BOOK REVIEWS

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“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.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

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Almond by Won-pyung Sohn

Written in a simple and crisp prose Almond is a slim novel that is primarily concerned with empathy and human connection. Yunjae, the narrator of this story, was born with underdeveloped amygdalae, which are two-almond shaped nuclei that process our emotional responses (prior this book I had no idea of what they were…). Because of this condition, alexithymia, he cannot recognise and or is unaware of feeling emotions (be it anger happiness or fear). Knowing that this will make him ‘odd’ in the eyes of society, and will inevitably make him the target of other people’s cruelty, Yunjae’s mother, alongside his grandmother, try to ‘coach’ him, so that he can at least feign certain emotions. Yunjae obliges, as he’s unbothered by his own lack of emotional responses, as he cares, in his own way, for his family. Once he’s sixteen Yunjae’s existence is irrevocably changed by two tragic events. Without his relatives Yunjae retreats in himself.
The arrival of Gon at his school complicates Yunjae’s life. Gon, who feels everything strongly, seems intent on punishing Yunjae, but Yunjae is seemingly unperturbed by Gon’s escalating bullying. After a series of not so friendly encounters outside of school, they find themselves growing accustomed to each other’s presence. When a girl catches the attention of Yunjae he finds himself wanting to ‘feel’.

While I overall enjoyed this novel, I did think that the first section was a bit too heavy on exposition. The violent incidents that leave Yunjae alone were kind of over-the-top, as was the finale. The girl, who appears very late in the story, felt like an unwelcome addition to the story as it suggested that ‘love’ is some magical cure. Still, I did like that seeing the ways in which Gon and Yunjae try to better each other.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters

“Secretly, he wants to be the hero. He wants to be the difference-maker. All his life, he’s wanted to be the person rescuing someone or something. But who rescues the rescuer?”

The Summer of Everything tells a very wholesome story, part coming of age, part romance, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Our protagonist, Wesley Hudson, has just graduated from high school and is eager to make the most of his summer. While his parents are abroad, he has plenty of freedom and time to figure out what he wants to major in at UCLA. Wes hopes that during the summer he will just enjoy his time working able at Once Upon a Page, an indie bookstore that means the world to him, and maybe finally confessing his feelings to his best-friend, Nico.
When he discovers that a coffeeshop franchise is intent on buying out Once Upon a Page, Wes is crushed. When his attempts to come clean to Nico also don’t go as hoped and his older and ‘golden’ brother begins checking up on him, Wes feels understandably stressed.
Alongside the other Once Upon a Page employees Wes hatches a plan to save the store, and the experience brings all of them closer together. When the end of summer approaches however Wes feels the threat of ‘adulthood’ all the more strongly.
This book is a truly enjoyable read. Wes’ geekiness make him into a likeable protagonists, while his insecurities about his future make him all the more relatable. The mega-crush he harbours towards Nico will have him pining, a lot. Thankfully he has plenty of friends to keep his mind occupied, and while romance doesn’t play a part in his story, character growth and platonic relationship are at the fore of his narrative. Wes contends with family pressure, wanting to succeed or to choose the ‘right’ path, as well as with his misgivings towards his older brother, whom he sees as an impeccable adult.
The friends in this novel are wonderful. Their banter is entertaining, especially when they are working together and talking about music, and their conversations are guaranteed to make you smile.They are also incredibly supportive of one another. While Wes is the focus of the novel, his friends are also given their own storylines, which made them all the more dimensional.
I loved the self-awareness of this novel, the way Wes would often compare his life to a Netflix movie (usually in a ‘I wish’ sort of way), and while the structure of his story is very reminiscent of those movies, the narrative didn’t feel clichéd (perhaps because it was so meta). I also really appreciated the comic book references (I was a former comic aficionado) and to YA books & authors (even Holly Black gets a mention!). Winters treats his characters anxieties and fears without condescension and without minimising their feelings. And this book is so wonderfully diverse: we have a gay mc, bisexual, lesbian, ace, and non-binary side characters. Winters also has scenes in which Wes discusses race and privilege with his colleague, Zay (Wes is biracial and ‘passes’).
I wish we’d gotten more scenes between Wes & Nico and Wes & his brother but that is a very minor ‘criticism’. What I could have done without was the quasi-love-triangle, but hey, it didn’t really interfere with my overall reading experience (which was very positive).
Overall, this one was a sweet read. The romance was cute and so were the friendships, there is humor, there is some drama, and an overaching theme of self-acceptance and self-discovery.
If you are a fan of Kacen Callender, Lev A.C. Rosen, or YA books like You Should See Me in a Crown, you should definitely consider picking this one up.

MY RATING: 3 ¾ stars

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The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg took me by surprise. While I did enjoy reading two of Konigsberg’s previous novels, Openly Straight and The Music of What Happens, they certainly didn’t affect me as The Bridge. This is the kind of novel I wish had been around when I was sixteen and contemplating suicide.
While there are quite a few novels that expand on ‘what if’ scenarios, Konigsberg’s diverging timelines are far from gimmicky. The first scene in The Bridge, regardless of its different outcome, plays a pivotal role in each section of the novel. Within the first pages of this novel we are transported to George Washington Bridge where two teens, Aaron and Tillie, strangers to each other, are planning to jump. In the first section, titled ‘A’, Tillie jumps, while a traumatised Aaron returns to his home, unable to forget what happened. As we become acquainted with Aaron, reading of his relationship to his extremely supportive father, and of the anxiety and depression that made him go on the bridge, we also read of the repercussions that Tillie’s suicide has on her adoptive parents and younger sister, as well as the guilt felt by those who in their own way contributed to her decision to end her life.
In ‘B’ it is Aaron who jumps and Tillie who survives. Aaron’s suicide destroys his father, leaving him bereft, while Tillie confronts the people who have hurt her the most—a former best friend, her ex-boyfriend, and her emotionally distant father. In ‘C’ they both die, and Konigsberg doesn’t repeat himself, offering his readers instead with just how everlasting is the grief and guilt experienced by the relatives and loved ones of suicide victims. He goes as far as envisioning the people Aaron and Tillie would have met, loved and helped, had they stayed alive.
‘C’, which for obvious reasons was my favourite, depicts a world in which they don’t jump, forming an unlikely bond, and finding comfort in each other’s despair.
I can’t stress enough how well-written and structured this novel is. However heartbreaking the various narratives were, I loved reading them. Konigsberg injects plenty of humour in his novel, alleviating somber scenes without making light of any of the subjects he writes of. Trough his portrayal of mental health Konigsberg demonstrates extreme empathy and sensitivity, never offering one-sided arguments or easy definitions. Both his adult and his teen characters are given their own distinctive voices, and regardless of what they say or do, they aren’t demonised or easily labelled as ‘bad’. Some of the parents in this novel are terrible. They are extremely unsupportive or blind to the pain their actions or words cause to their children. Our protagonists too are more than capable of making mistakes and or of jumping to conclusions.
Konigsberg is particularly perceptive when it comes to the effect that offhanded remarks can have on vulnerable young people. He doesn’t offer magical cures for Aaron and Tillie’s depression, and in the narratives where they do not jump, their lives aren’t depression or suicidal-thought free.
Konigsberg dialogues and his characters felt strikingly real. While each narrative navigates painful realities, The Bridge doesn’t succumb to the dark thoughts or difficult circumstances of its characters. Aaron’s relationship with his father and the bond between him and Tillie truly made the novel.
Unlike the other books I’ve read by this author The Bridge is a novel that will stay with me (as clichéd as that may sound) and I can’t wait to re-read this. If you are looking for a piercing and emotional YA contemporary read, look no further.

My rating: 4 ½ stars of 5 stars
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Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

“She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything, and no matter where or at whom she looked, she saw her own reflecting glimmering back like a skim of oil. She could be anyone, still.”

Milk Blood Heat is a promising debut, one that I’m sure will be well-received by readers who enjoy lyrical proses. While I personally found Moniz’s style to be occasionally a bit too flowery and/or impressionistic (“she’s Frankenstein’s monster. She is vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams” / “my mouth a black cave, ugly and squared” / “I want to swallow my mouth—to fold in my lips and chew until they burst” / “my body felt made of stars”), I was nevertheless absorbed by her rather mesmerising storytelling.
Like most collections of short stories, some aren’t as memorable or well-executed as others, but even in the stories that I didn’t find particularly affecting there were moments or scenes that stood out (in a good way).

Most of these stories seem to possess an ambiguous quality, offering little resolution or at times clarity on the characters’ feelings and/or futures. With the exception of two stories, most seem to be centred on either a young girl or woman whose lives are about to change or are in the process of changing. In the first one, ‘Milk Blood Heat’, follows a young girl, Ava, who spends her days playing with her white best friend, Kiera and begins to question their differences: This year she’s become obsessed with dualities, at looking at one thing in two ways. Although Ava’s mother disapproves of Kiera and her wild ways, the two girls are inseparable, or they are until tragedy strikes.
The second story, ‘Feast’, a woman is the deep thralls of depressions after having a miscarriage. She begins to resent her partner, as he seems not as affected by their loss. Moniz renders the uneasiness and sadness that have become backdrop to the woman’s every thought and action, revealing how deeply her miscarriage has altered her state of being. Her grief, the disturbing visions she has, her numbness are hauntingly conveyed through Moniz’s sharp yet poetic language (which in this instance worked perfectly with the kind of story she was telling).
Most of the other stories explore similar themes (grief, identity, motherhood, friendship) without ever seeming repetitive. Two stories seem centred on a girl’s passage from youth to adulthood, one that forces them reconsider their worldview and notions of good and bad (especially in terms of their sexuality), and each one gives us a different take on ‘growing up’.
My favourite stories were probably ‘The Heart of Our Enemies’ (which focuses on a fraught mother-daughter relationship) and ‘Snow (in which a young woman is having second thoughts about her marriage). The two I liked the least were ‘The Loss of Heaven’ and ‘Exotics’ (which was short and employed a first-person plural perspective, ‘we’, that came across as an exercise for a creative writing class).
Even if Moniz’s prose was a bit too sticky and snappy at times (a la ‘girls are daggers/my eyes are full of stars’), I still was able to appreciate the majority of her stories and I look forward to what she will write next.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars

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Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay is an okay YA coming of age, one that focuses on Darius’ relationship with himself (which isn’t great given his poor self-esteem), with his father, and with his first real friend.


Readers expecting this novel to have LGBT+ themes or a romance subplot read may have to readjust their expectations as Darius’ grandmothers (on his father side) are barely mentioned and there is no romance whatsoever. Which is itself kind of refreshing, given how many YA books end up neglecting familial and platonic relationships in favour of romantic ones.
The writing is simple and readable, at times it struck me as a bit too juvenile but I’m fairly sure that younger teens will find Adib Khorram’s style to be entertaining. I did find Darius’ narration to be a bit repetitive. He has these catchphrases that he repeats throughout the novel (“Soulless Minions of Orthdoxy” appears x, “That’s normal./Right?” appears x, and calling his dad “Stephen Kellner/the Übermensch”) and I could have done with fewer of them (especially as I didn’t find them particularly funny).
The first few chapter of this book give us an idea of who Darius is and how he’s treated by his peers. He has depression, he’s kind of awkward, he has no close friends, he isn’t particularly good at anything, and his only passions seem to be tea, Star Trek, and Tolkien. His bully is the embodiment of bully in that being a jerk is his only character trait, which is fine, as seeing him in action makes Darius into a more sympathetic character. In this first section, which is set in America, we learn of how Darius doesn’t feel American or Persian ‘enough’. He believes that his father is disappointed and ashamed by him, and he wishes he could speak Farsi in order to talk on skype to Mamou and Babou (his mother’s parents). While his sister learnt Farsi at a young age, he never did (why he didn’t try later in life…we don’t know).
Because of Babou’s deteriorating health (he has a terminal brain tumour), Darius, alongside his family, travel to Iran. Here Darius meets Sohrab, and the two seem to immediately hit it off (which wasn’t entirely convincing but whatever). Darius interactions with Babou aren’t great and remind him of how he feels with his dad (who he refers to as Stephen Kellner 80% of the time…which was so annoying and childish. I call my father by his first name but I don’t go for the whole ‘name and surname’). The plot unfolds in a predictable way. Darius learns more about Iran and Persian customs, he seemed surprised to learn that it isn’t as ‘antiquated’ as he was led to believe living in the West, yet there were far to few scenes about Darius+family taking day trips to nearby areas or exploring Yazd.
We get instead a lot of scenes featuring Darius and his dad being awkward together, or a few scenes in which Darius and Sohrab play “soccer/non-American football” (he keeps calling it that even once we established that he is indeed playing “soccer/non-American football”).
As previously mentioned, I wasn’t enamoured by Khorram’s prose. His dialogues were painfully simple (and gave the idea that the characters don’t have a lot of interesting things to say) and his word-choice for certain descriptions left me wanting (Darius voice ‘squeaks’ one too many times for my liking, couldn’t it tremble? Falter? Or something else?).
There is a predictable and avoidable disagreement in the novel’s final act, one that is thankfully resolved quite swiftly.
While this was an okay read, I wonder why Khorram went out of his way to include scenes in which Darius feels embarrassed or humiliated. There were at least two instances when Darius could have avoided feeling embarrassed by simply not disclosing certain details but he does (when his bike wheels are stolen the bully left some rubber balls on his bike, Darius calls his dad asking him to pick him up and instead of just saying that someone stole his wheels, he tells him about the balls—all the while he is mortified by having to say the word ‘balls’ to his father, when he could have just thrown the balls away—which he actually does only after his phone call to his dad him. At the airport someone thinks that his pimple is a bindi, and Darius could have just said ‘it isn’t’ but no, he tells this security person that it’s just a gigantic pimple).
While I didn’t find Darius or his story to be very poignant or realistic, this may be because I’m not exactly this book’s intended audience.

My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars
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Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Given that this book was described as being in the vein of Isabel AllendeI, I had quite high exceptions. While I did find the opening chapter to be intriguing, to compare Fruit of the Drunken Tree to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez seems both lazy (a comparison that has less to do with substantial similarities—such as style or genre—that with geographical location….I’m not sure why publishers are still comparing any new authors from Latin America to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and inadequate. Sadly, I never warmed to Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ writing style nor her characters. While I understand that the author based the story on her personal experiences, I found her storyline to be more intent on creating emotional drama than sense. Worse still, I could not get past the novel’s subtly racist undertones

“War always seemed distant from Bogotà, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like a fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us.”

First, I’ll start with a few positives. Ingrid Rojas Contreras renders the internecine climate of 1990s. The author details the realities of Colombia during Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror by conveying the day-to-day dread, fear, and violence that prevailed in this period. I appreciated the factual aspects of this novel, such as when Contreras’ recount Escobar’s latest actions by having characters listen to the radio or watch tv. The atmosphere of political uncertainty has a visible influence on the characters—regardless of their age/class. I liked reading about the games Chula and her older sister played (the bond between Chula and Cassandra was the most believable relationship in the whole novel).

Now, for the not so positives. The writing was weighed down by laboured similes (in which red fishes are “gelatinous mice” and headlights seem “traced out of nothingness by the invisible hand of God”). Ineffectual descriptions added little to the narrative, seeming more confusing that evocative (a particularly bad one is: “They looked different, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Other than to say they were thinner, and they no longer looked like children. It reminded me of how Petrona didn’t look her age, but older. Like they were scratched behind their faces.”). Chula and Petrona’s had a too similar way of narrating things, which cast a doubt on their supposed differences in age/class.
Chula’s perspective is incredibly one-dimensional. Chula is looking back to this period of her life. She’s now older and in America. Yet, ‘present’ Chula offers no special insights into what happened in Bogotà. She more or less sticks to the perspective she had of things as a child. She doesn’t understand and is mystified by what’s going on around her. There is 0 foreshadowing, which again felt like a missed opportunity. It would have added much needed suspense and provided a break from child-Chula’s limited pov. I wasn’t expecting a Kazuo Ishiguro level of conversation between past and present but Chula’s perpetual incomprehension grated on me. And Contreras could have done something more similar to what Wayétu Moore does in her memoir (the first section she recounts the Liberian Civil War as she experienced it—that is as a child—while the following ones focus on her as an adult looking back on those same events).
Perpetua’s chapters were brief and intentionally vague. Her feelings towards Gorrión and her employers are never clearly depicted. A lot of what she does or say seemed out of the blue, and ultimately made her into an unconvincingly inconsistent character. Her story also seems to carry a moralistic tone that I didn’t particularly care for (her mother warned her not to frequent that “bestia, animal, atrevido, desgraciado” who is “black like dirt”).
The mothers in this novel are portrayed like the classic ‘hysterical’ mothers, prone to screaming outbursts and fits of violence. 90% of the time Chula’s mother is portrayed as being horrible, irrational, and/or insensitive. Then she has these very out-of-character in which she seems to have had a completely switch of personality. While I know from personal experience that there are parents who can be very erratic (the joys of bipolarity) Chula’s mother was often presented as being some sort of wicked witch (the whole thing with the drunken tree). Her instability existed only to make readers pity Chula (who otherwise would have been too ‘privileged’).
Now….Gorrión. He is the only explicitly black character and he’s a monster with no redeeming qualities. Every scene he’s in is made to feel the reader uneasy. His eyes ‘bore’ into this and that, he uses his body to intimidate women and children, he’s an abusive rapist with no scrupulous. He’s just bad, through and through. Often, he’s described as the ‘black guy’ or the young man with ‘afroed hair’. Other are suspicious of his blackness, and the narrative seems to agree with their racial judgment. He’s the true ‘villain’ of the novel while Escobar remains a background figure. Gorrión doesn’t have a real personality as he only seems to have morally reprehensible character traits. The way the author describes his eyes and nose also worked to give this impression of Gorrión being less-than-human. Which…how about not (before I’m accused of being overly sensitive, there are at least three other reviews on GR who—regardless of whether they ultimately liked or disliked this novel—criticised the author’s portrayal of Gorrión.
The novel’s examination of class divide seemed simplistic and relied on tired stereotypes.
The drawn-out plot is slowed down by the author’s repetitive language. Some of the characters seem to change in the last few chapters, but this change seemed more for effect than anything else.

Overall, I did not like this novel. It was quite moralistic (especially towards Perpetua’s sex life) and the ‘friendship’ between Chula and Perpetua was poorly developed. The author seemed only to have scratched the surface of the reason why Chula was so obsessed with Perpetua. The characters—in particular the adults and Perpetua—acted incongruently throughout the novel, often only to add unneeded drama or angst.
I doubt I will ever feel inclined to read more by this author.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Vida by Patricia Engel

“I lay in the darkness, the song of Bogotá humming several stories below the window.”

Patricia Engel’s Vida is a collection of nine short stories centred around the Sabina, daughter of Colombian parents, who grows up in the suburbs of New Jersey. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story, capturing a particular phase or moment in Sabina’s life. Although they are not chronological, they are ordered in a fairly linear way. In the first story, ‘Lucho’, Sabina is a teenager. After her uncle is convicted of murder Sabina becomes persona non grata. As the only non-white kid in her neighbourhood Sabina is already made to feel isolated from others. Lucho, a boy slightly older than she is, strikes up a friendship with her. He has a bit of ‘bad boy’ reputation, he cares little for rules, doesn’t wash much, wears tatty clothes. His home life is less than peachy, and perhaps this is why they feel drawn to each other. ‘Lucho’ was my favourite story (a 5 star read). Engel’s understated prose perfectly conveys Sabina’s teenage languor, her sense of otherness, and her attraction to Lucho.
The other stories were far less striking. Two of them seem writing exercises (one is narrated in the 2nd person, while in other one Sabina refers to her current lover as ‘you’) as they seemed to emphasise style over substance. Most of the stories follow Sabina as she moves from city to city, from lover to lover. All these boyfriends and sexual partners blurred together, their personalities somewhat insipid. I wish that this collection would have focused more on Sabina’s family. Sadly, the only two stories that seem to feature her parents are the first and last ones in the collection.
Still, with the exception of those ‘you’ chapters, I really liked Engel’s style and her wry humour. It is simultaneously muted and touching. And even in the more forgettable stories there were moments that spoke to me (it may be something Sabina is thinking about or a conversation she’s having with someone else). Engel also manages to incorporate quite a few topics throughout the course of her stories. Rather than providing hurried assessments or observations, she tends to centre an entire chapter to a certain event/theme: from eating disorders and domestic abuse to 9/11. While not overly sentimental, she showcases empathy in the way she treats her characters and their behaviours/experiences.
If you enjoyed Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta, chances are you will also like this.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“No one had ever taught me how to love. And perhaps, in that department, I was uneducable.”

Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is heartbreakingly beautiful collection of short stories. These stories have Benjamin Alire Sáenz written all over them: Mexican-American boys and men struggling with their identity (not feeling Mexican or American enough), their sexuality, their self-worth, and who have complex relationships with their parents. There is a focus on the dynamic between fathers—of father-like figures—and sons, on family history, on trauma, on feeling lost and disconnected.
I read a review criticising this collection because the stories aren’t varied enough, and I guess that they are narrated by boys and men in similar positions. They are conflicted, hurting, and confused. They have parents who are troubled (by depression, addiction, trauma). Most of the narrators also like thinking of the meaning of words and doing creative things. Yet, in spite of these similarities, these stories never blurred together. But if you do prefer collections that offer a wide-range of different styles and themes, maybe Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won’t appeal to you. I just happen to be the ‘right’ kind of reader for these stories. Sáenz’s subtle yet striking prose always gets to me. I love Sáenz’s empathy, the tenderness he shows to his characters, the thoughtfulness he demonstrates in discussing trauma, addiction, and abuse. I also liked the Kentucky Club would pop up in each story as did discussions concerning Juárez.
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is a moving collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Sáenz.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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