BOOK REVIEWS

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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BOOK REVIEWS

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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The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

“When I think back on that it’s always with a sense of having lost something fragile and fleeting, something I can’t quite name.”

I loved every single page of The Great Godden. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously simple and mesmerising: an unmanned narrator recounts the summer in which they fell in love.
Within this slim volume Meg Rosoff conjures up the feelings of summer, with mornings of idleness giving way to nights charged with possibilities.

“The actors assembled, the summer begins.”

During the summer holidays a family is staying in their house by the sea. Here they reconnect with the young couple—soon to be wed—who live close by. Their dynamics change with the arrival of the Godden siblings, the sons of an American actress. The narrator, alongside their gorgeous sister, falls for Kit Godden, who is as beautiful as he is charismatic. Kit’s sullen younger brother, Hugo, is largely ignored by the narrator’s family.
As the young couple’s wedding approaches, allegiances shift, and more than one person will be left heartbroken.

Although at its core this is a love story, one should not approach this novel expecting a romance. The love Rosoff depicts is deeply ambivalent. The narrator, alongside others, is blinded by their feelings.
Rosoff’s writes of a summer that is heady with change, love, and yearning. This is a deeply atmospheric read, one that captivated me from the opening page. The narrator’s voice lured me in, and I found myself absorbed by their observations about the people around them.
I just really loved reading this novel and I already want to re-read.

My rating: 5 of 5 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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Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

“Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.”

From the very first page, I was enthralled by Lucy’s deceptively simple narration. To begin with, I was struck by the clarity of her observations and the directness of her statements. As I kept reading, however, I came to realise just how enigmatic a character she was.

“Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.”

After leaving her homeland, an unnamed island in the West Indies, Lucy becomes an au pair for a white and wealthy couple in North America. Although Lucy wants to leave her past behind, her alienating new surroundings make her homesick. Lucy tries to acclimatise to the colder climate, to American’s strange customs, to her new role. As she tries to adjust to her new home, she becomes closer to her employer, Mariah. Her obliviousness, however, frustrates Lucy as Mariah seems incapable or unwilling to acknowledge her privilege or their cultural differences, seeming content to live in a bubble.
Lucy strikes a friendship with Peggy, a young woman from Ireland. While the two share a sense of otherness (“From the moment we met we had recognized in each other the same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with our surroundings, the same skin-doesn’t-fit-ness.”), Peggy is far more of a bohemian. Lucy’s relationship with Mariah begins to fray, partly because of Peggy’s influence, partly due to Lucy’s growing disillusionment towards her employers and their after all not-so-perfect marriage.
As Lucy recounts her time as an au pair, her mind often drifts towards her childhood. We know that her strained relationship with her mother had an enormous impact on her, but we are only given glimpses of their time together. As Lucy attempts to navigate her new life, we come to learn why she has become so unwilling to be truly known by others. Through what we learn of her past, and through the things she leaves unspoken, we begin to understand Lucy’s obliqueness, her remoteness, her alienation, her self-division (which she describes as a “two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true”), her attitude towards others and her sexuality.
Lucy is an unremittingly ambiguous and fascinating character-study. Kincaid’s polished prose is deeply alluring: from the evocative descriptions of the weather to Lucy’s penetrating deliberations.
I was also drawn by the parallels Kincaid makes between Lucy and Villette (which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time). Kincaid’s Lucy leaves her homeland to become an au pair, while Brontë’s Lucy leaves England to become a teacher in a small town in Belgium. Both women are ambivalent towards their past and disinclined to let others know who they are or what they ‘feel’. They both experience a sense of displacement and have to adapt to another culture. They also both become ‘involved’ with men who are called Paul (Brontë’s Paul owns a slave plantation). In many ways, Lucy functions as a reworking of Villette, as it subverts its colonial narrative (more than once Lucy’s informs us of the inadequacy of her British colonial education) and provides a more modern exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual repression.

“I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you; either way, there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.”

Throughout the course of Lucy’s tale Kincaid examines the way in which one’s family can affect an individual’s self-perception and the damage that parental favouritism has on a child’s self-worth.
Kincaid’s Lucy is an incessantly intriguing novel. I was mesmerised by her prose, by her inscrutable main character, and by the opaqueness and lucidity of her narrative.
Kincaid beautifully articulates Lucy’s feelings—her desire, contempt, guilt, despair—without ever revealing too much. Lucy retains an air of unknowability. Similarly, the mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of the novel remains shrouded in mystery.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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