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

Mad about You by Mhairi McFarlane

2022 is proving to be an underwhelming reading year. With the exception of Either/Or by Elif Batuman and re-reads, I have only dished out 3, 2 and even a few 1 star ratings. So, when I got an arc for Mad About You I was convinced that McFarlane would be the one to break this cycle…regrettably that did not happen. Having loved her last two releases, If I Never Met You and Last Night, I was fully prepared to fall for Mad About You. After all, in my review for Last Night, I described McFarlane as a writer who outdoes herself with each new book. Sadly, Mad About You proved to be the exception to that rule as it felt very much like a step back rather than forward. It actually reminded me of McFarlane’s early releases (by no means bad but definitely not as good as her later ones). The pacing was rather meandering, Harriet was not a particularly memorable main character, and the romance was, to be quite frank, subpar.
Like most of McFarlane’s releases, the book begins with a breakup, this time initiated by our heroine rather than her partner. Harriet is a wedding photographer in her thirties who has no interest in getting married. She lives with her boyfriend, who is from a very posh and snobby family who have never shown her any warmth or genuine affection. We learn that Harriet is an orphan who was raised by her grandparents (who have also passed away). Additionally, early on in the narrative, there are hints that point to Harriet having had a traumatic experience in her 20s. She doesn’t really open up to her boyfriend and feels guilty about it. When he puts her on the spot however Harriet realizes that he isn’t the Nice Guy he tries so hard to make himself out to be. Harriet rushes to find somewhere else to live and ends up living with Cal Clarke. When they find out that they are exactly strangers to each other things get a little bit awkward and Harriet overhears Cal making some rather disparaging remarks about her.
Turns out they both have rather complicated relationship histories. Cal’s ex is very cartoonish and a lot of her inappropriate behaviours are played up for laughs. The story doesn’t take Harriet’s exes as lightly and much of the narrative delves into the repercussions of having been in an emotionally abusive relationship. Harriet eventually bonds with women who have experienced what she has and together they decide to confront their abuser. Things don’t go smoothly and the story also touches on the way internet mob mentality works. Harriet and Cal’s relationship didn’t entirely convince me as we get few ‘domestic’ scenes where we just them hanging out in the house or interacting while doing everyday things like cooking etc. That would have added realism to their living situation but we always seemed to get scenes where they are either confronting their exes or dealing with some other drama. I did find the way Harriet’s abusive relationship is handled to be a bit a la daytime tv. Usually, I love the way McFarlane portrays friendships but here Harriett’s friends amounted to nothing. There is the good-funny friend and the backstabbing-bad friend. There was no nuance to them and consequently, they did not come across as believable people. The love interest was such a non-person and consequently I never felt any chemistry between him and Harriet. It would be nice if McFarlane didn’t always go for a white handsome guy as her lead…
I found the pacing slow and repetitive. The story spends too much time on Harriett’s shitty exes and very little time on developing her character. Her relationships with Cal and her best friend felt very superficial.
Also, at one point someone references Netflix’s Bridgerton which came out in December 2020…and yet no mentions of covid (as far as i remember of course). Is this book set in an alternate reality? it was a minor thing but it took me out nonetheless.
I’m sorry to say that I found Mad About You to be a surprisingly disappointing read. Hopefully, McFarlane’s next book will see her going back to form.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Despite the many moments of poignancy that appear throughout the course of Searching for Sylvie Lee, the novel is ultimately diminished by unnecessary melodrama and convoluted (yet predictable) soap-opera-ish twists.

At its heart Searching for Sylvie Lee is a family drama about long-held family secrets. The narrative switches between three points of view: a mother and her two daughters. On the surface, Sylvie Lee, the eldest daughter, is the more successful and accomplished of the two Lee daughters. She’s married to a wealthy man and has a solid career. Unlike her younger sister, Sylvie did not spend her first years with her parents and in fact, grew up in the Netherlands with her grandmother and some cousins of her mother. At age nine she finally joins her parents and younger sister in America. While Sylvie shows open affection towards Amy, not seeming to resent her for being the one who got to stay with their parents, she is unable and or unwilling to grow closer to either her mother or her father, in fact, her relationship with her father is fraught indeed. When news that her beloved grandmother is dying reaches her Sylvie rushes to the Netherlands. Weeks after Amy receives a worrying call from the son of her mother’s cousins (the people who Sylvie was raised by). Sylvie has vanished.
Overcome by anxiety Amy too flies to the Netherlands where she stays with her cousins. Here she picks up on the weird atmosphere that suggests that not everyone was as in awe of Sylvie as she was. Her mother’s cousin is hostile and contemptuous about anything concerning Sylvie and her husband is rather creepy. Their son, Sylvie’s best friend, is also being somewhat cagey.
As time goes by Amy’s image of Sylvie as this perfectly put-together adult begins to shatter as more of her secrets come to the light. Apparently, both her marriage and her work life were far from idyllic.

Sylvie’s chapters reveal her month in the Netherlands and give us insight into her childhood there. Her bond with her cousin and another man also play way too much of a role in the story. There is a quasi-love triangle that feels kind of icky and unconvincing. The reveals we get at the end were entirely too predictable and yet the way these are disclosed struck me as profoundly anticlimactic. There is also way too much time spent on Sylvie’s trip to Venice alongside these two men and a friend of theirs (Sylvie is not much a friend to her tbh given that she goes behind her back and shows little remorse about doing so). Here the author goes out of her way to describe the classic lightning trip to Venice, name-checking the various sites etc. Yet, here she also makes a big gaffe by writing in cursive what she must have thought was orange juice in Italian but it was in fact, French. This small detail irked me as to why then spend so much time showcasing how ‘knowledged’ you are about Venice? And then you just try to make the setting more ‘vivid’ by throwing unnecessary untranslated terms in italic? And getting them wrong? Orange juice is also not really a Venetian speciality. This is the North of Italy…not exactly orangeville. Anyway, this whole trip lacked tension and the argument(s) between the male characters felt very rehearsed. I also did not appreciate how the one gay character is portrayed (unhappily married and in love with his straight possibly homophobic friend who will never reciprocate his feelings and is willing to sabotage his friend’s relationship because of jealousy).
I would have liked less time spent on the shitty men orbiting Sylvie’s life and more time on her bond with Amy and her relationship with her mother. I also could have done without the over the top dodgy cousins. It would have been nice if Amy had been given more of her own personal arc. Nevertheless, the author does incorporate compelling themes within her narrative: she describes the experiences of immigrant families both in America and in the Netherlands, and how class plays into it, emphasizing the fallacy of the American dream. Another key aspect of the novel is how appearances can be deceptive and how one’s image of someone (for example Amy seeing her sister as perfect) can stop you from truly seeing that person.
All in all, this was a rather mixed bag. If there had been less melodrama and more moments of introspection I would have probably liked this one better. Still, I would probably read more by this author.

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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories by Tiphanie Yanique

“Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

How to Escape from a Leper Colony presents readers with a collection of interconnected tales that are a blend between the fantastic and the prosaic. Tiphanie Yanique’s prose is striking: her style carries playful, fabulist almost, undertones that perfectly complement the dreamlike quality of her narratives. This sense of surreality is further intensified by the use of repetition and recurring motifs. The characters populating these stories are often at a crossroads, caught between who they want to be and what others (or themselves) think they should be. The choices they make are not always for the best, and they often experience heartbreak, loss, desire, and shame. Yanique explores familial relationships, in particular the fraught bonds between children and their parents. Religion too plays a role in these stories, but each character has a unique relationship to their faith. Many of the stories revolve around characters who are attempting to find out a place where they belong. Death too is a recurring theme, particularly in those stories centred on a funerary home. While the setting remains unnamed and is only referred to as a Caribbean island (presumably Saint Thomas?), Yanique is still able to evoke a strong sense of place and there are some truly vibrant descriptions of the landscapes surrounding these characters. The dialogues too convey a strong sense of place as Yanique is able to capture different lilts and vernaculars. The only reason why I am not giving this a higher rating is that I believe this is the kind of collection that is meant to be re-read in order to be truly appreciated. I sometimes felt a bit disorientated by the way these stories were interconnected.
My favourite stories were the titular ‘How to Escape from a Leper Colony’ and ‘The International Shop of Coffins’. I loved how within these stories Yanique strikes a perfect balance between melancholy and humor. The unresolved nature of these narratives also added to the collections’ overarching magical realist tone.
How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a promising collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Edwidge Danticat and Mia Alvar. I definitely plan on reading more by Yanique!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

This collection was both disappointing and unnecessarily disgusting. Not a great start to my reading year…

“What could be more normal than making people into clothes or furniture after they die?”

A lot of things…

As Life Ceremony happened to be one of my most anticipated 2022 releases, I was very happy to learn that my request for an arc was approved by its publisher. Sadly, it turns out that Life Ceremony was not the offbeat collection I was expecting it’d be. If you enjoyed Murata’s Convenience Store Woman but found Earthlings too grotesque, well, my advice is that you steer clear from her short stories. I loved the former and found the latter to be, if not enjoyable, certainly a striking read. Life Ceremony, on the other hand, feels like a rather forgettable collection of stories designed to disgust & shock its readers. Even the scenarios they explore are certainly weird, their weirdness was almost too predictable and samey. While the disturbing elements that made Earthlings into such a memorable read felt ‘earned’, and did not take precedence over the story’s characters & themes, here those elements feel obvious and as if they were the whole point of the story. As with her two novels, Murata’s short stories explore alienation, loneliness, humanity, and contemporary Japanese society. But, to be perfectly honest, Murata’s insights into these topics here feel banal and entirely derivative of her full length works.
Most of the stories in this collection are set in the near-future or in an alternate reality where certain characters, often the narrator, finds themselves questioning the social mores so readily accepted by others. Because of this they feel alienated from other people and don’t feel that they truly fit into their particular society. Most of the stories question the notion of right and wrong by challenging the characters ethical and moral ideologies (why do they really think that x is bad? is it because they are told that is what they should think? etc etc). In the first story for example our protagonist lives in a society that uses human skin to produce all sorts of objects. While this use of human skin is completely normalized now the protagonist remembers vaguely a time where this was not the case. Her partner, to everyone’s bewilderment, is openly against this practice and refuses to have items that are made of human skin. When his father dies and his skin repurposed, the partner reconsiders his stance. In another story, the main character has a sister who, in a similar fashion to a character from Earthlings, believes she is not a human. This causes others to bully and make fun of her. In the title story, Murata envisions a world where the deceased are made into food for the living in a ceremony of sorts. This ceremony apparently makes people really horny and they tend to have sex after consuming the ‘flesh’ of their loved one. People attach no shame to the act of sex and apparently it is perfectly normal to walk down a street and see pools of semen all over the pavement. Our main character initially claims that she is not keen on the practice but when a colleague she cares for dies suddenly she relishes the meal his relatives make him into. She comes across a man who says he’s gay and decides to give her his sperm. Amongst other things, I found myself wondering how gay people fit in in a society where you only have sex to procreate. I found this scenario particularly illogical. Not so much the eating of the deceased, I mean, endocannibalism was (is?) practised by certain communities, but the whole sex on the streets thing?! Uncomfortable much! Anyhow, we also have a story about a woman who observes other people and describes them as human beings, which kind of implies she is not one. She is particularly obsessed with things such as blood, bile, and other bodily fluids. At one point she observes someone she’s just had a meal with and this happens:

“Sanae quietly gripped the plastic bag in her hand, thinking of all the excrement filling Emiko’s body.”

Which, ugh, let me gouge my eyes out. I didn’t find this funny or shocking, just low-key gross. Gross is actually the perfect word to describe this collection. Alongside garish, vulgar, perverse, trite, and gratuitous. At times I felt that I was reading the writing of a teenager trying to be edgy and writing about edgy things like shit, sex, blood, and cannibalism. There were also lines such as “I felt so happy at the thought that I was among his innards” that just…why?! Then an orgasm is described as “it’s kind of like your body becomes innocent, like a child”…which. Yeah. Something about that does not sit right with me.
Contrary to what one might believe reading this review, I don’t mind gore, body horror, or works that are fascinated with what is abject. I recently watched and was blown away by Titane which definitely delivers on the body horror and the body is abject front. But this collection prioritizes these aspects in an ineffective way. They were far from subversive, and in fact, I found it predictable how almost every story features a society where something we consider taboo has been normalized.
While I was deeply dissatisfied by this collection, and I will certainly be avoiding her short-form work from now on, I do consider Murata to be a remarkable storyteller (even if this collection was, in my opinion of course, a dud). If you are interested in reading this and you are not put-off my intentionally & ott gross content, well, go for it.

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The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova


When she left Ecuador for good, she learned how to leave pieces of herself behind. Pieces that her descendants would one day try to collect to put her back together.

In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, Zoraida Córdova combines an intergenerational family drama with magical realism, and the end result will certainly appeal to fans of Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende. Not only does Córdova’s dazzling storytelling complement the fantastical elements within her story but her prose often brought to mind the language you encounter in fairy tales.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina follows a dual timeline. The one in the present opens with the formidable matriarch Orquídea Divina Montoya inviting her progeny to her funeral. Over the years her children and grandchildren have left her house in Four Rivers, and many of them have not returned since their departure. When they flock back to her home they find out that Orquídea has undergone a drastic change. In this part we are introduced to a lot of characters, many of them don’t even get a speaking line. The house is very crowded and arguments and disagreements inevitably come to pass. No one knows about Orquídea’s past, and some have come to resent her for it. Odd and inexplicable things have always happened to the Montoyas, and maybe, now, on her ‘deathbed’ Orquídea will finally reveal some of her secrets…except that she doesn’t. The narrative jumps seven years ahead where we learn that many of the Montoyas have been dying sudden and bizarre deaths. Someone, or something, maybe after them, but why?
The other timeline gives a glimpse into Orquídea’s Cinderellaesque childhood in Ecuador. Told from birth that she would have bad luck Orquídea finds herself growing apart from her mother once she remarries. Her stepsiblings bully her, her stepfather shows her no kindness. Additionally, Orquídea is tasked with various house chores and with looking after her youngest sibling. One day she goes to the circus and finds herself falling in love. The following chapters of her story follow her ill-fated romance.

I liked the first chapters, in which we are introduced to the various Montoyas (some more in-depth than others) and see their reactions to Orquídea’s ‘transformation’. The prose is gorgeous, the magical realism on point, and the mystery around Orquídea’s past intriguing. We then get a time-skip of 7+ and I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly keen on it. We never get to properly know the majority of the Montoyas nor do we truly delve into the experiences of Marimar and Rey, our main characters. I think that much of this novel, especially once we’ve passed Orquídea’s death, relied too much on telling. Marimar was a bit of a generic lead while Rey very much existed for comic relief and many of his lines did seem to make him sound a bit like a stereotype (‘bitchy’, man-obsessed, etc.). He’s basically the gay best friend. The chapters set in the past were somewhat disappointing as I thought they would give us an overview of Orquídea’s life, as opposed to just focusing on her late teens/early 20s. I think her journey and early years in America had the potential of being quite interesting. I mean, she had several husbands and they barely get mentioned. Orquídea herself was hard to like. Having a Cinderella-like sob backstory doesn’t necessarily make you into a sympathetic or complex character. Still, I did find her intriguing and by the end, I did feel on her behalf (kind of). As I said, I wish that more of the Montoyas had been fleshed out. There were some deaths in the story and they had little to no impact because we didn’t know that characters who die all that much (they basically were included to be killed off). The ‘big bad’ was disappointing and at times the story gave me Disney vibes. At one point Córdova describes curls as ‘worm-like’ and that gets a minus from me.
In spite of these things (story+characters being kind of meh) I still thought that this was a good novel. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to those who are looking for character-driven stories or nuanced family sagas, however, if you happen to be a fan of the authors I mentioned above or of the magical realism genre, well, you should definitely consider giving this novel a go. The story is fairly compelling, the author’s prose is lovely, and the fantasy elements were great. Atmospheric and spellbinding The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is an engaging story about love, family, heartache, and fate.

ps: while the cover is by no means ugly I do think that it doesn’t really suit the tone of the story. Additionally, it is the kind of cover that would be better suited to YA novel, not an adult one.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a collection of short stories centring on the experiences of Vietnamese refugees & immigrants as well as Vietnamese-Americans. With one or two exceptions most of the stories in this collection take place in America, some soon after the Vietnam War. Through different voices, the author presents us with a nuanced depiction of the realities and difficulties faced by those who are either forced to or choose to leave their home country. In America they are confronted with prejudice and racism, treated as objects of fascination or pity, at times they are separated from their loved ones or find themselves growing apart from their families as well as the language and values of their early childhoods. I appreciated the author’s frank style, the humor that permeated much of his narratives, and his nonmoral approach to his characters, their struggles, fears, and desires. The stories that resonated the most with me happened to be the very first two in the collection: ‘Black-Eyed Women’, which is about a haunted ghostwriter, and ‘The Other Man’, which is set in San Francisco and follows Liem, a young refugee who staying with a gay couple. Many of these stories emphasize the linguistic and cultural barriers experienced by immigrants. Most of these stories, such as ‘I’d Love You To Want Me’, a story about an ageing couple, make for rather bittersweet reads.

Like many collections of short stories, The Refugees was a bit of a mixed bag. None of the stories was bad but a few stood out. Something that dampened my reading experience was the weird way the author would write about breasts: we have “doleful areolas”, breasts that “sway like anemones under shallow water”, and breasts that “undulate” like “the heads of eels”. Like, what gives Nguyen? Why be so weird about breasts? I guess they were meant to be humorous but I happen not to have the sense of humor of an 8-year-old boy so, they didn’t quite do it for me. Also, it would be fairer than to have weird metaphors about other body parts.
All in all, this was a fairly solid collection and I look forward to finally giving Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel a go.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

My review for No Gods, No Monsters will not make a lot of sense. The main reason for this is that, to be quite frank, I did not ‘get’ this novel. I did try, I persevered in spite of my mounting confusion, hoping that at some point I would be able to understand the what/why/who/hows of this story…but, having now finished, I can safely (and sadly) say that I’m not sure what was the point of it all.
I’m fine with authors keeping their cards close to their chests. Two of my all fave novels, The Fifth Season and American Gods, do require the reader to have patience in order to understand their narratives. But here, I was never able to catch up with the story. The author seems intent on being as mysterious as possible, which results in a narrative that is confusing for the sake of being confusing. While I liked some of the aesthetics and ideas that were at play, however, I struggled to make sense of far too many scenes, so much so that it hindered my overall reading experience.

We meet Laina, whose brother was shot by a cop. What seems yet another horrific case of racialized police brutality turns out to be something far more bizarre. Not only is Laina’s brother revealed to be a werewolf but turns out that there are many other types of monsters living alongside humans. After a viral video reveals this, lots of people ‘lose’ it.

Many of the storylines weren’t particularly developed or easy to understand: we have a section follow a cult of sorts, a few bits on a pack of werewolves, another on a ‘dragon’ boy, and a few about Laina and her partner(s). A lot of the time I just struggled to understand how certain subplots fitted in the overarching storyline, as, more often than not, the supernatural element is only hinted at and we don’t always witness it first hand. This just made it harder for me to believe in this particular ‘world’, which, from my perspective, suffered from having a far too-vague world-building. Not only we aren’t given detailed descriptions of these ‘monsters’ but it seemed weird that one viral video would result in people going on to marches against monster ‘hate’.

The characters were just as vague as their story, their personalities sidelined in favour of creating a confusing atmosphere. I often got them confused with each other, and some, such as that guy who joins the cult, felt very…unnecessary.

I will say that I appreciated how intersectional this was. The majority of the characters are QPOC, and we get some refreshingly casual lgbtq+ rep (so that we have trans, ace, & queer characters) as well as a (fairly) positive depiction of a polyamorous couple. The monsters are very much a metaphor for minority groups who have been historically persecuted and are still being discriminated against.

But, as much I liked the author’s message (or what i perceived to be their message) I had a hard time reading this novel. Not only was the pacing uneven but scenes that could have been easy to follow were not. The characters play obscure roles in their own stories, and I wish they’d been more fleshed out. Additionally, we have this sort-of-omniscient narrator who occasionally makes an interjection breaking the flow the narration…and it just didn’t work for me. Who was this person? I’m still not 100% sure. Why were they recounting what was happening to these characters? Hell if I know…
All in all, I’m not sure who I would recommend this to. I usually love storylines that aren’t afraid to be, shall we say, ambiguous, but Turnbull takes it to a whole new level. Confusing and surprisingly wearisome No Gods, No Monsters wasn’t quite the urban fantasy read I’d hoped it would be.

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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