Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

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

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

my rating: ★★½

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These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett

“As it turned out, Sooki and I needed the same thing: to find someone who could see us as our best and most complete selves. Astonishing to come across such a friendship at this point in life. At any point in life.”

Ann Patchett is easily one of my favourite authors of all time. The Dutch House and The Magician’s Assistant are absolute favourites of mine and I’ve also loved her previous collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which managed to bring me hope during one of my ‘down in the doldrums’ phases. This is all to say that I will read anything by Patchett. These Precious Days, her latest, is yet another winning addition to her already impressive oeuvre. While many of these essays are preoccupied with death and mortality they ultimately struck me as life-affirming. In some of these essays, Patchett writes about her family, in particular of her relationship with her three fathers. There are also essays in which she looks back to her ‘youthful’ days, for example, of that time when she and a friend were so taken by the tattoos of a Parisian waitress that they were determined to also get tattooed. Patchett also gives us insight into her married life, writes of her love for dogs, of her relationship to Catholicism, of that year she gave up shopping, and of authors, she admires such as Eudora Welty and Kate DiCamillo. It is difficult for me to articulate just how much comfort I find in Patchett’s ‘voice’ but within a few pages of her first essay, I found myself immersed in that which she was recounting. Patchett has a knack for rendering both people and space and it was easy to be transported by her writing. Of course, the ‘These Precious Days’ essay is this collection’s crowning glory. In this essay, Patchett writes of her friendship with Sooki, Tom Hanks’ assistant. This was such a moving and thoughtful essay, one I look forward to revisiting again.
Patchett’s meditations on death, mortality, family, friendship, and creativity definitely struck a chord with me. I loved learning about her childhood and I appreciated those glimpses into her everyday life.
Reading this inspiring and beautifully written collection of essays was a balm for my soul.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes by Alexa Martin

Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes is an exceedingly average chick-lit novel. While I appreciated that it was very much a novel about friendship, as opposed to romance, and that the author does incorporate more serious issues within her otherwise light-hearted story, I found many scenes to be cringey (unintentionally so) and towards the end, things take a soap-opera turn.
This book follows best friends Jude and Lauren. Jude is an influencer who is all about pilates and clean eating. Jude’s mother is a narcissistic former reality-tv star who habitually guilt trips Jude into giving her money and taking part in publicity stunts she’s not keen on doing.

Lauren, who wanted to be a surgeon, works at and has a 5-year-old daughter. After splitting with the father she’s more or less had to raise her daughter on her own. When her ex starts acting like more of a parent, Lauren is initially happy for her daughter. Things change when he decides to file for custody.
Due to their finances, these two bffs decide to move in together, eventually starting a podcast on motherhood.
For the most part, the tone of this novel is cheesy/silly. Our leads have their troubles but the drama affecting their lives never struck me as heavy-going (even when it should have been). Lauren has to deal with her ex trying to get full custody of her daughter, while Jude is trying her hardest to pretend that everything is hunky-dory and that her mother isn’t toxic af.
It just so happens that I found their jargon, hobbies, and interests to be…low-key annoying. We have an overuse of the word mansplaining and feminism as well as a lot of scenes going on about the ‘mommy’ life or wine dates or exercise classes. I just felt wholly disconnected from Jude and Lauren. They were meant to be 28 but boy they could have been in their late thirties and I would have believed it. This novel is very much intended for an American millennial audience, not moi. Scenes that were meant to be cute were in fact cringe. Alexa Martin doesn’t offer any new insights into the realities of being an influencer nor do her mother-daughter relationship feel particularly complex. The ‘mommy culture’ also just…nope. I do not care for it one bit (i also hated reading about it in Such a Fun Age and Big Little Lies).

Anyway, while I did find much of the story to be somewhat grating (tone-wise), it still managed to be now and again mildly entertaining…and then we near the end and the melodrama commences. I found the author’s portrayal of alcoholism to be surface-level. And it annoyed me that because Jude likes to party and isn’t as straight-laced as Lauren she has to be ‘punished’. I swear that last plot point would have been more suited to a soap-opera. Here it just left a bad taste in my mouth. The author just throws this in and goes over it quite superficially so that things are more or less resolved within a couple of pages. There was something moralistic about this last portion of the story that didn’t sit right with me (not that things like this ever happen…but really? it just had to happen in this story?).
My overall verdict is ‘meh’. I liked the focus on friendship and that the story highlights how the American healthcare system treats Black mothers and just how insidious toxic relationships are. However, as I said above, its attempts at pandering to a millennial audience resulted in some very cringey scenes and the author treats serious issues, such as alcoholism, in a theatrical way. I guess if you are a fan of authors such as Emily Henry you might find this novel more enjoyable than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

“Who knows. I could change my mind. It is changing all the time.”

Days of Distraction should have been right up my street. Alas, it turned out not to be the ‘wry’, ‘tender’, and ‘offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale’ its blurb promised it’d be. Our quasi-unnamed narrator is a Chinese American woman in her early twenties who works at a tech publication. Her boyfriend is this generic white guy, who’s aptly enough referred to by just the one letter, J. The prose is plain & dry, the characters are as flat and thin as paper, the storyline is slow and repetitive. The narrator decides to follow J to Ithaca, an upstate New York town, where he will be completing his degree. She works a bit from home but soon finds herself growing bored by her new life. She invests most of her time delving into American history and interracial relationships. Great chunks of text read as if belonging to a textbook, and in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the author should have either committed to writing a work of fiction or gone for an essay on this subject matter.
The narrative does highlight the sexism and racism our protagonist encounters at work and during her everyday life. In her old job, her managers are unwilling to give her a raise, confuse her with the other Asian American employee, or say inappropriate/racist/sexist things. Our protagonist doesn’t have a personality as such. She’s very much a generic millennial who expresses the typical woes and worries that are bound to arise during a person’s twenties. Her quarter-mid life crisis is a very subdued one. Nothing much happens. She has some awkward encounters or conversations, her boyfriend seems to minimise her experiences with racism (implying that she’s taken something ‘the wrong way’ or that that person ‘meant well’ and other yike-ey stuff like this). She eventually goes to visit her father who lives in China and here the story finally felt a bit more engaging, but sadly this section is rather short and that epilogue killed what little enthusiasm I had for this novel.
The dynamic between her and J was so boring and flat. They are together for reasons beyond me. Our narrator is not particularly likeable, which, if you know my book tastes, is not a problem. However, I do want some sort of personality. And this gal had none. I found her unfunny, uninteresting, and unpleasant. Is she entirely unsympathetic? No. However, she never struck me as a fully-realised person. J is even worse. He’s a white male straight American. That’s more or less his whole character. He was painfully bland. I did not care for him in the least nor was I at any point convinced by his relationship with our mc. I guess they were both boring?
This novel had potential but it very much lacked zing. The author’s sparse prose combined with her insipid character results in a rather underwhelming affair. Add to that those large portions of text that read as if straight from a textbook and there you have it, a snoozefest. The one aspect I did enjoy was our mc’s phone calls to her parents. I ended up rather liking her parents and I found myself wishing that they would play a bigger role in the narrative (the mc also has siblings but they have 0 impact on the story and her character). There were paragraphs or lines now and again that sort of struck a chord with me but they did not make up for the mc’s waffling and self-pitying outweighed those few insightful moments.
While I won’t be dissuading anyone from reading this I do feel the need to recommend Edge Case as an alternative. While not perfect it did delve a bit more deeply into the realities of being a woc working in the tech industry. And if you are looking for more books following alienated women in their 20s I have made a list over here.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

Candid and humorously absurd Afterparties is a collection of short stories that focuses on the experiences of Cambodian-Americans in California. In spite of the occasional Shameless-like scenario, these stories remain grounded in realism, almost to the point of reading like a slice of life. Vo’s stories can also be read as frank vignettes capturing the everyday lives of his characters. Nothing truly of note happens in his narratives, yet, the, often funny, interactions between his various characters combined with his irreverent social commentary (on race, sexuality, immigration, america) are bound to keep readers turning pages.

Much about Vo’s tone and scenarios brought to mind Bryan Washington. Like Washington, Vo presents his readers with an unfiltered portrayals of America, queer culture, and millennials, and many of these stories revolve around characters who like to party or are leading rather directionless lives. All of the stories also hone in on generational differences, specifically between young Cambodian-Americans and their parents and grandparents. In addition to racism and homophobia, many of Vo’s characters feel burdened by the pressure to succeed in life or to lead a certain type of lifestyle and by their relatives’ experiences and memories of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

While I recognise that this collection has many good qualities, I didn’t exactly love any of these stories. At times the banter between the younger characters struck me as slightly exaggerated and the humor at times struck me as being of the armpit-fart variety (ie not to my taste). Still, I was saddened to learn that the author has passed away and that this will be likely his only release.
If this collection is on your radar I encourage you to read more positive reviews, such as the one penned by Sarah.

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

that sex scene was 💀


Having enjoyed two of Mosley’s latest novels (Trouble Is What I Do and Blood Grove) I was looking forward to delving into his earlier work. Devil in a Blue Dress is the first book in his Easy Rawlins series and, while it has many of Mosley’s best traits, overall it isn’t quite as compelling or complex as say the #15th book of this series. Set in the 1940s Los Angeles Easy is in his late twenties and has recently been fired from his job at a defence plant. A white man offers him money if he can find Daphne Monet, a young woman who often hangs out in Black locales. Easy accepts and soon finds himself in over his head. His employer is a clearly dangerous man and he isn’t the only one wanting to find Daphne.
What follows is very much a classic noir detective story populated by seedy characters and nighttime landscapes. In his line of questioning, Easy ruffles a few feathers and makes an enemy or two, all the while trying to locate Daphne, a beautiful woman who has clearly been up to something.
Mosley’s social commentary was the most interesting part of this story. He depicts the everyday racism and injustices Easy experiences and has experienced, from his run-ins with two racist policemen out to ‘get him’, to the condescending way he is treated by white strangers and acquaintances alike. Mosley also depicts the PTSD that Easy and other characters who fought in WWII experience, referring more than once to the violence and brutality of war.
While I liked his use of tropes in his other novels, here they lacked subtlety. Take Daphne. The woman is this Femme Fatale who acts like an angel but soon enough reveals what a ‘vixen’ she is. There was this horrid sex scene which made me want to scratch my eyes out and could only have been written by a man (if you know, you know) and I did not entirely like how Mosley resorting to the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ archetype (doomed because of who she ‘really’ is). His female characters in general left a lot to be desired, they are very much objects (sex objects more often than not).
If anything this proves just what a long way Mosley has come as a writer. His storytelling and characterisation are much more accomplished in his most recent work, however, even here you can clearly see signs of his talent (his crackling dialogues, his exaggerated yet wholly effective metaphors, his story’s strong sense of place, and his piercing commentary). Still, if you haven’t read anything by him, I encourage you to give his newest novels a go before venturing into his older stuff.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Love and Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura

For the love of Jupiter, Nozomi was such a detestable main character.

It had been a while since I so wholeheartedly hated and rooted against the main character of a novel…but here we go. Love and Other Natural Disasters is the kind of romance YA novel that pretends to critique and be self-aware of the tropes that populate this genre but in actuality offers the same recycled ideas and an avalanche of cliches (we have one character saying something along the lines of “you are in love with the idea of love”…come on).
A quick rundown of the story: Nozomi is our narrator, who supposedly is in her late teens (17?18?) and is sad because her parents have split up and her mother is now with a former teacher of hers (boo-hoo). She and her brother go off to visit their uncle in San Francisco where thanks to his connections—ahem nepotism— she gets an internship working at a museum (do we learn anything about this internship? not really). Her grandmother is homophobic and has only recently ‘rekindled’ her relationship with her son (nozomi’s uncle). Nozomi is gay and understandably she is unhappy about having to keep her sexuality a secret in order to have a ‘good’ relationship with her grandmother. Alas, the plot is less concerned with Nozomi & her family than her love life. Before setting off to San Francisco Nozomi overheard a girl she was crushing on making fun of her and comparing her to grey wallpaper or something along those lines. Nozomi wants a GF real bad, and she falls in insta-love with Willow, who turns out, also works at the museum. Willow is beautiful, well-off, and wears makeup (that’s it. that’s her character). She’s also reeling because her girlfriend just broke up with her and seems now to be already dating someone else. Willow and Nozomi decide to do the fake-dating thing, Willow because she hopes to make her ex so jealous she will want to get back together, and Nozomi because she has watched a lot of rom-com movies and according to those the fake-dating couple always ends up falling in not-so-fake-love. Willow’s ex is maybe dating this girl who, you guessed it, is also at the museum as she is working on an installation for a show or something. This girl and Nozomi do not get along at all. At first, the girl is an asshole to her but then it becomes apparent that Nozomi is actually the brat. And that’s my biggest problem with this novel. Nozomi is a real stronza. The kind of nice person who often talks and thinks about how nice, kind, and selfless she is. She’s also low-key into virtue-signalling (telling off this girl for dismissing someone’s ‘i wish world hunger was no more’ wish, claiming that you never know who could be inspired by those words, maybe a person will come across it and decide to volunteer at the food bank…which, if you are wondering, nozomi does not do). Nozomi has also no growth. Her self-pitying ‘I’m a nice person really and any mistakes I do, I do in trying to be good and kind to others so can you blame me, really? ’ shtick got on my fucking nerves. The story tries to spin it so her only ‘flaw’ is that of being too much of a romantic and of trying to orchestrate a romance with Willow (her whole attitude towards willow is creepy af) . The last few pages make it seem as if being called out on her shit has made her mature in no time but I do not believe it for a second. Even after that ‘showdown’ scene, Nozomi seems still firm in her belief that because she didn’t mean to hurt anyone and that after all someone was mean to her so isn’t understandable that she tried to recreate the kind of romance you see in the movies? She has to be told to give someone space and that even if she apologizes that person can refuse to accept said apology. What is she, 14? And don’t get me started on how awful and pathetic she is when it comes to her mother. At one point puts the phone down on her mom because she can’t stand her ‘self-pitying’….pot kettle much? Her behaviour towards her parents was so childish, from the way she assigns them into good/bad roles to how she demands to be in the know-how of their private affairs. I mean, how is this girl meant to be 17/8? She acts like a child! Worse than a child. And she uses the words monstrous all the time. Her grandmother is a monstrous homophobe. She never seems willing to understand that her grandmother, who is Japanese, elderly, and religious, grew up with different social norms. At the end, Nozomi seems to resign herself to her grandmother being the way she is because she’s showing early signs of dementia. And as Nozomi loves to believe she’s a nice person this (her ‘accepting’ her grandmother’s homophobia) works with that narrative.

The characters were one-dimensional, they lacked substance, history even. Nozomi never talks about her high school or mentions any friends/hobbies. It seems to me that she came to be in that very first page of the novel, and that her life before that was…blank. The story was too focused on the drama between these four girls and I would have much preferred for the narrative to be more of a coming of age than a typical YA love story. There were lots of needlessly cringy scenes in which Nozomi does something incredibly stupid (out of the kindness of her heart) that I could have done without.
All in all, this novel irritated me. I kept reading hoping that Nozomi would grow but no. Her character arc is nonexistent even if the last pages will have you believe that she has become a better person and deserves to be forgiven for playing cupid. Her mistreatment of her parents, her obliviousness to her own rather privileged lifestyle (she’s not as wealthy as willow but come on, also, that internship? she cares nothing for it!), and her binary way of thinking (in which people are either bad or good)…all those remain unaddressed. Nozomi is a ‘nice’ person who’s been fooled by those damn romance movies and someone she liked made fun of her so of course, she gets a—frankly undeserved—happy ending.
The author’s writing was decent enough. It didn’t amuse me nor did it engage me particularly but it’s very much run-of-the-mill YA writing. Her dialogues were awkward, her portrayal of teenagers left a lot to be desired, and her mc was bloody awful.
If you liked this, good for you, I guess? If you have this on your tbr list don’t let my review deter you so you should maybe check out some positive reviews instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History lives rent free in my head. It is a masterpiece. A thing of rare beauty. A tour de force. A literary triumph.

“One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”

Written in an incandescent prose The Secret History is a ferociously erudite and delightfully mischievous work of staggering genius. I have read it twice now and each time it has blown me away. Reading this novel makes for an all-consuming, almost feverish, experience.
It is impossible for me to precisely articulate or express what The Secret History means to me. To speak of it as a work of fiction almost pains me. But, as I have chosen to review all of the novels that I read, I will give it a shot. Bear with me (and my ramblings).

“Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party—at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.”

The Secret History begins with a murder. Richard Papen, our narrator, looks back to the events that lead him and four other students to murder Bunny, a fellow student and ‘friend’ of theirs. That Tartt’s prologue reveals the identity of the victim and perpetrators of the murder. As Richard looks back into this defining period of his life (the only ‘story’ he “will ever be able to tell”) Tartt slowly unravels the events and motivations that led five people to murder as well as the ramifications that this murder has on their lives and their relationship with each other and themselves.
In Plano, California, alienated from his parents and his peers, twenty-year-old Richard yearns to leave behind the trappings of his working-class existence. One day he comes across a prospectus for a liberal arts college in Vermont and, against his parents’ wishes, goes on to enrol himself there. At Hampden College, a painfully class-conscious Richard lies. A lot. He fabricates a ‘better’ kind of past and identity for himself, hoping that people will perceive him as he wishes to be perceived. It almost seems inevitable that a romantic like him would fall under the spell of a certain ‘clique’. These five students are the only ones to be enrolled in professor Julian Morrow’s classes, who mainly teaches classical studies. Richard is intrigued by their shared air of mystery. They don’t tend to mingle with other students and seem to belong to an entirely separate world. And Richard wants in on it. When he eventually gets accepted into Julian’s classes he becomes further intoxicated by this clique.
In this first section of Richard’s story, the narrative has this almost fairytale-esque quality. Julian appears to Richard as a mythical sort of creature, the kind of mentor-like figure that would not be out of place in a monomyth. Soon Tartt however subverts our expectations by revealing just how fatal Richard’s misperception of his new reality is. The rarefied world Henry, Francis, the twins, and Bunny belong to may not be as the Elysium Richard envisioned it to be. The college itself is not the ‘enlightened’ haven he’d thought it would be. The more time he spends with his new acquaintances the more he becomes aware of just how dangerously disconnected they are from their everyday modern world (they certainly seem to belong to another time).
As the narrative progresses, we learn just how disillusioned all of these characters are by their realities. This disillusionment leads them to apotheosize bygone eras, and, in the case of Richard, idealise their surroundings.
Fraying alliances, secrets, and betrayals increase the tension between the characters, heightening the drama.
As we learn of the circumstances that led to Bunny’s murder our view of Henry & Co. will begin to change. Their hunger for the inaccessible and desire to transcend their reality, perhaps to access sublimity or a higher plane of existence, leads them to cross—jump over even—quite a few lines. Yet, however flawed they reveal themselves to be (let us say, they seem to have more vices than virtues), I remained transfixed by them.
Their lifestyles, while certainly extravagant, are not all that desirable. Considering their poor diets, their heavy drinking and smoking, and, at least in the case of Richard, that they are sleep deprived, it is a miracle that they don’t get scurvy or worse.
Tartt doesn’t glamorise their actions and Bunny’s murder takes its toll on them. Between the anxiety of being discovered and the guilt that they (some of them) experience it seems inevitable that things take a turn for the worst. The disintegration of their friendship is hard to read but I was unable to tear my eyes away.

That Richard remains on the outskirts of this group makes Henry & Co. all the more intriguing. Henry and Camilla make for extremely ambivalent figures. Because we know as much as Richard does, we often don’t know what truly motivates these characters, yet, despite how ambiguous they could be, Tartt is capable of capturing those idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. We learn more about Francis, Charles, and even Bunny, because Richard spends more time with them. While Richard’s relationship with them is far from straightforward I found their interactions to be utterly engrossing. I definitely have a bias when it comes to Francis and I could probably spend hours talking about how much I love him. Really. Just thinking about him makes me emotional (i am aware that he is far from perfect but that is also why i like him so much).


Richard, unreliable narrator par par excellence, is an interesting character in his own right. He reminded me ever so slightly of the narrator from Tobias Wolff’s Old School and he even seems to have a touch of the ‘dreaded’ Emma Bovary (longing 24/7).
Tartt demonstrates extreme acuity in the way she conveys Richard’s inner turmoil, his loneliness and his desires. He, like the others, has his fair share of flaws but I found his voice utterly relatable. The boy really has very few people that care about him. His parents seem to act as if he doesn’t exist, his professors ignore or are wholly unaware that he is teetering on the very brink of mental and physical collapse (think of his hellish winter break). Another reason why I find him so compelling is that he’s surprisingly supportive of those who have made him feel like an outsider (i am an extremely petty person so, kudos to him). Given the ‘otherness’ he feels—and is made to feel—I thought it quite fitting that after he cuts his hair he compares himself to Arthur Rimbaud (“Je est un autre” & all that jazz).
The love he believes he feels for Camilla seemed very much a result of his “fatal flaw”. That she remains a mystery to him enables him to project his own vision of ‘Camilla’ onto her. Richard seems to regard her as an Estella of sorts, the kind of ethereal beauty that so frequently appears in Victorian novels. Also, is this boy in denial about his sexuality (he’s attracted to her androgynous appearance, her “boy-feet”, her “slightly masculine grace of posture”). In many ways, Camilla is the classic object of unattainable desire (or as our boy lacan would have it “objet petit a”). As long as his love remains unrequited Richard can remain in a perpetual state of longing. Weirdly enough, he finds fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment.

This novel is populated by morally dubious characters who frequently transgress social norms. Not everyone is happy to do so and much of the narrative is about the guilt, anguish, anxiety, and sorrow that result from these ‘bad’ choices.
The dialogues are by turns sharp, funny, illuminating, and obscure. Many of the exchanges that occur within this narrative filled me with unease, apprehension. Thanks to Richard’s foreshadowing we often know that someone is hiding something or that things are going to take a turn for the worst.
The unflagging tension created by the ongoing drama between them kept me at the edge-of-my-seat (even during my re-read). Their chemistry is off-the-charts. From their moments of kinship to their devastating fights. Witnessing the slow dissolution of this group filled me with dread. But how real these ‘characters’ feel to me! Just thinking about them makes my heart ache.

Tartt enriches Richard’s story with plenty of literary and mythical allusions. From the narrative’s underlying Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy to those beguiling descriptions of the ancient world. The constant blurring of reality and dreams and of truth and illusion makes this novel all the more enigmatic and the kind of book that can be read time and again (i already want to re-read it).
The Secret History is a sharp and achingly beautiful novel. Tartt presents her readers with an unforgettable examination of morality, self-knowledge, loneliness, and privilege. The Secret History is a propulsive psychological thriller, a piercing examination of the folly of youth, a cautionary tale against falling for Beauty, for splendid illusions.
Tartt’s scintillating style, which is at once elegant and playful, is truly hypnotising. I love how detailed she is in describing Richard’s states of mind as well as her vivid descriptions of his surroundings. She often hones in on seemingly small details that end up making a certain scene or moment seem all the more real. But I also loved those moments of almost surreal humor, those brief reprieve in an otherwise unrelentingly intense narrative.
What makes this novel all the more intoxicating is that readers end up falling for what the narrative is warning us against. We idealise the characters and their circumstances, we are distracted by the sharp imagery and dazzling aesthetics, so much so that we end up overlooking just how prosaic and depressing certain portions of the story are (pretty sure richard snorts “an awful lot of cocaine in the parking lot of burger king”…yeah).
Anyway, as you may have guessed if you are reading this review, I fucking love this novel. Tartt spent 9 years writing it and it sure paid off.
I am, and likely always be, in awe of it.

SMALL ASIDE:
It was my mother who first spoke to me about Donna Tart. Her rather battered paperback copy of The Secret History was a fixture on her bookshelves. She first read it in 1994 (since then she has read it many many many times) when she was about to give birth to my older brother (to quote her: “it got me through labour”) who is exactly the kind of person you imagine him to be. Case in point: he is currently reading the Bāburnāmathe, the memoirs of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (naturally, i asked what she was reading while she was pregnant with me and it turns out it would have likely been a children’s book…which explains a lot).
A few months before I read The Secret History for the first time I recall overhearing my mum and brother talking about it with such reverence as to suggest that what they were discussing was not ‘merely’ a work of fiction but real people and events. I was intrigued, of course, but it was only after I was suffering from an acute case of book hangover (i’d just finished the raven cycle) that my mother recommended The Secret History to me.
I won’t lie, I was worried that it would go way over my head. At that time, I did not have a degree. After dropping out of my Italian high school at age 16 I had managed to complete a rather slapdash qualification in an art and design course, which was based in Swindon—a place described in this novel as being the ‘arsehole’ of the UK—and mostly consisted in us—the students—being left to our devices in order to create whatever art or non-art we wanted to create. Unlike my brother, who spent his childhood and teens reading historical tomes or learning about historical figures or ancient cultures, I never had much interest in those things. All of this is to say that I had very little knowledge of ancient history or the western literary canon, let alone anything related to philosophy. So, I was amazed by how little my lack of knowledge in these things proved to be a hindrance in my reading experience of The Secret History.
1.5 degree and 5 years later I am able to understand certain passages or motifs better but to be honest I can’t say that this has affected the way I feel about this novel. I also used google a lot because I don’t know latin and while I may know more about Nietzsche that 20-year-old me did I still know next-to-nothing about Plato and the other Greek lads and zilch about Buddhist traditions.

SECOND ASIDE:
Look, I like a lot of books and films that fall into the dark academia subgenre but I have come to despise the whole ‘dark academia aesthetics’ trend. If you read this novel and all you get out of it is tweed jackets and libraries…you are as bad—if not worse—than Richard (let’s glamorise this extremely elitist world…yay).
This was made by lucy and boy if it isn’t spot on:

my rating: ★★★★★

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Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun by Jonny Garza Villa

“And I think about how Dad gave me everything I could need. Except for the one thing that shouldn’t have terms or conditions. That should be a given. That should be so easy. Acceptance.”

Written in a simple conversational style Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun is a tender love story, equal parts funny and heartfelt. Julián Luna’s voice is exceedingly authentic and it will be easy for readers to form a connection to him. Jules lives with his father in Corpus Christi, Texas, and he is in his last year of high school. He has a tight group of friends, most of them Latinx like him, and a supportive older sister. His relationship with his father however has become increasingly strained in recent years. Jules’ father has a fixed vision of what being his son should be like. His rather passè notions of manhood and masculinity lead him to abhor anything he perceives as ‘different’. He’s also quick to anger and is verbally and physically abusive towards his son.
Even if Jules is not ashamed of being gay he isn’t willing to ‘come out’ in this kind of environment. His plans to ‘lay low’ are however sabotaged by one drunken tweet. The author does a brilliant job in depicting the, shall we say, highs and lows of coming out. On the one hand, Jules feels as if he can finally be himself, and many of the people around him are incredibly supportive and ‘there’ for him (i particularly loved his bond with his sister and jordan). On the other, well, given that his father has always been outspokenly homophobic it is unlikely that he will have a sudden change of attitude.
As Jules goes through this particularly difficult period in his life he becomes close to Mat, who lives in Los Angeles and whom he ‘met’ via Twitter. Mat, also in his last year of high school, is an immeasurably sweet and empathetic guy and their texting was the perfect blend of cute, funny, and real. When they both start catching feelings they decide to try a long-distance relationship.
What follows is a touching coming-of-age. There are many light-hearted and romantic moments that balance out the more heartbreaking ones. The author demonstrates great empathy in the way they portray and address abuse and struggles faced by lgbtq+ teens. Jules’ story, however painful, is one that needs to be told. Sometimes the people you love the most are the ones who will reject you or hurt you just for being yourself. Jules’ makes for a relatable and likeable protagonist. The author articulates Jules’ insecurities (about being ‘out’, his future, his relationship with his dad and others) in a very realistic manner. I also appreciated how bilingual the novel is—through Jules’ inner monologues and his conversations with his friends/family.
The love story was probably my favourite part (was the moon/sun thing a bit cheesy? yes. did i care? no). While the story itself isn’t the most ‘original’, we have quite a few classic YA tropes, and some of Jules’ friends are rather one-dimensional, I overall really enjoyed this. Some of the pop culture references did go over my head, the kind of music the characters listen to in this novel is the kind that would make my ears bleed (just kidding), and having a character say “OTP” in real life is cringe, but whatever, these are minor things that probably won’t bother other people.
Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun will definitely appeal to fans of the YA coming-of-age genre and I would 100% recommend it to those looking for an engrossing story filled with romance, heartbreak, and hope.

my rating: ★★★½

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