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

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — book review

61n9L8w08sL.jpg

“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett’s second novel is a tour de force. The Vanishing Half gripped me from the very pages as I was instantly transfixed by Bennett’s subtle yet penetrating prose.
Bennett is a brilliant storyteller. Not one word is wasted, or so it seemed as I had the distinct impression that her writing was simultaneously concise and striking. Bennett’s prose effortlessly moves from present to past, as her story traverses decades (from the 60s to the 80s) and transports us from the small-town of Mallard in Louisiana to LA or New York. Bennett maps the lives of many characters, who inhabit markedly different worlds, focusing in particular on the lives and voices of the Vignes women.

“The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning.”

Most people regard twins, particularly identical twins, as a source of fascination. Bennett, fully aware of this, adds a layer of depth to the mystique of twins by making the Vignes embark on drastically different paths. After witnessing their father’s lynching at the hands of white men, the Vignes have little love for their small-town, and aged sixteen they flee to New Orleans. Things don’t go as planned however and the twins become irrevocably separated. While Stella returns with a daughter to the hometown she so longed to escape, Desiree passes for white and marries a wealthy white man. In spite of this, their bond keeps them tethered together and even as the years go by the Vignes twins struggle to reconcile themselves with the loneliness of their ‘twinless’ existence. Their respective daughters share little in common. While Stella’s daughter Kennedy enjoys a life of privilege, Desiree’s daughter Jude is discriminated for her dark skin by her peers and the adults of her community.

“The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”

The Vanishing Half tells a heartbreaking and relevant intergenerational tale. While Bennett does not condone the decisions and behaviour of certain characters, mainly Jude and Kennedy, she never condemns them either, revealing instead how viciously deep-rooted racism is. While Stella can enjoy the freedoms that come with being white (and wealthy), her fear of discovery causes her to adopt racist attitudes towards other people of colour and to inculcate racist beliefs in her own daughter.
Like her mother at her age, Jude is eager to leave the confines of the ‘narrow-minded’ Mallard. In college she tries to overcome the insecurities and self-hatred instilled in her after years of being othered.
While the Vignes twins and their daughters may occupy opposing realities, they grapple with similar questions of identity. Stella, Desiree, and Jude, who are alienated by their society because of their race and class, long to belong. Yet, they often sabotage their own attempts to connect to others (Stella’s attempt to bond with her black neighbour ends catastrophically).

“It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody.”

Bennett navigates the way in which race and class shape the way in which we are seen and treated by others. Her characters are vividly drawn, and it is their contradictory feelings and desires that make them all the more real. Bennett’s narrative doesn’t favor any one perspective, and in doing so allows her readers to form their own opinion of a character’s actions.
The relationships the characters have with each other are fraught. While most Stella, Desiree, Jude, and even Kennedy to a certain extent, all desire to fit in or to form meaningful connections, miscommunications abound as they are unwilling or unable to expose themselves to others.

“He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away.”

In Bennett’s novel love isn’t neat or easy and identity is an evolving process, her observations on race, class, and family are truly compelling. She touches upon a myriad of topics (poverty, abuse, trauma, unknowability) with thoughtfulness and clarity. To white people like me (I grew up in a really homogenous and racist country) the America Bennett depicts is both disturbing and illuminating. While there are many horrific scenes in The Vanishing Half, I encourage readers to read this novel. Characters such as Reese, Jude, and Early alone are worth knowing. Interspersed in the various narratives there are tender moments of genuine affection and understanding (Jude’s relationship to her mother and Reese are truly heart-rendering).

“You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri — book review

Untitled drawing.jpg

“In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another.”

In the past few years I’ve read and fallen in love with Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories as well as her book on her relationship with the Italian language In Other Words. Although The Namesake has been sitting on my shelf for the last couple months, when it was chosen as one of the February reads for the ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ group, I was finally spurred into reading it, and I’m so glad I did. The Namesake did not disappoint.

Written in an elegantly sparse prose The Namesake tells the story of the Ganguli family. After their arranged marriage Ashoke and Ashima Ganguili move from Calcutta to America. It is in this new, if not perpetually puzzling, country that their children Gogol and Sonia are born and raised.
As Lahiri recounts the story of this family, she also interrogates concepts of cultural identity, of dislocation and rootlessness, of cultural and generational divides, and of tradition and familial expectation. As the title of the novel suggests, The Namesake focuses on Gogol’s fraught relationship with his own name. As the American-born son of Bengali parents, Gogol struggles to reconcile himself with his Russian name. His uncommon name comes to symbolise his own self-divide and reticence to embrace his parents’ culture.

“He wonders how his parents had done it, leaving their respective families behind, seeing them so seldom, dwelling unconnected, in a perpetual state of expectation, of longing.”

Names and trains are recurring motifs in this long spanning narrative. Time and again we read of the way in which names alter others’ and our perception of ourselves. Train journeys provide characters with life-changing experiences: from near misses with death to startling realisations.
Yet, in spite of these fated moments, Lahiri’s novel possesses an atmosphere that is at once graceful and ordinary. The language she chooses has this quiet quality that makes that which she writes all the more realistic. Her most insightful observations into her characters, or the dynamics between them, often occur when she is recounting seemingly mundane scenes: from food preparations and family meals to phone conversations.
In spite of the gentle rhythm of her narrative Lahiri also articulates the tension between past and present, India and America, parents and children, husband and wife. As Gogol grows we read of his love and sorrows, of his hopes and fears, and of his insecurities and his lifelong quest to belong. There are heartbreaking moments of affection and miscommunication, and Lahiri truly renders both the difficulties of acclimatising to another country and of embracing one’s heritage in a world where to be different is to be other.

By observing a characters’ clothes, appearance, or routine, Lahiri makes even those who are at the margin of the Ganguli’s family history come to life. The Ganguli’s first neighbours in America, Gogol’s teacher, who inadvertently cemented Gogol’s hatred for his name, and even Moushumi’s colleague are all vibrantly rendered.
While what Lahiri’s characters’ experience can be occasionally comic, she never makes them into a ‘joke’. In fact, she reserves judgment, and each character, regardless of their actions, is portrayed with compassion.

“True to the meaning of her name, she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”

Another thing that makes this novel stand out is how much Lahiri leaves unspoken. There are no melodramatic scenes or confessions. At times it is only hindsight that allows a character to realise the importance of a certain moment.

“Somehow, bad news, however ridden with static, however filled with echoes, always manages to be conveyed.”

There is a naturalness and openness to her characters’ impressions. She writes with such clarity of such complex or ephemeral feelings or thoughts that I often had to stop to re-read a phrase in order to truly savour her words.

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.”

Lahiri is a master of the trade and in The Namesake she depicts an exquisitely intricate family portrait.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

There are so many new releases that are focused on a particular family’s history, and there is a trend for storylines that follow members of a family through the decades (e.g. The Good Children, Commonwealth). The Immortalists might revolve around four siblings, but there was little – if any –interaction between them. This novel focused on each of the Golds individually rather then showing them as being part of a whole. At times, I could almost forget that they were part of the same family, and that is perhaps one of my biggest problems with this novel. Also, that and the fact that there was none of the magical realism promised by its premise, so I found the lack of fantastical elements to be disappointing.

Chloe Benjamin’s novel provides little respite: bad shit happens, time and again. Small issues and arguments are enlarged so much so that each of the Gold sibling – as well as the other characters –seem to be over-reacting almost all of the time.
There is a sense of dread embedded in each of the four narratives, and this unease felt – to me – unneeded. Things that should seem every-day – ‘manageable’ – actions become sources of humongous distress. And the characters act-out, they are so inconsistent, so bloody ambiguous, that I felt little for them. That each of the Gold is confronted by a certain character – a friend or a lover – became predictable: this one character will them that they are selfish, self-absorbed, that they should not think themselves as having faced any tragedies, that they should not use their Jewish heritage as a source of pity. Really?
Here are a few other things that I found annoying (possible mild spoilers ahead):
Simon’s storyline. Now, there is a character who is gay, and he will be rather young during the 70s…we know he will die young…can you guess? Yes. His narrative was also the only narrative to contain multiple explicit sexual scenes…so because he is gay, he has to be sex-crazed? The author tries to make it seem as if it was the knowledge of dying young that pushes Simon to lead an unsafe and pleasure-seeking lifestyle…but to me, his story and the way his story is told was just banal and came across as rather distasteful. Simon never seemed fully-fleshed out. He makes lots of (bad) choices, but doesn’t do a lot of thinking…
➜we see little of the strong bond between Klara and Simon. We only see her missing him, but the few scenes between them did not reflect the affectionate and deep bond that Klara claims they had…
➜Daniel…what the actual heck? His narrative sets him up as being this one type of person and ends by having him do completely out of character…
➜Varya’s story was so deeply uncomfortable. Grotesque…and, dare I say, unbelievable? There is this one scene in which she takes off her socks (after having fallen asleep in her car) and they are drenched with sweat. After one night in a car? Come on!

Moralistic side-characters, ludicrous descriptions, senseless dialogues, sudden lewd observations…what was meant to be edgy seemed plain gross. Unlikable characters are okay, heck I loved Emma Bovary in spite of her many flaws, but the Golds were scarcely credible, so I found it hard to feel much beyond confusion in their regards.

Simon and Klara’s stories were supposed to show how two people, convinced of knowing when they will die, decide to live life at its fullest: they purse what they want, they focus on themselves. Both of their stories unfolded in a predictable way: Simon’s section is focused on his sexuality, the dangers of not being allowed to feel comfortable and accepted by others, while Klara’s journey takes her down a more puzzling path, her own mental health affects large chunks of her narrative. David and Varya’s stories were – not so subtly – meant to contrast with the ones of their younger siblings . While the ‘death date’ pressures Simon and Klara into pleasure-seeking lifestyles (their decision to put aside family duties) David and Varya seem not as convinced by their own death days. They both have chips on their shoulders, and because of that bitterness they have little to do with one another and think little of their younger siblings. Through their careers the author attempts to question the ethics of their practices: David is allowing people to go to war, while Varya’s lab is studying and imposing a restrictive lifestyle on some monkeys. Their narratives focus on a short fraction of their lives: their job is key and at one point or another they are both challenged by that one convenient character….

It wasn’t terrible, there were instances were I actually liked it, but by the end, I felt somewhat cheated. After all of that, all of those embarrassing and sorrowful scenes, those inanely stupid decision and those awkward arguments, after all of that…and then what? What is the message of this novel supposed to be?

My rating: 2.5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Ashland & Vine by John Burnside

Ashland & Vine follows a film student Kate Lamber who has been deeply affected by the death of her father. Medicating her grief through alcohol Kate spends her days trying to numb her feelings. Working on a project started by her flatmate/occasional lover Laurits, Kate is tasked with ‘collecting’ stories. Which is how she ends up meeting an elderly woman Jean Culver. Jean will tell Kate her own story if Kate stays sober for four days. Kate who is drawn to Jean, by her house, her garden, her quiet yet healthy lifestyle, ‘wills’ herself off alcohol.
Jean’s recollection of her past consists in chunky paragraphs. Throughout the novel, in various meetings, Jean tells Kate the story of her family. I didn’t quite buy into Jean remembering exactly what people said to her – or even to each other – years before, and I find the disjointed manner in which Jean tells these various anecdotes to be a bit confusing. Into her story there are crammed a lot of monumental historical moments. Her family members all seem to be part of vital American movements which wasn’t very believable. As Jean’s oral-history progresses, Jean herself – as well as her words – seemed to become the author’s mouthpiece. Jean asserts certain ‘universal truths’ which came across as the author’s preaching his own believes onto his audience. The past is filled with senseless violence, we should take care of our environment, the modern age has forgotten past values. We get it. There was also many instances were entire paragraphs are dedicated to classic films, art, and literature, which could have worked better if I didn’t feel as if Burnside was showing us his ‘knowledge’.
While Kate does provide interesting observations – questioning her own self, recalling her own childhood, describing her less than ideal relationship with Laurits – Burnside’s dialogues and paragraphs are far too long. Long rants or remembrances can be interesting but to use this technique throughout the novel slowed the pace of the narrative as well as appearing repetitive.
A strong and vivid beginning is weighed down by the author’s somewhat pretentious agenda.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

“All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”

A strong beginning leads the way into an increasingly exasperating storyline.
I’m not going to deny that Hannah is a talented writer, because she is. However, her story and her characters walk the line between being convincible and non. The latter part of this novel is full of scarcely credible scenarios which frustrated me and considerably reduced my overall opinion of the book.

In 1974 thirteen year old Leni and her parents relocate to Alaska. Leni’s father Ernt is a former POW who is now suffering from PTSD and is looking for someplace different, away from the troubles he perceives in the bigger cities. We are immediately made aware of his temper and of his intense relationship with his wife and Leni’s mother Cora.

“She loved her parents, both of them. She had known, without being told, that the darkness in her dad was bad and the things he did were wrong, but she believed her mama’s explanations, too: that Dad was sick and sorry, that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like Before.
Only Leni didn’t believe that anymore.”

Alaska however isn’t as idyllic as Ernt believed. Thankfully, their newfound close-knitted community is more than willing to help Leni’s family survive their first Alaskan winter. Ernt forms a close relationship to Mad Earl. These two men fuel each other’s hatred towards the ‘Other’, that is everything outside of Alaska. Ernt’s mounting paranoia of the ‘outside world’ manifests itself in a series of ‘night drills’ and ‘shooting lessons’ for both Cora and Leni. While hunting comes in handy in the wilderness being forced to endure constant drills and ‘rants’ about how society has become ‘sick’ and that soon TSHTF (or will hit the fan…) isn’t as needed. Ernt’s pride and jealousy cloud his judgement and he would rather refuse his neighbours help than admit that he hadn’t fully prepared for an Alaskan winter.
Leni’s becomes friends with the only other thirteen year old in ‘town’. Sadly, because Matthew – her new friend – is the son of a man despised by Ernt complicates matters. Soon this ‘secretive friendship’ takes a bit of the story’s limelight.
Ernt seemingly grows into a one-dimensional ‘villainous’ figure, Cora remains stuck into the role of ‘submissive’ wife, who will wake up far too late, and Leni’s character is so in love with Matthew that she doesn’t truly really come into her own. The secondary characters too remain painfully ‘flat’…Matthew’s father was barely sketched out…Large Marge seemed the stereotypical ‘headstrong’ and robust woman…Matthew is the nice boy who offers little in way of characterisation that is excused by a conveniently placed absence.
Ernt and Cora become a clichéd portrait of a toxic relationship, well timed ‘accidents’ occur so to make story ‘sadder’ and to make Leni’s struggles even more emotionally difficult. Tragedy for the sake of tragedy…or in this case it seemed that by having a series of ‘unfortunate’ things happen could exempt the writer from writing a more thoughtful and realistic conclusion. It is as if halfway through the book Hannah had no idea how to complete Leni’s story so decided to throw in a bunch of ‘tragic’ plot devices as to bring her story to a close.
Hannah’s writing can beautifully describe landscapes and feelings. However, too often, she resorts to cheesy turns of phrases.

“She turned to Matthew, loving him so much, so desperately, it felt like she was being held underwater and needed oxygen.”

Leni’s relationship with Matthew was from the-get-go far too corny. Their scenes were soppy, their whole relationship was predictable and over-sentimental. It seemed that their ‘love’ was born out of them being the same age and sharing a love for Tolkien…
Hannah’s over-sentimental style combined with the story’s swerve into ‘soap-opera’ territory eroded the initially enjoyment I experienced in reading those first few chapters.
I much preferred Hannah’s The Nightingale which was also somewhat melodramatic but never seemed as sappy as this…

“Up here, in the vastness of Alaska, the words sounded infinitesimal and small. A fist shaken at the gods.”

My rating: 2 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

“Alexandra was trembling, because she had see the end and the beginning . And the sun had reached out and found her, stroked her, chosen her.”

An encompassing tale that is slowly unraveled through the meanderings of Alexandra – an American and newcomer to Bulgaria – and Bobby, her taxi driver. After a mishap in front of a hotel, Alexandra finds herself with an urn, holding human ashes. Distressed she attempts to return the urn to its owners, enlisting the help of her taxi driver as to make her way through Bulgaria in search of the owners.
I know that this is the type of novel that is difficult to read. For one, it takes its time. Secondly, it includes harrowing accounts of the forced labour camps in Bulgaria. It can – and will – overwhelm you. But, Kostova’s elegant writing style and her painfully humane characters, make this novel an experience worth undergoing.

The increasingly frequent switching of perspective works well because it is cleverly presented: enwinted in Alexandra’s story are the accounts of those she encounters during her journey. Characters narrate to her snippets concerning the family to which the urn belongs to. At times the novel includes what Alexandra herself reads. This ‘format’ also allows the main characters to ‘move’ around a lot: as they go from village to village they discover more and more about the owners of the urn.
Half-way through the novel there is a focus on past events, events which are difficult if not horrifying to read.

“I considered allowing my thoughts to return to that wonderful field, by the river, where my son sat, and then drew back. I wanted to save that, still–to look forward to it. I sent out a short prayer […] although I had not prayed since childhood and had no idea how to address it. It went out from me like a letter with no stamp.”

There is no escaping the brutality that occurs in these camps. My lack of knowledge –for I was ignorant of such camps existing after the end of WWII – left me incredulous. I did not want to believe that such things have happened, and so recently. Kostova’s depicts a painfully graphic image of these places. But by then, I was so involved, that I could not turn away. I had to –alongside Alexandra and Bobby – keep reading. I cared too much for the characters and I needed to know what would had happened and what was yet to come.
I adored Alexandra, Bobby and their furry companion. Their friendship underlines their travels and time and again we glimpse and feel their connection. It is a nuanced depiction of friendship that does not happen overnight. The people they meet are just as strikingly ‘real’: the ‘cast’ is largely composed of elderly characters and Kostova offers us a wide-ranging portrait of elderliness.
There is an almost wistful quality to this novel. There are moments where there is an otherworldly ‘feel’ to the storytelling which further enthralls the reader.
The rhythm created by the protagonists’ search – which slowly unfolds the mystery of the ‘urn’ – combines perfectly with Kostova’s beautiful writing. Her graceful style accentuates the nostalgic atmosphere of the story.

“ She knew the shapes of his head and the fine planes of his face, the way the thick hair would someday be cropped short, the long quiet body, the magnificent hands, the look of curiosity curbed into diffidence but not tamed–the directness of the eyes,”

A moving tale which will stay with you long after the last page.

“People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It’s true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is a silent, blank page.”

My rating: 4.75 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

“She had lost so much that she had lost herself as well. She had a secret that she carried with her, and it hurt, as if she store a stone beside her heart. It was her hatred of herself that was her burden, and it grew each day. At first it was tiny, a mere pebble, then it was as big as her heart, and then it was the largest thing inside her. She had decided it wasn’t the curse that was at fault. It was her.”

A truly delightful and ‘magical’ read. The wistful narration sweeps you off your feet from the very start. The rhythm carried by Hoffman’s style resonates with the her ‘other-worldly’ setting, one that is ‘ruled’ by words such as fate and curses. Hoffman swiftly incorporates magical elements into a New York of the 60s.
The pivotal relationship between the Owens siblings is rendered beautifully: the scenes between them are convincing and heart-warming. And while they do tend to disagree and squabble, there is an underlying love that is just palpable. Franny, the self-named Maid of Thorns, deliberately attempts to resists her feelings for her best friend, Jet, the kind hearted middle child, suffers at a young age the cruelty of the curse, while Vincent is a free agent, one whose powerful gifts render him hard to miss. Plenty of eccentricities mark these characters, distinguishing them from each other: their individual gifts become part of the characters themselves.
The story, which I would actually describe as more of a ‘tale’, follows their respectives journeys into a future in which they will be able to love freely and without consequences.
Sweet and alluring, The Rules of Magic is a must read for established fan of Alice Hoffman or any fan of a nostalgic type of magical realism, such as the one to be found in Chocolat, The Witches of New York, The Wild Girl and State of Wonder. Truly enchanting!

Love more, her aunt had said. Not less.”

My rating: 4.75 of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

A small part of him which he already recognizes as a lost, former self longs for his mother’s garden, the sound of wind rustling the leaves. He takes a breath, his feet flat against the carpet. His right toe itches.

Despite being a beautifully written novel Salt Houses lacks personality.
We follow different generations of a Palestinian family whom are forced to relocate time and again due to the constant strife that is – sadly – the backdrop in their lives. So while the story has the potential to explore the emotional turmoils of its characters, whom are undoubtedly affected by the various wars taking place around them, they feel flat. They do not differ greatly from one another, their differences feel forced, one child is the ‘wild one’ the other is the ‘studious one’ and so forth, but ultimately they all revealed the same ambivalence: they are constantly unsure and undecided in a way that just made them irritating rather than realistic. They do not convey any sympathetic attributes or qualities, they all seemed, at one point or another, just obnoxious and inexplicably problematic. The relationship they had with one another were unbelievable: they seem to dislike and resent each other so much it is hard to believe that they would care for each other. We are given no proof of the love they profess one another and at the same time, the amnesty and tensions between them reads as completely factitious and unnecessary. Ultimately, the characters sounded so much alike that midway through the novel, in my mind, they sort of merged into one unlikable protagonist: a character who shows little depth and can be described as being completely and utterly fickle. I did not care for them nor their story.
Characters and story aside, Alyan’s prose is alluring. So much so that it nearly makes up for her lacklustre characters and tedious storyline. Alyan’s style combines lyrical allusions with impersonal observations<. Juxtaposing characters feelings with their surroundings, their fears and doubts against the actual present. It would have had even more of an effect on the reader if the characters did not seem so dispassionate – so stale – and whose thoughts and actions verge the border of apathy itself, their remoteness so complete, that Alyan’s consideration lose their momentum.
Ironically, there is a great sense of place in this novel: Alyan manages to bring each city to life, evoking places through incisive descriptions and careful remarks. Smells, colours, seasons, all play a part in making Salt Houses very atmospheric.
Overall, Alyan has all the right ingredients for a great tale, however, she doesn’t seem to invest enough time into making her characters as rich as their background, which consequently makes their stories less appealing. Alyan’s writing professes talent but Salt Houses is, at best, a lukewarm read.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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