Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett

Like a Sister is an engrossing novel that will definitely appeal to fans of Rachel Howzell Hall. Solid pacing, a likeable and engaging narrator, plenty of compelling dialogues, and a well-rendered suspenseful atmosphere. I won’t lie, the main reason why I picked this one up was because I came across the audiobook version while perusing Bahni Turpin’s audios . As per usual, she gives a brilliant performance which no doubt enhanced my reading/listening experience with Like a Sister.

Our main character is Lena Scott, a graduate student at Columbia who is in her late twenties. After her grandmother passes away she inherits her house in the Bronx, which she now shares with her aunt. Her mother is dead, and Mel, her father, a big shot music producer with a don’t-mess-with-me reputation, has shown little interest in Lena. After their ‘messy’ separation he went on to marry and have a child with a former close friend of her mother. Despite the animosity between their parents, Lena and Desiree were ‘like sisters’. Despite their different home environments, with Desiree enjoying Mel’s wealth, Lena leads a more sheltered existence, focusing on her studies. Eventually, Desiree gains certain popularity, having taken part in a reality show and hanging out with ‘it’ crowds. Her partying lifestyle becomes a wedge in the sisters’ relationship, as Lena can’t condone Desiree’s careless ‘misdemeanours’. After years of not talking to each other Lena learns that Desiree has been found dead the morning after her 25th birthday. The media and police are quick to dismiss her death as an accidental ‘overdose’, but Lena is more x. Why was her sister found in the Bronx? Was she on her way to see her? Mel and Lena’s stepmother do not seem as troubled as she is by the inconsistencies of Desiree’s death. Lena feels guilty over her fallout with Desiree and is determined to find the truth. As she reaches out to Desiree’s ex and her friends she begins to suspect that her death may have something to do with the ‘event’ that led to their fallout. Reluctantly Lena is aided by Desiree’s bff, a white rich girl who serves as a source of humor for much of the early narrative.

I liked the dynamic between Lena and the people she interacts with. I think the story would have benefited from giving her more of a backstory. She seems to have only one acquaintance and 0 friends. I kept forgetting what her profession/subject of study was because her character is very much all about Desiree and Mel. That is not to say that she doesn’t have a clear-cut personality. She is loyal, sensible, and funny. Some of the jokes she makes did come across as more in line with someone older than her (rather than 29, someone closer to if not over 40). Still, that didn’t ruin her narration, and I found her old-fashioned quaint and endearing. Her voice is certainly engaging as I was thoroughly absorbed by her narration.
I would have liked for one of the side characters to be less of an ‘Inventing Anna’ type of figure as it was fairly predictable and the misdirection takes up a lot of the story for no reason. The mystery was interesting but the resolution was painfully anticlimactic. The culprit was painfully obvious and I really hoped that the author would subvert my expectations by not making them the killer. Their motivations are…kind of missing? I didn’t buy into their ‘reasons’, as it seemed a huge leap to go from ‘that’ to murder. The ending did feel rushed to the point that it lessened my overall enjoyment of the novel. We also get chapters that are the equivalent of insta posts or lives about Desiree and they did absolutely 0 for the story. I wish we could have had chapters giving us glimpses into the sisters’ childhoods as that would have added depth and nuance to their relationship.
Still, I did have a fairly fun time with this as it was a quick and gripping read/listen. I would definitely read more by this author!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Having recently enjoyed reading Kevin Kwan’s A Room With A View re-telling, I was seriously expecting to love Crazy Rich Asians. I went into it hoping for a light-hearted and fun read but was instead met with a snooze-inducing story, a horrid cast of poorly developed characters, and an abundance of crass humor. I grew to hate all of the characters as well as the so-called plot and the tacky dialogues. Whereas I found Sex & Vanity to be a funny comedy of manners, Crazy Rich Asians struck me as garish and grating.
Rachel Chu, our supposed heroine, joins her boyfriend Nicholas Young as he travels to Singapore to be the best man at his best friend’s wedding. Nicholas has not informed Rachel of his family, who happen to be ‘crazy rich’. Because of this Rachel isn’t prepared to contend with his relatives’ opulent lifestyles nor is she expecting to encounter such cut-throat people, whose weapon of choice is malicious gossip. Although Rachel was raised in America her mother is from mainland China. Both of these things make her ‘undesirable’ to the older people in Nicholas’ family. His mother and grandmother in particular are set against her, so much so that they are willing to sabotage their relationship by any means necessary.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the story as much if it had focused on the conflict between Rachel and Nicholas’ mother. But, alas, hundreds of pages are dedicated to Nicholas’ horrid relations: there is Astrid, a spoiled yet self-pitying woman who will spend hundred of thousands on jewellery only to then bemoan how extravagant young people are. Her husband has a huge chip on his shoulder because he feels that her family treats him like a servant. She eventually comes across her first love who materializes from nowhere only to play the role of self-sacrificing cupid and gives Astrid some ‘advice’ on how to salvage her marriage, because he ‘knows’ men. There is Eddie, who is even more spoiled and obnoxious than Astrid. The narrative goes out of its way to paint him as a vulgar idiot who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There are plenty of additional characters who seem to share the same personality: they are mean, wasteful, vain, stupid, back-stabbing…the list goes on. I don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters. Some of my favourite novels, such as Madame Bovary or White Ivy, focus on less-than-likeable characters. However, the ones in Crazy Rich Asians are so painfully one-dimensional as to be utterly ridiculous. This slapdash satire is lazy and worst of all, painfully unfunny. All the husbands were dicks in the same way: they are cowards, weak, and possible cheaters. The women were divided into four categories: Rachel, who is Not Like Other Women, in that she uses her brain, she’s intelligent, she has a job, she (allegedly) doesn’t know or care about fashion or money; the ‘not so bad’ rich women such as Astrid and Rachel’s friend whose characters nevertheless revolve around what they wear or the fact that they like to spend money; the nasty set, which includes almost all of the women invited to the wedding, and these ones, well, they are Mean Girls who bully Rachel because they are jealous, and for all their love of fashion they do not possess Rachel’s innate simple yet elegant fashion sense; and the older women, which includes Nicholas’ mother, his aunts, and his grandmother who are also horrible and scheming (but are meant to be more ‘classy’ than the Mean Girls).

The plot goes in a circle forever. We see no meaningful interactions between Nicholas and his family, in fact, he gets less page time than most characters. He is Not Like Other Men in that he doesn’t care about money or status. Puh-lease. I found his denial of his wealth truly off-putting. I get that he was (somehow) the only one to be raised to be modest about the family fortune but the man has lived abroad and on his own, surely he must have gained some sort of perspective when it comes to his family’s wealth. But no! Time and again he denies that his family is rich, and I hated that. It made me want to reach into the page and slap him. This fake modesty is not pretty. I feel a similar type of rage when I think of those celebrities making videos where they say things along the lines ‘we are all in this pandemic together’. Bleargh. Fuck off, really. And Rachel, what a disappointing character. She was bland, painfully so. She never stands up to anyone, which, fair enough, given that maybe she doesn’t want to be disrespectful or aggravate certain situations but I found her passivity infuriating in the long run. Especially when it came to those Mean Girls. She also lacked ‘history’. It seemed that before her name appeared on the page she did not exist. With the exception of that one friend and her bf she has formed no other meaningful relationship…which is saying something given that she’s not a child.
Characters keep saying offensive things and no one really challenges their comments or views. If anything, the story goes to prove them ‘right’. Take the whole Kitty thing for example. At one point one of the female characters says that shopping can solve any problem a woman is having and I wanted to gouge my eyes out. The amount of girl-hate also drove me up the walls. I hate when male authors do this. It is as if they are compelled to write women as ‘catty’ and ‘competitive’ (whereas their male characters aren’t).
The book consists of characters gossiping, bicker, and bitching about one another. He said that she said that they said…etc. The one gay-coded character is portrayed as a snake (kwan, wtf? what is this, downton abbey?). The book exalts the characters’ extravagant lifestyles without anything meaningful to say about it. In fact, it just glorifies the ways of rich people. The constant name-dropping of fashion brands threatened to turn my brain to slush.
Anyway, this book has no redeeming qualities (for me of course). Rachel and Nicholas’ relationship felt like an afterthought almost. I never believed that they cared for each other and I think that Rachel should have not forgiven a man who lied by omission (about his past, his family, etc.). The last act was pure soap-opera. To use a possibly problematic term, that ‘twist’ was demented. Seriously so. That we don’t get any real scenes between Nicholas and his mother or even Rachel and his mother made their whole conflict bathetic.
This was meant to be an entertaining and escapist read but I was certainly not diverted. Maybe if you like shows like Gossip Girl you will find this more rewarding than I did. I, for one, do not care for this mindless glorification of the rich. Their ‘antics’, such as xenophobic, classist, and sexist comments as well as their ostentatious tastes and their constant need to travel by jet (who cares about the global carbon emissions!), are played up for laughs. This kind of mindless and gaudy satire achieves nothing. Bah. Maybe the film is more tolerable but this book is the definition of banal.

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

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

This is the first story I read by Zadie Smith that I actually didn’t hate. In fact, one could even say that I quite liked The Embassy of Cambodia. Smith’s adroit storytelling is characterised by a razor-sharp social commentary and a trenchant sense of humor. While I was overall able to appreciate this short story, I still do find Smith’s brand of satire to be a bit too mean for my taste. Her portrayal of her characters sometimes strike me as exaggerated, and she does seem to have a propensity for ridiculing the people who populate her works (regardless of the role they play in their story).

The Embassy of Cambodia follows Fatou, a young woman employed by a wealthy family based in Willesden, London. Unbeknownst to her employers, Fatou swims at the health centre that they are members of (using their membership). On her way to the pool, she walks past the embassy of Cambodia and occasionally catches sight of a shuttlecock going back and forward behind the embassy’s walls. We learn of Fatou’s friendship with Andrew, a fellow immigrant who is working a min. wage job despite his education. Together they talk about politics, history, and Christianity. The two for example discuss the possible reasons why in Europe very few people know, let alone speak of, the Rwandan genocide but seem ‘fixated’ on the Shoah. We also learn of how Fatou’s employers treat her, from their racist comments to the fact that they have her passport (meaning that Fatou is not free). While by the end of the story Fatou’s circumstances change, it isn’t sure whether her new path will lead to happiness or safety.
The Embassy of Cambodia was a quick and relatively engaging read. While it didn’t quite succeed in making me a fan of Smith just yet it did make me want to give the rest of her published works a second chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

Weirdly enough, at first, I rather disliked this book but, the more I read, the more I found myself warming up to its protagonist Willa Chen.
I initially picked this book up because of its ‘nanny’ premise as Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid and Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson are all-time favourites of mine. After reading the first few pages I was reminded of Luster by Raven Leilani but here I found the narrator quite irritating. The prose too tries too hard to be snappy and edgy, both through its imagery and its, often flowery, metaphors. I am not too keen on narrators who present themselves as wronged on all fronts, and, for quite some time, Willa struck me as self-victimising, especially when it came to her parents. Her passivity too was a source of frustration but, as I continued to read, this unwillingness and inability to act on her part endeared to me. She’s so used to minimising or straight up dismissing her experiences and encounters with racism and sexism that her immediate response to someone saying something offensive is to doubt herself (is she overreacting? is she misperceiving their words/actions? are they just being ignorant or malicious?).

Willa is one of those main characters who is in her early twenties and leading a rather directionless life. Her divorced parents have gone on to have ‘new’ families and she rarely is in touch with them. Willa feels conflicted about her Chinese American identity. She often doesn’t feel or is made to feel, neither Chinese nor American enough. Willa’s sense of otherness and aloneness are further exacerbated by her disconnection from her parents, in particular her father.
After a lukewarm college experience, Willa ends up working for the Adriens, who are a wealthy white family based in Tribeca. Willa looks after their only daughter, Bijou. Similarly to the narrators of Luster and Lucy, Willa feels drawn to Nathalie, Bijou’s mother. Willa tries to act as the nanny the Adriens’ want but tries as she might to fit in with them she cannot reconcile herself to their extremely privileged lifestyle. They, in turn, seem wholly unaware of Willa’s true family history, partly because Willa herself omitted and or lied about quite a few details, partly because they are rather self-absorbed. They also make unfortunate remarks about Willa, at times patronising her or making her feel small and obscure. The novel strings together many every-day moments from Willa’s life as Bijou’s nanny so we get quite a lot of scenes revolving around cooking or that take place during mealtimes. I liked the tensions that the author is able to create in these seemingly ordinary environments (such as the kitchen). There are many instances where Willa messes up or makes some (sometimes downright idiotic) mistake that make me feel both embarrassed on her behalf and rather sympathetic towards her. The author captures the confusion and anxiety many people feel in their twenties. Time and again Willa is made to feel as if her job as a nanny is not a ‘real’ job or that she has yet to become a fully-grown adult. While the Adriens’ are often oblivious of Willa’s real feelings and when with them Willa does put a front, she does become infatuated with their family. Her routine as a nanny offers comfort, in fact, it shields her away from actually confronting her parents and or her future.
Of course, as I said, the Adriens’ home is not a perfect refuge. Willa is often confused by Nathalie’s confiding in her, only to, later on, treat her like ‘house staff’. She also comes into contact with their relatives, and they turn out to be pretty vile. She endures humiliating jabs and or dismissals at her expense and has to put up with looking after sexually inappropriate young boys. The worst of the bunch is Nathalie’s younger brother whose microaggressions make Willa feel understandably ill at ease.
I can see how many readers will find Willa infuriating. She rarely acts or speaks up for herself. Her fear of rejection and abandonment are such that she retreats inward, keeping her true self hidden from others. Her general confusion about her identity is exacerbated by her Chinese American heritage. Time and again she’s asked questions on the lines of ‘what are you’, which serve only to alienate her further from others. Willa makes plenty of stupid choices along the way (do not read if you can’t stand second-hand embarrassment) and rarely thinks things through. Even so, I ultimately found her to be an endearing character. She’s so lonely and alone that you can’t quite bring yourself to judge her as you would someone with a ‘solid’ support system. And, boy oh boy, the discomfort she feels around others, especially Nathalie’s brother was so well-conveyed. His looks plus the way he accompanies his offensive comments with plenty of ‘I’m just joking’ smiles and laughs, well, they succeed in making Willa doubt herself.
Willa’s story arc was truly compelling and I appreciated just how self-critical she comes to be by the end. I did find myself wishing for her to confront certain people but I guess that we don’t always have the opportunity to do that in real life.
I will say that not all of the characters were as nuanced as Willa. Bijou’s father is more or less a non-presence. Bijou, well, she didn’t strike me as a, particularly believable child. I get that the author was being satirical, but she sacrifices authenticity in her attempts to poke fun at this type of wealthy, white, & wannabe-sophisticated American family. Quite a few chapters take place during Willa’s childhood and they struck me as a bit artificial. This type of narrative structure (alternating between now and then) is a bit overdone and here it wasn’t wholly necessary.
I think that readers who enjoyed YZ Chin’s Edge Case and Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distractions and are looking to read more books exploring the realities of being a young Asian American woman in contemporary America should definitely check this one out. Additionally I can see this book appealing to fans of Brandon Taylor, Rachel Lyon, and even Lily King.

re-read: as I suspected re-reading this made me like it a lot more. I loved Willa’s introspective nature, the way she articulates her loneliness and sense of otherness, and the remote yet intimate quality of her voice. I also appreciated the flashbacks a lot more this time around and I found the moments they explored to be quite fitted to whatever was just happening in the ‘now’. The ending was both believable and satisfying although part of me still wishes that we could have seen Willa become less passive.

my rating: ★★

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The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

And so my latest TRC re-read has come to an end. What an outstanding series. Truly. I cannot even begin to articulate how much this series means to me and how much I love it.

In this finale, the stakes are higher than ever and a lot of things Stiefvater has hinted at in the previous instalments come to the fore. The Raven King makes for a bittersweet read. While Stiefvater’s delightful humor is still present, there are several scenes that are just brimming with sadness & melancholy. In a way, this mirrors the shift in tone and reflects how far the characters have come since their early days in TRC. That is not to say that they still don’t make mistakes or say the wrong things, but they have at least learnt how to communicate more with one another. Their experiences have made them more mature, and witnessing this ‘growth’ makes for such a rewarding experience.

With the exception of The Dream Thieves, which is pure gasoline, the other volumes in this series are characterised by a calmer pace. In The Raven King this too changes as the narrative is very much action-driven. Stuff just keeps happening and at times I missed the more tranquil pacing of TRC or BLLB. Still, I was very much hooked on the story. We get some great reveals and character development. Stiefvater’s storytelling is always on point, from the atmosphere she creates through the use of repetition to the vividly rendered setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns)
As per usual, I adore the Gangsey. Gansey is going through a lot. While he’s certainly good at pretending that he’s control, there are various things that happen here that threaten his ‘everything is going swell act’. Adam is still learning more about his abilities but without Persephone there to guide him, he has to learn to trust his friends and himself. Blue’s reunion with her long-absent father is not particularly ideal as he refuses to talk to anyone. Ronan…my poor boy.
These characters truly are the heart of this series. I did find myself wanting more scenes of them together, and part of me resented that we get less of them in favour of introducing Henry. I like him, I do. I can tell Stiefvater cares for him and wants us to feel the same. The thing is, I would have preferred it if he’d been introduced earlier on in the series or if he’d played a more minor role. His presence in the narrative makes it so that we get less of Noah and less of Adam&Gansey or Ronan&Gansey…I also found myself missing the OG quest. In the previous books, Glendower is very much the goal and Gansey often talks about history and myths…here instead Glendower seemed an afterthought almost that only comes into play towards the end. But these things were fairly minor things.

A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). As I was reluctant to say goodbye to these characters part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC.
While TRK isn’t my favourite book in this series I still found it to be a fantastic read. I am in awe of this series.
I’m so happy that Stiefvater went on to write Call Down the Hawk and Mister Impossible. While the tonal shift may not appeal to all, personally, I think it really works in its favour.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados

“It takes practice to have restraint, and we are not yet at an age to try it out.”



As the title and cover themselves suggest, Happy Hour is the book equivalent of an aperitif. I’m thinking of an Aperol spritz and some black olives. Nice enough while you’re having them but once they are gone you’re prepared to move onto something more substantial. That is not to say that Happy Hour has no merits, if anything, my frustration towards this novel stems from the fact that, in many ways, this could have been an excellent read. But, it was an unfunny, shallow, and monotonous story about young pretty people who enjoy drinking and eating at ‘in’ bodegas.

Happy Hour implements the kind of literary devices and motifs that are all the rage in a certain subset of millennial literature. We have a wry narrator who is in her twenties, prone to self-sabotage, alienated 24/7, and leading a rather directionless life. While she does feel detached from those around her, her running commentary is as sharp as a knife. The dialogues have a mumblecore vibe to them so that many of the conversations sound like something we ourselves have heard in RL (the kind of small talk that happens at wannabe-artsy-parties etc). Sadly, I found many of the scenes in Happy Hour to be repetitive and interchangeable with one another. Isa and Gala meet up with some people they may or may not know at a bar or at someone’s flat. They get tipsy, or drunk, talk about nothing in particular with the other guests, and eventually make their way back home by grabbing a taxi. They try to get by sponging off other people, setting up a market stall where they halfheartedly try to sell clothes, pose as models for artists, or even by going to bars and being paid (cash + unlimited drinks) by the owner to attract more clients (making in 3 hours what would take me, a minimum-wage-worker, a whole-ass shift). Because of their immigration status, they cannot apply to ‘desk jobs’, but we never really learn much about that. Their past is very intentionally shrouded in mystery, barely alluded to. I assume they are Canadian given that they speak English fluently and that they seem familiar with American/Western culture.
I sort of resented the implication that they are ‘survivors’. They may not have a family to fall back onto, but A) they have each other B) they have travelled and can earn money fairly easily because they are young and pretty C) they are CONNECTED. In what could seem like a running-gag of sorts Isa always seems to come across someone she knows. Most of their ‘friends’ and acquaintances seem well-off and educated and these two are able to go out partying every night or so without actually spending all of their money this way. They make no conscious effort to save up, wasting money on the kind of meals that will not be filling or nutritious (ever heard of rice and beans? clearly not) nor do they try to put a stop to their night lifestyle. While they are quick, Isa especially, to notice how privileged the people around them are, they seem unaware that beauty is a currency and that their ability to party every night or earn money modelling or sponge off rich obnoxious men is directly proportional to their physical apperance.

Isa has ‘suffered’; one of the men she sort of sees briefly during the course of the novel ghosts her or something along those lines and not for one second was I convinced that she was truly broken up about it. The author really tries to make her sound jaded and caustic but her observations were predictably vanilla, and, worst still, always seem to posit her in a good light. The dynamic between Isa and Gala was the most disappointing aspect of the novel. As I’ve said, I’m all for complicated female friendships like the one in Moshfegh’s MYORAR, or between Ferrante’s Lila and Lenù or Morrison’s Sula and Nel or Ruchika Tomar’s Cale and Penny. But here, eh. Isa is clearly better than Gala. Gala is selfish, superficial, a bad friend and possibly even a bad person. She’s a fake whose only moments of vulnerability are an act to earn ‘male’ attention or sympathy from others. And I hate that they have to resort to the kind of ‘who has a right to be sad’ pissing content. Gala was born in Sarajevo but Isa ridicules the fact that the Bosnian war may have traumatised her since she left when she was just a ‘baby’ (as if her parents’ trauma couldn’t have possibly have affected her growing up) and immediately has to mention her own ACTUAL trauma (her mom died, i think). Like, ma che cazzo? And before you say, clearly Isa believes herself to be the good guy, well, other characters consolidate this narrative of her being GOOD and Gala bad. Every guy they come across prefers Isa to Gala, all of their ‘shared’ friends don’t give two shits about Gala but care about Isa etc etc.
And, boy, the storyline was just so very repetitive. Yeah, the author is able to convey a sort of artsy-academic-hipster-millennial atmosphere however, even if a lot of the dialogues in her novel sound like actual conversations (the type you may overhear at parties or in a bar or even while using public transport) that doesn’t result in an incredibly realistic and or compelling narrative. Isa was a very one-dimensional vapid character who manages to be both dull and irksome. She’s a twenty-something possibly Canadian woman who describes herself as being both Pinoy and Salvadoreña. She was raised by her mother after her father decided to go MIA or whatever. Her mother died a few years ago and even if Isa barely acknowledges her, her presence is felt by her absence. While I appreciated the author’s subtle approach to Isa’s grief, my heart did not warm up to Isa. I wanted to like her and some of her comments about modern culture or the so-called millennial malaise were relatable(ish), but, I disliked how full of herself she was but not in an obvious egomaniacal sort of way, no, in a more self-pitying, ‘I’m Not Like Other People’, way. She has to put with Gala and the mean people she meets at her parties and her limbs ache after hours spent lying still for a painting and she’s always the one making the money whereas Gala does fuck all and it isn’t fair that horrible socialites have it better than her. Her navel-gazing wasn’t particularly amusing, her moments of introspection struck me as self-dramatising, and her observations on class, identity, and life in New York were rather banal. Worst of all, Isa’s dry narration is profoundly unfunny. She sounds exactly like the people she’s so quick to ridicule.

I will say that I did enjoy reading her thoughts on the art of conversation and I did find the novel to have a strong atmosphere and sense of place. You can easily envision the kind of events and parties the girls take part in, as well as the kind of crowds occupying these places. It just so happens that like Isa herself I’m not all that keen on the rich and pretentious. Unlike Isa however, I do not, and would not want to, move in their same circles. For all her complaining Isa doesn’t really try to forge more meaningful connections nor did she seem to really care about Gala. Their friendship seemed one of convenience and nothing else.

That’s more or less it. I wouldn’t have minded if Isa’s voice had been as amusing and entertaining as say the main character in Luster or My Year of Rest and Relaxation or Pretend I’m Dead or You Exist Too Much or The Idiot. It just so happens that I actively disliked Isa. This is weird given that the mcs from the novels I’ve just mentioned are not necessarily nice or kind or strictly likeable. But I found myself drawn to them all the same. Isa just pissed me off. She’s constantly painting herself as the better friend or the better person, and other characters are shown to be bad or mean or shallow. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation both the narrator and her ‘best friend’ are depicted as solipsistic, often immature, decidedly toxic people. Here instead Isa is the good guy and almost every other character is bad (because they are wealthy, white, pretentious, superficial etc.). At one point she’s at a gay bar (if i recall correctly) and someone asks her what she’s doing there and that this isn’t a place for her housemate fends him off immediately (saying something like “she’s my sister you old, white queen”). I’m not keen on authors using gay characters to ‘defend’ straight ones from other lgbtq+ people. Like, it’s okay because a gay character is telling off another gay character. He called her ‘his sister’ so that makes her what, part of the queer community?! This scene just rubbed me up the wrong way. What, Isa has a right to be in gay spaces because she has a gay friend and she’s just Not Like Other Straight People? Ma daje!

While, yes, I did dislike and was bored by Isa as well her story’s supposed storyline (don’t get me wrong i love a good ol’ slice-of-life now and again but here these parties & co were so samey and intent only on satirising millennials & the-so-called upper-crust) I actually liked the author’s style.
It’s a pity that I wasn’t able to connect to Isa (or anyone else for the matter). The cast of ever-changing characters made it hard for me to become familiar with anyone really. Many of them also happen to have silly posh sounding nicknames or names that make it even harder to remember who-the-hell-was-who. Some just exist only in the space of a single scene or to deliver a throwaway line and nothing else besides. The men around Isa all blurred into one generic asshole-ish kind of man. The story ends on a cheesy note, with Isa being ready to finally talk about her past.
But I don’t wish to dissuade prospective readers from giving this a shot. If you liked Jo Hamya’s Three Romes or Kavita Bedford’s Friends & Dark Shapes you might like this more than I was able to. It just so happens that, as stated above, I hated Isa and found her narrative to have one too many of the same kind of scenes/conversations. I would have liked more variety in the story and the characters themselves. All in all, it left me wanting.

If you liked it or were able to relate to Isa, I’m happy for you, in fact, I wish that I could say the same. Please avoid leaving ‘you are stupid/wrong/well actually I loved Isa and you are clearly missing the point’ comments. I’m fully aware that the dislike Isa elicited in me is entirely subjective.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

You become a creature I can’t understand, my mother sometimes said to me.”



Having loved Lily King’s Writers & Lovers I was looking forward to reading more of her work and I can happily say (or write) that her first-ever collection of short stories did not disappoint. More often than not I find short story collections to be a mixed bag (with some good ones, some meh ones, and even a bad egg or two). But, I found myself drawn to all of the stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter. While the stories focus on characters who don’t always have much in common (be it their age, the time when and/or place where they are living, their fears or desires) their narratives are characterised by a bittersweet tone that will elicit feelings of nostalgia in the reader (regardless of whether they have experienced what the characters are experiencing). Despite the title of this collection many of these stories are set during the summer and easily transport us right there alongside the characters so that we too are experiencing the heat, elation, and almost-surreality of their summer holidays (that feeling of being free from the usual routines etc). King captures with unsparing clarity the thoughts and feelings of her characters, and conveys their wide range of emotions, honing in on the longing, unease, giddiness, and sadness they experience over the course of their stories. Some are in love with someone who may or may not reciprocate their feelings, others are in a phase of transition, for example, from childhood to adulthood, or mired in the confusion of adolescence.

In the first story, ‘Creature’, Cara, a fourteen-year-girl, is employed by a well-off family as a babysitter for the summer holidays. During the time she spends at this family’s house she becomes infatuated with Hugh, her employer’s son, who is much older than her. Our narrator is an aspiring author who likes to envision herself as a Jane Eyre sort of figure but, one thing is to daydream about Hugh, another is realising that Hugh has no compunction about making a move on her (when she’s very much underage).
In ‘Five Tuesdays in Winter’ a single-father and bookseller falls for his employer who is also tutoring his daughter in Spanish. Mitchell is however unable to express his feelings and spends much of his time longing to confess his love to her. In ‘When in the Dordogne’ the son of two professors bonds with the two college students who have been hired to housesit his home and keep an eye on him. In ‘North Sea’ a mother and daughter are on vacation together but their strained relationship results in a less than idyllic time. While the following stories also present us with different perspectives and scenarios they explore similar themes (hope, connection, love). I liked how King manages to be both a gentle and an unflinching storyteller, that is able to make you happy one moment and sad the next. I also appreciated that the stories didn’t have neat endings or ‘valuable’ life lessons but often read like a slice-of-life that is providing us with a glimpse into a specific period of her characters’ lives. King captures how confusing feelings can be sometimes, so that we have characters both longing for something or someone while at the same time feeling uneasy at the possibility of attaining what, or who, they’d thought they desired.
My favourites were ‘Creature’, ‘When in the Dordogne’, ‘Timeline’, and ‘Hotel Seattle’.
King’s understated prose is a marvel to read and I had a wonderful time with this collection. If you were a fan of Writers & Lovers you should definitely pick this one up. Moving and wistful Five Tuesdays in Winter is a scintillating collection!

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray

The Human Zoo will appeal to readers who prefer their books to focus on setting and social commentary more than say plot or character development. Sabina Murray writes with confidence and at first, I found myself quite immersed in her storytelling. The novel is narrated by Tin, a Filipino-American journalist whose marriage is close to collapse. Ting travels to Manila, both to escape her current predicament and to research Timicheg, an Igorot man who in the early 20th century was displayed in one of the last ‘human zoos’ in America. Since her last visit Procopio Gumboc has become the country’s president and his rule is bloody indeed.

Ting returns to her family home where she easily slips back into a comfortable existence with the house staff taking care of her every need and with evenings spent with other socialites. Ting is reunited with her close friends and her former lover Chet, a rich businessman now married to someone else and with ties to Gumboc’s regime.
Ting is also meant to keep an eye on Laird, the American fiance of one of her cousin’s. But when Laird begins showing up at every event and family occasion Ting attends and asking a lot of questions. Ting grows suspicious of Laird and, when he seemingly vanishes, fears the worst.
This novel is certainly informative. Through Ting’s narration, we learn about the Philippines’ history, its fraught political past and present, as well as its contemporary class dynamics. While we do witness just how oppressing its regime is, we also hear the perspective of those who regard it as the lesser evil or even as a solution to the issues affecting their society. Ting is very much opposed and critical of Gumboc’s rein, but not many are willing to listen to her concerns.
Towards the end, the story changes track slightly, in a way that wasn’t entirely seamless. I found some of the events that happen to be rushed and not entirely credible. I also found myself growing bored by how exposition-heavy the narrative was. Ting tells us all of these things about her country and its history and its present but, personally, I would have preferred to have less telling and more showing.

The characters themselves never truly feel like actual people. Ting is a vehicle through which the Philippines can be ‘explained’ to, I’ll hazard, a predominantly non-Filipino audience and she lacked both history and motivations. Her relationship with the characters around them was similarly satisfying and seemed to exist only in order to illustrate a certain type of person who is part of Manila’s upper crust. Her romance with Chet, for instance, was flat and strangely artificial.
I wanted more of Ting’s family and more of her actual research on Timicheg, and less about Gumboc, Laird, or Chet.

Lastly, I found it weird that Ting kept describing Inchoy, her friend, as being gay when he seems to be in a loving relationship with a transwoman. Inchoy, as far as I recall, does not describe himself as lgbtq+. He’s a cis man who is in love with a woman. Yet, because the woman he is in love with is trans Ting claims more than once that he’s gay.

While this novel certainly paints a detailed picture of contemporary Manila, in particular the lifestyle of the upper classes, it failed to leave a strong impression on me. In-depth examination and discussion of politics aside, The Human Zoo doesn’t have much to offer. Ting is a blank page of a protagonist and so are the characters around her. The story ambles on in a fairly predictable and uneventful fashion, but it lacked direction and urgency.
If you are interested in reading this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.”

The Goldfinch is an emotional rollercoaster spanning 700+ pages and proof that literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Fully deserving of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Goldfinch is a triumph of a novel, one that I will have a hard time reviewing (so bear with me & my ramblings).
Donna Tartt seamlessly weaves together a Dickensian bildungsroman with a suspenseful and thrilling descent into the criminal underbelly of the art world (forgeries & thefts ahoy!) that boasts the same exquisite prose as her debut novel.
This Odyssean coming-of-age is narrated by Theo Decker. At 13 Theo lives alone with his mother after his father, a temperamental alcoholic, decided to take up and leave New York. After Theo gets in trouble at his school he and his mother are required to attend a ‘conference’. On the way there, the two end up in a museum, for what should have been a quick gander. When a bomb explodes in the museum many die, including Theo’s mother. Once Theo awakes from the explosion he comes across a dying old man who urges him to take Carel Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’. Theo, probably suffering from a head concussion & shock, does as he’s bid, takes the painting.

“The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

When Theo is informed of his mother’s death he’s devastated. He has no idea where his deadbeat father is and his grandparents have made it clear that they aren’t keen on having him stay with them. Theo is temporarily placed in the custody of his childhood friend’s family, the Barbours, a hideously wealthy family. Later on, his father re-emerges and whisks away from New York to Las Vegas. Here Theo is left very much to his own devices, his father—who is clearly involved in some dodgy stuff—and his girlfriend do not seem particularly fond or interested in him and his upbringing. Theo becomes friends with Boris who, like him, does not have a stable home life. Together the two experiment with alcohol and drugs and commit petty crimes.
We follow Theo until his late-teens and then we encounter him again as a young(ish) adult who becomes entangled in some dangerous business that force him to fully confront the kind of person that he has become.

What to say? My heart went out to Theo. Yes, later in life he’s a bit of an asshole. That doesn’t cancel out all of his other qualities and complexities. Those sections recounting his boyhood are truly heartbreaking. The despair he feels at his mother’s death, the guilt, grief, longing, self-hatred, and loneliness that seem to punctuate his days are captured with exacting precision. His meditations on life, art, the people around him are striking, and I appreciated how nuanced a person he was. His relationship with Boris was one of the highlights of his narrative. It is incredible just how good Tartt is at making you care for people who are just not that nice. The dynamic between Theo and Boris is intense and messy (possibly more than a friendship?) and despite their different temperaments their similar circumstances and self-destructive tendencies fortify their bond (they are definitely good at enabling each other).

His mother’s death haunts Theo throughout his life, and we see just how his survivor’s guilt affects and influences him. To Theo, the painting of ‘The Goldfinch’ is irrevocably connected to her death, which is why he’s unable to part ways with it. He’s also hopelessly enamoured with Pippa, who he first glimpsed in the museum on that fateful day. She’s one of the few people who understands the guilt that plagues him so. Alas, he comes to idealise in a not so healthy way.
His story is filled with stops-and-starts, addiction and suicidal ideation & tendencies punctuate his life, and as an adult, he seems already to have taken a dubious path.

I loved this novel. Tartt’s writing is divine. Her prose is simultaneously elegant and exhilarating, her characterization, dialogues, descriptions, are all truly exemplary. She brings to life the people, places, and situations she writes of in a way that is almost too real, so that when forces outside of my control (the end of my lunch break or commute.) put an end to my reading time, well, it felt like a rude awakening.

As I said, this novel is long. A brick some would say (the hardback edition could seriously injure someone). Yet, I breezed through this. Not because it was easy reading, quite the contrary. Tartt’s erudite references and elaborate storytelling deserve attention and consideration, one cannot just rush their way through her books. And yet, I had a hard time putting this book down. Theo’s voice won me over so that I too found myself mirroring whatever he was feeling (usually sadness and or anxiety, yay). I didn’t want to let go of him, and I was actually sad once I reached the novel’s conclusion.
While Tartt doesn’t go light on her characters, I could tell just how much she cares for them. The people inhabiting her novels may not necessarily be good or kind but by the end, I always end up loving them (despite or because of their many many flaws). Even characters I want to hate with the whole of my being are not wholly unredeemable.

Tartt’s incisive reflections on human nature, life, grief, love, fate, art, death, struck me for their poignancy and thoughtfulness. The rich cast of characters is just as deserving of attention as Theo himself. Regardless of the part, they play in Theo’s life, whether they are a friend, acquaintance, or a complete stranger, they are depicted in such vivid detail that they do not feel like fictional characters but real people.
And Theo, ragazzo mio! On the one hand, many of his feelings, states of mind, motivations, fears & desires are rendered with clarity, on the other, well, the boy is not only traumatised but incredibly repressed and prone to self-deception. So, there are many moments when we cannot trust entirely his narration. His alcohol consumption and drug use also add a murky quality to certain events or portions of his story. Theo’s intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, in many ways, added an element of ambiguity to his narration and has us relying, more often than not, on other characters in order to discern the truth about certain people/events.
I was captivated by Theo’s story, the many lows and few highs of his adolescence and adulthood, and by the motifs dotting his narrative. The novel is also full of juxtaposition: the classic vs modern references, the bustling streets of New York, always buzzing with activity, vs the desolate landscapes of Las Vegas, the Barbours’ apartment with Theo’s father house. Like TSH, one of the novel’s main concerns is beauty (the power that beautiful things have on us, the way we feel about that which is beautiful to us, the things we are willing to do for beauty or to have what we think beautiful).

Beautiful, moving, wonderfully chaotic, a work of art. The Goldfinch is all of these things and so much more.

ps: curiously enough the first time I read it I only gave it 3 stars…and I can’t really explain why this time around I loved it so much that even days later I find myself thinking about Theo & Boris.

my rating: ★★★★★

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