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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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: ★★★☆☆

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

“How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”

Devastating, heart-wrenching, and full of love and sorrow, Men We Reaped is an unforgettable memoir. Jesmyn Ward recounts her experiences growing up poor, female, and Black in the rural South during the late 80s and 90s. Ward interweaves her personal account with a brutal social commentary that highlights what it means to be poor and Black, and of how racism, specifically in the South, remains an insidious and widespread phenomenon with tragic consequences. Interrupting those chapters in which Ward recounts her childhood and teenage years are chapters focusing on the lives of five Black men, all of whom died young as a result of addictions, suicide, and accidents. Some of these men, we learn, were her friends growing up. We see how the school system either pegged them as problem students or ignored them, which inevitably would make them feel ‘less than’ and worthless. Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, is one of these young men, which makes these chapters all the more hard-hitting.
Ward shows how deep-rooted institutionalised racism is and how it results in social and economic disparities. In looking back to the past, Ward tries to understand the motivations behind the actions and behaviours of the adults around her, in particular, her mother and her father, a serial cheater who would eventually leave them behind. In discussing the lives of these men she cared for, Ward considered the high mortality rate among young Black men, and of the way in which their community is affected by generational trauma, drug addiction, etc. Ward ultimately feels conflicted about the South, a place that has played a fatal role in the deaths of the people she loved. Yet, even after moving away to pursue higher education, she finds herself longing to return to it. Ward, in some ways, appears to be haunted by it and by the role it played in the deaths of so many men she knew and loved.
With heartbreaking clarity and piercing insight, Ward writes of her childhood, of the lives of those young men who died such violent and sudden deaths, of her own family and her relationship to her parents, of her community, and of social inequality. More impressive still than Ward’s talent for vividly portraying a specific time and place is her ability to articulate her grief over the death of her brother and her friends.
While this memoir is by no means an easy read, it did in fact distress me, ultimately, I think it’s a necessary read. Ward’s lyrical prose reads like an elegy, both to the men that died at such a young age and to the South. Men We Reaped is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking read. While this memoir is mired in pain and grief, Ward’s elegiac prose and empathy balanced out its bleaker aspects. With admirable lucidity Ward attempts to reconcile herself with the confusion and anger brought about by the inequalities experienced by her community and by her loved one deaths.

Some quotes that will haunt me:

“[T]he message was always the same: You’re Black. You’re less than White. And then, at the heart of it: You’re less than human.

“We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies. For years I carried the weight of that despair with me;”

“But this grief, for all its awful weight, insists that he matters. What we carry of Roger and Demond and C. J. and Ronald says that they matter. I have written only the nuggets of my friends’ lives. This story is only a hint of what my brother’s life was worth, more than the nineteen years he lived, more than the thirteen years he’s been dead. It is worth more than I can say. And there’s my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say.”

“We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“I thought being unwanted and abandoned and persecuted was the legacy of the poor southern Black woman. But as an adult, I see my mother’s legacy anew. I see how all the burdens she bore, the burdens of her history and identity and of our country’s history and identity, enabled her to manifest her greatest gifts.”

my rating: ★★★★☆

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

“People always say time stands still, and it really is that, you know. You find the thing you love the most, and time will stop for you to love it.”

A few months ago I read and loved Mira Jacob’s Good Talk so I was quite looking forward to The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing as I happen to have a penchant for family dramas. And, at first, I was actually quite taken by it. The family dynamics Jacob sets up were complex & compelling and the ‘mystery’ surrounding Akhil’s death, Amina’s career change, and Thomas’ ‘weird’ behaviour, well, they moved the narrative forward.
The story alternates between chapters set in the 90s where we become acquainted with Amina, a wedding photographer who receives a worrying call from her mother, Kamala, about Thomas, Amina’s father. According to Kamala, Thomas is unwell. An anxious Amina flyers to her hometown where she learns that Thomas seems in perfect health. As days go by and after speaking to some of his father’s colleagues Amina is forced to recognise that her mother may not have been exaggerating after all. The other chapters instead give us insight into Amina’s childhood from a holiday gone awry that she took with her parents and brother to India to visit relatives to her experiences growing up in New Mexico. In these chapters, we see a lot of Akhil and come to learn of the events that led to his death.
As I says, initially I found Jacob’s storytelling engaging. Amina was a flawed but sympathetic main character and the various secrets related to her family added a layer of intrigue to her narrative. Things sadly fell apart midway through. I found the story much too repetitive. By then I’d already guessed what had happened to Akhil and what was going on with Thomas but the story keeps delaying these ‘reveals’. Large chunks of the story were just filler, often consisting of the same two or three characters having the same type of conversation or, more often than not, argument. Boy, do the characters in this story like to squabble. It just so happens that their fights did very little for me as it seemed to serve no purpose (we don’t gain much insight into those characters, nor does the fight further or add to the plot, nor does it drastically change things for anyone). Amina’s ‘photographer’ storyline was quite disappointing as Jacob doesn’t really delve into her photography that much. We learn of two ‘pivotal’ photos she’s taken and that’s it. I wanted more passion, more sections detailing her technique or what she feels towards photography (as Rachel Lyon does in her magnificent Self-Portrait with Boy, which also involves the photo of someone falling to their death…but unlike Jacob’s novel, it has depth). I didn’t understand why the characters behaved the way they did, nor did I really get the point of all the ‘sleepwalking’ and possible ‘hauntings’. Amina spends the majority of the whole novel wondering if her father is sick, when she has an answer the focus goes to her romance with a generic white man she knew during her teens, before presenting us with a rushed ending that is meant to provide some sort of answer/resolution for her dad’s situation…but doesn’t really.
I grew to dislike Amina, especially when she comes out with stuff like this: “Why does everyone think I dress like a man?” “Like a sandal. Or a flat.” “I just don’t like dresses. It’s not like I’m some transvestite.” (her response here makes no sense); or this “The blue button-down made her look like a high school lesbian” (this is the kind of remark that if its made by someone who like in amina’s case is not part of the lesbian nor lgbtq+ community…well); or this: “she remembered their first kiss, how strange and eager they had both been, like two mutes trying to describe a freak storm” (ugh).
After she shows up at her love interest’s place and they have sex initiated by her he comes up with this, “I think,” Jamie said that evening, his heart thundering under her ear, “you just raped me.”
to which she replies something along the lines of “you seemed into it”. Yikes.
The comments Amina makes about ‘lesbians’, ‘transvestites’, and ‘mutes’, well, they were completely unnecessary. Amina is presented to us as the ‘modern’ counterpart to her parents, someone who is relatable and isn’t necessarily interested in getting married. Except that she actually wants to but ‘trauma’ has made her believe she isn’t worthy and yadda yadda. What a clichè.
I didn’t care for the story’s melodramatic overtones. The whole thing surrounding Akhil’s death was just too OTT for me. He just wasn’t a particularly believable character and came across more like a caricature than anything else. Amina went from being a relatable character to someone I could not get behind. Later in the narrative, her cousin and alleged bff breaches her privacy and trust. Instead of calling her out, the narrative makes her actions seem good because Amina’s ‘true work’ can finally be celebrated. Instead of giving her hell Amina just lets her friend manipulate her into going along with this.
Amina’s parents were portrayed as very volatile, and their constant sniping, wild mood swings, and erratic behaviour made it hard for me to get to grips with them. Especially when what they said or did was played up for laughs.
I’m sure other readers won’t be as offended as I was by some of the content in this novel so I recommend you read more positive reviews before making your mind up. Given how much I liked Good Talk, it is safe to say that I am deeply disappointed by Jacob’s debut novel.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

“Names have power. This is the fundamental principle of magic everywhere. Call out the name of a supernatural being, and you will have its instant and undivided attention in the same way that your lost toddler will have yours the second it calls your name.”

First published in 2000 Monkey Beach is a deeply evocative and multilayered coming of age. Monkey Beach transports its readers to Northwest British Columbia, to Kitamaat, home to the Haisla people. After her younger brother Jimmy goes missing during a fishing expedition, twenty-year-old Lisamarie Hill is overwhelmed by grief. As she makes her way to the place he was last seen, Lisa looks back to her childhood and teenage years. Lisa recollections ring incredibly true to life. The author captures the way children think and speak, celebrating moments of silliness and happiness that occur between siblings and childhood friends. While there are many moments of lightness in Lisa’s childhood, the author doesn’t shy away from portraying the many injustices and struggles experienced by indigenous people. Lisa’s relationships with her family members—in particular, her loving uncle Mick and her resilient Ma-ma-oo—are as powerful as they are moving.
As a child, Lisa is very much a ‘tomboy’. She doesn’t back down from a fight, has a bit of a temper, enjoys getting into scrapes that frequently land her into trouble. Her uncle is her biggest fan and their interactions are simply a joy to read. I also liked that although Lisa does exhibit some of those ‘Not Like Other Girls’ traits, the narrative ultimately subverts this, introducing us to multiple tough girls and by not dismissing those girls Lisa had a falling out with.
The author depicts the realities of growing up indigenous and female, emphasizing the importance of family ties, however knotty these may be, and Haisla beliefs and customs. The narrative also delves into magical realism territories as throughout her youth Lisa is visited by a strange if ominous figure. Lisa’s premonitions and her ability to see ghosts are a terrible weight as she is often unable to stop tragedies from unfolding.

This novel has easily some of the most realistic dialogues and interactions that I have ever come across in a book. The setting is as vividly rendered as the characters, and there are many stunning descriptions of the landscapes surrounding Lisa.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to lovers of plot or fast-moving narratives, Monkey Beach will definitely resonate with those readers who are looking for a nuanced family portrait. I truly appreciated that while the author manages to convey with crystal-clear clarity Lisa’s childhood, some things in her story retain a sense of ambiguity.
While the first half of this novel is brimming with more light-hearted moments, the latter half is heartbreaking and unexpectedly dark. Lisa’s voice and character arc were truly compelling and I found myself not wanting to reach the end (as that would mean saying goodbye to her).
I came across an interview in which Emily St. John Mandel says that Monkey Read is her favourite book to re-read, and I actually think that this novel would indeed appeal to fans of Mandel (the remote & atmospheric setting, the magical realism). Readers who enjoyed Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley should also consider giving Monkey Beach a shot as the two share a similar ‘feel’.
Monkey Beach was a truly absorbing read, one that I am already looking forward to reading again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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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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Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

“My stepmother had broken me. She’d cast me away from my brothers, my family, my home. Even from myself.”

First things first: that cover. I mean….words cannot describe how beautiful it is.
Ever since watching early 2000s Barbie movies reading Juliet Marillier’s spellbinding books I’ve had a soft spot for retellings and I’m happy to say that Six Crimson Cranes makes for a truly wonderful take on “The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds” type of tales (which include the six swans, the wild swans, and even marillier’s daughter of the forest). Fans of Ghibli and even Disney should definitely consider picking this up as Six Crimson Cranes is a truly magical novel.

“We were seven, and seven was a number of strength. An uneven number that could not fold unto itself, large enough to withstand many threats, yet small enough to stay devoted.”

In Six Crimson Cranes Limm transports her readers to the Chinese and Japanese inspired kingdom of Kiata. Here Princess Shiori, the only daughter of Emperor Hanariho, is not looking forward to getting married to the son of Lord Bushian, someone Shiori considers to be a barbarian. In spite of her sheltered upbringing, Shiori’s adventurous streak (read: foolhardiness) often lands her in trouble. Thankfully for her, she has six brothers who dote on her (even if they do enjoy teasing her now and again) and are more than happy to watch out for her.
On the day of her betrothal ceremony, she uses magic—which is, you guessed it, forbidden in this kingdom—to cheer herself up. And then her magical friend lands her into the palace’s Sacred Lake. Luckily, Shiori is saved by Seryuu, a dragon prince (okay, this whole dynamic gave me some strong spirited away vibes) who offers to help her with her magic. Shiori’s lake mishap raises her stepmother’s suspicions. And it turns out that mysterious & aloof Raikama also dabbles with magic. When Shiori witnesses Raikama getting up to no good she runs to her brothers to warn them about their stepmother’s true identity. Alas, the siblings don’t stand a chance against Raikama who uses her dark magic to curse them. Shiori’s six brothers are transformed into cranes. Shiori too is cursed: no one will be able to recognise her and if she were to utter a single word one of her brothers will die. Voiceless and alone, Shiori travels the lands hoping to find her brothers and a way to break the curse.

“Ironic, wasn’t it, that I—a girl who always wanted to make her own choice—now for nothing more than to surrender to fate?”

What follows is a compelling tale of resilience. Lim has spun a truly enchanting fairy tale one that feels at once familiar and unique. While her story implements quite a lot of archetypes (the protagonist on a quest, a curse, a magical companion who offers wise words of advice, hidden identities, evil stepmothers) she also subverts quite a few of them. Lim’s storytelling is so engaging that even if I predicted most, if not all, of the twists and revelations that occur along the way, well, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of her story. In fact, I actually found myself looking forward to Shiori figuring things out for herself. Shiori is a truly lovable heroine. To start she’s a bit of a hothead and until her curse, she was leading a rather cushy lifestyle (okay, the arranged marriage wasn’t great but it was also very much the norm in this kingdom). After the curse, Shiori endures quite a lot of hardships. Her love for her brothers and her desire to set them free sees her overcoming the many trials that come her way, and by the end of the narrative, Shiori has undergone quite the character development.
I loved the setting, the magic, Shiori’s voice, her bond with her brothers, the folktales and myths Lim incorporated within her story.

“I would not have you be alone, […], not in your joys or your sorrows. I would wish your strand knotted to mine, always.”

Six Crimson Cranes is a truly delightful and dazzling novel. Not only is Lim a fantastic storyteller but I felt really invested in Shiori and her brothers. There is a hint of romance which added a sweet note to the overall narrative (i am just praying it won’t turn into a love triangle…) but the story’s focus remains very much on Shiori’s quest.
Marillier herself described this novel as a “gorgeous” take on an old fairy tale, and “a must-read for lovers of folkloric fantasy”…and well, she’s spot on.

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Revival Season by Monica West

“Papa had carefully cultivated our belief in him. He never said it outright—Believe in me as you believe in God—that would have been obvious blasphemy and idolatry. But he was the all-consuming presence that had filled my entire life, taking up all the space in the house and in revival tents. In its absence was a black hole that seemed bigger than the presence that had inhabited it.”

Thoughtful if sad Revival Season is a novel about faith and healing. Written in a quietly elegant prose Revival Season paints an intimate, if troubling, family portrait. The Hortons are an Evangelical Black family. The pater familias is a renowned preacher who has healed and saved hundreds of souls. Miriam, his fifteen-year-old and our narrator, has been brought up under his rigid rule. She’s homeschooled, seems to exclusively interact with members of their church, she has to dress modestly and comport herself in a respectful way. Miriam is used to this way of living and doesn’t long for a different lifestyle. She looks up to her father and is close to her mother, she cares for and is responsible for her young sister Hannah, who was born with cerebral palsy, and she gets on as best as she can with her brother. Every year during the summer the Hortons travel across the South for ‘revival season’. The previous year Reverend Horton was involved in an altercation, one that Miriam has tried hard not to dwell on. But when her father’s healing powers fail him once more Miriam becomes once again witness to his violent outbursts. When they return to their hometown Miriam is unable to forget what she was. Over the course of a year, Miriam becomes painfully aware of how dangerous her father is. As her faith in him begins to waver Miriam discovers that, unlike him, she now has the ability to heal others. Forced to hide her gift from her father, Miriam has to decide whether to keep her healing a secret or cure others and risk her father’s ire.

Revival Season presents readers with an intimate look at a family that is unravelling. Monica West does a fantastic job in capturing Miriam’s voice. Not only does Miriam’s tender narration convey her young age and sheltered upbringing—without making her sound wholly naïve—but it is also succeeds in being introspective and perceptive. In articulating Miriam’s conflicted and shifting feelings towards her father West demonstrates great sensitivity. I could sadly relate all too easily to Miriam and found West’s nuanced portrayal of her father to be incredibly realistic. In fiction there is a tendency to paint abusers as one-dimensional monsters, but in real life things are not so clear-cut.
As the narrative progresses West explores Miriam’s faith in God and her self-belief. As Miriam is forced to question the image that she has of her father, she begins to tests the boundaries and rules he had long imposed on her. During this time Miriam also learns more about her mother’s past and begins to see her in a new light.

I think part of me did find the narrative to be slightly slow-moving and I did find myself wishing for a story with a broader scope. I was also a bit disappointed by the lack of revivals (ever since watching Carnivale and True Detective i have been oddly fascinated by them, go figure). Most of the narrative (70-80%) takes place in Miriam’s home and her father’s church, which resulted in some rather limited scenery. I think my lack of faith (i know i know, i am heathen) also played into my not being wholly captivated by what I was reading given the amount of Bible passages we get and that one of the novel’s primary concern is Christianity. Readers with stronger ties to Christianity will probably be able to appreciate this novel more than I was.
Last but not least, we get the dreaded “I released the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding” line which I have come to despise. Scratch that, I feckin hate it.

In spite of my reservations about the novel’s pacing and ‘breadth’, I can say with certainty that this is a well-written (- that one line) and poignant debut novel, one that should definitely appeal to fans of Purple Hibiscus (which is also narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in a religious and abusive household).

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

my rating: ★★★¼

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The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

Moving through space (America, Lebanon, Syria) and time (from the 1960s to 2019) The Arsonists’ City tells a sprawling yet engrossing tale about the Nasr, a Syrian-Lebanese-American family. Written with the same subtlety and beauty as her debut novel, The Arsonists’ City presents readers with a cast of fully-fleshed out characters, however flawed or frustrating they may be, a rich exploration of the Nasrs’ personal and cultural identities, and a glimpse into Lebanon and Syria’s complex pasts and presents.
The prologue opens up with the death of a young man. The narrative then introduces us to the Nasrs’ ‘children’. There is Ava, the eldest, the only one in the family who is not driven by ambition or particularly cares to be in the spotlight. Although she’s quite content with her job as a microbiology teacher, her marriage is undergoing a rough patch. her relationship with Nate, her husband, is undergoing a rough patch. We then have Mimi, their mother’s golden boy, whose musical career never truly kicked off. As Mimi’s bandmates get younger and younger, and his peers are getting married and having children, he feels stuck. Naj, the youngest and the only one who lives outside America, is part of a successful musical duo. In Beirut, she feels free to do as she wishes. Her family don’t know she’s gay and Naj isn’t keen on abandoning her party lifestyle.
Over the years the siblings have drifted away from each other. Seemingly out of the blue their father, Iris, a heart surgeon, decides to sell his family home in Beirut. After this sudden decision, the Nasr are reunited in Beirut. Close proximity reignites deep-rooted jealousies and brings to the light old family secrets and betrayals. Their feelings towards each other, and themselves, are complicated, messy. They bicker a lot, snitch on each other (often to their mother), and, in general, don’t have the easiest time together. However, as Alyan so brilliantly demonstrates, family bonds, however thorny or challenging, can be a true source of happiness or comfort.

Their reunion in Beirut happens quite later on in the narrative. Before that, we delve into Ava, Mimi, and Naj’s everyday realities. From their romantic relationships to their sex lives and careers. Alyan also provides us with glimpses into the lives of the people around them—their partners, colleagues, friends, bandmates—so that we end up with a rich cast of characters.
Each of the children reacts differently to their father’s decision. Ava and Mimi are initially unwilling to go to Beirut but are ultimately worn down by their mother’s unrelenting recriminations. Naj isn’t particularly happy at the news either as she feels quite possessive of her life in Beirut.
The narrative then transports us to Damascus, in the 1960s. Their mother, Mazna, falls in love with the theatre and begins to dream about a future as a renowned actor. The Lebanese Civil War is the background to Mazna’s chapters which heavily focus on her acting experiences. She befriends Idris, aka her future husband, who is Syrian and his close friend Zakaria, who is Palestinian and lives in a refugee camp.
The remainder of the novel moves between the present, with the family reunited in Beirut, and the past, where we read of Mazna and Idris’ early days of marriage and of their eventual migration to California.

Most of the characters make bad choices, they hurt the ones they love, they are unsatisfied by the direction their lives are taking (both Mazna and Mimi’s careers never truly resemble what they’d envisioned), and they either cheat or are cheated on. I appreciated how each character has to deal with failure or heartbreak, either as a direct consequence of their actions or due to circumstances out of their control. I also liked how realistic the children’s relationship with one another was. Alyan gives her characters both individual and shared history, which makes them feel all the more authentic. Alyan also brings her settings to life, for better or worse.
What felt a tad unnecessary was the extensive forays into Mazna’s past. She wasn’t a particularly likeable or sympathetic character (my favourite was probably Harper, Mimi’s Texan girlfriend). For their flaws, I found myself much more interested in the lives of her children.
The story at times felt a tad too melodramatic, especially in regards to certain ‘revelations and all that cheating. I swear the Nasrs’ are a family of cheaters. It got kind of repetitive (wow, quelle surprise, someone is cheating/being cheated on, yet again). There was an odd line sexualising a child which felt a bit…yuckish? And one that gave me incest-y vibes, which was also pretty unecessary.
Despite all that, I remained enthralled by Alyan’s storytelling and piercing observations. Her dialogues ring true to life and the character dynamics are very compelling.
With the tone of Elif Shafak The Saint of Incipient Insanities and the scope of Roopa Farooki’s The Good Children, The Arsonists’ City offers its readers a captivating and intricate family saga populated by nuanced characters and deeply rooted in Lebanon and Syria’s histories and cultures. In spite of its length (the audiobook is over 19 hours) The Arsonists’ City proved to be a gripping read one that I might even re-read.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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