“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.
“That summer when I so desperately tried to reel us all in, I didn’t understand the forces spinning us apart.”
The opening of A Crooked Tree is certainly chilling. Libby, our fifteen-year old narrator, is in the car with her siblings. When their squabbling gets too much their mother dumps twelve-year old Ellen on the side of the road. Hours pass, and to Libby’s increasing concern Ellen has yet to arrive. When Ellen finally makes an appearance, something has clearly happened to her.
Sadly, the suspenseful atmosphere that is so palpable at the start of this novel gives way to a slightly more predictable coming-of-age. The premise made me think that A Crooked Tree would be something in the realms of Winter’s Bone (we have the rural setting, the dysfunctional family, the bond between the siblings). But A Crooked Tree tells a far more conventional story: a summer of revelations (from the realisations that the adults around you have their own secrets to the having to say goodbye to the innocence of childhood). While what happened to Ellen certainly has an impact on the storyline, A Crooked Tree is not a mystery or thriller. We follow Libby as she fights and makes peace with her best friend and siblings, we learn of her less than stellar home-life, and, most of all, of her dislike of the neighbourhood’s bad boy (this last tread was pretty annoying). I did appreciate how vivid the setting was, from the references to 80s culture to Libby’s environment (she is particularly attuned to nature). I also really enjoyed the family dynamics and the unease that permeated many of the scenes. The author succeeds particularly in capturing that period of transition, from childhood to adolescence, without being sentimental.
What ultimately did not work for me was Libby herself. She’s hella bland. Love for trees aside there was little to her character. While her siblings, bff, and adults around her were fully fleshed out, Libby’s personality remains largely unexplored. Her obsession with the ‘bad boy’ was also really grating and her refusal to see him as anything but bad news didn’t ring entirely true. A lot of the observations she makes about the people around her seemed to originate from someone far more mature and insightful that she was (as in, they did not really seem to stem from the mind of a particularly naive 15-year old girl). Elle, although younger, would have made for a more convincing and interesting narrator. Libby…is painfully vanilla.
Still, Libby aside, I did find this novel to be engaging, occasionally unsettling, and exceedingly nostalgic.
ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a compelling fiction debut from a promising author. As the title suggests the stories in this collection are centred on Black women who have complex relationships to their church and to God. In a concise and stirring prose Deesha Philyaw explores the lives, desires, and fears of her characters, focusing on the friction between their beliefs—often instilled by their parents or communities—and their sense of self. Philyaw captures Black girlhood and womanhood, showing the importance of female solidarity and human connection. While not all of the stories have a contemporary setting, the topics Philyaw touches on are still relevant: race, faith, sexuality, sex, love, family, belonging. Fraught mother-daughter relationships appear in more than one story, and it is a sign of Philyaw’s writing skills that she is able to portray each woman (be it the daughter or the mother) with nuance. Philyaw, similarly to Danielle Evans, who simply excels at writing short stories, balances moments of poignancy with humour (I simply loved the grandmother in ‘Dear Sister’). The dialogues, settings, and ideas depicted in these pages are vividly rendered. My favourite where ‘Dear Sister’, ‘Peach Cobbler’, ‘Snowfall’ (this one was a heartbreaker), and ‘How To Make Love To a Physicist’ (the style in this one is really fun). The other stories, although enjoyable and well-written, just didn’t affect me as much. I appreciated them but, unlike my favourite ones, they didn’t give me the so called ‘feels’. I would definitely recommend this to fans of authors such as Danielle Evans and Zalika Reid-Benta and I am looking forward to Philyaw’s next book.
The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture. Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place. Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined. Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again. An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is a fantastic collection of short stories. Having loved Evans’ latest release, The Office of Historical Corrections, I had high hopes for this first collection and it did not disappoint. Each short story delivers, there isn’t one ‘weak’ or boring story. Although they explore similar themes and subjects they offer different perspectives and or they reach contrasting conclusions. Evans’ combines heart-rendering scenes with more light-hearted ones, and delivers her sharp commentary—such on race and girlhood—with a delightful side of humour. I truly enjoyed this collection and I hope Evans will soon be publishing something new.
“With no words, Yeyemi says, I am the strength and fire in you, I am everything that is and was and every will be. You are the stuff my stars are made of. I am you and you are me.”
An Ordinary Wonder tells a moving coming of age, one that will definitely appeal to young adults (heads up: it does contain some potentially triggering content). The novel is set mainly in the 90s in Ibadan, Nigeria. The story is divided in classic two timelines (NOW and BEFORE) and is narrated by Otolorin, focusing in particular on her younger teenage years. Oto is intersex and is forced by her family to live as a boy, even if from an early age Oto has clearly identified as a girl. Oto’s father, a wealthy business man, refuses to acknowledge her existence. Oto’s mother blames Oto for her broken marriage and treats Oto in an appalling manner. Wura is Oto’s only ‘beacon’, but even she’s uncomfortable with the idea that Oto could identify as female. The BEFORE sections give us a glimpse into Oto’s life before moving to ISS (International Secondary School) and it is far from pleasant. Oto’s mother abuses her, emotionally and physically, and forces her to undergo ‘cleansings’ and ‘treatments’ at the Seraphic Temple of Holy Fire. Oto spends her childhood believing that she is abnormal and abhorrent, and is to be blamed for her mother’s unhappiness. While Oto tries to live as a boy, she is not always willing to hide her true self (trying out her sister’s clothes etc.). In the NOW sections we follow Oto, who is now 14, at the ISS. Here she once again tries to blend in with the boys but the appearance of an old bully threatens Oto’s newfound peace (away from her mother). She becomes fast friends with her roommate, Derin, who is ‘half-oyinbo’ (his mother is white). Not only does Oto excel at school but she is also able to learns more about what it means to be intersex.
I’m not sure whether the dual timeline added a lot to Oto’s overall story. I think that her childhood could have been summed up in just a few chapters here and there, rather than prolonging those BEFORE sections. The story too veers into the clichéd, especially the way the ‘bully’ storyline unfolds. I would have much preferred for that storyline to be a side-story instead of taking up most of the overall plot. The bully in question, Bayo, was beyond one dimensional. There is an attempt at giving him the usual ‘but he comes from a possibly abusive family’ sad backstory but this seems a bit like a cop out to excuse his most egregious behaviour. I also wish that Oto’s friendship with Derin had not been so immediate. The two become BFF overnight. Other students, especially some of the girls, are not fleshed out at all and serve as mere plot devices (like someone’s GF…ahem). Wura too was a somewhat disappointing character. Her bond with Oto didn’t convince me all that much. My biggest problem is that the first 70% of this novel is basically misery-porn in which we read scene after scene of Oto being bullied, emotionally and physically abused, sexually harassed, demonised, and ostracised. It wasn’t great. Oto is a sweet and somewhat naive narrator and to read of her being endlessly maltreated was kind of exhausting (I understand that a few scenes of this nature were needed in order to understand her circumstances and experiences but should those scenes make up 70% of the novel? I think not). Thankfully the last 30% sees Oto finally receiving some validation. There is an unavoidable misunderstanding between Oto and the person she loves which I could have done without but for the most part this final section delivers. Oto’s relationship with Mr. Dickson, her art teacher who is originally from Ghana, was truly moving. Their moments together were powerful and heart-rendering. Buki Papillon’s prose for the most part rendered Oto’s young perspective but there were a few phrases that were very, shall we say, ‘debut-like’, such as the overused “I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding”…surely there is another way to convey Oto’s anxiety or tension? I also thought that the “little/tiny/small” voice inside of Oto was unnecessary. This voice always voices her true feelings or fears…and it got kind of old. Why just not directly write what Oto fear or wants without resorting to that ‘little voice’? Still, there were elements of Papillon’s writing that I really liked. Her descriptions for example were extremely be vivid, at times quietly beautiful, at times vibrant and full of life (someone is as still as an “Esie statue”, “jealousy pierces my heart, stinging like a vexed scorpion”, words “sting like pepper”, Oto observing her mother during her father’s rare visits “it was like watching plucked efo leaves left out in the sun. She’d wilt slowly till he left”). Another aspect of this novel that really worked was Yeyemi, an entity that brings comfort and strength to Oto (often appearing in dream sequences). Oto’s book of proverbs also added a nice touch to her story as the proverbs she thinks of are quite apt. This novel deals extensively with Oto’s exploration of her identity, the bullying and abuse she experiences along the way, and, at long last, her self-acceptance. Overall, I would probably recommend this to fans of coming of age stories or to those who enjoy the work of authors such as Akwaeke Emezi and, to a certain extent, Won-pyung Sohn.
The Office of Historical Corrections is a striking collection of short stories, easily the best one to be published this year. Unlike many other collections—which tend to have a few forgettable or ‘weaker’ stories—The Office of Historical Corrections has only hits. There isn’t one story that bored me or wasn’t as good as the rest. This is truly a standout collection. If you happen to be a fan of authors such as Curtis Sittenfeld, Edwidge Danticat, and Brit Bennett you should definitely give The Office of Historical Corrections a shot.
This collection contains 6 short stories and 1 novella. Although each one of these has its own distinctive narrative, they do examine similar themes but they do so through different, and at times opposing, perspectives. With nuance and precision Evans navigates the realities of contemporary America, focusing in particular on the experiences of black people in a country that considers white to be the ‘norm’. There are so many things to love about this collection. Evans’ prose is superb. Her writing is incisive, evocative, and perfectly renders her characters and the diverse situations they are in without ever being overly descriptive or purply. While short stories and novellas are usually plot-driven, Evans’ narratives spouse a razor-sharp commentary—on race, modern culture, class—with compelling character-studies.
The scenarios and issues Evans explores are certainly topical. In ‘Boys Go to Jupiter’ a white college student, Claire, is labelled racist after her sort-of-boyfriend posts a photo of her wearing a Confederate bikini. Rather than apologising or even acknowledging what this flag truly symbolises Claire decides to make matters worse for herself by ridiculing a black student’s outrage at her bikini and by claiming that the flag is part of her heritage. As this controversy unfolds we learn of her childhood, of how she became close with two siblings who were for a time neighbours of hers, of her mother’s illness and eventual death, and of the part she played in her friend’s death. This story is very much about denial, culpability, and grief. It also brought to mind ‘White Women LOL’ by Sittenfeld and Rebecca Makkai’s ‘Painted Ocean, Painted Ship’. The titular novella instead follows two black women who have never been on easy terms. This is partly due to their different economic backgrounds and partly due to their different temperaments. Having lost touch after college they both end up working at the Institute for Public History where they are tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies/mistakes. Often their corrections raise awareness about America’s colonial and racist past in order to challenge white historical narratives. Given all discussions about decolonising the curriculum and about historical statues and monuments this novella definitely touches on some relevant topics. The revisions made by the Institute for Public History are often not well met and they are targeted by white ‘preservationists’. As our narrator unearths the true story behind a black shopkeeper’s death back in 1937 she unwillingly joins ‘forces’ with Genevieve, her longtime not-quite-friend. The two women have very different approaches and their search for the truth behind this man’s death soon sparks the anger of the white ‘preservationists’. All of these stories are worth a read. My personal favourites where ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’, ‘Alcatraz’, ‘Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want’ (which had some serious Kevin Wilson vibes), and ‘Anything Could Disappear’ (this almost had me in tears).
There are so many things to love about this collection: Evans’ focus on women and the thorny relationships they can have with one another, the wry humour that underlines these stories, Evans’ ability to capture diverse and nuanced emotions. The list goes on.
Evans’ stories are thought-provoking and populated by memorable and fully fleshed out characters. Although she exerts an admirable control over her language, her writing is arresting. Evans does not waste words and she truly packs a punch in this ‘infamous’ medium (short stories are often seen in terms of their limitations) . Throughout this collection Evans’ touches themes of injustice, forgiveness, history (a character’s personal history as well as a nation’s history), freedom and identity, grief, loss, fear, failed relationships and human connection. This is a fantastic collection and you should definitely give it a try.
“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”
As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read. At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective. Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances. Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits. Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear. What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man. The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter. Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.
Well…that was disappointing. Given the hype around this collection and the comparisons to Shirley Jackson, I was prepared to read some truly unsettling tales. However, as with a lot of other contemporary authors of horror, Mariana Enríquez relies on body horror, gore, and animal violence to instil feelings of unease in her readers…and while her stories are certainly macabre, I wouldn’t call them gothic. The horror too was too splatter for me. Writing about bodily fluids, decomposing or mutilated bodies, doesn’t necessarily make your story scary. While reading these rather samey stories I merely felt a knee-jerk repulsion. Most stories are narrated by morbid and unsatisfied young women who are experience, or have experienced, something truly horrific: they loose childhood friends to haunted houses, they start seeing disturbing things such as chained “deformed” children, or they loose themselves in violent fantasies. They had more or less the same grunge-esque personality and or were aspiring to become part of their country’s counter-culture. I found their voices to be monotonous and, given all their attempts at subversiveness, surprisingly banal.
What frustrated me the most was the fact that not one of the story had a decent ending. I’m all for open endings, and I think that short stories suit ambiguous endings…but here the stories never reached their apex. Each story would have these ominous first few lines, foreshadowing the horrors to come…but then the stories seemed to cut off just when things start to get vaguely intriguing or disturbing.
Lastly, a lot of the stories relied on the appearance of “deformed” children or adults in order to unnerve its main characters…are we in the 1980s? Call me snowflake or whatever but I found the author’s obsession with deformed bodies to be rather outdated.
“My father wasn’t a wound or even a scar, not a black hole or a dry desert. He just wasn’t. Not for me anyway. Mom was my sun and my moon. I was her all, too, and that was us.”
In Crooked Hallelujah Kelli Jo Ford presents her readers with a nonlinear exploration of the lives of four generations of Cherokee women. Each chapter can be read as a self-contained story, focusing on a particular phase of a character’s life (childhood, teenage years, early adulthood, etc). The first chapter gives us a flavour of these women’s lives: in 1974 Justine lives with her mother, Lula, and her grandmother, Granny, in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Both Lula and Granny are ardent members of the Holiness Church. Justine, like the rest of her relatives, has to abide her church’s strict rules: she has to lead a pious life, dress modestly, conduct herself in a godly manner, say no to the sins of the flesh…the list goes on. Whereas Lula and Granny are passionate about their community, Justine finds herself growing restless. As teased by the novel’s summary, an ‘act of violence’ sets on her own journey, one that sees becoming entangled with layabouts, abusers, and alcoholics. Her daughter, Reney, finds herself following in her mother’s steps, ending up with men who are good-for-nothing. Some of the chapters focus on characters who don’t seem all that connected to the lives of Justine and Reney, and Granny, easily the most likeable character of the lot, doesn’t get enough page-time. The nonlinearity of these stories was detrimental to my reading experience. Justine and Reney’s personalities blurred together, as they both seemed defined by the men they are with. Granny, on the other hand, had some discernible character traits that made into a far more rounded character. Lula remains an undeveloped character, someone who appears know and again as a woman who has been indoctrinated and blinded by her religious (in the first chapter alone she demonstrated some initiative). Justine has some sisters but they might as well not be there as are barely mentioned. The majority of the men were either despicable or incompetent. Then we have this odd chapter which focuses on a Forrest Gump sort of figure that felt really out-of-place (what did he have to do with Justine and Reney’s stories?). I can’t say that I found Crooked Hallelujah to be a particularly memorable read. Rocky structure aside the characters and their storylines did not really leave a mark. We have snapshots from Justine and Reney lives, and these often emphasise how rootless they feel, or their questionable taste in men. I wish I’d gotten a stronger impression of the bond between Justine and Reney, or Reney and Granny (Reney tells us that Granny was her soulmate but the two shared very few moments together). Still, I liked the author’s dialogues as she manages to convey different argots and dynamics. Her prose was for the most part okay, but, as I said above, her storyline seemed unfocused and repetitive and her characters were pretty thinly rendered. I can sort of see why so many other reviewers gave this one 3 stars. It isn’t necessarily bad but it just never seemed to reach its full potential. Zalika Reid-Benta in Frying Plantain not only implements a similar narrative structure but explores similar themes and dynamics (between mother/daughter, mother/grandmother, grandchild/grandmother) in a much more impactful and meaningful way, so I would probably recommend you pick that one up instead.