Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Summer Sons is very much a vibes-driven novel that would not exist without Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves. From the aesthetics permeating the story to the combative & codependent character dynamics, Summer Sons share a lot of similarities with that book. Lee Mandelo’s older cast of characters however allow for them to employ an edgier tone, one that at times reminded me a bit of Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House (both mcs have spend most of their respective narratives chasing paranormal shit, to the detriment of their academic, getting repeatedly emotionally and physically bruised and pissing off ppl left and right). The first time I approach Summer Sons I ended up dnfing it. While I do agree with some of my initial criticisms I think this second time around I was able to just ignore the few bumps along the way and just let Summer Sons take me for a ride.

Written in snappy prose Summer Sons follows Andrew, who is in his early twenties and is about to begin a graduate program at Vanderbilt where he will be joining his best friend and (adopted) brother Eddie. Their bond is very much of the codependent variety, as the two were irrevocably bound together by a traumatizing childhood experience that has left them with, in the case of Andrew, some unwanted abilities. But then, just before their long-awaited reunion, Eddie commits suicide leaving behind a grief-stricken and confused Andrew. Eddie left everything to him, including a ridiculous amount of money and a house in Nashville (roommate included). Andrew moves there, but he couldn’t really care less about his studies. He is determined to find out what happened to Eddie. He is immediately suspicious of and antagonistic towards Eddie’s former roommate, Riley, and his cousin, Sam. Andrew is jealous of the time they spent with Eddie and is reluctant to reveal anything about his past or his intentions to them.

The first half of the novel has very little if no plot going on. I mean, things are happening but they mostly consist of Andrew feeling unwell, hitting someone, getting hit, getting drunk, getting high, ignoring his uni inbox, and making wild speculations about what happened to Eddie. He does have a few meetings with his advisor and tutor, but for the majority of the first half of the novel it’s more about the very charged dynamics between Andrew and Sam, and to a lesser extent, Andrew and Riley. There is a party or two, some drag races, and buckets of toxic masculinity. The chemistry between the various characters more than makes up for the lack of, shall we say, plot. The author also explores Andrew’s very intense relationship with Eddy, capturing the duo’s power dynamics.
I appreciated how thorny Andrew is. He is so careless about his own well-being that he engages in some pretty self-destructive behaviours. He is also repressed af, and struggles to reconcile himself with the possibility that his love for Eddy may have not been strictly platonic. And of course, his attraction to Sam complicates matters. And yeah, there was something about them that definitely reminded me of Ronan & Kavinsky, except not quite as messed up, as here both Andrew and Sam embody what I can best describe as an exceedingly Ronan-esque chaotic energy. I liked the realistic way Andrew responds to the queerness of this group of friends, and that it takes him time to truly allow himself the possibility of being attracted to men.
To exacerbate his alienation are recurring nightmarish visions of death and rot. Eddie’s phantom is stalking him, resulting in periods of dangerous dissociation. Riley and Sam claim they want to help but Andrew. being the hard-ass he is, is not so sure about letting anyone in.
The latter half of the novel has more to do with his amateurish sleuthing, as Andrew is forced to confront the likely possibility that what occurred to him and Eddie as children has something to do with Eddie’s death.
We have old family curses and blood rituals, eerie visions, and disturbing occurrences. Additionally, Mandelo dedicates time to critiquing how insular colleges are as well as the elitism and racism that pervade the academic world.
I liked the uneasy relationships the characters have with one another, and that Mandelo holds their main characters accountable for their past and present actions without writing them off as ‘bad’.

There were a few things that I wish could have developed differently. The paranormal element had potential but was implemented in an inconsistent and in some places sparse way that ultimately does it a disservice. I liked how it remains largely ambiguous but it could have been amped up in quite a few instances. Also, in the scenes where this paranormal element comes to the fore the descriptions could have been more vivid. It would have been nice to learn more about haunts/revenants or other spooky occurrences that Andrew & Eddie may have experienced after ‘it’ happened. Similarly, it would also have been nice to have more of a background about their childhood and teenage years (their relationship with Andrew’s parents, their high school days, etc..). We know about their tattoo and their ‘shared’ gf (who thankfully speaks up about being used and tossed aside like a toy) but very little about anything else. In some ways it makes sense since they were each other’s worlds, so everything else would barely register, however the complete lack of presence of Andrew’s parents was felt.
The resolution to Eddie’s death was too derivative, especially within the urban fantasy genre. She who shall not be named did that a few times in her series. Maggie Stiefvater subverts this trope by making readers, but not our main characters, aware of who the ‘antagonists’ are. Barudgo also does it in Ninth House, but in a far more twisty way than Mandelo. Here instead that finale seemed vaguely formulaic and entirely too predictable. That the ‘villains’ lacked a certain ‘oomph’ factor also made that last action rather lacklustre. I do think that at the end Andrew gets a bit too much of the blame for how things went down with the villain. The boy is an asshole sure. But he was just trying to find out the truth and how could he have possibly predicted that things would go down that way?!

The writing had a certain fanfiction-y quality but I found myself really enjoying it (so we have a lot of growling, flashing teeth, dangerous expressions, an overuse of ‘the boy’ instead of the characters’ names). The prose was snappy and intentionally edgy which makes for highly engrossing storytelling. I do wish that the author had reigned in on the more anatomical descriptions of his characters. There are whole paragraphs dedicated to describing whose leg is on whose ankle or how someone’s hand is dangling or touching somebody else’s body part). Yeah, in a way these add a certain sensual element that makes these scenes really pop, but there were moments where they ended up sidelining the actual storyline or drawing attention from the dialogue. There were also way too many random highfalutin words dropped in for no reason (such as ‘cadre’) and they had the same energy as me during my first year as an undergraduate student using archaic terms for no reason other than to make what I was writing sound clever (but i just ended up with some seriously jarring phrases).

Despite these criticisms, I did like Summer Sons. Andrew is a tortured and somewhat impenetrable character that is equal parts frustrating and lovable. Mandelo articulates Andrew’s inner conflict without resorting to cliches or moralisms. The interactions between the characters seamlessly alternate from being funny and entertaining banter to more heated and tense confrontations. The friendships and the romance we see develop between Andrew and others really make the book. I loved how the author is able to dedicate a lot of page time to Andrew’s unresolved and complicated relationship with his sexuality but also present us with some very casual lgbtq+ rep (we have a trans character, a positive portrayal of polyamory, and a character who uses they/them pronouns makes has a cameo appearance). The pining and sexual tension between Andrew and Sam were chief’s kiss.

I’d love to read more by this author (maybe something with wlw characters…? or just more girls in general cause i don’t think this book would pass the bechdel test test..at least in trc we have the women of 300 fox way).
If you like spooky summer ya novels, like Beware the Wild, The Wicker King, Wonders of the Invisible World, or the gritty aesthetics of urban fantasy series like Holly Black’s The Modern Faerie Tales, Summer Sons should definitely make it onto your tbr pile. I look forward to whatever Mandelo publishes next and I can definitely see myself re-reading Summer Sons.

ps: i did think it would have been nice for mandelo to mention in their acknowledgements stiefvater as her series clearly inspired this book.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters

This is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that ended up missing the mark. Having read and enjoyed Julian Winters’ The Summer of Everything I went into this expecting something cute & wholesome only to be confronted with a generic coming of age ya about characters who are just out of high school and went to spend one more summer together. Miscommunication and the possibility of a love triangle drive the narrative, but these elements lacked oomph, and I found my attention wavering more than once. This kind of novel should make for a breezy read but my reading experience seemed closer to a chore. I debated DNFing this but decided against it hoping to see some character growth or for the story to pick up a bit but those things didn’t really happen. We get a lot of samey scenes that are angsty but in a rather vanilla way. The banter and chemistry between the various characters came across as forced, and sometimes even out of touch (despite its attempts The writing was okay, in a fanfiction-y sort of way but sometimes we get these subpar metaphors or lines of dialogues that really took me out (“I know she’s unaware that her words cut sharper than one of those handcrafted swords forged by Hattori Hanzō in Kill Bill.” / “Imaginary Isaac is a boss. But that’s not who I am.” / “My organs shift, realigning under my skin. ” / “Queer people don’t have to prove anything. We are who we are.” / “Little wrinkles like on the surface of Memorial Park’s lake crease his brow. ” / “We’re quiet for so long. Alix grabs her phone and starts typing. Holy Nightwing ” / “We’re not friends, but maybe we’re not really enemies either.” / “My mouth opens, then closes. I’m confused and sad and oddly relieved. Maybe Diego is my first Crush Syndrome. Maybe he’s my One True Disaster.”).

Right Where I Left You follows Isaac Martin an avid fan of a superhero comic a la young avengers. He ardently ships two characters (in a way that reminded me of the mc from rainbow rowell’s fangirl…which uhm…not my kind of character) and is very much a self-identifying nerd with social anxiety. He happens to have one single friend, Diego. They’ve been bff for the longest time and they spend most of their time together. Although Diego is more outgoing and is really into gaming the two always find stuff to talk about. But their paths will divide once summer is over, with Isaac going to college and Diego taking a gap year. An oversight on Isaac’s part results in them not getting tickets to go to Legends Con. Isaac feels guilty about it and plans to make it up to Diego. Here I thought that the story would follow Isaac finding a way into Legends Con but it doesn’t. We have a few scenes strung together featuring this very generic group of ‘friends’, most of whom are friends of Diego really. While I appreciated how inclusive this group was they ultimately seemed very much the embodiment of that meme (‘every friend group should include…’). They deliver these lines that were pure cringe in that they were trying desperately to make the characters sound cool and unproblematic but just made them sound inauthentic ( (ppl who talk like that exist only on tumblr and possibly certain twitter spaces. it’s not quite live-action-powerpuff-girls levels of bad but…). I can see these characters working for fans of Casey McQuiston, and I just happen to prefer messier young adults, such as the ones by Mary H.K. Choi. It didn’t help that what drove the story was this milquetoast jealousy subplot (as opposed to the legends con plot) where Isaac becomes sort of involved with Davi and Diego, for some ‘bizarre’ reason, starts to avoid him. It annoyed me that Isaac uses more the once the term mansplaining…as if he was ever on the receiving end of that.
There is an attempt at giving Isaac daddy issues because his dad cheated on his mom or something but that whole subplot is handled in such a daytime tv kind of way as to be utterly risible.
The humor and banter were painfully cringey, and Isaac was such an annoying main character. He was very much a clichè, and I become tired of the constant references to comic books…we get it, the boy is a nerd, we don’t need to be reminded every page or so, especially when said reminders come across as contrived. Diego is a boring friend and meh love interest. I couldn’t help but compare their dynamic to the one Felix has with Ezra in Felix Ever After. These two books share quite a few similarities (friends to lovers, summer setting, pride) and Right Where I Left You lacked the character growth and engaging storytelling that made Felix Ever After into such a compelling read. Even Winters’ The Summer of Everything (which is also a coming-of-age/friends to lovers type of affair) is far more enjoyable and nuanced than Right Where I Left You. Here the characters are so one-note as to be wholly uninspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ stars

Nobody’s Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong

Nobody’s Magic is a promising debut novel by a clearly talented author. Destiny Birdsong’s compelling and vibrant storytelling is certainly immersive. She also has a knack for rendering a strong sense of place as Shreveport, Louisiana almost functions as a character itself. The dialogues too flow easily and ring true to life. The novel is divided into a triptych structure, each one revolving around Black women with albinism. While they do share similar experiences, they each had their own distinguishing voice. We begin with Suzette, a sheltered 20 something who begins to bristle against her father’s domineering rule. She wants to learn to drive, go to college, work and do all of the things her peers are doing. Her father however is unwilling to let her grow into herself and goes out of his way to control her. Her mother is on her side but she too ultimately has no choice but to comply with her husband’s demands. When Suzette begins to experiment with her sexuality things come to head and she is forced to confront what she is willing to do for her own independence. I liked the author’s non-judgemental approach to Suzette’s sexuality and her desire for self-fulfilment (which could have easily been depicted as selfishness). While the author does underline the privileged existence that Suzette has led so far, she also includes scenes in which Suzette is discriminated against and or treated as other. Is she to blame for her own naivete when her father has kept her away from the world? The following narrative follows Maple who comes from a very different background than Suzette’s. Maple’s mother has recently been murdered and Maple is still reeling from this loss. Her grandmother is unwilling to accept that her mother was very much a ‘free-spirited’ individual who would go on to lead a ‘risqué’ lifestyle. Maple eventually gets to know Chad, someone who is also grieving a loved one. The last narrative is about Agnes, an older woman who becomes involved with a security guard. After a failed interview Agnes makes a dangerous choice that will lead her on the run with this security guard. She seems to be using him to protect herself from the consequences of her actions, he seems to believe that because she has albinism she is ‘magic’. I didn’t really get this last narrative nor did I find Agnes a particularly sympathetic character. I thought her behaviour somewhat irrational and didn’t find her to be a fully fleshed-out character. Still, out of these three stories I really liked the first two. They were engaging and thought-provoking and I appreciated how realistically imperfect the main characters were. But the third one tonally was just eeh…and had a rather meandering narrative. While the first two stories do follow a coming-of-age type of narrative this last one was just stale-ish. Still, Birdsong is certainly an author you should keep your eye on and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★½

Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie

While Ophelia After All wasn’t quite the cute & wholesome read I wanted it to be it still made for a better than okay read. The in-group drama, avoidable miscommunication, and one too many love triangles detracted from an otherwise compelling coming-of-age. If you are reading this expecting it to be a HEA romance, I recommend you adjust your expectations as Ophelia After All was more focused on Ophelia’s character arc and her coming to terms with her sexuality.

Ophelia Rojas is a Cuban-American teen who is known as the girl with the green thumb and a propensity for crushing on cute boys. The novel follows her during her last year of high school as she has to reckon with ongoing and new drama changing the dynamics of her friendship group and the possibility that she is not solely attracted to cute boys. Cute and shy Talia, the best friend of one of her friends, has caught her eye. Ophelia tries to fight her feelings, fearing the ‘ramifications’ of what this means. How will her friends and parents react if she ceases to be the ‘boy crazy’ girl they know and love? Initially, this line of thinking seems a bit questionable but as the story progresses her anxiety becomes better articulated. People have an idea of who she is, and Ophelia fears the possibility of not being the person they think she is. It was a bit odd that she would truly believe that her friends and parents (whom she is very close to) would see her just in terms of her crushes on guys but I could relate to her apprehension about ‘coming out’ and how that would lead her to make certain assumptions about the people around her.
There are a few ‘key’ events that change the dynamics between the characters. Ophelia and her mother are for a long part of the book at odds with each other after the former does something very uncharacteristic and refuses to tell her mother why (but tells her dad). The guy who causes this was a throwaway one-dimensional bigot who…I mean, he was a bit on the nose (not that people like that do not exist but that he was in a very short scene and managed to tick all of these unsavoury boxes…given that he was a college student it seemed weird that he would be so public about his trash opinions especially since he surrounded by faculty and adults). Ophelia was 100% valid in what she did (the whole being ‘the bigger person’ is overrated if you ask me) but I found her treatment of her mother frustrating. Ragazza mia, just talk to your mum!
In addition to the story’s focus on Ophelia struggling to reconcile herself with her attraction and feelings for Talia the story is also sadly very much about the drama going on in her friendship group. Her neighbour and best friend are in love with another friend. Talia’s best friend, who also happens to be a friend of Ophelia, is in love with that same girl. That girl is portrayed as kind of a bitch but she happens to have a best friend who isn’t (i can’t remember her name but if you’ve read this you know, she’s the most sensible and decent character in this whole book…i wish that she’d been given more page time). Anyhow, things are obviously awkward and tense. I found the miscommunication within their group stupid and not always believable. It also annoyed me that Ophelia called her bf and that girl he is in love with ‘promiscuous’ and implied that this made them less nice than that other guy who is also in love with her.
Still, I loved that we get so many lgbtq+ characters, even if the ‘reveals’ at the end were cheesy (but i am all for it at the same time so there ya go). Some of the discussions around being queer and or part of the lgbtq+ community did feel a bit…patronising? They were vaguely… at one point I felt like I was watching an instructional 101 lgbtq+ video. There was this scene with Ophelia asking this other character why people used ‘queer’ when she heard it was a controversial term and something about it felt very studied. At one point a character starts rattling off different labels and identities and I felt that I was scrolling on the lgbtq+ wiki. The narrative in these sections seemed more intent on being informative and unproblematic than ‘real’.
Some of the characters struck me as one-dimensional, especially the ‘unlikeable’ ones such as Talia’s relatives, Ophelia’s ex and her mother’s dick of a student. I did not find the love polygon interesting and in fact, it was tiring, especially since much of it hinged on a character that is for most of the narrative portrayed as having exclusively bad traits.
Still, I liked that the author didn’t make Ophelia immediately accept her queerness and that her self-denial leads her to make quite a few bad choices. Her treatment of Talia was kind of horrible if you think about it but she owns up to it (which doesn’t cancel out what she did but it results in some solid character growth on her part). I also liked that her mother isn’t depicted as being horrible, which I feared she would be for a good portion of the book. Her talk with Ophelia towards the end was very touching.
I just wish the story had focused less on the drama and fights between Ophelia’s ‘friends’. Her best friend in particular is done a bit of a disservice as his character seems reduced to him taunting his love rival. But I did appreciate how inclusive this group was. I would have liked for them to have more distinctive personalities (rather than a few chosen traits) but it isn’t that kind of novel so it worked all the same.
There were some compelling discussions on Ophelia’s dual heritage and her struggle for self-knowledge in a society that is very either/or in its view of identity and sexuality. I also appreciated that Ophelia dismisses the idea of a monolithic Latin American culture, however, later mentions of her heritage do at times risk doing exactly that.
While some of the discussions did feel a tad too American for my liking in that they simplified certain issues (i can’t explain but if you know you know), I did enjoy Ophelia reflections of Lacan and the nature of desire.
Anyway, although I didn’t quite love Ophelia as a character and I didn’t particularly care for her in-group melodrama, Ophelia After All makes for a refreshing YA in that it prioritizes Ophelia’s coming of age over any potential romance she may or may not have along the way (more of this please and less of the ‘i met my OTL in high school’). This story managed to subvert romance conventions which were unexpected in the best way possible. Still, other aspects were more predictable. Similarly to other contemporary YA novels Ophelia After All tries to be more self-aware of the cliches of the ‘teen coming of age’ genre but then they end up incorporating those tropes anyways.

Despite my mixed feelings, I liked Ophelia After All more than not. It has its flaws sure and the tone was a bit juvenile and moralistic at times but I could tell that the author had good intentions and the story she tells does have heart.
I would definitely recommend this to younger audiences and or YA devotees.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Either/Or by Elif Batuman

This sequel needs a sequel.

“Was this the decisive moment of my life? It felt as if the gap that had dogged me all my days was knitting together before my eyes—so that, from this point on, my life would be as coherent and meaningful as my favorite books. At the same time, I had a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script.”

In Either/Or we are reunited with Selin as she continues to navigate the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Now a sophomore student at Harvard, Selin has plenty to keep her occupied: her studies inspire her to question the choices she and others have made, the direction of her life, the meaning of love, sex, and connection, the limitations of language, and, of course, her relationship with Ivan, the Hungarian student whose mind remains to Selin, and by extension us, as unreadable as ever. Did she care for her at all?

There was something abstract and gentle about the experience of being ignored—a feeling of being spared, a known impossibility of anything happening—that was consonant with my understanding of love.

Selin’s propensity for long asides is as present as ever and I loved losing myself in her inner monologue. Her long acts of introspections do often come across as navel-gazing (curiously enough the narrative itself mentions navel-gazing), but I never felt bored or annoyed by it. If anything, Selin’s solipsistic inclination for self-interrogation made her all the more realistic. That she refers to books, music, films, and authors to make sense of herself and others results in a deeply intratextual narrative that will definitely appeal to literary students. While Selin isn’t wholly enamoured by academia, we can see how her studies and the books she reads inform the way she understands her world and those who populate it. She often draws parallels between her own life and those of historical and fictional figures. Some of the authors/artists/etc. she mentions include: Kazuo Ishiguro, Fiona Apple, Charles Baudelaire, Pushkin, Shakespeare, André Breton, and of course, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

“There was something about crying so much, the way it made my body so limp and hot and shuddering, that made me feel closer to sex. Maybe there was a line where sex and total sadness touched—one of those surprising borders that turned out to exist, like the one between Italy and Slovenia. Music, too, was adjacent. It was like Trieste, which was Italian and Slovenian and also somehow Austrian.”

Of course, at times these books and figures only add further confusion, so Selin is unsure whether she’s idealizing herself and others so that her life can resemble those she encounters in fiction. More often than not knowledge fails her, so she’s unable to decipher not only the motivations of others but her own true feelings.
Her writerly aspirations too preoccupy her and so do the changes that come about in her life. Selin’s intense friendship and rivalry with ​​Svetlana is threatened when the latter finds a boyfriend. Her roommates too have plenty of things that keep them occupied so Selin finds herself going to parties where she meets less than ideal men. Yet even as Selin forms sexual relationships with them, she longs for Ivan and obsesses over what his infrequent emails leave unsaid.

“It seemed to me that the elements whirling around me in my own life were also somehow held in place by Ivan’s absence, or were there because of him—to counterbalance a void.”

Either/Or shares the same structure with The Idiot so we follow Selin month by month during her academic year before tagging alongside her as she once again goes abroad for the summer. In Turkey she finds herself forming unexpected connections but remains somewhat remote to them.

Sardonic and adroit Either/Or makes for a fantastic read. While Selin does change over the course of her sophomore year, she also remains very much herself. She can be reserved and slightly baffling at times, and yet she’s also capable of making some very insightful or relatable comments. She’s intelligent, somewhat naive, and has a penchant for overthinking and obsessing over minor things. Her deadpan sense of humor and little idiosyncrasies make her character really pop out of the page. I could definitely relate to her many many uncertainties, as well as her fixation with understanding the person who never seemed to reciprocate her feelings.

The one that started “Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself” made me feel certain that I had spent my whole life not knowing what to do with myself—all day, and all night. “I wander the halls . . .” That was exactly it: not the streets, like a flâneur, but the halls. Oh, I knew just which halls.

As I mentioned already over the course of her second year at Harvard Selin grows into a more self-assured person while also remaining strangely static. Her mental meanderings often included reflections on things such as desirability, belonging, love, heartbreak, self-fulfilment, choice & chance, and I found her perspective on these things deeply compelling. At times her mind is preoccupied with mundane thoughts, at times she loses herself in philosophical and existentialist questions about human nature.
Batuman’s inclusion of the minutiae of her protagonist’s life (such as inserting a tampon: “I tried again to put in a tampon. ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING WAY.”) made Selin’s reality at Harvard all the more vivid. I could easily envision the different environments she occupies, as well as the people who inhabit those places. This combined with the mumblecore dialogues and Selin’s recursive inner monologue, which borders on being a stream of consciousness, give Either/Or quality of hyperrealism. That is, even when confronted with moments of surreality or scenes of a comedic nature, I believed completely in what I was reading. A sense of 90s nostalgia permeates her story which adds to the narrative’s overall atmosphere and aesthetic.

“It was the golden time of year. Every day the leaves grew brighter, the air sharper, the grass more brilliant. The sunsets seemed to expand and melt and stretch for hours, and the brick façades glowed pink, and everything blue got bluer. How many perfect autumns did a person get? Why did I seem always to be in the wrong place, listening to the wrong music?”

I loved this novel so thoroughly that I was sad to reach its inevitable conclusion. I hope with all my heart that Batuman will write a third instalment where we will follow Selin during her third year at Harvard.
If you enjoyed The Idiot chances us you will, like me, love this even more (perhaps because batuman is expanding on the ‘universe’ she already established). If you are a fan of the young-alienated-women subgenre you should definitely consider picking these series up.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher for providing me with an arc.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

“I wanted to be the diametric opposite of who I was; am. To get gone.”

T Kira Madden’s bold and unsparing storytelling makes for a brutal yet ultimately kaleidoscopic coming of age. This is easily one of the best memoirs I’ve read this year. Madden’s memoir makes for a bittersweet read, one that I look forward to revisiting again.

“Did I want to die? Not really, no. I wanted the beauty of the doomed. Missing girls are never forgotten, I thought, so long as they don’t show up dead. So long as they stay missing.”

The chapters within this memoir have an almost episodic quality to them as they transport us to a specific time and or period of Madden’s childhood and later on teenage years. I appreciated the often unresolved nature of these chapters, as Madden doesn’t try to extract moral lessons from her experiences growing ups. During the very first chapter, we understand just how unconventional Madden’s upbringing was. Both of her parents struggled with substance addictions and were possibly involved in something shady. While her parents had plenty of money to spare their parenting style leaves a lot to be desired. Their unstable relationship too sometimes seemed to take priority over Madden’s wellbeing. Madden paints an unflattering picture of herself as a child, as she seemed to have adopted a horse-girl persona that made other children tease or avoid her. Also, growing up biracial in the nineties and Y2K came with a whole lot of racism, bullying, and confusion. Madden grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, a white-majority city. While her mother tethers her to her Chinese Hawaiian heritage, Madden is often made to feel other. Her family situation also makes her feel somewhat separate from her peers. But alongside this pain (over her loneliness, her parents’ addictions and toxicity), Madden’s gritty humor shines through, reminding me at times of other media focused on dysfunctional families (such as Shameless). Madden’s recollections of her past and her childhood are incredibly vivid, so much so that I could picture with ease the scenes which she was describing. At times this resulted in me feeling quite uncomfortable given the nature of what was happening (at one point madden decides to remove one of her ). Also, there was quite a lot of second-hand embarrassment which is rather expected given that Madden details those awkward years of transition between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence is hell. Seriously. Madden’s meditations on her changing body were certainly relatable. Madden’s observations on girlhood are piercingly clear. While what Madden is writing about is clearly deeply personal, readers can easily identify themselves with her. Madden’s recollects her first sexual experiences as well as the confusing feelings brought about by her own desire. Madden also details how she was sexually assaulted with unflinching clarity. Her longing to belong, to be loved, to be herself, well, it broke my heart. While she does forge friendships with other ‘fatherless’ girls, they also seem to take advantage of Madden (here i was reminded of the movie Thirteen).

“Sometimes I miss them most when we’re all together, when we’re already looking back at the moment, wondering how it will ossify with time, how much more we will know and unknow about each other.”

Madden’s shifting relationship to her sexuality certainly struck a chord with me. I loved the way she articulates that knowing-but-not-knowing. It was distressing to read of how misattribution leads her to confuse fear with love and of the shame she feels over her sexual desires. Madden is also frank when it comes to portraying the difficulties and intricacies of girlhood. From the all-consuming friendships to the desperate need to be seen as older, mature, adult.
In revisiting her childhood and adolescence we inevitably gain a picture of Madden’s rocky home-life. Her parents’ volatile relationship and their struggles with addiction weigh on Madden. But, rather than just reducing her parents to their addictions, Madden makes sure that we see their virtues alongside their vices. While the individuals that emerge are certainly not perfect, they come across as real people. They make mistakes, they fall into bad habits, and their personal crises and dramas often cause them to lose sight of Madden. However, we also see just how deeply they love her, even if their way of expressing this love is somewhat eccentric.
Within this memoir Madden explores her shifting identity growing up, letting us in on some pivotal moments in her childhood and teens. In doing so Madden examines the way American society treats young girls and their sexuality, the many ways in which girls are over-sexualised, the way porn normalizes abuse, and the invisibility and fetishization experienced by Asian American women. Additionally, Madden tackles grief, trauma, belonging, and queerness, in a frank yet poignant way. Her prose is truly illuminating, and I was captivated by her voice within the very first few sentences.
As the daughter of an addict myself this memoir certainly resonated a lot with me.

“These hushed years. These secrets of the body. To whom did they belong first? I want to find where it began and say, I’m here now, listening. I want to reach through the years and tell the women I’ve been lonely.”

This memoir was a real banger. While Madden is not afraid to discuss serious and or ‘uncomfortable’ topics, her writing is so compelling that I found myself tearing through this. Sad, funny, and sharp, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a lyrical and hard-hitting memoir. I would definitely recommend this to fans of coming-of-ages such as Monkey Beach and hard-hitting memoirs such as Dog Flowers and Crying in H Mart.

my rating: ★★★★☆

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki

Compared to Skim, This One Summer makes for a rather milquetoast affair. That is not to say that is bad but I did find the story and characters to be bland and very much been-there-done-that. This could have worked if the narrative had presented us with a more compelling protagonist than Rosie who is a painfully generic teen who yearns to be seen as one of older teens and not a kid. Every summer she and her parents stay at a lake house in Awago Beach. There she reconnects with Windy, her childhood friend, who is a year younger than she (a fact which rosie is low-key embarrassed by). Rosie’s parents are going through something and Rosie acts like an entitled brat. She begins renting horror films in order to impress a boy who is clearly a bad egg, going so far as to slag-off other girls. Windy, however one-dimensional, was a much more likeable character. Rosie’s angsting, however ‘understandable’ given that her parents are fighting and she’s currently traversing those painful & awkward teen years, still irked me. She elicited very little sympathy on my part. Whereas the story in Skim never bored me, here I found many scenes to be redundant and repetitive. There was something vaguely moralistic about the ending too and Rosie’s ‘growth’ didn’t entirely ring true. Still, the illustrations, while a bit more conventional than Skim, are lovely and if you are a fan of the Tamaki duo, well, you should consider giving this one a chance.

my rating: ★★½

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