Rouge Street: Three Novellas by Shuang Xuetao

Rouge Street presents its readers with three novellas by Shuang Xuetao which have been translated by Jeremy Tiang who once again has done a stellar job. The prose of these novellas is smooth and engaging, contrasting with the sometimes stark realities experienced by the characters populating these stories. The backdrop to most of these stories is Shenyang, which the author renders in gritty realism. The characters struggle to find stable employment and fulfilment as they attempt to navigate a perilous social and economic landscape. Many experiences or are close to people affected by poverty, addiction, and domestic violence. Some find themselves embroiled in murky businesses, while others attempt to make their dreams come true even when the cards are stacked against them. An element of magical realism reminiscent of the work Murakami comes into play in some of these narratives, lending an air of surreality to many of the events and scenes being described. The humor present in many of the character interactions also made me think of Murakami’s books, as Xuetao effectively incorporates humorous asides or funny lines into his otherwise bleak narratives. These moments of levity also add to the surreal, occasionally dreamy, atmosphere of these stories. The author’s insights into contemporary Chinese society also are characterised by an almost rueful tone, one that lends itself to his novellas’ subject matter(s). The family dynamics were lively and I appreciated how the author establishes generational gaps without resorting to the usual clichès.

What I struggled with was the shift in perspectives. I have never been a fan of shifts between 1st and 3rd povs, and here I sometimes had difficulties telling who was speaking and their connection to the other pov. To be fair, this issue I had may have something to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook version of this collection. I think I would have been able to follow the storylines better if I’d read it for myself. I will probably revisit Rouge Street as I would like to gain a more in-depth understanding of its novellas.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

“Maybe it’s good, I said, to stop sometimes and reflect upon the things that have happened, maybe thinking about sadness can actually end up making you happy.”

Cold Enough for Snow is a slight novella narrated and characterized by a crisp prose. Despite the introspective nature of this work (there are no dialogues and the few conversations that occur are summarized by our narrator), I felt a certain distance from the narrator and her musings had a remoteness to them that I was never quite able to immerse myself into her story. That is not to say that this was not an enjoyable read. It brought to mind authors such as and Rachel Cusk as well as María Gainza (Optic Nerve is a personal favourite of mine). These kinds of books are not plot or necessarily character driven but they present us with a series of observations regarding art, travel, places/spaces, memory, connection, and human nature. Similarly to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, the people that our nameless narrator speaks of remain unnamed, and the vagueness surrounding her and others struck me as very much intentional. The narrator, who lives in, you guessed it, an unnamed country, and her mother, who is based in Hong Kong, meet up in Tokyo for a holiday.

“It was strange at once to be so familiar and yet so separated. I wondered how I could feel so at home in a place that was not mine.”

The narrator describes the various landscapes and locales she visits, all the while thinking back to her and her mother’s pasts. We are given brief glimpses into their lives that are often somehow connected to their present journey. This is the kind of novella that is more about creating and sustaining a certain nostalgic mood than of presenting us with a particularly immersive story. While I did appreciate the narrative’s melancholic and reflective atmosphere, I did find my attention wandering away from our protagonist’s contemplations and introspections. Her relationship with her mother often fades into the background, sidelined in favour of eloquent observations that don’t really leave a lasting impression. The title in many ways is rather apt as this novella is in many ways like snow. At first, you are taken in by how beautiful it is but within a couple of hours (or days), well, the snow has melted. That is to say, the beauty of Cold Enough for Snow is of a temporary nature.
Still, if you are a fan of travel journals or the authors I mentioned above you may find this to be your kind of read.

“I had wanted every moment to count for something. I had become addicted to the tearing of my thoughts, that rent in the fabric of the atmosphere. If nothing seemed to be working towards this effect, I grew impatient, bored. Much later, I realised how insufferable this was: the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything. ”

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Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw


and this was supposed to be a horror story? the only unsettling thing about this novella is that cover.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth was probably my most anticipated October 2021 release, and boy, did it disappoint. I mean, given that N.K. Jemisin called it “Brutally delicious!” I went into this novella with high expectations. After getting through this novella’s opening scene, my expectations were quashed. There is an argument of sorts between 4 generic people that was as realistic-sounding as, say, any line of dialogue from Riverdale (“Besides, my money is your money. Brothers to the end, you know?” / “You nearly cost me everything,” Talia said, still staccato in her rage.”).
Our narrator is at this allegedly creepy mansion in Japan that will serve as a wedding venue because the bride happens to be in haunted places. Our narrator doesn’t get on with the bride, there is beef between them because of whatever. They bicker and swear a lot (so edgy of them). Nothing much happens. Characters think the place is creepy, they hear something, and then towards the latter half of the novella, the story gives a half-hearted attempt at horror. There were 0 stakes, the 4 or 5 characters in this novella were different degrees of bitchy and hysterical. Their reactions/responses and the way they interacted with one another struck me as unbearably fake and unconvincing. The narrator’s edgy descriptions of their hands, faces, and voices did nothing to make their words or actions credible. I made the mistake of listening to this audiobook as I was re-reading The Haunting of Hill House and let me just say that Nothing But Blackened Teeth ain’t it. This novella is devoid of nuance and seems to believe that it is being a lot grittier and more subversive than it actually is. The characters are paper-thin and the mc’s narration is so self-dramatising as to be unbearable. In addition to weak dialogues and non-existent characterisation, this novella fails at atmosphere and tone. The haunted house is described so vaguely that it never struck me as a real place. The ghost is cheesy. While the novella tries to be more self-aware of horror tropes it ends up dishing out the same tired clichéd and ‘twists’. The narrator is bi but she only shares romantic/sexual tension with the 3 male characters (she dislikes and is disliked by the bride-to-be). Also, as you may have by now realised, I have already forgotten all of these characters’ names. Our narrator is a bitch, the bride-to-be is a fake, the groom exists, there is a character who is supposed to be a joker but comes across as plain rude and unfunny, and, lastly, there is a white guy who tries hard to be the golden boy. That’s all I remember about them. And they all like to get into really inane arguments that serve as mere page-filler.
While Nothing But Blackened Teeth is by no means the worst thing I’ve read this year, it is a truly banal horror story.
If you liked it, fair enough. If you are interested in reading it I suggest you check out more positive reviews as I have nothing good to say about it (wait, i lie, that cover is relatively disturbing, so there you go).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

While The Factory shares many similarities with The Hole, it lacked the eerie atmosphere that made the latter into such a beguiling read. The Factory switches between three 1st povs, without specifying who is narrating (we usually can guess by the job they do). They all work at ‘the factory, an industrial factory located in an unnamed city that size-wise is close to Disneyland. The factory has a large influence on the city’s inhabitants, kids and adults alike go on field trips there in order to learn more about its inner-workings, and parents are keen for their children to have careers there. One of our narrators is employed to study moss, another shreds paper, and the third is a proofreader. Throughout the course of this novel, the author highlights the nonsensical rules and tasks that characterize modern working environments. Many of the conversations they have with their colleagues verge on the absurd, and much of what happens in their daily working lives will strike us as peculiar. Two years ago I was a temp worker at this company that processed donations and lottery tickets for charities and it made for a very strange working experience. They had bizarre regulations and often gave us temp workers the most random jobs.
This is not the first book that I’ve read that satirizes the gig economy. The Factory wasn’t quite as inventive and engaging as say Temporary. Also, the use of multiple narrators resulted in a less focused storyline. Whether this was intentional or not, I found myself wishing for a more introspective read. The characters populating this book are half-formed caricatures that didn’t quite succeed in capturing a certain type of person/worker. Still, The Factory does read like a contemporary Kafkaesque tale. There is an interview scene very early on in the narrative that felt really spot-on.
While this wasn’t as quite a memorable read as The Hole it does make for a weird and fairly humorous read.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

“I remember looking out at all those people, most of whom I’d seen or known over months or years—several of whom I loved. Everybody was yelling or cowering or sneering, angry or afraid.”

My Monticello is a suspenseful novella that presents us with a scarily imaginable scenario (given all the alt-right & neo-nazi rallies that have happened in the last couple of years & the Capitol assault) where a group of violent white supremacists engulf Charlottesville. Our narrator, Da’Naisha Love, escapes the violence and finds a momentary refugee in Monticello, which happens to be Thomas Jefferson’s historic plantation. Alongside her are strangers, her white boyfriend, her elderly grandmother, and other people from her neighbourhood. Over the course of nineteen days, this cobbled group tries to carry on. Their fear is palpable, and more than once they find themselves faced with possible threats from the outside. Tensions run high and various members within the group inevitably find themselves disagreeing over what to do.

Da’Naisha also happens to be a descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and her ancestry makes her view Monticello through a very specific lens. Throughout the course of the novella, Da’Naisha also reflects on racism in America, slavery, white supremacy, and interracial relationship. Also, that this group has found refuge from white supremacists in a former plantation adds further complexity to their circumstances.

“But mostly I knew my lineage the way most families know theirs: I knew because Momma told me, because MaViolet told her.”

While I appreciated Da’Naisha’s piercing commentary, I did find her, and every other character, to be very paper-thin. So much so that they didn’t really strike me as characters but names on a page. The narrative is not particularly concerned or interested in fleshing them out but in addressing issues related to race and American history. Which, as I said above, I did find compelling, however, at heart, I am drawn to character-driven stories, and in this regard, this novella just wasn’t it. There is also some attempt at drama involving Da’Naisha, her bf, and the man she, unbeknownst to him, cheated on him with (who of course happens to be there as well).
Lastly, the lack of quotation marks…ugh. It just put me off reading, to be honest. This stylistic choice didn’t seem particularly necessary/fitting for this kind of novella.
While I wasn’t blown away by My Monticello, I am curious to read this author’s other stories (which were sadly not included in my arc copy) and I would probably still recommend this to other readers.

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

“Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!”

This novella takes place in 1920s New York. Charles Thomas Tester is a bit of a ‘hustler’ who sings and plays his guitar on the streets even if he isn’t a particularly talented musician. Still, he gives it a go trying to earn some money to support himself and his father. Whenever he ventures outside of Harlem he’s subjected to racist slurs, stared/glared at by white people, and harassed by the cops. He eventually finds himself coming into contact with a mysterious tome, a sorceress, and a wealthy white man who may be dabbling in the occult.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.

While the premise did intrigue me I had a hard time following the story. The first few pages are straightforward enough but once Tom comes into contact with that old man (i’ve forgotten his name) I just had a hard time understanding what was going and the characters’ motivations. It didn’t help that the narrative tone is slightly at a remove from the characters, which was a pity as we don’t get to delve into Tom’s character. He makes a few puzzling choices or says a few odd things that just…I’m not sure, I just didn’t fully comprehend what was going with his character. I also disliked that that cop, Malone or whatever his name was, gets so much page time. Towards the end, he seems to have more scenes than Tom himself. The narrative had already established that he’s racist and a genuinely abhorrent human being. So no, I didn’t feel particularly keen on spending time alongside him, especially when that time could have served to make Tom into less of a puzzling character. That wealthy decrypt white guy also…I didn’t buy into him. I get that his attempts to awaken whatever evil supernatural forces he wanted to awaken were meant to be OTP, however, I still found him to be a plot device more than a character (even calling him a caricature seems too generous).
Still, I did for the most part like the author’s style. The story has a strong sense of place and there are some clever descriptions. However, I can’t say that, on the whole, I found this novella particularly gripping or insightful. If you happen to like modern takes on Lovecraftian/cosmic horror this may be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.

Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.

Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.

Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings.
What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control.
The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).

Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.

my rating: ★★★★★

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

“She had appeared so glorious to me that I had assumed she had everything she wanted. I wanted to cry for her, and for myself.”



Superbly written The Inseparables is a novella that pairs an enthralling depiction of female friendship with a razor-sharp commentary on gender and religion This is the kind of work of fiction that reads like real life, unsurprising perhaps given that Beauvoir created Sylvie and Andrée after herself and her real-life friend Zaza Lacoin.

Written in a controlled and polished style The Inseparables presents us with a beguiling tale in which Sylvie, our narrator, recounts the enigmatic nature of her bond with Andrée. The two first meet as young girls while enrolled at a private Catholic school and, in spite of the divergence between their religious beliefs, they become, as the title itself suggests, inseparable. Due to the conventions of their time and society—the French bourgeois of the early 20th cent.—they cannot be too close and so have to refrain from being too intimate with one another, for example by addressing each other with the formal you.Still, they keep up a correspondence and talk at length to each other, earning themselves the disapproval of Andrée’s mother who frowns upon their, God forbid, long and possibly intimate conversations.

Sylvie is fascinated by Andrée, in particular, she seems hyperaware, intrigued even, by her self-divide. On the one hand Andrée, a devout Catholic, expresses conservative ideas and opinions, which make her appear particularly naive. On the other Andrée possesses a clever mind and a propensity for expressing surprisingly subversive thoughts. Andrée is a magnetic individual who oscillates between irreverence and conformity. Sylvie, who did not grow up to be a staunchly religious individual (apropos, in a diary entry beauvoir wrote: “i have no other god but myself”), cannot always reconcile herself to Andrée’s way of thinking and struggles to understand the loyalty that Andrée has for her family, which Sylvie herself views as suffocating.

As the two grow up we see how Andrée continues to struggle with understanding her own emotions, trying and failing to contain her fiercer self. We also see how her mother’s constant reprimand have affected her self-worth and distorted her view of herself. When she falls for Pascal, a puritanical young man who seriously considered being a priest, Andrée’s resolve to lead the kind of life that her family, as well as her society, is tested. She desperately wants to escape her present circumstances but this desperation ultimately results in self-sabotage. We witness her unravelling through Sylvie’s eyes, who, as much as she yearns to be of help, cannot ultimately save her.

Beauviour’s piercing commentary on gender, class, and religion was profoundly insightful. She addresses these things with clarity and exactness, illustrating how fatal oppression and repression are on a person’s psyche. What I found particularly touching, and relatable, in this novel was the unrequited nature of Sylve’s love for Andrée. Regardless of whether the love she feels for Andrée is a platonic one or a romantic one, we know that Andrée doesn’t feel the same passion for Sylve. Whether she’s unwilling or unable to reciprocate the iSylve’s feelings, we do not know for certain, however, we can see how deeply this realization cuts Sylvie. Sylvie is shown to be both jealous and resentful of Andrée’s family, holding them responsible for her friend’s unhappiness.

This novella’s subject did bring to mind Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, which also explores an intense female friendship, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia
(which is far more flowery and sentimental than this but also capture a youth’s unrequited love and longing for another) as well as novel such as Abigail and Frost In May (which are both set in all-girl schools and touch on female friendships and religion).
While Sylvie is both attuned and attentive to Andrée, her moods and beliefs, she does, like we all tend to do, idealise her given that she is her object of desire (whether this is desire is platonic or sexual, it’s up to the reader to decide, i, to no one’s surprise, felt that it was the latter).
This was a riveting read. The prose is sublime, the story an equal parts evocative and tragic exploration of young & unrequited love, heartache, independence, kinship and intimacy.

I will say that as much as I loved this I couldn’t help but the publisher’s short bio of Beauvoir, as well as Levy’s and the translator’s mentions of her, felt very incomplete. As far as I can recall they all omit to mention Beauvoir’s more ‘unethical’ behaviour. As a teacher, she had ‘relationships’ with her underage pupils and went on to sign a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France (because of course age is just a number!). Here you might argue that those things have nothing to do with this novella or her friendship with Zaza (discussed by both Levy and the translator). But I maintain that they do. You can’t just mention the fact that she’s a feminist and try to analyse her real-life friendship with another woman or her commentary on female sexuality while at the same time omitting that in her lifetime she (‘allegedly’) groomed her underage female students and seemed in favour of pedophilia. That she did those things did not detract from my reading experience however it certainly made me a little bit more critical of our narrator’s obsession towards her friend.


Some of my favourite quotes:

“Secretly I thought to myself that Andrée was one of those prodigies about whom, later on, books would be written.”

“No, our friendship was not as important to Andrée as it was to me, but I admired her too much to suffer from it.”

“What would I have daydreamed about? I loved Andrée above all else, and she was right next to me.”

“I thought to myself, distressed, that in books there are people who make declarations of love, or hate, who dare to say whatever comes into their mind, or heart—why is it so impossible to do the same thing in real life?”

“The errors I admitted were those of the soul above all: I had lacked fervour, too long forsaken the divine presence, prayed inattentively, regarded myself too complacently.”

“Andrée was unhappy and the idea of it was unbearable. But her unhappiness was so foreign to me; the kind of love where your kiss had no truth from me.”

“Never. The word had never fallen with such weight upon my heart. I repeated it within myself, under the never-ending sky, and I wanted to cry. ”

“No doubt she loved Andrée in her way, but what way was that? That was the question. We all loved her, only differently. ”

“Happiness suits her so well, I thought.”

““Don’t be sad,” she said. “In every family there’s a bit of rubbish. I was the rubbish.”

“For Andrée, there was a passageway between the heart and the body that remained a mystery to me. ”

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Despite its short length (100 pages or so), it took me several attempts to actually finish The Empress of Salt and Fortune. The first time I picked it up I only managed to reach the halfway mark. A few months later I tried again (from the start) but once again found myself growing bored by it. Finally, I gave this a lost shot today and I can’t say that it was worth reading after all. The first few pages are intriguing but this type of novella is clearly more interested in aesthetics and atmosphere than story or characters.

The world-building is vague, we are given more descriptions about objects and accessories than actual people and their environment. The story-within-story structure feels a bit gimmicky, especially with the constant use of ‘do you understand?’. The feminist angle also felt somewhat unsatisfying as I was expecting to feel the ‘anger’ promised by its summary. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting a handmaiden/queen sapphic tale but sadly The Empress of Salt and Fortune is no Fingersmith. The novella seemed more focused on replicating a certain fairy-tale ambience than actually providing dimensional characters and places. Maybe I would have felt differently if I hadn’t recently read The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri…maybe not.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

Unlike Breasts and Eggs and Heaven, Ms Ice Sandwich makes for a perfectly breezy read. This short story is narrated by an unnamed boy who is in 4th grade. His mother seems always too busy to pay attention to him and his elderly grandmother is dying. Unlike the protagonist of Heaven, the narrator in Ms Ice Sandwich seems to feel at ease at school and amongst his peers, in particular, a girl nicknamed Tutti. However, the person our protagonist is most drawn to is ‘Ms Ice Sandwich’, the woman who prepares sandwiches at the counter in his local supermarket. Ms Ice Sandwich, who is cool and seemingly unaffected by her surroundings, possess the kind of customer service skills that rival my own (ie. poor). Our boy, who is fascinated by her blue eyelids, her eyes, her face, and her aloofness, purchases sandwiches from her just so he can observe her more closely. His crush on her was very sweet. The casual tone of his narration, which often emphasised his age and naïveté, made his voice all the more authentic. His friendship with Tutti made for some very funny and endearing scenes, their film session in particular (that bit with Tutti replicating a certain sequence was a real gem).

While the story did have the usual amount of navel-gazing I have come to expect in a work by Kawakami, here it didn’t feel out of place or unnecessary. If anything, it effectively conveys our narrator’s feelings (his crush on Ms Ice Sandwich, his sadness over his grandmother) and youth.
If you are looking for a quick and uplifting tale of first love you should definitely consider giving Ms Ice Sandwich a try.

my rating: ★★★½

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