Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett

Like a Sister is an engrossing novel that will definitely appeal to fans of Rachel Howzell Hall. Solid pacing, a likeable and engaging narrator, plenty of compelling dialogues, and a well-rendered suspenseful atmosphere. I won’t lie, the main reason why I picked this one up was because I came across the audiobook version while perusing Bahni Turpin’s audios . As per usual, she gives a brilliant performance which no doubt enhanced my reading/listening experience with Like a Sister.

Our main character is Lena Scott, a graduate student at Columbia who is in her late twenties. After her grandmother passes away she inherits her house in the Bronx, which she now shares with her aunt. Her mother is dead, and Mel, her father, a big shot music producer with a don’t-mess-with-me reputation, has shown little interest in Lena. After their ‘messy’ separation he went on to marry and have a child with a former close friend of her mother. Despite the animosity between their parents, Lena and Desiree were ‘like sisters’. Despite their different home environments, with Desiree enjoying Mel’s wealth, Lena leads a more sheltered existence, focusing on her studies. Eventually, Desiree gains certain popularity, having taken part in a reality show and hanging out with ‘it’ crowds. Her partying lifestyle becomes a wedge in the sisters’ relationship, as Lena can’t condone Desiree’s careless ‘misdemeanours’. After years of not talking to each other Lena learns that Desiree has been found dead the morning after her 25th birthday. The media and police are quick to dismiss her death as an accidental ‘overdose’, but Lena is more x. Why was her sister found in the Bronx? Was she on her way to see her? Mel and Lena’s stepmother do not seem as troubled as she is by the inconsistencies of Desiree’s death. Lena feels guilty over her fallout with Desiree and is determined to find the truth. As she reaches out to Desiree’s ex and her friends she begins to suspect that her death may have something to do with the ‘event’ that led to their fallout. Reluctantly Lena is aided by Desiree’s bff, a white rich girl who serves as a source of humor for much of the early narrative.

I liked the dynamic between Lena and the people she interacts with. I think the story would have benefited from giving her more of a backstory. She seems to have only one acquaintance and 0 friends. I kept forgetting what her profession/subject of study was because her character is very much all about Desiree and Mel. That is not to say that she doesn’t have a clear-cut personality. She is loyal, sensible, and funny. Some of the jokes she makes did come across as more in line with someone older than her (rather than 29, someone closer to if not over 40). Still, that didn’t ruin her narration, and I found her old-fashioned quaint and endearing. Her voice is certainly engaging as I was thoroughly absorbed by her narration.
I would have liked for one of the side characters to be less of an ‘Inventing Anna’ type of figure as it was fairly predictable and the misdirection takes up a lot of the story for no reason. The mystery was interesting but the resolution was painfully anticlimactic. The culprit was painfully obvious and I really hoped that the author would subvert my expectations by not making them the killer. Their motivations are…kind of missing? I didn’t buy into their ‘reasons’, as it seemed a huge leap to go from ‘that’ to murder. The ending did feel rushed to the point that it lessened my overall enjoyment of the novel. We also get chapters that are the equivalent of insta posts or lives about Desiree and they did absolutely 0 for the story. I wish we could have had chapters giving us glimpses into the sisters’ childhoods as that would have added depth and nuance to their relationship.
Still, I did have a fairly fun time with this as it was a quick and gripping read/listen. I would definitely read more by this author!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

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

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

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

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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

A week or so before reading Monster in the Middle I read Tiphanie Yanique’s debut short story collection, Land of Love and Drowning, which I rather enjoyed. I remember being struck by Yanique ’s atmospheric storytelling, by her subtle use of irony, and by her thoughtful meditations on death, love, and everything in between. So, given that I have been known to have a soft spot for intergenerational dramas/interconnected storylines (The Vanishing Half, Commonwealth, The Travelers) I was fully convinced that I would love Monster in the Middle.
Albeit confusing, the opening chapter intrigued me. But with each subsequent point of view, I become increasingly aware of just how disjointed and directionless this book was.
Monster in the Middle tells the love story between Fly and Stela, he’s American and a musician, she’s a science teacher from the Caribbean. Yanique jazzes things up by making their romance, not the starting point of the novel but the very end goal. The storylines leading to their romance give us a glimpse into their parents’ lives and later on Fly and Stela’s own experiences as teenagers and young adults.

The novel opens with a chapter on Fly’s father. He and a white girl are running away together, or so it seems. She comes from a deeply religious family and he too is religious. Fly’s father also suffers from schizophrenia but at this point in his life, he believes that the voices he hears are from God. A chapter from Fly’s mother follows, and here we don’t really gain much insight into what had happened to Fly’s father or that girl. She tells us a bit of their marriage but in a way that didn’t come across as engaging or particularly realistic. The following chapters are about Fly as a teen and his college experiences. I hated that the author focuses so much on Fly feeling horny and whatnot. He eventually comes across a sex tape starring his father and that girl he was briefly with. This tape becomes a guilt secret, as he is ashamed of being turned on by it. He masturbates a lot, which, good for him I guess but I personally could have also done without those scenes (it reminded me of What’s Mine and Yours, where the sections focusing on the teenage boy character are all about him having boners). Fly’s character in these chapters is reduced to his sexuality.
In college, he gets involved with a really religious girl and this character made no sense whatsoever. I found it corny that she was singing or praying while they were being intimate with each other and that she has such a disconcerting approach to sex (it is implied that she ‘uses’ her body to make people straight…?!). Because of course, she would be like that.

Then we get to know about Stela’s mother. Again, there was something off-putting about the characters and the relationships they formed with each other. Same thing for Stela’s father, who is not her biological father (other than that i can’t recall anything about him). Stela eventually comes to the fore and surprise surprise even if her chapters also hone in on her teen years, she isn’t made into a one-dimensional horny adolescent. She grows up in Saint Thomas and eventually goes to study abroad in Ghana where she is the victim of a sexual assault. Years later she marries this blandish guy and then they both, unbeknown to each other, become involved with the same woman. I absolutely hated this storyline. It feeds into existing cliches about bisexual women and it made no bloody sense. I had a hard time believing that this ‘other’ woman would be so deceitful. Then again, the story implies that she is deceitful by nature as she also lies about her background to them. Anyway, at long last Fly and Stela meet and I felt absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel for either character and found them very much devoid of fleshed-out personalities. They merely served as plot propellers, enabling the author to give us some superficial love stories and some observations on multicultural and/or interracial relationships. These brief glimpses into the mc’s parents lives did not make them into particularly well-developed characters, quite the opposite. They felt a bit all over the place, as some chapters, such as the 1st one, hone in on a very specific episode, while others have a vaguer timeline.
While the story addresses important issues, it did so rather superficially. Towards the end, the narrative includes covid and the BLM movement but it does so in a rather rushed way. I would have liked less focus on the characters’ sex lives and more moments of introspection.

The writing could also be rather off-putting with cringey lines like: “When he put his hand to her there at the center, she pressed herself hard against him, and she was slick. It made him think of candy gone sticky in the sun.”; “his penis hard and curved, her vagina sticky and warm. They presented these things to each other like treasures: “So smooth,” she said to his; “So sweet,” he said to hers.”; “The primary thing in his life was the ocean of this woman’s insides.”.

Additionally, I did not particularly care for the way the author ‘dealt’ with the rape storyline. And we get some problematic lines such as: “Jerome was flirting, she knew, but he was seventeen and she, frankly, was susceptible at twenty-three.” and “Stela looked around and saw an empty easel erect in a corner. She wished she had a dick. She wanted to be inside this bitch of a woman.”.

Overall, I could not bring myself to like this book. This novel lacked the strongly rendered setting of Land of Love and Drowning and, moreover, the author’s style was too florid for me. I couldn’t take a lot of what I was reading seriously.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Having recently enjoyed reading Kevin Kwan’s A Room With A View re-telling, I was seriously expecting to love Crazy Rich Asians. I went into it hoping for a light-hearted and fun read but was instead met with a snooze-inducing story, a horrid cast of poorly developed characters, and an abundance of crass humor. I grew to hate all of the characters as well as the so-called plot and the tacky dialogues. Whereas I found Sex & Vanity to be a funny comedy of manners, Crazy Rich Asians struck me as garish and grating.
Rachel Chu, our supposed heroine, joins her boyfriend Nicholas Young as he travels to Singapore to be the best man at his best friend’s wedding. Nicholas has not informed Rachel of his family, who happen to be ‘crazy rich’. Because of this Rachel isn’t prepared to contend with his relatives’ opulent lifestyles nor is she expecting to encounter such cut-throat people, whose weapon of choice is malicious gossip. Although Rachel was raised in America her mother is from mainland China. Both of these things make her ‘undesirable’ to the older people in Nicholas’ family. His mother and grandmother in particular are set against her, so much so that they are willing to sabotage their relationship by any means necessary.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the story as much if it had focused on the conflict between Rachel and Nicholas’ mother. But, alas, hundreds of pages are dedicated to Nicholas’ horrid relations: there is Astrid, a spoiled yet self-pitying woman who will spend hundred of thousands on jewellery only to then bemoan how extravagant young people are. Her husband has a huge chip on his shoulder because he feels that her family treats him like a servant. She eventually comes across her first love who materializes from nowhere only to play the role of self-sacrificing cupid and gives Astrid some ‘advice’ on how to salvage her marriage, because he ‘knows’ men. There is Eddie, who is even more spoiled and obnoxious than Astrid. The narrative goes out of its way to paint him as a vulgar idiot who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There are plenty of additional characters who seem to share the same personality: they are mean, wasteful, vain, stupid, back-stabbing…the list goes on. I don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters. Some of my favourite novels, such as Madame Bovary or White Ivy, focus on less-than-likeable characters. However, the ones in Crazy Rich Asians are so painfully one-dimensional as to be utterly ridiculous. This slapdash satire is lazy and worst of all, painfully unfunny. All the husbands were dicks in the same way: they are cowards, weak, and possible cheaters. The women were divided into four categories: Rachel, who is Not Like Other Women, in that she uses her brain, she’s intelligent, she has a job, she (allegedly) doesn’t know or care about fashion or money; the ‘not so bad’ rich women such as Astrid and Rachel’s friend whose characters nevertheless revolve around what they wear or the fact that they like to spend money; the nasty set, which includes almost all of the women invited to the wedding, and these ones, well, they are Mean Girls who bully Rachel because they are jealous, and for all their love of fashion they do not possess Rachel’s innate simple yet elegant fashion sense; and the older women, which includes Nicholas’ mother, his aunts, and his grandmother who are also horrible and scheming (but are meant to be more ‘classy’ than the Mean Girls).

The plot goes in a circle forever. We see no meaningful interactions between Nicholas and his family, in fact, he gets less page time than most characters. He is Not Like Other Men in that he doesn’t care about money or status. Puh-lease. I found his denial of his wealth truly off-putting. I get that he was (somehow) the only one to be raised to be modest about the family fortune but the man has lived abroad and on his own, surely he must have gained some sort of perspective when it comes to his family’s wealth. But no! Time and again he denies that his family is rich, and I hated that. It made me want to reach into the page and slap him. This fake modesty is not pretty. I feel a similar type of rage when I think of those celebrities making videos where they say things along the lines ‘we are all in this pandemic together’. Bleargh. Fuck off, really. And Rachel, what a disappointing character. She was bland, painfully so. She never stands up to anyone, which, fair enough, given that maybe she doesn’t want to be disrespectful or aggravate certain situations but I found her passivity infuriating in the long run. Especially when it came to those Mean Girls. She also lacked ‘history’. It seemed that before her name appeared on the page she did not exist. With the exception of that one friend and her bf she has formed no other meaningful relationship…which is saying something given that she’s not a child.
Characters keep saying offensive things and no one really challenges their comments or views. If anything, the story goes to prove them ‘right’. Take the whole Kitty thing for example. At one point one of the female characters says that shopping can solve any problem a woman is having and I wanted to gouge my eyes out. The amount of girl-hate also drove me up the walls. I hate when male authors do this. It is as if they are compelled to write women as ‘catty’ and ‘competitive’ (whereas their male characters aren’t).
The book consists of characters gossiping, bicker, and bitching about one another. He said that she said that they said…etc. The one gay-coded character is portrayed as a snake (kwan, wtf? what is this, downton abbey?). The book exalts the characters’ extravagant lifestyles without anything meaningful to say about it. In fact, it just glorifies the ways of rich people. The constant name-dropping of fashion brands threatened to turn my brain to slush.
Anyway, this book has no redeeming qualities (for me of course). Rachel and Nicholas’ relationship felt like an afterthought almost. I never believed that they cared for each other and I think that Rachel should have not forgiven a man who lied by omission (about his past, his family, etc.). The last act was pure soap-opera. To use a possibly problematic term, that ‘twist’ was demented. Seriously so. That we don’t get any real scenes between Nicholas and his mother or even Rachel and his mother made their whole conflict bathetic.
This was meant to be an entertaining and escapist read but I was certainly not diverted. Maybe if you like shows like Gossip Girl you will find this more rewarding than I did. I, for one, do not care for this mindless glorification of the rich. Their ‘antics’, such as xenophobic, classist, and sexist comments as well as their ostentatious tastes and their constant need to travel by jet (who cares about the global carbon emissions!), are played up for laughs. This kind of mindless and gaudy satire achieves nothing. Bah. Maybe the film is more tolerable but this book is the definition of banal.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

Fiona and Jane is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that left me wanting. While the author is certainly a decent writer, I found myself dissatisfied by the friendship that was meant to be the core of her book. Their relationship did not feel complex or nuanced, in fact, it did not even come across as particularly credible. More page time is spent on the inane arguments they have with the wishy-washy men they have sexual and or romantic relationships with than their friendship. The majority of the book is all about characters bickering with one another (which i would have not minded as much if said characters had been realistic or if, at least, their bickering had been somewhat entertaining….).

This book follows two Taiwanese American girls Fiona and Jane as they attempt to navigate girlhood and later on adulthood. While the earlier chapters give us a glimpse into their family history, the later ones are more concerned with their dating lives. They either end up dating manipulative men or end up pining for emotionally unavailable guys. While Jane is queer, her sexuality is very much depicted in a way that left a lot to be desired. At first, some of the chapters imply that she’s a lesbian but then it becomes apparent that she’s probably bi, pan, or queer. Nothing wrong there but for the fact that none of the chapters really focus on her same-sex relationships. These are mentioned, or even appear briefly, but they are not given the same weight as the relationships she has with men. Maybe if the men she ends up entangled with came across as fully-developed characters, I wouldn’t feel so frustrated but they did not and in fact, they were very similar to the men Fiona is with. Rather than expanding on a particular moment in their lives, these chapters usually hone in on a series of silly arguments they have either with each other or the men they are with. These arguments did not always come across as believable and they struck me as staged. As Fiona often takes the role of self-victimizing quasi-hysterical woman, I did not feel particularly engaged in the highs and lows of her romantic life. It did not help that her chapters were narrated in the 3rd person while Jane’s in the 1st one. Because of this I felt distanced by Fiona’s chapters in a way that I wasn’t with Jane. That is not to say that Jane was likeable or a good friend. She was merely the less annoying of the two. At the end of the day only one chapter really honed in on their bond, and the rest spend more time recounting the horrible men they end up with. Their bond was by no means intense or fraught, and there was something very lukewarm about their dynamic. We are told that they are, allegedly, friends. But did this friendship really come across in the actual story? Not really. Early on Fiona does something quite unforgivable to Jane and this is never truly addressed by either party.
I would have liked more time spent on exploring their family dynamics and I think their inner lives could have benefited from being more developed too. We see them at dinners or parties having the same mean-ish conversations with their friends (who make cameo appearances), moaning about the men they are (allegedly) deeply drawn to despite the way they treat them and having exceedingly millennial concerns. I disliked certain plotlines, especially the one involving Jane’s guilt over her father’s death. His sexuality and death become her ‘sad backstory’, something to make her character appear deeper than what she truly is. You might argue that the reason why their friendship features so little in their chapters is that in their adult lives away from one another etc etc…but then why, when the two are once again in the proximity of each other, would you dedicate the chapter actually titled ‘Fiona and Jane’ to Jane’s relationship with a traumatized veteran?
I found both of the titular characters to be selfish, ridiculous in the way they paint themselves as the wronged party, boring (they lack drive and seem to have no real passions/interests), and petty. All in all, I found them to be singularly unlikable. The way Fiona and Jane is formatted too made their relationship appear all the more insubstantial. The book consists of self-contained chapters that can be read like short stories. This type of structure can and does work if in the hands of, say, authors such as Zalika Reid-Benta, Sang Young Park, or Patricia Engel, but here this mode didn’t work so well. The halfhearted attempt at nonlinearity felt pointless, especially since, with the exception of the first three chapters/stories, the rest all take place in an ambiguous time and I was never quite sure in what phase of Fiona and Jane’s lives we were. Doubtlessly, the string of dickish men they become involved with made these chapters rather samey. Additionally, with the exception of the first 3 chapters, Fiona and Jane did not have a strong sense of place.
I will say that the author does highlight the stereotypes attached to women with Taiwanese heritage (at one point one of them dates a korean guy who says taiwanese girls are more ‘promiscuous’ than korean ones). And, despite all of my criticisms, towards the structure of the book, the underdeveloped friendship between Fiona and Jane, I did find the first 3 chapters compelling. The first one is narrated by Jane and reminded me of Mariko Tamaki’s Skim. The second one, if memory serves, is about Fiona’s early years in Taiwan and we see how her grandparents try their best to shelter her. The third one is certainly hard-hitting as it shows how in their efforts to be ‘grown up’ Fiona and Jane end up in a potentially dangerous situation, this one made me think of T Kira Madden’s memoir. But the rest? Meh. They brought to mind Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw . While the two belong to different genres, they both feature thinly rendered millennial-ish characters who have stupid arguments with each other. The trajectory of these arguments did not ring true to life. The characters’ responses to the so-called betrayals also struck me as melodramatic and inconsistent. At one point Jane is insulted and enraged at Fiona after the latter asks her whether she’s had an affair with the man she’s currently seeing. She dramatically storms off but then we learn that Jane knew that he was cheating on her and she is the one who is now begging Fiona for her forgiveness. Surely when Fiona first accused her of being the ‘other woman’ Jane, the friend that up to this point had been painted as the more reasonable and forgiving one, would not have either felt a niggling of guilt over the knowledge that Fiona is right about the cheating, just wrong about the other woman’s identity, or understood that her secrecy and complicity over the affair had made her suspect in her friend’s eyes? No. None of this goes through her head. She just becomes rather hysterical and childish, like, How dArE ShE, wE aRe FriENds.
Another thing that annoyed me is how the author depicts queerness. I did not like the avoidance of words such as bi/pan/and queer. These are not bad words. No one is saying that Jane had to talk about her sexuality 24/7 or wear a badge but that when someone calls her a lesbian in front of a guy she’s into, she later ‘reassures’ him by dismissing him, on the lines of, Who? Me? A lesbian? Nah, you know Whatshisface, he’s full of it. As if ‘lesbian’ were an insult of some sort. While she’s confused over what she feels for this guy she has a kind of rebound relationship with a woman who is given very little page time in comparison to her male partners…why?!
It seemed that time that could have been spent on developing Fiona and Jane’s characters, their backstories, their fears/desires etc., is sacrificed in favour of wannabe gritty and realistic scenes involving their time with forgettable assholes.
It makes sense that some of these chapters were originally published separately. The work feels disjointed and directionless, the vapid discussions of the characters were boring and I found the whole book to be deeply lacking in humour. The sex scenes came across as cheesy because they were trying really hard to be edgy and real. The last few lines, where Jane is all like, I will write a book about us or whatnot, was just..unnecessary.
All in all, I did not care for this novel. If you are interested in books that actually explore the themes this book was supposed to, I recommend you check out Kyle Lucia Wu’s Win Me Something. If you liked Fiona and Jane, well, I’m happy that you were able to appreciate it more than I was…so pls don’t @ me.

my rating: ★★½

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Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

In many ways Sex and Vanity was exactly the pulpy light-hearted read I was in dire need of. Kevin Kwan’s engrossing and entertaining storytelling made me speed through his book and I ended up finishing it in less than a day. As retellings go, this manages to be both (fairly) faithful and rather refreshing. What kept me from wholly loving this book was Lucie, the book’s central character. She’s the kind of self-absorbed, self-pitying, and milquetoast type of heroine that I have come to abhor, so much so that I actively root against them (especially since they are presented to us as likeable/good heroines who are not wholly responsible for their ‘bad’ actions).

Kwan’s reimagining of Forster’s A Room With A View features a contemporary setting and focuses on Lucie Churchill, a Chinese American young woman who is tired of feeling like the odd one out in her social circle. Her deceased father’s relatives are insufferably wealthy WASPs who see and treat her like an ‘oddity’ (the grandmother repeatedly refers to her as a ‘China doll’…yikes). To avoid being the subject of further gossip Lucie, now aged 19, has cultivated a good-girl image. Whereas A Room With A View opens in Florence, Sex and Vanity transports us to Capri where Lucie is staying to attend the wedding of her friend Isabel Chiu. Lucie’s chaperone is the snobbish and fussy Charlotte, her older cousin on her father’s side, who both in name and character is very faithful to her original counterpart. The wedding is decidedly over-the-top and Kwang certainly seems to have fun in envisioning the opulent foods & beverages and extravagant activities that would seem like musts to filthy rich ppl like Isabel and her cohort. As with the original, the two cousins end up in a hotel room with no view and are offered to trade for one with a view on the Tyrrhenian Sea by two other guests, George Zao and his mother (in the original it was George and his father). Lucie dislikes Gergeo on sight. She tells herself it’s because he’s too handsome and too un-American, but, over the course of the wedding celebrations, she finds herself growing intrigued by him.
As with the original something happens between Lucie and George that could very well lead to a ‘scandal’. This is witnessed by Charlotte who makes it her business to separate the ‘lovers’.

The latter half of the story takes place 5 years later in New York. Lucie is engaged to Cecil, who is ‘new money’ and therefore not wholly accepted by Lucie’s set. We are introduced to Lucie’s mother and her brother, who due to his gender and possibly his ‘WASP’ appearance, isn’t as scrutinized as Lucie herself is. Lucie’s future is jeopardized when George and his mother arrive in town. Lucie is horrified at the discovery that George knows her fiance and that the two will be forced to be in each other’s proximity at the various social gatherings they attend. Of course, even as Lucie tells herself she’s not interested in George and that he and his mother represent everything she does not want to be (the gal sure has a lot of internalized racism to deal with) she can’t stop obsessing over him.
Whereas the tone and atmosphere of Forster’s original struck me as gentle, idyllic even, Kwan’s brand of satire is far louder and sensationalistic. This suits the kind of people he’s satirizing, their obsession with status, brands, and reputation, as well as their lack of self-awareness. The rarefied world he depicts is certainly an insular one and while Lucie does experience prejudice, for the most part, the problems his characters face are very much rich people problems.
Given that this novel is far lengthier than Forster’s one I hoped that George would get his time to shine, or that his romance with Lucie could be depicted more openly. But Kwang prioritizes gossipy dialogues over character development.
Most of the conversations and scenes in this novel are of a humorous nature, and Kwang is certainly not afraid to poke fun at his characters (their hypocritical behaviour, their sense of entitlement, their privilege). Still, he keeps things fairly light, and there were even a few instances where the narrative veers in the realms of the ridiculous.
While there is no strictly likeable character, Lucie was perhaps the most grating of the lot. Whereas I excepted Cecil to be a conceited, condescending, wannabe-aesthete (kwang and forester’s cecils pale in comparison to daniel day-lewis’ cecil), I wasn’t prepared for such as wishy-washy heroine. While I could buy into the motivations of Forester’s Lucy (her self-denial, her inability and or unwillingness to articulate her feelings towards george), I could not bring myself to believe in Kwang’s Lucie’s ‘reasonings’. She acts like a child experiencing their first crush, not someone in their mid-twenties. Her antipathy towards George and his mother also made her into an extremely unlikable character. Her actions towards the latter, which as far as I can recall were not inspired from the original, made me detest her. Not only was her ‘plan’ was completely inane but inexcusable. She struck me as bratty, self-involved, superficial, vapid. At times she acts like a complete cretin. I could not see how other people could stand her, let alone how someone like George could fall in love with her.
Even if her character lowered my overall opinion of this novel, I nevertheless had a blast with Sex and Vanity. I liked how Kwang adapted certain plot elements to fit with his modern setting (instead of a book revealing that ‘scandalous’ moment, it’s a film; instead of the carriages there are golf carts). Part of me would have preferred it if Kwang had not made George and his mother ultra-rich given that in the original George and his father are certainly not well off. I also liked that in the original Lucy refuses Cecil twice, whereas here (as far as my memory serves) Lucie immediately accepts Cecil’s request.
Sex and Vanity is a gleefully ‘trashy’ comedy of manners. Kwang’s droll prose and drama-driven narrative make for the perfect escapist read.

my rating: ★★★½

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

“You rescue something and you’re responsible for it. But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running”

While not without its flaws, Faithful is a gem of a book. Alice Hoffman has crafted a heartfelt and ultimately uplifting coming-of-age. Faithful revolves around After being involved in a car crash that leaves her best friend comatose, Shelby Richmond, a teen from Long Island, is left bereft. Reeling from this loss Shelby is unable to resume her ‘ordinary’ life. After a suicide attempt and a stay in a mental institution where she experiences further trauma, she segregates herself into her parent’s basement. She shaves her head, ignores others, and spends most of her time getting high in an attempt to numb the guilt that gnaws at her. Her mother tries to reach out to her but Shelby has become convinced that she’s worthless and undeserving of love and forgiveness. She eventually becomes involved with Ben, a nerdy pot dealer who used to go to high school with her, who unlike others seems to accept this new version of her. Ben convinces Shelby to move with him to New York. In spite of her new surroundings and the distance between her and her best friend, Shelby cannot shake the by now deeply-ingrained belief that she’s undeserving of happiness. Her self-sabotaging is not easy to read about, but thanks to the clarity of Hoffman’s prose, I could always understand where Shelby was coming from and I did not feel frustrated by her low-self esteem and self-hatred. Shelby begins working at a pet store where she befriends one of her co-workers, Maravelle. Over the years she also grows close to Maravelle’s three kids, who experience struggles of their own. In New York Shelby also starts taking in rescued dogs which later on paves the way to her decision to become a vet. Shelby’s love life is complicated as she finds herself growing away from Ben and falling instead for a married man who is a walking talking red flag.

While the premise itself may not sound very original, Hoffman’s unembellished style is devoid of unnecessary sentimentalists, which makes those poignant moments and/or scenes all the more powerful. That the story takes place over the course of seven years or so makes Shelby’s character arc all the more authentic. She never completely gets over the accident nor does she completely forgive herself, however, she does, in time, stop punishing herself.
While readers are told—on more than one occasion—that Shelby hates herself, we soon realize that does not define her character. She certainly dislikes herself, but, she can be surprisingly tenacious and her dry humor is certainly amusing. The mistakes she makes along the way make her into a very relatable and realistic character. I loved Shelby’s snarky charm and her well-hidden kindness.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in its characters and Shelby’s various relationships with them. She forges new friendships and begins to see her parents and their marriage in a different light. The fragile bond she shares with her mother is touching and heartwarming. It is with the help of an unlikely cast of characters that Shelby is able to overcome her self-hatred. Slowly we see the connections she makes influence her: she becomes strong in order to help the ones she loves.
In her clear yet graceful prose, Hoffman depicts simple everyday life scenarios that can be at once moving and funny, from capturing silly moments between two ‘stoned’ friends to focusing on more emotional scenes such as a mother-daughter heart-to-heart. While Faithful begins with a terrible loss, Shelby’s past tragedies do not dominate her story. Yes, forgiveness and guilt play a big role in the novel, but, Faithful is also about hope and love (familial, platonic, romantic).

I do have a few minor criticisms. Shelby steals quite a few dogs. Yes, she steals them from people who were not abusing/neglecting them and no the narrative doesn’t demonise those responsible, however, it seemed a bit weird that she would keep coming across dogs in need of rescuing from bad owners. There are a few lines related to suicide, depression, mental disorders, that were a bit…icky, I guess. We then have this random guy who works at the hospital and refuses to help Shelby unless she promises to grow out her hair…which she does. And wow, now she’s pretty again. This had the same energy as a man telling you to smile more and you do and lo-and-behold your depression is cured. Great. Throughout the course of the novel, Shelby receives letters/messages from an unknown person. These messages at times seemed straight out of a self-help book. At other times they just puzzled me. They basically try to make Shelby ‘better’. Towards the end of the narrative, we meet the person behind these and I will say I did not approve of any of it. I would be wary of someone like that.

Nevertheless, despite these ‘flaws’, I was still able to fall in love with Hoffman’s storytelling. While it may not appeal to those who are looking for plot-driven stories or who aren’t keen on stories that are heavy on the telling, I found this to be a bittersweet noel about survivor’s guilt, trauma, forgiveness, and hope.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

Weirdly enough, at first, I rather disliked this book but, the more I read, the more I found myself warming up to its protagonist Willa Chen.
I initially picked this book up because of its ‘nanny’ premise as Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid and Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson are all-time favourites of mine. After reading the first few pages I was reminded of Luster by Raven Leilani but here I found the narrator quite irritating. The prose too tries too hard to be snappy and edgy, both through its imagery and its, often flowery, metaphors. I am not too keen on narrators who present themselves as wronged on all fronts, and, for quite some time, Willa struck me as self-victimising, especially when it came to her parents. Her passivity too was a source of frustration but, as I continued to read, this unwillingness and inability to act on her part endeared to me. She’s so used to minimising or straight up dismissing her experiences and encounters with racism and sexism that her immediate response to someone saying something offensive is to doubt herself (is she overreacting? is she misperceiving their words/actions? are they just being ignorant or malicious?).

Willa is one of those main characters who is in her early twenties and leading a rather directionless life. Her divorced parents have gone on to have ‘new’ families and she rarely is in touch with them. Willa feels conflicted about her Chinese American identity. She often doesn’t feel or is made to feel, neither Chinese nor American enough. Willa’s sense of otherness and aloneness are further exacerbated by her disconnection from her parents, in particular her father.
After a lukewarm college experience, Willa ends up working for the Adriens, who are a wealthy white family based in Tribeca. Willa looks after their only daughter, Bijou. Similarly to the narrators of Luster and Lucy, Willa feels drawn to Nathalie, Bijou’s mother. Willa tries to act as the nanny the Adriens’ want but tries as she might to fit in with them she cannot reconcile herself to their extremely privileged lifestyle. They, in turn, seem wholly unaware of Willa’s true family history, partly because Willa herself omitted and or lied about quite a few details, partly because they are rather self-absorbed. They also make unfortunate remarks about Willa, at times patronising her or making her feel small and obscure. The novel strings together many every-day moments from Willa’s life as Bijou’s nanny so we get quite a lot of scenes revolving around cooking or that take place during mealtimes. I liked the tensions that the author is able to create in these seemingly ordinary environments (such as the kitchen). There are many instances where Willa messes up or makes some (sometimes downright idiotic) mistake that make me feel both embarrassed on her behalf and rather sympathetic towards her. The author captures the confusion and anxiety many people feel in their twenties. Time and again Willa is made to feel as if her job as a nanny is not a ‘real’ job or that she has yet to become a fully-grown adult. While the Adriens’ are often oblivious of Willa’s real feelings and when with them Willa does put a front, she does become infatuated with their family. Her routine as a nanny offers comfort, in fact, it shields her away from actually confronting her parents and or her future.
Of course, as I said, the Adriens’ home is not a perfect refuge. Willa is often confused by Nathalie’s confiding in her, only to, later on, treat her like ‘house staff’. She also comes into contact with their relatives, and they turn out to be pretty vile. She endures humiliating jabs and or dismissals at her expense and has to put up with looking after sexually inappropriate young boys. The worst of the bunch is Nathalie’s younger brother whose microaggressions make Willa feel understandably ill at ease.
I can see how many readers will find Willa infuriating. She rarely acts or speaks up for herself. Her fear of rejection and abandonment are such that she retreats inward, keeping her true self hidden from others. Her general confusion about her identity is exacerbated by her Chinese American heritage. Time and again she’s asked questions on the lines of ‘what are you’, which serve only to alienate her further from others. Willa makes plenty of stupid choices along the way (do not read if you can’t stand second-hand embarrassment) and rarely thinks things through. Even so, I ultimately found her to be an endearing character. She’s so lonely and alone that you can’t quite bring yourself to judge her as you would someone with a ‘solid’ support system. And, boy oh boy, the discomfort she feels around others, especially Nathalie’s brother was so well-conveyed. His looks plus the way he accompanies his offensive comments with plenty of ‘I’m just joking’ smiles and laughs, well, they succeed in making Willa doubt herself.
Willa’s story arc was truly compelling and I appreciated just how self-critical she comes to be by the end. I did find myself wishing for her to confront certain people but I guess that we don’t always have the opportunity to do that in real life.
I will say that not all of the characters were as nuanced as Willa. Bijou’s father is more or less a non-presence. Bijou, well, she didn’t strike me as a, particularly believable child. I get that the author was being satirical, but she sacrifices authenticity in her attempts to poke fun at this type of wealthy, white, & wannabe-sophisticated American family. Quite a few chapters take place during Willa’s childhood and they struck me as a bit artificial. This type of narrative structure (alternating between now and then) is a bit overdone and here it wasn’t wholly necessary.
I think that readers who enjoyed YZ Chin’s Edge Case and Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distractions and are looking to read more books exploring the realities of being a young Asian American woman in contemporary America should definitely check this one out. Additionally I can see this book appealing to fans of Brandon Taylor, Rachel Lyon, and even Lily King.

re-read: as I suspected re-reading this made me like it a lot more. I loved Willa’s introspective nature, the way she articulates her loneliness and sense of otherness, and the remote yet intimate quality of her voice. I also appreciated the flashbacks a lot more this time around and I found the moments they explored to be quite fitted to whatever was just happening in the ‘now’. The ending was both believable and satisfying although part of me still wishes that we could have seen Willa become less passive.

my rating: ★★

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