How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories by Tiphanie Yanique

“Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

How to Escape from a Leper Colony presents readers with a collection of interconnected tales that are a blend between the fantastic and the prosaic. Tiphanie Yanique’s prose is striking: her style carries playful, fabulist almost, undertones that perfectly complement the dreamlike quality of her narratives. This sense of surreality is further intensified by the use of repetition and recurring motifs. The characters populating these stories are often at a crossroads, caught between who they want to be and what others (or themselves) think they should be. The choices they make are not always for the best, and they often experience heartbreak, loss, desire, and shame. Yanique explores familial relationships, in particular the fraught bonds between children and their parents. Religion too plays a role in these stories, but each character has a unique relationship to their faith. Many of the stories revolve around characters who are attempting to find out a place where they belong. Death too is a recurring theme, particularly in those stories centred on a funerary home. While the setting remains unnamed and is only referred to as a Caribbean island (presumably Saint Thomas?), Yanique is still able to evoke a strong sense of place and there are some truly vibrant descriptions of the landscapes surrounding these characters. The dialogues too convey a strong sense of place as Yanique is able to capture different lilts and vernaculars. The only reason why I am not giving this a higher rating is that I believe this is the kind of collection that is meant to be re-read in order to be truly appreciated. I sometimes felt a bit disorientated by the way these stories were interconnected.
My favourite stories were the titular ‘How to Escape from a Leper Colony’ and ‘The International Shop of Coffins’. I loved how within these stories Yanique strikes a perfect balance between melancholy and humor. The unresolved nature of these narratives also added to the collections’ overarching magical realist tone.
How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a promising collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Edwidge Danticat and Mia Alvar. I definitely plan on reading more by Yanique!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

I’ll Be Right There by Shin Kyung-sook

“Is this life? Is this why the relentless passing of time is both regretful and fortunate?”

I feel rather conflicted about I’ll Be Right There. The first two chapters certainly held my attention and some of the discussions that occur later in the narrative were thought-provoking, but, alas, many of the dialogues came across as stilted, there are many instances where the story verges on being straight-up misery-porn, and yet we also get a good ol’ dose of melodrama and some rather sappy moments.
After receiving a phone call from her ex-boyfriend our narrator, Jung Yoon, reminiscences about her early twenties. Her time at university in the 1980s was punctuated by anti-government student demonstrations. Yoon is still mourning the death of her mother and feels slightly removed from her everyday life. She becomes close to two other students, Myungsuh and Miru. The three are united by their trauma, grief, and shared sense of not belonging.
The story that follows is quite slow going. We get detailed descriptions of some of the lessons they attend or the walks they go on. Now and again we are reminded of the fraught political atmosphere but the major conflicts within the story stem from grief-related trauma. I wasn’t too keen on the way Miru’s backstory is presented. Not that I can’t believe that all these horrible things happened to her but the way her past was revealed to Yoon—and us—seemed to sensationalise it. In general, I can’t say that I cared for how mental health-related issues are dealt with within this novel. A character has an ED and this is portrayed almost in a poetic light.
The dialogue occasionally was just jarring. We have a scene in which character A is confessing their feelings to character B. Character B responds by saying ‘do you like more than character C?’. And character A doesn’t answer this but goes on to recount a story about a dead sparrow and then about being peer-pressured into eating a sparrow and all the while saying how they love B as much as the sorrow/tragedy they experienced in those moments. But character B keeps asking the same question (do you like me more than C?) throughout A’s sparrow speech.
The professor character remains largely off-page so I did not feel anything really towards him. Interspersed throughout the narrative are diary entries of Myungsuh and I can’t stay that these added anything (to him or the overarching story).

I appreciated some of the discussions on grief and literature but I never felt anything in particular for the characters. The ‘romances’ were very ‘meh’. They sort of happen and I can’t say I found them all that convincing.
All in all, I just think this wasn’t the right read for me. The story is boring, the characters dull and defined by their trauma, and the narrative’s tone often shifted to one that was far too sentimental for my taste. But, just because this was not a ‘win’ in my books does not mean that you should not give it a try so I recommend you check out more positive reviews if this is on your radar.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

There is something idiosyncratic about Yoshimoto’s novels. Every time I read something of hers I feel almost comforted by how familiar it all is. Her narrators sound very much like the same person: they are young women prone to navel-gazing yet attuned to their environment (especially nature or their hometown). Moshi Moshi follows Yoshie after the death of her father, a musician and a bit of a free spirit. The way in which he died (he was involved in a suicide pact with a woman unknown to Yoshie or her mother) weighs on Yoshie. She dreams of the last night she saw him alive, imagining different outcomes that would have prevented him from leaving the house without his phone. Yoshie attempts to turn a new leaf by moving out to Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in Tokyo, with which she fell in love. Her mother insists on staying with her, and the two women soon form a routine of sorts. One day, Yoshie, who works at a restaurant, meets a young man who knew of her father. In an effort to learn more about her father and ‘that woman’ Yoshie also reconnects with her father’s best friend.

The novel, overall, has a very ‘slice of life’ feel to it. Yoshimoto captures Yoshie’s daily life, the thoughts that pass through her head as she goes about on her day, the lingering grief caused by her father’s tragic death, the desire to understand how it could have happened. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere and writing the romance aspect of this novel left a sour taste in my mouth. There are a few questionable remarks (for instance on sexual assault) that did not really fit with the narrative’s one. These kinds of comments were more suited to a dark comedy. The whole romance also gave me some incest-y vibes which I could have done without.
Not Yoshimoto’s best but a lot more enjoyable than her worst.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is a fantastic collection of short stories. Having loved Evans’ latest release, The Office of Historical Corrections, I had high hopes for this first collection and it did not disappoint. Each short story delivers, there isn’t one ‘weak’ or boring story. Although they explore similar themes and subjects they offer different perspectives and or they reach contrasting conclusions. Evans’ combines heart-rendering scenes with more light-hearted ones, and delivers her sharp commentary—on race, class, gender, sexuality—with a delightful side of humour.
I truly enjoyed this collection and I hope Evans will soon be publishing something new.

my rating: ★★★★½

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The Burning by Jane Casey

An absorbing investigation lead by a determined and engaging protagonist.
DC Maeve Kerrigan is tasked with questioning the relatives and friends of the latest victim of a serial killer known as The Burning Man…expect that Rebecca Haworth’s murder may be the work of a copy-cat…
A fast-paced plot-line that switches between Maeve and Louise, Rebecca’s best friend. Louise is hiding something from us, and the way in which Casey switches from one woman to the other, creates further tension. Maeve’s investigation leads her to interrogate and question a lot of different people. Regardless of their age and of their relation to Rebecca, these scenes were vividly rendered. The dialogues and the actions of the various characters rang through to life. Casey creates incredibly believable conversations, so much so that even characters who make only brief appearances are as fleshed out as the novel’s main protagonists.
Maeve is an energetic and ambitious DC. She is driven to do a good job: while she might not be too self-assured, she believes in her abilities, and in her own judgement. It was refreshing to read of a female detective who isn’t merely ‘strong’ but who is very nuanced. She could easily amuse readers but she could also reveal very affective fears. The treatment she is subjected to, due to her ‘Irish-ness’ and her gender help us understand her.
The only ‘fault’ I can pinpoint is in the character of Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend. He was not very believable, and his motivations and personality were inconsistent.
Overall, this novel packs a suspenseful exploration of a troubled woman’s life. I deeply appreciated how cleverly Casey presents Rebecca to us: the various characters Maeve questions give very conflicting impressions of Rebecca.

My rating: 3 stars

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