Here Again Now by Okechukwu Nzelu

The first few pages of Here Again Now brought to mind the opening scene from my much beloved A Little Life so, naturally, I cranked up my expectations. As I kept on reading however my initial excitement over the story incrementally decreased to the point that I no longer looked forward to picking it up. This is by no means a bad novel but it certainly bore the signs of an ‘unseasoned’ writer. The prose was weighed down by repetition and overdone metaphors. Some of the dialogues struck me as odd, unconvincing, and I found that the narrative relied too much on rhetorical questions. Additionally, sections of the text consisted of a barrage of ‘what if x’ or ‘why is y’ or ‘how is xy’ questions that were really unnecessary. At one point there is a whole paragraph that just consists of these very, dare I write, basic questions that were far less effective than actually discussing the subject matter at hand (rather than circling around it).

The novel follows three characters, with very few if any secondary characters. This does lend a certain intimacy to the narration and the drama unfolding between these three characters. After his acting career takes off Achike Okoro acquires a swanky flat in Peckham. Staying with him is Ekene, his best friend of twenty years. Despite their different temperaments and careers, the two share a very close bond. Both have had less than ideal upbringings and they found solace in one another. It is hinted that the two had a ‘moment’ in Berlin and back in their twenties. Achike has proclaimed his love for Ekene but the latter seems reluctant to take their relationship down that path. While Achike is presented as this patient sort of figure, he does seem to have grown restless and feels slightly bitter about Ekene always choosing someone over him. When Chibuike, Achike’s father, who is in the process of recovering from his alcohol addiction, moves in with them, tensions rise.
There is the very long opening scene, in which we learn all of this, that takes place over the course of a day (possibly two?) and ends around the 30% mark. In between, we get some flashbacks that take us to Achike and Ekene’s early days as friends and Chibuike’s own childhood. The narrative explores the bonds between father & sons and friends & lovers as well as provides some thought-provoking conversation on masculinity, queerness, and Blackness. After a certain event, the story changes track so that in addition to these themes the narrative touches upon grief, guilt, and forgiveness.
I wanted to love this, I really did, but I found the writing to be a bit too…Ocean Vuong-esque for my liking? Eg. “Maybe fathers could explain sons?”
The first half of the novel is bogged down by this ‘will they won’t they’ storyline that seems to take priority over characterization. Because I didn’t really feel as if I knew these characters I was not particularly invested in their friendship/romance. The father/son dynamics occurring within this novel also struck me as corny. There were instances where I felt that I was reading the script for a soap opera or something. There were lines describing how beautiful the characters are, which at times went on too long or were a bit too much. But I digress. This was not a terribly written novel. At times the writing was a bit clumsy, and in other instances, lyrical passages or observations give way to purple metaphors. The three major characters were at times too fixed in their role and I’m always fond of tragic events being used as plot devices or to ‘help’ other characters ‘grow’. There were a couple of scenes that I found well-executed but there were far too many instances where I wasn’t sure where the characters were or if this scene was taking place on the same day as the previous one, etc. etc. While I would not call myself a fan of this I am grateful to the publisher for having sent me an arc and I urge prospective readers to check out more positive reviews out.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“That was the thing about people on the outside. They thought it cheered him up to see their faces, but it just reminded him too much of freedom when everybody knew it was better to adjust to the kind of freedom available on the inside.”

Heartbreaking yet luminous A Kind of Freedom is a truly impressive debut. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s prose struck me as assured and lucid. Sexton entwines three narratives, each following a different generation of the same family. In 1944 we follow Evelyn who lives in New Orleans with her family. Her pale skin and her father’s profession give her certain privilege in the city’s black community so when she falls in love with Renard, a boy who aspires to be a doctor but is looked down upon for being working class, Evelyn is forced to contend between responsibility—towards her parents—and freedom—to love who she wants. WWII and segregation pose a further threat to the couple.
In 1986 we follow their daughter, Jackie, as she tries to juggle single motherhood with work and house chores. Her husband, Terry, disappeared from her life after he became addicted to crack. After months without a word from him, he reappears, claiming that he’s clean and is actively trying to keep it that away. Knowing that to let Terry back into her life will not only earn the disapproval of her loved ones but might eventually result in more hurt, Jackie is torn between hope and fear.
We then have chapters set in 2010. T.C., Jackie’s son, has just been released from a four-month stint in prison. His girlfriend is pregnant and in spite of him being less than faithful he now wants to make things right with her. However, he immediately falls back into bad habits when he reconnects with his friend Tiger. Here we see the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, specifically on T.C.’s community.
Regardless of the period Sexton is depicting, the setting and time are rendered in vivid detail. She evokes the atmosphere of the places she writes of as well as the changing vernacular. Sexton also emphasises the way in which racial inequality has morphed over the decades and the way this in turn affects and shapes Evelyn and her descendants. In her portrayals of addiction and poverty Sexton writes with empathy and insight, conveying the despair, fatigue, and anguish of those who like Jackie love someone who is abusing dangerous substances. Much of Jackie’s story hit close to home so I found her chapters to be painful reading material. There are moments of beauty and communion, made even more poignant by how rare they are. Although Sexton reveals the eventual outcome of Evelyn and Jackie’s narratives in T.C.’s chapters, when we returned to them I still found myself engrossed in their stories, hoping against hope that things would not unfold the way I know they will.
Sexton captures three generations of an African-American family who is trying to navigate a less than civil landscape. The characters have to contend with a society that is rife with injustices (racial disparity, classism, colorism, sexism, environmental disasters, drug epidemics, crime) and their attempts balance familial or societal duties with their personal desires. As the title itself suggests, the narratives are very much about freedom. Each character is trying their hardest to be free.
A Kind of Freedom filled me with sorrow. Sexton has written a heartbreaking debut novel, one that gripped me not for its plot but for its beautifully complex character studies.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Survivors by Jane Harper

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
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Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

“You were never out of the Life completely. You were always looking over your shoulder. You always kept a gun within reach.”

Blacktop Wasteland is a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled read that gives a fresh new take on the One Last Job™ premise. S.A. Cosby’s pitch-perfect debut novel is brutal, twisty, and hella gritty. Blacktop Wasteland will have you at edge-of-your-seat from its very first chapter—in which our ‘hero’ takes part in a drag race—until the novel’s finish line. Although Cosby’s noir narrative is reminiscent of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, his dynamic voice brings something new to the crime fiction scene.
Set in a small-town in rural Virginia, Blacktop Wasteland follows Beauregard Montagerom, nicknamed Bug, a family man who works as a mechanic at his own garage. Beauregard’s attempt to live an honest life is hindered by money troubles: business is bad and unforeseen expenses keep cropping up. Going against his wife’s wishes, Beauregard agrees to one last job. The heist, however, doesn’t go quite as planned…and things rapidly go south.
Blacktop Wasteland has a lot to offer: an action-packed storyline, charged dialogues, and compelling yet morally grey—if not downright corrupt—characters.
This is one gripping novel. While things do get violent and messy, Cosby manages to vividly render Beauregard’s complicated family dynamics, as well as the motivations of those connected to the heist. The way the story unfolds took me by surprise, and in the latter half of the novel, my jaw may have hit the floor once or twice.
Alongside some pretty epic moments—Beauregard, for all his faults, is one smooth guy—the story manages to pack quite a few emotional punches. Cosby doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities of crime, poverty, and racism.
Cosby’s descriptions were terrific, especially where cars were concerned (“the car shivered like a wolf shaking its pelt” , “the motor went from a roar to the war cry of a god”). They could also be startlingly humorous (such as “explanations were like assholes. Everyone has one and they are all full of shit”).
Reading Blacktop Wasteland felt like being taken on an exhilarating ride. This novel is smart, dark, funny, and—as previously mentioned—seriously gritty.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune — book review

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“He was here to observe and nothing more. He couldn’t influence the orphanage. It wouldn’t be proper. The RULES AND REGULATIONS were specific about such matters.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea tells an equal parts heartwarming and silly tale. The world in this novel is fairly reminiscent of our own one however its pages are full of magical people and creatures. The government closely monitors those who are deemed not human and they are raised in government sanctioned orphanages.
As a case worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth (often abbreviated to DICOMY) Linus Baker, a solitary forty year old, oversees and inspects these orphanages. His job consists in ensuring the children’s wellbeing and that the people who are running these orphanages are following DICOMY guidelines. Linus himself abides by DICOMY’s strict rules and regulations.
His routine is brusquely interrupted when he is summoned by DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management, only to be unexpectedly tasked with an unusual and highly sensitive assignment: he has to leave the city and travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage. The orphanage is run by the rather mysterious and eccentric Arthur Parnassus. It is up to Linus to determine whether the six children who reside there (a female gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist) should be taken away from the Island.
As the story progresses Linus begins to question DICOMY and its methods. Once he is able to move past what his case files tell him about these children, he begins to see them in their own right.

In the novel magical powers/appearances is a metaphor for being different. They are isolated from ‘ordinary’ humans, raised in controlled environments, treated with mistrust and or outright hatred. Linus finds himself challenging his own assumptions and preconceptions about these children.
Ultimately this is a story about the family that you choose: Linus himself has always felt like he doesn’t quite belong. On the Island, alongside the children and Arthur, he starts to feel more at ease with who he is as well as the type of person he wants to be.
The novel is filled with quirky humour and charming dialogues. There were quite a few elements that struck me as being a bit too silly for my taste, so that occasionally the story verged on being ridiculous (such as all of those ‘Oh My’ that Linus utters) but for the most part I liked this novel, it even made me smile here and there.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — book review

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“I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.”

Not Quite a Review, More of an Ode to Ann Patchett:

Usually I tend to post my reviews a couple of days after I’ve finished reading a book. With The Dutch House it took me nearly two weeks to work up the ‘courage’ to review it. The fact is that I loved The Dutch House so much that I find hard to see it as a ‘mere’ work of fiction.
This is the eight novel that I’ve read by Ann Patchett and she has yet to disappoint. It is difficult to ‘pick’ a favourite, even if I can see that throughout the course of her writing career she has really honed her craft. Yet, I wholeheartedly loved her early books (especially her unjustly underrated 1997 novel, The Magician’s Assistant), so to imply that she ‘keeps getting better’ would be doing her a disservice. Regardless of the scope of her stories (whether they take place in a short period of time in a particular city, such as in Run, or move us between two ‘extremes’, in The Magician’s Assistant we move between Los Angeles and Nebraska, or take us on even longer journey, for instance in State of Wonder we follow Dr. Marina Singh’s as she leaves Minnesota for the Amazon Rainforest) Patchett tends to explore the same themes: there is a focus on familial relationships, especially between siblings, and these established dynamics are often changed due to some ‘major’ event (often the death of a loved one/relative/colleague). Although The Dutch House is written in Patchett’s signature prose, which can be described as being deceptively simple it features a first-person perspective, which is a departure from her usual third-person point of view. Being inside Danny Conroy’s head makes for an immersive experience and within the first pages I was captivated by his story.
Through an act of retrospection Danny looks back to the past and what follows is a narrative that could be described as a bildungsroman. Danny’s childhood in the Dutch House—a large, if not incongruous, mansion in a prosperous suburb of Philadelphia—is clouded by the absence of his mother (a woman he cannot clearly recall but whose absence he nonetheless feels) and by his relationship with his remote father. It is Maeve, Danny’s older sister, who takes on the role of ‘parental’ figure, and their relationship is very much the underlying thread of the story.

The Dutch House, weighed down by its history, inspires fascination in Andrea, the woman who will go on to become Danny and Maeve’s step-mother. The novel begins in fact with Danny’s memory of his first meeting with Andrea, one that seems to have almost a fairy-tale-esque quality in that it was the day where ‘everything’ seemed to change.
Throughout Danny’s narrative we will also see the way in which the Conroy siblings remain drawn to the house, a house which seems to acquire an emblematic role in the lives of those who have lived in: it represents their childhoods, their father—his career, his marriage(s)—and the rather unfortunate VanHoebeeks. Patchett renders this house without loosing herself in extensive architectural descriptions, rather she brings to the foreground some of its features (Maeve’s windowseat) and some of its objects. The paintings within the house (Maeve’s portrait and those of the VanHoebeeks) also seem to hold a certain function in Danny’s recollection of his past.

“Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

In his remembrance Danny frequently makes vague, if not downright oblique, allusions to later events or revelations, which in turn creates tension between his past and present. Also framing Danny’s recollection of his youth are a series of scenes in which alongside Maeve, he sits in her car outside the Dutch House.
Danny also questions the veracity of his memories: “But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” He reassess certain moments and figures of his past, finding hidden complexities in what had at first appeared to be seemingly unremarkable occurrences.

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

While the novel is narrated by Danny he never paints himself as the ‘hero’ of his own story. He often wonders whether he should have acted in a different way towards someone or something, trying to understand why things unfurled the way that they did. While the motivations of other characters might escape him, and possibly us, they are never reduced to a certain role/function. The each have a story even if we are not always made privy to it. An although there is an awareness of the limitations provided by Danny’s narration, the story never feels restricted to his experiences and worldview.

“Whatever romantic notions I might have harbored, whatever excuses or allowances my heart had ever made on her behalf, blew out like a match.”

My edition of this novel includes an essay in which Ann Patchett says that “for a long time I had planned to call the book Maeve as it was her story.” The novel, in fact, very much pivots around Maeve but it is her brother who is telling her tale.
We see the way in which their experiences in the Dutch House makes them determined to fulfil their desires or to take a certain path in their life: for Danny that is to become, as his father before him, a real-estate developer, while Maeve wants to carry on working a job she loves even if many consider her to be overqualified to do. While to some degree Danny’s vision of Maeve influences our perception of her, we are always aware that she may have hidden qualities. What is certainly undeniable is her love for her brother. Their bond is portrayed with such frankness and poignancy as to become vividly real in the reader’s mind.
This a story full of beauty and sorrow. There are regrets, wonderful reflections on memory, moments that are brimming with love or sadness…Patchett spins a tale in which families fall apart or come together. It is an intimate depiction of the bond between two siblings. Time and again Danny draws strength from his relationship to his sister, and even when he begins to feel unmoored from his own life, and as he struggles trying to reconcile himself with his past, Maeve provides him with a sense of belonging.
Patchett’s sense of place is as detailed and evocative as ever. She seamlessly renders midcentury America through Danny’s narration, evoking within me a sense of nostalgia for a country I’ve never even been to. And while Danny’s story spans decades, it maintains its focus on the same group of people, painting an intimate portrait of Danny’s friends and family.
…to put it simply I fell in love with it. Patchett’s harmonious prose made the experience all the more beautiful, and I was so enthralled by her story and her characters that to I struggled to think of them as works of fiction.
What more can I say? I think this is a masterpiece.

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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