy he went through a zealously religious phase, while years later, once his music career kicks off, he goes in and out of clinics, perpetually plagued by morbid hallucinations and nightmares. Alcoholisms, drugs, paranoia, depression, become the backdrop to his 20s and 30s.
In spite of their different career paths and lifestyles William, Brian, and Luke often find themselves, much to their chagrin, drawn back together. While we initially believe that Luke is the only Drumm brother to demonstrate concerning behaviour, we soon see notice that William and Brian aren’t as clear-headed as they’d like to believe.

“We all knew the experience had scarred him deeply, but it was one of our family’s little cruelties to revisit it, often.”

The story charts their bitter relationship as they try to one-up each other throughout the decades.The three brothers have never been on easy terms. They are—and always have been—rivals. If something good happens to one of them, the other two are envious and feel they themselves are entitled to happiness/success/money. The little ‘cruelties’ that they do to one another can vary from a seemingly childish taunt to a much more perfidious offence. As the narrative progresses we see that most of their interactions have always been either openly hostile or purely transactional.
Whichever brother is narrating will often paint himself as the blameless victim, the only ‘sane/good’ Drumm brother. I enjoyed discovering more about the Drumm’s familial history and found the story to be fairly suspenseful.

However, as much I enjoyed the ongoing melodrama between the Drumm brothers, part of me was ultimately unconvinced by the whole thing. From the first pages we understand that these three have never and will never love each other. Even Luke is far too self-involved to care for his older brothers. If he helps them out, he doesn’t do this out of selflessness.
The Drumm brothers have always resented or outright hated one another. At times it seems that there is some loyalty or affection between them but it is merely a false impression. They pretend to do things out of ‘brotherly’ concern or care but they are just trying to keep face (with their parents/partners/etc.). This made their recurring ‘betrayals’ less duplicitous. These ‘cruelties’ don’t seem all that cruel once we realise that they never shared a bond or connection. A toxic type of love would have been more interesting…but what we have here is three guys pretending—not very hard—that they feel something other than distaste for one another. They don’t seem hurt by the cruel words or slights they receive, rather they seem to think on the lines of ‘how dare he do this to me’.

I don’t know…I just didn’t feel the passion behind their actions. These characters weren’t unreliable as such. They simply recount events in a way that puts them in a good-light. And when they are describing some of their questionable behaviour they do so in a matter-of-fact way, without any ceremony. They quickly and efficiently justify their actions by saying that it was the only way or that the other brother deserved it.
It would have been a lot more interesting if they had done these ‘cruelties’ to the people they loved rather than to people they did not care for. In fact, they seemed to care for no one but themselves.

For the most part Nugent does a terrific job in rendering certain time periods: from the 70s to the early 2000s. However, when it came to the 2010s she gives us a simplistic vision by portraying this time as little other than ‘the social media/influencer era’. Here we have cliche after cliche. William’s daughter is the embodiment of the millennial (or what individuals of a certain age imagine all millennials to be like): she is attention-seeking, body-insecure, not very bright, bisexual only because it makes her seem alternative, a self-harmer, a fake depressive…in general Nugent’s portrayal of mental illness struck me as little other than showy.

Speaking of female characters, the three main women in this novel came across as flat. Their actions made no sense and it would have been a lot more interesting to have some short sections from their povs. The Drumm’s mother had the potential of being a complex character but she doesn’t get a lot of page-time. William’s wife is a mere plot device.

Also, as much as I was entertained by the sensationalist behaviour of these characters, I did find the latter-half of the novel to be slightly less intriguing than the first. The whole build up to ‘which one of them is dead’ loses a bit of its initial steam and the final reveal struck me as anticlimactic.
The epilogue was laughably cheesy, and I’m unsure if this was intentional or not.

Final verdict:

Our Little Cruelties is best enjoyed as a wickedly fun read rather than a psychological thriller. For the most part it is engaging and chock-full of drama between horrible people. The conversational style of the brothers’ narratives drew me in, so that I almost felt implicated by what they were telling me. Dark moments or serious issues are treated with flippancy, in a soap-opera sort of manner. If you stop to think whether the story or characters make sense…well, it might ruin your reading experience.

“We three brothers all looked, one to the other. We knew it was inevitable.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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