Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

“But life, like Scrabble, is like that—you get the rack you get, and you just have to figure out how to make do.”

Queen of the Tiles is an entertaining mystery romp that belongs to that subgenre of YA books that combines a whodunnit type of storyline with the kind of teen dynamics at play in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Similarly to a lot of these books, Queen of the Tiles takes place in a ‘confined’ setting, but rather than going for the usual prep school/high school type of backdrop, Hanna Alkaf freshens things up by having her story take place during the World Warrior Weekend, an annual Scrabble competition. This tournament takes place in a hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a setting that, you must admit, we don’t get to see often in YA. Additionally, our lead is Muslim, and we also get a very casual non-binary rep with Shuba. The story definitely has some strong The Queen’s Gambit vibes and the author depicts the various Scrabble games in a really fun and dynamic way (so that they are anything but boring) and we can see just how devoted and ambitious some of the competitors are.
Najwa Bakri, our narrator, is taking part in this tournament, the first one she’s done since the very sudden death of her best friend.

“Every player knows that words can be twisted to suit your purpose, if the board allows it, and Trina knows this better than most. She is fantastic; she ignites fantasies. She is spectacular; she attracts spectacle.”

Trina Low died during the previous year’s World Warrior Weekend. Since her death, Najwa has distanced herself from the Scrabble world, but she finds herself going back to claim Trina’s former title, that of the Queen of the Tiles. She knows that people who didn’t like Trina, and who were in turn not liked by her, are also vying for that title, and Najwa isn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of winning. Competing again however proves harder than it used to be now that Najwa is struggling with anxiety and trauma caused by Trina’s premature death. The author is really thoughtful in the way she articulates Najwa’s grieving process, capturing just how suddenly grief can engulf you, regardless of how much time has passed since the person you cared for died. Alkaf also shows how grief manifests differently in different people.

Things get harder when new posts appear on Trina’s long inactive insta. Cryptic posts hinting that her death may have been very much not an accident. Joining a long tradition of kid-turned-detectives such as Nancy Drew and the Scooby-Doo gang (both of which get mentioned in the story), Najwa begins solving the posts’ ominous word puzzles and starts questioning the other competitors, most of whom were foes of Trina. There is the pompous boy she was competing against when she died, who seemed less concerned by her dropping dead than verifying whether her death meant he’d automatically won that final round. There is Trina’s ‘other’ best-friend, an ostensibly nice and obsequious girl whose subservience to Trina definitely gives off sycophantic vibes. There is that girl who was caught in a cheating scandal, and Trina may have been responsible for stoking those cheating rumours. And, of course, Trina’s off-and-on again boyfriend Mark, a possessive type who may have grown tired of Trina’s and what he perceived to be as her ‘blasé’ attitude. While Najwa has always been aware of Trina’s thorny character, and her need to prove herself and to one-up others, during the course of her ‘amateur’ investigation she will be forced to really confront the kind of person Trina was.

“That’s just how she was; she saw something she wanted and she went for it with a laser-sharp intensity that could border on the obsessive. All or nothing, perfection or perish.”

I liked the drama, the secrecy, the rumours and gossip. The Scrabble element was really well delivered and it worked really well for the mystery clues. My only quibbles are 1) throughout the story Najwa links words that are being used or were used in a game to her past or present situation. Sometimes this was effective, but the more this device was used, the less impactful it became, and at times I found the connection between word and situation to be a bit far-fetched 2) Najwa’s ‘tells’ got pretty annoying.
The characters weren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, some were verged on being rather silly but this subgenre isn’t exactly known for having uber nuanced characters so it didn’t really negatively impact my reading experience. I would have however liked for Trina to have been portrayed in a slightly different light, as she ultimately seems a bit of a mean queen-bee cliché. I liked the lack of romance and Najwa made for a rather endearing protagonist. Their resolution to the mystery was a bit of a letdown, as I found the identity of the person behind those posts far too obvious. It would have been more satisfying to make someone else the culprit. There was also a metaphor about Mark being “a conquistador, trying to impose his will on Trina, colonize her spirit and reap her charms for himself, bend her to his definition of what a girlfriend ought to be” which struck me as a rather unhappy comparison to make.
In general, I did like the references we get, especially when they added a dose of humor and levity to the story’s ongoings (“Honestly. Murder. What do you think this is, an episode of Riverdale?”).
Still, I found this engrossing and fun read. If you are looking for a light-hearted whodunnit that focuses on a group of ambitious and possibly backstabby professional scrabblers, look no further.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


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If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

…a big fat nope from me.

DISCLAIMER: Like with any other negative review that I write I feel the need to remind ppl that my opinions/thoughts/impressions of a book are entirely subjective (mind-blowing i know) and that if you are interested/curious about said book you should definitely check out more positive reviews.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English implements many trendy literary devices. The two central characters remain unnamed and are referred to as the ‘boy/man from Shobrakheit’ and the ‘American girl’, there is a lack of quotations marks (although, although most dialogues appear in italics), and the narrative is structured in a supposedly experimental way so that when the pov switches between ‘him’ and ‘her’ we get a question that is somewhat related to the content of their chapter. As you can tell from my tone I was not a fan of these devices. They can work but here the sheer combination of all of them struck me as deeply affected and not even that innovative. The story, in broad strokes, could be summarized as: an alienated millennial Egyptian American woman goes to Cairo in an attempt at reinvention. Her shaved head and ‘western ways’ however make her feel like an outsider. She questions the way she is perceived in America, and how being in Cairo challenges her long-held identity and beliefs. We are never given too many specifics about her stay but the author does give us an impression of the ‘mood’ permeating her days in Cairo. Her navel-gazing does provide the occasional pearl of wisdom, but more often than not we are given the usual platitudes about belonging and its opposites. While the author does succeed in articulating her struggles with her dual heritage and her efforts and frustration to ‘master’ Arabic, I found her speculations to be, more often than not, all-flash and not substance. There are attempts at being edgy which come across as somewhat cringey and fairly prosaic.
‘His’ chapters are far worse. The man is a talking, breathing, living red flag. His traumatic experiences and drug addiction do not make him a nuanced character. While I appreciated that ‘she’ understands that his upbringing informs his misogynistic beliefs, which leads him to objectify women and much worse, I could not understand why she remains with him. She tells us that the man in question is a multifaceted individual, but we never see these ‘facets’ on the page. His sections, if anything, only show us his ‘vices’. His exaggeratedly perverted point of view also struck me as not entirely believable. He often refers to ‘her’ lips as genital-like or sees her lips and wonders what color her labia will be. The man is incredibly possessive, sexist, offensive, you name it…this results in a rather one-note cartoonish character. Their chemistry wasn’t there and their arguments left me feeling quite unmoved. The ending of their ‘troubled’ relationship feels rather anticlimactic. Maybe if the author had spent less time pursuing metaphysical questions and dedicated more time to fleshing out the voices of her two central characters I would have ‘felt’ more but since we get a recap of a relationship more than the actual relationship itself, I just could not bring myself to care. The occasional vulgar language was not thought-provoking or subversive and the author’s experimental structure and style were fairly banal. It’s a pity as I found the subject matter interesting (languages, identity, dual-heritage, cultural dissonance, etc..). I did not care for the way the author discusses queerness. She allows (as far as i remember of course) a page to the matter. The girl says she’s queer, but the context in which she says this is weird as she seems to equate her shaved head and desire to move in queer spaces as being queer. I would have liked for the author to spend more page time on this subject. That then we have the ‘lesbian’ character in love with ‘her’ frustrated me somewhat as she only seems to be mentioned to emphasize ‘her’ desirability and to fuel ‘his’ jealousy. That ‘she’ only shows interest/pursues a relationship with toxic men was a bit tiring. Maybe if the author had spent more time articulating the motivations/feelings that lead ‘her’ to self-sabotage, like Zaina Arafat does in You Exist Too Much, maybe then I would have those relationships more realistic.
There is also a mini-rant against cancel culture and its brevity does it a disservice as the author delivers a rather surface-level and rushed commentary on the dangers of this ‘practice’.

SPOILERS
Here comes the cherry on the poorly baked cake. When the climax happens, we are taken out of the novel and into a writing workshop of some sort. The people there are discussing the novel, while the author remains silent. We learn that the novel is based on her experiences and the people who have also just finished it give their various opinions. Many of them are celebrating her achievement and giving her some truly fantastic feedback. The few dissident voices point out all of the book’s flaws (the experimental style, the ending, the use of dual perspectives to tell what should have been just ‘her’ story) but it just so happens that said ppl are shitty so their critique is made moot. This supposedly self-aware wannabe meta chapter pissed me off. It seemed a preemptive attempt at rebutting any criticism, and in this way, it reminded me of a certain passage from Mona Awad’s Bunny, where we have awful people give some valid criticism to the narrator’s book which happens to be stylistically and thematically similar to Bunny. I am all for autofiction, and some of my favourite books are inspired by the author’s own experiences (the idiot, you exist too much, caucasia) but here I question the author’s choice to add the pov of the man she was in an abusive relationship with. The people in the workshop argue that this is an empowering move and that she has the right to tell her own story etc etc, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with that, I found the way she chooses to portray him and his inner monologue during ‘his’ chapters to be at best lazy, at worst, of poor taste. The florid metaphors that dominate his pov ultimately amount to a caricature of a man (“her water breasts slipping to the sides of her rib cage like raw eggs”). I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this to the jaw-dropping finale episode of I May Destroy You or the section in Wayétu Moore’s memoir where she convincingly captures her mother’s perspective.
I dunno, I felt this last section was smugly self-congratulatory and for no reason tbh. Nothing really stood about this ‘novel’: the structure was uninspired, the prose was mannered, and the characters were flimsy at best. The issues and themes had potential, and as I said, the author does on occasion proffer some keenly observed passages on American and Egyptian social mores, on cultural and linguistic barriers, on occupying a female body in contemporary Cairo, on being ‘othered’, on the ‘desirability’ of whiteness (for example she notes how in america her mother has recently ‘reinvented’ herself as white), on the privileges that come with being America (by emphasizing the opportunities that are available to ‘her’ and not ‘him’), and on the dangers of self-victimization (with ‘him’ trying to gaslight ‘her’ for his emotionally abusive behaviour by painting himself as a victim).

I’m sure other readers will be able to appreciate this more than I was. Sadly, I was not a fan of the overall tone of the novel nor did I like how the author portrays her story’s only lesbian character. Lastly, that meta chapter pissed me off. I didn’t think it was half as clever as it wanted to be, and it had the same energy as those successful authors who bemoan their book’s few negative reviews on Twitter.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Cloud-Atlas-esque novels seem to be all the rage in 2022…

“This place is precarious, that’s the only word for it. It’s the lightest sketch of civilizations, caught between the forest and the sea. He doesn’t belong here”

This is my third novel by Mandel and once again I have rather conflicting thoughts and feelings about her work. On the one hand, I recognize how talented a writer she is. Her prose has this cool yet delicate quality to it that brought to mind authors such as Hanya Yanagihara and Ann Patchett . I always found myself appreciating her subtle storytelling and her ability to make her characters retain a certain unknowability. I also find her use of imagery to be highly effective in that these motifs add a certain nostalgic atmosphere to her settings. So much so that I often read of her characters and or the landscapes which she writes of with a strong sense of Deja Vu. Maybe because Mandel often returns to the same issues or even goes so far as to refer to the same characters in seemingly unconnected/stand-alone books (a la mandel-multiverse). Here this sense of familiarity with her characters and their struggles is very fitting indeed given the story’s ‘crucial’ theme.

“[T]hese moments that had arisen one after another after another, worlds fading out so gradually that their loss was apparent only in retrospect.”

The book opens in 1912. Edwin St. Andrew is but a young English lad who after angering his father for the last time has been banished to the ‘new world’. His attempts at making a go of things in Canada don’t quite go as smoothly as he’d hoped. There are some stunning descriptions of the landscapes here and there was something about Edwin that appealed to me. There was almost an otherworldly feel to this section, partly due to the remoteness and vastness of Edwin’s new ‘home’ (i am not at all familiar with that type of environment hence my finding it surreal). This section comes to a close with Edwin witnessing something quite Other.
We then are reunited with a side character from The Glass Hotel. It’s corona-time and Mirella (Vincent’s ‘friend’) has yet to fully recover from the death of her partner and the whole Ponzi fallout. She has a girlfriend but we learn virtually nothing about her or their relationship as this section is more of an ode to Vincent. FYI, I hated Vincent in The Glass Hotel. She was the reason why I didn’t really love that book, and, understandably then, I was not particularly enthusiastic when I realized that she would play a role here as well. Even if she is not on the ‘page’, her presence saturates much of Mirella’s narrative, to the point where it struck me as a bit unfair to Mirella herself. She’s an interesting character in her own right and yet we don’t really get to focus on her. Paul, Vincent’s brother, makes an appearance but his character here didn’t strike me as particularly nuanced. It turns out that Vincent too is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and once again the narrative makes much of her ‘art’ (coughbanal-as-it-is). That the narrative includes Mirella unfavourably comparing her gf to Vincent was kind of a joke. It really cemented why I did not like Vincent, to begin with. I am sick of Not Like Other People type of characters.
The following section is set in the 2200s. Here we learn that some people now live on colonies on the moon, one of them is this famous author named Olive Llewellyn. She’s now on a book tour on Earth where she discusses her hit book which is, surprise surprise, about a pandemic. During her tour however Olive becomes preoccupied with the news about an actual pandemic…Olive struck me as a self-insert. There were so many lines that just came across as if they were coming from Mandel herself. Particularly the questions about what it feels like to have written a pandemic novel when there is an actual pandemic etc…I find this sort of stuff cringe and there was something slightly self-congratulatory and ‘special about Olive that just made it really hard for me to even believe in her (she was a bit of Vincent 2.0). Additionally, this section is set in the 2200s and I did not buy into it. Moon colonies aside the future envisioned here was not particularly thought out. Many inconsistencies have to do with the tech available (people still have devices?) and the way the characters spoke was just too contemporary, almost old-fashioned even (i could all too easily imagine someone saying ‘old chap’). This worked for the sections before but here it was just prevented me from fully immersing myself in the events being narrated. The discussions about pandemics, epidemics, and writing about these things, were rather contrived, which again, pulled me out of the story. It turns out that Olive also is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and Vincent.

The final section is set in the 2400s and once again the world described here did not feel particularly ‘futuristic’. While the author does include one or two details that remind us that the people from this century write and speak differently to say now, these were not enough to establish a believable setting. Anyhow, here we follow Gaspery-Jacques Roberts who is a fairly bland character. The most interesting about him is of course his name. His sister is yet another Not Like Other People type of character (there is something about Mandel’s female characters that really annoys me…). She works for this ‘mysterious’ institution and eventually, Gaspery finds himself joining her ranks. He is assigned a mission: to find out more about the anomaly connecting Edwin, Vincent, and Olive. I was hoping that we would return to the previous perspectives, such as Edwin and Mirella, but the narrative from this point onward favours Gaspery. There was a very funny lil scene about his cat, but for the most part, his story struck me as vaguely predictable. The man was bland and the moral dilemma he faces was handled in a rather simplistic and hurried way.

It would have been nice for the timelines set in the 2200s and the 2400s to be less heteronormative and gender-normative. We get a queer character and a sapphic side character but that’s kind of it (if memory serves). There were some interesting themes at play in the book such as human connection and loneliness, empathy and choice. I appreciated the motifs that were interspersed throughout these interconnected narratives, as they consolidated the connection between these seemingly unconnected people. The conversations around pandemics were rather been-there-done-that kind of thing. I actually believe that they would have suited to an article more than this type of piece of fiction. I did find the execution to be ultimately disappointing. While the truth behind this anomaly wasn’t ‘shocking’ I did like the way it was played out. I do wish however that we could have spent more time with the characters we were introduced to early on in the book (rather than sticking to mr. boring and the cringy self-insert).
As you can probably tell by my somewhat incoherent review I feel rather conflicted about this book. Mandel’s prose is chief’s kiss. Her characters and her story however were a bit of a flop. I would have liked for the ‘anomaly’ to retain a certain mystery rather than it being explained away. I think I preferred the subtle magical realism of The Glass Hotel than the more sci-fi elements that were at play here, which were 1) not really convincing and 2) a bit sci-fi 101.

I would definitely recommend it to Mandel fans (my mother among them). If you are, like me, not entirely ‘sold’ on her work well, it seems unlikely that this will be the one to win you over (then again, i might be wrong here).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Mad about You by Mhairi McFarlane

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

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

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

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

Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf by Malika Moustadraf

Blood Fest collects all of Malika Moustadraf’s short fiction. Set in contemporary-ish Morocco these stories explore fraught gender and family dynamics, highlighting the insidious nature of misogyny. Within these short stories, women are forced to marry men they don’t love, they are abused or mistreated by male relatives and struggle to retain freedom and independence in a patriarchal society. Many of these stories share a rather bleak outlook as they paint a depressingly realistic picture of domestic abuse and sexism. The men populating these stories are angry, confused, and guilty. They lash out against each other and the women around them. The results are not pretty and there are many upsetting scenes. We also read of how women themselves became perpetrators of misogyny, as mothers go on to police their daughters’ bodies, shaming them for the way they behave in a way they don’t/wouldn’t with their sons. There are also some lgbtq+ themes but these are only touched slightly and the author mostly interrogates heteronormative relationships. While I appreciated the issues Moustadraf explores within these narratives I found the stories unsatisfying. They have very choppy endings and are too short, lasting a few pages or so. The characters become devices through which the author can address and or exemplify a certain issue, and they often failed to convince me as ‘real’ people. There isn’t time dedicated to developing them and the stories consequently suffer from this lack. Also, I would like more variety in tone, subject, and style as many of these stories ended up blurring into each other. Still, I would not dissuade others from reading it and although it didn’t really work for me I found certain aspects of these stories to be thoughtprovoking. Additionally, despite its heavy topics this collection makes for a very quick read.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Where the Drowned Girls Go is a relatively compelling if inoffensive addition to the Wayward Children series. Once again Seanan McGuire sticks to the same formula: we have a focus on aesthetics, a fairy-talesque atmosphere, and a story revolving around a girl who is either lonely or made to feel different or insecure about something. Like its predecessors, Where the Drowned Girls Go critiques individuals and institutions that seek to impose conformity on those they deem ‘different’. Here the good/bad binary feels particularly lacking in nuance, and I miss the ambivalence that permeated the first few instalments. Still, McGuire’s prose has is always a delight to read. While here she goes a bit heavy-handed on metaphors involving smiles (we have, to name a few, wan smiles, bland smiles, terrible smiles, terrifying smiles…the list goes on), her hypnotic style is rich with tantalising descriptions and lush imagery. I also appreciate her darker take on fairy tales and magical worlds. As we can see, those who go through magical doors do not always make it ‘home’ unscathed. They carry physical and psychological scars from their time there and struggle to integrate themselves back into ‘reality’.

In Where the Drowned Girls Go we are reunited with Cora who we previously followed on a rescue mission to Confection in Beneath the Sugar Sky. She’s haunted by the Trenches, the world she fell into, and fears that she will once more be transported to that world. She believes that at Eleanor’s school she won’t be able to resist the Trenches so she decides to enrol at the Whitethorn Institute. But, she soon discovers, Whitethorn is not kind to ‘wayward children’ like her. The school instils fear in its students, punishing those who mention their experiences in other worlds and rewarding those who come to view magical doors as the product of a delusion. Cora is bullied by some of her roommates who make fun of her appearance and such. Eventually, Sumi comes to her rescue and Cora has to decide whether she does want to leave Whitethorn. There are a few moral lessons about friendship, not being mean, or not letting others dictate who you are.

While there were fantastical elements woven into the story and setting this volume lacked that magic spark that made the first few books into such spellbinding reads. I also found Cora to be a meh protagonist. Her defining characteristic seemed to be her body, which wasn’t great. Sumi was a welcome addition to the cast of characters as I found the girls at Whitethorn to be rather samey (which perhaps was intentional). I don’t entirely get why Cora got another book. She was the main character in Beneath the Sugar Sky. Her insecurities etc. were already explored in that book…and this feels like an unnecessary continuation to her arc. Still, I love the aesthetics of this series and the wicked/virtue & nonsense/logical world compass.
Hopefully, the next volume will be about Kade…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼