BOOK REVIEWS

The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

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


my rating:
★★★★☆

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Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

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


ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


my rating: ★★½


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We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan


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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Touring the Land of the Dead by Maki Kashimada

disclaimer: in the below review I am expressing my own entirely subjective opinion. I do not wish to invalidate anyone’s feelings or thoughts about this book. If you loved it or liked it, huzzah!
If you are thinking of reading this I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.

Touring the Land of the Dead comprises two short stories. The first one follows Natsuko who is travelling with her husband, who after an unspecified neurological disease requires walking aids (he sometimes walks with a cane or uses a wheelchair). The way the narrative treats Taichi’s disability is somewhat…questionable? Then again, I also recognise that many countries treat those with visible disabilities as ‘undesirable’ or ‘pitiable’ (I myself come from a country that isn’t exactly disability-friendly). Anyhow, Natsuko is going to this spa with Taichi, hoping for…rest? I don’t know. It wasn’t very clear. All the while we get pages and pages of flashbacks which give us unnecessary glimpses into Natsuko’s relationship with her horrid mother and dick of a brother. Natsuko is a kind of Cinderella who is ill-treated by her awful and greedy family. They treat her poorly, throw abuse at her, use her as a monetary source, and even behave abhorrently towards Taichi, who is shown to be kind and respectful towards them. I would have much preferred for these flashbacks to be focused on Natsuko and Taichi, as opposed her unpleasant relatives. The prose was uninspiring and occasionally clunky. At times dialogues had quotation marks, at times they were in italics (and no, it wasn’t as if one indicated a conversation occurred in the past and the other in the ‘now’). I’m afraid I found this to be boring, unconvincing, and utterly forgettable.
The second story, ‘Ninety-Nine Kisses’, was a mess. I have no idea what it was trying to achieve but…bleargh. The narrative seemed to equate incest-y thoughts with quirkiness…which did little other than alienate me.
Overall, I had a hard time immersing myself into these stories. Usually while I read I am ‘pulled’ into a story, but here…nothing happened. I read some words. That’s that.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★

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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

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.

my rating: ★★★ ½

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Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread explores the complex relationship two sisters who were once close but have become estranged as adults. Their mother, Kambirinachi, believes that she is an Ogbanje, a malevolent spirit who haunts mothers by ‘coming’ and ‘going’ (usually the child dies in childhood). After being born and dying a few times Kambirinachi decides to remain in the ‘earthly’ realm and goes on to become a wife and mother to twin girls, Kehinde and Taiye. After a horrific event drives the twins apart they embark on separate journeys. Years later, Taiye has moved back Lagos and now lives with Kambirinachi. When Kehinde and her husband come to visit them, the twins are forced to confront the reasons why they grew apart.

“Our relationship has always struggled against our twinness.”

Through alternating chapters Francesca Ekwuyasi recounts Kambirinachi, Kehinde, and Taiye’s lives, from their childhoods until the present. The snapshots into Kehinde and Taiye’s youth and early adulthood are vividly rendered as they capture the places and people around them. Regardless of where the story was set—England, France, Canada, Nigeria—the setting was more than just a backdrop. Ekwuyasi conveys the Kehinde and Taiye’s loneliness as well as the cultural clash they experience once they move to other countries. The relationships and conversations they have with their friends, colleagues, peers, and lovers always rung true to life. Throughout the course of the novel Ekwuyasi touches on numerous interesting and topical topics, on art, intersectionality, sexuality, feminism, racism, and identity. The twins have been shaped by trauma they experienced as children, trauma they both try to overcome in not always successful ways. They are also grieving for one another. Their severed bond has clearly left a mark on them, so that even when they begin into their new lives loneliness weighs them down.
I just loved how realistic this story was. Ekwuyasi’s characters are authentic and fleshed out, their motivations and personalities are nuanced, the relationship between the twins is rendered with poignancy and empathy. By recounting the time they spent apart Ekwuyasi provides each sister with solid pasts, that is, real histories. With lucidity and insight Ekwuyasi writes of platonic and romantic love—queer love especially—of motherhood, of different forms of faith, of growing up, of trying to acclimatise to a new culture, of reconciliation, and of guilt.
As the title itself suggests, food is key in this novel. There are many scenes that feature characters cooking and eating. At times a certain dish or ingredient leads to a certain memory. These semingly quotidian scenes were really enjoyable to read and often they revealed more of a character or a certain relationship. Plus, Ekwuyasi serves us with some mouth-watering descriptions (my advice: do not read this novel on an empty stomach!).

Kambirinachi’s chapters perhaps didn’t always feel very cohesive. Whereas the twins’ chapters are grounded in realism, Kambirinachi’s ones foray into the magical realism. While we do learn in her chapters why Kambirinachi wasn’t a very present mother I think that this came across already in the twins’ chapters. Her perspective didn’t add a lot to the overall narrative, and perhaps, I would have loved this novel even more if it had remained focused on the twins and not Kambirinachi. Nevertheless, I did appreciate Ekwuyasi prose in her chapters. It had a rhythmic quality that resulted in some great storytelling.

“Something you must know is that Kambirinachi and Death were no strangers—no, but certainly not friends, either.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a touching debut by a clearly talented writer. If you enjoy authors such as Maame Blue and Zaina Arafat, you should definitely pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Travelers by Regina Porter

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.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

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.

my rating: ★★★★½

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The New Me by Halle Butler

The New Me is a book that has been on my periphery since it first came out. The cover, title, and summary were relatively intriguing as they gave me some very strong Ottessa Moshfegh/The Bell Jar vibes. Still, it wasn’t anywhere close the top of my TBR until I saw that Halle Butler is going to introduce a new edition of The Yellow Paper.

The New Me shares much in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Pizza Girl, Luster, Severance (and many others): we a rather nondescript main character, thirty-year-old Millie, who is leading an unfulfilling and rather meandering existence. She is a temp worker who doesn’t really know what she wants to do or what she likes. Her latest assignment finds her working as a receptionist. The job is boring and Millie spends most of her shifts screening calls. Her mostly female colleagues are depicted as gossipy and self-centred. Karen, her sort of superior, hates Millie and decides that she wants her out. Millie’s first person narration is often interrupted with short snippets following Karen, other female colleagues, and at one point her downstairs neighbours. These segments detract from Millie’s narration as they don’t really add a lot to her story. They simply portrayed people being or acting in horrible way all the while believing they are right or good.
I did find Millie’s dark, and occasionally caustic, humour to be fairly entertaining. Yet, while Butler succeeds in satirising the modern work place and female friendships, her novel did feel a bit basic. It doesn’t take much to poke fun at women like Karen or Millie’s other colleagues. And part of me wishes that there had been some variations in the female dynamics (all female friendships in this book are the same: one of them whinges about life/work/whatever being unfair, the other one listens while internally whinging about having to put with her ‘friend’s’ whinging).
At the end of the day I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to a lot of readers (this type of story has been already been told…and dare I say better?). Still, it definitely had its moments now and again and I do think that Butler is a writer to watch out for.
Hilary Leichter’s Temporary is not only a far more entertaining novel (in my personal opinion) but it manages to capture the gig economy in a way that The New Me doesn’t.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Three years after I purchased my copy of The Stone Sky I finally got round to reading it. I’m not sure why it took me so long but I thought it best to re-read the first two instalments before approaching its final chapter. As I loved re-reading The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate I was ready to fall just as hard for The Stone Sky…but I didn’t.
The thing is, the pacing and direction of the story closely resemble those of The Obelisk Gate which I probably wouldn’t have minded if Nassun had actually developed as a character. Essun has very few chapters compared to the first two volumes and I missed her. I would have loved to read more of her and Tonkee or her and Ykka but their scenes make up very little of the overall narrative. While Jemisin tries to give Schaffa a sort of redemption arc I could not bring myself to like or sympathise with him. Nassun got on my nerves, especially when it comes to how obstinate she becomes towards the end. While she seems capable of caring for murderous men her resentment towards her mother struck me as unfair and childish (especially if we consider some of what her mother has gone through). While I was interested in Hoa’s chapters, especially since they give us a lot of information regarding the Stillness prior the seasons. I am not sure whether I always understood what was going in his chapter, especially given the nature of his narrative voice.
As finales go The Stone Sky suffers from anticlimax. The pace is slow, the characters don’t develop all that much, and the storyline needed more cathartic scenes. Still, Jemisin sure can write, and her style always manages to capture my attention (even when her story doesn’t).
While I am not sure whether I would re-read the whole trilogy I still consider The Fifth Season to be one of the best fantasy/spec fiction novels of all time and I will probably never tire of re-reading it.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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