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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You Are Free by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna has a knack for unsettling her readers. The stories collected in You Are Free are a testament to her ability to create and maintain an atmosphere of disquiet, one that adds to the ambiguous characters populating her stories. The people Senna centres her stories around seem perpetually uneasy and their behaviour—which ranges from being slightly worrisome to downright perturbing—is often a source of confusion to other characters and readers themselves. Like in her full-length novels, Senna hones in on race, racism, and racial identity. Her caustic social commentary is as piercing as it is unstinting. Senna spares no one and this adds to the murky tone of her narratives. As much as I love Senna’s writing, her short stories pale in comparison to her novels. The stories here are not as disturbing as Maria’s spiralling into obsession in New People, or as disconcerting as the narrator’s experiences in Symptomatic, or as compelling as Birdie’s story in Caucasia.

The first story is probably the most accomplished one, as we are introduced to a young couple who, as a ‘joke’, apply for their son to attend one of the country’s most distinguished private schools. When their son is actually offered a spot, the mother finds herself giving the school some serious consideration, while the father is adamantly opposed to it and wants his son to attend a local public school. What makes this story so effective is the increasingly creepy behaviour of the school’s member of staff. The other stories are less memorable, and many of them focus on new parents. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook version of this collection and I can tell you that there are few things as irritating as an adult mimicking the voice of a whiny child crying for their ‘mama/mummy’. Anyway, the people within these narratives are varying degrees of terrible. Which was expected, but they did seem to share many of the same unlikeable traits, which made them rather samey. The short format also didn’t give Senna much time to flesh them out or to give them some nuance. I also could have done without the animal cruelty which seemed thrown in as an afterthought, or worse, for mere shock value. At times the character descriptions here verged on being lazy, which is quite unlike Senna (a character’s eyes are described as ‘asian’…). The focus on the parent-child and wife-husband dynamics had potential but ultimately the author prioritizes ambience over characterisation (also the lack of queer characters…). Senna is a fantastic author but this collection isn’t quite it…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Lacklustre and monotonous, not only did How High We Go in the Dark fail to grip my attention but it also failed to elicit an emotional response on my part. It was a bland and repetitive affair, which is a pity given the hype around it. It didn’t help that a few weeks ago I read another ‘Cloud Atlas-esque’ novel. And while I didn’t fall head over heels in love with To Paradise, I cannot deny that Yanagihara’s prose is superb. Here instead…Sequoia Nagamatsu’s prose brings to mind the word turgid (examples: “Moles and freckles dance around your belly button like a Jackson Pollock painting, and I fight the urge to grab a marker and find a way to connect them into a Tibetan mandala, as if that would unlock some secret about who you were and what, if anything, I really meant to you.” and “your ass the shade of a stray plum spoiling behind a produce stand”).
Additionally, to compare this to the work of Emily St. John Mandel seems misleading, as How High We Go in the Dark lacks the atmosphere and subtlety that characterizes her books (and this is coming from someone who isn’t a devoted fan of hers). Anyway, even if I were to consider How High We Go in the Dark on its own merits, well, the verdict isn’t good. While this is by no means the worst novel I’ve read, it has been a while since I’ve been confronted with a novel that is so consistently and thoroughly mediocre. I will likely forget about ever having read this in a few days. Already I struggle to remember most of its stories (let alone its characters).
Even if I was tempted early on to DNF this, I kept on reading hoping that the next story/chapter would deliver something more substantial than its predecessor but no such thing happened. I guess I could say that it was ambitious? I mean, it doesn’t pull off what it’d set out to do but at least it had aimed high? Of course, as we know, if you aim too high you end up crashing down (a la Icarus).
Ugh, I’m really trying to think of some positives to say about How High We Go in the Dark but it seems that I have nothing good to say about it other than it has an ambitious premise (whether it actually delivers on its premise is up to debate…). I guess, I like the book cover…not sure if that counts as a ‘positive’…

So, to give prospective readers an idea of what to expect: How High We Go in the Dark takes place during and after 2030. A lot of the population is decimated by the Arctic plague which is unleashed onto the world after some scientists ‘stumble’ upon the thirty-thousand-year-old remains of a girl. Additionally to the plague climate/environmental disasters are causing further chaos. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story. While some characters, we learn, are connected, or even related, to each other, these stories ultimately fail to come truly together. By the end, what we have isn’t a tapestry but a series of samey fragments that don’t really succeed in bringing to life the characters or relationships they are supposedly focused on. Out of 14 stories only 4 are centred on female characters. If the characters we are reading of are shown to be in romantic and or sexual relationships, these will be painfully heteronormative ones. It seems that Nagamatsu’s vision of the future has no place for the gays, let alone for those who do not identify with their assigned sex at birth. That we get so few female voices also pissed me off. Like, come on, 4 out of 14?

Anyhow, the first two stories actually held some promise. In the first one, we follow a scientist whose daughter, also a scientist, died while ‘unearthing’ of the thirty-thousand-year-old human remains. This father goes to Siberia to resume his daughter’s work. Here we hear the first echoes of the plague: after these remains are found the facility goes under quarantine. Like the majority of the stories in this novel, this first one is all about parents & their children. There is the dynamic between the narrator and his now-dead daughter as well as reflections on his daughter’s (non)parenting of his granddaughter.
The following one, ‘City of Laughter’, almost succeeds in being memorable but ends up falling similarly short. The central character is once again a bland and inoffensive man, just an average Joe who is only slightly interesting because of his job. This guy works at a euthanasia park. The plague initially affects children and those with vulnerable immune systems (i think? we never gain an entire picture of this plague so what do i know) so some governor proposes the construction of “an amusement park that could gently end children’s pain—roller coasters capable of lulling their passengers into unconsciousness before stopping their hearts”. The main guy falls in love with a woman who is there with her son. The juxtaposition between the amusement park setting and the true purpose of this ‘park’ does give this story an air of tragicomedy (at one point a distraught and grief-stricken parent hugs our protagonist who is wearing a furry animal costume).
The following stories are harder to set apart from each other. There is one with a scientist/lab-person who has lost his son to the plague. He ends up forming a father-son bond with a talking pig whose organs will be used to save/help those with the plague (once again, i don’t entirely remember because it wasn’t made very clear). You would think that the talking pig storyline would be far from boring but you’d be wrong. That this ‘son-figure’ is a pig is a mere gimmick. The pig could have been a monkey or a doll or a robot. I would have preferred for the pig to be more of a pig. This story has even the gall THE Pig movie (with the scientist telling the pig: ‘that’ll do’). Anyway, once again the author explores this, by now, rather tired parent-child dynamic: what does it mean to be a good parent? Do you protect your child from the harsh realities of their world? Maybe if he would have allowed for more subtlety in his storytelling and character interactions, maybe then I could have felt more connected to the parents and their children. But that wasn’t the case. The conflict is made so obvious, that there is little room for interpretation or even nuance.

We have a couple of stories where boring men fall for boring women and vice-versa (here the writing veers into the overwrought). Some do so online, but the author doesn’t really add anything new or interesting to the VR experience. I mean, if anything, these VR-focused ones read like subpar Black Mirror episodes. Social media goes largely unmentioned…
We then have quite a few that go on about new funerary traditions because apparently so many people have died of the plague and cemeteries cannot contain so many bodies. Here Nagamatsu tries to be inventive but I found the idea of funeral hotels and funerary towers rather, eeh, underwhelming? Even that one chapter that follows a spaceship on its way to make a new Earth failed to be interesting. There are two chapters that try to subvert things: one is intentionally disorientating in that the narrator and some other people are someplace else, another one tries to tie things back to the 1st chapter, to give this novel an overarching story, but t it just came across as jarring.

I don’t understand why the author chose 2030 as his starting point. The future he envisions feels generic and wishy-washy. There are self-driving vehicles (i think?) planet earth is dying, and this plague is decimating the human race. How refreshing. Maybe I’ve read too much speculative fiction but the sci-fi & dystopian elements of How High We Go in the Dark felt tame, vanilla even. Been there, done that kind of thing. While Nagamatsu strives to achieve that quiet realism that characterizes the dystopian novels of authors such as Mandel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ling Ma, he misses the mark. Tone-wise too these stories seem lacking, especially if I were to compare them with the unsettling work of John Wyndham. In addition, the future he envisions pales in comparison to the ones you can find in the stories penned by N.K. Jemisin. Throughout my reading experience of How High We Go in the Dark I just kept being reminded of better speculative books & films.

Almost all of the narrators sounded exactly like the same dude. Which was odd given that these characters are meant to be at different stages of their lives. Additionally, it seemed sus that all of the characters used the same vocabulary, articulated themselves in identical ways, and they all shared a love for ‘vintage’ music (we have the Beatles, Patti Smith, The Strokes, Smashing Pumpkin, Siouxsie and the Banshees). The story is set in 2030. The characters are in their 20s, 30s, possibly early 40s. Yet, they all came across as belonging to the same generation. While I know that the whole idea of there being different generations is somewhat reductive, you can admit that people who are born in the same time ‘periods’ and in the same countries (the majority of the characters are Japanese American and live in America) share certain experiences/similarities. Here, none of the characters came across as believable older millennials or gen-zers. The popular media that is mentioned too was ‘old’. Why not then set your Artic Plague during the 90s or early 2000s something? It would have been made for a far more convincing setting. At least then the characters (from their worldview to their vernacular) would have not felt so out-of-place (come on, these guys do not sound like they are born in the 2000s).

The parent-child conflict that was at the heart of so many of these stories was cheesy af. We have a parent trying to connect to their child. The child is like, NERD. Okay, I’m joking but still, you get the gist. The children are grieving and confused, the parents are grieving and confused. Yet, what could have been a touching book about human connection reads like a parody, starring difficult children who wear headphones 24/7 and answer back because of teenage angst, and emotionally repressed parents who happen to be scientists and because of this, they are cold and clinical. On that note, there is one character who is not a scientist and is in fact ‘an artist’ and her art was beyond ridiculous (it gave me the impression that the person who had created said character had only a vague and clichéd idea of the kind of person that goes on to become a painter).
This book is full of grieving people, which should elicit some sort of reaction from me but nada. Nothing. My uncle and grandfather died respectively in November and December. I was unable to attend one of the funerals due to travel restrictions. The other died soon after testing positive for covid. Surely a book about losing your loved ones to a pandemic should hit close to home….except that it didn’t. I felt at a remove from the characters who were often defined by their job and or whether they had children.

The world-building, as mentioned above, was full of lacunae. Some of the gaps in the world-building seemed intentional as if to provide us with too much information on the plague and the state of the world during and after it would take away from the ‘human’ relationships and the existential quandaries experienced by the characters….but still, I could not envision this future nor could I bring myself to believe in it. One of the stories seems to suggest a lack of resources but later on, this doesn’t seem the case. I also found it hard to believe that the relatives of those who could easily be seen as culpable of this whole plague (the wife and granddaughter of that first scientist) would be allowed to go off to Earth 2.0 (as far as i can recall of course, maybe the narrative does address this…).

Choppy and repetitive, How High We Go in the Dark is a rather subpar novel. I would have almost preferred it if had just been your bog-standard speculative fiction book but no, this one aims higher and it shows (not in a good way). The dystopian elements are gimmicky and given our current pandemic…derivative (apparently the author wrote this before covid but i am reading it now so..).
The writing vacillated from decent to unintentionally hilarious to plain bad (“Aki still avoided speaking to me when he could avoid it.”…this book had an editor? really?!). We get a few clumsy attempts at the 2nd person which were…the less said about them the better actually. Nagamatsu’s prose was not my cup of tea.

This was not the genre-bending novel I was hoping for. The supposedly interwoven storylines did not feel particularly ‘interwoven’. There are characters who are mentioned in more than one chapter, or we read of someone who is close to a character we previously encountered but that’s about it. These chapters and characters failed to come together in any meaningful way.

Anyway, just because I thought this was an exceedingly bland affair does not mean in any way that you will feel the same way. If you loved this, I am happy for you. At least one of us was able to enjoy this book.
If you are interested in this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.



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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Written in Lahiri’s characteristically understated prose Unaccustomed Earth is a bittersweet and minutely observed collection of short stories. Set in America, India, and even Thailand, these stories focus on relationships between siblings, parents and their children, grandparents and their grandchildren, married couples, and friends. They are also characterized by a strong sense of nostalgia, partly due to their ‘historical’ settings, partly due to the nature of the relationships, Lahiri is writing of. Characters misunderstand each other, they fall out of love, they don’t reciprocate each other’s feelings (be romantic or otherwise), or fail themselves and their loved ones. Lahiri’s characters are often unable or unwilling to make amends, recover, and or forgive the people closest to them. In these stories, Lahiri presents us with vividly rendered scenarios that give us crystal-clear glimpses into the lives of the people she is writing of. As with Lahiri’s other works, in Unaccustomed Earth quotidian spaces and conversations take the foreground, cementing the everyday realities of these characters.

Lahiri’s prose is as elegant and subtle as ever. Without wasting a single word Lahiri conveys the often incongruous feelings and thoughts that people experience, as well as presenting us with some piercing insights into love, loss, family, and belonging. Definitely, a must-read for fans of the short-story medium.

my rating: ★★★¾

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Fault Lines by Emily Itami

“Is it normal to fluctuate so quickly between feeling tender towards your husband and fervently wishing him a violent death?”

Fault Lines by Emily Itami is a fun and short read. Itami’s dry humor brought to mind Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, but, thankfully for me at least, Fault Lines proved to be a much more engaging story.
Our narrator is Mizuki a Japanese housewife who is becoming increasingly tired by the monotony of her daily life. Her husband is a workaholic who pays her little to notice, and her looking after her children is no easy feat. Similarly to Yūko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, Fault Lines examines the pressure Japanese society puts on women to be perfect wives and mothers.
Mizuki often feels inadequate, especially when comparing herself to other housewives. Yet, she doesn’t really want her life to be wholly devoted to her husband and children. She blames some of her attitude on her time in America, where she went first as a student and then to pursue a career as a singer. The more overlooked she feels by her husband the more Mizuki longs for the freedom she enjoyed prior to her marriage.
On a night out with her friends, quite by chance, she meets Kiyoshi. Mizuki feels once again seen and worthy of attention. Kiyoshi and her begin to spend more and more time together, and as they get to know each other their attraction grows.

Mizuki is a very witty narrator and the novel’s biggest strength. Her voice is amusing and her deadpan humor and asides make her story all the more compelling. I did find her at times to be incongruously Britsh. She uses terms like ‘knob’, ‘wanker’, and ‘fag’ (as opposed to cigarette), and it seemed a bit of an odd choice (I understand that the novel is written in English but it still broke the story’s spell).

I really liked the novel’s sense of place and Mizuki’s insights into Tokyo and Japanese society.
The ‘will they/won’t they’ affair turned out to be a bit disappointing. There is quite a build-up to Kiyoshi and Mizuki’s relationship with him, but when we do eventually meet him…I don’t know. He never really grabbed me and I wish his character had been a bit more fleshed out. He functions as a bit of a plot device, someone that makes Mizuki re-assess her married life. The children were incredibly annoying so much so that they dampened my enjoyment of the story.

Overall, Fault Lines proved to be a surprisingly funny and refreshing read and I look forward to whatever Itami will write next.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Klara and the Sun presents its readers with a quiet yet touching meditation on life. In a similar fashion as Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro’s foray into the speculative realm is deeply grounded in the mundane. Yet, in spite of its ordinary trappings, Klara and the Sun is a work that is brimming with ambiguities. Ishiguro excels at this type of narrative, ones in which ordinary scenes and interactions are interrupted by moments of unquiet. The near future of Klara and the Sun comes to us slowly, and even in the end, much of it remains unknown to us.
Our narrator Klara, an Artificial Friend, an android whose primary function is that of providing companionship to children. From the confines of her store, Klara has but a limited view of the outside world. Through the store window, she watches passersby, taking notice of their behaviors, appearances, the emotions they seem to manifest. Klara reveres the Sun, which every day provides her with ‘nourishment’.

Klara is purchased as an AF for Josie, a girl afflicted by an unnamed illness. In her new home, Klara learns more about people and their incongruities. Klara’s purpose is to be there for Josie, but, even she cannot seem to be of any help when it comes to Josie’s illness. Josie, who lives with her mother (who Klara refers to as ‘the mother’) and their somewhat brusque housekeeper (‘Melania housekeeper’). As time goes by, through Klara, we learn more about this near future. There are communities of post-employed, there are lifted and unlifted children, and both Josie and ‘the mother’ seem to have mysterious ‘plans’ up their sleeves.

Klara’s child-like narration belies her unsettling reality. From the way children treat their companions, to the lengths parents will go to provide their children with the best chance at succeeding in life, the world Klara witnesses is far from reassuring.
In spite of its domestic setting, which takes us from the kitchen to the living room, and with the occasional foray into the outside, Ishiguro explores questions of love, freedom, and memory. And, of course, humanity. What makes us human? What makes me, me?

Ishiguro provides no easy answers or solutions, depicting instead the different ways Klara and those around react to the same worries and fears. Klara is often a witness to crucial exchanges. Yet, her passive role does not mean that she is unable to understand a certain situation/conversation or the motivations and emotions of those involved.
The simplicity, one could even say purity, of her voice might annoy some readers, especially those who are looking for more complex or ambivalent narrators. Still, I grew quite fond of her, and there were many instances in which she struck me as more human than the actual humans.
One thing that I am unsure of is why Klara—who usually does not describe the physical appearance of others—noticed, in two different instances, that one of the people in her vicinity was Black. As far as I can remember, she does not comment on anyone else’s race or ethnicity (we learn that Melania is European through her accented English and another mother making a comment about European housekeepers). Klara guesses Josie’s friend’s accent but only after talking to him. So why would an android who usually does not describe those around her as white or would notice that someone is Black? Was this Ishiguro pointing to this:
<a is="" href="https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/aug/08/rise-of-the-racist-robots-how-ai-is-learning-all-our-worst-impulses
? Or that Klara was designed after a white person or to have a white person’s perspective? Otherwise it just seems odd.

There were also certain plot points that felt a bit too neat, especially towards the end. And while I am always appreciative of Ishiguro’s prose, of his ability to capture ephemeral emotions and thoughts, of the ambiguous nature of his stories, I found myself wishing for more. Josie, alongside her mother and neighbors, never earned their way into my heart. That is to say, I felt at a distance from them. The tension between them was certainly palpable and well rendered but, ultimately, I found them somewhat dull.
Although I wasn’t blown away by this novel I did overall enjoy it. Klara is the novel’s star, and I found her to be a deeply compelling protagonist who challenged my notions of ‘human’.
Readers who prefer faster-paced narratives may want to give this one a large berth but if you were a fan of Never Let Me Go you might find this to be just as gripping (I, for one, finished in less than 24 hours).

re-read: ishiguro’s surreal realism is lulling indeed. some of the dialogues may sound slightly off but, given the dystopianesque setting, i didn’t particularly mind. josie was annoying as fck, and i get that she’s sick however that doesn’t entirely exonerate her from her shtty behaviour. melania teetered on being rather stereotypical, and i am a bit tired of british/american authors (or authors who write in english) who throw into their story mix a character, often in the form of a brusque older woman, from an unspecified ‘eastern european’ country as a source of humor because their english is (supposedly) ‘funny’ and their un-english ways are (supposedly) just as ‘funny’.
this aside, i still found this to be a thought-provoking read that gives way to questions about human nature, freedom, and altruism. ishiguro also incorporates many discussions and scenarios about the difficulties of parenting and of being parented (with the children having often no choice in decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives, or being kept in the dark about matters that directly concern them).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a engaging, if ultimately frustrating, read. The premise brought to mind two favorites of mine (Lucy and Luster, both focus on young black women living with white middle-class couples and taking ‘care’ of their child). Given the buzz around Such a Fun Age I had rather high expectations and when I first picked it up I found that opening chapter, in which Emira is stopped by the security guard, to be deeply compelling. The ones that followed however were less so. The story switches its focus on Alix, her husband remains an outlier in the narrative so that he is little other than a name on a page, and her career/mummy drama. Aaaand I just did not care for it. It felt a lot like reading Liane Moriarty but with far less humor. If anything, Alix and her circle of friends just reinforced my preconceptions about Americans (which is not something I necessarily was looking for). She’s white, wealthy, influential (she runs a blog that I never entirely understood), and spends most of the narrative trying to prove to herself and others that she is not racist (often resorting to the classic, ‘well, one of my friends is Black so clearly I cannot possibly be racist’). While I am not saying that I do not believe that people like Alix exist (I have come across a fair share of clips and news starring people like her) I just did not want to have pages and pages dedicated to her.
I have similar feelings towards Kelley who I did not like from the get-go and his first date with Emira just confirmed my suspicions about him.

Much of the narrative is not about the so-called ‘inciting incident’ in which Emira, a young Black babysitter is stopped by a security guard while she is with her three-year-old white charge, Briar. While this episode does obviously have an impact on Emira, the story is more about her deciding whether she wants to continue to work for Alix and Peter. At twenty-five, she feels left behind by her friends, all of who seem to be actively doing the job they want or working towards a certain goal. Emira’s directionless life was understandable if a bit wearisome. I wished that more of her personality could have shone through a little more, as she at times seemed a passive passenger who merely responds to Alix and Kelley’s behavior. Because of Emira’s not-so-strong characterization, Alix’s obsession with her did not ring entirely true. Still, I really loved those scenes in which Emira is hanging out with her three close friends or when she is looking after Briar (finally, a fictional child I liked!). The interactions between Emira and her friends rang particularly true to life, and I found their energy, banter, and group dynamics to be really captivating. Sadly, the story does not center around Emira (I so wanted more of her relationship with her family) but it actually gave Alix way too much backstory which did not make me sympathize with her one bit. While she was not by no means evil incarnate I found her boring and vapid. It was also frustrating that a lot of her behavior is never actually called out, she repeatedly crosses the line with Emira and gets away with it. During that final act, Emira does stand up for herself but it still seemed to me that Alix gets away with a lot of shit. Which, is realistic enough, yet another white wealthy woman getting away with all sorts of things but why dedicate so much of the narrative to her and not Emira?

I also found it a bit annoying that the story proves Emira wrong as with the exception of her the other characters do not change (looking at Kelley in particular).
I don’t know…I guess I am just not interested in characters like Alix and felt that the story could have been executed differently and in a way that could have actually elevated Emira’s voice. Still, Reid’s dialogues came across as authentic, and I appreciated her commentary on race, class, and gender. Her prose at times felt a bit superficial, as it tended to move from character to character within the same scene without really delving beneath their surface, but it also had a nice flow to it.

In spite of my reservations, I do think that Reid is a good writer and I look forward to what she will write next.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima

Territory of Light is a sparsely written novel divided into twelve chapters, each one capturing a specific moment or period of its unnamed narrator’s life. Our narrator, the mother to a three-year-old, has recently moved into a new apartment as her husband, the father of her daughter, left her for another woman. Territory of Light details through a series of fragmented snapshots the way our narrator’s everyday life has been affected by her husband’s decision. Tsushima shows how a single-mother is viewed by Japanese society, and of the pressure, she feels to be a good and capable mother. Her three-year-old has temper tantrums, she acts out, she creates problems with their neighbors and at her preschool, in short, she does not make things easy for the narrator. At times her husband reappears to recriminate her, accusing her of being a bad mother, alcoholic and refuses to concede her a divorce. The narrator also receives unwelcome advice from her colleagues and other people around her, who often warn her that to divorce her husband would be a huge mistake.

While I cannot comment on the author’s prose as I read a translation of it, I can’t say that I was drawn in by either the characters or their stories. I found the narrator’s passivity frustrating and her flashes of temper to be a bit too melodramatic. Her daughter was annoying to the extreme. She was spoilt, rude, and so very annoying. Her presence in a given scene would be detrimental to my engagement in said scene. The husband was pathetic and one-dimensional while many of the dialogues seemed to exist only to emphasize how hard life as a single-mother is for the narrator.
While I did not necessarily dislike the novel, I did not particularly care for it either. This is the kind of novel that once ‘digested’ is soon to be forgotten.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Luster by Raven Leilani

“I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.

Luster is a deliriously enthralling and boldly subversive debut novel. I was dazzled by the author’s prose, which is by turns dense and supple, by Edie’s sardonic and penetrating narration, and by the story’s caustic yet searing commentary on race, class, gender, and sexuality.

“It is that it is 8:15 a.a. and I feel happy. I am not on the L, smelling someone’s lukewarm pickles, wishing I were dead.”

Luster follows in the steps of recent releases starring perpetually alienated young women prone to bouts of ennui, numbness, morbidity, lethargy, and self-loathing. They are misanthropic, they often engage in some sort of masochistic behaviour, and a few of them inevitably spiral into self-destructiveness. In short, they are millennial Esther Greenwoods.
Luster, however, is by no means a carbon copy of these novels, and Edie’s distinctive voice sets her apart from other eternally dissatisfied protagonists. From the very first pages I found myself mesmerised by Edie’s perplexing and hyper-alert mind.

“I want to be uncomplicated and undemanding. I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am. I want all that and I want none of it.”

Edie is a recently orphaned 23-year-old black woman who leads a directionless and unfulfilling existence. She’s unenthusiastic about her desk job and with no friends to speak of she tries to allay her loneliness through sex (think Fleabag). After a series of ill-advised sexual encounters, Edie lands herself in trouble and finds herself staying in the home of Eric, her latest date. Eric is a white, forty-something archivist who is in an open marriage with Rebecca. The two live in a very white neighbourhood with their adoptive daughter, Akila, who is black.

“There is the potent drug of a keen power imbalance. Of being caught in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise. Their panic at the world’s growing indifference.”

Eric, who is clearly in the midst of a mid-life crisis, isn’t a particularly attractive or charming man. Yet, Edie is desperate for intimacy. Although she’s aware of her own self-destructive behaviour, she’s unwilling or unable to form healthy relationships, romantic or not, with others. Although Rebecca is suspicious of Edie, she wants someone to help Akila, someone who can show her how to look after her hair, and seems to adjust to Edie’s presence.
Edie’s hunger for love, desire, acceptance, recognition, and self-worth dominate her narrative. Her fascination—part desire, part repulsion—with Eric and Rebecca sees her crossing quite a few lines. The couple, in their turn, treat Edie in a very hot-or-cold way or use her as if she was little more than a pawn in their marriage game.

“He wants me to be myself like a leopard might be herself in a city zoo. Inert, waiting to be fed. Not out in the wild, with tendon in her teeth.”

Edie’s voice makes Luster the crackling read it is. While Edie often entertains rather ridiculous notions, she’s quite capable of making incisive observations about privilege, race, sexism, and modern dating. Throughout the course of the novel Edie makes a lot of discomforting decisions, and more than once I found myself wanting to shake her. But I also really understood her inability to break free of the vicious cycle she’s in (which sees her seeking affirmation and self-love in the wrong places), and of feeling tired by just existing. I loved her unabashedly weird inner monologue and her wry humour (“She tells us the specials in such a way that we know our sole responsibility as patrons in her section is to just go right ahead and fuck ourselves”). Those few glimpses we get of her childhood and her relationship with her mother and father, deepen our understanding of why she is the way she is.

“I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost.”

Luster explores the thoughts and experiences of a messy black young woman, without judgement. Like recent shows such as Insecure, Chewing Gum and I Will Destroy You, Luster presents its audience with a narrative that challenges the myth of the ‘strong black woman’ and other existing stereotypes of black womanhood (checkout Amanda’s video on ‘the quirky/awkward black girl’ ). There are times when Edie is awkward, selfish, and angry. Her identity isn’t confined to one character trait. And that’s that.

Luster charts Edie’s sobering yet mischievous, kind-of-sexy, kind-of-weird, sad but funny search for everything and nothing. She both wants and doesn’t want to form meaningful connections with others, she both wants and doesn’t want to be alone, she wants to be used by others, she wants love. Her art is perhaps one of the few pillars in her life. She describes her paintings, the colours she uses, and the artists she likes (Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ gets a mention) in a very vivid manner.
I liked the bond that Edie forms with Akila, one that isn’t uncomplicated but feels like one of the few genuine relationships that appear in this novel (although there were times I liked Rebecca, her intentions towards Edie were ultimately questionable). This is the kind of novel that thrives off uncomfortable truths, awkward interactions, and surreal conversations (that scene at the clown academy was gold). Edie is exhausted by the deluge of microaggressions thrown her way. She tries to be what others want her to be, which is why so many people use her. Even with Eric and Rebecca, Edie is fully aware of being a guest, that she can stay as long as her being there is convenient to them.

To be perfectly honest I find these ‘young women afflicted by the malaise of modernity’ type of novels to be very hit-or-miss (Exciting Times was a definite miss for me). Jean Kyoung Frazier’s Pizza Girl (a hit in my books), shares quite a lot in common with Luster. Both books centred on self-sabotaging young women who become increasingly obsessed with someone who is married (this someone leads a seemingly happy white suburban life), although in Pizza Girl our narrator is far more interested in the wife than the husband. Chances are that if you liked the deadpan humour in Pizza Girl you will like Luster. If you are the type of reader who prefers conventionally nice or quirky characters, maybe Luster won’t be the read for you. Lucky for me, I can sympathise and care for characters who make terrible choices or do horrible things (see Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much, Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy).
Anyway, I’m rambling. I loved Luster, I loved Edie, and I loved Leilani’s prose and her punctuation (that scene that just goes on and on…wow). There were a few references or words that I’m not sure I entirely understood, and I have a feeling this is due to my not being American/native-English speaker.
Huge thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an arc. I will definitely be purchasing my own copy once it’s available in the UK. Leilani, please, keep writing.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune — book review

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“He was here to observe and nothing more. He couldn’t influence the orphanage. It wouldn’t be proper. The RULES AND REGULATIONS were specific about such matters.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea tells an equal parts heartwarming and silly tale. The world in this novel is fairly reminiscent of our own one however its pages are full of magical people and creatures. The government closely monitors those who are deemed not human and they are raised in government sanctioned orphanages.
As a case worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth (often abbreviated to DICOMY) Linus Baker, a solitary forty year old, oversees and inspects these orphanages. His job consists in ensuring the children’s wellbeing and that the people who are running these orphanages are following DICOMY guidelines. Linus himself abides by DICOMY’s strict rules and regulations.
His routine is brusquely interrupted when he is summoned by DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management, only to be unexpectedly tasked with an unusual and highly sensitive assignment: he has to leave the city and travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage. The orphanage is run by the rather mysterious and eccentric Arthur Parnassus. It is up to Linus to determine whether the six children who reside there (a female gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist) should be taken away from the Island.
As the story progresses Linus begins to question DICOMY and its methods. Once he is able to move past what his case files tell him about these children, he begins to see them in their own right.

In the novel magical powers/appearances is a metaphor for being different. They are isolated from ‘ordinary’ humans, raised in controlled environments, treated with mistrust and or outright hatred. Linus finds himself challenging his own assumptions and preconceptions about these children.
Ultimately this is a story about the family that you choose: Linus himself has always felt like he doesn’t quite belong. On the Island, alongside the children and Arthur, he starts to feel more at ease with who he is as well as the type of person he wants to be.
The novel is filled with quirky humour and charming dialogues. There were quite a few elements that struck me as being a bit too silly for my taste, so that occasionally the story verged on being ridiculous (such as all of those ‘Oh My’ that Linus utters) but for the most part I liked this novel, it even made me smile here and there.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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