Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi

Pet is my second book by Akwaeke Emezi and while I did find it to be an engaging read it didn’t quite hit me the way as their ​​The Death of Vivek Oji did. I had a similar experience when I read All Our Hidden Gifts, Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into the MG/YA genre. I couldn’t help but feel that at times the tone and content of these two books didn’t always quite mesh well together.
Pet opens with some pages of exposition which paint a rather vague dystopian picture. Apparently, monsters (what kind of monsters? i’m not sure) are no longer a thing and have been banished or annihilated by badass looking angels (when? how? not sure). Jam, our protagonist, is a child who lives in Lucille. She has loving parents and a best-friend named Redemption (all of their names are like this…why? not sure). Her mother is an artist and one-day Jam bleeds on one of her paintings. Her blood brings forth the clawed and monstrous-looking creature her mother had depicted in said painting. This creature, Pet, is a monster hunter who speaks in a painfully ‘i’m not human’ way that brought to mind Yoda from Star Wars. Apparently, this (scary things popping out of paintings) has happened before but we don’t really learn the details of why/when/how. Do monster-hunters always emerge from paintings? What happens if no one paints anything? Do they exist before the painting in another dimension? How are the painters able to depict them if they never saw them? How often does this happen? I do not know. Anyhow, Pet is adamant that a monster is ‘hiding’ in Redemption’s house. Jam, worried for Redemption and his family, decides that she will try to help Pet in its hunt, even if it means lying to the ones she loves the most. The final section of the story gave me Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 vibes, but instead of Aang angsting over what to do with Fire Lord Ozai, we have Jam worrying about what to do with the monster. Pet seems intent on destroying the monster but Jam is adamant that this is never the solution. Like many other middle-grade books Pet highlights how parents and adults often dismiss and or overlook children. They may not do this intentionally but they simply do not pay attention or listen to them.
In Pet, there is also an attempt at discussing evil and goodness. While Emezi does seem to challenge strict binaries (such as good/bad), they ultimately do seem to go for a Dinsey-esque vision of ‘bad’ people. Even their portrayal of abuse and abusers struck me as relatively ‘safe’.
I found the tone of the story often a bit too simplistic. At times I didn’t wholly believe in Jam’s responses to certain things and Pet made for a rather inconsistent character (on the one hand it knows that Jam is ‘spiralling’ and tries to help her, on the other, it seems not to recognise or care for human ‘emotions’). Certain things were a bit too dumbed down, and I would have loved to see more nuance in the author’s portrayal of ‘monsters’. The world-building was very vague and one of the book’s weakest aspects.
I did appreciate the casual trans rep and the platonic relationship between Jam & Redemption.
Still, if you are in your early teens you might find this to be a more compelling read than I did. I, for one, think that I’ll stick to the author’s adult fiction.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

My review for No Gods, No Monsters will not make a lot of sense. The main reason for this is that, to be quite frank, I did not ‘get’ this novel. I did try, I persevered in spite of my mounting confusion, hoping that at some point I would be able to understand the what/why/who/hows of this story…but, having now finished, I can safely (and sadly) say that I’m not sure what was the point of it all.
I’m fine with authors keeping their cards close to their chests. Two of my all fave novels, The Fifth Season and American Gods, do require the reader to have patience in order to understand their narratives. But here, I was never able to catch up with the story. The author seems intent on being as mysterious as possible, which results in a narrative that is confusing for the sake of being confusing. While I liked some of the aesthetics and ideas that were at play, however, I struggled to make sense of far too many scenes, so much so that it hindered my overall reading experience.

We meet Laina, whose brother was shot by a cop. What seems yet another horrific case of racialized police brutality turns out to be something far more bizarre. Not only is Laina’s brother revealed to be a werewolf but turns out that there are many other types of monsters living alongside humans. After a viral video reveals this, lots of people ‘lose’ it.

Many of the storylines weren’t particularly developed or easy to understand: we have a section follow a cult of sorts, a few bits on a pack of werewolves, another on a ‘dragon’ boy, and a few about Laina and her partner(s). A lot of the time I just struggled to understand how certain subplots fitted in the overarching storyline, as, more often than not, the supernatural element is only hinted at and we don’t always witness it first hand. This just made it harder for me to believe in this particular ‘world’, which, from my perspective, suffered from having a far too-vague world-building. Not only we aren’t given detailed descriptions of these ‘monsters’ but it seemed weird that one viral video would result in people going on to marches against monster ‘hate’.

The characters were just as vague as their story, their personalities sidelined in favour of creating a confusing atmosphere. I often got them confused with each other, and some, such as that guy who joins the cult, felt very…unnecessary.

I will say that I appreciated how intersectional this was. The majority of the characters are QPOC, and we get some refreshingly casual lgbtq+ rep (so that we have trans, ace, & queer characters) as well as a (fairly) positive depiction of a polyamorous couple. The monsters are very much a metaphor for minority groups who have been historically persecuted and are still being discriminated against.

But, as much I liked the author’s message (or what i perceived to be their message) I had a hard time reading this novel. Not only was the pacing uneven but scenes that could have been easy to follow were not. The characters play obscure roles in their own stories, and I wish they’d been more fleshed out. Additionally, we have this sort-of-omniscient narrator who occasionally makes an interjection breaking the flow the narration…and it just didn’t work for me. Who was this person? I’m still not 100% sure. Why were they recounting what was happening to these characters? Hell if I know…
All in all, I’m not sure who I would recommend this to. I usually love storylines that aren’t afraid to be, shall we say, ambiguous, but Turnbull takes it to a whole new level. Confusing and surprisingly wearisome No Gods, No Monsters wasn’t quite the urban fantasy read I’d hoped it would be.

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons

“He wasn’t sure if parents had limits to their love, but he was worried that one day something would push them too far and he’d find out.”

After a horrible experience at his old high school Spencer Harris is ready to turn a new leaf. He’s Black, fifteen, a bit of a nerd, and good at soccer. His new private school offers him the chance to start over, and, despite his initial desire to ‘lay low’, he finds himself joying the school’s soccer team. No one at Oakley knows he’s trans, and while Spencer is not ashamed of who he is, he doesn’t want to re-experience the bullying and harassment he was subjected to at his old school.
While Spencer becomes friends with the other boys on the team, his budding crush on a fellow team member and the fact that he joined the team after his parents explicitly forbid him to…well, these make his life a bit more complicated.
Things take a downward turn when Spencer is benched due to a discriminatory law.

Isaac Fitzsimons’ prose is the classic YA coming-of-age kind of fare, simple and readable, only occasionally coming across as a wee bit green (some lines of dialogue here and there, maybe a phrase or two: “They lost the game that day, but Spencer gained a lesson he’d never forget”). I appreciated how inclusive this book was. In addition to Spencer being trans, we have queer, gay, autistic, and non-binary characters.
Spencer comes across as a realistic teenager, sometimes prone to angsting over this or that, being a bit self-involved, or giving his parents a hard time,. We can also see how hard it is for him, how anxious he is about people accepting him for who he is. He was a really sweet kid and I really admired that he speaks up about the gender-neutral bathrooms and for being so supportive towards his younger brother.
I also liked how uplifting the story was. It made me smile more than once and I am so happy that Fitzsimons didn’t let his story follow the path of many other lgbtq+ YA book (usually a character is outed) and that he actually made his mc’s parents into more than one-dimensional characters. The authors keeps a good balance between Spencer’s character arc and the romance subplot.

This was a really wholesome book. We have a cute romance, as well as good family and friendship dynamics, and the author includes realistic and current issues in his storyline. There may be the odd cheesy moment but I could have not cared less (if I wanted 100% realistic stories I would not be reading anything ever).
This is clearly a novel with a big heart. The author treats his characters and their struggles with empathy and understanding. If you are a fan of Kacen Callender or Julian Winters you should definitely consider giving The Passing Playbook a chance.

my rating: ★★★½

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Who’s Loving You by Sareeta Domingo

 

Who’s Loving You? is a wonderfully inclusive collection that sadly falls into the common pitfalls of short story collections: some stories are good, others not so much. Each story in Who’s Loving You? was written and focuses on women of colour (most of them British). You could definitely tell that many of the authors included in this collection are relatively new to the writing scene, and, while that is not necessarily a negative thing, their stories definitely bore the signs of their inexperience (I do not feel ‘nice’ writing this but I prefer honesty to fake praise). The writing was stilted, the dialogues choppy, and the characters came across as relatively one-dimensional. I just have very little patience for clichéd phrases such as someone ‘letting out a breath they didn’t they were holding’. Dio mio! When will this phrase cease to exist?
And, while we do get two wlw love stories and one between a cis man and a transwoman, every other story is uber heteronormative in the most insta-love/boy meets girl way possible. It seems every character in this novel fell in love at first sight and we get some questionable comments about men being so handsome that no one woman in her right mind would decline to have sex with him (urgh).
Some of the love stories had questionable premises, such as the ones for ‘The Waves Will Carry Us Back’ (to be fair, a short story by Edwidge Danticat follows a similar scenario but under her pen, I ‘bought’ into it) and for ‘Motherland’ (which I ended up kind of liking to be fair but still…).
There were stories I liked, such as ‘The Watchers’ (which had a vague star-crossed lovers/soul mates feel to it), ‘Rain…Doubtful’, and ‘Rani’ (even if the story went to great lengths to make the mc seem ‘awkward’). There was one story I actually loved, and that was ‘Long Distance’ by Varaidzo (which was, surprise surprise, hella sapphic, and bittersweet).

Some of these stories were set in the near future, one of which was post-covid, while others had vague pre-pandemic settings, and I guess that made things more interesting than having all of the stories share the same backdrop. However, the tonal shift between each story was sometimes jarring, especially with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s ‘No One Is Lonely’…that story felt very out of place in this collection.
Prospective readers should not let my less-than-stellar review dissuade them from picking this collection up. It was amazing to read a collection that focused on women of colour falling in and out of love, even if I was not personally taken by its stories. Before making up your mind I reccomend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Felix Ever After is a refreshing, relevant, validating and super-inclusive YA novel. This also happens to be one of the few YA books (the only other one I can think of is Camp by Lev A.C. Rosen) that focuses exclusively on queer teens (there a few straight parents in the background). Kacen Callender’s portrayal of adolescence is strikingly realistic: there is a lot of angst, pressure to succeed, confusion about your identity and your place in the world, jealousy towards other people your age, one or two crushes…and things are kind of messy.
As a Black, trans, and queer teen Felix understandably feels like the odd are stacked against him. He’s seventeen and hopes that signing up to his school’s summer program will increase his chances of getting into Brown University. Although he loves art, lately he’s been feeling a bit stuck, and he’s hasn’t been working on his portfolio. His feelings of anxiety and guilty over this really resonated with my own experiences. His relationship with his father is strained and his mother is no longer in touch with either of them, and Felix feels like it’s all too much.
Because of this Felix spends a lot of his time at his best friend’s house, who unlike him comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Felix and Ezra are incredibly close, and they both are on the summer program. Alongside them are a lot of other queer students, some of whom act like they are woke when in actuality they are incredibly transphobic and bigoted.
Things take a turn for the worst when someone exhibits photo of Felix pre-transition, captioning these photos with his deadname (kudos to Callender for never actually using Felix’s deadname on the page). Felix is crushed. Thinking that he knows who is behind this awful act, and the offensive messages he’s been receiving, he wants to get back at them.
Felix, however, finds himself growing fond of this person…which kind of complicates his plan.

To begin with Felix got on my nerves. While I wholeheartedly felt on his behalf, he acts in a pretty self-centred way. He thinks that because every other student has it ‘easier’ than he does, they can’t complain about anything. When Ezra, Felix’s incredibly supportive best friend, tries to voice his own fears and anxieties, Felix is totally dismissive of them. His whole cat-fishing too was kind of cringe. I’m no longer a fan of these kind of deceptions although I understand the appeal of getting revenge (when I was fourteen I actually helped my best friend briefly catfish his bully…something I’m not very proud of, but alas, the youth). I also thought that Felix wasn’t really trying to connect to his father. While I get that Felix is totally right to feel frustrated by his father’s remarks and deadnaming, I did think that he never gave him a chance to explain himself or really apologise.
Thankfully, Callender does an amazing job in terms of Felix’s characterisation. Over the course of the novel, Felix begins to reassess his past behaviour. During the summer he does a lot of growing up, and while certain scenes were quite painful, Felix’s humour and his friendships often uplifted the mood of the narrative.
Callender depicts believable teens who are as capable of getting high or drunk as they are of discussing morality, art, and the pros and cons of labels. I also appreciated the way in which Callender allows their main character to question and explore his gender identity.
Plus, it was so nice to read so many scenes set in LGBTQ+ spaces (such as the LGBT Center Felix attends or Pride).
Felix Ever After is a coming of age that is guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’. We have a nuanced protagonist, a super cute romance subplot, drama, and a story that touches upon serious issues with tact and understanding. I will definitely be checking out Callender’s future work!

My rating: 3 ¾ stars (rounded up to 4)

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Monstress by Lysley Tenorio — book review

Monstress is an evocative collection of short stories, most of which are set in the United States and the Philippines. These stories revolve around Filipino and Filipino-American characters as they try acclimatise and make a living outside of their homeland or as they try to reconcile cultural and familial expectations with their personal desires. Lysley Tenorio vividly renders the times and places in which he sets his stories, regardless of whether they take place in 1966 in Manila or during the 1980s in L.A. While the stories are all narrated in the first-person, and many explore similar themes of identity, displacement, and human connection, Tenorio showcases great versatility by giving each of his stories a particular tone. The story that lends its title to this collection, ‘Monstress’, has this nostalgic quality, this melancholic atmosphere, that makes for a bittersweet read. Although ‘The View from Culion’ possesses a similar tone, it feels much more tragic. ‘Superassassin’, in its eeriness, seemed closer to something by Shirley Jackson.
While I appreciated the themes Tenorio explores in this novel, I did find some of the stories to be unremarkable. Stories such as ‘The Brothers’ left me wanting more (this story in particular given that the narrator seems to have a sudden ‘change of heart’ at the end).
Still, I’m eager to read Tenorio’s upcoming novel and I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy short stories.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — book review

718ueoaymll_custom-1871d31e9581dd75468c9026b282ff89ad688693-s800-c85.jpgThe Death of Vivek Oji is an enthralling novel. Akwaeke Emezi’s lyrical prose is by turns evocative, sensual, and heart-wrenching. With empathy and understanding Emezi writes about characters who are grappling with grief and otherness, as well as with their gender identity and sexuality.

“Did it feel like terror? More like horror, actually. Terrible sounded like it had a bit of acceptance in it, like an unthinkable thing had happened but you’d found space in your brain to acknowledge it, perhaps even begin to accept it. Then again, horrible sounded the same way. The words had departed from their origins. They were diluted, denatured.”

The first line of The Death of Vivek Oji informs us of Vivek Oji’s death. When Chika and Kavita discover the body of their only child outside of their home, their lives are shattered. While Chika retreats inside himself, Kavita is desperate to find out what happened to Vivek. She urges Vivek’s friends to speak out, but they seem unwilling to discuss Vivek with her. While the narrative mostly focuses on Osita—who is Vivek’s cousin—and Kavita’s perspectives, we are also given glimpses into the lives and minds of Vivek’s friends.
While The Death of Vivek Oji follows a formula that isn’t entirely original (a novel that revolves around the death of story’s central character is dead) Emezi’s use of a non-linear narrative and the skilful way in which they inhabit different perspectives (switching between first and third povs) makes this novel stand out.

Nigeria is the backdrop to Vivek’s story and Emezi vividly renders its traditions, its idiosyncrasies, its contemporary culture (90s). Emezi’s narratives is centred on those who feel, or are made to feel, different. Kavita belongs to the Nigerwives, foreign women married to Nigerian men. As this group of women help each other to navigate their married lives, their children come to form a deep bond.
Emezi recounts Vivek’s childhood through Osita’s perspective. When one of Vivek’s blackouts causes Osita to feel greatly embarrassed, the two become estranged. Over the next few years Osita hears of Vivek only through his parent.
Vivek becomes increasingly disinterred with the rest of the world, hides at home, stops going to university, and Kavita, understandably, is worried. She tries to understand her child but seems unable to accept who Vivek is.
Thankfully, Vivek finds solace in the daughters of the Nigerwives. Osita too re-enters Vivek’s life, and the two become closer than ever.

While I found both the sections set in the past and in the present to be deeply affecting, I particularly loved to read of Vivek’s relationship with the Nigerwives’ daughters. Reading about Osita and Kavita’s lives after Vivek’s death was truly heart-wrenching as Emezi truly captures the depths of their grief.
I did find myself wishing to read more from Vivek’s perspective. It seemed that Vivek’s story was being told by people who did not have a clear image of Vivek. There was also a section focused on a character of no importance to Vivek’s story (like, seriously, what was the point in him? it felt really out of place). The mystery surrounding Vivek’s death was unnecessarily prolonged.
But these are minor grievances. I loved the way Emezi articulated the feelings, thoughts, and impressions of their characters with grace and clarity. Emezi’s novel is a real stunner, and if you enjoy books that explore complex familial relationship, such as Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, chances are you will love The Death of Vivek Oji.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan — book review

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“When I closed my eyes, I could still hear her sharp, stubborn voice and surprisingly unbridled laugh.”

With grace and clarity Clarissa Goenawan’s The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida tells a tragic yet tender tale, one that begins with an ending: Miwako Sumida, a university student, has committed suicide.

“I hadn’t thought I would use my mourning suit again anytime soon. Apart from my sister, I had no living family or relatives. My friends were around my age, and we were all approaching the first peaks of our lives. Graduating, finding a job, getting married, having kids. But Miwako Sumida wouldn’t be among us.”

The novel is divided in three sections, each one following a person who cared for Miwako: there is Ryusei Yanagi (the only first-person narrative) who was in love with her, Chie Ohno, her best friend since high school, and Fumi Yanagi, Ryusei’s older sister. Miwako’s death leaves them reeling, from shock, grief, and guilt, and forces them to question how well they knew her and whether they could have some intervened or prevented Miwako from committing suicide.
Through their different perspectives readers will slowly come to know Miwako. While we may guess what she might have been ‘hiding’ from her loved ones, Miwako retains an air of unknowability. In each section the characters find themselves revisiting their memories of her, giving many scenes a bittersweet quality. Perhaps the setting too contributes to this sense of nostalgia (most of the story takes place in the mid-to-late 80s).
Through her luminous prose Goenawan sheds light on a painful subject matter. Like her characters, she doesn’t romanticise nor condemns Miwako’s actions, rendering instead with empathy the pain that drove her to commit suicide. Goenawan demonstrates the same delicacy when touching upon subjects such as sexual abuse and bullying.
I felt lulled by gentle pace of this novel, even as the story explored distressing realities. Friendships, family history, gender, and sexuality play an important role in each narrative, and I found Goenawan’s portrayal of these to be extremely compelling.

“Her bold strokes gave off a sense of alienation and desperation, but her choice of muted colors conveyed a hidden loneliness. My sister had mastered the application of intricate details to her pieces. At the same time, she took extra care to make sure nothing was overwhelming. I recognized a delicate balance, a sense of equilibrium in all her pieces. What my sister couldn’t tell anyone, she whispered into her work.”

As much as I loved Goenawan’s evocative prose and her well-drawn characters, I was underwhelmed by the overarching storyline. The last section, which followed one of the characters I liked the most, seems far more meandering than the previous ones as it seems to move away from Miwako. And while I do count myself as a fan of magical realism, here it felt a bit sudden.
The ending was rushed and left me wanting more. Still, I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoy literary fiction.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak — book review

Shafak never disappoints!
In her newest novel Shafak explores many of the themes she has already touched upon in previous novels in an innovative manner as the narrative bridges the gap between the life and death of its protagonist.
There is something about Shafak’s prose that really resonates with me. She can address serious and complex issues without jeopardising the creativity of her story or the nuances of her characters.

After she is killed Tequila Leila is not quite dead-dead. Her consciousness seems to ‘survive’ long enough for her to revisit some of her memories. In each chapter Leila remembers a certain event in her life, however mundane it might be, and the narrative beautifully conveys the feelings, smells, and landscapes that make up these memories.
On the one hand, through these memories, we get to know Leila and watch as she forms relationships outside of her familial ones, on the other, we glimpse the city of Istanbul, some of its history and its many different faces.
Ultimately, in spite of the tragedies and traumas that Leila or her friends experience, there is love and hope to be found in this beautiful book. The story brims with empathy and humanity, depicting the distressing yet beautiful life of Leila.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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