Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an engaging start to an action-driven fantasy series that is written in a winsome prose that is guaranteed to appeal to fans of Rick Riordan. Like Riordan’s books, Zhao combines an action-driven quest with a coming of age tale exploring the highs and lows of being a 12yr boy. I loved the way the author managed to incorporate—with varying degrees of self-awareness—existing tropes of the ‘chosen one/kids with powers’ genre whilst adding new dimensions and elements to their story. Additionally, unlike a lot of MG books, Zhao addresses serious and topical issues/realities in a very clear-eyed and straightforward manner.

Zachary Ying, our main character, has tried to distance himself from Chinese culture in order to fit in his white majority school. His mom, who is his sole carer, works long hours, so Zack spends a lot of his time playing Mythrealm. One day at school he comes across Simon who seems eager to get to know Zack. Turns out that Zack, the host of the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who, alongside Simon, host to Tang Taizong, and later on Melissa, host to Wu Zetian, are tasked with a crucial mission: they have to seal the portal to the Chinese underworld before the Ghost Month. Zack doesn’t really want to be part of all of this but with his mom’s life in jeopardy, he has little choice in the matter. Unlike Simon and Melissa, however, Zack’s emperor was not fully able to possess him and was forced to tie himself to Zack’s AR gaming headset (which lends many of the action sequences a gameplay quality). To rectify this Zack flies to China to strengthen his bond with his Chinese heritage, all the while being chased by baddies…but as their mission unfolds and Zack learns more about the emperors’ reigns, he begins to worry that he is not working for the good guys either.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the author references superhero comics, games, anime (i mean, code geass gets a mention which will always be a win in my books), as well as, you guessed it, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The narrative is quite self-aware in that these references often come at an apt moment, and usually poke fun at the existence/perseverance of said trope/storyline (for example with the ‘fridging’ of zack’s mom). I liked this meta aspect of the narrative as it gives the storytelling a playful edge that serves to counterbalance the more serious themes/scenes. Through Zack’s storyline, the author is able to explore the everyday realities of being a Chinese-American kid who feels pressured by his white peers to distance himself from his own Chinese heritage. Additionally, Zack is Hui, an ethnoreligious minority group with Islamic heritage and/or adhere to Islam. Like other minority groups in China, the Hui can be and are discriminated against by the current Chinese government. Zack’s father was executed after protesting the government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and this makes his journey to China all the more fraught. While the author criticizes the current Chinese government, through Zack’s quest they are also able to showcase their love for Chinese culture and history, presenting us with a complex image of this country, its past and present. The author’s depiction of and discussions around China oppose the kind of monolithic and homogenous image of this country that sadly seems to prevail in a lot of western media and public discourses. The China that emerges from these pages is enriched by its expansive history and many idiosyncrasies (other MG authors, please take notes!).

I loved the way they incorporate historical facts in the action sequences, so when we are introduced to a new historical figure we get a punchy introduction giving us an overview of their life. There were instances where I wish the author had not added American, or otherwise western, equivalents when introducing a certain figure or when touching upon a certain historical period (we often are given enough context to understand the cultural/historical significance of said person/period). Still, I really appreciated how the author avoids the usual good/bad dichotomy that tends to be the norm in a lot of MG books. Zack repeatedly questions the past behaviours and present motivations of the emperors.
The chapters all have funny titles that were very much a la Riordan. The banter between the various emperors and historical figures was very entertaining, even in those instances where it was trying a bit hard to be ‘young/relatable’. I loved the way the narrative includes and discusses historical-related things, as it very much reminded me of the author’s youtube content, which—as you may or may not know—I am besotted by. While I thought that the historical characters were equal parts interesting and amusing, the contemporary ones, except Zack, were not quite as dynamic. Simon and Melissa in particular lacked dimension and seemed the type of stock characters you find in any ‘trio’ (melissa in particular is the kind of aggravating sidekick who is meant to be a ‘spunky girl’ but comes across as kind of a jerk). I didn’t like them that much either, even before the latter half of the novel. Zack deserves some real/better friends.

Anyway, Zack steals the show as this is ultimately his story. He goes through a lot in this book and is forced to question the kind of person he wants to be/become. He makes mistakes, and he learns from them. He knows he wants to be stronger but finds his notion of strength to be challenged more than once. I wish that the narratives had called out a bit more people like Melissa who mistake his moments of vulnerability or hesitancy as signs of weakness or a ‘lack of moral fibre’. Dio mio, he’s a KID, leave my boy alone. I don’t know, I felt protective of Zack and because of this found myself rather peed off by anyone who tried to make him feel ashamed of being sensitive. But I digress. Overall I thought this was an enjoyable book that manages to blend together history and technology. If you a fan of heroes’ quests you should definitely give this one a try. Added bonuses: hints of casual gay rep + positive Muslim rep.

I for one liked it a lot more than the author’s debut novel, which I sadly was unable to enjoy (i know, don’t get me started if i could actively control and change my response to that book i would). I found the author’s prose to be a lot more confident in this one and their style really worked for this MG-type of storytelling. This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a 12yr old as I would have been able to love it, whereas now I can only just ‘like’ it. Anyway, I liked the humor and the historical facts, so this gets a thumbs up from me and I look forward to its follow-up.

ps: i just remember but some of zack’s reactions to learning some of the horrific things the emperors did are gold

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Seeking Fortune Elsewhere: Stories by Sindya Bhanoo

“The memory of the past, the futility of the future, it leaves her breathless.”

Seeking Fortune Elsewhere presents its readers with a well-crafted collection of short stories mapping the paths of those who leave and those who are left behind. Set in America and southern India these narratives explore the realities of leaving one’s homeland behind, generational and cultural rifts, loneliness and connectedness, family and belonging. The first story, “Malliga Homes,”, which was selected by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for an O. Henry Prize, strikes the perfect balance between bittersweet and unsentimental. The narrator is a widow living in a retirement community in Tamil Nadu. She tells us that like most of the residents of Malliga Homes, she is there because she has lost her child to ‘Foreign’. Kamala, her daughter, is the one who pushed her into ‘joining’ this community. She lives in America with her husband and child and has not visited the narrator in years, and in fact, keeps postponing and delaying her next visit. The author captures the microcosm that is this community, where parent(s) seem to outdo each other when it comes to their children’s achievements and how close they are to them. The unaffected style really gives the narrative a rich sense of realism and results in a subtle yet resonant short story. Throughout this collection the author mines similar themes: characters struggle to reconcile themselves to their past actions or are forced to reassess the past; they may long and yearn for the ‘what-ifs’ of the roads not taken; they flit between hope and regret; they desire a place and a people they can belong to. The more effective stories are the ones that focus on a particular period phase of a character’s life whereas the ones that did not quite succeed in reeling me in were the ones that attempted to cover too much of a character’s life. In these instances, the author isn’t quite able to achieve the rich in detail storytelling that she showcases in her more concise stories, where we glimpse a day or a week in a character’s life (rather than their whole life).
Nevertheless Seeking Fortune Elsewhere is a promising debut and I really loved the author’s understated yet incisive writing style.

some quotes:

“We were in that stage of life and motherhood that is filled with fatigue, unimaginable to the young, forgotten by the old, unknown altogether to those without children.”
“The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.”

“The time between childhood and old age passes quickly, leaving you feeling like your entire life is a double feature with no intermission.”

“What our children do, how much money they make, whether our grandchildren are bright or mediocre—all of this matters. It is a tragedy to have a brilliant child and a dunce of a grandchild.”

“[F]or all the space and privacy that America offers, it is a country that longs for life. You go for a drive and the road is endless.”

“He remembered the loneliness, the immense sorrow that came from going months without uttering a word of Tamil. There was no way for him to express certain thoughts, certain feelings, in the English language.”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

“And none of that mattered. No matter how nice the suit, no matter how educated his speech or how strong the handshake, no matter how much muscle he packed on, no matter how friendly or how smart he was, none of it mattered at all. He was just a Black person. That’s all they saw and that’s all he was.”

While I did find The Violin Conspiracy to be a bit all over the place the author’s acknowledgements hit hard. The book opens in medias res with Ray McMillian, our main character, discovering that his Stradivarius has been stolen. Ray is preparing for the international Tchaikovsky Competition and without his fiddle, he feels unmoored. The narrative then jumps back in time where we meet Ray in his teens and learn more about his family situation. His mother wants him to drop school so he can work full time and so she can buy a new tv. When Ray begins to earn good money by playing at various events she quietens down somewhat but she still clearly disapproves of his violin playing and often ridicules him and his belief that he could pursue a career as a violinist. The only supportive member of his family is Ray’s beloved grandmother who loves him to bits. She also wants him to play and gifts him her grandpa’s fiddle. Ray eventually ends up getting a scholarship for a prestigious college. His mother doesn’t want him to go but Ray is determined to follow his path. He eventually learns that his violin is a Stradivarius. His family wants him to sell it and claim that it was never his, to begin with. To keep them at bay Ray begins to send them large sums of money but they never seem satisfied. He also begins to receive thinly threatening letters from a family that claims to be the righteous owners of the violin, and it turns out that they are descendants of the people who had once enslaved Ray’s great-grandfather. Eventually, the narrative reaches the beginning, where Ray’s beloved violin has been stolen and the competition is just around the corner.
Throughout the narrative, the author highlights just how racist and elitist the classical music world is. From when he played as a teenager at venues to his time as a teacher and a professional violinist, Ray experiences racism. Classical music is something that is often associated with whiteness and because of this Ray has to fight to be accepted into this world. No matter how hard he proves himself he will be confronted with people dismissing his skills, claiming that he is a ‘diversity token’ or diminishing his talent. There are many harrowing scenes where Ray is mistreated and abused, and the realism of these scenes made it clear that these episodes had likely been experienced by the author himself (such as the wedding one early on). From outright racist remarks to more ‘veiled’ ones, Ray has to fight tooth and nail to claim a space in this extremely white elitist world. That he has no support from his family certainly doesn’t help as with the exception of his grandmother and an aunt, they are all keen on him selling his violin.
The novel tries to combine a Bildungsroman novel with a more suspenseful storyline but the two don’t quite mesh together. The flashbacks into Ray’s teenage years do add context to his life and the violin but they fail to make him into a more rounded character. I found him rather flat, at times a little more than a vehicle to move the story forward. I would have liked for him to have a more defined personality and a more developed characterisation. Other characters were similarly one-dimensional, Ray’s mother in particular. She’s portrayed as a horrible person: every scene she is in she says something awful. She has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and I could not understand why Ray would bother with her at all. He also has siblings but we never see him interact with them. His other relatives, with the exception of that one aunt, are all greedy and nasty to him. The bad characters in this book are also extremely one-note. This is fair enough, a simplistic approach could have worked but I found it annoying that the author would describe these characters as physically ‘ugly’ and are often ‘fat’. The woman who claims that the violin belongs to her family for instance has ‘jowls’ covered by ‘downy hair’. All of the policemen are of the doughnut-eating variety, but this, I didn’t mind as much given my less than warm feelings towards them.
Anyway, the story suggests that either Ray’s family or this white family are behind his missing violin. The novel then takes a weird turn by making someone else responsible and forgetting almost entirely of Ray’s family or that other one. It just seemed an odd choice and a predictable one at that.
I also did not care for the way Ray spoke about or describes women (“the tawny-haired woman with the tight dress running her fingers suggestively around her wineglass”; “The attractive women who seemed to take an interest in him were mostly in the look-but-don’t-touch category”; “A young athletic woman was crossing in front of them, her toned ass bouncing with every step in her black leggings.”).
The writing too could be quite cheesy, especially in its efforts to tie everything back to classical music (“He tried to breathe but his ribs had been wrapped in piano wire”; “Why was he so terrible at talking to this woman? She was violin-shaped, right? So why was this so hard?”).
Still, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing or the characters, the story was relatively engaging. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check it out yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

A week or so before reading Monster in the Middle I read Tiphanie Yanique’s debut short story collection, Land of Love and Drowning, which I rather enjoyed. I remember being struck by Yanique ’s atmospheric storytelling, by her subtle use of irony, and by her thoughtful meditations on death, love, and everything in between. So, given that I have been known to have a soft spot for intergenerational dramas/interconnected storylines (The Vanishing Half, Commonwealth, The Travelers) I was fully convinced that I would love Monster in the Middle.
Albeit confusing, the opening chapter intrigued me. But with each subsequent point of view, I become increasingly aware of just how disjointed and directionless this book was.
Monster in the Middle tells the love story between Fly and Stela, he’s American and a musician, she’s a science teacher from the Caribbean. Yanique jazzes things up by making their romance, not the starting point of the novel but the very end goal. The storylines leading to their romance give us a glimpse into their parents’ lives and later on Fly and Stela’s own experiences as teenagers and young adults.

The novel opens with a chapter on Fly’s father. He and a white girl are running away together, or so it seems. She comes from a deeply religious family and he too is religious. Fly’s father also suffers from schizophrenia but at this point in his life, he believes that the voices he hears are from God. A chapter from Fly’s mother follows, and here we don’t really gain much insight into what had happened to Fly’s father or that girl. She tells us a bit of their marriage but in a way that didn’t come across as engaging or particularly realistic. The following chapters are about Fly as a teen and his college experiences. I hated that the author focuses so much on Fly feeling horny and whatnot. He eventually comes across a sex tape starring his father and that girl he was briefly with. This tape becomes a guilt secret, as he is ashamed of being turned on by it. He masturbates a lot, which, good for him I guess but I personally could have also done without those scenes (it reminded me of What’s Mine and Yours, where the sections focusing on the teenage boy character are all about him having boners). Fly’s character in these chapters is reduced to his sexuality.
In college, he gets involved with a really religious girl and this character made no sense whatsoever. I found it corny that she was singing or praying while they were being intimate with each other and that she has such a disconcerting approach to sex (it is implied that she ‘uses’ her body to make people straight…?!). Because of course, she would be like that.

Then we get to know about Stela’s mother. Again, there was something off-putting about the characters and the relationships they formed with each other. Same thing for Stela’s father, who is not her biological father (other than that i can’t recall anything about him). Stela eventually comes to the fore and surprise surprise even if her chapters also hone in on her teen years, she isn’t made into a one-dimensional horny adolescent. She grows up in Saint Thomas and eventually goes to study abroad in Ghana where she is the victim of a sexual assault. Years later she marries this blandish guy and then they both, unbeknown to each other, become involved with the same woman. I absolutely hated this storyline. It feeds into existing cliches about bisexual women and it made no bloody sense. I had a hard time believing that this ‘other’ woman would be so deceitful. Then again, the story implies that she is deceitful by nature as she also lies about her background to them. Anyway, at long last Fly and Stela meet and I felt absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel for either character and found them very much devoid of fleshed-out personalities. They merely served as plot propellers, enabling the author to give us some superficial love stories and some observations on multicultural and/or interracial relationships. These brief glimpses into the mc’s parents lives did not make them into particularly well-developed characters, quite the opposite. They felt a bit all over the place, as some chapters, such as the 1st one, hone in on a very specific episode, while others have a vaguer timeline.
While the story addresses important issues, it did so rather superficially. Towards the end, the narrative includes covid and the BLM movement but it does so in a rather rushed way. I would have liked less focus on the characters’ sex lives and more moments of introspection.

The writing could also be rather off-putting with cringey lines like: “When he put his hand to her there at the center, she pressed herself hard against him, and she was slick. It made him think of candy gone sticky in the sun.”; “his penis hard and curved, her vagina sticky and warm. They presented these things to each other like treasures: “So smooth,” she said to his; “So sweet,” he said to hers.”; “The primary thing in his life was the ocean of this woman’s insides.”.

Additionally, I did not particularly care for the way the author ‘dealt’ with the rape storyline. And we get some problematic lines such as: “Jerome was flirting, she knew, but he was seventeen and she, frankly, was susceptible at twenty-three.” and “Stela looked around and saw an empty easel erect in a corner. She wished she had a dick. She wanted to be inside this bitch of a woman.”.

Overall, I could not bring myself to like this book. This novel lacked the strongly rendered setting of Land of Love and Drowning and, moreover, the author’s style was too florid for me. I couldn’t take a lot of what I was reading seriously.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


Either/Or by Elif Batuman

This sequel needs a sequel.

“Was this the decisive moment of my life? It felt as if the gap that had dogged me all my days was knitting together before my eyes—so that, from this point on, my life would be as coherent and meaningful as my favorite books. At the same time, I had a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script.”

In Either/Or we are reunited with Selin as she continues to navigate the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Now a sophomore student at Harvard, Selin has plenty to keep her occupied: her studies inspire her to question the choices she and others have made, the direction of her life, the meaning of love, sex, and connection, the limitations of language, and, of course, her relationship with Ivan, the Hungarian student whose mind remains to Selin, and by extension us, as unreadable as ever. Did she care for her at all?

There was something abstract and gentle about the experience of being ignored—a feeling of being spared, a known impossibility of anything happening—that was consonant with my understanding of love.

Selin’s propensity for long asides is as present as ever and I loved losing myself in her inner monologue. Her long acts of introspections do often come across as navel-gazing (curiously enough the narrative itself mentions navel-gazing), but I never felt bored or annoyed by it. If anything, Selin’s solipsistic inclination for self-interrogation made her all the more realistic. That she refers to books, music, films, and authors to make sense of herself and others results in a deeply intratextual narrative that will definitely appeal to literary students. While Selin isn’t wholly enamoured by academia, we can see how her studies and the books she reads inform the way she understands her world and those who populate it. She often draws parallels between her own life and those of historical and fictional figures. Some of the authors/artists/etc. she mentions include: Kazuo Ishiguro, Fiona Apple, Charles Baudelaire, Pushkin, Shakespeare, André Breton, and of course, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

“There was something about crying so much, the way it made my body so limp and hot and shuddering, that made me feel closer to sex. Maybe there was a line where sex and total sadness touched—one of those surprising borders that turned out to exist, like the one between Italy and Slovenia. Music, too, was adjacent. It was like Trieste, which was Italian and Slovenian and also somehow Austrian.”

Of course, at times these books and figures only add further confusion, so Selin is unsure whether she’s idealizing herself and others so that her life can resemble those she encounters in fiction. More often than not knowledge fails her, so she’s unable to decipher not only the motivations of others but her own true feelings.
Her writerly aspirations too preoccupy her and so do the changes that come about in her life. Selin’s intense friendship and rivalry with ​​Svetlana is threatened when the latter finds a boyfriend. Her roommates too have plenty of things that keep them occupied so Selin finds herself going to parties where she meets less than ideal men. Yet even as Selin forms sexual relationships with them, she longs for Ivan and obsesses over what his infrequent emails leave unsaid.

“It seemed to me that the elements whirling around me in my own life were also somehow held in place by Ivan’s absence, or were there because of him—to counterbalance a void.”

Either/Or shares the same structure with The Idiot so we follow Selin month by month during her academic year before tagging alongside her as she once again goes abroad for the summer. In Turkey she finds herself forming unexpected connections but remains somewhat remote to them.

Sardonic and adroit Either/Or makes for a fantastic read. While Selin does change over the course of her sophomore year, she also remains very much herself. She can be reserved and slightly baffling at times, and yet she’s also capable of making some very insightful or relatable comments. She’s intelligent, somewhat naive, and has a penchant for overthinking and obsessing over minor things. Her deadpan sense of humor and little idiosyncrasies make her character really pop out of the page. I could definitely relate to her many many uncertainties, as well as her fixation with understanding the person who never seemed to reciprocate her feelings.

The one that started “Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself” made me feel certain that I had spent my whole life not knowing what to do with myself—all day, and all night. “I wander the halls . . .” That was exactly it: not the streets, like a flâneur, but the halls. Oh, I knew just which halls.

As I mentioned already over the course of her second year at Harvard Selin grows into a more self-assured person while also remaining strangely static. Her mental meanderings often included reflections on things such as desirability, belonging, love, heartbreak, self-fulfilment, choice & chance, and I found her perspective on these things deeply compelling. At times her mind is preoccupied with mundane thoughts, at times she loses herself in philosophical and existentialist questions about human nature.
Batuman’s inclusion of the minutiae of her protagonist’s life (such as inserting a tampon: “I tried again to put in a tampon. ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING WAY.”) made Selin’s reality at Harvard all the more vivid. I could easily envision the different environments she occupies, as well as the people who inhabit those places. This combined with the mumblecore dialogues and Selin’s recursive inner monologue, which borders on being a stream of consciousness, give Either/Or quality of hyperrealism. That is, even when confronted with moments of surreality or scenes of a comedic nature, I believed completely in what I was reading. A sense of 90s nostalgia permeates her story which adds to the narrative’s overall atmosphere and aesthetic.

“It was the golden time of year. Every day the leaves grew brighter, the air sharper, the grass more brilliant. The sunsets seemed to expand and melt and stretch for hours, and the brick façades glowed pink, and everything blue got bluer. How many perfect autumns did a person get? Why did I seem always to be in the wrong place, listening to the wrong music?”

I loved this novel so thoroughly that I was sad to reach its inevitable conclusion. I hope with all my heart that Batuman will write a third instalment where we will follow Selin during her third year at Harvard.
If you enjoyed The Idiot chances us you will, like me, love this even more (perhaps because batuman is expanding on the ‘universe’ she already established). If you are a fan of the young-alienated-women subgenre you should definitely consider picking these series up.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher for providing me with an arc.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

In many ways Sex and Vanity was exactly the pulpy light-hearted read I was in dire need of. Kevin Kwan’s engrossing and entertaining storytelling made me speed through his book and I ended up finishing it in less than a day. As retellings go, this manages to be both (fairly) faithful and rather refreshing. What kept me from wholly loving this book was Lucie, the book’s central character. She’s the kind of self-absorbed, self-pitying, and milquetoast type of heroine that I have come to abhor, so much so that I actively root against them (especially since they are presented to us as likeable/good heroines who are not wholly responsible for their ‘bad’ actions).

Kwan’s reimagining of Forster’s A Room With A View features a contemporary setting and focuses on Lucie Churchill, a Chinese American young woman who is tired of feeling like the odd one out in her social circle. Her deceased father’s relatives are insufferably wealthy WASPs who see and treat her like an ‘oddity’ (the grandmother repeatedly refers to her as a ‘China doll’…yikes). To avoid being the subject of further gossip Lucie, now aged 19, has cultivated a good-girl image. Whereas A Room With A View opens in Florence, Sex and Vanity transports us to Capri where Lucie is staying to attend the wedding of her friend Isabel Chiu. Lucie’s chaperone is the snobbish and fussy Charlotte, her older cousin on her father’s side, who both in name and character is very faithful to her original counterpart. The wedding is decidedly over-the-top and Kwang certainly seems to have fun in envisioning the opulent foods & beverages and extravagant activities that would seem like musts to filthy rich ppl like Isabel and her cohort. As with the original, the two cousins end up in a hotel room with no view and are offered to trade for one with a view on the Tyrrhenian Sea by two other guests, George Zao and his mother (in the original it was George and his father). Lucie dislikes Gergeo on sight. She tells herself it’s because he’s too handsome and too un-American, but, over the course of the wedding celebrations, she finds herself growing intrigued by him.
As with the original something happens between Lucie and George that could very well lead to a ‘scandal’. This is witnessed by Charlotte who makes it her business to separate the ‘lovers’.

The latter half of the story takes place 5 years later in New York. Lucie is engaged to Cecil, who is ‘new money’ and therefore not wholly accepted by Lucie’s set. We are introduced to Lucie’s mother and her brother, who due to his gender and possibly his ‘WASP’ appearance, isn’t as scrutinized as Lucie herself is. Lucie’s future is jeopardized when George and his mother arrive in town. Lucie is horrified at the discovery that George knows her fiance and that the two will be forced to be in each other’s proximity at the various social gatherings they attend. Of course, even as Lucie tells herself she’s not interested in George and that he and his mother represent everything she does not want to be (the gal sure has a lot of internalized racism to deal with) she can’t stop obsessing over him.
Whereas the tone and atmosphere of Forster’s original struck me as gentle, idyllic even, Kwan’s brand of satire is far louder and sensationalistic. This suits the kind of people he’s satirizing, their obsession with status, brands, and reputation, as well as their lack of self-awareness. The rarefied world he depicts is certainly an insular one and while Lucie does experience prejudice, for the most part, the problems his characters face are very much rich people problems.
Given that this novel is far lengthier than Forster’s one I hoped that George would get his time to shine, or that his romance with Lucie could be depicted more openly. But Kwang prioritizes gossipy dialogues over character development.
Most of the conversations and scenes in this novel are of a humorous nature, and Kwang is certainly not afraid to poke fun at his characters (their hypocritical behaviour, their sense of entitlement, their privilege). Still, he keeps things fairly light, and there were even a few instances where the narrative veers in the realms of the ridiculous.
While there is no strictly likeable character, Lucie was perhaps the most grating of the lot. Whereas I excepted Cecil to be a conceited, condescending, wannabe-aesthete (kwang and forester’s cecils pale in comparison to daniel day-lewis’ cecil), I wasn’t prepared for such as wishy-washy heroine. While I could buy into the motivations of Forester’s Lucy (her self-denial, her inability and or unwillingness to articulate her feelings towards george), I could not bring myself to believe in Kwang’s Lucie’s ‘reasonings’. She acts like a child experiencing their first crush, not someone in their mid-twenties. Her antipathy towards George and his mother also made her into an extremely unlikable character. Her actions towards the latter, which as far as I can recall were not inspired from the original, made me detest her. Not only was her ‘plan’ was completely inane but inexcusable. She struck me as bratty, self-involved, superficial, vapid. At times she acts like a complete cretin. I could not see how other people could stand her, let alone how someone like George could fall in love with her.
Even if her character lowered my overall opinion of this novel, I nevertheless had a blast with Sex and Vanity. I liked how Kwang adapted certain plot elements to fit with his modern setting (instead of a book revealing that ‘scandalous’ moment, it’s a film; instead of the carriages there are golf carts). Part of me would have preferred it if Kwang had not made George and his mother ultra-rich given that in the original George and his father are certainly not well off. I also liked that in the original Lucy refuses Cecil twice, whereas here (as far as my memory serves) Lucie immediately accepts Cecil’s request.
Sex and Vanity is a gleefully ‘trashy’ comedy of manners. Kwang’s droll prose and drama-driven narrative make for the perfect escapist read.

my rating: ★★★½

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

“Maybe it’s good, I said, to stop sometimes and reflect upon the things that have happened, maybe thinking about sadness can actually end up making you happy.”

Cold Enough for Snow is a slight novella narrated and characterized by a crisp prose. Despite the introspective nature of this work (there are no dialogues and the few conversations that occur are summarized by our narrator), I felt a certain distance from the narrator and her musings had a remoteness to them that I was never quite able to immerse myself into her story. That is not to say that this was not an enjoyable read. It brought to mind authors such as and Rachel Cusk as well as María Gainza (Optic Nerve is a personal favourite of mine). These kinds of books are not plot or necessarily character driven but they present us with a series of observations regarding art, travel, places/spaces, memory, connection, and human nature. Similarly to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, the people that our nameless narrator speaks of remain unnamed, and the vagueness surrounding her and others struck me as very much intentional. The narrator, who lives in, you guessed it, an unnamed country, and her mother, who is based in Hong Kong, meet up in Tokyo for a holiday.

“It was strange at once to be so familiar and yet so separated. I wondered how I could feel so at home in a place that was not mine.”

The narrator describes the various landscapes and locales she visits, all the while thinking back to her and her mother’s pasts. We are given brief glimpses into their lives that are often somehow connected to their present journey. This is the kind of novella that is more about creating and sustaining a certain nostalgic mood than of presenting us with a particularly immersive story. While I did appreciate the narrative’s melancholic and reflective atmosphere, I did find my attention wandering away from our protagonist’s contemplations and introspections. Her relationship with her mother often fades into the background, sidelined in favour of eloquent observations that don’t really leave a lasting impression. The title in many ways is rather apt as this novella is in many ways like snow. At first, you are taken in by how beautiful it is but within a couple of hours (or days), well, the snow has melted. That is to say, the beauty of Cold Enough for Snow is of a temporary nature.
Still, if you are a fan of travel journals or the authors I mentioned above you may find this to be your kind of read.

“I had wanted every moment to count for something. I had become addicted to the tearing of my thoughts, that rent in the fabric of the atmosphere. If nothing seemed to be working towards this effect, I grew impatient, bored. Much later, I realised how insufferable this was: the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything. ”

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Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love by Huma Qureshi

With the exception of the first story, I just did not buy into the stories collected in Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love. These stories struck me as early exercises from a creative writing class. We have a few stories that try to have ‘ambiguous’ endings and a few attempts at using the 2nd pov or having a character address someone as ‘you’. The prose didn’t really match the direction of the stories, and the characters didn’t show much consistency. They all seem to be on the verge of a crisis and tend to overreact to normal family disputes (going so far as to commit matricide). Not only were the characters different shades of unlikeable but they just did not ring true to life. They were caricatures of sorts: the women often painted as hysterical, the husbands distant and unaware, their mothers hyper-critical and unsympathetic. It’s a pity as the author’s prose was far from bad, it just so happens that the characters and scenarios she wrote of, to be brutally honest, left me wanting. At times the author tries to go for this realism reminiscent of authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri, but then we also get stories that try to be creepy or fairytalesque but fall short of being either of those things and when compared to the stories of Shirley Jackson or Helen Oyeyemi, well, they didn’t strike me as particularly original or fantastical.
The relationships explored in these stories were very one-note and ultimately unpleasant. Nearly all of the daughters hated or were reproachful of their mothers, they are married to bland white men who lack critical thinking and seem wholly unaware of their privilege, the daughters/wives themselves are portrayed as hysterical, moody, and spiteful. Additionally, although I read this collection last week, these stories failed to leave their mark on me. I can vaguely remember that a few of the stories take place abroad and include scenes set during awkward dinners or whatnot. That’s about it. Ultimately, they just did not leave a long-lasting impression on me as a reader.

I’m sure many others will be able to appreciate them in a way that I was unable to. As things stand I will approach the author’s future work with caution.


my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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