BOOK REVIEWS

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

There is something idiosyncratic about Yoshimoto’s novels. Every time I read something of hers I feel almost comforted by how familiar it all is. Her narrators sound very much like the same person: they are young women prone to navel-gazing yet attuned to their environment (especially nature or their hometown). Moshi Moshi follows Yoshie after the death of her father, a musician and a bit of a free spirit. The way in which he died (he was involved in a suicide pact with a woman unknown to Yoshie or her mother) weighs on Yoshie. She dreams of the last night she saw him alive, imagining different outcomes that would have prevented him from leaving the house without his phone. Yoshie attempts to turn a new leaf by moving out to Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in Tokyo, with which she fell in love. Her mother insists on staying with her, and the two women soon form a routine of sorts. One day, Yoshie, who works at a restaurant, meets a young man who knew of her father. In an effort to learn more about her father and ‘that woman’ Yoshie also reconnects with her father’s best friend.

The novel, overall, has a very ‘slice of life’ feel to it. Yoshimoto captures Yoshie’s daily life, the thoughts that pass through her head as she goes about on her day, the lingering grief caused by her father’s tragic death, the desire to understand how it could have happened. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere and writing the romance aspect of this novel left a sour taste in my mouth. There are a few questionable remarks (for instance on sexual assault) that did not really fit with the narrative’s one. These kinds of comments were more suited to a dark comedy. The whole romance also gave me some incest-y vibes which I could have done without.
Not Yoshimoto’s best but a lot more enjoyable than her worst.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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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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A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

“That summer when I so desperately tried to reel us all in, I didn’t understand the forces spinning us apart.”

The opening of A Crooked Tree is certainly chilling. Libby, our fifteen-year old narrator, is in the car with her siblings. When their squabbling gets too much their mother dumps twelve-year old Ellen on the side of the road. Hours pass, and to Libby’s increasing concern Ellen has yet to arrive. When Ellen finally makes an appearance, something has clearly happened to her.

Sadly, the suspenseful atmosphere that is so palpable at the start of this novel gives way to a slightly more predictable coming-of-age. The premise made me think that A Crooked Tree would be something in the realms of Winter’s Bone (we have the rural setting, the dysfunctional family, the bond between the siblings). But A Crooked Tree tells a far more conventional story: a summer of revelations (from the realisations that the adults around you have their own secrets to the having to say goodbye to the innocence of childhood). While what happened to Ellen certainly has an impact on the storyline, A Crooked Tree is not a mystery or thriller. We follow Libby as she fights and makes peace with her best friend and siblings, we learn of her less than stellar home-life, and, most of all, of her dislike of the neighbourhood’s bad boy (this last tread was pretty annoying). I did appreciate how vivid the setting was, from the references to 80s culture to Libby’s environment (she is particularly attuned to nature). I also really enjoyed the family dynamics and the unease that permeated many of the scenes. The author succeeds particularly in capturing that period of transition, from childhood to adolescence, without being sentimental.

What ultimately did not work for me was Libby herself. She’s hella bland. Love for trees aside there was little to her character. While her siblings, bff, and adults around her were fully fleshed out, Libby’s personality remains largely unexplored. Her obsession with the ‘bad boy’ was also really grating and her refusal to see him as anything but bad news didn’t ring entirely true. A lot of the observations she makes about the people around her seemed to originate from someone far more mature and insightful that she was (as in, they did not really seem to stem from the mind of a particularly naive 15-year old girl). Elle, although younger, would have made for a more convincing and interesting narrator. Libby…is painfully vanilla.

Still, Libby aside, I did find this novel to be engaging, occasionally unsettling, and exceedingly nostalgic.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★ ¼

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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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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: ★★★★☆

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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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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: ★★☆☆☆

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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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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: ★★★☆☆

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