“No one had ever taught me how to love. And perhaps, in that department, I was uneducable.”
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is heartbreakingly beautiful collection of short stories. These stories have Benjamin Alire Sáenz written all over them: Mexican-American boys and men struggling with their identity (not feeling Mexican or American enough), their sexuality, their self-worth, and who have complex relationships with their parents. There is a focus on the dynamic between fathers—of father-like figures—and sons, on family history, on trauma, on feeling lost and disconnected. I read a review criticising this collection because the stories aren’t varied enough, and I guess that they are narrated by boys and men in similar positions. They are conflicted, hurting, and confused. They have parents who are troubled (by depression, addiction, trauma). Most of the narrators also like thinking of the meaning of words and doing creative things. Yet, in spite of these similarities, these stories never blurred together. But if you do prefer collections that offer a wide-range of different styles and themes, maybe Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won’t appeal to you. I just happen to be the ‘right’ kind of reader for these stories. Sáenz’s subtle yet striking prose always gets to me. I love Sáenz’s empathy, the tenderness he shows to his characters, the thoughtfulness he demonstrates in discussing trauma, addiction, and abuse. I also liked the Kentucky Club would pop up in each story as did discussions concerning Juárez. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is a moving collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Sáenz.
Sabrina & Corina is a touching collection of short stories. In these 11 stories Kali Fajardo-Anstine depicts the lives and experiences of Latinas in the United States (mainly in Denver, Colorado). Their everyday realities are marked by many social injustices: poverty, racism, sexism, addiction, parental neglect, emotional and physical abuse. While Fajardo-Anstine doesn’t shy away from portraying their bleak circumstances, the stories never felt pessimistic or overwhelming depressing. As the characters are contending with grief and trauma—personal and generational—they find some solace in moments of connection, a sense of understanding or kinship, with others. The women in these stories also find comfort in taking part in or looking back to family traditions. These scenes gave the stories a rather bittersweet tone, one that perfectly complemented Fajardo-Anstine’s tender yet bold prose. Motherhood, sisterhood, and female agency are at the heart of these 11 stories. While these over-aching themes gave a sense of unity to the collection, their similarities—in tone, topics, and style—caused the less memorable stories to blur together (some of these were ‘Sisters’, ‘Julian Plaza’, and ‘Any Further West’). The stories that really stood out to me were ‘Sugar Babies’, ‘Sabrina & Corina’, and ‘Tomi’. ‘Sugar Babies’ was easily a 5 star read and my favourite in the whole collection (perhaps because Fajardo-Anstine faithfully renders the perspective of a young girl) Sabrina & Corina is a heart-rendering debut and I will be on the lookout for Fajardo-Anstine’s future work.
“You were never out of the Life completely. You were always looking over your shoulder. You always kept a gun within reach.”
Blacktop Wasteland is a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled read that gives a fresh new take on the One Last Job™ premise. S.A. Cosby’s pitch-perfect debut novel is brutal, twisty, and hella gritty. Blacktop Wasteland will have you at edge-of-your-seat from its very first chapter—in which our ‘hero’ takes part in a drag race—until the novel’s finish line. Although Cosby’s noir narrative is reminiscent of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, his dynamic voice brings something new to the crime fiction scene. Set in a small-town in rural Virginia, Blacktop Wasteland follows Beauregard Montagerom, nicknamed Bug, a family man who works as a mechanic at his own garage. Beauregard’s attempt to live an honest life is hindered by money troubles: business is bad and unforeseen expenses keep cropping up. Going against his wife’s wishes, Beauregard agrees to one last job. The heist, however, doesn’t go quite as planned…and things rapidly go south. Blacktop Wasteland has a lot to offer: an action-packed storyline, charged dialogues, and compelling yet morally grey—if not downright corrupt—characters. This is one gripping novel. While things do get violent and messy, Cosby manages to vividly render Beauregard’s complicated family dynamics, as well as the motivations of those connected to the heist. The way the story unfolds took me by surprise, and in the latter half of the novel, my jaw may have hit the floor once or twice. Alongside some pretty epic moments—Beauregard, for all his faults, is one smooth guy—the story manages to pack quite a few emotional punches. Cosby doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities of crime, poverty, and racism. Cosby’s descriptions were terrific, especially where cars were concerned (“the car shivered like a wolf shaking its pelt” , “the motor went from a roar to the war cry of a god”). They could also be startlingly humorous (such as “explanations were like assholes. Everyone has one and they are all full of shit”). Reading Blacktop Wasteland felt like being taken on an exhilarating ride. This novel is smart, dark, funny, and—as previously mentioned—seriously gritty.
The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a wholesome and thoughtful YA coming-of-age. Within the first chapter I was invested in Dove and her story. There was something so tender about her sensible yet sensitive narration that made me immediately care for her. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph follows sixteen-year-old Dove, also knows as Birdie, who is devoted to her studies, used to obey her parents’ strict rules…that is until she starts seeing Booker. Knowing that her parents would disapprove of Booker’s ‘troubled’ past, Birdie decides to keep their relationship secret. When Carlene, Birdie’s estranged aunt, moves ‘temporarily’ in with Birdie and her parents after her latest stint in rehab…things get complicated. In spite of Carlene’s fraught relationship with Birdie’s mother, Birdie finds herself really connecting to her aunt. Unlike her parents, Carlene is open-minded and easy to talk to. As Birdie starts to really fall for Booker she begins to test her parents’ rules, landing herself in a bit of trouble There were some very genuine discussions about addiction, sex, coming out, and sexuality. The kids in this book are under all sorts of pressure: to succeed, to live up to their parents expectations, to prove themselves to a society that is quick to write them off. We are shown the positive and negative effects that this ‘pressure’ has: when Birdie sole focus becomes her studies, she has no time to switch off, to experience normal teen life (socialising with friends, doing something for fun, going to parties). The dialogue is engaging, the story has a great sense of place, and the characters are believably nuanced. While there is a revelation later in the narrative that might strike readers as slightly predictable, Birdie’s reaction to this ‘knowledge’ is what counts. I really enjoyed reading this. It is a quick, but by no means superficial, read. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a sweet and affecting novel that I would thoroughly recommend to lovers of contemporary YA.
…and I thought that vampires were passé. The Fell of Dark is a fun take that on vampires and ‘the chosen one’ trope. Usually, I’m a nitpicking reader but with The Fell of Dark I was happy to suspend my disbelief. Is this novel perfect? Definitely not. Is it entertaining? Hell yes! Our narrator and protagonist, sixteen-year-old August Pfeiffer, lives in Fulton Heights, Illinois. This small town happens to be a nexus for mystical and supernatural energies which is why it attracts so many vampires. August, the only ‘out’ gay boy in his school, isn’t particularly fond of his hometown (mostly due to its vampire populace). In spite of the vampires prowling his town at night, his biggest concern is algebra…until he receives a cryptic and ominous message from a distractingly cute-looking vampire (who happens to have an English accent). Things became increasingly bizarre as August finds himself at the centre of a feud between different vampire sects, an order of mortal knights, and a coven. This is a very plot-driven book and August can’t seem to catch a break. For ‘reasons’ however he’s the chosen ones, and the whole world depends on him. August’s narration is the strongest aspect of this book. He’s a rather awkward and perpetually horny teen who also happens to be an incredibly funny narrator (laugh-out-loud kind of fun). This novel’s plotline is kind of basic but Caleb Roehrig makes it work. There is a certain self-awareness that makes up for the derivativeness of some of the storyline’s components (for example, the fact that no one seems to be telling August the truth because almost a running gag). Those expecting this to be a love story of sorts will probably be disappointed as this novel has more of a lust/attraction-subplot than a romantic one. With the exception of August, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional (also, it seemed that every single character was connected with one of these cult-ish groups). Still, the role they come to play in August’s story did hold my attention. The world in this novel isn’t all that detailed. A few characters occasionally give some exposition about vampires and their history, but that’s about it. This is an absorbing book. It has a lot of silly moments but I never found these to be ridiculous or unfunny. If you are a fan of Buffy or Carry On you will probably enjoy it as much as I did.
ps: I spent my day off work listening to the audiobook edition (which lasted about 12 hours) which…yeah. That was a new record for me. But once I started listening to it I couldn’t stop (Michael Crouch is an amazing narrator).
Felix Ever After is a refreshing, relevant, validating and super-inclusive YA novel. This also happens to be one of the few YA books (the only other one I can think of is Camp by Lev A.C. Rosen) that focuses exclusively on queer teens (there a few straight parents in the background). Kacen Callender’s portrayal of adolescence is strikingly realistic: there is a lot of angst, pressure to succeed, confusion about your identity and your place in the world, jealousy towards other people your age, one or two crushes…and things are kind of messy. As a Black, trans, and queer teen Felix understandably feels like the odd are stacked against him. He’s seventeen and hopes that signing up to his school’s summer program will increase his chances of getting into Brown University. Although he loves art, lately he’s been feeling a bit stuck, and he’s hasn’t been working on his portfolio. His feelings of anxiety and guilty over this really resonated with my own experiences. His relationship with his father is strained and his mother is no longer in touch with either of them, and Felix feels like it’s all too much. Because of this Felix spends a lot of his time at his best friend’s house, who unlike him comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Felix and Ezra are incredibly close, and they both are on the summer program. Alongside them are a lot of other queer students, some of whom act like they are woke when in actuality they are incredibly transphobic and bigoted. Things take a turn for the worst when someone exhibits photo of Felix pre-transition, captioning these photos with his deadname (kudos to Callender for never actually using Felix’s deadname on the page). Felix is crushed. Thinking that he knows who is behind this awful act, and the offensive messages he’s been receiving, he wants to get back at them. Felix, however, finds himself growing fond of this person…which kind of complicates his plan.
To begin with Felix got on my nerves. While I wholeheartedly felt on his behalf, he acts in a pretty self-centred way. He thinks that because every other student has it ‘easier’ than he does, they can’t complain about anything. When Ezra, Felix’s incredibly supportive best friend, tries to voice his own fears and anxieties, Felix is totally dismissive of them. His whole cat-fishing too was kind of cringe. I’m no longer a fan of these kind of deceptions although I understand the appeal of getting revenge (when I was fourteen I actually helped my best friend briefly catfish his bully…something I’m not very proud of, but alas, the youth). I also thought that Felix wasn’t really trying to connect to his father. While I get that Felix is totally right to feel frustrated by his father’s remarks and deadnaming, I did think that he never gave him a chance to explain himself or really apologise. Thankfully, Callender does an amazing job in terms of Felix’s characterisation. Over the course of the novel, Felix begins to reassess his past behaviour. During the summer he does a lot of growing up, and while certain scenes were quite painful, Felix’s humour and his friendships often uplifted the mood of the narrative. Callender depicts believable teens who are as capable of getting high or drunk as they are of discussing morality, art, and the pros and cons of labels. I also appreciated the way in which Callender allows their main character to question and explore his gender identity. Plus, it was so nice to read so many scenes set in LGBTQ+ spaces (such as the LGBT Center Felix attends or Pride). Felix Ever After is a coming of age that is guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’. We have a nuanced protagonist, a super cute romance subplot, drama, and a story that touches upon serious issues with tact and understanding. I will definitely be checking out Callender’s future work!
“It’s like we’re in some fucked-up rom-com, I said. It’s like we’re both fucked-up rom-com villains.”
Maybe it’s my fault for ‘hyping’ myself too much but I found Memorial to be a wee bit disappointing. First of all, the lack of quotations marks. So many authors are using this technique that it now seems passé. And what does this stylistic choice accomplish? If we really wanted to write as ‘realistically’ as possible we wouldn’t bother with punctation marks or with noting ‘he/she said’.
Set in Houston, Memorial follows a Benson and Mike who live together and are sort of dating. Mike, who is Japanese American, works as a chef at Mexican restaurant, while Benson, who is black, is a dare care teacher. The everyday challenges of cohabitation and their different attitudes towards monogamy, money, and work, result in a rather rocky relationship. Arguments give away to tense silences, and the two begins to question whether being together still make sense. When Mike announces that he will be leaving America to reconnect with his dying father—who owns a bar in Tokyo—Benson isn’t happy. Worst still, Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, who has just flown to Houston, will be staying with Benson in their apartment. Both Benson and Mike’s narratives are interspersed with short snippets from their past. We gain a sort of impression of their family life, as well as reading of their previous sexual partners and of the early days in their relationship. During this time apart Benson grows close to another man, and reconnects with his own father, an alcoholic who isn’t too enthused by his son’s sexual orientation. Mitsuko begins to teach him how to cook, and while the two don’t get on particularly well, they get used to each other. Mike instead struggles to get along with his father. He begins to work alongside him in his bar, and while he doesn’t seem particularly keen on the job or the clientele, he sort of adjusts to his new environment. I didn’t particularly care for Benson nor Mike. They share the same kind of nondescript personality (they are the type of people who shrug a lot). Their voices were almost interchangeable, which didn’t really benefit their characterisation. The sex scenes were either predictably awkward, perfunctory, or frantic. I guess Washington wanted to depict realistic sex, but he almost goes overboard, so that his sex scenes verge on the ridiculous (I mean: “grunting like otters against a dingy, dented stall”). To be fair, however, there was once instance that made me chuckle: “We fucked. It sucked.” The dialogue was okay, sort of mumblecore-esque. The secondary characters felt kind of flat. They both have separated parents, with ‘broken/brusque’ fathers and ‘sardonic/direct’ mothers. Mike’s whole section with his father felt very schmalzy (not that I don’t care for dying-father/son stories in which the two reconnect, I loved Medicine Walk). Sadly, I found this underwhelming. This is the kind of novel that tries too hard to be a ‘real’ and ‘unfiltered’ story about modern love…but I don’t know. The characters spend a lot of the time watching dots on their screen, which, yeah, it’s kind of relatable but it soon gets repetitive. The story does incorporate discussions about race, class, and sexuality, but I can’t say that these issues were explored with any particular depth. Just because Washington style didn’t work for me doesn’t mean that I thought that Memorial was a bad novel. If you enjoyed Exciting Times you might actually find this to be a highly satisfying read.
At first, I was intrigued by The Bright Lands: a small town in Texas, missing teen(s), possible evil entities…I kind of expected it to be a modern take on Twin Peaks by way of Stephen King. Sadly, however, The Bright Lands never delivers on its intriguing premise. The writing leaves a lot to be desired, the dialogues are at best clumsy and at worst embarrassingly clichéd, the characterisation is sparse and tends to rely on tired stereotypes, the storyline is unfocused and unnecessarily convoluted, and the supernatural elements felt out of place. The novel doesn’t really have a protagonist. We jump from character to character, without gaining any insight into who they are, most of whom are indistinguishable from each other. We are first introduced to Joel Whitley, who is in late twenties and lives a nice apartment in New York. He gets a series of texts from his younger brother, Dylan, who happens to be the star of his football team, if not their small town’s golden boy. Worried for him, Joel returns to his hometown of Bentley. Joel is understandably not keen to return to his homophobic community, especially after what happened before he left. When Dylan disappears Joel reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark who still hasn’t forgiven him for ‘misleading’ her. Dylan’s teammates and his girlfriend are clearly hiding something, and there are rumours about a place called ‘the bright lands’. Many of the town’s inhabitants begin to have nightmares hinting at some sort of Big Evil. Joel never felt like an actual person. We know he’s gay and that his brother is missing. Other than that? Not much. His life in New York for example is only vaguely alluded to (only in those instances in which Joel notes that he now has plenty money) and his relationship with his mother is non-existent (for the matter she only has a cameo here and there…weird given that it is her son who is missing). He mostly reacts to things for plot reasons, but he really has 0 interiority. The football team and cheerleaders are one-dimensional. They speak in clichés and their motivations are lazily unconvincing. The adult men in this town are a similar shade of rugged bigot, the women and the girls instead are ‘badasses’. What I’m getting at is that the characters were utterly ridiculous. Which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I was supposed to take them seriously. John Fram tries to incorporate in his story topical themes such homophobia (which reigns supreme in Bentley), racism, police incompetence and corruption…but the way he addresses these is questionable. Suggesting that all homophobes are actually closeted gay or bi-curious men…is yeah, not great. The novel’s portrayal and treatment of queer men leaves a lot to be desired. There is a lot of not telling, not enough showing. Chapters end in predictable cliffhangers, usually with a character learning or seeing something important, and it takes sometimes a few chapters before we return to that character and we get to read what all the fuss was about. The latter half of the novel is utterly ludicrous. I can sort of see what Fram wanted to do…but I can’t say that he manages to pull it off. For one, I just didn’t buy into it. Second, the whole supernatural subplot was laughable…and this novel was meant to be a ‘horror’? Mmh.. The Bright Lands lacks emotional weight. The characters seem really unfeeling, or perhaps they just don’t register that they are feelings things such as anger or grief. They merely go from A to B. This was a bland novel….and I’m not sure I will approach Fram’s future work.
“Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.”
From the very first page, I was enthralled by Lucy’s deceptively simple narration. To begin with, I was struck by the clarity of her observations and the directness of her statements. As I kept reading, however, I came to realise just how enigmatic a character she was.
“Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.”
After leaving her homeland, an unnamed island in the West Indies, Lucy becomes an au pair for a white and wealthy couple in North America. Although Lucy wants to leave her past behind, her alienating new surroundings make her homesick. Lucy tries to acclimatise to the colder climate, to American’s strange customs, to her new role. As she tries to adjust to her new home, she becomes closer to her employer, Mariah. Her obliviousness, however, frustrates Lucy as Mariah seems incapable or unwilling to acknowledge her privilege or their cultural differences, seeming content to live in a bubble. Lucy strikes a friendship with Peggy, a young woman from Ireland. While the two share a sense of otherness (“From the moment we met we had recognized in each other the same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with our surroundings, the same skin-doesn’t-fit-ness.”), Peggy is far more of a bohemian. Lucy’s relationship with Mariah begins to fray, partly because of Peggy’s influence, partly due to Lucy’s growing disillusionment towards her employers and their after all not-so-perfect marriage. As Lucy recounts her time as an au pair, her mind often drifts towards her childhood. We know that her strained relationship with her mother had an enormous impact on her, but we are only given glimpses of their time together. As Lucy attempts to navigate her new life, we come to learn why she has become so unwilling to be truly known by others. Through what we learn of her past, and through the things she leaves unspoken, we begin to understand Lucy’s obliqueness, her remoteness, her alienation, her self-division (which she describes as a “two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true”), her attitude towards others and her sexuality. Lucy is an unremittingly ambiguous and fascinating character-study. Kincaid’s polished prose is deeply alluring: from the evocative descriptions of the weather to Lucy’s penetrating deliberations. I was also drawn by the parallels Kincaid makes between Lucy and Villette (which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time). Kincaid’s Lucy leaves her homeland to become an au pair, while Brontë’s Lucy leaves England to become a teacher in a small town in Belgium. Both women are ambivalent towards their past and disinclined to let others know who they are or what they ‘feel’. They both experience a sense of displacement and have to adapt to another culture. They also both become ‘involved’ with men who are called Paul (Brontë’s Paul owns a slave plantation). In many ways, Lucy functions as a reworking of Villette, as it subverts its colonial narrative (more than once Lucy’s informs us of the inadequacy of her British colonial education) and provides a more modern exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual repression.
“I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you; either way, there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.”
Throughout the course of Lucy’s tale Kincaid examines the way in which one’s family can affect an individual’s self-perception and the damage that parental favouritism has on a child’s self-worth. Kincaid’s Lucy is an incessantly intriguing novel. I was mesmerised by her prose, by her inscrutable main character, and by the opaqueness and lucidity of her narrative. Kincaid beautifully articulates Lucy’s feelings—her desire, contempt, guilt, despair—without ever revealing too much. Lucy retains an air of unknowability. Similarly, the mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of the novel remains shrouded in mystery.
Monstress is an evocative collection of short stories, most of which are set in the United States and the Philippines. These stories revolve around Filipino and Filipino-American characters as they try acclimatise and make a living outside of their homeland or as they try to reconcile cultural and familial expectations with their personal desires. Lysley Tenorio vividly renders the times and places in which he sets his stories, regardless of whether they take place in 1966 in Manila or during the 1980s in L.A. While the stories are all narrated in the first-person, and many explore similar themes of identity, displacement, and human connection, Tenorio showcases great versatility by giving each of his stories a particular tone. The story that lends its title to this collection, ‘Monstress’, has this nostalgic quality, this melancholic atmosphere, that makes for a bittersweet read. Although ‘The View from Culion’ possesses a similar tone, it feels much more tragic. ‘Superassassin’, in its eeriness, seemed closer to something by Shirley Jackson. While I appreciated the themes Tenorio explores in this novel, I did find some of the stories to be unremarkable. Stories such as ‘The Brothers’ left me wanting more (this story in particular given that the narrator seems to have a sudden ‘change of heart’ at the end). Still, I’m eager to read Tenorio’s upcoming novel and I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy short stories.