Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Cloud-Atlas-esque novels seem to be all the rage in 2022…

“This place is precarious, that’s the only word for it. It’s the lightest sketch of civilizations, caught between the forest and the sea. He doesn’t belong here”

This is my third novel by Mandel and once again I have rather conflicting thoughts and feelings about her work. On the one hand, I recognize how talented a writer she is. Her prose has this cool yet delicate quality to it that brought to mind authors such as Hanya Yanagihara and Ann Patchett . I always found myself appreciating her subtle storytelling and her ability to make her characters retain a certain unknowability. I also find her use of imagery to be highly effective in that these motifs add a certain nostalgic atmosphere to her settings. So much so that I often read of her characters and or the landscapes which she writes of with a strong sense of Deja Vu. Maybe because Mandel often returns to the same issues or even goes so far as to refer to the same characters in seemingly unconnected/stand-alone books (a la mandel-multiverse). Here this sense of familiarity with her characters and their struggles is very fitting indeed given the story’s ‘crucial’ theme.

“[T]hese moments that had arisen one after another after another, worlds fading out so gradually that their loss was apparent only in retrospect.”

The book opens in 1912. Edwin St. Andrew is but a young English lad who after angering his father for the last time has been banished to the ‘new world’. His attempts at making a go of things in Canada don’t quite go as smoothly as he’d hoped. There are some stunning descriptions of the landscapes here and there was something about Edwin that appealed to me. There was almost an otherworldly feel to this section, partly due to the remoteness and vastness of Edwin’s new ‘home’ (i am not at all familiar with that type of environment hence my finding it surreal). This section comes to a close with Edwin witnessing something quite Other.
We then are reunited with a side character from The Glass Hotel. It’s corona-time and Mirella (Vincent’s ‘friend’) has yet to fully recover from the death of her partner and the whole Ponzi fallout. She has a girlfriend but we learn virtually nothing about her or their relationship as this section is more of an ode to Vincent. FYI, I hated Vincent in The Glass Hotel. She was the reason why I didn’t really love that book, and, understandably then, I was not particularly enthusiastic when I realized that she would play a role here as well. Even if she is not on the ‘page’, her presence saturates much of Mirella’s narrative, to the point where it struck me as a bit unfair to Mirella herself. She’s an interesting character in her own right and yet we don’t really get to focus on her. Paul, Vincent’s brother, makes an appearance but his character here didn’t strike me as particularly nuanced. It turns out that Vincent too is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and once again the narrative makes much of her ‘art’ (coughbanal-as-it-is). That the narrative includes Mirella unfavourably comparing her gf to Vincent was kind of a joke. It really cemented why I did not like Vincent, to begin with. I am sick of Not Like Other People type of characters.
The following section is set in the 2200s. Here we learn that some people now live on colonies on the moon, one of them is this famous author named Olive Llewellyn. She’s now on a book tour on Earth where she discusses her hit book which is, surprise surprise, about a pandemic. During her tour however Olive becomes preoccupied with the news about an actual pandemic…Olive struck me as a self-insert. There were so many lines that just came across as if they were coming from Mandel herself. Particularly the questions about what it feels like to have written a pandemic novel when there is an actual pandemic etc…I find this sort of stuff cringe and there was something slightly self-congratulatory and ‘special about Olive that just made it really hard for me to even believe in her (she was a bit of Vincent 2.0). Additionally, this section is set in the 2200s and I did not buy into it. Moon colonies aside the future envisioned here was not particularly thought out. Many inconsistencies have to do with the tech available (people still have devices?) and the way the characters spoke was just too contemporary, almost old-fashioned even (i could all too easily imagine someone saying ‘old chap’). This worked for the sections before but here it was just prevented me from fully immersing myself in the events being narrated. The discussions about pandemics, epidemics, and writing about these things, were rather contrived, which again, pulled me out of the story. It turns out that Olive also is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and Vincent.

The final section is set in the 2400s and once again the world described here did not feel particularly ‘futuristic’. While the author does include one or two details that remind us that the people from this century write and speak differently to say now, these were not enough to establish a believable setting. Anyhow, here we follow Gaspery-Jacques Roberts who is a fairly bland character. The most interesting about him is of course his name. His sister is yet another Not Like Other People type of character (there is something about Mandel’s female characters that really annoys me…). She works for this ‘mysterious’ institution and eventually, Gaspery finds himself joining her ranks. He is assigned a mission: to find out more about the anomaly connecting Edwin, Vincent, and Olive. I was hoping that we would return to the previous perspectives, such as Edwin and Mirella, but the narrative from this point onward favours Gaspery. There was a very funny lil scene about his cat, but for the most part, his story struck me as vaguely predictable. The man was bland and the moral dilemma he faces was handled in a rather simplistic and hurried way.

It would have been nice for the timelines set in the 2200s and the 2400s to be less heteronormative and gender-normative. We get a queer character and a sapphic side character but that’s kind of it (if memory serves). There were some interesting themes at play in the book such as human connection and loneliness, empathy and choice. I appreciated the motifs that were interspersed throughout these interconnected narratives, as they consolidated the connection between these seemingly unconnected people. The conversations around pandemics were rather been-there-done-that kind of thing. I actually believe that they would have suited to an article more than this type of piece of fiction. I did find the execution to be ultimately disappointing. While the truth behind this anomaly wasn’t ‘shocking’ I did like the way it was played out. I do wish however that we could have spent more time with the characters we were introduced to early on in the book (rather than sticking to mr. boring and the cringy self-insert).
As you can probably tell by my somewhat incoherent review I feel rather conflicted about this book. Mandel’s prose is chief’s kiss. Her characters and her story however were a bit of a flop. I would have liked for the ‘anomaly’ to retain a certain mystery rather than it being explained away. I think I preferred the subtle magical realism of The Glass Hotel than the more sci-fi elements that were at play here, which were 1) not really convincing and 2) a bit sci-fi 101.

I would definitely recommend it to Mandel fans (my mother among them). If you are, like me, not entirely ‘sold’ on her work well, it seems unlikely that this will be the one to win you over (then again, i might be wrong here).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf by Malika Moustadraf

Blood Fest collects all of Malika Moustadraf’s short fiction. Set in contemporary-ish Morocco these stories explore fraught gender and family dynamics, highlighting the insidious nature of misogyny. Within these short stories, women are forced to marry men they don’t love, they are abused or mistreated by male relatives and struggle to retain freedom and independence in a patriarchal society. Many of these stories share a rather bleak outlook as they paint a depressingly realistic picture of domestic abuse and sexism. The men populating these stories are angry, confused, and guilty. They lash out against each other and the women around them. The results are not pretty and there are many upsetting scenes. We also read of how women themselves became perpetrators of misogyny, as mothers go on to police their daughters’ bodies, shaming them for the way they behave in a way they don’t/wouldn’t with their sons. There are also some lgbtq+ themes but these are only touched slightly and the author mostly interrogates heteronormative relationships. While I appreciated the issues Moustadraf explores within these narratives I found the stories unsatisfying. They have very choppy endings and are too short, lasting a few pages or so. The characters become devices through which the author can address and or exemplify a certain issue, and they often failed to convince me as ‘real’ people. There isn’t time dedicated to developing them and the stories consequently suffer from this lack. Also, I would like more variety in tone, subject, and style as many of these stories ended up blurring into each other. Still, I would not dissuade others from reading it and although it didn’t really work for me I found certain aspects of these stories to be thoughtprovoking. Additionally, despite its heavy topics this collection makes for a very quick read.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

As per usual I was drawn to a book because I found its cover cute. The novel itself has plenty of cute moments, however, various elements prevented me from truly appreciating it.

Before her parents’ separation 17-year-old Evie Thomas was a lover of romance and a believer in happy-ever-afters. When she becomes aware that her dad not only cheated on her mum but left them to be with the ‘other woman’, well, she’s pretty shaken up by it. A newly disillusioned Evie decides to make the very dramatic gesture of getting rid of all of her romance books (i mean, really?). After dropping them off at a ‘little free library’ a mysterious old lady seemingly appears from nowhere and encourages her to take a book titled Instructions for Dancing, a book about ballroom dancing. From then on Evie has the ability to see how peoples’ romances begun and how they will end. They just have to kiss in front of her and wham she gets a That’s So Raven vision that shows her a fast-forwarded version of the couple’s relationship, from their first meeting to their breakup/separation. Her new gift seems to confirm that, as she feared, in real life love always ends in heartbreak (lil’ bit ridiculous, i know…).
She eventually returns the manual for dancing to La Brea Dance. Once at this dance studio she just happens to come face-to-face with the kind of heartthrob guy who is very much the real-life embodiment of the LI in a romance (“For a second, I feel like I’m a character in one of my old romance books. Raising a single eyebrow is such a Classic Romance Guy Characteristic.”). The guy, X, and Evie end up competing as a pair for a dance competition in the Amateur Under 21 category with the intention of promoting the studio.
As you can imagine, in spite of Evie vowing that she’s done with love and romance and would certainly not fall for X because “Tall, hipster-hot and in a band? I mean, he’s the definition of a heartbreaker, right?”, the more they practice together, the closer they get.
The story focuses on their romance and on Evie’s feeling conflicted about love and romance. While the angst is at times outweighed by the sweeter moments, overall, I could have done with the elements of melodrama (between evie & x, between evie & her ‘friends’, between evie & her dad). I do feel bad for not being able to write a more positive review but I’m afraid that honesty always wins out in my reviews so I will be detailing all of the reasons why I was unable to like this novel. If this book happens to be on your radar or on your TBR pile I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.
Here are a few of the things that dampened my enjoyment of this book, SPOILERS BELOW:

The Magical Element
What was that all about?! At times the story seems to forget all about Evie’s ability to see how other peoples’ romantic relationships start and end. These glimpses into a couple’s story give us very incomplete visions of their relationship (let alone who they are). The visions were jarring, something that stood out against an otherwise realistic & contemporary YA backdrop. Maybe had they remained one of the main preoccupations of the narrative they would have not felt so out of place but as I said mentions and scenes featuring Evie’s power remained very inconsistent. There’s a lot about them in the first few chapters where Evie is immediately able to establish that her visions are real. And that they only serve as a way to add more angst to her character. You see, now she has proof that love is fake and true romance doesn’t exist. It just so happens that, except for one couple towards the end, all of the couples she has visions of break up/separate.

Storyline
This ties to the 1st point. I would have liked the storyline to be more consistent. At first, we get a lot about her visions and her ‘i don’t believe in love anymore’ act, before switching to the dancing side of things, before honing in on her romance with X and her arguing with her friends. Personally, I would have liked more family dynamics. She hates her dad because he cheated on her mom, which is fair enough, but that this made her go through such a dramatic ‘i’m getting rid of all of my romance books/love doesn’t exist/in case you didn’t notice i’m a cynic now’, well, I just a hard time putting up with the same information being repeated over and over again. We get it, she feels betrayed by her dad (even if one could argue that, given that she’s nearly 18 and about to leave for college, she should not feel so involved in her parents’ relationship with each other…they are individuals of their own). She spends most of the novel dissing her dad and acting like he’s a monster before arriving at the classic plot-point where she tries to understand his perspective etc. Like, why did she have to be so immature? Her character development was predictable and her relationship with her parents would have benefited from more page-time. Her sister too! They were at one point close and yet for extended periods in the novel the sister is very much forgotten.
Speaking of family dynamics I would have loved to see more of x and his own family (as opposed to him mentioning a call or two from his dad). His grandparents (as far as i can recall) own the dance studio where they are training at and yet we don’t learn too much about their relationship with one another.
The point is that to me, the story meandered too much and had one too many unnecessary ingredients that ended up ruining the final product. We have Evie angst-ing over her parents’ break up and her dad cheating, we have the little library and the visions, we have the dancing sessions, we have her romance with X, we have the fights with her friends, we have miscommunication and reconciliation, and then, in a very soap-opera-ish move, bam, a tragic, but ultimately entirely forced bittersweet ending that teaches Evie a valuable life lesson (that just because something comes to an end does not make what came before worthless or any less meaningful). It all felt vaguely calculated and moralistic while at the same time, we get sudden changes in the storyline direction that amount to a less than cohesive story.

Evie
While not wholly unsympathetic, I found her selfish and immature to the point where I wanted to finish the book so I could get out of her head.
Supposedly 17, Evie is as emotionally mature as a 10-year-old. So, she caught her dad cheating and is traumatised, and begins acting like he’s some heinous human being and seems to believe that her mom owes her an explanation on why their marriage ended like this. Evie refuses to talk to him and acts like a brat. Her newfound attitude towards love and romance contributed to my impression of her being far too childish for her actual age. I would expect this over-the-top behaviour from a Disney movie, not a contemporary YA novel that is so clearly striving for depth and, visions aside, realism.
Her visions confirm her love ends in tears stance (i mean, at one point she throws at us the following: “Heartbreak = love + time”…which is something i could have written in one of my angsty poetry phases i went through aged 13 or so). Her dad betrayed her mom so it makes for her to seemingly overnight dismiss the notion of love/romance. I disliked how intrusive she was when it came to her parents’ relationship but I actively hated her behaviour towards two of her friends (one of whom is the nasty-type-friend, usually white and rich, that is all the rage in contemporary YA). They become a couple during the course of the novel (their personalities remain very much one-dimensional and their romance is rushed indeed) and Evie sees them kissing so of course she gets a vision that ends with them breaking up. She decides that they shouldn’t date because their eventual breakup will break their friendship group…so what does she decide to do? She refuses to see them! She isn’t all that concerned for them and their relationship, no, what worries is how their romance affects her. Selfish much? And the narrative goes on to prove that Evie was right and that of course, their failed romance ends up ‘breaking up’ their clique (really?).
It was just so frustrating to read her constant whining about her dad or making childish statements on how love ends in heartbreak yadda yadda. Why was it so hard for her to realise that yes, over the course of your life you will likely be with multiple people (as opposed to having only one ‘true love’)
And then her romance with X…yeah. At first, I found their interactions cute and understood to some extent why Evie was somewhat hesitant to admit her feelings towards him (after all, didn’t she swear off love?). But then, his presence in the novel amounts to serving as a plot device. He exists to teach Evie that it’s okay to fall in love and that even if said love ends with heartbreak that doesn’t change what came beforehand. What irked me the most is how his death is utilised by the narrative as the final step in Evie’s ‘learning to trust/love again’ arc. It wasn’t believable, it was clichéd and predictable from those rounds of questions earlier on in the story (where evie & co + X asks each other supposedly ‘philosophical’ questions that amount to: would you want to know when you are going to die or is true love real?). His death enables Evie to ‘grow’ as a character. That her reaction to learning of his approaching death is that of ghosting him…shit. Evie, sei una vera stronza. But it’s all good cause someone comes and tells her that she should not always be focusing on the end of things and think about the memories you make along the way (cheesy af). She apparently spends the next few months with him knowing that he will die but not telling him because earlier on he said that in a what-if scenario he would not want to know when he’s going to die….I mean really? She doesn’t even tell him to go to the doctor?

And they are meant to be teenagers?
The teenagers in this novel were so unbelievable. Their banter, as well as the ideas and opinions they express, were so vanilla. As I said earlier, with the exception of one or two lines here and there, these teens would have been better suited to a Disney movie. I guess they will appeal to fans of Netflix’s teen romance/drama/coming-of-age movie. The novel’s message too felt more in line with those kind of movies.

Self-Aware Romance (?)
Because Evie is a romance connoisseur she often lists tropes of the genre of says things on the lines of ‘it feels like i’m in one my old romance books’ or ‘he’s behaving like the LI in a romance’…yet, despite this supposed self-awareness the novel still implements many tired clichès and plot points.

The Dance Angle + Fifi
I liked the dancing sessions but after the halfway mark the dancing aspect of the novel seems largely sidelined in favour of angst between characters. Which, in my mind, is a pity. I would have preferred the novel to be more about dancing (esp. given that title + cover).
Fifi is X and Evie’s instructor and boy-oh-boy isn’t she a walking caricature. I struggle to understand why American authors (i’m looking at you casey mcquiston) write Eastern European characters this way. Not only do they have a thick accent but they have a funny way of expressing themselves and say borderline offensive/inappropriate things but it’s all good because accent + foreign = lol.

All in all, while now and again there were moments or exchanges that I found sweet (mostly between the main couple or evie and her bff martin), on the whole, I did not ‘vibe’ with it. I’m sure many others will love it and the points above are merely expressing my very subjective impressions of said book. Maybe the novel’s target demographic will have a more positive experience with it than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Rock Eaters: Stories by Brenda Peynado

The Rock Eaters: Stories will probably appeal to fans of macabre tales, such as the ones authored by Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, and possibly even Yōko Ogawa. This collection of speculative short stories is a highly metaphorical one. Brenda Peynado uses magical realism, aliens, dystopian and fantastic scenarios, to discuss immigration, xenophobia, and class disparity. While I appreciated the issues Peynado tackles within her narratives these stories seemed often allegorical to the point of distraction. Much of the imagery was repetitive and the grotesque elements embedded within these narratives came across as unnecessarily garish and sensationalistic.

Peynado’s fabulist tales are certainly more successful than those stories that venture into the sci-fi/dystopian realm; they either read like knock-off Black Mirror episodes or as incredibly derivative of other works. There is one story, in particular, that seemed to rip off Memory Police, and another one—starring aliens being persecuted and oppressed—seemed a bit too reminiscent of films such as District 9.
While the author certainly plays around with different genres the tone and style of these stories weren’t all that varied. They are incredibly depressing and negative. The characters blur together, seeming to share the same kind of generic personality. The author often uses a choral perspective, ‘we/us’, and this struck me as the classic stylistic device used in creative writing classes (‘experiment’ with ‘perspective’ and all that). It just didn’t work for me. I also found that these stories didn’t have much to say about anything other than underlining how crap everything is. There seems to be not one ray of hope within these tales. The lack of lgbtq+ characters also seemed a bit annoying (one story has a same-sex relationship). I also did not care for the way in which these tales handle mental health and diseases (that one where people fall asleep for years, or the one with the wife in a come).
I can think of many other books that discuss similar topics with much more depth (The Undocumented Americans, works by Patricia Engel and Edwidge Danticat). In this collection, the author seems to sacrifice character and story development to style. This may indeed work for other readers but it did zilch for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

As per usual I was swayed by a pretty cover. I mean, just look at it!

Anyway, as much as I wanted to like Build Your House Around My Body, it left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The narrative seems very much intent—hellbent even—on nauseating its readers, at times adopting a playful tone to do so. Ultimately, the story’s relentless efforts to be as abject as possible succeeded only in making me feel nothing for the characters.

The novel’s first few chapters were intriguing in a Neil Gaiman kind of way but with each chapter this reminded me more and more of Mariana Enríquez (not my cup of tea).
Build Your House Around My Body takes place in Vietnam, shifting between a cast of interconnected characters, and moving from the 1940s to the early 2010s. In 2011 a Vietnamese American woman named Winnie living in Saigon goes missing, less than a year after arriving in Vietnam. Over the course of the novel, we learn of what led her to Saigon and of her stint as an English teacher. A section of the narrative follows the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co. who are called to investigate some ‘spooky’ ongoings at a Vietnamese farm, another introduces us to a Vietnamese French boy sent to a boarding school during colonial rule, and then there are chapters focusing on three childhood friends, Binh, a supposedly feisty young girl and two brothers, Tan and Long, who share the same kind of bland personality.
The setting is vividly rendered, that’s for sure. We feel the oppressive heat and humidity experienced by the characters and the author has a knack for bringing to life the environments in which her characters are (be it a cemetery, a forest, or a dingy bathroom). The various storylines however don’t really flow that well together. The author wastes too much time poking fun at secondary characters that she loses sight of her novel’s central figures. Take Winnie. She remains a half-formed character, and while some of her vagueness may be intentional she could have still been fleshed out more. But her chapters often detail the silly routines of her colleagues or try really hard to gross you out through unpleasant descriptions of bodily fluids. Each storyline seems punctuated by slime, sweat, and shit. Which…yeah. The supposed revenge storyline doesn’t really come into play until the very end of the novel and by the end, it was glaringly obvious what had taken place in the past. The only section that made me feel somewhat amused was the one featuring the Fortune Teller’s First Assistant, but she was at beat a minor character (more of a cameo appearance really).
I had the distinct impression that this it the type of novel that is confusing for the sake of being confusing and I never much cared for these types of stories. Not only did the characters feel flat but I felt at a remove from them. The narrative spends so much time ridiculing them or comparing their facial features or appendages to foods/animals that I never saw them as ‘real’.
To be perfectly honest I don’t think I entirely understood what this book was going for. As I said already the novel’s raison d’être seems to be that of repulsing the readers. The issues the narrative attempts to touch upon—female agency? maybe? I don’t really have a clue—are lost in a murky melange of disparate storylines that don’t really come together that well nor do they succeed in bringing the characters or their struggles to life. While the setting was rendered in startlingly detail. the characters—their experiences and their relationships to one another—remain painfully vague.

my rating: ★★½

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People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Perhaps I should not have requested an arc for People We Meet on Vacation as I was one of the few people who last was not particularly enamoured by Beach Read (i know, i know, the audacity). I actually ended up enjoying this more as I found it to be both funnier and a lot less angsty than Beach Read. Was People We Meet on Vacation particularly original? No.
Memorable? N o p e.
It was cute, silly, a tad cheesy, and a bit too clichèd for my taste (i get it, the romcom is a genre that thrives on tropes but there are limits: opposites attract, will they won’t they, female leads falls and has to be carried by the male lead, one of them is sick so the other has to play ‘nurse’, the list goes on).

The story is narrated by Poppy (who i could not help but compare to another romcom poppy) who is the classic relatable 30ish female lead: she is short, bubbly, quirky, doesn’t like sports. Poppy’s bbf is Alex, who is very much her polar opposite. He is more of a quiet composed kind of guy. They met at university and ever since then they spend their summer holidays together, travelling around America and even venturing abroad. Things change after their trip Croatia (i wonder what could have possibly happened…) and they are no longer in touch.
Two years after their fallout Poppy finds herself reaching out to him. Although she has her dream job, which allows her to do what she loves most (travel), an apartment in New York, and friends, she has become listless. After they reconnect Poppy and Alex go on another vacation together. Poppy wants their old friendship back even if her feelings towards Alex may be less than platonic. Interspersed throughout the ‘now’ are chapter recounting their previous holidays together.

Alex and Poppy’s banter was funny, and most of the narrative focuses on their bond. Their conversations and clowning around often emphasised their ‘opposing’ personalities. Poppy is loud and quirky, Alex is a bit of an old man. Ahah ensues.
The places they visit are mere backdrops to their banter, and in many ways, they embody the worst type of tourist (their idea of a vacation = my idea of hell). They also have 0 tolerance for heat and don’t tend to focus on the sceneries and cultures they are in (the only thing i remember from their trip to italy is that they eat parmiggiano). On these vacations, they come across funny, eccentric, downright odd people whose function is that of comedic relief.

I might have enjoyed this more if Poppy and Alex had been a bit more interesting. Poppy was just the quintessential romcom female lead and I while she did make me laugh now and then I can’t say that I particularly liked her. And I am tired of these stories where the male lead always has to have abs while the female lead is curvy or normal (the other woman instead is ‘fit’). Why can’ the male lead have an ‘average body? Why can’t the female lead be really into running or weightlifting?

Anyway, I did like their dynamic and inside jokes. I also appreciated that the male lead wasn’t the classic ‘i am no good for you’ type and we also get some lgbtq+ side characters.
The vacations do get repetitive, and I could have probably done without reading all of them (focusing instead of the ‘now). Poppy keeps referring to Croatia without actually saying what has happened but we all already can guess what ‘went down’ so why drag it on so long? It added no suspense whatsoever, if anything it detracted from the story. Towards the end, I found myself a bit unconvinced by the story’s so called conflict.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad read and I am sure that it will appeal to diehard romcom fans. I for one found this a relatively entertaining read even if I found some of the lingo (anything poppy’s friend rachel says) to be incredibly grating (i have nothing against americans but when i hear ‘wine dates’ i cannot help but to cringe).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

 

 

“I saw my mother raise a man from the dead. It still didn’t help him much, my love, she told me. But I saw her do it all the same. That’s how I knew she was magic.”

 

I was hooked by Libertie’s opening paragraph. Set during and after the American Civil War Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel is narrated by Libertie the daughter of a Black female doctor. As the child of a free-woman Libertie is born free at a time when slavery was yet to be abolished. But whereas Libertie’s mother, who is a light-skinned woman and was able to study medicine by ‘passing’, Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and because of this experiences both racism and the prejudices of those who are ‘colorstruck’. Cathy, although not a demonstrative mother, clearly cares about Libertie and has trained her since a young age in the medical arts. But, as Libertie discovers, some conditions and or people cannot be cured. When one of her mother’s patients, a man Libertie had grown fond of, fails to recover, Libertie begins to question her mother’s abilities and grows increasingly disillusioned by her profession. Sensing her daughter’s detachment, Cathy enrolls Libertie at Cunningham College in Ohio where she will be the only female medical student. Libertie, who by this point had already begun to chafe against her mother’s expectations, is far more drawn by the music department, and in particular, by the voices of Louisa and Experience, also knows as the Graces.

“Music at night, music after dark, music finding its way to you across sweetgrass, can feel almost like magic.”

Libertie longs to belong to them, but, in spite of her attempts to form a friendship with the Graces, the bond between the two women is impenetrable. Greenidge’s articulates Libertie’s loneliness and yearning with lyric precision. It was easy to understand and sympathize with Libertie, her wish to be free of other people’s visions of who she should be. We also understand how complex her relationship with her mother is: having grown without a father or other relatives Cathy is everything to Libertie.

I found this first half of the novel to be but poignant and engaging. Greenidge does not shy away from discussing the realities of slavery, racism, colorism, or sexism. Yet, her narrative does not dwell on pain and suffering. There are many moments of beauty and empathy, and I found Libertie’s voice to be utterly captivating.

The latter half of the novel is where things get a bit messy. Libertie becomes entangled with Emmanuel, a young man from Haiti. While their first interactions had both chemistry and potential, their romance happens way too fast. Libertie’s feelings toward Emmanuel aren’t clearly addressed, which was weird since up to that point readers were privy to her innermost feelings and or thoughts. And then, bam, all of a sudden Libertie is in Haiti with Emmanuel and things there take a vaguely Jane Eyresque turn.
While the descriptions of Haiti, from its history to its physical landscapes, were vivid, and there were many thought-provoking discussions on religion and culture, I remained unconvinced by Libertie’s motivations to move there. I wish the story had kept its focus on her and Cathy or her and the Graces, as I did not really feel the ‘love’ between her and Emmanuel. Their relationship was rushed and once in Haiti it never truly develops or progresses. His family drama steals the limelight, and although it did allow the narrative to touch upon some compelling issues, I just could not bring myself to believe in Libertie or Emmanuel’s motives. Cathy’s presence is relegated once more to letters that Libertie chooses not answer. The finale was both predictable and left a few too many questions unanswered.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed Greenidge’s writing. I found that the inclusion of poetry, music, and fragments from Libertie/Cathy’s letters added a layer of depth to the story.
While I wasn’t blown away by the latter half of the novel nor its conclusion I would still recommend this as it is written in lyrical prose and it presents readers with a nuanced mother-daughter relationship while also delving into America’s history, racism, colorism, sexism, grief, and, as the title and heroine’s name suggest, freedom.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expecting the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender expression (and possibly his gender identity?). As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight (?), and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Considering that Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourites authors this was a big letdown. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino lacked the zing that made Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop into such fun and engaging reads. Nishino, the novel’s central character, is a boring creep and I could not for the life of me understand why so many women cared for him.

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino is divided in ten chapters, each one narrated by one of Nishino’s ‘loves’. The chapters do not follow a linear structure, so Nishino’s life is given to us in an almost fragmented way. The women Nishino loves easily blend together as they all shared the same kind of voice. I did not find them as likeable as the protagonists of Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop and maybe that’s because much of their narrative focuses on the relationship they have with Nishino. Most of them realise that Nishino is bad news who cheats and is emotionally unavailable. Yet, usually after they claim to dislike him, they will confess that they are on the verge of falling in love with him. Alas, because of ‘reasons’, they break up. The Nishino that emerges from these accounts is that of a pathetic and needy man who habitually lies. He has 0 charisma, here are two examples of some of his lines that make his ‘loves’ ‘giggle’: “Girls’ bottoms are always so cool, so smooth—I love them . . .” and “I love women’s breasts,”. Wow…isn’t he a poet?
Nishino is troubled and ‘broken’ and the women he loves pity him for it, hoping that one day he will find a woman good enough to ‘fix’ him (ugh).

minor spoilers ahead
The thing is, Nishino is a shit. He obviously does not care to have consensual sex with his ‘loves’: “I said, Stop, over and over, each time he quietly replied, I will not stop.” and “Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.”.
He has sister issues, boo-fucking-hoo. Give me a break. The guy is a massive creep. He jokes to one of his ‘loves’ that he will marry his daughter (who is a child). Was it supposed to be funny? Coming from a guy who then at the age of fifty starts a sexual relationship a woman thirty years his junior?
I also did not care for the whole ‘breast milk scene’ involving Nishino and his sister. Surely that would not be the only way of ‘easing’ her pain (this is the third book I have read this year with weird breast milk scenes and I can safely say that I care little for this trend).

If you are thinking of reading something by Kawakami, I strongly recommend you pick up Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop instead of this.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

“Alas: in the Stillness, destroying mountains is as easy as an orogene toddler’s temper tantrum. Destroying a people takes only a bit more effort.”

Now this is how you write a sequel.
Jemisin has done it again. This series is simply spectacular.

“It’s not hate that you’re seeing. Hate requires emotion. What this woman has simply done is realize you are a rogga, and decide that you aren’t a person, just like that. Indifference is worse than hate.”

The Obelisk Gate picks up where The Fifth Season ended. After having lost her daughter’s ‘trace’ Essun, alongside her traveling companions, stays is in Castrima, an underground comm. Here she is reunited with Alabaster who has a task for her. However, his failing health and their strained relationship further complicate things. The comm’s headwoman is an orogene, Ykka, tries her hardest to make her comm safe and a place in which orogenes and stills can coexist peacefully. Threats from the outside however create discord among Castrima’s residents, risking a divide between orogenes and stills. Essun’s presence does not help matters as she is an extremely powerful orogene who is dealing with some serious trauma.

While The Fifth Season is more of an epic edge-of-your-seat fantasy, The Obelisk Gate is much more of a slow-burn. Jemisin expands the world she established in the first instalment and offers perspectives outside of Essun’s. We get chapters following Nassun, Essun’s ‘lost’ daughter, and Schaffa, Essun’s former Guardian. Although I certainly felt sympathetic towards Nassun, she also frustrated the hell out of me as she was willing to love two violent men but not her mother (or at least, she often professes that she resents her mother for having trained her incessantly). Still, the sections that focus on Nassun and Schaffa certainly present readers with a lot food for thought. Nassun’s devotion to her father, in spite of the fact that he murdered her younger brother, and to Schaffa are sadly all too believable. Her father’s repulsion and hatred towards orogene also calls to mind our world’s hatred towards the ‘other’.

Jemisin is a wordsmith and her prose has me in her thrall. Her dialogues not only ring true to life (in spite of the story’s fantastical setting) but they convey a scene’s atmosphere (tension, sadness, unrest). Jemisin’s narration is clever and always manages to surprise me. I love her fast-paced sequences in which characters are fighting for their lives or using their powers, and the slower-speed ones in which characters are talking about the past or the future or their feelings. Her writing style is utterly captivating. It can be playful or direct, descriptive and sophisticated or urgent and impressionistic (with fragmented sentences that perfectly capture a character’s trauma or fear). You cannot not pay attention to her words.

My review cannot really do justice to what Jemisin has created. This series has an intricate and complicated world and the author does not shy away from challenging each and every character’s view of what is best for it. There are no good or bad guys here.
The Obelisk Gate makes for an immersive high fantasy experience one that for all its magical elements presents with an all too real look into a divide and dying world.

my rating: ★★★★★

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