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The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert

The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a wholesome and thoughtful YA coming-of-age. Within the first chapter I was invested in Dove and her story. There was something so tender about her sensible yet sensitive narration that made me immediately care for her.
The Revolution of Birdie Randolph follows sixteen-year-old Dove, also knows as Birdie, who is devoted to her studies, used to obey her parents’ strict rules…that is until she starts seeing Booker. Knowing that her parents would disapprove of Booker’s ‘troubled’ past, Birdie decides to keep their relationship secret.
When Carlene, Birdie’s estranged aunt, moves ‘temporarily’ in with Birdie and her parents after her latest stint in rehab…things get complicated. In spite of Carlene’s fraught relationship with Birdie’s mother, Birdie finds herself really connecting to her aunt. Unlike her parents, Carlene is open-minded and easy to talk to. As Birdie starts to really fall for Booker she begins to test her parents’ rules, landing herself in a bit of trouble
There were some very genuine discussions about addiction, sex, coming out, and sexuality. The kids in this book are under all sorts of pressure: to succeed, to live up to their parents expectations, to prove themselves to a society that is quick to write them off. We are shown the positive and negative effects that this ‘pressure’ has: when Birdie sole focus becomes her studies, she has no time to switch off, to experience normal teen life (socialising with friends, doing something for fun, going to parties).
The dialogue is engaging, the story has a great sense of place, and the characters are believably nuanced. While there is a revelation later in the narrative that might strike readers as slightly predictable, Birdie’s reaction to this ‘knowledge’ is what counts.
I really enjoyed reading this. It is a quick, but by no means superficial, read. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a sweet and affecting novel that I would thoroughly recommend to lovers of contemporary YA.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars

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The Fell of Dark by Caleb Roehrig

…and I thought that vampires were passé.
The Fell of Dark is a fun take that on vampires and ‘the chosen one’ trope. Usually, I’m a nitpicking reader but with The Fell of Dark I was happy to suspend my disbelief.
Is this novel perfect? Definitely not. Is it entertaining? Hell yes!
Our narrator and protagonist, sixteen-year-old August Pfeiffer, lives in Fulton Heights, Illinois. This small town happens to be a nexus for mystical and supernatural energies which is why it attracts so many vampires. August, the only ‘out’ gay boy in his school, isn’t particularly fond of his hometown (mostly due to its vampire populace). In spite of the vampires prowling his town at night, his biggest concern is algebra…until he receives a cryptic and ominous message from a distractingly cute-looking vampire (who happens to have an English accent). Things became increasingly bizarre as August finds himself at the centre of a feud between different vampire sects, an order of mortal knights, and a coven.
This is a very plot-driven book and August can’t seem to catch a break. For ‘reasons’ however he’s the chosen ones, and the whole world depends on him.
August’s narration is the strongest aspect of this book. He’s a rather awkward and perpetually horny teen who also happens to be an incredibly funny narrator (laugh-out-loud kind of fun).
This novel’s plotline is kind of basic but Caleb Roehrig makes it work. There is a certain self-awareness that makes up for the derivativeness of some of the storyline’s components (for example, the fact that no one seems to be telling August the truth because almost a running gag).
Those expecting this to be a love story of sorts will probably be disappointed as this novel has more of a lust/attraction-subplot than a romantic one.
With the exception of August, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional (also, it seemed that every single character was connected with one of these cult-ish groups). Still, the role they come to play in August’s story did hold my attention.
The world in this novel isn’t all that detailed. A few characters occasionally give some exposition about vampires and their history, but that’s about it.
This is an absorbing book. It has a lot of silly moments but I never found these to be ridiculous or unfunny. If you are a fan of Buffy or Carry On you will probably enjoy it as much as I did.

ps: I spent my day off work listening to the audiobook edition (which lasted about 12 hours) which…yeah. That was a new record for me. But once I started listening to it I couldn’t stop (Michael Crouch is an amazing narrator).

My rating: 3 ¾ stars

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Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

“I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up.”

Frying Plantain presents its readers with a vibrant coming-of-age. Through the course of twelve chapters Zalika Reid-Benta captures a girl’s transition from childhood to adolescence into young adulthood. But this is far from a conventional Bildungsroman as within each chapter Reid-Benta hones in on a particular moment of her protagonist’s life, playing with perspective and style.
Kara Davis, a second-generation Canadian, feels divided between her Canadian nationality and her Jamaican heritage. Kara lives in Toronto with her hardworking single mother. Everyone Kara knows seems to find fault with her: her relatives, her mother in particular, scold her for her “impertinence”, while her peers often tease her for being too “soft” or a goody two shoes.
In most chapters Kara learns a lesson of sorts. In the opening chapter Kara, who has just returned from a trip to Jamaica, begins to tell a rather tall tale about a pig head to impress her classmates and her neighbourhood’s children (who aren’t as gullible as the white kids). As her story becomes increasingly fantastical, she lands herself in a spot of trouble. In the following chapter, which takes place a few years later, Kara becomes the victim of a cruel prank by her ‘friends’. Another chapter revolves around a somewhat tense Christmas dinner at her grandparents house.
While the chapters can be read as a series self-contained narratives, read as a whole Frying Plantain provides its reader with a detailed and nuanced story of growing up. The fraught mother-daughter bond between Kara and her mother is present at each stage of Kara’s life. This pressure to succeed, to excel, drives Kara and her mother apart. Kara’s mother too has a troubled relationship with her mother. While the tension between these women often results in disagreements and fights, Reid-Benta conveys the love and affection that underlines their ‘difficult’ relationships (mothers wanting their daughters to achieve what they themselves couldn’t).
Reid-Benta vividly renders family tensions, the gap between generations, the self-divide created by Kara’s Canadian nationality and her Black identity. The realism of Reid-Benta dialogues was utterly captivating. During the first chapters I was struck by Reid-Benta’s ability to so accurately portray a child’s mind.
The last few chapters did loose me somewhat as I was more interested in Kara’s early experiences.
Nevertheless this is a great debut novel and I look forward to reading whatever Reid-Benta will write next.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars

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Memorial by Bryan Washington

“It’s like we’re in some fucked-up rom-com, I said. It’s like we’re both fucked-up rom-com villains.”

Maybe it’s my fault for ‘hyping’ myself too much but I found Memorial to be a wee bit disappointing. First of all, the lack of quotations marks. So many authors are using this technique that it now seems passé. And what does this stylistic choice accomplish? If we really wanted to write as ‘realistically’ as possible we wouldn’t bother with punctation marks or with noting ‘he/she said’.

Set in Houston, Memorial follows a Benson and Mike who live together and are sort of dating. Mike, who is Japanese American, works as a chef at Mexican restaurant, while Benson, who is black, is a dare care teacher. The everyday challenges of cohabitation and their different attitudes towards monogamy, money, and work, result in a rather rocky relationship. Arguments give away to tense silences, and the two begins to question whether being together still make sense.
When Mike announces that he will be leaving America to reconnect with his dying father—who owns a bar in Tokyo—Benson isn’t happy. Worst still, Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, who has just flown to Houston, will be staying with Benson in their apartment.
Both Benson and Mike’s narratives are interspersed with short snippets from their past. We gain a sort of impression of their family life, as well as reading of their previous sexual partners and of the early days in their relationship.
During this time apart Benson grows close to another man, and reconnects with his own father, an alcoholic who isn’t too enthused by his son’s sexual orientation. Mitsuko begins to teach him how to cook, and while the two don’t get on particularly well, they get used to each other.
Mike instead struggles to get along with his father. He begins to work alongside him in his bar, and while he doesn’t seem particularly keen on the job or the clientele, he sort of adjusts to his new environment.
I didn’t particularly care for Benson nor Mike. They share the same kind of nondescript personality (they are the type of people who shrug a lot). Their voices were almost interchangeable, which didn’t really benefit their characterisation. The sex scenes were either predictably awkward, perfunctory, or frantic. I guess Washington wanted to depict realistic sex, but he almost goes overboard, so that his sex scenes verge on the ridiculous (I mean: “grunting like otters against a dingy, dented stall”). To be fair, however, there was once instance that made me chuckle: “We fucked. It sucked.”
The dialogue was okay, sort of mumblecore-esque. The secondary characters felt kind of flat. They both have separated parents, with ‘broken/brusque’ fathers and ‘sardonic/direct’ mothers. Mike’s whole section with his father felt very schmalzy (not that I don’t care for dying-father/son stories in which the two reconnect, I loved Medicine Walk).
Sadly, I found this underwhelming. This is the kind of novel that tries too hard to be a ‘real’ and ‘unfiltered’ story about modern love…but I don’t know. The characters spend a lot of the time watching dots on their screen, which, yeah, it’s kind of relatable but it soon gets repetitive. The story does incorporate discussions about race, class, and sexuality, but I can’t say that these issues were explored with any particular depth.
Just because Washington style didn’t work for me doesn’t mean that I thought that Memorial was a bad novel. If you enjoyed Exciting Times you might actually find this to be a highly satisfying read.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Bright Lands by John Fram

At first, I was intrigued by The Bright Lands: a small town in Texas, missing teen(s), possible evil entities…I kind of expected it to be a modern take on Twin Peaks by way of Stephen King. Sadly, however, The Bright Lands never delivers on its intriguing premise. The writing leaves a lot to be desired, the dialogues are at best clumsy and at worst embarrassingly clichéd, the characterisation is sparse and tends to rely on tired stereotypes, the storyline is unfocused and unnecessarily convoluted, and the supernatural elements felt out of place.
The novel doesn’t really have a protagonist. We jump from character to character, without gaining any insight into who they are, most of whom are indistinguishable from each other. We are first introduced to Joel Whitley, who is in late twenties and lives a nice apartment in New York. He gets a series of texts from his younger brother, Dylan, who happens to be the star of his football team, if not their small town’s golden boy. Worried for him, Joel returns to his hometown of Bentley. Joel is understandably not keen to return to his homophobic community, especially after what happened before he left.
When Dylan disappears Joel reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark who still hasn’t forgiven him for ‘misleading’ her. Dylan’s teammates and his girlfriend are clearly hiding something, and there are rumours about a place called ‘the bright lands’.
Many of the town’s inhabitants begin to have nightmares hinting at some sort of Big Evil.
Joel never felt like an actual person. We know he’s gay and that his brother is missing. Other than that? Not much. His life in New York for example is only vaguely alluded to (only in those instances in which Joel notes that he now has plenty money) and his relationship with his mother is non-existent (for the matter she only has a cameo here and there…weird given that it is her son who is missing). He mostly reacts to things for plot reasons, but he really has 0 interiority.
The football team and cheerleaders are one-dimensional. They speak in clichés and their motivations are lazily unconvincing.
The adult men in this town are a similar shade of rugged bigot, the women and the girls instead are ‘badasses’.
What I’m getting at is that the characters were utterly ridiculous. Which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I was supposed to take them seriously.
John Fram tries to incorporate in his story topical themes such homophobia (which reigns supreme in Bentley), racism, police incompetence and corruption…but the way he addresses these is questionable. Suggesting that all homophobes are actually closeted gay or bi-curious men…is yeah, not great. The novel’s portrayal and treatment of queer men leaves a lot to be desired.
There is a lot of not telling, not enough showing. Chapters end in predictable cliffhangers, usually with a character learning or seeing something important, and it takes sometimes a few chapters before we return to that character and we get to read what all the fuss was about.
The latter half of the novel is utterly ludicrous. I can sort of see what Fram wanted to do…but I can’t say that he manages to pull it off. For one, I just didn’t buy into it. Second, the whole supernatural subplot was laughable…and this novel was meant to be a ‘horror’? Mmh..
The Bright Lands lacks emotional weight. The characters seem really unfeeling, or perhaps they just don’t register that they are feelings things such as anger or grief. They merely go from A to B.
This was a bland novel….and I’m not sure I will approach Fram’s future work.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas — book reviews

7190.jpgWhile I understand historical context and I am quite able to appreciate classics without wanting them to reflect ‘modern’ sensibilities, I have 0 patience for books that glorify rapists.

SPOILERS BELOW

I don’t mind reading books about terrible people. I read Nabokov’s infamous Lolita and Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I enjoy books by Agatha Christie and Shirley Jackson, which are often populated by entirely by horrible people. Unlike those authors, however, Alexandre Dumas goes to great lengths in order to establish that his musketeers are the ‘good guys’. Their only flaw is that of being too daring. The omniscient narrator is rooting hard for these guys and most of what they say or do is cast in a favourable light and we are repeatedly reminded of their many positive or admirable character traits. If this book had been narrated by D’Artagnan himself, I could have sort of ‘accepted’ that he wouldn’t think badly of himself or his actions…as things stand, it isn’t. Not only does the omniscient narrator condone and heroicizes his behaviour, but the storyline too reinforces this view of D’Artagnan as honourable hero.

Our not so chivalrous heroes
What soon became apparent (to me) was that the narrator was totally off-the-mark when it came to describing what kind of qualities the musketeers demonstrate in their various adventures. For instance, early on in the narrative we are informed that D’Artagnan “was a very prudent youth”. Prudent? This is the same guy who picks a fight with every person who gives him a ‘bad’ look? And no, he doesn’t back down, even when he knows that his opponent is more experienced than he is.
D’Artagnan is not only a hothead but a dickhead. The guy is aggressive, impetuous, rude to his elders and superiors, and cares nothing for his country. Yet, he’s described as being devout to his King, a true gentleman, a good friend, a great fighter, basically an all-rounder!
I was willing to give D’Artagnan the benefit of the doubt. The story begins with him picking up fights left and right, for the flimsiest reasons. The perceived insults that drive him to ‘duel’ brought to mind
Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, so I was temporarily amused. When I saw that his attitude did not change, he started to get on my nerves. Especially when the narrative kept insisting that he was a ‘prudent’ and ‘smart’ young man.
D’Artagnan’s been in Paris for 5 minutes and he already struts around like the place as if he owned the streets. He hires a servant and soon decides “to thrash Planchet provisionally; which he did with the conscientiousness that D’Artagnan carried into everything. After having well beaten him, he forbade him to leave his service without his permission”. Soon after D’Artagnan is approached by his landlord who asks his help in finding his wife, Constance Bonacieux, who has been kidnapped…and D’Artagnan ends up falling in love at first sight with Constance (way to help your landlord!).
While Constance never gives any clear indication that she might reciprocate his feelings or attraction, as she is embroiled in some subterfuge and has little time for love, D’Artagnan speaks of her as his ‘mistress’. Even when he becomes aware that Constance may be up to no good, as she repeatedly lies to him about her whereabouts and motives, D’Artagnan decides to help her because he has the hots for her. Our ‘loyal’ hero goes behind his King’s back and helps Constance, who is the Queen’s seamstress and confidante, hide the Queen’s liaison with the Duke of Buckingham. Let me recap: D’Artagnan, our hero, who hates the Cardinal and his guards because they are rivals to the King and his musketeers, decides to help the Queen deceive their King and in doing so ends up helping an English Duke. Do I detect a hint of treachery? And make no mistake. D’Artagnan doesn’t help the Queen because he’s worried that knowledge of her disloyalty might ‘hurt’ the King’s feelings nor is he doing this because of compassion for the Queen. He decides to betray his country because he’s lusting after a woman he’s met once or twice. Like, wtf man?
Anyway, he recruits his new friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, to help him him out. Their plan involves travelling to England so the Duke can give to D’Artagnan the Queen’s necklace (given to him as a token of her affection). Along the way the musketeers are intercepted by the Cardinal’s minions (the Cardinal wants to expose the Queen’s affair) and Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are either wounded or incapacitated. D’Artagnan completes his mission, he returns to Paris, caring little for his friends’ whereabouts, and becomes once again obsessed by Constance. The Queen shows her gratitude by giving him a flashy ring.
Constance is kidnapped (again) and D’Artagnan remembers that his friends are MIA. He buys them some horses (what a great friend, right?) and rounds them up. He then forgets all about Constance and falls in love with Milady de Winter. He knows that Milady is in cahoots with the Cardinal but he’s willing to ignore this. In order to learn Milady’s secrets, D’Artagnan recruits her maid who—for reasons unknown to me—is in love with him. Our hero forces himself on the maid, and manipulates her into helping him trick Milady. He pretends to be Milady’s lover and visits her room at night, breaking the maid’s heart and putting her life at risk. He later on convinces Milady that her lover has renounced her and visits her once more at night and rapes Milady. D’Artagnan knows that Milady is in love with another man, but idiotically believes that forcing himself on her will have magically changed her feelings. When he reveals that her lover never called things off with her, and it was him who visited her room a few nights prior, well…she obviously goes ballistic. And D’Artagnan, who until that moment was happy to forget that she is a ‘demon’ and ‘evil’, discovers her secret identity.
D’Artagnan remembers that he’s in love with Constance who is then killed off by Milady, just in case we needed to remember that Milady is diabolical…more stuff happens, D’Artagnan wants to save the Duke’s live, just because it is the Cardinal who wants him dead. D’Artagnan, alongside his bros, plays judge, jury, and executioner and corners and condemns to death Milady.
In spite of our hero’s stupidity (he goes to dubious meeting points, ignores other people’s warnings, wears his new ring in front of the Cardinal) he wins. Hurray! Except…that he isn’t a fucking hero. This guy is a menace. He abuses women, emotionally and physically, manipulates them into sleeping with him, forces himself on them, or makes them agree to do his bidding. Women are disposable for D’Artagnan. He uses them and throws them to the side.
But, you might say, the story is set in the 17th century. Things were different then. Women weren’t people. Okay, sure. So let’s have a look at the way in which our young D’Artagnan treats other men. He beats and verbally abuses his servant, he goes behind the King’s back and commits treason, he forgets all about his friends unless he needs help in getting ‘his’ women.
The other musketeers are just as bad. Athos is a psychopath. At the age of 25 he forces himself on a 16-year-old girl, and then marries her because “he was an honorable man”. He later discovers that she has a fleur-de-lis branded on her shoulder, meaning that she was a criminal. Rather than having a conversation with her, asking what her crime was, he decides to hang her himself. Because he’s the master of the land. Athos also treats men rather poorly as he forbids his servant from speaking (not kidding, his servant isn’t allowed to talk). Porthos gaslights an older married woman, forcing her to give him money otherwise he will start seeing other women. Aramis also speaks poorly of women (but at least he isn’t a rapist, so I guess we have a golden boy after all).
The so-called friendship between the musketeers was one of the novel’s most disappointing aspects. These dicks don’t give two shits about each other. D’Artagnan forgets all about his friends, and when he then decides to gift them horses as a ‘sorry I left you for dead’ present, Aramis, Athos, and Porthos end up gambling them or selling them away. What unites them is their idiocy, their arrogance, and their misogyny.

Our diabolical femme fatale and the dignified male villain
Milady is a demon. She’s diabolical. She’s evil. Both the narrative and the various characters corroborate this view of Milady. Much is made of her beauty and her ability to entice men. Sadly, we have very few sections from her perspective, and in those instances she’s made to appear rather pathetic.
Our Cardinal on the other hand appears in a much more forgiving light. He’s the ‘mastermind’, the ‘brains’, and he’s a man, so he gets away with plotting against our heroes.

This book made me mad. I hate it, I hate that people view D’Artagnan & co as ‘heroes’, that the musketeers have become this emblem of friendship, and I absolutely hate the way women are portrayed (victims or vixens). I don’t care if this is considered a classic. Fuck this book.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall — book review

Boyfriend Material reads less like fiction than fanfiction. No one acts their age, we have50225678.jpg an exceedingly angsty protagonist, a plethora of silly side characters who express themselves using a Tumblresque sort of lingo, unlikely interactions, and a lot tropes.
The novel’s sitcom-like structure was predictable and often unfunny. Luc O’Donnell’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had very one-dimensional roles: we have the straight friend who is always having a crisis at work (one more ludicrous than the other), the lesbian friend who is short and angry, the gay couple that share the same first and last name (and are both referred as James Royce-Royce) and have opposing personalities, a few ridiculously posh characters (who had no clue of anything related to contemporary culture or social norms), the fanciful French mother (who is very much the British idea of a French person), the estranged rock star father…
Luc was so self-centred and monotonous that I soon grew tired of him. He has a few genuinely funny lines (when he’s told not to give up he replies: “But I like giving up. It’s my single biggest talent”) but these are far too few in-between. The narrative tries to make us sympathise with him because he’s been sold-out by his ex-boyfriend and because his dad had 0 interest in acting like a father…and yeah, those things aren’t great but they don’t make his self-pitying narcissism any less annoying. Most of the conversations he has with other people, Oliver in particular, revolve around what he has experienced, what he feels, wants, and fears. I just wish he hadn’t been so focused on himself as it made him rather unlikable.
The other characters are really unbelievable and behave unconvincingly. They did not act or speak like actual human beings.
The running gags were just unfunny: most characters treat Oliver’s vegetarianism as if it was an obscure dietary lifestyle they could never wrap their heads around, Luc’s posh colleagues doesn’t understand his jokes, while Welsh characters accuse Luc of being racist against Welsh people (this annoyed me because they kept throwing around the word ‘racism’ when it had nothing to with racism. Luc not knowing about Welsh history or culture is not racism).
The romance never grabbed me as Oliver was such a stilted character as to be difficult to believe in. Luc often acted like a child with Oliver which made their romance a bit…cringe-y.
Sadly, this novel just didn’t work for me. It felt superficial, silly, and juvenile.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — book review

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir by Wayétu Moore

81gq3RikG+L.jpgThe Dragons, the Giant, the Women is a deeply heartfelt and lyrical memoir. Wayétu Moore’s luminous prose conveys the horrors of the First Liberian Civil War through the uncomprehending eyes of a child. At the age five Moore ‘s existence is irrevocably altered. Her family is forced to flee their home in Monrovia. Her father tries to shield his daughters from the violence and death they encounter on the road to ‘safety’ (for example he tells them that the sound they keep hearing—gunfire—is made by drums, or that the dead people on the ground are ‘sleeping’).
While Moore doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed caused by this civil war, she renders these events as she experienced them, when she was not fully aware of what was truly happening. She weaves a fairy-tale of sorts, with dragons (those who played a prominent role in the civil war), a giant (her father, her protector), and the women (her mother, a young rebel girl) whose acts of bravery ensured the safety of Moore and her sisters. I was moved by the way in which Moore’s family stayed united as their world crumbled.
After Moore’s mother (who had been studying in New York and therefore was cut off from her husband and children after the war broke out) finds a rebel soldier who could smuggle them across the border to Sierra Leone, the Moore family move to America.
In recounting her childhood Moore details the way in which she was made fully aware of her status of ‘outsider’ in America. Racism, colourism, a sense of disconnect towards a culture that treats you as other, all of these things make Moore feel like she doesn’t belong. What she witnessed as a child too, haunts her. In search for answers she flies back to Liberia. The narrative shifts then to her mother’s perspective and Moore perfectly captures a mother’s voice.
The Dragons, the Giant, the Women details Moore’s painful and unresolved past. Yet, however sobering her story is, readers are bound to be dazzled by the lore that shapes her tale.
Moore navigates the aftermath of Liberia’s civil war, her family’s migration to the U.S., her own relationship towards Liberia and her sense of displacement. This is a beautifully written and powerful story, one that recounts a family’s arduous journey to safety, the separation and losses they experience, and the love and courage that brings them back together.
LitHub has recently published an interview with Wayétu Moore in which she discusses this memoir: Wayétu Moore on What It Means to Tell “Our Story”.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Earthlings by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The person who had given birth to me said I was a dead loss, so I decided it really must be true.”

A few days before reading Earthlings I read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and I really loved its humour and eccentric narrator. So, perhaps I approached Earthlings with the wrong expectations. Or maybe I was fooled by its cute cover (I mean, just look at that hedgehog!). Fact is, Earthlings is an altogether different beast to Murata’s previous novel. I can say, without the shadow of a doubt, that Earthlings is the most bizarre novel (and I’ve read a fair amount of books).
If you thought Convenience Store Woman was weird, well, be prepared as Earthlings is on an altogether different level of weird. Narrated by Natsuki, a young girl who is made to feel like an outsider within her own family and is regularly subjected to verbal and physical abuse from her mother and her sensitive older sister. Natsuki seems resilient enough though and finds reassurance in the belief that Piyyut, a plush toy hedgehog, is an alien from the planet Popinpobopia. Natsuki is eager to help Piyyut on his quest, and reveals only his true identity to her cousin Yuu who in turn tells her that he’s an extraterrestrial. Both of them live in difficult households and are made to feel like burdens. Their bond strengthens, so much so that they begin to call each other ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’, keeping their relationship a secret from the rest of the family. Sadly, the two are only able to meet up in the summer during their visits to their grandparents (who have a house in the mountains of Nagano).

“With my eyes closed, drifting in space, it felt as though the spaceship from Planet Popinpobopia really was close by. I was immersed in my love for Yuu and my magical powers. As long as I was here in this space, I was safe and nobody could destroy our happiness.”

Natsuki’s school life takes a turn for the worst when an ‘attractive’ young teacher begins to make sexual advances which will escalate to abuse. These horrific encounters will plague Natsuki into adulthood, as she will find it impossible to form an intimate relationship with another man. Her memories of Nagano and Yuu do lighten her days. However, to keep her family at bay, she forces herself to obey the norms of society and marries…but her married life is far from conventional.
There are many explicit scenes in this books. Some of them were simply vile, and frankly gratuitous, while others were so outlandish as to be funny (in a fucked up sort of way). This novel has quite a few scenes that made me drop my kindle and wonder, out loud, “WTF did I just read?”. Here are some examples (readers’ discretion is advised): (view spoiler)

What started as a dark coming of age soon morphed into a nightmarish and feverish horror show.
The book delves into disturbing subjects in a surreal and occasionally abrupt sort of way. The horrible things that keep happening to Natsuki and her alienation (towards her family, society, reality) are mediated by her unnervingly enthusiastic tone. She’s perfunctory when noting what her parents and sister feels towards her and criticism of society’s fixation on reproduction have a spring to them:

“Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory.”

Similarly to Convenience Store Woman the narrative of Earthlings interrogates existing notions of normalcy as well as questioning what being a ‘useful member of society’ entails. While Convenience Store Woman was far from subtle, it allowed more room for interpretation, Earthlings, on the other hand, is far more obvious. Natsuki, and two other central characters, use the ‘Factory’ metaphor in most of their discussions concerning their society and lives. It was a bit on the nose for me.
The ending was baffling and made me wonder what the point of this novel was. Certain scenes were so ludicrous as to be amusing and Natsuki’s narration certainly held my attention but even so I wonder whether those really graphic scenes served a purpose other than ‘to shock’ the readers (I don’t think so). Murata’s treatment of emotional and sexual abuse is also rather questionable.
My advice is this: be weary of Earthlings.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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