Zikora: A Short Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once again showcases her beautiful in Zikora. The story begins with the titular character, Zikora, who is about to give birth. The father of her soon to be born child is not there with he left her months prior, after she hinted at the possibility of being pregnant. As Zikora goes into labour her mind goes back to this relationship, and we learn that she’s a lawyer who grew up in Nigeria. Her father married a second wife, something that has made her somewhat resentful towards her own mother (his first wife). Adichie conveys Zikora’s various state of minds as well as the uneasy relationship she has with her mother. Her love story with Kwame was particularly sad and Adichie succeeds in giving a nuanced picture of their relationship.
However much I liked Adichie’s calibrated and beautifully insightful prose, I have never been a fan of narratives that focus on giving birth or the early days of motherhood. I would definitely recommend this story to those who unlike me do not have qualms reading about these subjects.

edit 24/11: I am not a fan of cancel culture however I also do not want to support public figures who use their positions of influence to spread hate or under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’ discriminate against the trans community. So no, I am not about encourage others to ‘cancel’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but I do think that she should be held accountable for her comments. Until then…I am not sure I will be able to enjoy her work as I did before.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — book review

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“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett’s second novel is a tour de force. The Vanishing Half gripped me from the very pages as I was instantly transfixed by Bennett’s subtle yet penetrating prose.
Bennett is a brilliant storyteller. Not one word is wasted, or so it seemed as I had the distinct impression that her writing was simultaneously concise and striking. Bennett’s prose effortlessly moves from present to past, as her story traverses decades (from the 60s to the 80s) and transports us from the small-town of Mallard in Louisiana to LA or New York. Bennett maps the lives of many characters, who inhabit markedly different worlds, focusing in particular on the lives and voices of the Vignes women.

“The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning.”

Most people regard twins, particularly identical twins, as a source of fascination. Bennett, fully aware of this, adds a layer of depth to the mystique of twins by making the Vignes embark on drastically different paths. After witnessing their father’s lynching at the hands of white men, the Vignes have little love for their small-town, and aged sixteen they flee to New Orleans. Things don’t go as planned however and the twins become irrevocably separated. While Stella returns with a daughter to the hometown she so longed to escape, Desiree passes for white and marries a wealthy white man. In spite of this, their bond keeps them tethered together and even as the years go by the Vignes twins struggle to reconcile themselves with the loneliness of their ‘twinless’ existence. Their respective daughters share little in common. While Stella’s daughter Kennedy enjoys a life of privilege, Desiree’s daughter Jude is discriminated for her dark skin by her peers and the adults of her community.

“The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”

The Vanishing Half tells a heartbreaking and relevant intergenerational tale. While Bennett does not condone the decisions and behaviour of certain characters, mainly Jude and Kennedy, she never condemns them either, revealing instead how viciously deep-rooted racism is. While Stella can enjoy the freedoms that come with being white (and wealthy), her fear of discovery causes her to adopt racist attitudes towards other people of colour and to inculcate racist beliefs in her own daughter.
Like her mother at her age, Jude is eager to leave the confines of the ‘narrow-minded’ Mallard. In college she tries to overcome the insecurities and self-hatred instilled in her after years of being othered.
While the Vignes twins and their daughters may occupy opposing realities, they grapple with similar questions of identity. Stella, Desiree, and Jude, who are alienated by their society because of their race and class, long to belong. Yet, they often sabotage their own attempts to connect to others (Stella’s attempt to bond with her black neighbour ends catastrophically).

“It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody.”

Bennett navigates the way in which race and class shape the way in which we are seen and treated by others. Her characters are vividly drawn, and it is their contradictory feelings and desires that make them all the more real. Bennett’s narrative doesn’t favor any one perspective, and in doing so allows her readers to form their own opinion of a character’s actions.
The relationships the characters have with each other are fraught. While most Stella, Desiree, Jude, and even Kennedy to a certain extent, all desire to fit in or to form meaningful connections, miscommunications abound as they are unwilling or unable to expose themselves to others.

“He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away.”

In Bennett’s novel love isn’t neat or easy and identity is an evolving process, her observations on race, class, and family are truly compelling. She touches upon a myriad of topics (poverty, abuse, trauma, unknowability) with thoughtfulness and clarity. To white people like me (I grew up in a really homogenous and racist country) the America Bennett depicts is both disturbing and illuminating. While there are many horrific scenes in The Vanishing Half, I encourage readers to read this novel. Characters such as Reese, Jude, and Early alone are worth knowing. Interspersed in the various narratives there are tender moments of genuine affection and understanding (Jude’s relationship to her mother and Reese are truly heart-rendering).

“You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich — book review

Untitled drawing (4).jpgAfter reading many reviews praising The Night Watchman, I had quite high expectations for this novel. Having now read it, I can’t say that I found this to be either very good or bad.
Louise Erdrich’s own grandfather was the inspiration for the character of Thomas Wazhashk and for the events that transpire in The Night Watchman. Set in 1953 Thomas, like Erdrich’s grandfather, works as a night watchman. As a member of the Chippewa Council he loves and wants to protect his community. When he hears of Congress’ new “emancipation” bill, he knows that is the United States newest threat against his people.
The serious and inspirational subject matter captivated my attention. Sadly, I think I would preferred to read a non-fictionalised account of this important story. In The Night Watchman Thomas’ fight against Native dispossession is lost in a plodding narrative that follows an array of inconsequential characters. While I understand that shifting the focus on many different characters can give an impression of a certain family or community…here we also get entirely unnecessary segments on characters such as Barnes and two mormons.
Pixie Paranteau, a young woman who is beautiful, ‘spunky’, good at her job, different from other women, was a surprisingly grating character. The story tries so hard to make her into some sort of heroine that I just found her annoying. Her story didn’t have the same tone as Thomas and felt very meandering. The first quarter of her arc seems to promise one of those ‘my sister is missing’ narratives…but then it reverts to her back at the reservation where she seems to occupied feeling ‘righteously’ angry/jealous of her friends and deciding which guy she fancies (everyone seems in love with her).
Thomas and Pixie struck me as very one-dimensional. Thomas has only the outlines of a personality…but he is mostly presented as simply being ‘good’. Characters in general (regardless if ‘good’ or ‘bad’) lacked psychological complexity.
The prose often made characters sound silly. There is an overuse of exclamation marks. Some dialogues came across as stilted (as if two characters were being forced to interact for plot reasons) and there were one too may platitudes (such as “Women’s bodies make such miracles”).
There were few description of the characters’ environment, and because of this I never had a clear picture of their surroundings.
The magical realism that threads this story was perhaps one of the elements I most liked in the overall novel.
All in all, I’m afraid that this novel didn’t really inspire any strong feelings in me. I had a similar experience with Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea (which also draws upon real events). Both of these books tell important stories through rather one-dimensional characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater — book review

Okay, I loved it even more this second time around.

This book is full of Stiefvaterisms (in the best possible way).

“This is going to be a story about the Lynch brothers.”

The very first line of Call Dawn the Hawk echoes that of a fairy tale and Maggie Stiefvater demonstrates just how impressive a storyteller she is throughout the course of her novel. There are many elements of her writing style that seem to mirror those of a fairy tale: she employs repetition and recurring motifs, ‘truth’ and ‘naming’ shape both the narrative and the characters, the words and images she uses have a certain significance. Stiefvater pays incredible attention to word she uses and to the way that certain phrases sound. Her use of repetition also gives a unique rhythm to her story. Yet her style doesn’t solely emulate that of a traditional fairy tale as she injects her prose with a good dose of modern aesthetics.

“This was stupid. Ronan was no hero, but he knew fucking right from fucking wrong.”

Call Dawn the Hawk stars one of my all time favourite ‘fictional’ characters: Ronan Lynch. Although he has somewhat ‘calmed’ down, most of what he feels and does is still undeniably Ronan-ish. It was tough seeing him struggle so much: he feels left behind by Adam (who is in college) and Gansey (who has taken a year off and is travelling alongside Blue). The ‘nighwash’ limits his movements, so much so that spending a night outside of the Barns can have quite destructive results.

“Ronan, with his dangerous dreams, sleeping some-place other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Dubious. Moving someplace other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Never.”

Stiefvater does a brilliant job in fleshing out Declan’s character. He had a rather limited role in The Raven Cycle so it was refreshing to see more of what goes on underneath his deceptively ‘bland’ exterior.

“He just didn’t think. For one second of one minute of the day, he didn’t run the probabilities and worst-case scenarios and possibilities and consequences. For one second of one minute of the day, he just let himself feel.”

I always liked Matthew’s character in the previous books. His innocence and happy-go-lucky attitude make a change from the other characters’ (especially his older brothers) more angsty personal arcs. It would be lovely to see him getting his own chapters in the next instalment of this series.
Scenes featuring the Lynch brothers are guaranteed to entertain. Their relationship is definitely…complicated…but also utterly compelling. Declan and Ronan clash so often but it is clear that they deeply care for one another (even if they have no idea how to expresses their love).
Surprisingly less complicated is Ronan’s relationship with Adam. It’s definitely not all roses and sunshine but we could definitely see how strong and mature their bond has become.

“They hugged, hard. It was shocking to hold him. The truth of him was right there beneath Ronan’s hands, and it still seemed impossible. He smelled like the leather of the thrift store jacket and the woodsmoke he’d ridden through to get here. Things had been the same for so long, and now everything was different, and it was harder to keep up than Ronan had thought.”

Stiefvater also does a great job in introducing us to new characters. It took me a while to warm up to them (this is partly due to the ambiguousness which surrounds them) but I soon became fond of them. Jordan and Hennessy are wonderful addition to this series. They each have their own distinctive personality and their bond was surprisingly complex. Jordan interacts in particular with Declan and I was surprised by how much I liked their banter. Hennessy and Ronan instead share the same mercurial personality so it was equally interesting to see them interact with one another.
The first time I read this Carmen Farooq-Lane’s chapters weren’t my favourite ones, but, upon a second reading I found myself really loving them.

“This was, she told herself, the business of the end of the world.”

Although at its bare bones the plot is rather formulaic (we have chapters following each individual character until slowly their paths converge) Stiefvater shakes this classic storyline up (people with powers + a mysterious government agency that wants to eradicate them + possibly the end of the world). She gives us some incredible sequences, brilliant dialogues, confusing dreamfuckery, the mysterious ‘Bryce’, and, of course, a cast of unforgettable characters.

Stiefvater has really honed her writing style. I loved the way she often mythicises her characters, so that they almost appear as if they are the protagonist of some myth or ballad. I also found the recurring imagery and symbols within this novel to be incredibly effective. They created a unique atmosphere and worked well with the rhythm of her language.
Stiefvater also portrays different types of faith with great realism. Learning of the various character’s beliefs, convictions, and general outlooks made them all the more believable. Interspersed throughout the narrative there are many compelling discussions and observations regarding art (from painting techniques to the lives or works of certain artists).
The pacing of this novel is pretty furious. Lots of things happen, each chapter furthers the plot (characters come across someone or certain information that contributes to their overall storyline).
The first time I read this I gave it 4.5 stars but upon a second reading I found myself 100% invested in everything that was happening. I loved it.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. I felt ‘emotionally’ involved and I found myself simultaneously wanting to read it all in one gulp and also never wanting it to end.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Red, White & Royal Blue: Book Review

disclaimer: I amended my original review which was low-key harsh. I know everyone and their grandma loved this book and I’m sorry that I don’t feel the same way. McQuiston is by no means a bad writer, it just so happens that her book did not work for me.

Red, White & Royal Blue has the merits and demerits of a piece of fanfiction.
If you LOVE tumblr or BL manga and you want to read about two hot guys making out, look no further (added bonus if you are American, because there are an abundance of cultural references—almost one on every page—that went way over my head). It wasn’t a bad novel, I even liked the first 20% or so but by the halfway-mark I was starting to get bored and ended up skim-reading the last few chapters.
I will try to break down the reasons why I wasn’t able to enjoy Red, White & Royal Blue :

TONE/THEMES
One of the biggest drawbacks to me was that the tone of the novel kept vacillating between being a light & fluffy YA to a steamier NA.
The story seems to shy away from tackling political issues seriously, which I can understand, given that this is meant to be a “romcom” but towards the end the story tries to make it seem like Alex actually cares about his country so there is a sketched out impression of his mother’s campaign.
The story fails to depict realistic political parties or issues. The simplified depiction of “good guys vs. bad guys” assigns the characters in either the “democrats (super uber good)” and “conservatives (aka villainous grinches)”. Look, I admit that I sometimes do the same thing but here this binary was just so over-the-top.
Also, the way in which Britain and British culture are depicted is full of not so funny clichés. I got the impression that the story elevated America and made fun of Britain. I do not identify as British nor do I like many things related to Britain (its history, recognising that the ‘goold ol’ empire was far from good, the glorification of Churchill) but it didn’t seem fair for it to be the ‘joke’ of the novel. Also,Brexit was only mentioned once! Wouldn’t Henry want to talk about it more?
The book tries to make it seem like it cares about important matters, ending up instead with a lot of ‘cute’ scenes that interrupt would could have possibly been important and serious discussions (about race, sexuality, etc.). Having one character mention once how bad the British empire feel insufficient. There are some many one-liners about how a certain thing or person is “bad” (bad how?! Tell us!) but then the characters don’t go on to develop their arguments. A few comments on how homophobia and racism are bad are not really enough.
The humour too seems to waver between a young one and a more mature one. Having characters eat pizza or talk about Star Wars doesn’t make your book into a comedy. There were a few one-liners that were funny but they are drowned by an endless sea of cultural references.
This book shies away from portraying political issue or acknowledging how privileged the two main leads are. Instead we get ‘cute’ scenes that are meant to show us how relatable these two are. They eat pizza, just like us!

CHARACTERS
A lot of the female characters (Alex’s sister, his best-friend, his bodyguards, and his mother) are interchangeable with one another. Really. They all incredibly supportive, passionate, and have a no-nonsense attitude towards everything. They often speak a weird ‘tumblr’ jargon that just grated on my nerves. Just because they swear doesn’t cancel out the fact that everything else they say sounds unbelievably soppy or make them into unbelievable adults. Additionally, having one of your characters use ‘mansplaining’ does not make them into a feminist…
A lot of the time I just found myself not really believing in what the characters were saying.

ROMANCE
It happens far too quickly! They are already ‘lovers’ by the 30% mark. Arch-enemies ? Enemies? Where?! For two seconds?! Maybe I would preferred the romance more if it hadn’t been reduced to how hot/cool they are. Maybe I did not like the romance because I found both Alex and Henry to be…unrealistic..I didn’t care for their relationship. These two just came across as teens rather than young adults men.

my rating: ★★½

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