Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

A week or so before reading Monster in the Middle I read Tiphanie Yanique’s debut short story collection, Land of Love and Drowning, which I rather enjoyed. I remember being struck by Yanique ’s atmospheric storytelling, by her subtle use of irony, and by her thoughtful meditations on death, love, and everything in between. So, given that I have been known to have a soft spot for intergenerational dramas/interconnected storylines (The Vanishing Half, Commonwealth, The Travelers) I was fully convinced that I would love Monster in the Middle.
Albeit confusing, the opening chapter intrigued me. But with each subsequent point of view, I become increasingly aware of just how disjointed and directionless this book was.
Monster in the Middle tells the love story between Fly and Stela, he’s American and a musician, she’s a science teacher from the Caribbean. Yanique jazzes things up by making their romance, not the starting point of the novel but the very end goal. The storylines leading to their romance give us a glimpse into their parents’ lives and later on Fly and Stela’s own experiences as teenagers and young adults.

The novel opens with a chapter on Fly’s father. He and a white girl are running away together, or so it seems. She comes from a deeply religious family and he too is religious. Fly’s father also suffers from schizophrenia but at this point in his life, he believes that the voices he hears are from God. A chapter from Fly’s mother follows, and here we don’t really gain much insight into what had happened to Fly’s father or that girl. She tells us a bit of their marriage but in a way that didn’t come across as engaging or particularly realistic. The following chapters are about Fly as a teen and his college experiences. I hated that the author focuses so much on Fly feeling horny and whatnot. He eventually comes across a sex tape starring his father and that girl he was briefly with. This tape becomes a guilt secret, as he is ashamed of being turned on by it. He masturbates a lot, which, good for him I guess but I personally could have also done without those scenes (it reminded me of What’s Mine and Yours, where the sections focusing on the teenage boy character are all about him having boners). Fly’s character in these chapters is reduced to his sexuality.
In college, he gets involved with a really religious girl and this character made no sense whatsoever. I found it corny that she was singing or praying while they were being intimate with each other and that she has such a disconcerting approach to sex (it is implied that she ‘uses’ her body to make people straight…?!). Because of course, she would be like that.

Then we get to know about Stela’s mother. Again, there was something off-putting about the characters and the relationships they formed with each other. Same thing for Stela’s father, who is not her biological father (other than that i can’t recall anything about him). Stela eventually comes to the fore and surprise surprise even if her chapters also hone in on her teen years, she isn’t made into a one-dimensional horny adolescent. She grows up in Saint Thomas and eventually goes to study abroad in Ghana where she is the victim of a sexual assault. Years later she marries this blandish guy and then they both, unbeknown to each other, become involved with the same woman. I absolutely hated this storyline. It feeds into existing cliches about bisexual women and it made no bloody sense. I had a hard time believing that this ‘other’ woman would be so deceitful. Then again, the story implies that she is deceitful by nature as she also lies about her background to them. Anyway, at long last Fly and Stela meet and I felt absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel for either character and found them very much devoid of fleshed-out personalities. They merely served as plot propellers, enabling the author to give us some superficial love stories and some observations on multicultural and/or interracial relationships. These brief glimpses into the mc’s parents lives did not make them into particularly well-developed characters, quite the opposite. They felt a bit all over the place, as some chapters, such as the 1st one, hone in on a very specific episode, while others have a vaguer timeline.
While the story addresses important issues, it did so rather superficially. Towards the end, the narrative includes covid and the BLM movement but it does so in a rather rushed way. I would have liked less focus on the characters’ sex lives and more moments of introspection.

The writing could also be rather off-putting with cringey lines like: “When he put his hand to her there at the center, she pressed herself hard against him, and she was slick. It made him think of candy gone sticky in the sun.”; “his penis hard and curved, her vagina sticky and warm. They presented these things to each other like treasures: “So smooth,” she said to his; “So sweet,” he said to hers.”; “The primary thing in his life was the ocean of this woman’s insides.”.

Additionally, I did not particularly care for the way the author ‘dealt’ with the rape storyline. And we get some problematic lines such as: “Jerome was flirting, she knew, but he was seventeen and she, frankly, was susceptible at twenty-three.” and “Stela looked around and saw an empty easel erect in a corner. She wished she had a dick. She wanted to be inside this bitch of a woman.”.

Overall, I could not bring myself to like this book. This novel lacked the strongly rendered setting of Land of Love and Drowning and, moreover, the author’s style was too florid for me. I couldn’t take a lot of what I was reading seriously.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity by Nadia Owusu

“To heal, I would need to look inward as well as outward. I would need to examine my memories. I would need to interrogate the stories I told myself—about myself, about my family, about the world.”

Unflinching and elegant Aftershocks is an impressive, engrossing, and deeply moving memoir by a promising author. In her memoir, Nadia Owusu explores the way in which her upbringing shaped her sense of self. Throughout the course of her non-linear narrative, which jumps from Ghana, America, England, Italy, Ethiopia, and Uganda, from her childhood to her adulthood, identity, loss, fear, madness, longing, belonging, abandonment, and Blackness are underlining motifs and, as the title suggests, Owusu uses earthquakes related terminology—foreshocks, faults, aftershocks, mainshocks—as a lens through to which she reassesses her past experiences and her shifting perception of herself.

“I ached for lasting connection, for a place where rejection was not inevitable. No matter how many times I stood on bare floors, surrounded by blank walls, telling myself I belonged everywhere and to everywhere, emptied houses never stopped feeling like ruin.”

Rather than providing a straightforward linear retelling of her life, Owusu’s narrative jumps from memory to memory, in a way that felt natural and far from confusing. She dwells on different periods of her childhood and her teen years, in particular, on her relationship to her father (who she idolized), her mother who after marrying for all intent and purposes disappeared from Owusu and her younger sister’s lives, and her rocky relationship with her father’s ‘new’ wife. Owusu is both observant and incisive when it comes to examining herself, her family, and the countries she lived in. As the daughter of a Ghanian father and an Armenian mother raised across numerous and vastly different countries she is time and again forced to question who she is, how others perceive, how she fits within a certain society. Those instances recounting her time in Rome were particularly hard to read as I was born and grew up there and could easily imagine the kind of way in which Italians would have exoticized her Blackness (my best friend growing up although white had dark skin and was often taunted and called ‘dirty’ because of it). I also found her relationship with her father, who died of cancer, to be incredibly moving. I truly respect how self-critical Owusu is when revisiting her childhood as she does not paint herself as the hero nor the villain of her own story. She has hurt and been hurt, she grieved and loved, she longed for a mother figure yet she also pushed her stepmother away. Owusu is also cognisant of her own privilege, for example, when she observes the poverty and violence present in Ethiopia. While the people she writes of are rendered in vivid detail, some of what she recounts is obscured, by pain or distance, so that each moment she writes appears in a unique light.
Because her father worked for UN Owusu grew up in many different countries. When revisiting her memories of her many ‘homes’ she not only writes about her personal/family history but often delves into a country’s own history. For example, when remembering her time in Ghana, she dedicates many passages to exploring Ghana, its people, its rich history, and its myths. It was truly illuminating. I also found her discussions on language and code-switching to be deeply captivating. Owusu’s nuanced approached to race, racism, and Blackness makes for some thought-provoking reading material.

Towards the end Owusu’s earthquake metaphor does seem a bit strained, one could even say affected, but I could see why she is so obsessed by it. It allows her to understand the topography of her own mind and body, and the marks left by the trauma, grief, and abandonment she experienced growing up.

Aftersohocks is a striking memoir that moved me tears. Owusu’s prose, by turns graceful and direct, combined with her distinctive storytelling (her non-linear structure, her shifts in pacing and style, her earthquake metaphor, her ability to depict time, place, and person) make Aftersohocks into a powerful and not soon to be forgotten memoir.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

“Fear of death is a powerful weapon.”

Remote Control is Afrofuturism at its best. Nnedi Okorafor seamlessly blends folklore elements and aesthetics with sci-fi ones, delivering a unique and intriguing piece of speculative fiction. Set in Ghana, Remote Control opens in medias res: the appearance of Sankofa, a fourteen-year girl, and her companion, a fox, sends the residents of a town into hiding. They shout her name and the following: “Beware of remote control, o! The most powerful of all witchcraft!”. Sankofa chooses a house in which she is treated like a honoured, and feared, guests. The following chapters tell Sankofa’s story and of her strange, and occasionally dangerous, powers. After a terrible tragedy forces her to leave her hometown Sankofa embarks on a journey in pursuit of the peculiar object responsible for her powers. As she is unable to use cars (since her ‘change’ she become a technology ‘repellant’) Sankofa walks, encountering both friendly and hostile people, seeking shelter in nature, finding comfort in the presence of her fury companion. Throughout the years she spends on the road we see the way people view her and her powers. Some see her as a ‘witch’ and seek to harm, while others seek her help. Time and again we see the damage caused by fear and hatred of the other or that which we do not understand. There were many harrowing scenes but thankfully there were also plenty of moments emphasising empathy, connection, and love.
As much as I appreciated the setting and the mélange of sci-fi and fable, what I loved the most about Remote Control was Sankofa herself. I don’t think I have ever warmed up so quickly to a character. Perhaps it is because she is a child but to be honest I tend not to like children (real and fictional alike) but Sankofa immediately won me over. There was something so endearing and wholesome about her that my heart ached for her. I found her level-headedness to be both sweet and amusing (“Being led out of town by an angry mob wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, best to stay calm and let it be done”).
My anxiety over her wellbeing did give the novella a suspenseful edge, so that I finished it as quickly as possible. The only aspect that didn’t quite ‘work’ for me was the ending (which could have been less ambiguous). Nevertheless, I would love to read more novellas set in this world!
I would definitely Remote Control recommend to fans of speculative fiction: the writing is evocative and inventive, the main character is wonderful, and Okorafor raises interesting questions about power and fear.

my rating: ★★★½

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Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“Your eyes meet in the silence. The gaze requires no words at all. It is an honest meeting.”

Open Water is an exceedingly lyrical debut. The story, narrated through a second-person perspective (ie ‘you’) is centred on the relationship between two Black British artists (he is a photographer, she is a dancer). Although their relationship is portrayed through a linear timeline, the narrative lingers only on some key scenes/periods between this will-they-won’t-they couple. From their first meeting the photographer (‘you’) is struck by the dancer who at time is going out with a friend of his. The two become friends but their closeness is complicated by their more than platonic feeling for each other.
Caleb Azumah Nelson renders with poignancy their bond. I loved the way he articulates his main character’s vulnerabilities and the role that language itself plays in his narrative. To articulate one’s feelings, desires, and fears is no easy feat. Language, as the author reminds us time and again, fails us. There is an emphasis on this, that is on the difficulty of articulating your thoughts or truths. ‘You’ seems in a perpetual struggle with himself. He’s in love with the dancer but there are things that keep him from expressing himself to her. The narrative also touches upon on the idea of being ‘seen but not seen’. The photographer, a young Black man in London, has experienced time and again the scrutiny of the white gaze. It is because he is viewed as a danger and a threat that he remains in fact unseen. So, when the dancer sees him, as in truly sees him, he feels understood like never before. But it is this bond that complicates their love story.

At times the story resembled a series of snapshots or impressions: these had a moody often cinematic-feel to them that resulted in some great atmosphere (I can definitely see this being adapted to the screen). Nelson’s prose brims with lyricism. With staccato-like sentences he captures those ephemeral feelings which are often so hard to express or pin down. His poetic writing style lends beautifully to the themes he goes on to explore (young love, masculinity and vulnerability, race, creativity).
What didn’t quite work for me was the 2nd pov. I’m just not the biggest fan of this perspective. I also had a hard time familiarising myself with our main characters. Their personalities felt almost lost in the midst of the author’s lyrical language.
Open Water nonetheless struck me as a confident and deeply felt debut.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

“All men are the same, they only know how to love themselves and to sit on women.”

His Only Wife is an engrossing story that hooked me from the very first line: “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.”. The novel tells the story of Afi, a young woman who works as a seamstress in a small town in Ghana. When Faustina Ganyo, her benefactor who also happens to be her widowed mother’s boss, arranges her marriage to her own son, Afi views it as a great honour and a lifetime opportunity. She feels indebted to Aunty and wants to please her own mother. Before the marriage Afi is informed of Elikem’s particular situation: he has a daughter with his a woman from Liberia, whom is hated by the Ganyos. Afi is meant to replace her, to bring Elikem back into the fold of the Ganyo family.
Once in Accra, Afi finds herself growing restless. In spite of her beautiful new apartment and her newly acquired wealth, she questions the validity of her marriage: after all, she only saw her Elikem years previously and has yet to meet him as her husband. Her Aunty, her brother-in-law, and her mother try to placate her anxiety, telling her tall-tales about the ‘Liberian woman’ has brainwashed him and of how Elikem’s daughter poor health. When Afi finally gets to meet her husband she finds herself falling head-over-heels for him. He’s attractive and influential, and Afi is willing to conform to the role of ideal wife for him.
As time passes, and Afi begins studying fashion and bonding with her brother-in-law’s lover, she begins to chafe against the constraints imposed by the Ganyos, who time and again tell her not too demand too much from her husband, and remind her, subtly and not, of the advantages brought by her marrying ‘upward’. When Afi grows increasingly jealous of the ‘Liberian woman’, she begins to disregards the Ganyos’ and her husband’s, desires and demands.

Quotidian spaces and seemingly ordinary conversations lead to fraught disagreements and disconcerting realisations. Afi’s flashy new abode is the setting of many tense scenes, with her husband, the Ganyos’, her mother. The drama ’caused’ by the ‘Liberian woman’ creates a lot of conflict between Afi and her husband (and the Ganyos in general). As Afi grows tired of her circumstances, of being told to be grateful and to sit tight, she begin to crave autonomy and power in her own marriage.

While the tension between Afi and the rest of the characters made for some pretty absorbing scenes, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by Afi. While it made sense for her to be naive, she just seemed to get used to her new life pretty fast (she treats staff poorly). Her devotion, verging on obsession, over Elikem didn’t really convince me. One meeting and she’s seemingly in love? Yet, for the majority of the novel he dons’t treat her nicely, showing ‘kindness’ only once or twice towards the end of the narrative. That she believes all the gossip about his ‘other’ woman also struck me as unrealistic. She’s aware of how the Ganyos treat and speak of the people who ‘wronged’ them, surely she would consider the possibility of those stories being less than truthful? Then it seemed that all of a sudden the idea of this ‘other’ woman was unbearable to her, when she knew from the very start that he was already in a relationship with someone else (making Afi the ‘other’ woman).
Her character development is kind of rushed. At the end she finally seems to get her act together, but by then I was no longer enjoying her narrative.
Part of me wishes that the Liberian woman had also been given a pov, making the novel feel less biased. I also wish that we could have seen more of Afi without the Ganyos (for example scenes while she’s studying fashion would have been nice, or even her socialising with more people outside of her apartment).
Still, Medie does touch upon relevant issues, such the impact and pressure exerted by family and social expectations, and emphasising the double standards in marriage throughout the course of her narrative. Medie also depicts the sexist attitudes of those in Afi and the Ganyos’ circle (a friend of husband says this: “man wasn’t made to be with one woman. You’re a lion, you should have an entire pride!” and I saw red).
Love, jealousy, betrayal, and angst add some spice to the story, making for some mostly entertaining reading material.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“That was the thing that was at the heart of my reluctance and my resentment. Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some people don’t.”

In an eloquent and precise prose Yaa Gyasi interrogates a young woman’s relationship to her family, her faith, her past, and her self. Her brother’s addiction and her mother’s depression have irrevocably shaped Gifty, the protagonist and narrator of Transcendent Kingdom, who is now a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. Her quiet and controlled existence is disrupted by the arrival of her mother, who has once again succumbed to a depressive state, barely responding to the world around her, let alone taking notice of her daughter. Gifty, who spends most of her time in her lab, where she’s researching the neural circuits of reward seeking behaviour (by experimenting on mice) finds herself looking back to her childhood, her college years and her first years at Stanford.
Throughout the course of the novel Gyasi weaves together Gifty’s past and present, delineating her self-divide and her fragile relationship to her mother.
Gifty’s recollection of her childhood is free of sentimentality, and she’s very much matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting her brother’s addiction to OxyContin, the racism she and her family are exposed to in America, the lack of support they receive (“They just watched us with some curiosity. We were three black people in distress. Nothing to see.”), especially from the members of their church.
We also learn of her parents’ immigration from Ghana to Alabama, her father’s disconnect from his new home, her mother’s desire to fit in and adapt, the rift caused by their opposing stances (wanting to return to Ghana/wanting to remain in America). After her father’s return to Ghana, Gifty’s mother spends most of her time working in order to keep the family afloat, so it is Nana who becomes the central figure in her life. In spite of their age gap and their sibling spats, the two are very close, and Gifty looks up to her brother. An injury occurred while playing basketball lands Nana in hospital where a doctor prescribes him OxyContin for the pain. In the following years Gifty witnesses her brother’s spiralling further into addiction, while her mother desperately tries to ‘save’ him.
While these experiences have affected Gifty’s relationship to her faith, and she’s somewhat embarrassed when reading her old diary entries, in which she pleads for divine intervention, as an adult Gifty finds herself craving that ardor.
In college she struggles between wanting to be alone and wanting to connect with others. Her background causes some of her science peers to make scoffing remarks or prejudiced presumptions, and the few people who try to get close to her are inevitably pushed away.

Throughout the course of the narrative Gyasi shows how time and again Gifty is made to feel as if she cannot possibly find comfort in both science and religion. Yet, for Gifty, the two are not in opposition: “[T]his tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
Given that her childhood was disrupted by her father’s departure, her brother’s addiction, and her mother’s depression, isn’t it natural for Gifty to wonder ‘why?’. Why did her brother become an addict? Why is her mother depressed? Her search for answers, for a reason, for the ability to discern cause and effect, fuels her studies and in many ways her faith. Once she finds herself once again with her mother however her resolve not to talk or reveal her past is tested.
This novel tells an emotionally devastating tale about love, forgiveness, guilt, pain, and identity. Reading this novel made my heart ache. Addiction and depression have left their mark on my family, and Gifty’s experiences hit too close to home. And yet, however upsetting it was to read about the insidiousness of addiction and depression, Gyasi incisive observations and wisdoms assuage my uneasiness.
Gyasi exerts perfect control of her prose as she navigates Gifty’s childhood and adulthood. Her restrained style perfectly reflects Gifty’s self-restraint. She offers piercing meditations on family, philosophy, science, and faith, and Gifty’s quiet meditations on these subjects are articulated in a meticulous yet striking way.
I’m not sure what else I can add other than I was (am) in awe of this book. It made me feel seen and understood.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”

“I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear. I suspected that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you did something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly as it was expected to be.”


“It would have been kinder to lie, but I wasn’t kind anymore. Maybe I never had been. I vaguely remember a childhood kindness, but maybe I was conflating innocence and kindness. I felt so little continuity between who I was as a young child and who I was now that it seemed pointless to even consider showing my mother something like mercy. Would have I been merciful when I was a child?”

“The two of us back then, mother and daughter, we were ourselves an experiment. The question was, and has remained: Are we going to be okay?”

“My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

“I remember what it was like to be that age, so aware of yourself and of the theater of your private little shames.”

“It was boring, but I preferred this familiar boredom to the kind I found at home. There, boredom was paired with the hope of its relief, and so it took on a more menacing tint.”

““What’s the point of all of this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing”?”

“Thought I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life”

“I didn’t grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing.”

“I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

“I like you best when you’re feeling holy. You make me feel holy too.”

Bad Love by Maame Blue — book review

Bad Love is a compelling debut novel that is part modern love story, part coming of age. The novel’s narrator and protagonist recounts her first relationship, one that blurred the line between ‘good’ love and ‘bad’ love.
Ekuah, a British-Ghanaian university student in London, meets Dee on a night out with her friends. From this very first encounter, Ekuah feels a pull towards him. Dee is attractive, ambitious, and possesses an air of mystery. While Ekuah is inexperienced in love, she is not wholly naïve. Dee’s casual attitude towards their relationship soon begins to test their bond. They exchange bitter words, give each other the silent treatment, they make up, only to fight and make up again. Dee clearly prioritises his music and career over Ekuah, yet he also seem happy to have Ekuah to himself. After eighteen months together, Dee ghosts Ekuah: he doesn’t reply to her texts or calls, nor does he show himself when Ekuah looks for him at his place.
Ekuah is devastated. After graduating Ekuah meets Jay. The two find themselves growing closer thanks to their community-oriented work, and together they organise poetry events. Ekuah, smarting from Dee’s ‘disappearance’, is the uncertain one in this relationship. Her feelings are further complicated by Dee’s ‘reappearance’ into her life and by her parents’ crumbling relationship.
While Blue brilliantly renders all of the places Ekuah visits (such as Venice and Accra), when writing about London, the setting truly comes alive. Ekuah’s voice will undoubtedly hold her readers’ attention. I deeply emphasised with her, even if she wasn’t necessarily always ‘good’ or ‘kind’, especially where her mother was concerned. Yet, Ekuah’s vulnerabilities are rendered with clarity, and I felt on her behalf. Through Ekuah’s story, Blue presents her readers with a realistic portrait of love, one that definitely doesn’t view love through rose-tinted glasses.
While not much happens in terms of plot, Ekuah’s evolving relationships—with Dee, Jay, her parents—had me captivated. Blue’s scintillating prose, her realistic examination of the many faces of love, her nuanced and realistic characters, make for a truly heart-rendering read.
The ending is perhaps the only aspect of Bad Love that I found slightly unsatisfied. And a teensy part of me wishes that the Mafia had been left out of Ekuah’s lightening trip to Italy.
Still, I thoroughly recommend this read, especially to those who prefer realistic love stories.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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