Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Perhaps I should have not read Goodbye, Vitamin on the heels of finishing Chemistry by Weike Wang, maybe then I would have found Khong’s novel to be more witty and original than I actually did. The scenario too brought to mind another novel I read fairly recently, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which also centres on an Asian American woman in her 30s moving in back temporally with her parents because her father is showing signs of memory loss. Still, even if Goodbye, Vitamin didn’t quite strike me in the way Chemistry or even<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1682569828
Edge Case by YZ Chin (which is yet another similar read) it was by no means an unpleasant read. The humorous tone was fairly engaging and the complex father-daughter dynamic that is at the heart of this story was certainly poignant. The questions the narrative raises and tries to answer (what we owe to each other? what does it mean to care for someone? is forgiveness always possible?) were certainly thought-provoking and I also appreciated the author’s portrayal of love, break-ups, and illnesses, as well as her depiction of the every-day realities of looking after an ageing parent.

Characterized by an offbeat and occasionally surreal tone, Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated by Ruth, a thirty-something woman reeling from her recent break-up with her longtime partner. Add to that the fact that so far she’s been leading a rather directionless career and Ruth is far from okay. Her mother, who works full time, asks Ruth to move back home so that she can keep an eye on her father, a history professor whose Alzheimer diagnosis has resulted in his ‘temporary’ dismissal from his college. Ruth and her mother try to help him in the only ways they can: they give him supplements and vitamins, design an ideal diet with foods that have plenty of health benefits. Additionally, they try to be ‘stealthy’ about their efforts to look after him as he seems unwilling to admit that he is experiencing any of the symptoms related to Alzheimer. In an effort to make him feel normal again Ruth teams up with her father’s former students and organize unauthorized lessons.
Ruth’s ‘quirky’ narration did at times feel a bit heavy-handed and it seemed a bit of a stretch that all of the various characters would share the same silly & weird sense of humor. The bittersweet nature of the relationship between Ruth and her father was perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel. Her father is not a particularly likeable person to start off with but to see his ‘change’ through his daughter’s eyes definitely made me more sympathetic towards him. Part of me would have liked for Ruth’s mother to be in the picture more as her presence is often relegated off-page.
Despite the subject matter—Alzheimer’s, breakups—Goodbye, Vitamin makes for a breezy read. I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes by Alexa Martin

Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes is an exceedingly average chick-lit novel. While I appreciated that it was very much a novel about friendship, as opposed to romance, and that the author does incorporate more serious issues within her otherwise light-hearted story, I found many scenes to be cringey (unintentionally so) and towards the end, things take a soap-opera turn.
This book follows best friends Jude and Lauren. Jude is an influencer who is all about pilates and clean eating. Jude’s mother is a narcissistic former reality-tv star who habitually guilt trips Jude into giving her money and taking part in publicity stunts she’s not keen on doing.

Lauren, who wanted to be a surgeon, works at and has a 5-year-old daughter. After splitting with the father she’s more or less had to raise her daughter on her own. When her ex starts acting like more of a parent, Lauren is initially happy for her daughter. Things change when he decides to file for custody.
Due to their finances, these two bffs decide to move in together, eventually starting a podcast on motherhood.
For the most part, the tone of this novel is cheesy/silly. Our leads have their troubles but the drama affecting their lives never struck me as heavy-going (even when it should have been). Lauren has to deal with her ex trying to get full custody of her daughter, while Jude is trying her hardest to pretend that everything is hunky-dory and that her mother isn’t toxic af.
It just so happens that I found their jargon, hobbies, and interests to be…low-key annoying. We have an overuse of the word mansplaining and feminism as well as a lot of scenes going on about the ‘mommy’ life or wine dates or exercise classes. I just felt wholly disconnected from Jude and Lauren. They were meant to be 28 but boy they could have been in their late thirties and I would have believed it. This novel is very much intended for an American millennial audience, not moi. Scenes that were meant to be cute were in fact cringe. Alexa Martin doesn’t offer any new insights into the realities of being an influencer nor do her mother-daughter relationship feel particularly complex. The ‘mommy culture’ also just…nope. I do not care for it one bit (i also hated reading about it in Such a Fun Age and Big Little Lies).

Anyway, while I did find much of the story to be somewhat grating (tone-wise), it still managed to be now and again mildly entertaining…and then we near the end and the melodrama commences. I found the author’s portrayal of alcoholism to be surface-level. And it annoyed me that because Jude likes to party and isn’t as straight-laced as Lauren she has to be ‘punished’. I swear that last plot point would have been more suited to a soap-opera. Here it just left a bad taste in my mouth. The author just throws this in and goes over it quite superficially so that things are more or less resolved within a couple of pages. There was something moralistic about this last portion of the story that didn’t sit right with me (not that things like this ever happen…but really? it just had to happen in this story?).
My overall verdict is ‘meh’. I liked the focus on friendship and that the story highlights how the American healthcare system treats Black mothers and just how insidious toxic relationships are. However, as I said above, its attempts at pandering to a millennial audience resulted in some very cringey scenes and the author treats serious issues, such as alcoholism, in a theatrical way. I guess if you are a fan of authors such as Emily Henry you might find this novel more enjoyable than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

“Who knows. I could change my mind. It is changing all the time.”

Days of Distraction should have been right up my street. Alas, it turned out not to be the ‘wry’, ‘tender’, and ‘offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale’ its blurb promised it’d be. Our quasi-unnamed narrator is a Chinese American woman in her early twenties who works at a tech publication. Her boyfriend is this generic white guy, who’s aptly enough referred to by just the one letter, J. The prose is plain & dry, the characters are as flat and thin as paper, the storyline is slow and repetitive. The narrator decides to follow J to Ithaca, an upstate New York town, where he will be completing his degree. She works a bit from home but soon finds herself growing bored by her new life. She invests most of her time delving into American history and interracial relationships. Great chunks of text read as if belonging to a textbook, and in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the author should have either committed to writing a work of fiction or gone for an essay on this subject matter.
The narrative does highlight the sexism and racism our protagonist encounters at work and during her everyday life. In her old job, her managers are unwilling to give her a raise, confuse her with the other Asian American employee, or say inappropriate/racist/sexist things. Our protagonist doesn’t have a personality as such. She’s very much a generic millennial who expresses the typical woes and worries that are bound to arise during a person’s twenties. Her quarter-mid life crisis is a very subdued one. Nothing much happens. She has some awkward encounters or conversations, her boyfriend seems to minimise her experiences with racism (implying that she’s taken something ‘the wrong way’ or that that person ‘meant well’ and other yike-ey stuff like this). She eventually goes to visit her father who lives in China and here the story finally felt a bit more engaging, but sadly this section is rather short and that epilogue killed what little enthusiasm I had for this novel.
The dynamic between her and J was so boring and flat. They are together for reasons beyond me. Our narrator is not particularly likeable, which, if you know my book tastes, is not a problem. However, I do want some sort of personality. And this gal had none. I found her unfunny, uninteresting, and unpleasant. Is she entirely unsympathetic? No. However, she never struck me as a fully-realised person. J is even worse. He’s a white male straight American. That’s more or less his whole character. He was painfully bland. I did not care for him in the least nor was I at any point convinced by his relationship with our mc. I guess they were both boring?
This novel had potential but it very much lacked zing. The author’s sparse prose combined with her insipid character results in a rather underwhelming affair. Add to that those large portions of text that read as if straight from a textbook and there you have it, a snoozefest. The one aspect I did enjoy was our mc’s phone calls to her parents. I ended up rather liking her parents and I found myself wishing that they would play a bigger role in the narrative (the mc also has siblings but they have 0 impact on the story and her character). There were paragraphs or lines now and again that sort of struck a chord with me but they did not make up for the mc’s waffling and self-pitying outweighed those few insightful moments.
While I won’t be dissuading anyone from reading this I do feel the need to recommend Edge Case as an alternative. While not perfect it did delve a bit more deeply into the realities of being a woc working in the tech industry. And if you are looking for more books following alienated women in their 20s I have made a list over here.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

While I appreciated the subject matter (no matter how infuriating & depressing), I could not get into the robotic style.

This book opens with Kim Jiyoune, a housewife and stay-at-home mother, acting in an increasingly concerning manner. Depressive episodes give way to ‘bizarre’ instances in which she emulates the behaviour of other women. Her concerned husband decides to enlist the help of a psychiatrist. The narrative then recounts Kim Jiyoung’s life prior to her marriage. We are given a brief picture of her life at home that highlights the double standards between sons and daughters (which generally see boys having more freedom while girls are expected to be more obsequious and to help around the house). We also ‘overhear’ her father’s victim-blaming rhetoric, which sees him blaming his daughter when harassed by a boy in her school (things on the lines of, ‘you obviously did something to make him think that you were interested in him’). At school male teachers act in highly inappropriate if not downright criminal ways (especially when ‘checking’ the female students’ uniforms). While boys are allowed more casual uniforms, girls have to wear a lot of layers and uncomfortable shoes so that they do not distract male students/teachers (i see red whenever i hear stuff like this), they are discouraged from playing physical activities, and during lunchtime, they are served after the boys and told off for not finishing their food fast enough.
At every stage of her life, Kim Jiyoung is confronted with gender-based discrimination. Once in the ‘workforce’ she quickly realizes that female employees are paid less, have very few chances of advancing, and are often given responsibilities and tasks that should be assigned to the newest employees. Married women are seen as undesirable as ‘likely’ to leave their position due to pregnancy/child-rearing, and very few places offer child-friendly work hours. Additionally, working would earn societal disapproval (because ‘they aren’t taking care of their children and it is ‘unnatural’ for a mother not to want to be with their child 24/7 etc.).
We see how all of these incidents over the years chip away at Kim Jiyoung. Time after time she’s faced with sexist and misogynistic behaviour, from colleagues, strangers, and her loved ones. The more aware she becomes of this, the less able she is to suppress her mounting desperation.
The final chapter brings us back to the present but doesn’t delve too deep into Kim Jiyoung’s mental state.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 reads a lot like a piece of nonfiction. The author’s prose is exceedingly impersonal, clinical even. While I’m not wholly against this type of detached writing style, here it was so unemotional and analytical that I really had a hard time caring and believing in Kim Jiyoung. Did this book elicit some sort of emotional response in me? Yes. But, I’m afraid I cannot credit the authors’ storytelling as being responsible for this. When reading at length about this kind of subject matter (gender inequality, misogyny, sexism) I will inevitably ‘feel’ something (anger, frustration, etc.). While reading Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 I was reminded of my own close encounters with sexism and misogyny, which aren’t even all that bad but whenever I think back to them mi incazzo (from men leering/shouting at me on the street when i was aged 13 or so, to being told that i should pay no mind to men making inappropriate comments, and if anything, i should be grateful/happy that they were making comments about my body/person, or that time when i and my bf worked in a shoddy cafe together and the team leader used go on anti-women tirades and seemed to enjoy groping us female colleagues, to a stranger sticking his tongue down my throat and snapping at me after being pushed away, to being told that i shouldn’t do certain things because i’m a girl, etc. etc. etc.). What I’m saying is, of course, I felt something. I’m sure many other readers can relate to ​​Kim Jiyoung’s experiences. But I also wondered what was the point of making all these things into a ‘story’? The author basically lists the everyday realities of an average woman, specifically a Korean woman born in 1982 into a relatively stable household.
The recounting of these episodes of sexism & co are a matter of fact and often surface level. The characters are one-dimensional and exist only to illustrate a certain point or address a certain type of behaviour. Kim Jiyoung is so generic that she seemed devoid of a personality. The narrative, whether intentionally or not, robs her of a distinctive voice… So, not only is Kim Jiyoung disempowered by her society’s oppressively traditionalist gender roles and by the many injustices she faces growing up female in Korea, but, the narrative itself denies her an identity. And, while I recognise that the last chapter reframes the rest of the story, I still cannot reconcile myself with this narrative choice. If anything, that last chapter reads like a gimmicky twist. Also, I didn’t quite like how Kim Jiyoung’s breakdown is shown to be a direct result of the patriarchy (especially considering that while she does experience gender-based injustices and microaggressions, at the of the day, much of what she experiences is very much your regular every-day sexism).
Maybe cis male readers or readers who have grown up in really progressive countries will be able to gain something from this book that I wasn’t able to.

my rating: ★★½


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Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados

“It takes practice to have restraint, and we are not yet at an age to try it out.”



As the title and cover themselves suggest, Happy Hour is the book equivalent of an aperitif. I’m thinking of an Aperol spritz and some black olives. Nice enough while you’re having them but once they are gone you’re prepared to move onto something more substantial. That is not to say that Happy Hour has no merits, if anything, my frustration towards this novel stems from the fact that, in many ways, this could have been an excellent read. But, it was an unfunny, shallow, and monotonous story about young pretty people who enjoy drinking and eating at ‘in’ bodegas.

Happy Hour implements the kind of literary devices and motifs that are all the rage in a certain subset of millennial literature. We have a wry narrator who is in her twenties, prone to self-sabotage, alienated 24/7, and leading a rather directionless life. While she does feel detached from those around her, her running commentary is as sharp as a knife. The dialogues have a mumblecore vibe to them so that many of the conversations sound like something we ourselves have heard in RL (the kind of small talk that happens at wannabe-artsy-parties etc). Sadly, I found many of the scenes in Happy Hour to be repetitive and interchangeable with one another. Isa and Gala meet up with some people they may or may not know at a bar or at someone’s flat. They get tipsy, or drunk, talk about nothing in particular with the other guests, and eventually make their way back home by grabbing a taxi. They try to get by sponging off other people, setting up a market stall where they halfheartedly try to sell clothes, pose as models for artists, or even by going to bars and being paid (cash + unlimited drinks) by the owner to attract more clients (making in 3 hours what would take me, a minimum-wage-worker, a whole-ass shift). Because of their immigration status, they cannot apply to ‘desk jobs’, but we never really learn much about that. Their past is very intentionally shrouded in mystery, barely alluded to. I assume they are Canadian given that they speak English fluently and that they seem familiar with American/Western culture.
I sort of resented the implication that they are ‘survivors’. They may not have a family to fall back onto, but A) they have each other B) they have travelled and can earn money fairly easily because they are young and pretty C) they are CONNECTED. In what could seem like a running-gag of sorts Isa always seems to come across someone she knows. Most of their ‘friends’ and acquaintances seem well-off and educated and these two are able to go out partying every night or so without actually spending all of their money this way. They make no conscious effort to save up, wasting money on the kind of meals that will not be filling or nutritious (ever heard of rice and beans? clearly not) nor do they try to put a stop to their night lifestyle. While they are quick, Isa especially, to notice how privileged the people around them are, they seem unaware that beauty is a currency and that their ability to party every night or earn money modelling or sponge off rich obnoxious men is directly proportional to their physical apperance.

Isa has ‘suffered’; one of the men she sort of sees briefly during the course of the novel ghosts her or something along those lines and not for one second was I convinced that she was truly broken up about it. The author really tries to make her sound jaded and caustic but her observations were predictably vanilla, and, worst still, always seem to posit her in a good light. The dynamic between Isa and Gala was the most disappointing aspect of the novel. As I’ve said, I’m all for complicated female friendships like the one in Moshfegh’s MYORAR, or between Ferrante’s Lila and Lenù or Morrison’s Sula and Nel or Ruchika Tomar’s Cale and Penny. But here, eh. Isa is clearly better than Gala. Gala is selfish, superficial, a bad friend and possibly even a bad person. She’s a fake whose only moments of vulnerability are an act to earn ‘male’ attention or sympathy from others. And I hate that they have to resort to the kind of ‘who has a right to be sad’ pissing content. Gala was born in Sarajevo but Isa ridicules the fact that the Bosnian war may have traumatised her since she left when she was just a ‘baby’ (as if her parents’ trauma couldn’t have possibly have affected her growing up) and immediately has to mention her own ACTUAL trauma (her mom died, i think). Like, ma che cazzo? And before you say, clearly Isa believes herself to be the good guy, well, other characters consolidate this narrative of her being GOOD and Gala bad. Every guy they come across prefers Isa to Gala, all of their ‘shared’ friends don’t give two shits about Gala but care about Isa etc etc.
And, boy, the storyline was just so very repetitive. Yeah, the author is able to convey a sort of artsy-academic-hipster-millennial atmosphere however, even if a lot of the dialogues in her novel sound like actual conversations (the type you may overhear at parties or in a bar or even while using public transport) that doesn’t result in an incredibly realistic and or compelling narrative. Isa was a very one-dimensional vapid character who manages to be both dull and irksome. She’s a twenty-something possibly Canadian woman who describes herself as being both Pinoy and Salvadoreña. She was raised by her mother after her father decided to go MIA or whatever. Her mother died a few years ago and even if Isa barely acknowledges her, her presence is felt by her absence. While I appreciated the author’s subtle approach to Isa’s grief, my heart did not warm up to Isa. I wanted to like her and some of her comments about modern culture or the so-called millennial malaise were relatable(ish), but, I disliked how full of herself she was but not in an obvious egomaniacal sort of way, no, in a more self-pitying, ‘I’m Not Like Other People’, way. She has to put with Gala and the mean people she meets at her parties and her limbs ache after hours spent lying still for a painting and she’s always the one making the money whereas Gala does fuck all and it isn’t fair that horrible socialites have it better than her. Her navel-gazing wasn’t particularly amusing, her moments of introspection struck me as self-dramatising, and her observations on class, identity, and life in New York were rather banal. Worst of all, Isa’s dry narration is profoundly unfunny. She sounds exactly like the people she’s so quick to ridicule.

I will say that I did enjoy reading her thoughts on the art of conversation and I did find the novel to have a strong atmosphere and sense of place. You can easily envision the kind of events and parties the girls take part in, as well as the kind of crowds occupying these places. It just so happens that like Isa herself I’m not all that keen on the rich and pretentious. Unlike Isa however, I do not, and would not want to, move in their same circles. For all her complaining Isa doesn’t really try to forge more meaningful connections nor did she seem to really care about Gala. Their friendship seemed one of convenience and nothing else.

That’s more or less it. I wouldn’t have minded if Isa’s voice had been as amusing and entertaining as say the main character in Luster or My Year of Rest and Relaxation or Pretend I’m Dead or You Exist Too Much or The Idiot. It just so happens that I actively disliked Isa. This is weird given that the mcs from the novels I’ve just mentioned are not necessarily nice or kind or strictly likeable. But I found myself drawn to them all the same. Isa just pissed me off. She’s constantly painting herself as the better friend or the better person, and other characters are shown to be bad or mean or shallow. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation both the narrator and her ‘best friend’ are depicted as solipsistic, often immature, decidedly toxic people. Here instead Isa is the good guy and almost every other character is bad (because they are wealthy, white, pretentious, superficial etc.). At one point she’s at a gay bar (if i recall correctly) and someone asks her what she’s doing there and that this isn’t a place for her housemate fends him off immediately (saying something like “she’s my sister you old, white queen”). I’m not keen on authors using gay characters to ‘defend’ straight ones from other lgbtq+ people. Like, it’s okay because a gay character is telling off another gay character. He called her ‘his sister’ so that makes her what, part of the queer community?! This scene just rubbed me up the wrong way. What, Isa has a right to be in gay spaces because she has a gay friend and she’s just Not Like Other Straight People? Ma daje!

While, yes, I did dislike and was bored by Isa as well her story’s supposed storyline (don’t get me wrong i love a good ol’ slice-of-life now and again but here these parties & co were so samey and intent only on satirising millennials & the-so-called upper-crust) I actually liked the author’s style.
It’s a pity that I wasn’t able to connect to Isa (or anyone else for the matter). The cast of ever-changing characters made it hard for me to become familiar with anyone really. Many of them also happen to have silly posh sounding nicknames or names that make it even harder to remember who-the-hell-was-who. Some just exist only in the space of a single scene or to deliver a throwaway line and nothing else besides. The men around Isa all blurred into one generic asshole-ish kind of man. The story ends on a cheesy note, with Isa being ready to finally talk about her past.
But I don’t wish to dissuade prospective readers from giving this a shot. If you liked Jo Hamya’s Three Romes or Kavita Bedford’s Friends & Dark Shapes you might like this more than I was able to. It just so happens that, as stated above, I hated Isa and found her narrative to have one too many of the same kind of scenes/conversations. I would have liked more variety in the story and the characters themselves. All in all, it left me wanting.

If you liked it or were able to relate to Isa, I’m happy for you, in fact, I wish that I could say the same. Please avoid leaving ‘you are stupid/wrong/well actually I loved Isa and you are clearly missing the point’ comments. I’m fully aware that the dislike Isa elicited in me is entirely subjective.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Wahala by Nikki May

The cover and premise for Wahala made me think that this novel would be a beach thriller, something in the realms of Liane Moriarty. While the unfolding drama between a trio of ‘friends’ was fairly amusing to read of, Wahala wasn’t quite the suspenseful domestic thriller I’d hoped it to be. Still, this was, for the most part, an entertaining read and Ronke alone kept me turning pages.

Set in London, Wahala is centred around three mixed-race friends, Ronke, Simi, Boo. They met in Bristol and their shared experiences drew them together. Over the years they have all embarked on different paths but they remain close friends, eating out together or meeting up to vent about their partners or lives. Ronke, a dentist, doesn’t have the greatest dating history but she hopes that her current boyfriend, Kayode, is ‘the one’. Simi, married to Martin who lives and works in New York, is tired of putting up with her boss’ microaggressions. Boo is growingly dissatisfied with her life as a stay-at-home mum. She begins to resent her husband, Didier, and even her four-year-old daughter.
And then Isobel arrives. She’s hideously wealthy and an old acquaintance of Simi. Soon enough she inserts herself in the group, spoiling them with expensive gifts and seems more than willing to let them vent about their lives. While Boo falls completely under Isobel’s wing, and Simi too, finds herself confiding her secrets to her, Ronke remains suspicious of her motivations.

Each chapter switches between Ronke, Simi, Boo, so that we get to see their perspectives equally. We also begin to sense that Isobel is up to no good as she seems intent on stirring trouble, and soon enough cracks begin to form in the bond between Ronke, Simi, and Boo.

I liked the author’s sense of humor as well as her commentary on race, marriage, motherhood as well as her insights into Nigerian culture (her descriptions of Nigerian food are chief’s kiss).
Ronke, Simi, and Boo have very different personalities and, while they do share many similar experiences, backstories. Boo, for example, grew up not knowing her Nigerian father and because of this seems to distrust Black men like Kayode (her friends do call her out on this). Ronke, on the other hand, loved her father, who passed away when she was young and does not see herself dating a man who isn’t Black. Simi doesn’t want children, Ronke wants to start a family, and Boo has a child she seems to hate.

There were things that prevented me from truly loving this book. For one, the story could have benefited from an extra dose of suspense as the ‘thriller’ aspect comes into play at the very end. The narrative seems mostly driven by the miscommunication between the various characters (couples & friends alike) and after a while it became repetitive.
I also hated, and I mean it, Boo and Simi. They were awful, to their partners and Ronke. Ronke, who was honest, kind, funny, I loved. But seeing her remain friends with these two horrible people…? Why would she do this to herself?
Boo’s chapters were a chore to get through. She complains constantly about her husband and daughter, both of whom are actually far more likeable than she is. She’s also really stupid in that she jumps to idiotic conclusions without using any common sense.
Simi was more of a cypher and I did not feel particularly sympathetic towards her.
Isobel was very hard to believe in. Those ‘twists’ towards the end managed to be both predictable and totally OTT. Isobel seemed just to exist as the bad guy and maybe I would have found her more credible had she had her own chapters.
All in all, while Wahala is not exactly a riveting read, it was for the most part an amusing read that doesn’t take itself too seriously (the author pokes fun at her characters’ histrionics). I do think that Ronke deserved better and that Simi and Boo had it too easy…

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

Candid and humorously absurd Afterparties is a collection of short stories that focuses on the experiences of Cambodian-Americans in California. In spite of the occasional Shameless-like scenario, these stories remain grounded in realism, almost to the point of reading like a slice of life. Vo’s stories can also be read as frank vignettes capturing the everyday lives of his characters. Nothing truly of note happens in his narratives, yet, the, often funny, interactions between his various characters combined with his irreverent social commentary (on race, sexuality, immigration, america) are bound to keep readers turning pages.

Much about Vo’s tone and scenarios brought to mind Bryan Washington. Like Washington, Vo presents his readers with an unfiltered portrayals of America, queer culture, and millennials, and many of these stories revolve around characters who like to party or are leading rather directionless lives. All of the stories also hone in on generational differences, specifically between young Cambodian-Americans and their parents and grandparents. In addition to racism and homophobia, many of Vo’s characters feel burdened by the pressure to succeed in life or to lead a certain type of lifestyle and by their relatives’ experiences and memories of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

While I recognise that this collection has many good qualities, I didn’t exactly love any of these stories. At times the banter between the younger characters struck me as slightly exaggerated and the humor at times struck me as being of the armpit-fart variety (ie not to my taste). Still, I was saddened to learn that the author has passed away and that this will be likely his only release.
If this collection is on your radar I encourage you to read more positive reviews, such as the one penned by Sarah.

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James

heads up: in this review i will be discussing self-harm

Described as being a ‘sharp’ and ‘witty’ debut Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s Mona At Sea is neither of those things. The novel tells yet another tale about an alienated millennial woman having a quarter midlife crisis. While Mona At Sea is far from terrible it is a novel that is clearly riding the coattails of its betters (to name a few that i liked: My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Luster, Pizza Girl, Severance, You Exist Too Much, Pretend I’m Dead, books by Caroline O’Donoghue; to name a few i did not like all that much: Milk Fed, Exciting Times, Hysteria, The New Me, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, Three Rooms, and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody). Not only does almost everything about Mona At Sea read like a poor imitation of these novels—from its trying but failing to be sardonic tone to its ironic characterisation (we have the ‘dudebro’, the rich friend with body image problems, the leery ‘this is a boys’ club’ businessmen) and, the pièce de résistance, its self-sabotaging main character—and doesn’t bring anything new to this ‘alienated women’ subgenre.

Set in 2008 the story is narrated by Mona Mireles, a twenty-three-year-old who majored in finance at the University of Arizona. After the job she was promised at an investment bank in New York falls through due to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Mona, a high-achiever who has dedicated herself to her studies and future career, is unemployed and struggling to keep afloat. She sends hundreds of applications but is unwilling to look for jobs outside the finance sector as she is unwilling to compromise.
What follows is a rather typical narrative in which Mona engages in self-destructive and antisocial behaviour, pushing those close to her away, until she eventually finds herself lowering her ‘expectations’ and getting a job at a telemarketing business and re-assessing why she’s so set on getting into finance.
We don’t learn much about her relationship with her parents, other than her mother seems to have always pressured her into aiming high while her father has encouraged her to take time to ‘find herself’ and pursue something that she actually likes. The two are having marriage problems but these are broached superficially, partly due to Mona’s solipsism, which leads her to ignore those around her, and partly because the narrative just doesn’t seem all that intent on giving depth to those two characters, let alone their marriage.
Her younger brother is a typical dudebro who is far more likeable than Mona herself. The men Mona begins frequenting are similar shades of dickish. Mona’s relationship with her best friend seemed a poor imitation of the toxic one from My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
A clip starring Mona goes viral and she’s occasionally approached because of it (she’s nicknamed ‘Sad Millennial’ as she was crying during this interview which occurred after she discovered that she would not be getting her ‘dream’ job after all).

As Mona struggles to make it through each day, she engages in self-harm. Here the novel became off-putting, especially in its sensationalist approach to this subject matter. Fyi, not that it should bear any weight on the ‘validity’ of my opinion on this (after all, this is my own personal opinion, others readers will undoubtedly feel differently and all that jazz), I used to self-harm throughout most of my teens. Mona’s self-harming is portrayed as being ‘different’, ‘artistic’ even as the scars she’s inflicting on her thigh depict Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (and yes, her second name happens to be lisa). Now, I know that there are those who carve words & probably images on themselves however here Mona’s self-harming is elevated into being an artistic expression, she who for so long had focused on engaging and pursuing those kinds of activities that will enhance her career prospects, is creative after all! Wow! Amazing. And (minor spoilers i guess), the guy she dates later in the novel (a douchebag to be honest) takes photos of her ‘Mona Lisa’, telling her the usual patronising bullshit on the lines of ‘your scars are beautiful’ and ‘they show you are survivor’ and pressures her into accepting his request to showcase these photos. When she refuses she also snaps at him for other reasons and is shown to be the unreasonable one (there she is blaming him for her parents’ troubles or her own insecurity or her not so great career prospects). In the end, guess what? She gives in! And it all works in her favor! The guy was right after all. Puah-lease. And I hated that Mona’s self-harming is portrayed as being ‘different’, Not Like Other Self-Harmers. I came across an interview with the author where she said that she had no sensitivity readers (quelle surprise) but she did a lot of research on the topic of self-harming and that anyway Mona’s self-harming is atypical. First, I’m afraid I will dislike anyone who shows too much fascination with something like self-harming. It makes me feel like a subject, a rat lab. Second, why, why, why does her self-harming need to be so on the nose? She’s called Mona Lisa and here she is carving Mona Lisa into her thigh. Like, wtf?
The narrative tries to go for this caustic tone, but I found it painfully unfunny and not particularly amusing. Its satire has no bite, its social commentary was not particularly insightful, and its depiction of unemployment, depression, self-harm were shallow indeed.
But the worst offender in this novel is Mona herself. I usually end up loving or rooting for supposedly unlikable characters (they can be vain & cruel like Emma Bovary, or assholes like Ronan Lynch, or fucked up like Moshfegh’s narrator) but Mona was just so annoying. She’s a perfectionist, we get it. She’s been ‘made’ that way, it isn’t entirely her fault. Her mother and her teachers and professors have had a hand in making her so career and goal obsessed. To have a successful and prestigious career is to be happy…right? Except that things don’t go as per plan for Mona and she feels understandably lost…and yet, even bearing this in mind, I still found her insufferable. She wasn’t funny, or clever, or sympathetic. For most of the narrative she’s self-centred, ungrateful, and just painfully annoying. And yes, she does ‘grow’ (supposedly) but even so I did not feel invested in her arc. People call her out on her shit and she learns to be a better person. And could I bring myself to care? No. I did not. Part of me thinks that she had it easy all things considered (especially if we consider that she got to age 22/23 without having to work so that she could fully dedicate herself to her studies…).
Maybe if you haven’t read any of the novels I mentioned above and you are not particularly bothered by how a story handles self-harming you might find this a more rewarding read than I did.

my rating: ★★½

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Sunset by Jessie Cave

“When I next love someone, they will die suddenly, unfairly, quickly, oddly, suspiciously, horrifyingly, traumatically; they’ll die in the worst way that someone could, and I will have to stand by and watch, take a photo.”

Funny, raw, heartbreaking, Sunset is an exceptional debut novel. Jessie Cave’s unsparing portrayal of grief in all of its complexities is striking for its realism and depth. Cave’s blend of humor and tragedy did bring to mind Fleabag and I would definitely recommend fans of that show, or I May Destroy You for that matter, to pick this up. The novel is narrated by Ruth who is in her mid-20s and leading a rather directionless lifestyle. Her older sister, Hannah, is very much her anchor and the two share an intense bond. Rather than resorting to the classic good/bad sister type of characterisation Cave makes both Ruth and Hannah into multidimensional and entirely authentic people, who have flaws and idiosyncrasies as well as many other qualities. The two love each other to bits, even if they bicker a lot. They are best friends, each other’s worlds, really. The two go on a summer holiday together and a horrific accident happens to leave Ruth bereft. She attempts to shut other people out and begins working at a Costa in Heathrow airport. As time goes by Ruth is forced to confront what happened on that holiday.

There is so much that I loved about this novel. Ruth is a wonderful narrator. Her anger, loneliness, grief, numbness, frustration, and sadness are depicted with such heart and realism as to bring her character to life. Her sense of humor, occasionally dark, always weird, made me laugh out loud and like her almost instantly. Some of her thoughts may very well make you uncomfortable but I appreciated how honest Ruth’s voice was. Her relationship with her sister is the central aspect of her story and their dynamic was wonderful and heart-rending. From their small habits to the way they speak to others or each other, Cave captures everything about them, making Ruth and Hannah feel less like fictional characters than real-life individuals.
I also loved the way Cave portrays and discusses things like depression, death, sex, menstruations, and other things that are usually sensationalised or romanticised or completely glossed over. In addition, Ruth’s narrative is full of piercing observations about other people or her own life. I also found that those references to ‘real’ places (such as Costa, Tesco, WHSmith) made Ruth’s London all the more vivid.
It’s impressive that this is Cave’s debut as it is such an accomplished novel. Her prose is self-assured, her tone is consistent, and her characterisation is phenomenal. Cave’s depiction of grief and sisterhood is moving and believably messy.
At first, I wasn’t sure about the way the dialogue is laid out (it appears in a script-like way) but I soon grew accustomed to it and I commend Cave for her choice (rather than jumping on the no quotation marks bandwagon). Speaking of dialogues, these too are marvellously realistic. The exchanges Ruth has with others could be funny, awkward, and/or tense. Regardless of the nature of the discussion or conversation, Cave’s dialogues rang true-to-life.
Sunset is a bittersweet love story between two sisters that is bound to make you tear up and laugh out loud (often in quick succession). If you happen to like stories that focus on sibling bonds or that follow the experiences of directionless millennials, well, consider giving Sunset a shot.
To sum it up: I loved this review so much one day after reading my netgalley copy I popped into waterstones during my lunch break and bought a hardback edition of it.

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

my rating: ★★★★½

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Friends & Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford

That is the truth of someone’s character: how a person makes you feel after you walk away from spending time with them.”

Kavita Bedford’s Friends & Dark Shapes is an exceedingly millennial novel. We have a directionless and nameless narrator, a modern flâneur who is afflicted by a vague sense of ennui. There are no quotation marks because apparently, they are passé, and a meandering story that consists of a series of ‘relatable’ vignettes portraying disagreements between housemates, commutes, get-togethers, conversations with strangers.
Our Indian-Australian narrator is approaching thirty and she works as a freelance journalist. She lives with three other people who are around her age. The narrative strings together snapshots of her everyday life in Sydney, capturing certain moments or conversations that our narrator has indoors and when she’s out and about. While the manner in which she observes those around her is somewhat anthropological, the people populating this novel never come truly in focus. They are hazy renditions of a certain type of person, and they never struck me as particularly fleshed out our multidimensional. The narrator too is exceedingly generic. Her voice, if anything, is far too mild and forgettable compared to other millennial narrators. Her housemates functioned as comedic relief, either giving witty spiels about the state of the world today or ‘relatable’ lines about their love lives or jobs. For some reason when they voiced their concerns over their future (especially when they talked about mortgages) I just felt really disconnected from them. Maybe because in my eyes most of them were already doing the kind of careers they wanted to (ahem i am stuck in customer service hell), well, their worries frustrated me somewhat. Maybe those who are closer to them in age will be able to get them in a way I couldn’t…

The narrator often thinks about her father, who died sometime before the beginning of the novel. Childhood episodes pepper her narrative and these don’t really give us a clear image of this man nor of his relationship with her.
Still, I did like Bedford’s vibrant portrayal of Sydney. She renders its rhythms, giving us some vivid descriptions of its streets and neighbourhoods. The dialogues too, if repetitive, had this mumblecore quality that I appreciated and it suited the naturalistic tone of the novel. The narrator often slips into a collective ‘we’ to describe certain events/situations or when making ‘relatable’ millennial statements. I can’t say that I was a fan of this technique as it succeeded in blurring different characters and their voices together.

my rating: ★★★¼

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