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

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The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

The Office of Historical Corrections is a striking collection of short stories, easily the best one to be published this year. Unlike many other collections—which tend to have a few forgettable or ‘weaker’ stories—The Office of Historical Corrections has only hits. There isn’t one story that bored me or wasn’t as good as the rest. This is truly a standout collection. If you happen to be a fan of authors such as Curtis Sittenfeld, Edwidge Danticat, and Brit Bennett you should definitely give The Office of Historical Corrections a shot.

This collection contains 6 short stories and 1 novella. Although each one of these has its own distinctive narrative, they do examine similar themes but they do so through different, and at times opposing, perspectives. With nuance and precision Evans navigates the realities of contemporary America, focusing in particular on the experiences of black people in a country that considers white to be the ‘norm’.
There are so many things to love about this collection. Evans’ prose is superb. Her writing is incisive, evocative, and perfectly renders her characters and the diverse situations they are in without ever being overly descriptive or purply. While short stories and novellas are usually plot-driven, Evans’ narratives spouse a razor-sharp commentary—on race, modern culture, class—with compelling character-studies.

The scenarios and issues Evans explores are certainly topical. In ‘Boys Go to Jupiter’ a white college student, Claire, is labelled racist after her sort-of-boyfriend posts a photo of her wearing a Confederate bikini. Rather than apologising or even acknowledging what this flag truly symbolises Claire decides to make matters worse for herself by ridiculing a black student’s outrage at her bikini and by claiming that the flag is part of her heritage. As this controversy unfolds we learn of her childhood, of how she became close with two siblings who were for a time neighbours of hers, of her mother’s illness and eventual death, and of the part she played in her friend’s death. This story is very much about denial, culpability, and grief. It also brought to mind ‘White Women LOL’ by Sittenfeld and Rebecca Makkai’s ‘Painted Ocean, Painted Ship’.
The titular novella instead follows two black women who have never been on easy terms. This is partly due to their different economic backgrounds and partly due to their different temperaments. Having lost touch after college they both end up working at the Institute for Public History where they are tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies/mistakes. Often their corrections raise awareness about America’s colonial and racist past in order to challenge white historical narratives. Given all discussions about decolonising the curriculum and about historical statues and monuments this novella definitely touches on some relevant topics. The revisions made by the Institute for Public History are often not well met and they are targeted by white ‘preservationists’. As our narrator unearths the true story behind a black shopkeeper’s death back in 1937 she unwillingly joins ‘forces’ with Genevieve, her longtime not-quite-friend. The two women have very different approaches and their search for the truth behind this man’s death soon sparks the anger of the white ‘preservationists’.
All of these stories are worth a read. My personal favourites where ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’, ‘Alcatraz’, ‘Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want’ (which had some serious Kevin Wilson vibes), and ‘Anything Could Disappear’ (this almost had me in tears).

There are so many things to love about this collection: Evans’ focus on women and the thorny relationships they can have with one another, the wry humour that underlines these stories, Evans’ ability to capture diverse and nuanced emotions. The list goes on.

Evans’ stories are thought-provoking and populated by memorable and fully fleshed out characters. Although she exerts an admirable control over her language, her writing is arresting. Evans does not waste words and she truly packs a punch in this ‘infamous’ medium (short stories are often seen in terms of their limitations) .
Throughout this collection Evans’ touches themes of injustice, forgiveness, history (a character’s personal history as well as a nation’s history), freedom and identity, grief, loss, fear, failed relationships and human connection.
This is a fantastic collection and you should definitely give it a try.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Cardiff, by the Sea: Four Novellas of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

As I highly rate Joyce Carol Oates I was quite looking forward to Cardiff, by the Sea, a collection of four novellas ‘of suspense’. While I have only read a few of Oates’ works Patricide, a novella of hers, is a favourite of mine. The novellas collected in Cardiff, by the Sea have more in common with Oates’ The Pursuit as they are not only just as depressing but they are also written in a similar ‘stop and start’ type of prose. We have staccato sentences that often elide their subjects (such as “Chewing, trying to swallow but can’t.” or “Seeing the apprehension in the child’s face.”). While this style worked in the first novella, the longest in the collection, it felt a bit repetitive and overall less convincing in the following ones. In the first one we follow a deeply traumatised young woman and because of this the prose perfectly conveyed her ‘disturbed’ psyche. There were scenes where Oates’ choppy prose worked well, especially in terms of visuals and pacing: “Mia felt a stab of excitement. Following the flashlight beam. Shining light on ugly gouged tire tracks. Broken and shredded trees.”. As I’ve said however I do wish that this collection could have showcased Oates’ impressive stylistic range.
These novellas also share many other similarities outside of the way the are written. They feature women who are traumatised, abused, sexually assaulted, and/or gaslighted/manipulated. All of the male characters in these novellas are awful human being. They are pedophiles, rapists, murders, opportunists….the lists goes on. The women in these stories lack agency. There are one or two incidents that suggest otherwise but throughout the course of their narratives they are very much confined to the role of victims.

‘Cardiff, by the Sea’: 4 stars
As I’ve said the best story in this collection is the very first one: ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’. This novella was creepy and atmospheric. We follow Clare a woman who receives a call informing her that her grandmother has died…except that Clare has never met or know of her having been raised by adoptive parents. When she visits her newfound ‘blood relatives’ in Cardiff she becomes increasingly obsessed with the death of her birth parents. She stays with her two great-aunts, who very much reminded me of April Spink and Miriam Forcible from Coraline (except they are far more sinister). They are perpetually arguing and interrupting one another. Perhaps their creepiness is due to Clare’s susceptible state of mind, perhaps not. Clare’s uncle also lives with them and soon enough Clare becomes convinced that he played some sort of role in her family’s demise.
This story is pure Gothic. Unease reigns supreme. Clare’s fragmented and unreliable memories contribute to this unsettling atmosphere. Oates’ prose her works really well as it reflects Clare’s psyche. Her trauma and shock definitely give her an alienated view of things. If you enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work or macabre stories such as the ones penned by Mariana Enríquez chances are you will appreciate this novella which is equal parts suspenseful and disturbing.

‘Miao Dao’: 3 stars
This story had potential. I mean: cats killing pervy men? I’m sold. We follow Mia who has just turned thirteen. Her father recently separated from her mother and she now rarely sees him. Her male classmates begin to harass her and her female peers are not all that supportive (if anything they perceive as either a loser or a potential ‘threat’). As Mia is ‘shamed’ for body she begins to feel deeply alienated. Mia finds momentary solace when she is among a group of feral cats that has taken residence in her neighbourhood.
When her mother gets together with a seemingly ‘good’ guy things take a turn for the worse. Mia ends up taking in a kitten, whom she names Miao Dao, and weird things start happening.
This story was kind of miserable. Even more so that ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’ as it focuses on sexual abuse. It also reminded me of my own adolescent, a period of my life I never wish to relive again. The ‘leering’, the comments, the physical harassment. The way all of these make the victim feel ashamed and embarrassed (as she perceives herself guilty since it is her body that is making these boys and men act this way). So, given all the horrible things that happen to Mia, I was hoping for the story to present us with a satisfying revenge storyline…and it kind of doesn’t. The ‘cat’ element was definitely underused, and I think that the story would have benefitted from venturing more into the paranormal. Still, the ending does kind of make up for some of my initial frustration towards this story.

‘Phantomwise: 1972’ : 2 ½ stars
This seemed a rehash of the previous two stories. We have a nondescript young woman—who similarly to Clare and Mia is mostly defined by the fact that she is being ill-treated/abused as opposed to having a discernible personality. The story follows a student who becomes involved with a professor (yes, this is that kind of story). As things sour between the two of them, the young woman becomes close to an older man who likes to talk about Lewis Carroll and his ‘Alice’. This isn’t a gripping or even suspenseful tale. Oates doesn’t really subvert this tired female student/male professor dynamic, if anything she goes full on misery porn. Misery and more misery. Women are helpless and men are predators. Great stuff.

‘The Surviving Child’ : 2 ½ stars
This last novella seemed a mix between Rebecca and Verity. We follow the new wife of a man whose previous wife not only committed suicide but she killed their daughter too. She spared the son and the new wife wonders what could have driven her to do so. The prose is once again full of Yoda-like sentences which didn’t really add anything to my reading experience. Kind of predictable but not as miserable as the previous novella.

With the exception of the titular novella I didn’t particularly care for stories in this collection. Oates can certainly write but her style here could have been more varied. Her female characters are passive, even pathetic at times, and I found myself wanting these stories to be more subversive.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

“Like I said already, I hunt monsters. And I got a sword that sings.”

Ring Shout is an action-driven historical novella that combines horror with the kind of anime that have magical swords & monsters-posing-as-humans in them. The story takes place in Georgia during the 1920s and follows a group of black women who hunt monsters who take the form of KKK members. This is neat concept and I would definitely encourage other readers to pick this one up (I particularly recommend the audiobook version as I found Channie Waites’ narration to be spot on). The story did strike me as a rather rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe I shouldn’t have read this so soon after finishing another novella by P. Djèlí Clark but Ring Shout shares much in common with his other work. If we leave the setting aside we have a young woman who is the ‘chosen one’ or happens to be the ‘only one’ who can save the world. The stakes, dare I say, are too high for such a short format. If this had been a full-length novel, I wouldn’t have minded as much. Here the side characters have rather one-dimensional personalities (we have the joker, the handsome love interest, the more level-headed in the team, the German who is Marx aficionado, three aunties reminiscent of the Moirai). Still, at least they had personalities. The main character, on the other hand, is very much defined by her ‘chosen one’ role. Nevertheless I obviously rooted for her as she slays KKK monsters.
While it wasn’t a particularly thought-provoking novella (the whole discussion on good & evil was somewhat condensed) it makes for a quick and relatively gripping read starring badass black & queer girls/women. There is gore, some pretty-epic fight sequences, a few moments of respite, and a lot of banter. The author present his readers with some real creepy visuals (the mouths, enough said) and some subversive ideas. Overall, if you are new to his work this is definitely worth checking out (it will make for a solid Halloween read).

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

This is the third novella I’ve read by P. Djèlí Clark and once again I find myself loving his building but not his story or characters. This novella is set in an alternate 1912 Cairo where djinns and angels are the norm. world happens to be the home to djinns Egypt, . In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Our protagonist is Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the classic ‘spunky’ female lead who is has to ‘forge’ her way in an all-male environment, whose latest case involves the apparent suicide of a djinn. Alongside Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr, the classic ‘set in his ways/not so concerned by his job’ male counterpart to this type of female lead, Fatima questions and is confronted by otherworldly and potentially world-destroying beings.

The setting is the most unique and strongest aspect of this novella. The storyline is fast-paced and was too action focused. I would have preferred a slower narrative, one that would have allowed for more interiority from the characters. Still, this was an overall quick and relatively entertaining read and I probably would recommend it just the world-building alone (I mean, we have clockworks angels!).


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai

In The Setting Sun Osamu Dazai captures a nation in transition. Set during the early postwar years Japan this novella is centred on an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. Kazuko, our narrator, and her fragile mother who are forced to move to the countryside and give up their family home. Gentile Kazuko has no options left but work in the fields. She slowly begins to fear that this menial labour will make her spiritually and physically ‘coarse’. Kazuko laments what she perceives as a decline in moral standards, which she attributes to the rapid industrialisation and Westernisation of her country.
Kazuko’s brother return to Japan causes further distress. Naoji is now addicted to opiodis and his presence in the household upsets Kazuko. His cynicism and cruelty do little to assuage their mother.
As the narrative progresses we are introduced to Mr. Uehara, a writer and an acquaintance of Naoji.
While I was interested in Dazai’s mediations on class, nobility, and the right to die, as well as his navigating the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, I was ultimately underwhelmed by The Setting Sun. Perhaps this is because Kazuko and Naoji’s voices at times were almost interchangeable, or maybe I was never convinced by the character of Kazuko (especially when it came to the man she loves). At times Dazai seemed more interested in rendering the aesthetics of existentialism than of truly delving beneath his character’s surface.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Parade by Hiromi Kawakami

In this short volume readers will be reunited with Tsukiko and Sensei, from Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. After sharing a meal together, Sensei asks Tsukiko to “tell me a story from long ago”. Tsukiko obliges. When she was a child two tengu started following her around. Other children in her class age were also being followed by spirits and creatures from folklore. Kawakami’s sparse prose has lulling quality. She combines quotidian moments or reflections with surreal elements. Tsukiko is regretful about her behaviour towards one of her classmates, so that some of what she recounts is given a bittersweet note.
Throughout this short story there are two-colour illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (geometric shapes and patterns as well as anthropomorphised figures).
I love Kawakami’s prose, the timelessness of her stories, the vague sense of nostalgia that permeates her narratives. Parade felt just a bit too short.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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The Touchstone by Edith Wharton — review

Having read a few works by Edith Wharton, I’ve become familiar with her beautifully articulated style. Still, I was nonetheless impressed by just how accomplished The Touchstone is considering that it is Wharton’s first published novella.
The story revolves around Stephen Glennard, a New York lawyer, who doesn’t have enough money to marry his sweetheart, Alexa Trent. It just so happens that Glennard comes across an advertisement seeking information relating to a figure from his past, the famous and recently deceased novelist Margaret Aubyn. Because Margaret was once in love with Glennard, and the two kept a correspondence, he’s accumulated hundreds of her letters. Although Glennard is fully aware that to sell these private letters would be to betrayal to Margaret, he worries that Alexa won’t wait for him much longer. After editing his name out of the letters and with the help of an acquaintance of his, who happens to be a rich collector, Glennard sells them. The money from the publisher, and from Glennard’s own subsequent investments, enables him to marry Alexa.
This being a work by Wharton however we know that marriage does not equal happiness. Guilt, shame, and endless waves of remorse mar Glennard’s days. Unable to reconcile himself with his actions, knowing that his wife, and the rest of his social circle, would condemn him for the sale, Glennard finds uneasy solace in his memory of Margaret.
Through her elegantly precise prose Wharton renders all the nuances of Glennard’s disillusionment—with himself, his wife, his marriage—as well as evincing his inner turmoil. Wharton complements this character study with a piercing social commentary (focusing on the customs and niceties of the so called ‘polite’ society’). I particularly appreciated the narrative’s engagement with notions of privacy. Why should an author’s private life be made ‘public’? Can one retain a degree of privacy or autonomy over one’s life if they are considered ‘public’ figures? Glennard’s story seems a cautionary tale. He infringes Margaret’s privacy, exposing her personal letters—which were written for the audience of one—to the world. When he comes across people, mostly women, discussing Margaret’s letters, he’s sickened, as much by them as by himself.
Wharton is a master of the trade and The Touchstone is as sophisticated as her later and more celebrated works. In spite of its historical setting The Touchstone is also a strikingly relevant novella (a public figure’s right to privacy vs. the public’s interest) one that explores the ethical and moral repercussions of Glennard’s violation of Margaret privacy and trust.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings — book review

46184288._SY475_While Kathleen Jennings is an undeniably wonderful illustrator, I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly impressed by her novella. What first struck me as somewhat discordant in Flyaway was the prose itself. At times the writing was clunky and there were passages that seemed as if they were trying to echo someone else’s style. The way Flyaway started was also incredibly reminiscent of my favourite novel by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. While in Jackson’s novel the ambiguity felt almost ‘natural’, Flyway seems to be blaring its own mysteriousness. Our narrator, Bettina (I had to check her name, that’s how ‘unforgettable’ she is) has this excessively creepy monologue which consists in her repeating to herself her mother’s ladylike beliefs/rules. Bettina cannot remember why her father disappeared. She isn’t concerned by her hazy memories until she receives a letter that for plot reasons convinces her to embark on a road-trip with her former best friends. Quite a few people have disappeared in their small town, and these three decide to figure out what’s going on. Interspersed in this already short story are chapters about minor characters who are connected to the town and its mystery.
The characters were mere names and lacked personality. Bettina’s narration isn’t nearly as ambivalent as it believes, the various stories were both boring and predictable, and I simply could not get into the flow of Jennings dissonant writing style.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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