The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper

“Yes, of course. It is always him they want to know about—the father, not the other mother.”

The Other Mother is an affecting and nuanced multigenerational tale unearthing long-buried family histories. The author’s interrogation of motherhood challenges the heteronormative archetype of the nuclear family, as she focuses on the experiences, choices, and parenting of single-women and same-gender couples. Throughout the course of the novel, readers will witness how parental love is not dictated by blood and the complexities that arise from that. Within these pages, motherhood is a multivalent term, one that changes from mother to mother. The two mothers that are at the chore of the story are flawed and imperfect individuals, who make mistakes believing that they are doing what’s best for their child. The author however is never not sympathetic towards them, nor does she condone their behaviour, allowing instead her other characters within her narrative, and readers as well, to reach their own conclusion about some of their choices. We are made to understand their states of mind, the events leading to them making those choices or the circumstances that aggravated certain ‘bad’ habits. The ‘democratic’ structure of the novel allows for all of the people connected to Jenry Castillo to be given a perspective, to give their side of the story and the rift between his two families, the Pattersons’ and the Castillos’.

“What Jenry does know is that he doesn’t belong here, which is how he’s felt about almost every place he’s been. Call it the mark of illegitimacy. But somehow this campus feels different. He’s come here to find something; more specifically, to find someone, which alone gives his presence a purpose. He has come to find his father.”

The narrative opens with Jenry starting his 1st year at Brown University after earning a music scholarship. Jenry was raised by his mother, Marisa, a nurse. While thanks to his grandparents he feels a connection to his Cuban heritage, neither they nor Marisa can fully understand his experiences as the only Black kid in his neighbourhood or fill the absence of his father, Jasper, who died when he was two. He has learnt that his paternal grandfather, Winston Patterson, is none other than a renowned professor of African American history at Brown, so once on campus Jenry sets out to find him, wanting to know more about the kind of person Jasper was. When he does speak to Winston, the encounter is far from the bittersweet reunion between two estranged family members. Winston seems not particularly interested or surprised by his estranged grandchild’s existence, and is unwilling to reveal more about Jasper. In fact, he asks why Jenry is so focused on Jasper when it was his sister, Juliet, who was involved with Marisa. Upon learning this Jenry is shocked and confused, angry at Marisa for having hidden the truth from him, and unsure what it even means that at one point in his life he had two mothers. The following sections, focusing on Marisa, Juliet, Jasper, Winston, and Victor, Jenry’s maternal grandfather, give us a retrospective of what occurred between Marisa and Juliet, their love story and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. We know from the start that Marisa took Jenry away from Juliet without any warning, leaving her with no way of contacting them. Since then Juliet has struggled with addiction and has only in recent years been able to find a stable relationship and job. Her career as a musician seems to have gone astray soon after Marisa left, leaving Juliet bereft and alone. And what role did Winston and Victor play in their daughters’ stories? Both men disapproved of their relationship and their ‘unconventional’ family, but, did they eventually try to do what’s right by them and Jenry?
I really appreciated the uneasy questions this narrative raises in terms of doing right by others and yourself. If you do something terrible (whether it is taking them away from a parent, pressuring them academically, or forcing them to deny who they are) but you have convinced yourself it is the best thing for your child, can you and should you be forgiven?
The narrative shows the many ways in which parents hurt their children out of ‘love’ or because they are unable to accept them and their choices, without exonerating them or villainizing them. Other characters may blame them but thanks to the book’s structure we can’t really favour one perspective over another. If anything, the author is able to show the justifications and fabrications some of the characters make in order to justify to themselves, and others, their actions. I appreciated how imperfect and messy the characters were and the different forms of love we see in this story. The author captures the longing, heartache, and regret experienced by her characters in a melodious prose.

“The loss of him fills her body, courses through her veins. And now, as her memories replay over and over, she can’t help but feel it all—the sadness, the loss, the love she had and perhaps still has for him—flowing into her limbs, making her skin twitch, her fingers ache, till it spills from her eyes as tears.”

The uneasy character dynamics that are at play within the story were deeply compelling and enabled the author to incorporate larger discussions on gender, sexuality, race, class, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Additionally, grief underlines much of the narrative. It may be grief at the death of a loved one (Jasper) or grief resulting from physical and emotional separation (Jenry being taken away from Juliet, the unbridgeable rift between Marisa and her mother, the distance between Juliet and Winston and eventually Jenry and Marisa). I loved much of the story and found myself particularly moved by Juliet’s portion. The author beautifully articulates her sorrow, without romanticizing her struggles or painful experiences. Initially, I found myself also feeling sympathetic towards Marisa, despite her choice to take Jenry away from Juliet. We see how unrequited love and rejection can eventually alienate you from the ‘object’ of your desire. But then in the latter portion of the book, any affection I held for Marisa perished when she behaves in a really crappy and unfair way to her son. Jenry, upon learning that she had lied to him for years, is obviously angry and upset. She is initially shown to be desperate to make amends, and I really felt for her especially given what she is going through. But then when she eventually reaches Jenry she tries to force him into forgiving her by threatening to make him leave Brown, saying that this place had clearly ‘changed’ him and he’s clearly not ready or something…and cristo dio. Wtf?! What a fcking stronza. Really. When she said that sht and the narrative glosses over it I just could not move past it. It infuriated me beyond measure and soured the remainder of my reading experience. Additionally, there was a predictable soap-opera reveal that was hinted at earlier on that just made me roll my eyes. The ending sequence was tonally a lot different from the narrative so far and struck me as mawkish and really jarring.

But hey ho, I did love most of the book so I would still recommend it to others. If you are a fan of multigenerational sagas, such as the ones penned by Brit Bennett, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, or authors such as Hala Alyan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Danielle Evans, and Francesca Ekwuyasi, you should definitely not miss The Other Mother.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page

The main reason why I read The Witch’s Hand was Maggie Stiefvater’s 5-star review for it (what can I say, I trust in Stiefvater). And I’m so glad I did! Way back when I had an ahem Scooby-Doo phase (not only did I watch 20+ Scooby-Doo animated films but I also ended up devouring the two Mystery Incorporated seasons…all over the course of one summer. I know, I had a problem.) so I was immediately drawn to The Witch’s Hand: we have the small-town setting (with a, you guessed it, creepy lighthouse) + a bunch of kids trying to solve a mystery. We follow orphaned twins Pete and Alastair Montague who spend most of their time solving mysteries. Their latest case may be more complicated than their previous one as it may involve a witch and magic.
The retro art really suited the setting (1960s) and I liked the banter between the various characters. Yes, the bad guy was a bit too Disneyesque for my taste but I also appreciated the YA tone of the story (as opposed to middle-grade) and its atmosphere. I look forward to reading the next instalment as I would be happy to read more of the Montague twins and their antics.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson — book review

9780143128045.jpegLife Among the Savages is a collection of comic essays by Shirley Jackson originally published in women’s magazines. Rather than a memoir Life Among the Savages reads as a series of episodes focusing on Jackson’s chaotic family life: children squabbling, disagreements with other parents, daily chores, and family dinners. Jackson renders the cacophony of her family, tinging everyday activities or conversations with a does of absurdity. Her children’s back and forth are as entertaining as they are bewildering:

“That shirt’s no good,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“Children,” I called, my voice a little louder than it usually is at only nine in the morning. “Please stop squabbling and get dressed.”
“Laurie started it,” Jannie called back.
“Jannie started it,” Laurie called.”

Jackson very much focuses on the lightest aspects of her life, painting herself as a busy mother of three, and focusing her attention to her children’s antics as opposed to herself. It was lovely to read the way in which she could be amused by their nonsense or misdeeds (Jannie’s imaginary daughters were a joy to read of). There were also plenty of elements that brought to mind her fictional work or in some way made me wonder whether they somehow influenced her writing: the broken step, the creepy taxi driver, the nosy locals, Laurie’s ‘schoolmate’ Charles (whose name enters the family lexicon, “With the third week of kindergarten Charles was an institution in our family; Jannie was being a Charles when she cried all afternoon; Laurie did a Charles when he filled his wagon full of mud and pulled it through the kitchen; even my husband, when he caught his elbow in the telephone cord and pulled telephone, ashtray, and a bowl of flowers off the table, said, after the first minute, “Looks like Charles.”). I was delighted by the way in which Jackson would write about her house.

Life Among the Savages will definitely appeal to those who enjoy Jackson’s particular brand of humour.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern — book review

secret libraries + magical doors + stories within stories within stories = my kind of book

“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”

This is the type of book that readers will either love or hater. Its playful style and recursive storytelling are definitely not for everyone. Within the first pages readers will realise whether they find this type of elusive narrative to be inviting or off-putting. Thankfully, in my case, I was perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief.

“Do you believe in the mystical, the fantastical, the improbable, or the impossible? Do you believe that things others dismiss as dreams and imagination actually exist? Do you believe in fairy tales?”

To me, The Starless Sea was not only a fun and entertaining read but one that wonderfully managed to pay homage to various forms of storytelling, often by incorporating and subverting established tropes and elements of the fantasy genre.
Heavily inspired by fairy tales, myths, and—surprise surprise—video games, The Starless Sea takes its readers into a metatextual romp filled with books, stories-within-stories, and magic.

“These doors will sing. Silent siren songs for those who seek what lies behind them.
For those who feel homesick for a place they’ve never been to.
Those who seek even if they do not know what (or where) it is that they are seeking.”

This fantastical adventure has many beginnings, the most notable being perhaps the one in which Zachary Ezra Rawlins, arguably the novel’s ‘true’ protagonist, comes across an odd book titled Sweet Sorrows. Zachary soon discovers that, not only is the book missing from the library’s catalogue, but that internet searches regarding it come up blank. Curiouser and curiouser still, Zachary believes that one of the chapters in Sweet Sorrows is about him.

“He had thought there could be no stranger feeling than stumbling across a book that narrates a long-ago incident from his own life that was never relayed to anyone, never spoken about or written down but nevertheless is unfolding in typeset prose, but he was wrong.”

Soon Zachary finds himself leaving the safety of his college life behind him in order to discover more about Sweet Sorrows. Secret organisations, book burnings, subterranean libraries, magical doors, pirates, men lost in time, mysterious entities, and many other-worldly things fill Zachary’s epic quest. Interspersed throughout his narrative arethe wondrous books he comes across, and the stories and characters within these books may be more real than not.

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains an entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

In many ways this novel struck me as a love letter to bibliophiles. Those who dream of walking into a wardrobe and finding themselves transported into a marvellous land or of falling down a rabbit hole and into Wonderland. There are many interconnected mysteries, some more slippery than others. In many ways Zachary’s quest echoes the classic hero’s journey. There is a call to adventure, supernatural aids, romance, transformations, revelations, and returns. Time and again Zachary finds himself having to solve puzzles in order to pull apart the mystery of a bee, a key, and a sword.

“Slowly they attempt to sort through a thousand questions. For every connection they make between one book and another there are more that don’t fit. Some stories seem completely separate and distant and others feel explicitly connected to the story they have found themselves in together now.”

As much as I loved Zachary and his adventure, I do think that certain elements within this novel could have been made more clear. I’m all for ambiguity and suspense but there were quite a few scenes that seemed unnecessarily cryptic. Yes, enigmatic statements and puzzling riddles sound cool enough…maybe less so when there are so many.
While I enjoyed the novel’s story-within-story structure, I think that a greater focus on Zachary’s narrative would have strengthened some of the character dynamics (especially with the main two other characters, Dorian and Mirabel). Towards the end of the book we suddenly get snippets from a character that up to that point had remained rather on the outskirts…and I didn’t really much care for those sections (if anything they interrupted the momentum of Zachary’s quest).

Erin Morgenstern’s writing style is brimming with wonderful descriptions and possesses a very strong storyteller quality. For example, the beginning of her chapters seem to have been worded in a way that echoes the openings of fairy-tales. The lovely rhythm of her prose is entrancing and extremely readable. It may appear simple but it provides us with some vibrant scenes. Not only do the locations and clothes within this novel create a beautiful aesthetic but they often carry intertextual references.
The Starless Sea is a modern and self-aware take on some well-worn and well-loved tales, one that I recommend to fans of Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab, Maggie Stiefvater, and Catherynne M. Valente. It may not have moved me as much as The Night Circus but I nevertheless enjoyed reading it. I was pretty excited when the narrative mentioned some of my favourite authors (Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, and Shirley Jackson) and when it referred to some of my favourite childhood stories.

Given how much I liked Zachary, I would happily read this novel again. And perhaps a second reading will make me love and understand the various stories even more.

“Zachary recalls innumerable fairy-tale warnings against eating or drinking in underworlds and at the same time realizes he is incredibly thirsty.
He suspects this is the only way forward.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Summer by Edith Wharton — book review

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Although short Summer is an interesting read.
Feelings and actions are obliquely revealed or hinted at, so much so that many of the decisive events that our ‘heroine’ Charity experiences are only alluded to or described in an indirect fashion.

Because of this, the changing dynamics between the various characters can at times be hard to follow or understand. Yet, Wharton’s narration does render, withan almost painful accuracy, those emotions and thoughts that can align the reader to Charity’s state of mind.

There is a sense of sadness and growing unease that makes this novella into a rather distressing reading experience. While the story examines class, gender, and desire in an intriguing manner it also presents us with many unhappy scenarios and characters who are selfish, greedy, and snobbish.
Wharton deftly illustrates how Charity’s background (the fact that she comes from “up the mountain” ) not only negatively affects her reputation—that is the way she is perceived by others—but it is also the cause of her own sense of inferiority. Almost incongruously to this deeply ingrained feeling of shame, and the fear that she is like her mother (a poor woman of ill reputation), Charity holds the fervent belief that she is superior to others and deserving of an exciting and self-fulfilling life.
These contrasting beliefs are the likely reason why Charity denies herself happiness and in self-denial she bottles up her love for Lucius Harney.
The story is not a happy one, and as Charity mirrors her mother’s path, readers will find the turn of events to be almost inevitable ones. Perhaps a slower narrative could have examined with even more depth Charity and her story, as the narrative in Summer quickly moves from scene to scene without much room to digest the causes and consequences of Charity’s actions…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Bunny: A Novel by Mona Awad — book review

Untitled drawingThere are those bizarre and experimental books that manage to be entertaining, transgressive, and on occasion even thought-provoking. And then, there are books like Bunny whose weirdness largely rests on overusing the word bunny(which appears approximately 350 times, one time too many).
An intentionally silly story that owes more to Scream Queens and The Babysitter then Heathers or Mean Girls. If you are picking up Bunny thinking that it is some sort of intriguing campus novel, you should reconsider given that this book is the anthesis to The Secret History. If you are hoping for some sort of absurdist black comedy à la Yorgos Lanthimos, think again. The ‘satirical horror’ I was hoping to encounter in Bunny was closer to the ‘comedic horror’ in the Scary Movie franchise…

Writing about writing is never an easy endeavour since there is the high risk that you will remind your readers that they are indeed ‘reading’ a fictitious work. Since the main cast in Bunny is part of a creative writing MFA program…we were constantly reminded of how inane criticism can be. The five girls part of this program are apparently only able to write fiction that reflects their personal life or preferences…funnily enough, a lot of the criticism that these characters throw at each other’s pieces of writing could easily be aimed at Bunny (oh, the irony):

“Um, what the fuck is this, please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this […] spoiled, fragmented, lazy, pretentious […] And then I feel like screaming JUST SAY IT. TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS AND WHAT YOU DID WITH HIM EXACTLY.”

Four of these girls are part of a clique that is the ultimate parody of cliques. From the first few pages they are presented as some sort of ‘hive-mind’, some sort of multi-conscious entity. Some of their conversations between them—as well as the narrator’s observations about them—could be amusing.
Although the narrator keeps insisting that she is ‘different’ (aka the only ‘big’ difference between her and the bunnies is her finances) she falls prey to this clique. Personally, I don’t think the story provides with a convincing reason for the MC to fall in with these girls. Even when the Mc sees their most secretive activities…it seemed that she stayed with them out of laziness (or merely as a way to further the plot).
The weirdness of this story seems contrived. This whole novel seems (rather ironically) like an exercise for a creative writing class. Many of the ‘bizarre’ elements in this story were predictable and had me rolling my eyes. The whole book is like a joke that goes on for too long. The first few chapters were amusing and the scenes that took place in the creative writing workshop were on point (and reminded me of the creative writing module I took in my first year of uni):

“Samantha, we’re at Warren. The most experimental, groundbreaking writing school in the country. This goes way beyond genre. It subverts the whole concept of genre.”
“And gender narratives.”
“And the patriarchy of language.”
“Not to mention the whole writing medium.”
“It basically fucks the writing medium, Samantha. Which is dead anyway, you know?”
“Exactly. This is about the Body. Performing the Body. The Body performing in all its nuanced viscerality.”

Yet, soon enough the repetitiveness of these exchanges grew tiresome and the style of the narrative became increasingly annoying and unnecessary. The narrative mimics the language—and perhaps vision—of this clique of girls: it is sweet, sticky, and extra. If you like eating candy floss until you feel sick you might be up for it…the narrative—if not the whole story—is a parody that lacks subtlety or real wit:

Here at Mini they have many cupcakes in mini but they should have more. Why don’t they have more? They should have more in mini, more! We tell them how they should have more in mini and they do not seem to make a note of it.

The narrative’s style was so repetitive! All too frequently words were repeated three times in a row in a cheap attempt to give urgency to the story.
The plot (if we can call it that) even in its ‘wtf moments’ is tedious. The characters and story seem merely a backdrop to this sickeningly sweet and repetitive language (hair like feathers, tiny pink-y small-ish hand, glossy this and that, teensy-weensy girls who eat teensy-weensy food).
This book didn’t inspire feelings of panic or fear, which I was expecting given its summary…I was never afraid of these demented girls and their stupid activities. A lot of the things seem to just happen to the MC as if she isn’t capable of these laughable ‘terrible’ things from happening (insert eye roll here). Again, I find it ironic that the MC’s own writing is criticised for this exact reason:

“Although we could hardly call her a heroine, could we? I mean, could we even call her that, Samantha? […] She’s quite passive, Samantha, isn’t she?”

I guess you could argue that this is all ‘intentional’. The stupid characters, the saccharine and repetitive language, the MC’s spinelessness…these things come across this way on purpose…but that seems like a cheap excuse to make the lazy and unfunny elements of your story ‘deliberate’.
The worst ‘sin’ of all is that this book leaves us with a less than favourable opinion about writing and criticism…which isn’t a great message.

 

My rating: ★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

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