The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

“And none of that mattered. No matter how nice the suit, no matter how educated his speech or how strong the handshake, no matter how much muscle he packed on, no matter how friendly or how smart he was, none of it mattered at all. He was just a Black person. That’s all they saw and that’s all he was.”

While I did find The Violin Conspiracy to be a bit all over the place the author’s acknowledgements hit hard. The book opens in medias res with Ray McMillian, our main character, discovering that his Stradivarius has been stolen. Ray is preparing for the international Tchaikovsky Competition and without his fiddle, he feels unmoored. The narrative then jumps back in time where we meet Ray in his teens and learn more about his family situation. His mother wants him to drop school so he can work full time and so she can buy a new tv. When Ray begins to earn good money by playing at various events she quietens down somewhat but she still clearly disapproves of his violin playing and often ridicules him and his belief that he could pursue a career as a violinist. The only supportive member of his family is Ray’s beloved grandmother who loves him to bits. She also wants him to play and gifts him her grandpa’s fiddle. Ray eventually ends up getting a scholarship for a prestigious college. His mother doesn’t want him to go but Ray is determined to follow his path. He eventually learns that his violin is a Stradivarius. His family wants him to sell it and claim that it was never his, to begin with. To keep them at bay Ray begins to send them large sums of money but they never seem satisfied. He also begins to receive thinly threatening letters from a family that claims to be the righteous owners of the violin, and it turns out that they are descendants of the people who had once enslaved Ray’s great-grandfather. Eventually, the narrative reaches the beginning, where Ray’s beloved violin has been stolen and the competition is just around the corner.
Throughout the narrative, the author highlights just how racist and elitist the classical music world is. From when he played as a teenager at venues to his time as a teacher and a professional violinist, Ray experiences racism. Classical music is something that is often associated with whiteness and because of this Ray has to fight to be accepted into this world. No matter how hard he proves himself he will be confronted with people dismissing his skills, claiming that he is a ‘diversity token’ or diminishing his talent. There are many harrowing scenes where Ray is mistreated and abused, and the realism of these scenes made it clear that these episodes had likely been experienced by the author himself (such as the wedding one early on). From outright racist remarks to more ‘veiled’ ones, Ray has to fight tooth and nail to claim a space in this extremely white elitist world. That he has no support from his family certainly doesn’t help as with the exception of his grandmother and an aunt, they are all keen on him selling his violin.
The novel tries to combine a Bildungsroman novel with a more suspenseful storyline but the two don’t quite mesh together. The flashbacks into Ray’s teenage years do add context to his life and the violin but they fail to make him into a more rounded character. I found him rather flat, at times a little more than a vehicle to move the story forward. I would have liked for him to have a more defined personality and a more developed characterisation. Other characters were similarly one-dimensional, Ray’s mother in particular. She’s portrayed as a horrible person: every scene she is in she says something awful. She has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and I could not understand why Ray would bother with her at all. He also has siblings but we never see him interact with them. His other relatives, with the exception of that one aunt, are all greedy and nasty to him. The bad characters in this book are also extremely one-note. This is fair enough, a simplistic approach could have worked but I found it annoying that the author would describe these characters as physically ‘ugly’ and are often ‘fat’. The woman who claims that the violin belongs to her family for instance has ‘jowls’ covered by ‘downy hair’. All of the policemen are of the doughnut-eating variety, but this, I didn’t mind as much given my less than warm feelings towards them.
Anyway, the story suggests that either Ray’s family or this white family are behind his missing violin. The novel then takes a weird turn by making someone else responsible and forgetting almost entirely of Ray’s family or that other one. It just seemed an odd choice and a predictable one at that.
I also did not care for the way Ray spoke about or describes women (“the tawny-haired woman with the tight dress running her fingers suggestively around her wineglass”; “The attractive women who seemed to take an interest in him were mostly in the look-but-don’t-touch category”; “A young athletic woman was crossing in front of them, her toned ass bouncing with every step in her black leggings.”).
The writing too could be quite cheesy, especially in its efforts to tie everything back to classical music (“He tried to breathe but his ribs had been wrapped in piano wire”; “Why was he so terrible at talking to this woman? She was violin-shaped, right? So why was this so hard?”).
Still, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing or the characters, the story was relatively engaging. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check it out yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

this is my fault. i should know by now that titles claiming to have dark academia or sapphic vibes should be approached with extreme caution.

DISCLAIMER: I did not like this book and my review reflects of that. I will be brutally honest about my thoughts on this novel so if you want to read this or if this book happens to be on your ‘radar’ I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you loved this book, I am happy for you but please don’t tell me I’m wrong for disagreeing with you.


Affected and self-important The World Cannot Give makes for a singularly insipid read. Its biggest ‘sin’ is that it tries to be the dark academia equivalent of Not Like Other Girls. For all its attempts at being ‘not like’ other dark academia books, The World Cannot Give was one of the most generic books I’ve read in a very long time. From its poorly rendered setting to its wafer-thin characters, The World Cannot Give reads like a been-there-done-that boarding school novel. This is the kind of novel that thinks it is a lot smarter than it is (in reality it is as intellectually deep as a puddle, of the shallow variety). For all its attempts at intertextuality and self-awareness (we have few throwaway lines on the dangers of romanticizing elitist institutions and idealizing the past and historical figures), it has nothing substantial or new to say. The author’s writing style and the tone of her narrative brought to mind two novels that I am not fond of, The Silent Patient and An Anonymous Girl. If you liked them chances are you will have a more positive reading experience with The World Cannot Give than I was.
If you like cheesy shows such as Riverdale or self-dramatizing books such as Plain Bad Heroines ,Belladonna, A Lesson in Vengeance, Vicious Little Darlings, Good Girls Lie (where characters are prone to angsty theatricals) you may be able to actually enjoy The World Cannot Give.
As I warned above, this review is going to be harsh so if you aren’t keen on reading negative reviews you should really give this review a miss.

minor spoilers below

STORY/PLOT
Contrary to what the blurb says, The World Cannot Give is no ‘The Girls meets Fight Club’. Nor is it a satisfying ‘coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence. And the only ‘shocking’ thing about it is that it is shockingly bad. On the lines of, how was this even published?
The first page is misleadingly promising. I liked the opening line and that whole first paragraph. Alas, with each new page, my high hopes dwindled.
Laura is on her way to St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine. She’s ecstatic about attending this school because she hero-worships Sebastian Webster who used to go there in the 1930s. Angsty Webster wrote this book about the “sclerotic modern world” and the “shipwreck of the soul” and goes on and on about wanting to be “World-Historical”. Webster died at 19 fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, our sensitive Laura is enthralled by his writings and his fake-deep ideas so of course, she wants to study where he did. She gets to St. Dunstan goes to her room and meets two girls who from this scene onwards will not change. That is, this one scene establishes their one-note characters. There is Freddy who is a tertiary sort of character who just glares, snorts, scowls, and grimaces because that’s the kind of mean-ish one-dimensional sidekick she is. Then there is Bonnie who is all about her followers and using her boarding school as a prop for her dark academia inspired videos & photos. Laura eventually goes to the school’s chapel (Webster is buried there and there is a statue in his honour in that area) and she hears the choir. Her spirit is so moved by what she experiences at the chapel that she feels lifted to a higher plane of existence or something. But wait, the choir is rudely interrupted by a girl with a shaved head who is a queer feminist who is just like so done with the institution and wants to abolish mandatory church attendance. Laura, our innocent, is shooketh by her actions and somehow, despite her wishy-washy personality, ingratiates herself with the choir president, Virginia. We learn virtually nothing more about the school, nor do we get any real insight into how Laura’s classes are going, what she’s studying, her teachers, their methods…Laura joins the choir and what follows is a lot of scenes that are just filler leading up to the real ‘conflict’. The choir, this ‘clique’, did not make for interesting people, consequently, I was bored by the limited banter that didn’t reveal anything significant about them or their surroundings. Laura is Virginia’s lapdog, so she starts emulating whatever Virginia does (comparing herself to other literary sidekicks), Virginia spends her time ranting about the ‘sclerotic world’, her aversion towards matters of the flesh, and bemoaning the ye olden days and is mad that she has to be in the proximity of so many sinners. She also doesn’t want Brad, who is also in the choir, and Bonnie to be together. Brad is loyal to Virginia so he is conflicted. Bonnie is in love with Brad for reasons. And why the hell not at this point. The only ones in the choir who came across as devoted to Webster, his ‘insights’ into the ills of the modern world, were Laura and Virginia. But they just have the same conversations about this guy. They don’t expand on his views, they merely reiterate the term ‘World-Historical’ and his other catchphrases. Anyway, time goes by and eventually things come to head when Bonnie decides to encroach on Virginia’s territory (the chapel) as retaliation for her interfering in her love life (instead of taking issue with Brad…ugh). Isobel, the queer feminist, comes into play but her presence is very much kept off-page. Virginia becomes increasingly fanatical and decides to go all Old Testament God on the people who have betrayed her or revealed that they are not ‘virtuous’ (quelle surprise…).

TONE/WRITING
You see the cover, you read the blurb, you come across someone comparing this to Donna Tartt (comparing book such as this to the secret history should be made into a punishable offence…ahem, i’m jesting of course), you think, this is going to be DEEP and possibly even intellectual and emotionally stimulating. You are, of course, dead wrong. This book reads like a spoof. But not a fully committed one. It actually reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. There the narrative makes fun of the heroine for wanting to be in a Gothic novel and seeing the world through Gothic-tinted lenses and overdramatising everything. This is exactly it. Except, it also takes itself seriously…kind of? The writing and tone try to mirror the way Laura sees the world. She yearns for Webster and, like Virginia, finds the present-day intolerable. So the writing uses this exaggerated and self-dramatizing language reminiscent of historical novels. Some of these are actually decent. But then we get a lot of short sentences and exclamations marks. This kind of style can work. For instance, in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, which actually happens to be a far superior boarding-school book exploring queer desire. The language there is very high-flown but it worked because Strachey could write some truly beautiful and playful passages.
Here the writing verges on the ridiculous and more often than not it comes across as just plain bad. We had clumsy, inharmonious, and even cheesy sentences: “Barry Ng blushes at this. Virginia glares at him. Brad sighs a long and heavy sigh.”; “She looks from Brad to Bonnie and back again. Brad sighs a long and exhausted sigh.”; “Shame floods Laura’s face; she curdles it into fury.” (lol); ““One choir. One family.” Her smile twitches.” (twitching smiles? what is this? fanfic i wrote at 15?); “Her smile glints.” (ugh); “Virginia didn’t know. Virginia couldn’t have known. Virginia would never. Virginia always would. Of course, of course, Virginia would.”; “Isobel is wrong, Laura tells herself. Isobel has to be wrong. Isobel’s just jealous; Isobel has no sense of transcendence;”. And these are just a few examples…the writing & tone did nothing for me. Very few writers can make third person present tense work and Burton isn’t one of them I’m afraid…
I struggled to take it seriously and even if it was intentionally trying to be satirical, well, even then I would have found it ridiculous.

THEMES/ ‘IDEOLOGY’
Like I said above this book tries to be different from other boarding schools/dark academia books by referencing the rise in popularity that dark academia aesthetics & media have had in the last few years…but that doesn’t result automatically in a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of romanticism elitist institutions such as universities and or private schools. One of the two only poc characters in the story has a few lines that highlight how institutions like St. Duncan are built on inequality and that we should be more critical about those Old White Men who likely committed Bad Things and should not be therefore uncritically revered. Yeah fair enough. But that’s it. Laura and Virginia spend the whole bloody book going on about the ‘sclerotic modern world’ and are contemptuous of anyone who isn’t in awe of Webster. They believe in God..sort of? For all their talk about sins and transcendence, I was not at all convinced that they even had a strong relationship to their faith. Virginia wants to be baptized, but her decision to do so is made sus because she’s portrayed as sort of unhinged so she truly isn’t ‘genuine’. Laura instead is more mellow about her faith so I don’t understand why she would Virginia’s fanatical rants to be of any appeal. You do you babe and all that but come on…Virginia wasn’t even a charismatic orator. Their ideology actually brought to mind the kids from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like those lil creeps, Virginia and Laura find the modern world to be disgusting. They particularly don’t get why people are obsessed with sex. They merely want to transcend their bodies and reach a higher, more enlightened plane of existence. I think the author was trying to do her own version of “Beauty is terror” but yikes. It just came across as stagy. Additionally, I found it annoying that characters who could have been on the aroace spectrum are actually just ‘repressed’.
Anyway, this book had nothing interesting to say about faith, romanticizing the past, or the dangers of idealizing the ones you care for.
The story towards the end takes a weird route in that it becomes all about how boys/men exploit women and betray their trusts by sharing explicit photos and videos of their gf or sex partners with their male friends and this plotline worsened the already existing disconnect between the tone and the content of the book.

CHARACTERS/RELATIONSHIPS
I understand that people are incongruent but these characters did not make bloody sense. They were extremely one-note and then for plot-reasons they would do something really random. Laura is boring and annoying. I can cope with characters who are obsessed with a friend or who are introverted or even naive. But Laura was just embarrassing. Her devotion to Virginia lacked substance. Their dynamic was uneventful. Bonnie was depicted in a purposely grating way and grated my nerves. Isobel was gay and a feminist and stands against the bullshit Virginia and Laura believe in. That’s it. The boys are either milquetoast assholes who don’t see the problem in sharing nudes or doing whatever Virginia says because why not. There is this one guy in the choir who exists just to say ‘that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s completely cringe’.
Virginia was the worst offender. She had no redeeming qualities but we were meant to feel some degree of sympathy towards her. Come on. She wasn’t a convincing or compelling character. I didn’t find her an intriguing or cryptic mystery. She was nasty and I didn’t like that everything she does or says is basically chalked up to her being a total religious zealot. All of her reactions are so extreme as to make her into a caricature more than a person. I didn’t like the way her eating disorder was portrayed as it
The obsession and desire promised by the blurb were just not really there. I mean, yeah, the girl was obsessed but there was something perfunctory about it. The sapphic yearning I was hoping to find in these pages was largely absent. There is a f/f couple, but they had barely any scenes and they had 0 chemistry whatsoever. They came across as friends or sisters even. Then we are meant to believe that someone like Isobel would fall for Virginia because they shared a past? Surely Isobel, who is supposedly clever, would be a bit sus about Virginia’s sudden change of heart. Also, shouldn’t Virginia’s decline in her physical and mental health be a red flag of sorts? Shouldn’t Isobel have shown more concern over Virginia’s state of mind?

SETTING
0 sense of place. There are barely any descriptions of the school and very few passages detailing the nearby landscapes. The novel takes place nowadays I guess but there were barely any contemporary references. This could have worked if then we didn’t have a plotline involving Bonnie’s online following, sexting, or even certain terms (such as cringe) being used. It just took me out of the story as the majority of the narrative and dialogues were trying to conjure an ‘old’ timeless vibe. I think if the novel had had a historical setting it would have actually worked in its favour. Its modern social commentary after all is very half-arsed and had a vague tokenistic vibe to it (isobel existing just to oppose the establishment etc.).

I’m going to recommend a few books that in my opinion do what this book tries to do a lot better: Frost in May (coming of age, all-girl school, Catholicism), Abigail (coming of age, WWII Hungary, all-girl school, fraught friendships), Old School (all-boys schools, jealousy, ambition, privilege, self-knowledge), Sweet Days of Discipline (queer desire, obsession, order vs. chaos, all-girl school), The Inseparables (all-girl school, obsession, queer desire, Catholicism),These Violent Delights (college, obsession, toxic relationships, queer desire), Olivia (all-girl school, France 1890s, unrequited love, queer desire), A Great and Terrible Beauty (fantasy, fraught friendships, all-girl schools, f/f side), Passing (jealousy, race, queer repressed desire), Ninth House (dark academia, Yale, urban fantasy, tackles privilege, corruption, misogyny), The Wicker King (dark academia vibes, queer desire, obsession, toxic relationships).

Maybe if this novel had gone truly committed to being a parody, and upped the camp factor, maybe then I would have found it a little bit amusing. But it didn’t so nope, this novel did not work for me at all. The story was stupid, the characters were either bland or neurotic (in a really exaggerated, possibly problematic, way), the themes were poorly developed and relied on the usage of a few certain key terms (without delving into what this term truly means), the sapphic element was largely absent…you get the gist by now. I actually wish I’d dnfed but I hoped that it would improve along the way. When will I learn the lesson? A beautiful cover doth not make for a good book.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

I lived for that Mack cameo! Sadly, Olivia & Toni didn’t steal my heart away like Liz & Mack did…

“Loving someone is being big enough to admit when you mess up, and then doing everything in your power not to do it again.”

Rise to the Sun is a summery sapphic romance that reads a lot like a love letter to music. Once again Leah Johnson has written a YA novel that succeeds in combining escapism with relevant and important issues (grief, trauma, non-consensual image sharing). Rise to the Sun spans the arc of three days—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and takes place at Farmland Music and Arts Festival.
Our two narrators and main characters are Olivia and Toni. Toni, still reeling from her father’s death, is seventeen and about to go to college, not so much because she wants to but she feels pressured by her mother. Her passion is music, something she shared with her roadie father. Olivia is about to enter her final year of high school and, quite understandably given her situation, she’s not keen to return. The fate of her ex, a jock with a promising future ahead of him, rests in her hand. But will telling the truth solve anything? Her mother and sister disapprove of her, and many of her romances have ended on a ‘you’re too much for me’ note. Both girls are going to the festival to take their minds off their worries and anxieties. Tagging along with them are their respective BFFs.
The two girls meet by chance and decide to compete together in a music competition….and sparks inevitably fly.

Having genuinely loved Johnson’s debut novel, I was prepared to have my heart stolen away once again…but things didn’t quite pan out that way. While I liked Johnson’s light yet engaging prose and the themes that she touches upon during the course of the novel, there were a few things that didn’t work for me. Olivia and Toni’s voices are too similar and I kept mixing up their chapters. Their personalities are supposedly meant to be quite different, with Oliva as this extroverted and zingy kind of person, and Toni being more of an ‘Ice Queen/conceal don’t feel’ type of gal…so why did they sound like the same person?
The story’s 3 days setting made it so that their romance seemed of the insta variety.
And, the thing that ultimately made me not enjoy this novel all that much, Olivia is a terrible friend. She promises her BFF that this weekend is all about them and that she won’t pull off her usual ‘ditching you friend for the person I currently have the hots for’ move but she does! She doesn’t even try to keep her promise and be there for her friend. She simply convinces herself that Toni’s BFF and her BFF make a great match so pushes them together so that she can then spend time with Toni. She keeps justifying herself by saying that this time is different and that what she feels for this girl she’s known for a second is REAL and no one should stand in the way of TRUE LOVE. She then pulls an incredibly crappy stunt towards the end after the typical 70% romcom misunderstanding and convinces herself that it’s okay, and when she’s called out she whines that her BFF is being ‘harsh’ (of course she’s going to snap at you! what were you expecting after making a move that makes it clear you don’t give a shit about her?).
And I also didn’t care for Toni going on and on about ‘my Truth’, it made her sounds like someone who is into Goop or whatever.

Anyway, just because I wasn’t particularly enamoured by this does not mean you should skip on it and if you are in a mood for a queer YA romance, well, you should consider giving this a shot.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

“After all, wasn’t it true that to love someone is to figure out how to tell yourself their story?”

With understated lyricism, Feng charts the experiences of a family divided by physical and emotional borders that are nevertheless united in their pursuit of a more ‘promising’ future, for themselves and each other. The narrative intertwines the trajectories of various characters: Momo and Cassia, a married couple whose relocation to America results in their estrangement, their daughter Junie, born with a congenital amputation, who is in China and being raised in a small village in the countryside by her beloved grandparents, and Dawn, a talented violinist who knew Momo in their college days. Moving from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Communist China to San Francisco, Feng spins a tale of grief and resilience. Throughout their adulthood Momo, Cassia, and Dawn experience loss, heartbreak, and time and again are forced to reconcile their own personal desires with the ones of others.

“The incandescent cocoon of music was pure rapture, and it said to him; Stay. It was a powerful beckoning, to be held in thrall, to be consumed, annihilated even.”

Classical music plays a crucial role in Dawn and Momo’s narratives and Feng beautifully articulates their relationship to it. When writing about music Feng’s writing acquires an almost luminous quality, one that—if you excuse my unintentional pun—is assured to strike a chord with her readers. I particularly liked the discussions surrounding the way other countries tend to stereotype musicians from East Asian countries (conflating attributes they associate with those countries—’conformity’, ‘rigidity’—with the music they produce).

“We learn so much more about things when they are broken or unmade, he thought.”

There is a particular episode early on in the narrative when something happens to a violin and well, I was almost in tears. In spite of these moments of tension and of Feng’s candid portrayal of the Red Guards, the narrative retains a quiet atmosphere, one that is pervaded by a sense of longing.

“He was impatient for time to pass, so that in his life, there would be less yearning and more having, less becoming and more being.”

While Feng’s writing is indisputably beautiful (I have dozens of highlights that will attest as much) I did find myself at a remove from her characters. That is not to say that I failed to sympathise with them. Their interactions—especially the ones between Junie and her grandad—could certainly be affecting. However, there was a veil between me and the characters that I was unable to penetrate. While this ‘distance’ did bring to mind the work Jhumpa Lahiri (a favourite of mine), here the slightness of the novel (just over 200 pages) meant that years of their lives would be condensed in a few pages, giving me little time to adapt to their new environments and circumstances. At times their personalities were too inscrutable so that I found myself confusing characters (especially the secondary ones that prop up in the America section of the novel). I also wanted more of Junie. She is very much sidelined for much of the narrative and I would have loved to read more about her childhood.

“In order for Junie to exist, two people had to come together during the Cultural Revolution under circumstances that one of them would later describe as inevitable, and the other, as coincidental.”

Feng’s exquisite prose and her meditation on art, culture, love, grief, exceptionalism, and dislocation result in a poignant and thought-provoking read. If you are a fan of authors such as Lahiri you should definitely not pass this up.

my rating: ★★★½

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Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.

Richly observed and heartbreakingly candid Crying in H Mart provides a powerful account of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. In her memoir musician Michelle Zauner writes with painful clarity of when at age 25 her mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Zauner’s recollection of her mother’s terminal illness, her rapidly deteriorating health, and eventual death is heart-wrenching. Zauner conveys with devastating precision the grief, confusion, and hurt she experienced in the wake of her mother’s diagnosis. Interspersed throughout her memories of her mother’s illness are glimpses into her childhood and teenage years. In looking back to her youth Zauner examines her strained relationship with her mother, her evolving relationship to her Korean American identity, and the crucial role that food, in particular Korean food, played in her upbringing and adulthood. Food becomes a tether to her mother and her Korean heritage (speaking of which, there is this wonderful video starring Zauner & Maangchi ).
Zauner’s immersive storytelling, which is brimming with piercing insights into love, loss, and language, is utterly captivating.

Despite the harrowing subject matter, I found myself unwilling to interrupt my reading. In navigating her grief and her shifting perception of her mother Zauner presents her readers with some truly beautiful reflections on motherhood and daughterhood. I admire Zauner for being able to write with such lucidity about her grief and her mother’s illness. Zauner’s introspections also are worthy of praise as she is unflinching in her critiquing of her past-self.
Zauner’s examination of her often uneasy relationship with her mother underscores each episodic chapter within her memoir. In her recollection of her mother Zauner stresses how easy it is to mistake less ‘conventional’ demonstrations of love and affection as ‘lesser’.
Reading Crying in H Mart made my heart ache. Frank yet lyrical this is the kind of memoir that will leave a mark on its readers.

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

re-read: this was just as heart-wrenching this second time around. Yet, there is something about Zauner’s voice that I find so compelling that makes her memoir into an ultimately uplifting book. There were many instances where I was moved to tears: from reading of the tragic reality of helplessly witnessing your own mother’s deteriorating health, to those instances where food becomes a binding force. I loved the way Zauner wrote about the power of food, in particular those recipes that are part of our childhood or that remind us of our culture or of a specific person. I was reminded of the important role that food played in my family growing up, in particular during my stays with my grandparents. Even if I wasn’t familiar with the foods and ingredients populating Zauner’s story the vivid way in which she wrote about them—their aromas, their compatibility to each other, the places where you would find these—made it all too easy for me to visualise them. This memoir is a powerful ode to food and the bond between mothers & daughters, specifically Zauner’s immeasurably complex and fierce relationship with her mother.


my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales & Cale Dietrich

“It’s been so hard for me to believe that being adored doesn’t mean I’m one mistake away from being despised.”

If you are looking for an escapist read, look on further. If This Gets Out is a cute and ultimately uplifting YA romance. It does have the sort of tropes and scenarios that you would get from fanfic but I happened to be in the mood for something cheesy and fun.
I have never been a fan of boybands nor am I into ‘shipping’ real-life people so I read If This Gets Out on its own merit (ie without drawing comparison to that boyband). Our dual narrators, Ruben Montez and Zach Knight, are members of a famous American boyband, Saturday. While Ruben, Zach, Angel, and Jon all love being in a band together and enjoy the perks that come with their job, they have little freedom (creative or otherwise). Their management has forced them into adopting a certain personality (for example Angel and Jon’s ‘personas’ are shaped by racial stereotypes) and the boys are beginning to resent this. Ruben is gay and is tired of being forced to keep his sexuality a secret. Zach is not too happy with his lyrics always being turned down for not being ‘pop’ enough. Angel, who is very energetic and loud, turns do drugs and partying. Jon, who happens to be the son of their manager, is clearly not comfortable with being the band’s ‘sex’ symbol.
On a tour to Britain and Europe, things get worse. Their management controls their every move and the boys feel increasingly under pressure. They aren’t allowed to do any of the touristy things and their management are constantly monitoring them (often criticising them). Ruben and Zach become particularly close during this time and their feelings are definitely less than platonic. Zach, however, is unsure of his sexuality or what he wants and briefly, things between them don’t go too well. Thankfully the story doesn’t dwell on their disagreement for too long and the two get together. But as you might guess their management isn’t too keen on their romance (given that their audience consists mostly of young girls they have to remain ‘available’).

The story is certainly entertaining. While most of the adult characters are rather one-dimensional I did like the dynamics within the band. Some of the disagreements between Ruben and Zach did not make much sense (especially towards the end, it seemed like the plotline needed an argument so an argument happened). The narrative mostly focuses on showing how controlling, manipulative, and downright shitty the adults around the boys are (Ruben’s mother being the worst of the lot, even if she was not entirely convincing) and the downsides of fame (creepy/stalkery fans etc.). The story is clearly about the freedom to be yourself and being allowed to figure yourself out without others pressuring you into being someone you are not. I appreciated these messages and I did find the novel to be engaging. The writing was decent, but I did find myself preferring Ruben’s chapters. At times Ruben and Zach seemed a bit undefined but I didn’t really go into this expecting nuanced character studies. If you are looking for an easy read (kind of silly, lil bit angsty) that manages to lightly touch upon some important issues, If This Gets Out may be the right read for you.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★¼

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The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

Moving through space (America, Lebanon, Syria) and time (from the 1960s to 2019) The Arsonists’ City tells a sprawling yet engrossing tale about the Nasr, a Syrian-Lebanese-American family. Written with the same subtlety and beauty as her debut novel, The Arsonists’ City presents readers with a cast of fully-fleshed out characters, however flawed or frustrating they may be, a rich exploration of the Nasrs’ personal and cultural identities, and a glimpse into Lebanon and Syria’s complex pasts and presents.
The prologue opens up with the death of a young man. The narrative then introduces us to the Nasrs’ ‘children’. There is Ava, the eldest, the only one in the family who is not driven by ambition or particularly cares to be in the spotlight. Although she’s quite content with her job as a microbiology teacher, her marriage is undergoing a rough patch. her relationship with Nate, her husband, is undergoing a rough patch. We then have Mimi, their mother’s golden boy, whose musical career never truly kicked off. As Mimi’s bandmates get younger and younger, and his peers are getting married and having children, he feels stuck. Naj, the youngest and the only one who lives outside America, is part of a successful musical duo. In Beirut, she feels free to do as she wishes. Her family don’t know she’s gay and Naj isn’t keen on abandoning her party lifestyle.
Over the years the siblings have drifted away from each other. Seemingly out of the blue their father, Iris, a heart surgeon, decides to sell his family home in Beirut. After this sudden decision, the Nasr are reunited in Beirut. Close proximity reignites deep-rooted jealousies and brings to the light old family secrets and betrayals. Their feelings towards each other, and themselves, are complicated, messy. They bicker a lot, snitch on each other (often to their mother), and, in general, don’t have the easiest time together. However, as Alyan so brilliantly demonstrates, family bonds, however thorny or challenging, can be a true source of happiness or comfort.

Their reunion in Beirut happens quite later on in the narrative. Before that, we delve into Ava, Mimi, and Naj’s everyday realities. From their romantic relationships to their sex lives and careers. Alyan also provides us with glimpses into the lives of the people around them—their partners, colleagues, friends, bandmates—so that we end up with a rich cast of characters.
Each of the children reacts differently to their father’s decision. Ava and Mimi are initially unwilling to go to Beirut but are ultimately worn down by their mother’s unrelenting recriminations. Naj isn’t particularly happy at the news either as she feels quite possessive of her life in Beirut.
The narrative then transports us to Damascus, in the 1960s. Their mother, Mazna, falls in love with the theatre and begins to dream about a future as a renowned actor. The Lebanese Civil War is the background to Mazna’s chapters which heavily focus on her acting experiences. She befriends Idris, aka her future husband, who is Syrian and his close friend Zakaria, who is Palestinian and lives in a refugee camp.
The remainder of the novel moves between the present, with the family reunited in Beirut, and the past, where we read of Mazna and Idris’ early days of marriage and of their eventual migration to California.

Most of the characters make bad choices, they hurt the ones they love, they are unsatisfied by the direction their lives are taking (both Mazna and Mimi’s careers never truly resemble what they’d envisioned), and they either cheat or are cheated on. I appreciated how each character has to deal with failure or heartbreak, either as a direct consequence of their actions or due to circumstances out of their control. I also liked how realistic the children’s relationship with one another was. Alyan gives her characters both individual and shared history, which makes them feel all the more authentic. Alyan also brings her settings to life, for better or worse.
What felt a tad unnecessary was the extensive forays into Mazna’s past. She wasn’t a particularly likeable or sympathetic character (my favourite was probably Harper, Mimi’s Texan girlfriend). For their flaws, I found myself much more interested in the lives of her children.
The story at times felt a tad too melodramatic, especially in regards to certain ‘revelations and all that cheating. I swear the Nasrs’ are a family of cheaters. It got kind of repetitive (wow, quelle surprise, someone is cheating/being cheated on, yet again). There was an odd line sexualising a child which felt a bit…yuckish? And one that gave me incest-y vibes, which was also pretty unecessary.
Despite all that, I remained enthralled by Alyan’s storytelling and piercing observations. Her dialogues ring true to life and the character dynamics are very compelling.
With the tone of Elif Shafak The Saint of Incipient Insanities and the scope of Roopa Farooki’s The Good Children, The Arsonists’ City offers its readers a captivating and intricate family saga populated by nuanced characters and deeply rooted in Lebanon and Syria’s histories and cultures. In spite of its length (the audiobook is over 19 hours) The Arsonists’ City proved to be a gripping read one that I might even re-read.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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At the End of the Matinee by Keiichirō Hirano

Although At the End of the Matinee shares stylistic and thematic similarities with Keiichirō Hirano’s A Man, it makes for a far less intriguing read. At the End of the Matinee lacks the psychological edge that made A Man into such a compelling read. The story and characters of At the End of the Matinee have little depth, and, as the narrative progresses and the storyline veers into melodrama, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by what I was reading (and disappointed too, considering that—abrupt ending aside—I found A Man to be a well-written and engaging read).

The opening pages of At the End of the Matinee are very reminiscent of the ones from A Man. Readers are informed that the story they are about to read is real and that to “protected their privacy” this unnamed author has “altered” certain details (such as their names). Yet, whereas this ‘fiction posing as true story’ device fitted A Man (given that the novel adopts a story within a story structure) here it just seemed a half-hearted attempt to make Satoshi and Yoko’s story more interesting to the reader. This prologue, after all, has no real impact on the remainder of the narrative.

Set in the mid to late 2000s At the End of the Matinee recounts the love story between Makino, a classic guitarist who as of late has become a wee bit disillusioned by his playing and performances, and Yoko, a journalist daughter of a Japanese mother and a Croatian father, who happens to be a renowned film director. The two are introduced after one of Makino’s performances through a friend of Yoko and immediately hit it off. Yoko is however engaged to a generic American man.
Despite the distance between them—Makino is in Japan or on tours that take him all over the world while Yoko, who is based in France, is for a period reporting from Iraq— the two begin an email correspondence. Their connection to and feelings for one another are intensified by their virtual exchanges. Makino believes they are meant to be together so decides to visit Yoko once she is back in France. Their reunion is ‘complicated’ by Jalila, who was forced to leave Baghdad and is now staying with Yoko. Yoko, who is also dealing with PTSD from her experiences in Iraq, is unwilling to leave Jalila by herself so her relationship with Makino is postponed. It became quite clear that Yoko cared very little for her American fiancée, and he merely functions as a plot device to make Yoko ‘unavailable. Makino is also going through a musical crisis of sorts, he feels like he is no longer a musical prodigy and that he does not compare to up-and-coming young musicians. The guy was bland, he is the kind of male protagonist you could expect in a work by Murakami. Yoko, instead, is the kind of female character that was clearly written by a man. Her love for Makino makes her all the “more beautiful” and she “ached to give herself to [him] with total abandon, to dissolve in his arms”. After Makino declares himself to her she immediately wants “to marry him and have his child”. And we are supposed to believe that a female journalist in the 2000s has never been confronted by an arrogant and or condescending man. Yeah, two days ago a British man, who knew full well that I am Italian, felt the need to tell me about how the rest of Italy views Rome.

Half-way through the novel reaches sky-high levels of miscommunication and I hated how things unfolded. I just did not buy into any of it. It also seemed far too easy to make certain characters into ‘bad’ eggs make Yoko and Makino’s behaviour seem just. And, I am so sick of this kind of clichéd portrayal of women (Yoko with her “unself-conscious beauty”, the ‘other woman’ is vapid and big breasted—a trollop clearly—and the ‘jealous’ woman whose jealousy knows no bounds).
The story is brimming with platitudes (“Happiness was having someone with whom to share all the everyday experiences”) and spirals into soap-opera levels of melodrama. There are attempts to make Makino and Yoko Not Like Other People™ because they talk extensively of literature but I found their comparison to Death In Venice to be both contrived and ill-fitting (also, they do not seem to feel the need to point out that Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio is…problematic to say the least).
At the End of the Matinee was a vexing read. The story is clichéd, the characters lack depth, the obstacles that keep Yoko and Makino apart were overdone, and I found myself annoyed by almost every single thing I was reading (like having Yoko and Makino be Jalila’s ‘saviours’….bah!). If you have not read anything by this author I suggest you pick up A Man instead.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

 

 

“I saw my mother raise a man from the dead. It still didn’t help him much, my love, she told me. But I saw her do it all the same. That’s how I knew she was magic.”

 

I was hooked by Libertie’s opening paragraph. Set during and after the American Civil War Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel is narrated by Libertie the daughter of a Black female doctor. As the child of a free-woman Libertie is born free at a time when slavery was yet to be abolished. But whereas Libertie’s mother, who is a light-skinned woman and was able to study medicine by ‘passing’, Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and because of this experiences both racism and the prejudices of those who are ‘colorstruck’. Cathy, although not a demonstrative mother, clearly cares about Libertie and has trained her since a young age in the medical arts. But, as Libertie discovers, some conditions and or people cannot be cured. When one of her mother’s patients, a man Libertie had grown fond of, fails to recover, Libertie begins to question her mother’s abilities and grows increasingly disillusioned by her profession. Sensing her daughter’s detachment, Cathy enrolls Libertie at Cunningham College in Ohio where she will be the only female medical student. Libertie, who by this point had already begun to chafe against her mother’s expectations, is far more drawn by the music department, and in particular, by the voices of Louisa and Experience, also knows as the Graces.

“Music at night, music after dark, music finding its way to you across sweetgrass, can feel almost like magic.”

Libertie longs to belong to them, but, in spite of her attempts to form a friendship with the Graces, the bond between the two women is impenetrable. Greenidge’s articulates Libertie’s loneliness and yearning with lyric precision. It was easy to understand and sympathize with Libertie, her wish to be free of other people’s visions of who she should be. We also understand how complex her relationship with her mother is: having grown without a father or other relatives Cathy is everything to Libertie.

I found this first half of the novel to be but poignant and engaging. Greenidge does not shy away from discussing the realities of slavery, racism, colorism, or sexism. Yet, her narrative does not dwell on pain and suffering. There are many moments of beauty and empathy, and I found Libertie’s voice to be utterly captivating.

The latter half of the novel is where things get a bit messy. Libertie becomes entangled with Emmanuel, a young man from Haiti. While their first interactions had both chemistry and potential, their romance happens way too fast. Libertie’s feelings toward Emmanuel aren’t clearly addressed, which was weird since up to that point readers were privy to her innermost feelings and or thoughts. And then, bam, all of a sudden Libertie is in Haiti with Emmanuel and things there take a vaguely Jane Eyresque turn.
While the descriptions of Haiti, from its history to its physical landscapes, were vivid, and there were many thought-provoking discussions on religion and culture, I remained unconvinced by Libertie’s motivations to move there. I wish the story had kept its focus on her and Cathy or her and the Graces, as I did not really feel the ‘love’ between her and Emmanuel. Their relationship was rushed and once in Haiti it never truly develops or progresses. His family drama steals the limelight, and although it did allow the narrative to touch upon some compelling issues, I just could not bring myself to believe in Libertie or Emmanuel’s motives. Cathy’s presence is relegated once more to letters that Libertie chooses not answer. The finale was both predictable and left a few too many questions unanswered.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed Greenidge’s writing. I found that the inclusion of poetry, music, and fragments from Libertie/Cathy’s letters added a layer of depth to the story.
While I wasn’t blown away by the latter half of the novel nor its conclusion I would still recommend this as it is written in lyrical prose and it presents readers with a nuanced mother-daughter relationship while also delving into America’s history, racism, colorism, sexism, grief, and, as the title and heroine’s name suggest, freedom.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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As Far as You’ll Take Me by Phil Stamper

“How long does it take to fall in love with someone—hours, days, years?”

This was okay but I was kind of expecting something different. At times As Far as You’ll Take Me follows a bit too closely in the footsteps of other YA coming-of-age books. There also seems to be a rising trend for YA stories featuring American kids who travel/run away to Europe, where they make friends, fall in love, and realize that you cannot run away from your problems. As Far as You’ll Take Me is narrated by Marty who is nearly 18 and gay. Although his parents know they refuse to acknowledge his sexuality as they belong to a deeply conservative Christian sect. He decides that the only way he can be himself is by leaving his small Kentucky town behind and crafts a lie about having been accepted for a music summer program at a prestigious school in order to fly to London. Here he will stay with his cousin, who is also gay, and his aunt (who is largely absent due to work). Marty doesn’t have clear plans, other than wanting to play his oboe. He falls for Pierce, a friend of his cousin, who is also a musician and happens to have a not-so-great reputation when it comes to love. There is a lot of busking, some traveling (to Wales and Italy), and quite a lot of angst. Marty’s social anxiety turns seemingly ordinary exchanges and interactions into unsurmountable hurdles. He also begins to reconsider his relationship with Megan, his American best friend, who has always pushed him around, made fun of his insecurities, and who since his departure from the US has become even crueler towards him.
I appreciated that Stamper portrayed a less than ideal friendship and romance. Those looking for a feel-good YA romance might want to steer clear of this book. In addition to toxic relationships and anxiety, this book also touches on eating disorders. Personally, I think that this subject matter could have been explored with more depth as it came across as being a bit too lightly addressed and resolved. Many of the relationships Marty forms in the UK also struck me as having formed far too quickly. Not only is there the insta-love with Pierce but his friendship with Sophie also felt very rushed. While there was an attempt in making Megan into more than a horrible person, ultimately, she comes off as cartoonishly bad. Similarly to another book featuring a gay teen who runs away to Europe to escape his conservative parents’ disapproval, As Far as You’ll Take Me is not very concerned with addressing Marty’s own relationship to his religion. There are one or two passages that give the impression that he no longer believes due to the fact that his being gay is not compatible with his God but these merely scratched the surface of what could have been a more detailed discussion on self-acceptance and religion.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are some unnecessary snippets from a ‘project diary’ relating Marty’s previous summer in which his parents learned of his sexuality. These sections were totally unnecessary as they are so brief that they do not give us a real glimpse into Marty’s relationship with his parents, who, remain a mystery for the whole of the book. He thinks of them now and again but we never learn much about them or of their life up to that point.
All in all, I can’t say that I particularly liked this book. I appreciate the issues the author touches upon but the narrative felt too rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe die-hard fans of YA novels will be able to relate to this more than I was.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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