Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

blogthestorygraphletterboxdtumblrko-fi

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami

Drawing from her own experiences as a Moroccan immigrant living in the States, in Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America Laila Lalami presents us with an impassioned and thoughtful social commentary. With piercing clarity, she touches upon Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. She reflects on the many flaws and conditions of citizenship, specifically American citizenship, and on the many ways, it fails people. I truly appreciated the way she discusses topical and oh so important social issues, and the lucidity of her arguments: from discussing the way citizenship is equated with whiteness, white privilege and white fragility, racial profiling, borders, racist rhetorics and the vilification of immigrants, inhumane legislations, the notion of ‘assimilation’, belonging, etc. Throughout this collection of essays, Lalami raises many thought-provoking points and makes many illuminating observations. While Lalami does discuss other people’s experiences, often providing statistics or citing specific incidents/events, her own personal experiences inform much of her writing, which makes it all the more affecting. I admired the way she would attempt to relate to the kind of people I personally would write off as c*nts while also fully acknowledging how frustrating a position she is often made to be in (that of educating bigoted people).
While she does write about subjects that are ‘American’ specific, such as applying for citizenship in America, the issues underlying her essays should not concern exclusively an American readership. Although I did gain insight into processes I am not familiar with, throughout this collection Lalami delves into topics that will undoubtedly resonate with many readers outside of the States.

My only quibble is that some of her essays could have integrated a more intersectional approach. For instance, while Lalami does include ‘asides’ discussing gender inequality and #metoo, she barely acknowledges lgbtq+ related issues.
Curiously enough this is another case where I find myself liking the non-fictional work of an author whose fiction I low-key did not get on with…I would definitely recommend this one and I am determined to read (and hopefully like) Lalami’s The Moor’s Account.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza

“Strange: It has come to me that one doesn’t write to remember, or to forget, or to find relief, or to cure oneself of some pain. One writes to plumb one’s own depths, to understand what’s inside.”

Having found Optic Nerve to be a puzzling yet thoroughly compelling book I was very much eager to sink my teeth into Portrait of an Unknown Lady. Whereas Optic Nerve loosely ties together the unnamed narrator’s meditations on history and art, in Portrait of an Unknown Lady Gainza contains the narrator’s reflections and inquiries into these subjects into what appears to be more of a semblance of a plot. This by no means results in a plot-driven narrative, as there is no urgency to the protagonist’s introspections. Her ruminations are given a freewheeling tempo, one that reminded me of lazy summer days from my childhood. In spite of her philosophical speculations, the narrator’s internal meanderings had a buoyancy to them that saved them from coming across as verbose or laboured.
Set in Buenos Aires the narrator of Portrait of an Unknown Lady is an auction house employee who follows her mentor into the more shady recesses of the art world. When her mentor dies our narrator feels lost, lacking purpose, and direction. She eventually finds solace in rejoining the world she’d left behind, as she begins to search for the identity of a forger, best known for their Mariette Lydis forgeries. In her investigation of this unknown person, the narrator finds herself considering just what a forgery is and whether there is a thing as ‘authenticity’. The first quarter of this slim volume was certainly engrossing as I found the narrator’s recollections of her early days on her job and her relationship with her mentor interesting indeed. As the book progresses however I found myself bored at times. The narrative at times seemed to stray away from its original plot so I found myself forgetting that there was a plot in the first place. I would have probably preferred a more experimental and unconfined narrative, In Optic Nerve, for example, each chapter was very much self-contained, whereas here we have this overarching storyline that never comes to the fore. Still, I always love reading about art, and Gainza demonstrates a vast knowledge of this subject. I liked reading her impressions of certain artists or art movements and the insight she gives into the more administrative aspects of the art world. Gainza is as adroit and insightful as ever but overall Portrait of an Unknown Lady left me wanting more. The snapshot-like stories that make-up Optic Nerve stayed with me longer, as they captured in vivid detail the life of an artist and a moment from the narrator’s own life. The parallelism between her experiences and those of the people she discusses gave the narrative further dimension. Here instead we lack that very specific comparative element, and even if identity, loneliness, and authenticity are central themes, both to the protagonist and her subject, well, it resulted in a far looser comparison.
Still, I can see myself returning to this book as a re-read may result in a newfound appreciation for its story. If you are a fan of Gainza or authors such as Rachel Cusk or Jessica Au, I recommend you check out this one for yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

The Trees by Percival Everett

“Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.”


Percival Everett is an author that has been on my radar for a while now. And in many ways, The Trees does showcase the hand of a talented writer, as the book showcases plenty of quick-witted dialogues and clever descriptions, all topped by an unsparing yet humorous social commentary. It did take me a while to adjust to the tone and direction of his story as I thought that The Trees would be something in the realms of something by Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, or S.A. Cosby. I was surprised when I was confronted by an almost absurdist tone, one that brought to mind certain films by the Coen brothers, which usually abound with minor yet memorable side characters. The satirical way in which Everett depicts small towns and small-town ‘mentalities’ reminded me of certain books by Stephen King, as they both succeed in bringing to life—often more for the worse than the better—those who inhabit smaller communities in rural America. For the first few pages in fact I believed that The Trees had a historical setting, given the opinions and behaviours voiced and showcased by the family appearing in that opening sequence. It is only when more modern things are mentioned or make an appearance that I realized that the story had a contemporary setting.
Everett effectively renders how insular, bigoted, and reactionary the people of Money, Mississippi are. They are a rural community, one that is teeming with poorly educated racist white-nationalist who struggle to find employement and fulfilment. Their bubble of insularity is burst when their town becomes the setting for a series of mind-boggling murders. The white murdered men appear to share an ‘unpleasant’ (this is an understatement of course) connection and at each crime scene, there is also another body, that of a Black man who eerily resembles Emmett Till, the victim of a lynching. Another odd detail is that the white men are castrated (which of course gives way to a repetitive verging on the homophobic gag which i frankly could have done without).
Two detectives from the Bureau of Investigation and the local authorities, who are both inept and racist, attempt to get in their way. As more men die in the same peculiar circumstances the detectives find themselves looking for answers in the past. Are these murders an act of retribution? If so, by the hands of whom? The disappearing body of Emmett Till adds a dimension of surreality to the murders, so much so that I started to wonder whether Everett would go the route King did in The Outsider.
Everett favours no perspective and throughout the book, he switches between the townspeople of Money to the detectives. I, like other readers, of course, preferred those sections that focused on the detectives and their investigation. They had a good if slightly cliched dynamic but their banter was entertaining and they play off each other quite well. If anything I found myself wanting to spend more time with them and less with the often cartoonish people of Money. That is not me saying or suggesting that people such as the ones we encounter in Money do not exist. I have come across Jordan Klepper’s videos (where he interviews trump supporters) and boy oh boy…still, Everett is quite heavy-handed in his use of satire, so much so that most of the characters populating his novel are closer to caricatures than fully-dimensional individuals. There were many instances where I found the humour crass and distracting as it took away from otherwise poignant or important scenes where characters discuss lynching, racism, and police brutality. I also did not like how the author writes about fat people, it reminded me of Family Guy tbh. So not my kind of ‘humor’. I could have also done without the very cliched female characters we get in this novel, in particular, the detectives’ no-nonsense strong-willed ‘ally’. This is the type of character often penned by male authors, with good intentions I’m sure, but I just find this type of characterisation lazy.
The pacing was somewhat uneven. There were several instances where I found my attention drifting away or where I found myself growing weary of the unrelenting satire, especially in those instances where it takes on a sillier tone. There are several storylines that do eventually come together but in a not quite satisfying manner. There are some loose ends or certain parts that just did not feel that convincing or well-executed. The ending in particular didn’t really work for me. Maybe if we’d been given insight into that part of the story from the get-go I could have adjusted more to it but we don’t so I was really sold on it. Still, I can recognise that just because I thought that the content of the story was at odds with the narrative tone does not mean that you will feel the same way so if you are curious about this book I recommend you also check out some 4 or 5-star reviews. This was less of a crime/thriller than a dark occasionally OTT satire which I wasn’t quite in the mood for. Still, I’ll definitely check out more books by this author. I appreciated the issues he tackles in The Trees, in particular on addressing racist violence both in the past and in the present. Ultimately however the tone of his narration eroded much of my interest in his story so that I found myself reading less out of a desire to do so and more so out of a sense of misplaced duty (on the lines of, i am already halfway there, might as well finish this).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

“I was Tookie, always too much Tookie. For better or worse, that’s a fact.”

I feel quite conflicted over The Sentence. Although I loved the first half of this novel I found the latter to be boring and somewhat disjointed. While I’m sure many will be able to love everything about this book I wish it hadn’t quite tried to juggle so many different themes and genres.

The Sentence follows Tookie, an ex-con who now works as a bookseller at an Indigenous bookstore in Minneapolis after falling in love with books and words during her incarceration. Tookie’s winning voice is the book’s biggest strength. Her humor, remarks, and inner-monologue were a delight to read. It is rare to come across a narrator that is so genuinely funny. Her voice drew me in from the very opening pages which give us a recap of the events that led to her imprisonment. She could be down to earth, in a gritty sort of way, but she was also a compassionate and forgiving person. While her assessment of others (especially her customers) often poked fun at them (their appearance/reading habits/mannerism), she never struck me as a judgemental person. She was the kind of character that I wish existed so I could meet in real life. Not only did I find Tookie’s unruliness amusing but her love for literature certainly won me over. Throughout the course of The Sentence, Tookie talks about books, a lot of them, many of which I’ve read. Her analysis of these books, as well as their authors, certainly kept me engaged. It just so happens that in addition to the bookstore angle the narrative includes quite a few other storylines. A regular customer of the bookstore Tookie works at die. It just so happens that Fiona, the customer in question, was an annoying white woman who tried to legitimise her ‘interest’ in Native American cultures by claiming to have indigenous heritage. While Tookie did find her irksome, she’s not happy about her passing, especially when Flora’s ghost starts haunting her bookstore. While Tookie’s partner, a former tribal police officer, is somewhat sceptical about these visitations, Tookie knows that Flora ghost is haunting her.
Now, I found this premise compelling enough, and I even appreciate the narrative’s slow-pace as I found Tookie’s voice to be engaging enough. Sadly, the story takes a swerve halfway through when the covid pandemic steals much of the ‘show’. Personally, it’s too soon for me to be reading about the pandemic, given that it’s still ongoing. It just aggravated my anxiety and unease at the current situation. I also had very little interest in reading about these relatively ‘fresh’ events in such detail. The narrative then also touches upon BLM in a not quite superficial way but not the tone of the story undergoes a jarring change. The ghost aspect of the story fades into the background. The latter half of the novel lacked direction and seemed too intent on being relevant and topical than on continuing the story it had so far worked to establish. There was just too much going on and because of this secondary plotlines and characters suffered because of it. They lacked depth, nuance, and page-time. This is a pity as I was really invested in Tookie and her story. There were certain portions of the book later on that would have been more suited to an essay or a work of nonfiction. I also found the inclusion of ‘Louise’ self-insert cringey. I’m not a fan of the whole author inserting themselves in a story following their fictional character thing. I mean, why? Because Tookie works at a bookstore? Eeh…it just rubbed me the wrong way. Towards the end we also get random povs following other characters and I found them unnecessary.

Despite my somewhat conflicting feelings over this novel, I would still recommend it. Just because I found the more topical sections to detract from the whole ghost-story setup, it may very well appeal to other readers. Tookie, as I said already, is a fantastic character and certainly worth getting to ‘know’. The dialogues rang true to life, the setting was well-established, and the dynamic between Tookie and the other characters (be it her partner, his daughter, or her colleagues & customers) was entertaining. Maybe if I were to read this when this pandemic is but a distant memory (ah!) I won’t be as critical of its 2020 setting. I appreciated the author’s discussions on literature, as well as her reflections on race, grief, fear, history, and love.

my rating: ★★★½

| | goodreads | tumblr | ko-fi | |

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

“I remember looking out at all those people, most of whom I’d seen or known over months or years—several of whom I loved. Everybody was yelling or cowering or sneering, angry or afraid.”

My Monticello is a suspenseful novella that presents us with a scarily imaginable scenario (given all the alt-right & neo-nazi rallies that have happened in the last couple of years & the Capitol assault) where a group of violent white supremacists engulf Charlottesville. Our narrator, Da’Naisha Love, escapes the violence and finds a momentary refugee in Monticello, which happens to be Thomas Jefferson’s historic plantation. Alongside her are strangers, her white boyfriend, her elderly grandmother, and other people from her neighbourhood. Over the course of nineteen days, this cobbled group tries to carry on. Their fear is palpable, and more than once they find themselves faced with possible threats from the outside. Tensions run high and various members within the group inevitably find themselves disagreeing over what to do.

Da’Naisha also happens to be a descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and her ancestry makes her view Monticello through a very specific lens. Throughout the course of the novella, Da’Naisha also reflects on racism in America, slavery, white supremacy, and interracial relationship. Also, that this group has found refuge from white supremacists in a former plantation adds further complexity to their circumstances.

“But mostly I knew my lineage the way most families know theirs: I knew because Momma told me, because MaViolet told her.”

While I appreciated Da’Naisha’s piercing commentary, I did find her, and every other character, to be very paper-thin. So much so that they didn’t really strike me as characters but names on a page. The narrative is not particularly concerned or interested in fleshing them out but in addressing issues related to race and American history. Which, as I said above, I did find compelling, however, at heart, I am drawn to character-driven stories, and in this regard, this novella just wasn’t it. There is also some attempt at drama involving Da’Naisha, her bf, and the man she, unbeknownst to him, cheated on him with (who of course happens to be there as well).
Lastly, the lack of quotation marks…ugh. It just put me off reading, to be honest. This stylistic choice didn’t seem particularly necessary/fitting for this kind of novella.
While I wasn’t blown away by My Monticello, I am curious to read this author’s other stories (which were sadly not included in my arc copy) and I would probably still recommend this to other readers.

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

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: ★★★★☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

The Office of Historical Corrections is a striking collection of short stories, easily the best one to be published this year. Unlike many other collections—which tend to have a few forgettable or ‘weaker’ stories—The Office of Historical Corrections has only hits. There isn’t one story that bored me or wasn’t as good as the rest. This is truly a standout collection. If you happen to be a fan of authors such as Curtis Sittenfeld, Edwidge Danticat, and Brit Bennett you should definitely give The Office of Historical Corrections a shot.

This collection contains 6 short stories and 1 novella. Although each one of these has its own distinctive narrative, they do examine similar themes but they do so through different, and at times opposing, perspectives. With nuance and precision Evans navigates the realities of contemporary America, focusing in particular on the experiences of black people in a country that considers white to be the ‘norm’.
There are so many things to love about this collection. Evans’ prose is superb. Her writing is incisive, evocative, and perfectly renders her characters and the diverse situations they are in without ever being overly descriptive or purply. While short stories and novellas are usually plot-driven, Evans’ narratives spouse a razor-sharp commentary—on race, modern culture, class—with compelling character-studies.

The scenarios and issues Evans explores are certainly topical. In ‘Boys Go to Jupiter’ a white college student, Claire, is labelled racist after her sort-of-boyfriend posts a photo of her wearing a Confederate bikini. Rather than apologising or even acknowledging what this flag truly symbolises Claire decides to make matters worse for herself by ridiculing a black student’s outrage at her bikini and by claiming that the flag is part of her heritage. As this controversy unfolds we learn of her childhood, of how she became close with two siblings who were for a time neighbours of hers, of her mother’s illness and eventual death, and of the part she played in her friend’s death. This story is very much about denial, culpability, and grief. It also brought to mind ‘White Women LOL’ by Sittenfeld and Rebecca Makkai’s ‘Painted Ocean, Painted Ship’.
The titular novella instead follows two black women who have never been on easy terms. This is partly due to their different economic backgrounds and partly due to their different temperaments. Having lost touch after college they both end up working at the Institute for Public History where they are tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies/mistakes. Often their corrections raise awareness about America’s colonial and racist past in order to challenge white historical narratives. Given all discussions about decolonising the curriculum and about historical statues and monuments this novella definitely touches on some relevant topics. The revisions made by the Institute for Public History are often not well met and they are targeted by white ‘preservationists’. As our narrator unearths the true story behind a black shopkeeper’s death back in 1937 she unwillingly joins ‘forces’ with Genevieve, her longtime not-quite-friend. The two women have very different approaches and their search for the truth behind this man’s death soon sparks the anger of the white ‘preservationists’.
All of these stories are worth a read. My personal favourites where ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’, ‘Alcatraz’, ‘Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want’ (which had some serious Kevin Wilson vibes), and ‘Anything Could Disappear’ (this almost had me in tears).

There are so many things to love about this collection: Evans’ focus on women and the thorny relationships they can have with one another, the wry humour that underlines these stories, Evans’ ability to capture diverse and nuanced emotions. The list goes on.

Evans’ stories are thought-provoking and populated by memorable and fully fleshed out characters. Although she exerts an admirable control over her language, her writing is arresting. Evans does not waste words and she truly packs a punch in this ‘infamous’ medium (short stories are often seen in terms of their limitations) .
Throughout this collection Evans’ touches themes of injustice, forgiveness, history (a character’s personal history as well as a nation’s history), freedom and identity, grief, loss, fear, failed relationships and human connection.
This is a fantastic collection and you should definitely give it a try.

my rating: ★★★★½

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads