BOOK REVIEWS

The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Reader showcases Gaiman’s range as an author. Gaiman moves between genres and tones like no other. From funny fairy-talesque stories to more ambiguous narratives with dystopian or horror elements. While I have read most of his novels and a few of his novellas I hadn’t really ‘sunk’ my teeth in his short stories. The ones that appear in this collection have been selected by his own fans, and are presented in chronological order. While it was interesting to see the way his writing developed I did not prefer his newer stuff to his older one. In fact, some of my favorite of his stories are the ones from the 80s and 90s. Even then his writing demonstrates both humor and creativity. Some of the stories collected here read like morality tales while others offer more perplexing messages. Many of his stories revolve around the act of storytelling or have a story-within-story structure. At times he retells old classics, such as Sleeping Beauty, while other times he offers his own take on Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and even Doctor Who. A few favorites of mine were: ‘Chivalry’, ‘Murder Mysteries’, ‘The Goldfish and Other Stories’, ‘The Wedding Present’, and ‘October in the Chair’. If you are a Gaiman fan and, like me, have not read many of his short stories you should definitely consider picking this collection up.


my rating:
★★★★☆

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The Split by Laura Kay

minor spoilers below

To be honest, The Split was a wee bit disappointing. Not only did the MC got on my nerves big time but most of the characters came across as very one-dimensional and the narrative’s attempts at humor were puerile. On the plus side: a sapphic rom-com in which the main tension does not originate from our MC or her love interest’s queerness. While the author does acknowledge the realities of growing up gay the story is not about queer suffering. Which, dare I say, was refreshing?
Sadly, the author’s characters leave a lot to be desired, characterization-wise. Our narrator is twenty-nine-year-old Ally who after quitting her teaching job has been in a bit of a slump. When her longtime girlfriend breaks up with her Ally leaves London, taking her now ex’s cat Malcolm with her, and seeks refuge in her hometown of Sheffield. Her dad, also a teacher, is incredibly understanding and supportive of Ally but also encourages her not to spend her days’ longing for her old life and ex. She reconnects with a childhood friend, Jeremy, who is also recovering from a breakup. It is Jeremy who ‘ropes’ Ally into taking part in a half marathon partly in the hopes of getting back to her exes partly in hopes of winning them back. Ally sends many emails to her ex, and their exchanges were painful. Ally offers idealized visions of their shared history while her ex sends emails that came off as entirely unconvincing, voice wise at least. I just didn’t buy into her. Kay tries to make her seem kind of mean and logical, but, for the most part, her emails were the equivalent of an actor flatly reading some not-so-great lines (she also delivers the really clichèd line: “you were in love with an idea of me”).
The story follows the usual romcom formula, which I wouldn’t have minded (after all I am a fan of some of Kinsella’s books), but, jaysus, Ally was unbearable. Okay, her moping and being pathetic about her ex is ‘understandable’. But, I am so tired of female protagonists who are the embodiment of the Not Like Other Girls™. Other women in this book care about clothes, the way they look, their diets, but Ally hates vegetables, loves donuts, wears old knickers, is sometimes a slob, etc etc. The author’s relentless attempts at making Ally into a relatable character end up making her into yet another Not Like Other Girls™ girl. Her ex and her new gf are vegans, they fake-care about the planet, they exercise. Ally likes take-outs and brownies and vies running as torture. Ally’s attempts to force her ex to travel to Sheffield were…cringy? Creepy? The worst thing about this book is the way Ally treats Jo. Jo doesn’t have a personality other than being younger than Ally, into running, and beautiful. Ally is immediately attracted to her and their relationship might have developed into a cute romance but no, I guess we can’t have that, Ally decides to use Jo to make her ex jealous. She crosses many lines and by the end, the narrative excuses her behavior by saying “oh well, good people make mistakes”. Except that Ally is not good. Yet, the narrative casts her ex into the role of villain, painting Ally as merely ‘misguided’ as opposed to manipulative and exploitative.
If you were able to enjoy this, I’m happy for you. The above review is expressing my personal thoughts towards this book and I am afraid that these were less than favorable.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½

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Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

“My mother had not believed in friendships among women. She said women weren’t to be trusted. Keep your arm out, she said. And keep women a whole other hand away from the farthest tips of your fingernails. She told me to keep my nails long.”

Another Brooklyn is short yet vibrant novella. August, a Black woman in her thirties, looks back to her girlhood in the 1970s. The memories are presented to us as fragmented snapshots that perfectly capture the atmosphere of growing up in Brooklyn. After her mother falls ill August, alongside her brother and father, moves to Brooklyn and is drawn to a trio of girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi.

“How safe and strong they looked. How impenetrable.”

In Another Brooklyn Woodson explores the way in which a young girl struggles to understand her own grief, the feeling of belonging and community you feel among your friends, the highs and lows of growing up. Memory too plays a big role in these pages, as August remembers, sometimes with more clarity than other times, those years. This novella is lyrical, heady with nostalgia, and vividly renders a difficult yet unforgettable period of its main character’s life. The fragmented structure gives the novel a fast pace, a rhythm even, but it did sometimes prevent me from becoming fully immersed in a scene. Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi too blurred together and I could often only tell them apart by their hobbies (dance, theatre, and… modelling…?). Nevertheless, I did appreciate how once August becomes part of the group her voice is no longer singular but becomes plural (‘we did this/we were that’). It gave us an idea of how intense their bond was.

“And now the four of us were standing together for the first time. It must have felt like a beginning, an anchoring.”

While I wasn’t wholly enamored by this novella I would probably read more by Woodson.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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A Complicated Love Story Set in Space by Shaun David Hutchinson

Although I enjoyed the premise of this one, it kind of lost me halfway through. A Complicated Love Story Set in Space follows Noa, an American teenager, who one day just opens his eyes to find himself in space. On the spaceship, named Qriosity, with him are two other teens, DJ and Jenny. I thought that this would be more a mystery, possibly even a murder mystery, but the story is more intent on exploring Noa’s state of mind. Not knowing why they woke up in this empty spaceship and what will happen to them Noa, DJ, and Jenny all find different ways of occupying themselves. Noa himself understandably does not cope well with the situation. As he spirals into depression he finds comfort in the presence of DJ. Alas, DJ’s kindness and selflessness are also a source of discomfort to Noa who after a particularly bad relationship (his ex is a real piece of merda) does not trust others easily.
The action sort of picks up towards the end but prior to that there are many weird events that felt rather superficially explored. A few interesting threads (the murder, the alien) have little to no impact and a lot of the ‘action’ happens off-page.
The ‘truth’ behind the Qriosity and our characters’ circumstances left me a wee bit disappointed. While I do appreciate the author’s message it just didn’t work for me. The few answers we get are rushed and I was left wanting a more in-depth explanation. The story is, as the title suggests, a love story. The relationship between Noa and DJ, although certainly sweet, wasn’t particularlycomplex’. Perhaps this is because the characters themselves weren’t very layered. Noa is kind of typical. His angst and selfishness, however, understandable given the situation he was in and his past, were a source of frustration. While I recognize that DJ and Jenny call him out on his behavior, his actions and thoughts were still irritating. It would have been nice to have DJ’s or Jenny’s pov as they end up being very one-dimensional. Jenny is the classic female secondary character who appears in YA m/m romances. She’s strong-willed and a feminist…and that’s about it.
Still, why this novel did not hit me in ‘the feels’ like Hutchinson ‘s At the Edge of the Universe, I am sure that YA aficionados will find it more A Complicated Love Story Set in Space more rewarding than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

There is something idiosyncratic about Yoshimoto’s novels. Every time I read something of hers I feel almost comforted by how familiar it all is. Her narrators sound very much like the same person: they are young women prone to navel-gazing yet attuned to their environment (especially nature or their hometown). Moshi Moshi follows Yoshie after the death of her father, a musician and a bit of a free spirit. The way in which he died (he was involved in a suicide pact with a woman unknown to Yoshie or her mother) weighs on Yoshie. She dreams of the last night she saw him alive, imagining different outcomes that would have prevented him from leaving the house without his phone. Yoshie attempts to turn a new leaf by moving out to Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in Tokyo, with which she fell in love. Her mother insists on staying with her, and the two women soon form a routine of sorts. One day, Yoshie, who works at a restaurant, meets a young man who knew of her father. In an effort to learn more about her father and ‘that woman’ Yoshie also reconnects with her father’s best friend.

The novel, overall, has a very ‘slice of life’ feel to it. Yoshimoto captures Yoshie’s daily life, the thoughts that pass through her head as she goes about on her day, the lingering grief caused by her father’s tragic death, the desire to understand how it could have happened. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere and writing the romance aspect of this novel left a sour taste in my mouth. There are a few questionable remarks (for instance on sexual assault) that did not really fit with the narrative’s one. These kinds of comments were more suited to a dark comedy. The whole romance also gave me some incest-y vibes which I could have done without.
Not Yoshimoto’s best but a lot more enjoyable than her worst.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin

Pretend I’m Dead was 50 shades of fucked up but boy was it funny.

“When he went to order their drinks, he asked, “What’s your poison?”
“Oven cleaner,” she’d said with a straight face.
Her sense of humor sometimes made people—herself, included—uncomfortable.”

This novel is divided in four chapters, each one focusing on a particular relationship of our protagonist. In the first chapter, ‘Hole’, we are introduced to Mona, our main character, a twenty-something who works as a cleaning lady in Massachusetts and volunteers at a clean-needle exchange. Mona doesn’t have any particular aspirations and she is fine with her job. At the clean-needle exchange she meets a man she nicknames ‘Mr. Disgusting’, “on account of his looks and dirty clothes”. Mr. Disgusting is in his forties and has clearly been through the wringer. The two get involved, and things get weird and messy fast. In the following chapter, ‘Yoko and Yoko’, Mona moves to Taos where she lives in an adobe house. In spite of her reservations, she gets close to her neighbours, Nigel and Shiori, a couple that gives some strong ‘cult’ vibes. Mona understandably ends up nicknaming them Yoko and Yoko. Mona misreads the situation and things also get weird between the three of them. In ‘Henry and Zoe’ Mona becomes convinced that her newest client, Henry, a seemingly nice guy, is a less than decent person. This chapter crosses quite a few lines, and it is bound to make readers’ queasy. The last chapter, ‘Betty’, sees Mona becoming close to another client who happens to be a psychic.
Given that each chapter is more or less self-contained, these end up reading a lot like vignettes, each centring on a different period of Mona’s life. However, is only by reading all of them that we begin to understand Mona and her past. Her fraught relationship with her father is of particular importance in the overall narrative. Mona’s mind often turns to Mr. Disgusting, so that he also becomes a perpetual presence in her story. Through Mona’s ‘misadventures’ the story examines themes of loneliness, connection and belonging.

In spite of its offbeat main character Pretend I’m Dead made for a morbid, grotesque, and occasionally obscene reading experience. Yet, it was also undoubtedly one of the funniest books I have ever read. Mona’s wry sense of humor, her deadpan replies, and her mental meanderings (which lead to some freaky fantasies) were thoroughly entertaining. While none of the characters are strictly likeable, they were certainly fleshed out. With a few selected words Beagin brings her characters to life, rendering the way they look and behave with clearcut precision.
As funny and absurd as Pretend I’m Dead was, the novel touches on quite a lot of serious issues (sexual abuse, drug addiction, depression, suicidal ideation, trauma, incest). It is remarkable that Beagin manages to explore these through Mona’s lenses. Dark humor indeed!
I really liked the way the story was written, which is saying something as I usually don’t care particularly for 3rd person narrations that refer to the main character as ‘she’ (as opposed to her name, in this case Mona). Beagin has an ear for dialogue and a talent for portraying those thornier feelings and emotions.
If you are a fan of Ottessa Moshfegh, Melissa Broder, Raven Leilani, or Jean Kyoung Frazier chances are Pretend I’m Dead will be up your street. Those who aren’t keen on books that examine challenging, if not controversial, topics or cannot stand vulgar or non-PC content might want to give this book a wide breadth.

my rating: ★★★★

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Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

With the exception of the first two stories in this collection, ‘Lulu’ and ‘Hotline Girl’, I wasn’t all that taken by Land of Big Numbers. What I most appreciated is Te-Ping Chen’s ability to vividly render contemporary China. The stories in this collection will certainly give readers insight into Chinese and modern work culture, the everyday realities of young Chinese men and women, as well as shed light on class and generational divides. In the first story, ‘Lulu’, a young man who is into gaming becomes increasingly concerned over his sister’s involvement in protests and activities criticising the Chinese government. In the following story ‘Hotline Girl’ (the title reminds me of a certain song) a young woman who works at a government call centre is contacted by her abusive ex. While these first two stories felt complete and well-realised the remaining 8 easily blur together. One is about an addictive fruit, another one is about an inventor whose creations more often than not flop, we have a few exploring marriages or romantic relationships but in a way that never brought me close to the characters. I wasn’t drawn in by them or, to be perfectly honest, by the author’s writing style. We have some strained metaphors (“She felt the years deep beneath her skin, as thought Shanghai had grafted steel plates in her cheeks”, the layers of a croissant are compared to the “underbelly of a sea creature gently exhaling”). Many of the characters were flat, their conversations uninteresting, their motives unconvincing.
Still, I recognise that many other readers will find this collection to be more satisfying than I did. I guess I have almost 0 interest in stories about stock markets or people who do not care for food or dislike “Mediterranean” food (what can I say, my Italian feathers were ruffled).


ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


my rating: ★★½


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We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan


We Are All Birds of Uganda is a debut novel that inspired rather conflicting feelings in me. At first, I enjoyed Hafsa Zayyan’s ability to render her protagonist’s environment. I was not surprised to discover that Zayyan is like her protagonist Sameer a lawyer based in London. Zayyan captures the stressful atmosphere of Sameer’s office, the toll played by his long hours, the benefits of his high wage (he can afford a studio apartment in London), the ambition driving him. Things take a downturn when Sameer, who is possibly in his late twenties, begins to work under Chris. In spite of having been recognized as one of the most promising lawyers of his practice and that he will be part of the team to set up a new office in Singapore, Chris treats him like poorly. Chris takes issue with Sameer fasting on Ramadan and seems to go out of his way to bully Sameer. When Sameer’s colleague, and until then friend, also begins to make remarks about ‘tokenism’ (implying that Sameer only got the Singapore gig because he is South Asian) Sameer feels justly alienated. When someone close to him is the victim of a racially motivated attack Sammer feels all the more lost. In spite of his success as a lawyer his own family refuse to cheer him on his career, wanting him instead to work for the family business. A confused Sameer makes a spur of the moment decision and flies to Uganda, the country his own father and grandfather were forced to flee during the 1970s expulsion of Asians from Uganda. Between Sameer’s chapters are excerpts from letters written by his grandfather to his deceased first wife.

I actually enjoyed the first section of this novel, when the story is focused on Sameer and his life in London. I liked the dynamic he has with his two friends and his experiences at the office felt realistic and believable. I wish that his relationship with his immediate family (particularly his father) had been explored more. As the child of immigrants, Sameer feels not only the pressure to make his family proud but he also wants to fit in with his British peers. The clash between personal freedom and familial obligations was interesting. Alas, his story takes a downward turn when he makes the sudden and kind of out of character choice to go to Uganda. Here the story turns into one that would have been better suited to a movie. Clichè after clichè. Sameer falls in love (of course) with a woman his parents will never approve of (of course). Maybe I would have believed in their romance more if he hadn’t been so rushed. He sees her…and that’s that. The beauty of insta-love! She’s not like other women, he actually doesn’t want to jump in her pants, he loves talking with her, she’s smart, empathetic, and kind (which begs the question, why ever would she go for Sameer?). We even have a scene where she is wearing white and gets wet and he sees her nipples andio mio! Really? The thing is, as much as I loved the author’s description of Uganda (from its culture to its landscapes) her storyline lost all of its initial originality and authenticity. Sameer’s behavior towards and thoughts about women made my skin crawl. The guy is a creep. And that the narrative has to compound his feelings about this woman by making him decline the flirtations of another one..? And of course, this other girl is portrayed as promiscuous and a flirt. He thinks about fucking her but his feelings for the woman he loves are so pure that he decides not to. Wow. How noble.

The grandfather’s chapters were a wasted opportunity. They gave us information about Uganda and the 1970s expulsion of Asians but this information could have been imparted differently. Later on, Sameer comes across his grandfather’s letters and learns more about Ugandan history, so why not insert here those facts that appeared in the grandfather’s chapters? He certainly did not necessitate so many chapters! I never believed in his voice, and couldn’t really visualize him or his relationship with the other characters. His letters were there only for us to be able to learn more about Uganda, which I appreciate but as I said I think this information could have been presented to us in a different way. I understand that family sagas have to have two timelines, but here one of the timelines was limited by its format (that of a letter to a dead person). Also, the grandfather seems to recount a few months and at times years in the span of one letter…which didn’t really make sense. Does he write a letter to his dead wife every couple of years? Filling her in with all that happened since his last letter? And why would he give her information she would have already known?

The more I read the more my enthusiasm for this novel died out. I ended up hating Sameer and the predictable storyline. The relationship between parents/son and brother/sister were sadly undeveloped, sidetracked in favor of a clichèd romance.
All in all, I am quite disappointed by this one. The ending too was really grating (it reminded me of The Saint of Incipient Insanities and The Secret of the Grain) and made me want to scream: what was the point of it all?!

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

“Fear of death is a powerful weapon.”

Remote Control is Afrofuturism at its best. Nnedi Okorafor seamlessly blends folklore elements and aesthetics with sci-fi ones, delivering a unique and intriguing piece of speculative fiction. Set in Ghana, Remote Control opens in medias res: the appearance of Sankofa, a fourteen-year girl, and her companion, a fox, sends the residents of a town into hiding. They shout her name and the following: “Beware of remote control, o! The most powerful of all witchcraft!”. Sankofa chooses a house in which she is treated like a honoured, and feared, guests. The following chapters tell Sankofa’s story and of her strange, and occasionally dangerous, powers. After a terrible tragedy forces her to leave her hometown Sankofa embarks on a journey in pursuit of the peculiar object responsible for her powers. As she is unable to use cars (since her ‘change’ she become a technology ‘repellant’) Sankofa walks, encountering both friendly and hostile people, seeking shelter in nature, finding comfort in the presence of her fury companion. Throughout the years she spends on the road we see the way people view her and her powers. Some see her as a ‘witch’ and seek to harm, while others seek her help. Time and again we see the damage caused by fear and hatred of the other or that which we do not understand. There were many harrowing scenes but thankfully there were also plenty of moments emphasising empathy, connection, and love.
As much as I appreciated the setting and the mélange of sci-fi and fable, what I loved the most about Remote Control was Sankofa herself. I don’t think I have ever warmed up so quickly to a character. Perhaps it is because she is a child but to be honest I tend not to like children (real and fictional alike) but Sankofa immediately won me over. There was something so endearing and wholesome about her that my heart ached for her. I found her level-headedness to be both sweet and amusing (“Being led out of town by an angry mob wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, best to stay calm and let it be done”).
My anxiety over her wellbeing did give the novella a suspenseful edge, so that I finished it as quickly as possible. The only aspect that didn’t quite ‘work’ for me was the ending (which could have been less ambiguous). Nevertheless, I would love to read more novellas set in this world!
I would definitely Remote Control recommend to fans of speculative fiction: the writing is evocative and inventive, the main character is wonderful, and Okorafor raises interesting questions about power and fear.

my rating: ★★★½

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If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Engaging and insightful If I Had Your Face is a solid debut novel from a promising writer.
If I Had Your Face follows four young women trying to navigate everyday life in contemporary Seoul. They live in the same building but to begin with are not exactly friends. We have Ara, a mute hair stylist who is infatuated with a member of a popular Kpop boy band, Kyuri, who has undergone numerous plastic surgeries and works at a ‘room salon’ where she entertains wealthy men, Miho, an artist who studied in NY and whose boyfriend comes from an influential family, and Wonna, who lives with her husband and is pregnant.
Part of me wishes that the novel could have been structured differently, so that instead of switching between these characters their stories could have been presented as a series of interlinked novellas. This would have probably prevented their voices from blurring together, which they sometimes did. Miho and Wonna’s chapters were a lot weaker in terms of ‘distinctive’ voice. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Cha’s breezy prose. It is very readable and vividly rendered the characters’
circumstances/environments.
I liked the balance Cha maintained between drama and realism. Cha’s commentary on South Korean society is both sharp and zingy. Through the Ara, Miho, Wonna, and Kyuri’s stories Cha shows the ways in which their choices, desires, sense of selves, are shaped by gender inequity, class, and oppressive beauty standards. Their parents are either dead or unable to help them financially so they rely on their income…beauty too is a currency and we see the advantages of being seen as beautiful entails.
Another aspect that I appreciated about this novel was that its characters are not paragons of virtue. They can be selfish, oblivious, not always willing to consider the weight of their actions or words, judgemental, flippant, and cruel. I did find myself far more interested in Ara and Kyuri than Miho and Wonna. This may be because the latter two had chapters that were heavy on ‘backstories’ (as opposed to focusing on the ‘now’). Miho’s personality seemed that of the artist (always with her head in the clouds, viewing the world through artistic lenses, too occupied by her art to remember to eat or take care of herself) while Wonna’s chapters did not seem to fit with the rest. Her chapters examine her marriage and her anxiety over her pregnancy (understandably since she had several miscarriages), which would have suited another kind of book. The other characters’ chapters did not have such narrow focus. Also, I just found myself growing fonder of Ara and Kyuri. Their storylines were gripping in a way that Miho and Wonna’s weren’t. The stakes were higher in Ara and Kyuri and their eventual friendship was rather sweet.
Cha’s If I Had Your Face is certainly a vibrant read. If you want to read more about modern South Korean society or of the trails and errors, ups and downs of life as a millennial you should definitely give If I Had Your Face a try.

ps: I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the blurb for this novel. The blurb for the viking edition not only reveals too much but it is also kind of misleading (Ara’s obsession with a K-pop star “drives her to violent extremes”…? When? If this is referring to that one scene…that had very little to do with Ara’s crush on that K-pop star).


my rating: ★★★½

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