BOOK REVIEWS

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

With the exception of the first two stories in this collection, ‘Lulu’ and ‘Hotline Girl’, I wasn’t all that taken by Land of Big Numbers. What I most appreciated is Te-Ping Chen’s ability to vividly render contemporary China. The stories in this collection will certainly give readers insight into Chinese and modern work culture, the everyday realities of young Chinese men and women, as well as shed light on class and generational divides. In the first story, ‘Lulu’, a young man who is into gaming becomes increasingly concerned over his sister’s involvement in protests and activities criticising the Chinese government. In the following story ‘Hotline Girl’ (the title reminds me of a certain song) a young woman who works at a government call centre is contacted by her abusive ex. While these first two stories felt complete and well-realised the remaining 8 easily blur together. One is about an addictive fruit, another one is about an inventor whose creations more often than not flop, we have a few exploring marriages or romantic relationships but in a way that never brought me close to the characters. I wasn’t drawn in by them or, to be perfectly honest, by the author’s writing style. We have some strained metaphors (“She felt the years deep beneath her skin, as thought Shanghai had grafted steel plates in her cheeks”, the layers of a croissant are compared to the “underbelly of a sea creature gently exhaling”). Many of the characters were flat, their conversations uninteresting, their motives unconvincing.
Still, I recognise that many other readers will find this collection to be more satisfying than I did. I guess I have almost 0 interest in stories about stock markets or people who do not care for food or dislike “Mediterranean” food (what can I say, my Italian feathers were ruffled).


ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


my rating: ★★½


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We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan


We Are All Birds of Uganda is a debut novel that inspired rather conflicting feelings in me. At first, I enjoyed Hafsa Zayyan’s ability to render her protagonist’s environment. I was not surprised to discover that Zayyan is like her protagonist Sameer a lawyer based in London. Zayyan captures the stressful atmosphere of Sameer’s office, the toll played by his long hours, the benefits of his high wage (he can afford a studio apartment in London), the ambition driving him. Things take a downturn when Sameer, who is possibly in his late twenties, begins to work under Chris. In spite of having been recognized as one of the most promising lawyers of his practice and that he will be part of the team to set up a new office in Singapore, Chris treats him like poorly. Chris takes issue with Sameer fasting on Ramadan and seems to go out of his way to bully Sameer. When Sameer’s colleague, and until then friend, also begins to make remarks about ‘tokenism’ (implying that Sameer only got the Singapore gig because he is South Asian) Sameer feels justly alienated. When someone close to him is the victim of a racially motivated attack Sammer feels all the more lost. In spite of his success as a lawyer his own family refuse to cheer him on his career, wanting him instead to work for the family business. A confused Sameer makes a spur of the moment decision and flies to Uganda, the country his own father and grandfather were forced to flee during the 1970s expulsion of Asians from Uganda. Between Sameer’s chapters are excerpts from letters written by his grandfather to his deceased first wife.

I actually enjoyed the first section of this novel, when the story is focused on Sameer and his life in London. I liked the dynamic he has with his two friends and his experiences at the office felt realistic and believable. I wish that his relationship with his immediate family (particularly his father) had been explored more. As the child of immigrants, Sameer feels not only the pressure to make his family proud but he also wants to fit in with his British peers. The clash between personal freedom and familial obligations was interesting. Alas, his story takes a downward turn when he makes the sudden and kind of out of character choice to go to Uganda. Here the story turns into one that would have been better suited to a movie. Clichè after clichè. Sameer falls in love (of course) with a woman his parents will never approve of (of course). Maybe I would have believed in their romance more if he hadn’t been so rushed. He sees her…and that’s that. The beauty of insta-love! She’s not like other women, he actually doesn’t want to jump in her pants, he loves talking with her, she’s smart, empathetic, and kind (which begs the question, why ever would she go for Sameer?). We even have a scene where she is wearing white and gets wet and he sees her nipples andio mio! Really? The thing is, as much as I loved the author’s description of Uganda (from its culture to its landscapes) her storyline lost all of its initial originality and authenticity. Sameer’s behavior towards and thoughts about women made my skin crawl. The guy is a creep. And that the narrative has to compound his feelings about this woman by making him decline the flirtations of another one..? And of course, this other girl is portrayed as promiscuous and a flirt. He thinks about fucking her but his feelings for the woman he loves are so pure that he decides not to. Wow. How noble.

The grandfather’s chapters were a wasted opportunity. They gave us information about Uganda and the 1970s expulsion of Asians but this information could have been imparted differently. Later on, Sameer comes across his grandfather’s letters and learns more about Ugandan history, so why not insert here those facts that appeared in the grandfather’s chapters? He certainly did not necessitate so many chapters! I never believed in his voice, and couldn’t really visualize him or his relationship with the other characters. His letters were there only for us to be able to learn more about Uganda, which I appreciate but as I said I think this information could have been presented to us in a different way. I understand that family sagas have to have two timelines, but here one of the timelines was limited by its format (that of a letter to a dead person). Also, the grandfather seems to recount a few months and at times years in the span of one letter…which didn’t really make sense. Does he write a letter to his dead wife every couple of years? Filling her in with all that happened since his last letter? And why would he give her information she would have already known?

The more I read the more my enthusiasm for this novel died out. I ended up hating Sameer and the predictable storyline. The relationship between parents/son and brother/sister were sadly undeveloped, sidetracked in favor of a clichèd romance.
All in all, I am quite disappointed by this one. The ending too was really grating (it reminded me of The Saint of Incipient Insanities and The Secret of the Grain) and made me want to scream: what was the point of it all?!

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Engaging and insightful If I Had Your Face is a solid debut novel from a promising writer.
If I Had Your Face follows four young women trying to navigate everyday life in contemporary Seoul. They live in the same building but to begin with are not exactly friends. We have Ara, a mute hair stylist who is infatuated with a member of a popular Kpop boy band, Kyuri, who has undergone numerous plastic surgeries and works at a ‘room salon’ where she entertains wealthy men, Miho, an artist who studied in NY and whose boyfriend comes from an influential family, and Wonna, who lives with her husband and is pregnant.
Part of me wishes that the novel could have been structured differently, so that instead of switching between these characters their stories could have been presented as a series of interlinked novellas. This would have probably prevented their voices from blurring together, which they sometimes did. Miho and Wonna’s chapters were a lot weaker in terms of ‘distinctive’ voice. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Cha’s breezy prose. It is very readable and vividly rendered the characters’
circumstances/environments.
I liked the balance Cha maintained between drama and realism. Cha’s commentary on South Korean society is both sharp and zingy. Through the Ara, Miho, Wonna, and Kyuri’s stories Cha shows the ways in which their choices, desires, sense of selves, are shaped by gender inequity, class, and oppressive beauty standards. Their parents are either dead or unable to help them financially so they rely on their income…beauty too is a currency and we see the advantages of being seen as beautiful entails.
Another aspect that I appreciated about this novel was that its characters are not paragons of virtue. They can be selfish, oblivious, not always willing to consider the weight of their actions or words, judgemental, flippant, and cruel. I did find myself far more interested in Ara and Kyuri than Miho and Wonna. This may be because the latter two had chapters that were heavy on ‘backstories’ (as opposed to focusing on the ‘now’). Miho’s personality seemed that of the artist (always with her head in the clouds, viewing the world through artistic lenses, too occupied by her art to remember to eat or take care of herself) while Wonna’s chapters did not seem to fit with the rest. Her chapters examine her marriage and her anxiety over her pregnancy (understandably since she had several miscarriages), which would have suited another kind of book. The other characters’ chapters did not have such narrow focus. Also, I just found myself growing fonder of Ara and Kyuri. Their storylines were gripping in a way that Miho and Wonna’s weren’t. The stakes were higher in Ara and Kyuri and their eventual friendship was rather sweet.
Cha’s If I Had Your Face is certainly a vibrant read. If you want to read more about modern South Korean society or of the trails and errors, ups and downs of life as a millennial you should definitely give If I Had Your Face a try.

ps: I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the blurb for this novel. The blurb for the viking edition not only reveals too much but it is also kind of misleading (Ara’s obsession with a K-pop star “drives her to violent extremes”…? When? If this is referring to that one scene…that had very little to do with Ara’s crush on that K-pop star).


my rating: ★★★½

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Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

disclaimer: this is less a review that a cathartic rant. If you want to read this book I recommend you check out other reviews instead.

Breasts and Eggs was an exceedingly frustrating and overlong novel. My interest in this novel was piqued by its title and the buzz around it. While the first three or four chapters were relatively entertaining, I soon became wary of its critique of gender. If you find it fulfilling to write poems about your menstrual blood maybe you will appreciate Kawakami’s brand of feminism.
The first half of Breasts and Eggs is concerned with ‘breasts’. The novel is narrated by Natsuko, a woman in her thirties who lives in Tokyo and who aspires to be a writer. In this first section of the novel Natsuko’s 1st person narration is interrupted now and again by her niece’s diary entries. Midoriko is twelve (possibly thirteen? who knows) and she is feeling very angsty about puberty. She has stopped talking to her mother Makiko, Natsuko’s sister, who works as a hostess and is determined to get breast enhancement surgery. Midoriko and Makiko visit Natsuko in Tokyo, and they spend a few days together.
Around the 40% mark the story jumps in time. Natsuko, now in her late thirties, is a respectable author who is considering artificial insemination in order to have a child. Midoriko and Makiko have short cameos towards the end of the novel but for the most part this section of the novel focuses on Natsuko wanting to have a child, interacting with colleagues and friends, attending events (related to her work and or to parenting/artificial insemination).
I do not have many positives things to say (or write) about this book. What I did appreciate was the novel’s sense of place. It was especially interesting to read about the differences between Osaka and Tokyo (the dialect etc.). There was also an a scene that was pure absurd humour (when Natsuko meets that sperm donor).
I kept reading hoping that the story (if we can call it such) wouldn’t unfold the way it did…but I was sadly proven right. Here is a list of things that I did not like about Breasts and Eggs:

1) Sort of feminist…?
Maybe if your name happens to be J. K. Rowling you will find Kawakami’s feminist vision to be to your liking. I really thought that the title was challenging the idea that women are ‘breast and eggs’. But…it doesn’t. The first section makes it seem as if Natsuko, who makes it clear she does not like sex, does not want a partner or a child. Good for her, right? No. Of course not. When the biological clock strikes Natsuko decides that she wants a child because ‘reasons’ (she keeps insisting that she wants a child so she can ‘meet’ them…wtf?). While there are many single-mothers in this book, who are shown to do their best for their child, women over the age of 30 who do not have children are either A) miserable or B) traumatised. Type A chose her career over marriage and children, now she’s lonely and sad. When Natsuko tells her that she is planning to have a child A is bitter because she feels ‘betrayed’. Type B is the classic type who was sexually abused and believes that “life is pain” (that is an actual quote) and that being born is traumatic, and that the world is hell, and that you should not bring more children into it. To say that I am tired of these kinds of caricatures would be an understatement. The story implies that if you are a woman and you choose not to have children you will be lonely (as if not having children means that you cannot have friends or you can only be friends with people who are childless) and pathetic or traumatised.
I really thought that the story would eventually introduce us to a woman who is happy and does not have children but nay.
Midoriko’s diary entries were so ridiculous. She goes on about periods and vaginas…was this necessary? Her entries were far from revelatory, unless you happen to be someone who knows nothing about those things. And, can I say, it really annoyed me by the way the narrative would go on and on about menstruations. Not all women have them. Due to an ED I had a few period-free years. Did that make me less of a woman? By the way the author seems to elevate menstruations and I did not care for it.
Midoriko’s diary was banal, it seemed a clumsy attempt to convey the hormonal mind of a soon to be teenage girl…in the second half of the novel Midoriko is no longer the focus of the story (thank God) but Natsuko informs of the following: “Midoriko was cute, but she didn’t care much for makeup or fashion. She was not your average girl, as if that wasn’t clear enough from her strong personality.” Pfft. In other words, Midoriko is Not Like Other Girls.™
Now onto more dodgy things…There is a scene in which our MC misgenders someone. And you might argue that my feathers were ruffled because I do not understand that not all cultures are as woke as Britain or the US…but hey, I actually come from a not very LGBTQ+ friendly country so I could have looked past this scene…but one thing is using the wrong pronouns, one thing is having your protagonist be fascinated with the genitals of the person she misgenders (“I tried seeing what the tomboy had between her legs”). Was this whole scene necessary? No. And the whole policing bathrooms just stinks of J. K. Rowling.
The story is also very on the nose when it comes to the imbalance between wife and husband. An unhappy friend of Natsuko describes being a wife as “Free labor with a pussy.” Such feminism!

2) The story = Fake deep navel-gazing
Every person Natsuko encounters tells her their life story or philosophy. Apparently this is because Natsuko worked in a bar and people just naturally confide in her. Okay, whatever, I’ll believe that. But, the things the people speak to her about are so…unbelievable? They will say fake deep shit and then the narrative will go along with it? Rather than pointing out how trite they are being. A lot of the characters will say things along the lines of ‘What is the point in life? / What does it mean to be alive? / Is love a human construct?’. Painful stuff I tell you. I rolled my eyes one too many times.
Natsuko’s inner monologue was mostly navel-gazing. Yet, her thoughts are presented in a way that suggests they ought to be taken seriously (“ Life is hard, no matter the circumstances.” Geez. Wow. Such insight into human existence. So deep. Much wow). Her observations about marriage and parenting are also puddle-deep: “Think of all the husbands and wives trying to have kids, and all the couples having sex who could wind up having a baby. Could all of them look each other in the eye and say they really, truly knew each other?” Can anyone claim they know anyone? Mind-blowing. When Natsuko is thinking of the reason why she wants to have a child she thinks the following: “What did it even mean to “meet” someone? I”. Uuuuugh.

3) Repetition / Boring
Breasts and Eggs was originally published in 2008 as a novella, and only later on did Kawakami expand it to a length novel. This is maybe the reason why she repeats the same information again and again. Trust your readers for goodness’ sake! Natsuko repeats the same information in the same way time and again (she tells us that she hasn’t published a book in awhile, and then, a few pages later, she tells us that she hasn’t published a book in awhile). This novel could have easily been 100 even 200 pages shorter. All those scenes about Natsuko meeting up with inconsequential people or looking stuff up about artificial insemination…they could have been cut down.

4) The body is abject
We get it the human body sucks (“My complexion was horrendous, and my face was lifeless. I reminded myself of pickled eggplant. Not the skin, but the greenish flesh inside”) and ugly (I swear the book was obsessed with uberly skinny women: “Her legs stuck out from her coat like poles,” / “her collarbones were so pronounced you could’ve hooked your finger on them.”). Being alive is painful, occupying a body is painful, yadda yadda yadda. Existence is agony.
It seems that the author had to make a point of reminding us of every aspect of the human body and bodily fluids (we are told about Natsuko’s yeballs, lungs, throat, spit, bile, oily skin, and pee)…and I just did not care for any of it.

5) What was the point?
Really, what was the point? The book equates women to breast and eggs. The feminism in this novel is dusty, the story drags, the characters are caricatures, our main character is a self-pitying wishy-washy forgettable narrator…the half-hearted examination of parenthood/motherhood hardly makes up for the rest.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”

Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it.
Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.

“There were always excuses for why girls died.”

It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue.
Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour.
Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.

“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”

If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.

Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a compelling fiction debut from a promising author. As the title suggests the stories in this collection are centred on Black women who have complex relationships to their church and to God. In a concise and stirring prose Deesha Philyaw explores the lives, desires, and fears of her characters, focusing on the friction between their beliefs—often instilled by their parents or communities—and their sense of self. Philyaw captures Black girlhood and womanhood, showing the importance of female solidarity and human connection. While not all of the stories have a contemporary setting, the topics Philyaw touches on are still relevant: race, faith, sexuality, sex, love, family, belonging. Fraught mother-daughter relationships appear in more than one story, and it is a sign of Philyaw’s writing skills that she is able to portray each woman (be it the daughter or the mother) with nuance. Philyaw, similarly to Danielle Evans, who simply excels at writing short stories, balances moments of poignancy with humour (I simply loved the grandmother in ‘Dear Sister’).
The dialogues, settings, and ideas depicted in these pages are vividly rendered. My favourite where ‘Dear Sister’, ‘Peach Cobbler’, ‘Snowfall’ (this one was a heartbreaker), and ‘How To Make Love To a Physicist’ (the style in this one is really fun). The other stories, although enjoyable and well-written, just didn’t affect me as much. I appreciated them but, unlike my favourite ones, they didn’t give me the so called ‘feels’.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of authors such as Danielle Evans and Zalika Reid-Benta and I am looking forward to Philyaw’s next book.

my rating: ★★★ ½

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Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread explores the complex relationship two sisters who were once close but have become estranged as adults. Their mother, Kambirinachi, believes that she is an Ogbanje, a malevolent spirit who haunts mothers by ‘coming’ and ‘going’ (usually the child dies in childhood). After being born and dying a few times Kambirinachi decides to remain in the ‘earthly’ realm and goes on to become a wife and mother to twin girls, Kehinde and Taiye. After a horrific event drives the twins apart they embark on separate journeys. Years later, Taiye has moved back Lagos and now lives with Kambirinachi. When Kehinde and her husband come to visit them, the twins are forced to confront the reasons why they grew apart.

“Our relationship has always struggled against our twinness.”

Through alternating chapters Francesca Ekwuyasi recounts Kambirinachi, Kehinde, and Taiye’s lives, from their childhoods until the present. The snapshots into Kehinde and Taiye’s youth and early adulthood are vividly rendered as they capture the places and people around them. Regardless of where the story was set—England, France, Canada, Nigeria—the setting was more than just a backdrop. Ekwuyasi conveys the Kehinde and Taiye’s loneliness as well as the cultural clash they experience once they move to other countries. The relationships and conversations they have with their friends, colleagues, peers, and lovers always rung true to life. Throughout the course of the novel Ekwuyasi touches on numerous interesting and topical topics, on art, intersectionality, sexuality, feminism, racism, and identity. The twins have been shaped by trauma they experienced as children, trauma they both try to overcome in not always successful ways. They are also grieving for one another. Their severed bond has clearly left a mark on them, so that even when they begin into their new lives loneliness weighs them down.
I just loved how realistic this story was. Ekwuyasi’s characters are authentic and fleshed out, their motivations and personalities are nuanced, the relationship between the twins is rendered with poignancy and empathy. By recounting the time they spent apart Ekwuyasi provides each sister with solid pasts, that is, real histories. With lucidity and insight Ekwuyasi writes of platonic and romantic love—queer love especially—of motherhood, of different forms of faith, of growing up, of trying to acclimatise to a new culture, of reconciliation, and of guilt.
As the title itself suggests, food is key in this novel. There are many scenes that feature characters cooking and eating. At times a certain dish or ingredient leads to a certain memory. These semingly quotidian scenes were really enjoyable to read and often they revealed more of a character or a certain relationship. Plus, Ekwuyasi serves us with some mouth-watering descriptions (my advice: do not read this novel on an empty stomach!).

Kambirinachi’s chapters perhaps didn’t always feel very cohesive. Whereas the twins’ chapters are grounded in realism, Kambirinachi’s ones foray into the magical realism. While we do learn in her chapters why Kambirinachi wasn’t a very present mother I think that this came across already in the twins’ chapters. Her perspective didn’t add a lot to the overall narrative, and perhaps, I would have loved this novel even more if it had remained focused on the twins and not Kambirinachi. Nevertheless, I did appreciate Ekwuyasi prose in her chapters. It had a rhythmic quality that resulted in some great storytelling.

“Something you must know is that Kambirinachi and Death were no strangers—no, but certainly not friends, either.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a touching debut by a clearly talented writer. If you enjoy authors such as Maame Blue and Zaina Arafat, you should definitely pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This novel proved to be the perfect ‘escape’ read. While I may not have been enamoured by every single book I’ve read by Libba Bray (the finales to her series left me a wee bit unsatisfied) I do consider her to be an amazing writer and a favourite of mine. Usually, however, her books are in the realms of the ‘historical’, so I wasn’t sure what to except from Beauty Queens, I just knew that after watching a certain series I fancied a Lord of the Flies kind of tale (with a female ensemble). And wow…Bray sure delivered. Beauty Queens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. This is the kind of satirical teen comedy that will definitely appeal to fans of classics such as Heathers, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Mean Girls. The story, writing, and characters are all over the top in the best possible of ways. This is the funniest book I’ve read in 2020.

Beauty Queens begins with ‘the Corporation’ addressing us readers, “This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading”. We are also told to keep vigilant as the story we are about to read may have some ‘subversive’ content. Throughout the novel there are footnotes by ‘the Corporation’, sometimes advertising ridiculous products and sometimes professing distaste or disapproval over a certain scene.
The novel mainly follows nine beauty queens contestants who after surviving a plane crash that killed the majority of the other contestants (one for each state) find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Rather than focusing on two or three contestants, Bray gives each of these nine beauty queens a backstory (I think only three contestants do not receive this treatment). We start with Adina, Miss New Hampshire, an aspiring journalist who joined the contest only to expose how misogynistic it is. At first Adina is snarky and not a great team player. Although she calls herself a feminist she has very ‘fixed’ notion of feminism, and her relationship with the other contestants will slowly challenge her previous views (on the contest itself, on liking thinks deemed ‘girly’,etc.). She immediately takes against Taylor, Miss Texas, the ‘leader’ of the surviving beauty queens. Taylor insists that they should keep practicing their routines for the contest as she believes that help is on the way. Taylor is badass, and I definitely enjoyed her character arc (which definitely took her down an unexpected path). We then have many other entertaining and compelling beauty queens: Mary Lou, who becomes fast friends with Adina in spite of their seemingly opposing views when it comes to sex; Nicole, the only black contestant, who wants to be a doctor but has been time and again been pressured into contests by her mother; participating as the only black contestant faces racism from the contest itself and the her peers; Shanti, an Indian American girl from California, who initially sees Nicole as ‘competition’ but as time goes by finds that she is only who understands how challenging it can be to navigate predominately white spaces; Petra, a level-headed girl who faces a different kind of prejudice; Jennifer, a queer girl who loves comics and has often been deemed a ‘troubled kid’; Sosie, who is deaf and always feels that she has to be happy in order to make others feel more ‘comfortable’; and, last but not least, Tiara, who at first seems like a comedic character, the ditzy or dumb blonde, but who soon proves that she is a very empathetic girl.
The girls don’t always get on with one another. In spite of their different backgrounds, interests, and temperaments, they have all been made to feel inadequate or ‘too much’.
As if surviving a deserted island wasn’t difficult enough a certain corporation is running some secret operation not far from the girls’ camp. Throw in some pirates/reality show contestants and there you have it.
Bray satirises everything under the sun: reality shows, beauty contests, pop culture, beauty products, corporations. While some of her story’s elements may be a bit ‘problematic’ in 2020, her satire never came across as mean spirited. In the end this is a story about acceptance and female solidarity. Bray shows all the ways in which society pressures and controls teenage girls, allowing for diverse perspectives and voices. Most of all, this novel is hilarious. Bray handles her over the top storyline and characters perfectly.
What more can I say (or write)? I loved it. This is the kind of uplifting read I would happily re-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“That was the thing about people on the outside. They thought it cheered him up to see their faces, but it just reminded him too much of freedom when everybody knew it was better to adjust to the kind of freedom available on the inside.”

Heartbreaking yet luminous A Kind of Freedom is a truly impressive debut. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s prose struck me as assured and lucid. Sexton entwines three narratives, each following a different generation of the same family. In 1944 we follow Evelyn who lives in New Orleans with her family. Her pale skin and her father’s profession give her certain privilege in the city’s black community so when she falls in love with Renard, a boy who aspires to be a doctor but is looked down upon for being working class, Evelyn is forced to contend between responsibility—towards her parents—and freedom—to love who she wants. WWII and segregation pose a further threat to the couple.
In 1986 we follow their daughter, Jackie, as she tries to juggle single motherhood with work and house chores. Her husband, Terry, disappeared from her life after he became addicted to crack. After months without a word from him, he reappears, claiming that he’s clean and is actively trying to keep it that away. Knowing that to let Terry back into her life will not only earn the disapproval of her loved ones but might eventually result in more hurt, Jackie is torn between hope and fear.
We then have chapters set in 2010. T.C., Jackie’s son, has just been released from a four-month stint in prison. His girlfriend is pregnant and in spite of him being less than faithful he now wants to make things right with her. However, he immediately falls back into bad habits when he reconnects with his friend Tiger. Here we see the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, specifically on T.C.’s community.
Regardless of the period Sexton is depicting, the setting and time are rendered in vivid detail. She evokes the atmosphere of the places she writes of as well as the changing vernacular. Sexton also emphasises the way in which racial inequality has morphed over the decades and the way this in turn affects and shapes Evelyn and her descendants. In her portrayals of addiction and poverty Sexton writes with empathy and insight, conveying the despair, fatigue, and anguish of those who like Jackie love someone who is abusing dangerous substances. Much of Jackie’s story hit close to home so I found her chapters to be painful reading material. There are moments of beauty and communion, made even more poignant by how rare they are. Although Sexton reveals the eventual outcome of Evelyn and Jackie’s narratives in T.C.’s chapters, when we returned to them I still found myself engrossed in their stories, hoping against hope that things would not unfold the way I know they will.
Sexton captures three generations of an African-American family who is trying to navigate a less than civil landscape. The characters have to contend with a society that is rife with injustices (racial disparity, classism, colorism, sexism, environmental disasters, drug epidemics, crime) and their attempts balance familial or societal duties with their personal desires. As the title itself suggests, the narratives are very much about freedom. Each character is trying their hardest to be free.
A Kind of Freedom filled me with sorrow. Sexton has written a heartbreaking debut novel, one that gripped me not for its plot but for its beautifully complex character studies.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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BOOK REVIEWS

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expected the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender identity. As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight, and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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