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Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson — book review

42519313.jpgMy rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

“I had the children. They caught on fire. I had to keep them from catching on fire.”

As soon as I read Kevin Wilson’s dedication (“for Ann Patchett”) I had a feeling that I was in for a treat (and I was right).
There was something about Wilson’s surrealism that reminded me a bit of Charlie Kaufman’s films (in Synecdoche, New York a character moves into a house that is permanently on fire). Comparisons to Wes Anderson would also not be amiss (dysfunctional families + parental abandonment + quirky protagonist). Also, in its unapologetic eccentricity it reminded me of The Sundial by Shirley Jackson. Yet, Nothing to See Here also struck me as being a wholly original tale.
Equal parts funny and heart-warming , Wilson’s touching novel can be read as an oddly realistic fairy-tale in which children catch fire.

Wilson injects a plausible scenario with a dose of the surreal: in the late spring of 1995 Lillian Breaker, a rather aimless twenty-eight year old, receives a letter from Madison Roberts, her former boarding school roommate. Madison, now married to a senator, has a job opportunity for Lillian: for the course of the summer she is to move into their estate to look after the senator’s ten-year old twins (from his previous marriage). The catch? Having recently lost their mother the twins are going through a bit of rough patch…and when angry or upset they burst into flames.
Like any good fable, Nothing to See Here has plenty layers. The children’s spontaneous combustions can be seen as a metaphor for ‘undesirability’, since due to their propensity to catch fire they are regarded by their father, and by Madison too, as unfit for the public, a source of embarrassment, and as potential dangerous (as their fire may not harm them, but it can burn the people and objects around them). In order to avoid a scandal, one that could put an end to the senator’s promising career, the twins are to stay under Lillian’s constant supervision.
In spite of her complicated feelings towards Madison, Lillian agrees.

The driving force of this novel is its brilliantly matter-of-fact narrator. Lillian is uninhibited, she says what she wants, doesn’t seem to care much about most things (whatever is one of her favourite words), some of her actions make her come across as a bit thick, and she leads a rather aimless existence. She isn’t all that concerned about her future or interested in taking care of herself. Yet, once she becomes responsible for the senator’s twins, she finds herself wanting to do good by them. There was something gratifying about her frankness…I immediately liked her and both understood and sympathised with some of her hang ups (about money, her education, her parents, Madison).

“I don’t know why, but I had just assumed that the kids would one day appear at the estate, maybe stuffed inside a giant wooden crate, packing peanuts pressed against their rickety bodies. I thought I’d just take them in my arms and place them in our new home like dolls in a dollhouse. ”

In spite of their bizarre condition Bessie and Roland are just like any other children: they are funny, easily bored, and perpetually hungry. After experiencing a tragic loss however the twins find themselves struggling to trust others. Realising that their father is ashamed of them only cements their mistrust of adults. Quite naturally then hey experience some difficulties acclimatising to their new circumstances.

“We were a world unto ourselves, even though I knew it was temporary. Eventually we would have to figure something out, a way to integrate the children into the real world. I imagined a time when they sat at that huge dining room table in the mansion, eating eggs Benedict or whatever the fuck while their father read the paper and told them scores from the Braves game the day before.”

I could ‘easily’ summarise the novel as: Lillian looks after the twins, together they spend time in the pool, they eat a few soggy sandwiches, and meditate. Yet, the uneventfulness of the story is somewhat misleading. We get to know Lillian and the children, and we see the way they slowly grow used to each other. We also read of how American aristocrats will try to pass make their selfish behaviour seem as a sacrifice on their part. In spite of their ‘friendship’ there is a clear divide between Madison and Lillian. Lillian’s acceptance, over her past and future, and of the bond she forms with the twins, never seemed forced or cheesy as the novel makes us aware of how imperfect families are.
Within the very first pages I became fascinated with the story’s peculiar characters and their entertaining conversations. While this novel is definitely brimming with humour, it also offers us many surprisingly tender, if not touching, moments. I soon came to love Lillian, for her witty observations and unfiltered narration, and her charges, who could be both chaotic and charming. The dynamics between the various characters are absorbing, the dialogue is engaging, and the characters are wonderfully dysfunctional.
Wilson is an ingenuous storyteller who makes the supernatural seem plausible, so much so that in spite of the children’s condition, this novel feels deeply rooted in realism. Lillian’s satire is funny but never cutting, while the story, in spite of how outlandish it might sound, remains deeply realistic.
It’s a brilliant novel about the imperfect nature of parenting, of how odd caring for others can be (especially if you are unaccustomed to having friends or a family), that has plenty of humour.

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The Confession by Jessie Burton – book review

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Although The Confession had a very promising start…I think I liked the book’s cover more than its actual contents.

“It came smoothly to me, this loosening the threads of my own identity, weaving a new one. How had it become this easy to let go of myself, to pour words and fantasy into these gaping holes?”

The premise of The Confession is one that has been done time and again. A young-ish woman forms a bond with an older woman, the latter is often famous (she can be an actress like in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo or a writer such as in The Thirteenth Tale) or merely involved in some mystery of sorts (The Brimstone Wedding). The older woman will often confide in the younger one, who in her turn will find herself re-assessing her often until then unfulfilling existence. These books often implement a dual timeline to tell both of these women’s stories and towards the end a big secret will be revealed. So yes, I knew that this book was threading familiar paths…still, I hoped that it would give this scenario or these dynamics a new spin…(it didn’t).
In The Confession it is Rose Simmons who approaches the reclusive Constance Holden, an author who vanished from the ‘literary’ world after publishing her second book decades before. After years of silence, before Elise Morceau mysteriously disappeared, she was last seen with Connie.
Having waited so long for any information regarding her mother and her past, Rose, quite unwisely, decides to approach Connie under false-pretences and is employed by her. As Rose becomes invested in Connie she finds it more and more difficult to reveal her true motives and identity to the novelist.
All the while Rose is having some sort of identity crisis: does she love her boyfriend ? What does she want to do with the rest of her life? Can she ever know herself when she’s grown up with a missing parent?
In some chapters the narrative switches to third-person and jumps back in time, taking us to when Elise first met Connie. We see the way in which she falls for Connie, who by then is at the high of her career. The age gap and power imbalance in their relationship however soon causes a rift between them…

I enjoyed the first section of this novel and, in spite of Rose’s temporary lack of sense, I found both narratives to be engaging. Rose and Elise’s story arcs seemed almost to mirror one another; they both lack(ed) a mother figure and they are uncertain of their own abilities.
Much of the novel is concerned with themes of motherhood and pregnancy. Rose resists the pressure from her father, her best friend, and her boyfriend’s family to get married and have children. Feeling that she has yet to truly live she is not willing to lose her agency, and therefore, independence. It is Connie, a woman who has always dedicated mind and body to her writing, who helps Rose recognise that there are other paths for her…
Sadly, the characters, and by extension the relationships they had with one another, weren’t as nuanced as I would have liked. Most of the romantic relationships were rather unconvincing and never gave the impression that the characters actually cared or loved one another (view spoiler). Worst of all, the book, rather than creating a narrative in which there is room for different perspectives regarding certain topics, it goes on a self-righteous spiel. We get it, this is a truly feminist book.

Here are some of the reasons why I didn’t like this book as much as I hoped to:

✖I found many of the discussions surrounding female rage and autonomy as either incongruous or too ham-handed. First of all Connie expresses disapproval that she and her writing are defined only in terms of their femaleness; yet Rose, Connie, and Elise’s questionable actions or general flaws are presented as an unavoidable outcomes in a ‘patriarchal‘ world. Rather than being angry, they were feeling anger on behalf of their whole sex. Their words or choices seemed to always carry on some debate regarding their being female, which went at odds with the way in which these two narratives imply, directly and non, that these women should not be seen only in terms of their gender.

✖While initially I appreciated the story’s conversations around motherhood, I soon noticed that there wasn’t a single female character who was happy or at peace with not having children. We have the one who desperately yearns for a child; one who is about to have a second one and although she is not blind to the stress this will bring she seems relatively happy; and there are the ones who become pregnant and are faced with the choice of continuing or terminating their pregnancy. Connie, the one character who had the potential of being content with not having children, (view spoiler).
I also hated the fact that (view spoiler). All of the women seemed framed by their potential to become mothers. Couldn’t we have one woman who wasn’t defined by her ability to procreate ?!

✖Rather than having flaws the three main characters (Rose, Elise, and Connie) are merely reacting to a mean world. Their selfishness, anger, and stupidity were made to seem like the only solution to the bad people *ahem* or should I say men *ahem* around them. Rose and Elise’s seemed to share the same sort of aimless personality and funnily enough they both seemed too fixated on Connie (for Rose she is a sort of model for female independence; while for Elise she seems to be everything, yikes). Rather than being held accountable for their actions they are made to seem as if they are the wronged ones…they just didn’t seem to posses any distinctive characteristics, which the narrative tries to pin to the fact that they grew up without a mother figure. Mmmh.
Overall I just wasn’t keen on the way they would dramatise themselves and everything they did or felt.

✖The men are portrayed in such a shallow way. The two most prominent male characters seemed to just shrug a lot. They exist only to be insensitive: not only are they completely ignorant in matters concerning motherhood but they often seem to be held accountable for the female characters’ poor choices or bad behaviours. They were deliberately made to seem as little more than ‘meh’. They have no idea how to deal with emotions of any type or form (sadness, anger, love, you name it, they won’t cope with it).

✖While for the most part I really appreciated Burton’s prose, I soon grew wary of the odd way in which she would suddenly turn to saccharine language (for example in expressing the ‘anguish’ experienced by Rose and Elise). There were many sex scenes that were far too twee for my taste. And yet, amidst these corny love making scenes, there were these abrupt crude descriptions which seemed like a poorly veiled attempt to bemodern‘ that succeeded only in irritating me: (view spoiler).

✖This novel takes itself far too seriously. I found the self-congratulatory and polemical tone of the book to be off-putting. Rose and Elise’s stories were made to seem as ‘relatable’ narratives portraying a contemporary/modern female experience…and yet rather than starring complex and flawed protagonists the book focused on two female characters that seemed often just that: female. Oh, wait a second, Elise is beautiful. There we go. And in spite of its attempts to be a serious, if not literary, type of the novel, both Rose and Elise’s narratives soon turned into soap-operas full of perfectly avoidable miscommunications that have serious repercussions.

✖The mystery element is…lacking if not MIA.

In spite of its promising start (I did enjoy the first few cheap tees), and its beautiful front cover (isn’t it lovely?), The Confession was a rather frustrating book. Between its dichotomous arguments, its poorly developed characters, its uneven tone, and its propensity for melodrama it just didn’t work for me.
There are so many books that use a similar premise with much better results…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded up to 3)

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Grand Union: Stories by Zadie Smith — book review

9780241337028.jpgGrand Union: Stories was one of the most insufferable collections of short stories I’ve ever read.
While I do think that Zadie Smith is a good writer I wonder whether she is one in actual practice…sadly I’m starting to think that she will never write something that I will be able to actually appreciate.
Her stories present us with a murky blend of satire and wokeness, which strive to be thought-provoking and ambivalent ‘hot takes‘ on present issues but, more often than not, seem closer to drafts for a creative writing workshop.

These short stories are so focused on critiquing a certain subject that they neglect all other components. To make a certain ‘point’ or to pass as ‘shockingly’ candid narratives, these stories resort to unfunny caricatures and explicit scenes (which are shocking for the sake of being shocking).
Smith combines a mixture of topical or ‘in‘ things such as Tumblr (there is a short story that pokes fun at it through a series of posts that seem as if taken directly by Tumblr itself…how does that qualify as satire?) that go at odds with the erudite references and elaborate speculations that punctuate these narratives.
There were also many phrases that just struck me as unnecessarily contrived: such as “It was true. What the woman had said was true, in intention, but what the girl had said was true, too, in reality” and “For a fatherless family, The Dialectic as theirs now was, this collective aspect was the perfect camouflage. There were no individual people here”.
In spite of their short length, these stories dragged. The first one, perhaps the shortest in the collection, was the least offensive one….the rest seemed to last past their ‘punch line’. For example, a story focused on a certain type of British tourist (a Brexiteer group who goes to Spain to eat British food and float in a pool/river all day) is rather clumsily narrated (the ‘we’ and ‘us’ tried to make them into some sort of multi-conscious collective) and within a few lines resorts to repetition as a way of stressing their poor behaviour.
A story that could have presented us with a woman’s struggle to reconcile herself with her sexuality (in that she wants to dominate rather than submit or be equal to her partner) ends up being little more than a needlessly graphic tale(I don’t mind explicit scenes if they have some sort of purpose/impact or if they are smoothly incorporated within the rest of the narrative) that seems to close to Fifty Shades of Grey for my comfort (view spoiler). Not only did it strike me as being crass just for the sake of being crass but it was also full of corny repetitions ( we get it, she wants to “nullify his flesh in hers”)
This is one shallow collection of stories that seem to exude smugness (yet they are not as clever as they set themselves to be). There is no heart or depth within them, and the characters seem mere sketches that exist only to offer a certain, often idiotic, viewpoint (white, conservative, middle-class women are the worst, we get it). In these stories people suck, the world is terrible, and we should all have a laugh at the expenses of other people’s interests or beliefs.
You might be able to appreciate this one if you are a ‘hardcore‘ Zadie Smith fan…but if you have are not too keen on her writing you might want to skip this one.

A last pearl of wisdom from Smith: “And that’s all a year actually is—a series of months that jump four at a time”.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Akin by Emma Donoghue — book review

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“He and this boy were quite alien to each other, he decide. Yet, in an odd way, akin.”

Akin tells the touching story of Noah Selvaggio, a retired seventy-nine year old chemistry professor, and his eleven year old great-nephew, Michael Young. Noah is a widower who has few remaining connections in the world and his fairly quiet existence is thrown out of balance when he is more or less cajoled into becoming Michael’s temporary carer. Michael’s mother is in prison, his father, Noah’s nephew, died of an overdose, and his maternal grandmother has recently passed away. Noah is, quite understandably, reticent to the idea of looking after Michael…he is aware of the limitations that come with his age, and having never had any contact with Michael or his mother, he feels a mixture of guilt and unease at this sudden ‘reunion’.
Yet, given the circumstances, not only does he find himself accepting to briefly take on this role but he is also forced to take Michael with him in a much overdue trip to Nice, Noah’s place of birth.

“And Mr. Selvaggio is your great-uncle, which is another kind of uncle.”
“What’s so great about him?” Micheal wanted to know.
Whether that was ignorance or wit, it did make Noah smile.”

The simple and unadorned narrative takes us alongside Noah and Michael’s in their stay in Nice. We follow them as they walk around Nice, eat a lot, visit museums and other historical sites. All the while Noah is also preoccupied with a mystery of sorts…having come across as some old photos Noah begins to fear that his mother might have been hiding something…his mind begins to formulate different kind of theories regarding his mother’s actions in WWII: was she a collaborator?

“Such convoluted grammar death required: what tense to describe the hypothetical emotions of a woman who didn’t exist anymore?”

Michael’s constant presence however demands Noah’s undivided attention. The child is rude and bratty, and treats Noah with suspicion and contempt. The two are at odds from the very start. Noah, who spend most of his days living in the past, attempts to make some sort of connection with Michael by acting as a tour guide of sorts. He also reiterates his and Michaels’s family history (Noah’s grandfather was a famous photographer) as a way of reinforcing their familial bond. Michael’s attention however seems wholly devoted to his phone. He swears a lot, demands junk food all the time, and is bored by Noah and his ‘lessons’.
There is a dissonance between the two: the things that have shaped Noah’s life seems to be of little relevance to Michael. At the same time Michael has experienced hardships that Noah finds difficulty to comprehend.

“In the pictures Michael looked older, Noah thought; harder. But really, eleven — that was barely formed.”

The two wander about Nice, often a despondent Michael’s following in Noah’s stead. The city seems to stir something within Noah so that he finds himself compelled to discover the truth about his mother.
Interrogating the past brings to light some deeply disturbing facts. Nice’s own history, the Excelsior Hotel (which happens to be the hotel Noah and Michael are staying in), the risks taken by members of the resistance, the torture they could be made to endure…the narrative portrays in sharp clarity one of the darkest periods of human history.

The dynamic between Noah and Michael eases some of the tension from this perusal of the past. The quarrels had a very natural flow to them; at time they seemed to escalate out of nothing, while in other instances they boiled down to nothing. They constantly seemed exasperated by one another, and I soon grew accustomed to the rhythm of their conversations.
I found myself deeply caring for Noah. His attempts to reach Michael could be both sweet and awkward, and Michael too, in spite of his horrible behaviour, slowly grew on me.

“Why don’t you start it now?”
“I’m good.”
Funny how that had come to mean no.

This genuine story offers us with plenty of thoughtful reflections regarding the differences and similarities between Noah and Michael’s generations. While Michael easily navigates the ‘modern’ world, Noah is accustomed to a different one.
The novel also broaches many subjects—topical and non—in a very frank and natural way; commentaries regarding America and France are embedded in a very smooth manner, so that it never feels overdone.

“How could you do your homework if you didn’t even have a home to work in?”

I was moved by Noah’s internal turmoils, by his introspections and examinations that move between past and present. His ‘kinship’ with Michael was rendered slowly and subtly, so that their relationship never blossoms into an unlikely affectionate bond but the story leaves us with possibility of a camaraderie of sorts between the two.
Filled with equal parts humour and heart, Akin is a wonderfully compelling novel, one that I would happily read again.

“He supposed it was always that way with the dead; they slid away before we knew enough to ask them the right questions. All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember of them, whether it was accurate or not Walk the same streets that they’d walked; take our turn.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman — book review

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“Heart of my heart, love of my life, the only loss I will never survive.”

The Nightingale meets The Golem and the Jinni in Alice Hoffman’s latest novel. Yet, while The World That We Knew may in points thread similar paths to those of many other novels (historical fiction seems to be brimming with WWII books) it is also undeniably Hoffman’s own unique creation, one that seamlessly blends the magical with the real.

“If you do not believe in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand.”

Hoffman’s distinctive writing style imbues her narrative with a beautifully rhythmic quality. Sentences seems to smoothly run into each other, swiftly carrying us from one scene to the next, and creating an effect of constant motion within the narrative itself.
Because of this the novel is more fast-paced than Hoffman’s works usually are. In a certain way it seemed to reflect the turbulent times it depicted, keeping up with the ever-changing war torn Europe, and while I can see why this worked, part of me wished for a slower pace…then again that might have counteracted the sense of urgency generated by the perpetually moving narrative.
Hoffman’s prose also resonates with the story’s focus on Jewish Mysticism and folklore. Not knowing much about certain Jewish practices and beliefs, I was absorbed by Hoffman’s comprehensive representation of this faith and its ideologies. Hoffman allows each of her characters to have a different understanding of this faith, one that is affected—for the better or worse—by their rapidly deteriorating realities. Jewish faith seems to be a multivalent and dynamic element of the story, appearing as more than a mere backdrop, a crucial component of Hoffman’s storytelling itself.

“Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden.”

The enduring love of a mother for her daughter sets in motion the story. To protect her twelve year daughter Lea, Hanni Kohn seeks help from Ettie, a rabbi’s daughter, as to create a golem, one that will become Lea’s guardian. The story will follow Lea, Ava (the golem), Ettie, and two brothers, Julien and Victor, as they attempt to navigate a world which seems determined to erase them and find solace in one another and in the kindness and compassion of strangers. There are many affecting relationships within these pages, familial ones (such as a mother/father-child or a sibling bond), and romantic ones.

“Each felt fortunate to be in the company of the other. The reset of the world and its cruelties didn’t matter as much when they were together.”

As these characters are united and separated, scattered across Nazi-occupied France, they are made to endure loss after loss. Yet, the narrative never entirely succumbs to darkness. While they are negotiating their feelings of grief and despair, they find purpose in helping those around them. Some become part of the resistance (rescuing thousands of Jewish lives) demonstrating their bravery in bold acts of heroism, others perform smaller acts of kindness (for instance Lea’s bond with another girl in hiding).

Ava seemed to be the embodiment of physical and emotional strength. While she may have been created as a ‘stand-in’ for Lea’s mother, she has her own distinctive personality, one that seems, to both readers and characters alike, to be other-worldly. As Ava experiences the world around her she begins to feel more keenly for those around her. Her new sense of self goes against her very nature—we are told many times that one should not mistake a golem for a human being—yet she slowly begins to gain independence. She forms a beautiful and heart-wrenching bond with a heron and her unique worldview gave us glimpses into the magical and temporarily relieved us from the otherwise brutal landscape of the narrative.

“In truth, she felt a kinship with bread and the way it was made, the damp weight kneaded and shaped into proper form, heated until it was set.”

Lea’s tumultuous relationship with Ava is rendered in a striking manner. Lea’s grief and confusion cloud her feelings towards Ava, while Ava slowly loosens the bonds of the role imposed on her by her creator(s).
Hoffman conveys with painful clarity the feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia known by those who are forced into hiding. There are many distressing scenes in which we witness characters being killed or taken to death camps, and Hoffman emphasises the horrors of certain parts of her story by juxtaposing them with seemingly ordinary and mundane scenes. We become accustomed to a family (its routine and dynamics), only to witness them being torn apart.
The youth and dreams of these characters are hampered by a series of events which presage the horrors to come. As Jewish citizens loose their rights and freedom, our characters are forced to reassess their view of the world and of their own future.
In spite of the uncertainty given by their stories, the narrative foreshadows some of these characters’ future decision or actions.

“Her greatest sin would be committed in the future, and it was one for which she could never be forgiven.”

Within her story Hoffman contrasts heart-warming moments between friends and families with the evil carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators. The novel explores the way each character attempts to make sense of themselves in an unrecognisable world.
It is a a tale of faith, grief, love, death, sorrow, destiny, bravery, and freedom. I was both anxious and eager to read about the various characters respective journey’s even if the narrative anticipated the way their story would unfold.

“The past was simply where she lived now, crossing over from on world to the other with such ease it was becoming more difficult to remain in the here and now.”

I thoroughly recommend this to fans of both historical fiction and magical realism. Hoffman’s melodic prose makes for an emotional reading experience.

ps: A ‘shout out’ to NetGalley for allowing me the pleasure of reading this prior its publication!

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee — book review

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“Their words comforted me on many a lonely night and made me feel like part of a family. ”

The Downstairs Girl is a compelling and poignant novel that follows seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan, a Chinese American living in 1890s Atlanta.

The story explores the way in which Jo, alongside other Chinese Americans, are virtually unseen by their society, a society which sees only in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’. Jo is constantly reminded by the people around her that she isn’t a real American. Being a girl further complicates matters, as her future seems to offer few possibilities that don’t involve becoming a wife.
Jo’s upfront narration make her into an immediately sympathetic character. I admired her resilience and wisdom. Time and again she is forced to adapt to the hard reality around her: the people around exclude her, mistreat her, and worse still. After being unjustly fired from her hat maker position she is forced to work for an old childhood acquaintance, a girl who has grown from a child bully (who enjoyed tormenting Jo) into a cruel young woman with a vicious streak (I kept thinking of her as Charlotte LaBouff’s evil twin).
Jo, together with Old Gin—an elderly man who has taken care of her ever since she was abandoned as a baby by her parents—secretly lives below the house of a newspaper family. Over the course of her life she has longed to belong to a family such as theirs but so far has contented herself to observing them. Luckily for Jo, the family is in need of an ‘agony aunt’ and she believes, quite rightly, that she has the skills for the job. By assuming the identity of Miss Sweetie, Jo can address issues regarding race and gender. Her columns of course aren’t well received by all…

There are various interesting plot-lines that make The Downstairs Girl into an engrossing read. Jo is an interesting main character, which makes a change from most YA releases which usually star rather insipid protagonists. Here we have a narrator who you can really root for and truly admire. Her passion for words and great empathy made her all the more compelling.
The cast of characters is as complex as the protagonist herself. I must commend Stacey Lee for making each character into a nuanced one. Rather than condoning the behaviour or qualities of her characters, she allows Jo—and by extension the readers—to see that something or someone might have influenced their actions. She doesn’t excuse their awfulness but rather she allows us to see the many different sides that make up a person’s character.
The setting was almost frightfully realistic (racism and sexism are sadly an every-day reality). There are many western elements which balanced some of the heavier themes explored by the story, and I enjoyed the use of certain conventions of the historical fiction genre (for example, Jo dresses as a man). The novel portrays a particular type of American experience, one that focus on the individuals who are rejected by their own society (for example, Jo’s friends are excluded by Atlanta’s white feminists so form a group of their own). Jo is able to connect with those who similarly to her are marginalised by mainstream society.
Running alongside various other side-plots is the one of Jo’s identity. While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by certain revelations I was still completely captivated by the story and by Jo’s quest for the truth.
The sweet and genuine romance between Jo and another character was a minor aspect of this novel, one that made for some lovely and heartfelt scenes, moments of repose for both Jo and her readers.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this one, especially to those looking for a YA take on western or for those who are looking for a thought-provoking story that explores the intersection between identity, family, and society.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger — book review

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“Whatever happens, Odie, we’ll still have each other. We’ll always be brothers.”

Stephen King meets Charles Dickens in William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Set against the Great Depression Krueger’s Odyssean-like narrative takes inspiration from stories such as the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and/or Huckleberry Finn. Rather than offering a rehash of these tales, This Tender Land presents us with a series of complex and thought-provoking adventures. The experiences of our protagonists, four orphans who call themselves the vagabonds, will surely strike a chord with most readers.

Unwanted and neglected, these four children will experience hardship after hardship, and throughout their travels they will encounter many different sides of their society. Lincoln School ( a school where Native American, after being ripped away from their families, are ‘educated’ ) has left both physical and emotional scars in all of them. The only two white boys there Odie and Albert together with their best-friend Mose and Emmy, a recently orphaned girl of six, embark towards their own idea of home. In their journey towards safety and love they are hunted down by Lincoln School’s superintendent Mrs. Brickman, a woman who holds a particular grudge against Odie.
Soon the four vagabonds will learn that the world outside their prison-like school is a lot bleaker than they’d hoped for. The land is harsh, the people are desperate, and soon they come to understand that their ideas of ‘home’ do not coincide. As each child gains understanding of who they are and what they want, they risk drifting away from each other.
Odie, our narrator, particularly struggles with this. The cruelties he suffers time and again have made him cling all the more desperately to his chosen family. His lack of judgement and impulsivity often get the better of him, yet readers will find themselves sympathising with him even in his biggest mistakes. His gift for storytelling and playing the harmonica provide some truly heartfelt scenes.
In his odyssey Odie is forced to question if the end justifies the means…yet even as he lies, steals, and does even worse, he begins to interrogate his own morality making for some provoking reflections on justice, duty, and the extent to which we can categorise are choices as being right or wrong.

The vagabond’s mis-adventures, similarly to the winding river they travel on, will whisk them far away from Lincoln School. Krueger’s depiction of Minnesota is startling vivid. The land he writes is a harsh mistress indeed. It causes strife, poverty, starvation, and death, turning good men into husks of their former selves. Krueger also doesn’t flinch away from the time’s attitude towards child abuse and labour, the persecution and dehumanisation of Native Americans, and the large quantity of homeless people…within his tale there is cruelty, hatred, racism, greed…and yet the story never succumbs to darkness.
There is the beautiful friendship between the four vagabonds, as well as the big and small acts of kindness and love they witness along the way, and there is always hope for a better future.
Krueger’s poetic style provides plenty of melodic descriptions, thoughtful reflections, and heartfelt conversations. He has an ear for the way people speak, which makes his dialogues all the more authentic.

All of his characters were nuanced and believable. Regardless of our feelings towards a particular character we couldn’t easily label or dismiss them as being good or bad. Each character has individual circumstances that have shaped their worldview and their actions. Also Krueger makes it quite clear that often our narrator’s descriptions of certain characters are influenced by his own feelings towards them. Similarly to him, Odie’s friends are also affected and shaped by their journey. Unlike him however readers can only witness their character development from the outside, so that we see how they slowly begin to behave differently without always knowing what exactly is occurring ‘inside’ them.

I switched between reading this and listening to the audiobook edition and equally enjoyed both version. Readers who are looking for an emotional tale of forgiveness and hope should definitely consider picking up This Tender Land.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster — book review

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A compilation of wonderfully funny and awkward anecdotes.

Perfect Sound Whatever will definitely appeal to readers who are already acquainted with James Acaster. As I consider him to be one of my favourite comedians I was looking forward to this new book by him. Acaster manages to translate his ‘on screen/on stage’ humour to both the print and the audiobook format of Perfect Sound Whatever. What comes through is also his passion for the project that is at the heart of Perfect Sound Whatever: to convince his audience that 2016 Was The Best Year For Music.
He recounts of how the music from this particular year helped him rediscover his love for music and come through a particularly miserable year (aka 2017) in which his girlfriend broke up with him, he was dropped by his agent left him, and had to stop seeing his incredibly unprofessional therapist.

His deep dive into pop, rock, indie, metal, electronic, and some very obscure music of 2016 clearly provided him with both purpose and relief.
Throughout his endlessly amusing narrative he intersperses some of his favourite 2016 tracks, providing readers with some information about the artists’ life, career, and music style. His critique of these songs were surprisingly in-depth as he is able to discern exactly what elements of a track speaks to him and why. Acaster also manages to fit the right artist and track to a particular moment of his ‘not-so-good’ year. These songs clearly spoke to him and it was lovely to see the way in which music helped him feel more in control of his life.
I recommend listening to the audiobook format as Acaster’s performance enhances his already entertaining book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up)

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A Pure Heart: A Novel by Rajia Hassib — book review

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A Pure Heart’s portrayal of sisterhood is tepid at best.
The needlessly expository narration, the clichéd character dynamics, and the meandering storyline didn’t really grab me at all.

This novel reminded me a lot of The Other Americans and many other titles that seemed aimed at an American audience…so we have these two sisters who don’t get along: one is usually very religious and perceived by the others as conservative; the other one is usually pursuing some sort of academic study, she is thought as ‘unconventional’, she is far more spirited/animated than her sister, and she usually ends up falling in love or marring an American guy.

Maybe I could have looked past the predictability of the story if said story had been told in an engaging or emotionally charged manner…but that wasn’t the case. Here we have very flat storytelling, which provides very little nuance, and attempts to create atmosphere by describing each movement its various characters make (they sit up, they walk here, they walk there, they move their hands, the use their hands to lift objects, their legs move…) and resulting in a slog of a narrative.
There is this one scene in which perhaps the author wanted to juxtapose the tension between a group characters by over-describing all of their actions during their dinner together:
➜ “Rose pulled her hand back. She got up to carry the turkey to the countertop and, after washing her hands, started pulling pieces of meat off its carcass.
➜ “Ingrid walked up to the cabinet, stretched to reach the box of Ziploc bags.
➜ “Ingrid asked, taking the plates from Mark and rinsing them before putting them in the dishwasher.
➜ “Rose glanced at Mark, who was slowly wiping the table, now cleared of plates, with a wet washcloth, his hand going from side to side, again and again, […] Mark wiped the table with a dry cloth, now rubbing it in spots, scraping at it with his thumbnail, making sure every crumb was gone, every inch was glistening,”.

Soon I was tired of reading phrases such as these:
➜ “She did not lift her eyes from her noodles, stabbing them with the fork, turning it to wrap them around its prongs.
➜ “she opened the fridge, pulled out a cup of fruit yogurt, and ate it standing by the window.

The non-linearity of the story also served very little purpose. Looking at past events didn’t really provide us with a more in-depth portrayal of the various characters, but rather it made their shallow characterisation all the more glaring. We have the American nice-ish husband who is bland and in spite of his fixation on Egypt he will never quite understand his wife or her country; his douchebag male friend who is the stereotype of the inconsiderate bro-dude American; the eccentric Polish landlady…
The story would have benefited from having a narrower scope, giving us an insight into the psychology of the two sisters. This story could have easily been told in a more conventionally linear timeline, giving us time to familiarise ourselves with the two sisters, to see their bond shift and change over the course of their youth.

The last part of book includes the story of a character that should have either been the entire focus of this narrative or merely a ‘backstage’ figure…perhaps the author should have trusted her readers more as she didn’t quite need to cram in a hurried narrative of a hard-working young man who ends up doing an unthinkable act of violence after he experiences hardship after hardship.
What could have been an interesting story of sisterhood and belonging ended up becoming a rather trite, and occasionally tacky, narrative that strives to be aesthetic and topical…

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 ½ stars 

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The Oracle of Cumae by Melissa Hardy — book review

Untitled drawing.jpg“I listened as Sibylla told me for the third or fourth or fifth time, about something that happened to her a thousand years ago and that might have been funny then, but, clearly, you had to have been there.”

The Oracle of Cumae is a humorous tale that might appeal to readers who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown series, or even books by Rick Riordan. While I enjoyed how witty and playful the narrative could be I was also aware of the various mistakes punctuating the novel.

“Actually, I’m rather hoping for Purgatory.”
“Impossible. Suicides go to Hell. Everyone knows that!”
“I’m hoping to negotiate my position.”

The story is a fun romp that has plenty of comical moments and diverting scenarios. The title character is portrayed in a refreshing way and I do think that the narrative should have focused more on her rather than the people from Mariuccia Umbellino’s youth. There are amusing running gags which create a sense of familiarity between the readers and the story, such as when Mariuccia or her family explain to outsiders that their local pastor is blind, illiterate, and can’t speak Latin:

“He can’t read?” the Prior exclaimed. “How can he say Mass?”
“He acts it out,” said Papa.
“It’s very entertaining,” Mama added. “The children love it.”

The humour is the biggest strength of the story. There are some brilliant back and forths which really complemented the setting and emphasised the characters’ various eccentricities. At times the humour could be quite silly and light:

“Look!” Cesare cried. “He smiled! His very first smile!”
“Actually I am told that babies don’t really smile until about the age of two months,” said Pellicola drily. “It’s probably just gas.”

And in other occasions it could become closer to that of a black comedy:

“Don’t ask me. You know full well that I was an only child. ”
“As was I,” reflected Dr. Pellicola a little dreamily. “No, wait. There was a sister, but she ate something in the garden and died. Belladonna, I believe it was. I think I put her up to it, but, as I was only four at the time, I was forgiven. Even then I was fascinated by medicinal herbs!”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this zestful narrative style. There was a vivacious energy underlining each of the various characters’ interactions which made the story all the more engaging. It was fun to see how Melissa Hardy applies a modern humour to a historical setting.

“I tell you what. Go commit your sin. Come back next Wednesday at this time. Confess, and I’ll absolve you. That’s the way the system works. Now, if you are quite through…?”

Hardy also makes interesting references to a lot of historical anecdotes and places, incorporating certain historical events and locations into her tale (such as the mummies of the Chiesa dei Morti).
The story itself wouldn’t hold up without this abundance of humour as it is what brings the characters into focus. The storyline could have had been more clear-cut and with a more satisfactory inclusion of the oracle. I would have preferred following Mariuccia during her a larger chunk of her life rather than having the narrative focusing on a year or two when she was a teenager. More could have been made of the story as it had a lot of potentially interesting elements, it seems however that much of the narrative stems from a not fully sketched out idea.

There were also a lot of mistakes and inaccuracies which detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book.
➜ The story opens in Italy during the late 19th century (1896 to be precise) and Mariuccia Umbellino, who has just turned ninety nine, calls a priest in order to confess some of her secrets. Although she says that she worked for Bacigalupo & Sons for fifty years (“The business that I preserved and built upon for fifty years”) implying that she must have started working for this company before the 1850s, the narrative later states that Bacigalupo & Sons was founded in the “early nineteen hundreds”, a period of time that is often used to refer to the early 1900s as opposed to the early 1800s.
➜While I don’t have a problem with writers outside of Italy writing about Italy or setting their book in Italy I do get frustrated by the lack of research that some of these authors pay to the Italian language. Google is quite a handy tool and it isn’t difficult to double check the Italian equivalent to certain English terms. Often English-speaking authors will throw untranslated Italian words into their narratives as a way of making their story more believable and quaint. Time and again these authors will use Mama and Papa when referring to Italian characters’ mothers and fathers. Yet, Mama and Papa have no place in the Italian dictionary. They belong to British shows like Downton Abbey. Italians use Mamma and Papà. In Italian Papa means Pope. Not the same as Papà. I actually looked up online a historical dictionary ( http://www.bdcrusca.it/scaffale.asp ) to double-check the period’s terms for Dad and Mum and it turns out that Mariuccia would have used Mamma for Mum and Babbo or Padre for her father.
➜There other Italian words that are misspelled such as ‘schiffo’ instead of ‘schifo’; ‘respetto’ instead of ‘rispetto’; and ‘fritti mistos’ should have been ‘fritti misti’.

When writing about a different culture to your own writers and their editors should ensure that they are at least using the correct words (if they insist on implementing untranslated terms) and names (many of the names in this story seemed odd but given that this is ‘historical’ I was willing to look past them).

In spite of these irritating mistakes, I was entertained by this novel and I’m looking forward to read more by this author.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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