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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

“There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was that there was no getting used to.”

Boasting her signature writing style State of Wonder is a captivating and thought-provoking read. Ann Patchett’s quiet yet graceful prose drew me in from the very opening page and I found myself enthralled by the calm rhythm of her storytelling. As with many of her other novels, State of Wonder portrays the aftermath of the death one, capturing the shock, grief, and sorrow of those affected by loss.
Patchett’s restrained style belies the complexity of her narrative—from the characters to the story. In spite of the unassuming quality of her prose, there are many moving passages to be found in State of Wonder, nuanced characters (who cannot be easily labelled as being either good or bad), realistic dynamics, and thought-provoking reflections (on death, life, love). The realism created by her unadorned prose is counterpoised by a dreamy ambience, one that gives the narrative an almost palpable sense of melancholy. There is also a sense of the fantastical, but, as with anything Patchett, it is not overt, and its subtlety …
The story follows Marina Singh, a 42-year-old scientific researcher. Other than an unremarkable affair with Mr. Fox, her company’s C.E.O, she leads a fairly uneventful and sedated life. However, when her colleague and friend Dr. Anders Eckman dies of a fever in a remote part of Brazil, she reluctantly embarks on a journey to the Amazonian jungle to complete his assignment; she has to find her elusive and former medical-school mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will allow women to bear children well past their seventies.
So we follow Marina deep into the Amazon, on a physical journey that also involves embarking on an emblematic quest: in fact, the repercussion of her friend’s death combined with her ‘task’ raise a series of questions and doubts in someone, who is—from the very start of the novel—in a perpetual state of uncertainty (over a past accident in her medical career, over her future with Dr. Fox).
On top of that, the psychological side effects of the antimalarial medicine Marina must take during her search give her vivid nightmares. While in her sleep Marina faces past fears, when awake she voyages into an unknown future. And it soon becomes apparent that to reach Dr. Annick Swenson, she can no longer rely on past resolutions. More than once she is forced to reassess herself, especially when faced with morally problematic scenarios.
Alongside Marina there are many vibrant and memorable characters, all of whom, regardless of their roles, are incredibly believable: Patchett captures their essence, giving us glimpses into their inner turmoils, their fears and desires, or simply conveying the kind of person they are through the way speak and/or comport themselves. The individuality of her characters is all the more genuine because of their inconsistencies. Each type of relationship that Marina experiences, wherever it is that of a brief exchange with the passenger next to her in her flight to Brazil or with the indigenous child, who is under the care of Dr. Swenson, leaves a mark on her story.

Marina herself is one of the biggest strengths of the novel. And it is precisely because Marina is far from perfect that she feels so genuine, so incredibly real. Her authenticity made it easy to relate and care for her. This just goes to show Pratchett’s brilliant characterization: despite her main character being rather introverted, it was impossible not to connect to her. Although Marina does change in the course of her ‘adventures’, she does so in a subtle, and most importantly, convincing way. Moreover, she is still herself at the end of her journey.

The story carries a sense of the outwordly, of the magical, which is emphasized by both the remote and ‘unfamiliar’ (to marina and me at least) setting and by the artful analogies Pratchett makes with mythological tales. This surrealism is carefully balanced out by the authenticity of her scenarios. Patchett deftly juxtaposes simple concerns against a unique backdrop. Once in the jungle, Marina is forced to confront in person the ethics of Dr. Swenson’s studies, showing that in spite of the woman’s claims, her presence is interfering with the Lakashi, or that under the flag of ‘for the greater good’ other doctors there will readily resort to unethical practices. Marina too sees the Lakashi as ‘other’, and struggles to reconcile herself with their customs and ways of living.
Patchett’s prose is exquisite, both for its clarity and for its ability to transport me alongside Marina on her journey. By honing in on those ordinary moments and interactions, not only did Marina’s story become all the more vivid but we also come to realise how often these ‘small’ everyday instances can and will affect us.
The slow but affecting story, the atmospheric and evocative writing, the author’s careful descriptions and observation make State of Wonder an enthralling tale in which I will gladly lose myself again into.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This novel proved to be the perfect ‘escape’ read. While I may not have been enamoured by every single book I’ve read by Libba Bray (the finales to her series left me a wee bit unsatisfied) I do consider her to be an amazing writer and a favourite of mine. Usually, however, her books are in the realms of the ‘historical’, so I wasn’t sure what to except from Beauty Queens, I just knew that after watching a certain series I fancied a Lord of the Flies kind of tale (with a female ensemble). And wow…Bray sure delivered. Beauty Queens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. This is the kind of satirical teen comedy that will definitely appeal to fans of classics such as Heathers, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Mean Girls. The story, writing, and characters are all over the top in the best possible of ways. This is the funniest book I’ve read in 2020.

Beauty Queens begins with ‘the Corporation’ addressing us readers, “This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading”. We are also told to keep vigilant as the story we are about to read may have some ‘subversive’ content. Throughout the novel there are footnotes by ‘the Corporation’, sometimes advertising ridiculous products and sometimes professing distaste or disapproval over a certain scene.
The novel mainly follows nine beauty queens contestants who after surviving a plane crash that killed the majority of the other contestants (one for each state) find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Rather than focusing on two or three contestants, Bray gives each of these nine beauty queens a backstory (I think only three contestants do not receive this treatment). We start with Adina, Miss New Hampshire, an aspiring journalist who joined the contest only to expose how misogynistic it is. At first Adina is snarky and not a great team player. Although she calls herself a feminist she has very ‘fixed’ notion of feminism, and her relationship with the other contestants will slowly challenge her previous views (on the contest itself, on liking thinks deemed ‘girly’,etc.). She immediately takes against Taylor, Miss Texas, the ‘leader’ of the surviving beauty queens. Taylor insists that they should keep practicing their routines for the contest as she believes that help is on the way. Taylor is badass, and I definitely enjoyed her character arc (which definitely took her down an unexpected path). We then have many other entertaining and compelling beauty queens: Mary Lou, who becomes fast friends with Adina in spite of their seemingly opposing views when it comes to sex; Nicole, the only black contestant, who wants to be a doctor but has been time and again been pressured into contests by her mother; participating as the only black contestant faces racism from the contest itself and the her peers; Shanti, an Indian American girl from California, who initially sees Nicole as ‘competition’ but as time goes by finds that she is only who understands how challenging it can be to navigate predominately white spaces; Petra, a level-headed girl who faces a different kind of prejudice; Jennifer, a queer girl who loves comics and has often been deemed a ‘troubled kid’; Sosie, who is deaf and always feels that she has to be happy in order to make others feel more ‘comfortable’; and, last but not least, Tiara, who at first seems like a comedic character, the ditzy or dumb blonde, but who soon proves that she is a very empathetic girl.
The girls don’t always get on with one another. In spite of their different backgrounds, interests, and temperaments, they have all been made to feel inadequate or ‘too much’.
As if surviving a deserted island wasn’t difficult enough a certain corporation is running some secret operation not far from the girls’ camp. Throw in some pirates/reality show contestants and there you have it.
Bray satirises everything under the sun: reality shows, beauty contests, pop culture, beauty products, corporations. While some of her story’s elements may be a bit ‘problematic’ in 2020, her satire never came across as mean spirited. In the end this is a story about acceptance and female solidarity. Bray shows all the ways in which society pressures and controls teenage girls, allowing for diverse perspectives and voices. Most of all, this novel is hilarious. Bray handles her over the top storyline and characters perfectly.
What more can I say (or write)? I loved it. This is the kind of uplifting read I would happily re-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Seven Years of Darkness by You-Jeong Jeong

Well, that was kind of ridiculous…
The title and summary of this novel gave me the impression that the story would be very much focused on Sowon, the son of mass murder, who seven years after his father’s crimes receives a mysterious package that forces him to confront his past. And in some ways, we are given that. Sadly, the narrative is less concerned with Sowon piecing together these past events than with simply retelling everything that happened in one go. The majority of this novel details the event that occurred seven years prior, without any insights from the present, but in a blow-by-blow type of account. See, the package Sowon receives contains a manuscript. The manuscript, penned by Sowon’s guardian, recounts what happened at Seryong Lake, giving us the perspective of most of the people involved. Sowon’s guardian, Ahn Sungwhan, had until that morning been sharing his living spaces with him. All of a sudden, he disappears, and Sowon receives this manuscript.
The story in the manuscript primarily follows Sungwhan, who was working as a security guard at Seryong Lake, a ‘first-tier’ reservoir located in a remote village; Dr. Oh Yongje, who owns the arboretum on the reservoir; and Sowon’s father, Hyonsu, a former baseball player who has just been hired as the new head of security at Seryong Dam (making him Sungwhan’s boss).
A tragic night leads to the lives of these men to become inexorably entwined. The inciting incident happens early on, and what follows are pages and pages of a kind of ‘cat and mouse’ game. The ‘baddie’ is revealed early on, and he seems to posses only vices. He’s a mastermind and brilliant gas-lighter who missed out on a career as a detective. The two others characters are far more hapless, and their attempts to escape the baddie’s clutches inevitably fail.
The novel jumps back to ‘seven years later’ briefly in the middle, and only for a few pages, and at the very end. The rest of the narrative treats these past events as if they are just occurring, so no new insights or even foreshadowing is offered. Two of the men are seemingly unsympathetic, prone to anger and brutish, even druknkunly, behaviour. The other one seems to become loyal to one of them for no reason whatsoever. The wives of Hyonsu and Yongje are portrayed as somewhat hysterical. Hyonsu’s wife in particular is made into a huge ‘nag’, and her character is restricted to that role.
The two children, Sowon, who was 11 at the time, and Yongje’s daughter are very much secondary to the mind-games between the adults. Yongje’s daughter dies early on and we never learn anything substantial about her, although the author does attempt to create a connection between her and Sowon.
The whole thing was cheesy. The characters were caricatures, the plot was surprisingly boring (just these three men try to outsmart each other), and I’m not sure why the novel was titled what it was. ‘Present’ Sowon doesn’t have to investigate anything, he simply reads this manuscript.
That Sungwhan was able to narrate the events from Yongje’s perspective wasn’t very convincing.
As thrillers go, this left me feeling kind of flat. Maybe readers who don’t expect there to be more of a conversation between past and present may find this to be a gripping read…

My rating: 2 ½ stars

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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht — book review

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“He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to.”

To begin with I was intrigued by Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht’s writing is both intelligent and beautifully oblique. Her descriptions of the moral and physical landscape of the Balkans are evocatively rendered. Although Obreht avoids naming countries, alluding merely to ‘my side’ and ‘their side’, she does give her readers a strong impression of the communities she writes of. Whether she is describing them before or after this ‘unnamed’ war, her prose is piercing. She easily disentangles the feelings that different generations have during a war.

Populated with folkloric characters and examining themes such as cultural memory and death, I was prepared to be mesmerised by The Tiger’s Wife. The tale within tale structure of her novel brought to mind some personal favourites (such as books by Elif Shafak and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land) but I soon found myself wanting the narrative to focus and develop our protagonist more. Natalia Stefanovi’s personality remains off-stage, and she often seemed to function as a mere mouthpiece for her grandfather. The few scenes which gave us an impression of their relationship were far more poignant than those countless ones focusing on Galina’s residents. Ultimately Natalia’s narrative feels meaningless. She doesn’t embark on a quest nor does she come to re-asses her grandfather or his stories, she seems merely to be reiterating these tales, and she offers few personal insights.
The tiger, Gavran Gailé (the deathless man who Natalia’s grandfather encountered years before), and the deaf-mute woman know as the tiger’s wife were the figures to which the various tales stories returning to. While the tiger was painted in a fascinating and mythical light, the tiger’s wife struck me as a passive and one-dimensional character.
While Obreht’s depictions of death, illness, and war are haunting, and her story does reveal the desperation and exhaustion experienced by those in war-torn countries, I did find her story to be ultimately inconclusive. If Natalia had played a more active role in the novel I would probably enjoyed this novel more.
Still, Obreht’s prose does merit attention, and I will certainly be reading her next novels.

“It was another thing they never talked about, a fact I knew somehow without knowing how I’d ever heard about it, something buried so long ago, in such absolute silence, that I could go for years without remembering it. When I did, I was always stunned by the fact that they had survived it, this thing that sat between them, barricaded from everyone else, despite which they had been able to cling together, and raise my mother, and take trips, and laugh, and raise me.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson — book review

“I understand that art is a necessary component of a civilized society, but you cannot just go around shooting people. That’s going to be a problem.”

Having recently read and loved Nothing to See Here I wanted to check out Kevin Wilson’s earlier work. While The Family Fang has the same whimsical tone as his latest novel, its story has a broader scope and feels slightly more impersonal (perhaps this is due to the third person point of view).
Nevertheless the opening chapters of this novel are highly entertaining. Throughout the narrative there are sections from Annie and Buster’s childhood recounting the way in which their parents would rope them into being part of their ‘performances’ (which usually aimed to cause as much havoc as possible). Unsurprisingly, as adults Annie and Buster have little to do with their parents. Annie is an actress whose career is about to hit a rough spot, while Buster is a writer whose last novel wasn’t very well received. After a series of unfortunate yet oddly funny, events the two Fang siblings find themselves back into their parents’ home.
Although I liked the satire on contemporary art, as well as art criticism, I didn’t find Caleb and Camille to be all that interesting. They remain rather one-sided and did not strike me as being as compelling as they were made to be. Their over-the-top self-belief and art talk could be amusing but it didn’t render their personalities. Even when the narrative was focused on them, their motivations and behaviour remained off page. Although Annie and Buster were far more engaging, I still found their character arcs to be rather erratic.
Although for the most part he eccentric cast of characters did keep me interested in the story, I would have preferred a more focused and less meandering storyline. The pacing too seemed to be slightly off kilter.

Funnily enough some of my favourite scenes in this novel were the ones revolved around a film Annie’s working on (a film in which a woman looks after children who catch fire? Sounds familiar…).
While I appreciated Wilson’s motifs, imagery, and themes (once again we have questionable parents who do a questionable job raising their children), and I enjoyed the overall humour and eccentricity of his narrative, I did not feel particularly involved by his story nor his characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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For the most part The House of Silk was an entertaining read. Horowitz captures the essence of the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and Watson so that readers will find his portrayal of these two famous characters to be all too familiar. As per usual Horowitz also cleverly combines more than one mystery together, throwing in many literary devices that have become conventions of the detective genre (ie. red herrings).

Readers, alongside Watson, will be for the most part in the dark when it comes to Holmes’ idiosyncratic investigations. This was intentionally frustrating, and more than once Holmes fails to explain his investigation to his friend—and by extent us. Still, I was intrigued by our duo’s exploits, and by the way two seemingly unconnected cases intermingled with one another.
Horowitz’s humour and wit are as per usual present and a source of great amusement. Although I was captivated by the fast-pace and evocative narrative, I was frustrated by a certain plot point (view spoiler) and it seemed that the latter half of this book could have been paced better.

Although Horowitz’s has created a realistic and richly described historical setting I appreciated the way Watson’s narrative and running commentary reflect contemporary sensibilities…and given his modern audience Horowitz is unafraid to tackle the darker aspects of the society he writes of.
In spite of a few minor quibbles, I’m glad I read this and I recommend it to fans of detective fiction, even those who aren’t all that familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle‘s work.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella — book review

Ive-got-your-number-PB-REI (1).jpgMy favourite “guilty pleasure” read. I say guilty because there is a lot that could be criticised about a book such as this. Yet, I’m always able to fully immerse myself in Poppy’s misadventures so much so that I feel 100% invested in her story.
Kinsella’s sense of humour is as per usual one of the immediate ‘hooks’ of her novels. Poppy’s ‘ring-crisis’ and ‘phone-crisis’ offer plenty of amusing and entertaining scenes. There are also an abundance of awkward moments, often involving Poppy’s interactions with her future in-laws, as well as a series of mishaps and misunderstandings. Another thing that I love about this book is that the connection and intimacy between Sam and Poppy is caused by their ‘mutual’ phone…
Although Poppy repeatedly intervenes in Sam’s work (and private) life she is called out on her ‘fix you’ behaviour (and is served a taste of her own medicine when she finds herself under Sam’s scrutiny).
This is a book that always cheers me up. It has humour, romance, and makes for the perfect ‘pick me up’ read.

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