BOOK REVIEWS

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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BOOK REVIEWS

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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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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BOOK REVIEWS

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

(heads up: this review contains mentions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as explicit language)

While I doubt that Milk Fed will win many awards, I sure hope that it wins the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It 100% deserves to.

“Was it real freedom? Unlikely. But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.”

Milk Fed follows in the steps of novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (or to name a few others: Pizza Girl, Luster, Exciting Times, Severance, Hysteria, The New Me…and no, this is by no means a comprehensive list). As I’ve said before in my review for Luster, these books are a hit or miss for me. And at first I thought that Milk Fed was a definite hit but after the 30% mark the novel became increasingly repetitive, annoyingly self-indulgent, and ludicrously sensationalistic. To me, Milk Fed reads like a less compelling version of You Exist Too Much. Both novels focus on young bisexual women who have a rather toxic relationship with their mother. They both suffer at one point or another from an eating disorder. They are self-destructive and directionless. Their attempts to seek therapeutic help do not go all that well. The narrator of You Exist Too Much does some fucked up things but ultimately I cared for and sympathised with her. It helped that I found her caustic wit to be genuinely funny. Milk Fed is all style and no substance. Perhaps those who can enjoy this kind of turgid prose may be able to find this novel amusing or insightful but it just reminded of all the reasons why I did not like Susan Choi’s My Education.
Also, fyi, I had an eating disorder. However, I would never describe myself as a ‘survivor’ nor do I believe that you can’t write a dark comedy about eating disorders. I like satire and cringe comedy (Succession and Fleabag are favourites of mine) but I am certainly not a fan of narratives that are solely intent on being as garish and gratuitous as possible.

Our narrator, Rachel, is an aimless twenty-something who in the very opening of the novel informs us that “It didn’t matter where I worked: one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it”. Rachel thinks about food 24/7. She obsesses about calories, follows seemingly arbitrary eating rituals, exercises everyday not in order to get stronger or leaner but to burn as many calories as possible. She seems to view her troubling relationship to food and her body as preferable to ‘the alternative’ (not being ‘skinny’). She goes to therapy, “hoping to alleviate the suffering related to both my food issues and my mother, but without having to make any actual life changes in either area”. During one of these sessions her therapist recommends that Rachel should take a “communication detox” from her mother (suggesting at least 90 days of no contact).

“Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?”

We learn through brief flashbacks and Rachel’s recounting that one of the reasons why developed an eating disorder is her mother. As a child Rachel’s mother would shame her for eating things she believed were ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ and imposed strict diets on Rachel. Rachel began to binge-eat (in secret), which made her gain weight. To ‘make up’ for it Rachel begins to eat less and less, which sees her becoming anorexic (when she confesses to her mother that she thinks she may be anorexic her mother dismiss this by saying something on the lines of her not being ‘skinny enough’ to be truly anorexic). Rachel’s mother is horrible and she gives the mother from You Exist Too Much a run for her money…but, unlike You Exist Too Much, here we only told bad things about Rachel’s mother. Because of Rachel’s ‘detoxing’ from her, she never makes an appearance in the actual story. Her presence certainly haunts Rachel but I wish she had not been portrayed in such a skewed way. Making someone embody only negative traits is a very easy way of making them unlikable or into the ‘bad guy’.

Rachel doesn’t care about her job ( I cannot precisely remember what she does other than it has to do with ‘Hollywood’) nor does she have any friends or hobbies (unless you count obsessing about food as a hobby). She is desperate for validation, which is perhaps why once a week she does stand up comedy for a night show called ‘This Show Sucks’. This thread of her life often felt unexplored and out of place. You could probably cut out the scenes she spends at this show and the story would be much the same (by the end this show’s main purpose seems to be that of a meeting place).
At work she has sort of bonded with an older woman who she sees both as a mother-figure of sorts and as an object of desire. This leads to some predictably gross incestuous fantasies that have a very Freudian feel to them as they exist mainly to indicate Rachel’s state of mind (and they have the added bonus of grossing the reader out). During one of these sexual fantasies, which goes on and on for quite a few pages, Rachel imagines being ‘mothered’ by this older female colleague. Later, when she begins bingeing again, she imagines having sex with this same colleague, only this time she is the one who is in doing the ‘dominating’.
Rachel’s first meets Miriam at the frozen yogurt shop where she usually gets a plain yogurt from (part of her eating routine). Miriam, who works at this shop, insists on giving Rachel a bigger portion of yogurt. Because of this Rachel is annoyed by Miriam. Added to that is Rachel repulsion towards Miriam’s body (she describes Miriam as being “medically obese”). However, Miriam’s nonchalance towards food and her body soon catch Rachel’s attention. Her initial repulsion gives way to lust, and the two women seem to ‘bond’ over the fact that they are both Jewish (Miriam however, unlike Rachel who does not seem to practice any Jewish rituals and does not believe in God, is Orthodox).
Miriam invites Rachel to her house and Rachel idealises her family and home-life. They all enjoy eating and cooking food, and their meals together are happy occasions.
Rachel believes that Miriam reciprocates her feelings and the two being a very one-way sexual relationship. Things, of course, do not go as planned. Rachel’s ups and downs with food, her self-hatred, her unresolved mummy issues, they all contribute to her self-destructive behaviour.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the book’s switch of focus (from Rachel’s ED to Rachel feelings for Miriam) if the relationship between Rachel and Miriam had not been wholly superficial. Miriam is reduced to the role of sex object. There are many instances were Rachel, and the readers, could have learnt more of her—what kind of person she is, her feelings towards Rachel, the way she sees herself, her future & desires, etc.—but we do not. What we get instead are many scenes about Rachel wanting to have sex with Miriam, obsessing over Miriam’s body, masturbating while thinking of Miriam or that her colleague, having sex with Miriam…the list goes on. The way Rachel’s thinks about Miriam’s body raised a few red flags and her attraction towards her sometimes verged on fetishising. She doesn’t think of Miriam but merely of Miriam’s body. Many of the metaphors used when the two are having sex or when Rachel is fantasising about her are food related (Rachel describes Miriam’s moles as “chocolate drops”, her tongue as a “fat piece of liver she was king enough to feed me”). She also loves watching her eat and is aroused when Miriam “slurp[s] dumplings”. Miriam’s “rolls of fat” are like “pussies” to Rachel. I don’t know…these descriptions were probably meant to be funny and weird but they mostly struck me as affected and cheap.
Most of the sex scenes in this novel were awful. They tried hard to be gritty and real but ended being the opposite: when watching a film with Audrey Hepburn Rachel imagines Audrey’s “concave thighs” and sticking her “mouth in her little pussy”; when she is holding Miriam’s hand she views this as an act of sexual intercourse, her finger is a “a cock, a penetrating object”; some of her fantasies included phrases such as “I activated Frankencock” or “It was like nipples were two clits”; when she is having sex with Miriam she smells “the faintest waft of shit coming up from underneath her. It smelled like fertile heaven: peat moss, soil, sod, loam”. Later in the novel she brags about fingering a guy to that older female colleague in order to impress her, feeling remorse in doing so. She never confronts her mother or this colleague, nor does she feel challenged or inspired by her relationship with Miriam. Yes, the more time she spends with Miriam, the less she restricts but throughout the course of the narrative she maintains an obsessive relationship with food and keeps assigning moralistic values to food. I never believed that she cared for Miriam, nor do I think that the relationship helped her somehow. Miriam…she did not strike me as a fully fleshed character. While her body is described in minute detail, her personality remains largely absent. Often, it seemed that Rachel viewed Miriam’s body as representing her ‘essence’. She likes going to the cinema, she’s Jewish, she seems to care for her family…other than that? Who knows!
Because this is a satire most of the characters exist in order to make fun of a certain type of person: we have Rachel’s manager, a woke ‘dude bro’, her older female colleague who is thin, mean, and enjoys belittling other people’s appearance etc., the famous actor who is kind of full of himself, the not very helpful therapist who sees fake deep things…
The narrative also had a thread involving a golem (Rachel creates it out of putty during one of her therapy sessions) and a series of dreams with Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and, to be perfectly honest, these were my favourite elements of Rachel’s story. Sadly however they do not play a huge role in the plot, and most of the narrative is dedicated to Rachel having sex or thinking about her ‘pussy’. Seriously, there were times when this book brought to mind WAP cause there are a few situations in which Rachel and Miriam would benefit from using a mop.

I would not recommend this to those who have been affected by an ED. Although the author initially seemed to have captured many sentiments that resonated with me, Rachel’s ED is ultimately used as a source of humour. There are many grotesque scenes that serve very little purpose other than ridiculing her. And I’m very over books or films that feature characters who offhandedly remark ‘I tried to go bulimic once but like it didn’t work’ (then again, I had bulimia so I am a bit touchy on that particular front).
Anyway, this novel tries to be outrageous and subversive but it succeeds only in being gratuitous. This is the kind of satire that is all bark, no bite. The author’s commentary on modern work culture, eating disorders, contemporary society, religion, the Palestinian-Israel conflict …is lacking.
Also, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, our supposedly shrewd girl, and this famous actor would get Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creature confused.

Nevertheless, just because I found Melissa Broder’s story to be superficial and ultimately unfunny, does not mean that you should not give this novel a try (bear in mind however that this books has some pretty yucky and incest-y content).
Here is a snippet which I did not enjoy but might very well appeal to other types of readers:

“Her hair was the color of cream soda, or papyrus scrolls streaked with night light. Her eyebrows were the color of lions, lazy ones, dozing in sunlight or eating butter at night with their paws by lantern. Her eyes: icebergs for shipwrecking. Lashes: smoke and platinum. Her skin was the Virgin Mary, also very baby. Her nose: adorable, breathing. Upper lip: pink peony. Lower lip: rose. The teeth were trickier, but her inner mouth was easy–Valentine hearts and hell.”

my rating: ★★½

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Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“My father wasn’t a wound or even a scar, not a black hole or a dry desert. He just wasn’t. Not for me anyway. Mom was my sun and my moon. I was her all, too, and that was us.”

In Crooked Hallelujah Kelli Jo Ford presents her readers with a nonlinear exploration of the lives of four generations of Cherokee women. Each chapter can be read as a self-contained story, focusing on a particular phase of a character’s life (childhood, teenage years, early adulthood, etc). The first chapter gives us a flavour of these women’s lives: in 1974 Justine lives with her mother, Lula, and her grandmother, Granny, in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Both Lula and Granny are ardent members of the Holiness Church. Justine, like the rest of her relatives, has to abide her church’s strict rules: she has to lead a pious life, dress modestly, conduct herself in a godly manner, say no to the sins of the flesh…the list goes on. Whereas Lula and Granny are passionate about their community, Justine finds herself growing restless. As teased by the novel’s summary, an ‘act of violence’ sets on her own journey, one that sees becoming entangled with layabouts, abusers, and alcoholics. Her daughter, Reney, finds herself following in her mother’s steps, ending up with men who are good-for-nothing. Some of the chapters focus on characters who don’t seem all that connected to the lives of Justine and Reney, and Granny, easily the most likeable character of the lot, doesn’t get enough page-time.
The nonlinearity of these stories was detrimental to my reading experience. Justine and Reney’s personalities blurred together, as they both seemed defined by the men they are with. Granny, on the other hand, had some discernible character traits that made into a far more rounded character. Lula remains an undeveloped character, someone who appears know and again as a woman who has been indoctrinated and blinded by her religious (in the first chapter alone she demonstrated some initiative). Justine has some sisters but they might as well not be there as are barely mentioned. The majority of the men were either despicable or incompetent. Then we have this odd chapter which focuses on a Forrest Gump sort of figure that felt really out-of-place (what did he have to do with Justine and Reney’s stories?).
I can’t say that I found Crooked Hallelujah to be a particularly memorable read. Rocky structure aside the characters and their storylines did not really leave a mark. We have snapshots from Justine and Reney lives, and these often emphasise how rootless they feel, or their questionable taste in men. I wish I’d gotten a stronger impression of the bond between Justine and Reney, or Reney and Granny (Reney tells us that Granny was her soulmate but the two shared very few moments together).
Still, I liked the author’s dialogues as she manages to convey different argots and dynamics. Her prose was for the most part okay, but, as I said above, her storyline seemed unfocused and repetitive and her characters were pretty thinly rendered. I can sort of see why so many other reviewers gave this one 3 stars. It isn’t necessarily bad but it just never seemed to reach its full potential. Zalika Reid-Benta in Frying Plantain not only implements a similar narrative structure but explores similar themes and dynamics (between mother/daughter, mother/grandmother, grandchild/grandmother) in a much more impactful and meaningful way, so I would probably recommend you pick that one up instead.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“That was the thing that was at the heart of my reluctance and my resentment. Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some people don’t.”

In an eloquent and precise prose Yaa Gyasi interrogates a young woman’s relationship to her family, her faith, her past, and her self. Her brother’s addiction and her mother’s depression have irrevocably shaped Gifty, the protagonist and narrator of Transcendent Kingdom, who is now a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. Her quiet and controlled existence is disrupted by the arrival of her mother, who has once again succumbed to a depressive state, barely responding to the world around her, let alone taking notice of her daughter. Gifty, who spends most of her time in her lab, where she’s researching the neural circuits of reward seeking behaviour (by experimenting on mice) finds herself looking back to her childhood, her college years and her first years at Stanford.
Throughout the course of the novel Gyasi weaves together Gifty’s past and present, delineating her self-divide and her fragile relationship to her mother.
Gifty’s recollection of her childhood is free of sentimentality, and she’s very much matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting her brother’s addiction to OxyContin, the racism she and her family are exposed to in America, the lack of support they receive (“They just watched us with some curiosity. We were three black people in distress. Nothing to see.”), especially from the members of their church.
We also learn of her parents’ immigration from Ghana to Alabama, her father’s disconnect from his new home, her mother’s desire to fit in and adapt, the rift caused by their opposing stances (wanting to return to Ghana/wanting to remain in America). After her father’s return to Ghana, Gifty’s mother spends most of her time working in order to keep the family afloat, so it is Nana who becomes the central figure in her life. In spite of their age gap and their sibling spats, the two are very close, and Gifty looks up to her brother. An injury occurred while playing basketball lands Nana in hospital where a doctor prescribes him OxyContin for the pain. In the following years Gifty witnesses her brother’s spiralling further into addiction, while her mother desperately tries to ‘save’ him.
While these experiences have affected Gifty’s relationship to her faith, and she’s somewhat embarrassed when reading her old diary entries, in which she pleads for divine intervention, as an adult Gifty finds herself craving that ardor.
In college she struggles between wanting to be alone and wanting to connect with others. Her background causes some of her science peers to make scoffing remarks or prejudiced presumptions, and the few people who try to get close to her are inevitably pushed away.

Throughout the course of the narrative Gyasi shows how time and again Gifty is made to feel as if she cannot possibly find comfort in both science and religion. Yet, for Gifty, the two are not in opposition: “[T]his tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
Given that her childhood was disrupted by her father’s departure, her brother’s addiction, and her mother’s depression, isn’t it natural for Gifty to wonder ‘why?’. Why did her brother become an addict? Why is her mother depressed? Her search for answers, for a reason, for the ability to discern cause and effect, fuels her studies and in many ways her faith. Once she finds herself once again with her mother however her resolve not to talk or reveal her past is tested.
This novel tells an emotionally devastating tale about love, forgiveness, guilt, pain, and identity. Reading this novel made my heart ache. Addiction and depression have left their mark on my family, and Gifty’s experiences hit too close to home. And yet, however upsetting it was to read about the insidiousness of addiction and depression, Gyasi incisive observations and wisdoms assuage my uneasiness.
Gyasi exerts perfect control of her prose as she navigates Gifty’s childhood and adulthood. Her restrained style perfectly reflects Gifty’s self-restraint. She offers piercing meditations on family, philosophy, science, and faith, and Gifty’s quiet meditations on these subjects are articulated in a meticulous yet striking way.
I’m not sure what else I can add other than I was (am) in awe of this book. It made me feel seen and understood.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”

“I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear. I suspected that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you did something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly as it was expected to be.”


“It would have been kinder to lie, but I wasn’t kind anymore. Maybe I never had been. I vaguely remember a childhood kindness, but maybe I was conflating innocence and kindness. I felt so little continuity between who I was as a young child and who I was now that it seemed pointless to even consider showing my mother something like mercy. Would have I been merciful when I was a child?”

“The two of us back then, mother and daughter, we were ourselves an experiment. The question was, and has remained: Are we going to be okay?”

“My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

“I remember what it was like to be that age, so aware of yourself and of the theater of your private little shames.”

“It was boring, but I preferred this familiar boredom to the kind I found at home. There, boredom was paired with the hope of its relief, and so it took on a more menacing tint.”

““What’s the point of all of this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing”?”

“Thought I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life”

“I didn’t grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing.”

“I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

“I like you best when you’re feeling holy. You make me feel holy too.”

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Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Empire of Wild is one of those novels that doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. There were a few moments that I actually enjoyed, but these were far too few in between. We have a half-baked storyline, some painfully cartoonish villains, a thinly rendered main character, and an unsatisfying conclusion.


Empire of Wild follows Joan who has recently returned to her Métis community in northern Ontario. After a heated argument with her husband, over the land Joan has inherited from her father, he walks out of their home in a huff…and he doesn’t come back. A year later Joan is still desperately trying to make sense of Victor’s disappearance, hoping to glimpse his face every time she goes outside. Although her family initially helped her look for Victor, they have now moved on and urge her to do the same.
When Joan walks into a revival tent for laughs, she doesn’t expect to see her husband. Except the man, a reverend, doesn’t know who she is, and calls himself Eugene Wolff.
Ajean, an older woman from Joan’s community, believes that the Rogarou, a wolf-like creature, may have something to do with what happened to Victor. Joan, convinced that Eugene is Victor, decides to ‘take’ him back, and the person behind the revival isn’t too happy about it.

I really liked the scenes with Ajean. I liked her no-nonsense attitude and her knowledge of Métis lore. Sadly, she only plays a minor role in the story, and the narrative mostly switches between Joan, Victor, and the two ‘bad’ guys. Joan’s nephew had the potential of being a likeable character (he feels left out from his immediate family and has a quirky obsession with Johnny Cash) but there were things he said or did that didn’t really ring true (and made him sound like an older man or a possessive lover). Although the book summary makes it sound as if he really helps Joan in her ‘quest’ to take Victor back, he mainly looks up stuff on the internet for her (and he does this quite later on in the narrative…which is weird given that Joan should have wanted this type of information way earlier in the story).
Joan’s family are also largely overlooked, which is a pity as it would have been nice to read about Joan’s relationship with her mother and siblings. They have two meals together, and that’s about it. Their first meal actually gave us an impression of their dynamics and disagreements (when discussing their job prospects), but this scene was far too fleeting, and I wish the story had remained more focused on Joan’s family.
There were chapters focused on Victor, and these were very short and intentionally confusing (he is the woods). In a way these chapters weren’t actually about him. He’s so out of it that we don’t really gleam anything about what kind of person he is. I think that the story would have benefited from some flashbacks, that way we could have seen Victor and Joan together. But we don’t. And because of that I didn’t really care for their relationship. Joan misses him, sure. Often, however, she seemed to miss having sex with him—which, fair enough—more than him.
After seeing him once at the revival, during this ‘first’ meeting she’s somewhat drunk, she is absolutely certain that this reverend is Victor. She doesn’t wait for proof but immediately plans to win him back by seducing him. Like, really? She doesn’t seem worried about the fact that he could have been brainwashed or possessed, or that he has amnesia. Nah. After this confusing encounter she knows that this man is her husband (I mean, I wish she could have at least considered the twin brother theory) and rather than doing some extensive research, she’s all ‘I’m going to wear my best panties’. Which, yeah. Great plan.
For reasons unbeknown to me, the narrative also follows the two baddies. Rather than making them more believable, these sections consolidated my not so positive view of them. They were painfully clichéd. The ‘evil’ son of German immigrants who possesses only vices (he’s either having, just about to, or finished having sex). The woman is a psychopath who is jealous, petty, and cruel. I didn’t particularly like the ‘slut-shaming’ tone the narrative had when focused on this character.
Speaking of ‘shaming’, most of the time both overweight and underweight characters are described with a certain acerbic or mocking tone. The three young-ish women who have most page time (Joan, Ivy, and Cecile) are particularly disparaging towards each other’s bodies. And part of me really wanted to shake them for it. Given the circumstances they are in, would Joan really have the time to whinge about Joan’s thigh-gap?
I think this book could have been far more interesting and thought-provoking. I wish Dimaline could have explored more in-depth the effects that colonialism, capitalism, religious institutions, the Canadian government have on a community like Joan’s. But she merely scratches the surface by mentioning that indigenous people are being manipulated/forced into giving their lands away. And for the most part the narrative seemed to imply that only cartoonishly bad men are responsible for this.
Joan was an underwhelming character. I only really rooted for her in one scene, where she punches someone who 100% deserved to be punched. Other than that…I found her quite superficial and unlikeable.
The novel is also really obsessed with Joan’s ‘panties’…1) I hate that word 2) why mention them so many times?
The dramatic confrontation at the end was predictable and didn’t really make sense (what’s new?!).

Sadly, this really didn’t work for me. A good premise is let down by an uneventful storyline, one-dimensional characters, and an occasionally cringey prose. If there is a sequel, I will be steering clear of it.
Then again it was refreshing to read a story centred around Métis community that has a supernatural twist. So, even if I didn’t particularly care for this novel, I wouldn’t discourage other readers from picking this one up.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Frost In May by Antonia White — book review

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“Do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?”

After converting to Catholicism, nine year old Nanda Gray is sent by her father to the Convent of Five Wounds. Although Nanda is open to the teachings of her new religion, life at the convent is not easy. Alongside the other girls Nanda has to adhere the strict rules and routines imposed by the nuns. The girls are discouraged from forming friendships as these are ‘against charity’ and lead to ‘dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling’. Their conducts are constantly monitored, so much so that the girls have few occasions in which they can simply ‘be’. While Nanda comes to regard her convent as her home, and does try her best not to disobey the nuns, she also questions their authority.
Antonia White articulates beautifully Nanda’s desire to nurture her own individuality. Although Nanda cannot always make sense of her discontentment towards the constraining atmosphere of the convent, her indefinite and contrasting feelings are rendered with incredible empathy and attention.
White also captures a particular phase of growing up, that passage from childhood to adolescence. While Nanda does experience idyllic moments and grows fond of two other girls, she can’t quite reconcile herself with the convent’s ideal of femininity. Yet, she also craves acceptance—from her father, the nuns—and, however unsuccessfully, she does attempt to iron out her personality.
The way in which the nuns inculcate notions of evil and guilt into Nanda and the other girls can be upsetting. Not only that but every day the girls are subjected to or witness to humiliations and psychological punishments. Thankfully, Nanda’s ‘forbidden’ friendships alleviate the mood of the novel.
White’s dramatisation of her own time in a convent makes for a compelling read as her examination of Catholicism is both interesting and illuminating.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Little Family by Ishmael Beah – book review

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“Almost everything in this country is on its way to losing itself.”

Little Family is a deeply felt novel. Set in an unnamed African country, the narrative revolves around five young people whose makeshift home is a derelict airplane.
Ishmael Beah’s paints a sobering landscape: government corruption, extreme social divide, the malignant vestiges of colonialism, colourism, military/police brutality. The ‘little family’ at the heart of his novel do their best to survive, pouring their different skills and strengths into clever swindles. Beah’s illuminating prose gracefully renders their day to day activities.
The first half of the novel follows each member of the family without delving into their pasts. I really loved these early chapters. In spite of the dangers they face, the members of this family are brave beyond belief. Beah clearly has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of children’s conversations: there is silliness and the kind of banter that teeters between playful and not-so-playful. Unlike the adults in his novel Beah never dismisses the voices of his young characters. Although they are painfully aware of being “the ones society had no use for”, and that each day may bring a new form of dehumanization, they unanimously wish for change (for safety, for their poverty to end, for their country to rid itself of corruption and the inequalities brought by colonialism).
Elimane and Khoudi, the older members of this little family, are not only incredibly self-aware (of their role in their society, of their country’s fraught history, of the different degrees of inequality within their community) but often encourage others to question established norms. As we follow them during their daily routines we gain an impression of the dynamics within this family. It was Namsa, the youngest one in the family, who stood out to me in this first half of the novel. She approaches her family’s excursion with a sense of buoyant adventure, and although she worries that she won’t be able to keep up with the others, she’s just as, if not more, quick-witted.
While outside of their home the group often has to keep apart from each other, as not to draw suspicion, the depth of their bond, their mutual ease and trust, is clear.
The tempo in the latter half of the novel is far less absorbing. The story focuses almost exclusively on Khoudi and her ‘awakening’. What follows is rather predictable: she learns the power of her own body, becomes intrigued and eventually entangled with a group of privileged young people, and distances herself from the ‘self’ she is within the ‘little family’. While I can appreciate a ‘coming of age’ tale or a story that charts a quest for one’s identity, I did find Khoudi’s journey to be clichéd and clearly written by a man. There are a few scenes that seem straight out of a boy’s fantasy of a girl who is on the cusps of womanhood (discovering her beauty and sexual desire, becoming close to another beautiful young woman…and of course, although each one of them is interest/infatuated with a man, when they are alone together they kiss…but it means nothing). The tonal shift too, left me wanting. The little family is sidelined in favour of a love story, one that was particularly uninspired (if anything the whole star-crossed lovers thing made Khoudi’s early characterisation somewhat redundant). The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying.
As much as I loved the first half, Khoudi’s half was bland. I also felt annoyed that the characters we grown to know in the early chapters are more or less abandoned by the narrative in favour of a romance.
Still, the author treats his characters and the issues they face with empathy so I would probably recommend this one to those readers who don’t mind when novels change the direction of their story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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