BOOK REVIEWS

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“That was the thing about people on the outside. They thought it cheered him up to see their faces, but it just reminded him too much of freedom when everybody knew it was better to adjust to the kind of freedom available on the inside.”

Heartbreaking yet luminous A Kind of Freedom is a truly impressive debut. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s prose struck me as assured and lucid. Sexton entwines three narratives, each following a different generation of the same family. In 1944 we follow Evelyn who lives in New Orleans with her family. Her pale skin and her father’s profession give her certain privilege in the city’s black community so when she falls in love with Renard, a boy who aspires to be a doctor but is looked down upon for being working class, Evelyn is forced to contend between responsibility—towards her parents—and freedom—to love who she wants. WWII and segregation pose a further threat to the couple.
In 1986 we follow their daughter, Jackie, as she tries to juggle single motherhood with work and house chores. Her husband, Terry, disappeared from her life after he became addicted to crack. After months without a word from him, he reappears, claiming that he’s clean and is actively trying to keep it that away. Knowing that to let Terry back into her life will not only earn the disapproval of her loved ones but might eventually result in more hurt, Jackie is torn between hope and fear.
We then have chapters set in 2010. T.C., Jackie’s son, has just been released from a four-month stint in prison. His girlfriend is pregnant and in spite of him being less than faithful he now wants to make things right with her. However, he immediately falls back into bad habits when he reconnects with his friend Tiger. Here we see the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, specifically on T.C.’s community.
Regardless of the period Sexton is depicting, the setting and time are rendered in vivid detail. She evokes the atmosphere of the places she writes of as well as the changing vernacular. Sexton also emphasises the way in which racial inequality has morphed over the decades and the way this in turn affects and shapes Evelyn and her descendants. In her portrayals of addiction and poverty Sexton writes with empathy and insight, conveying the despair, fatigue, and anguish of those who like Jackie love someone who is abusing dangerous substances. Much of Jackie’s story hit close to home so I found her chapters to be painful reading material. There are moments of beauty and communion, made even more poignant by how rare they are. Although Sexton reveals the eventual outcome of Evelyn and Jackie’s narratives in T.C.’s chapters, when we returned to them I still found myself engrossed in their stories, hoping against hope that things would not unfold the way I know they will.
Sexton captures three generations of an African-American family who is trying to navigate a less than civil landscape. The characters have to contend with a society that is rife with injustices (racial disparity, classism, colorism, sexism, environmental disasters, drug epidemics, crime) and their attempts balance familial or societal duties with their personal desires. As the title itself suggests, the narratives are very much about freedom. Each character is trying their hardest to be free.
A Kind of Freedom filled me with sorrow. Sexton has written a heartbreaking debut novel, one that gripped me not for its plot but for its beautifully complex character studies.

my rating: ★★★★☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

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: ★★★★☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

I was intrigued by this novella’s premise—The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a Vietnamese inspired setting—by its cover and of course by the promise of sapphic love story. Sadly, I can’t say that Fireheart Tiger was a particularly good read.
As per usual, if you are thinking of reading this I recommend you read some more positive reviews as my one is not a particularly enthusiastic one.

Fireheart Tiger would have probably worked a lot better if it had been told in a larger format as under its thinly rendered characters and world lies a potentially interesting story. Sadly, this is not a fully fledged novel. The first few pages deliver some exposition: our main character is Thanh a princess who was sent off to Ephteria as a political pawn (ie hostage). Now she’s back to her mother’s court (a place which is hardly described) where she chafes against her mother’s rule. Thanh’s self-pitying is interjected by various memories, mainly, one of a fire, and another one of a kiss she shared with the blue-eyed Eldris (her blue eyes are her major character trait) who is from Ephteria. With 0 preamble she finds herself reigniting her relationship with Eldris…it isn’t clear why as Eldris is as ‘magnetic’ as a slice of stale bread. Thanh too is the classic supposedly quiet and smart yet totally hapless heroine who really grinds me nerves. She claims to care for her country but spends the majority of her time passively thinking about Eldris and of how her mother is evil and uncaring. Thanh’s mother, however one-dimensional, made for a much more compelling character.
There is also another girl who after one brief meeting Thanh begins to call ‘little sister’ (or something along those lines) even saying that she misses her when this girl isn’t around (after one day?).
Eldris is clearly bad news, she is creepy but fails to be a truly manipulative or charismatic villain. The other ‘bad guy’ is portrayed in a very cartoonish manner (“We’re going to have such a lovely time together”) .
Perhaps I approached this with the wrong expectations. I hoped for something more mature and complex. The dialogues were clunky, the descriptions clichéd, the love story was unconvincing and undeveloped, the main protagonist was a boring Mary Sue, and the setting was barely rendered.

my rating: ★★½

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Are You Enjoying? by Mira Sethi

Are You Enjoying? reads very much like a debut. While I appreciated the themes Mira Sethi explored in these seven stories, the writing definitely detracted from my overall reading experiences. As collections of short stories go this is a rather forgettable and conventional one.

The setting (Pakistan) and ideas behind each story had potential, for example, in the first one, ‘Mini Apple’, a TV presenter has a ‘dalliance’ with an American woman, who works at the American embassy. While their dynamic had that certain something, the storyline doesn’t do much with it. The second one has very strong #metoo vibes as we follow an aspiring actress who has just landed a good role and catches the attention of the film’s tyrannical director. In another story Sethi writes of a young student who finds purpose after he joins an extremist group. Many of these stories examine topical and interesting topics but Sethi’s execution left much to be desired. The last story in particular, which happens to be the one this collection is titled after, struck me as being a rather lacklustre and superficial take on a toxic relationship.
Much of the phrases (“if you look closely, most women have restless eyes”) and imagery in these stories was clichéd (“he spat on the ground: a spray of blood soured in the dust”). The dialogue was clunky so much so that it made the characters seem unrealistic. We have a young man who works in the film industry say that after he uploaded a photo of himself without a shirt “lots of ‘like’ came. Then I was relaxed.” and “So many comments coming on my page”. Something about the way he phrased this didn’t really ‘flow’ (I am aware that others can and will think differently). In another story we get the director characters telling an actress that he “groom” her (surely he would use another word). And then later one we get a story in which a man says the following thing: “Your butt, it’s not a Kardashian yoga ball. It’s just a cute bubble”….what the feck is that even supposed to mean?
I also abhorred most of the author’s descriptions, which struck me as either ‘trying’ or nonsensical:
“Sex with Asher was liquid, hard, dissolving” , “The gray in Asher’s hair became a mischievous afterthought, like a snaggletooth on a beautiful woman” , “my face flushes red, flushes blue” (what is she, an ambulance?) , “her legs were smooth, as if rubbed with light”, “mopping kabab crumbs from his mouth with the coarse pink tissue wrapped around a bottle of Pepsi” (this unnecessary detail detracted from the actual scene), a “whistle” bounces from someone’s nose, “a brief dip in her wrist sprang into a mound of arm” (wtf?), and last but not least, “her collarbones were so deep they could rock a baby to sleep” (I assume here the collarbones are actually prominent given that the woman in discussion was skinny….).

Anyhow, just because this didn’t work for me does not mean you should not give it a try. I recommend you check out some more positive reviews before making up you mind.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Considering that Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourites authors this was a big letdown. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino lacked the zing that made Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop into such fun and engaging reads. Nishino, the novel’s central character, is a boring creep and I could not for the life of me understand why so many women cared for him.

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino is divided in ten chapters, each one narrated by one of Nishino’s ‘loves’. The chapters do not follow a linear structure, so Nishino’s life is given to us in an almost fragmented way. The women Nishino loves easily blend together as they all shared the same kind of voice. I did not find them as likeable as the protagonists of Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop and maybe that’s because much of their narrative focuses on the relationship they have with Nishino. Most of them realise that Nishino is bad news who cheats and is emotionally unavailable. Yet, usually after they claim to dislike him, they will confess that they are on the verge of falling in love with him. Alas, because of ‘reasons’, they break up. The Nishino that emerges from these accounts is that of a pathetic and needy man who habitually lies. He has 0 charisma, here are two examples of some of his lines that make his ‘loves’ ‘giggle’: “Girls’ bottoms are always so cool, so smooth—I love them . . .” and “I love women’s breasts,”. Wow…isn’t he a poet?
Nishino is troubled and ‘broken’ and the women he loves pity him for it, hoping that one day he will find a woman good enough to ‘fix’ him (ugh).

minor spoilers ahead
The thing is, Nishino is a shit. He obviously does not care to have consensual sex with his ‘loves’: “I said, Stop, over and over, each time he quietly replied, I will not stop.” and “Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.”.
He has sister issues, boo-fucking-hoo. Give me a break. The guy is a massive creep. He jokes to one of his ‘loves’ that he will marry his daughter (who is a child). Was it supposed to be funny? Coming from a guy who then at the age of fifty starts a sexual relationship a woman thirty years his junior?
I also did not care for the whole ‘breast milk scene’ involving Nishino and his sister. Surely that would not be the only way of ‘easing’ her pain (this is the third book I have read this year with weird breast milk scenes and I can safely say that I care little for this trend).

If you are thinking of reading something by Kawakami, I strongly recommend you pick up Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop instead of this.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

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

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

At Night All Blood is Black is a short yet certainly not breezy read. David Diop’s novel reads very much like the increasingly feverish confession of a man whose every-day reality is permeated by violence. He is both victim and perpetrator, cognisant of the violence that dominates his life yet somehow unwilling to truly consider the brutality of his as well as other men’s actions.

Alfa Ndiaye’s first person perspective makes for an extremely effective narrative as it forces us to glimpse his violence through his own eyes. After Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting with the French army during WWI, witnesses the death of Mademba, his “more than brother”, he decides to avenge him by enacting a brutal ritual: he severs the hands of the “blue-eyed” German soldiers he kills. Alfa’s guilt towards Mademba’s death makes him relive that painful scene time and time again. Although his ‘trophies’ initially earn both black and white soldiers respect, after the fourth hand they cease to be congratulatory. Through a style that verges on the stream-of-consciousness Alfa details his time before and after Mademba’s death, allowing readers to see the way in which ‘inhumanity’ was forced upon him (the French army demand that soldiers such as Alfa perform the role of “savage”) and the repercussion that his own violence have on his psyche.
The repetition of phrases such as “I know, I understand” and “God’s truth” give Alfa’s mental meanderings an anguish sort of rhythm. Alfa’s grief and guilt threaten to his sanity and alienate him from his fellow soldiers. There were many raw and harrowing passages that were incredibly effective as they conveyed—almost to an unpleasant degree—Alfa’s pain, sorrow, and thirst for revenge. I was not a fan of the role female bodies play in this story. A trench is described as “open like the sex of an enormous woman” and there are one too many references to Alfa’s “insides” being “inside” a woman.
At times the novel seemed to place more importance on style than substance, which is a pity as I wish Alfa and Mademba’s relationship had been explored in more depth. Still, given how short this novel is it did not ‘drag’ on. The repetitive language was no always too my taste as it sometimes stood in the way of truly understanding/seeing Alfa.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to a lot of readers as this novel’s subject matter and style may not have large ‘appeal’, I would encourage those who are interested in reading more translated fiction to give this one a try.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

The Lake is narrated by the quintessential Banana Yoshimoto protagonist. While Yoshimoto’s sparse yet dreamy makes for an easy reading experience this is definitely not one of her ‘strongest’ novels.
Chihiro, daughter of an ‘unconventional’ couple, moves to Tokyo in order to pursue a career graphic artist. She’s still grieving her mother’s death and spends most of her time on her own. One day, as she is staring out of her window, she sees a young man staring back from a window across the street. The two quickly form a bond and begin to spend their spare time together. Nakajima, who has also lost his mother, is somewhat unwilling to discuss his past with Chihiro and when their relationship becomes more of a romance it becomes clear to her that he must have experience some childhood trauma.
This short novel is definitely not plot-oriented as the narrative mainly consists in Chihiro either navel-gazing or pronouncing two-bit aphorisms.
While Yoshimoto does evoke the places and sensations Chihiro visits/experiences, The Lake lacked the atmosphere and feeling of Kitchen an Umi no Futa (which I believe has yet to be translated in English). And whereas I usually enjoy how nostalgic ambience of her work, The Lake just came across as dated. Chihiro seems almost to relish the idea that Nakajima may be deeply traumatised and we also have a side-character who is affected by a mysterious illness and bed bound yet she is also omniscient and able to speak through others…
Overall, this was definitely one of Yoshimoto’s more banal stories as it lacked that vital zing which usually makes her books such zesty reads.

my rating: ★★½

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

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: ★★★☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon

“With no words, Yeyemi says, I am the strength and fire in you, I am everything that is and was and every will be. You are the stuff my stars are made of. I am you and you are me.”

An Ordinary Wonder tells a moving coming of age, one that will definitely appeal to young adults (heads up: it does contain some potentially triggering content).
The novel is set mainly in the 90s in Ibadan, Nigeria. The story is divided in classic two timelines (NOW and BEFORE) and is narrated by Otolorin, focusing in particular on her younger teenage years. Oto is intersex and is forced by her family to live as a boy, even if from an early age Oto has clearly identified as a girl. Oto’s father, a wealthy business man, refuses to acknowledge her existence. Oto’s mother blames Oto for her broken marriage and treats Oto in an appalling manner. Wura is Oto’s only ‘beacon’, but even she’s uncomfortable with the idea that Oto could identify as female. The BEFORE sections give us a glimpse into Oto’s life before moving to ISS (International Secondary School) and it is far from pleasant. Oto’s mother abuses her, emotionally and physically, and forces her to undergo ‘cleansings’ and ‘treatments’ at the Seraphic Temple of Holy Fire. Oto spends her childhood believing that she is abnormal and abhorrent, and is to be blamed for her mother’s unhappiness. While Oto tries to live as a boy, she is not always willing to hide her true self (trying out her sister’s clothes etc.).
In the NOW sections we follow Oto, who is now 14, at the ISS. Here she once again tries to blend in with the boys but the appearance of an old bully threatens Oto’s newfound peace (away from her mother). She becomes fast friends with her roommate, Derin, who is ‘half-oyinbo’ (his mother is white). Not only does Oto excel at school but she is also able to learns more about what it means to be intersex.

I’m not sure whether the dual timeline added a lot to Oto’s overall story. I think that her childhood could have been summed up in just a few chapters here and there, rather than prolonging those BEFORE sections. The story too veers into the clichéd, especially the way the ‘bully’ storyline unfolds. I would have much preferred for that storyline to be a side-story instead of taking up most of the overall plot. The bully in question, Bayo, was beyond one dimensional. There is an attempt at giving him the usual ‘but he comes from a possibly abusive family’ sad backstory but this seems a bit like a cop out to excuse his most egregious behaviour.
I also wish that Oto’s friendship with Derin had not been so immediate. The two become BFF overnight. Other students, especially some of the girls, are not fleshed out at all and serve as mere plot devices (like someone’s GF…ahem). Wura too was a somewhat disappointing character. Her bond with Oto didn’t convince me all that much.
My biggest problem is that the first 70% of this novel is basically misery-porn in which we read scene after scene of Oto being bullied, emotionally and physically abused, sexually harassed, demonised, and ostracised. It wasn’t great. Oto is a sweet and somewhat naive narrator and to read of her being endlessly maltreated was kind of exhausting (I understand that a few scenes of this nature were needed in order to understand her circumstances and experiences but should those scenes make up 70% of the novel? I think not).
Thankfully the last 30% sees Oto finally receiving some validation. There is an unavoidable misunderstanding between Oto and the person she loves which I could have done without but for the most part this final section delivers. Oto’s relationship with Mr. Dickson, her art teacher who is originally from Ghana, was truly moving. Their moments together were powerful and heart-rendering.
Buki Papillon’s prose for the most part rendered Oto’s young perspective but there were a few phrases that were very, shall we say, ‘debut-like’, such as the overused “I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding”…surely there is another way to convey Oto’s anxiety or tension? I also thought that the “little/tiny/small” voice inside of Oto was unnecessary. This voice always voices her true feelings or fears…and it got kind of old. Why just not directly write what Oto fear or wants without resorting to that ‘little voice’?
Still, there were elements of Papillon’s writing that I really liked. Her descriptions for example were extremely be vivid, at times quietly beautiful, at times vibrant and full of life (someone is as still as an “Esie statue”, “jealousy pierces my heart, stinging like a vexed scorpion”, words “sting like pepper”, Oto observing her mother during her father’s rare visits “it was like watching plucked efo leaves left out in the sun. She’d wilt slowly till he left”).
Another aspect of this novel that really worked was Yeyemi, an entity that brings comfort and strength to Oto (often appearing in dream sequences). Oto’s book of proverbs also added a nice touch to her story as the proverbs she thinks of are quite apt.
This novel deals extensively with Oto’s exploration of her identity, the bullying and abuse she experiences along the way, and, at long last, her self-acceptance. Overall, I would probably recommend this to fans of coming of age stories or to those who enjoy the work of authors such as Akwaeke Emezi and, to a certain extent, Won-pyung Sohn.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads