BOOK REVIEWS

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

“Fear of death is a powerful weapon.”

Remote Control is Afrofuturism at its best. Nnedi Okorafor seamlessly blends folklore elements and aesthetics with sci-fi ones, delivering a unique and intriguing piece of speculative fiction. Set in Ghana, Remote Control opens in medias res: the appearance of Sankofa, a fourteen-year girl, and her companion, a fox, sends the residents of a town into hiding. They shout her name and the following: “Beware of remote control, o! The most powerful of all witchcraft!”. Sankofa chooses a house in which she is treated like a honoured, and feared, guests. The following chapters tell Sankofa’s story and of her strange, and occasionally dangerous, powers. After a terrible tragedy forces her to leave her hometown Sankofa embarks on a journey in pursuit of the peculiar object responsible for her powers. As she is unable to use cars (since her ‘change’ she become a technology ‘repellant’) Sankofa walks, encountering both friendly and hostile people, seeking shelter in nature, finding comfort in the presence of her fury companion. Throughout the years she spends on the road we see the way people view her and her powers. Some see her as a ‘witch’ and seek to harm, while others seek her help. Time and again we see the damage caused by fear and hatred of the other or that which we do not understand. There were many harrowing scenes but thankfully there were also plenty of moments emphasising empathy, connection, and love.
As much as I appreciated the setting and the mélange of sci-fi and fable, what I loved the most about Remote Control was Sankofa herself. I don’t think I have ever warmed up so quickly to a character. Perhaps it is because she is a child but to be honest I tend not to like children (real and fictional alike) but Sankofa immediately won me over. There was something so endearing and wholesome about her that my heart ached for her. I found her level-headedness to be both sweet and amusing (“Being led out of town by an angry mob wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, best to stay calm and let it be done”).
My anxiety over her wellbeing did give the novella a suspenseful edge, so that I finished it as quickly as possible. The only aspect that didn’t quite ‘work’ for me was the ending (which could have been less ambiguous). Nevertheless, I would love to read more novellas set in this world!
I would definitely Remote Control recommend to fans of speculative fiction: the writing is evocative and inventive, the main character is wonderful, and Okorafor raises interesting questions about power and fear.

my rating: ★★★½

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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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Not My Time to Die by Yolande Mukagasana

In this powerful and gut-wrenching testimony, which has only been recently translated in English, Yolande Mukagasana writes of the Rwandan genocide. In a striking and incisive prose Mukagasana recounts the horrific three months in which Hutus massacred hundred of thousands of Tutsis. Mukagasana, a Tutsi, worked was a nurse/doctor in Kigali. She was married with three children. When Hutus begin persecuting and killing Tutsis Mukagasana and her loved ones attempt to flee away from Rwanda. Their attempts are unsuccessful as the people who they had once considered their friends turn against them. Mukagasana narrates these events through a first-person perspective and using the present tense. These two modes lend immediacy to her experiences.

There are many distressing if not downright nauseating scenes in this novel. Mukagasana doesn’t gloss over the truly horrific realities of a genocide. These pages are dripping with violence, grief and despair. Before reading this memoir I knew next nothing about Rwanda or its history. Mukagasana provides many illuminating insights into her country’s past and present, emphasising the role that the West played in the fraught relationship between Hulus and Tutsis. Mukagasana challenges Western views of her country and of genocides (the West dismissing the “genocidal violence” that broke out in 1963 as “the usual tribal infighting”) as well as the hypocrisy of organizations such as the United Nations (“expressing platitudes but not acting”). Mukagasana also addresses the causes and consequences of genocidal violence. The author regards violence from numerous standpoints: from a global, national, and individual level.
While Mukagasana conveys with painful clarity the shock and agony that she experiences her audience’s understanding of her grief and pain will be infinitesimal.
However challenging and upsetting this memoir is I encourage others to pick this one up.

MY RATING: 4 of 5 stars

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins — book review

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Did the world really need The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes?
I think not.

Full of unnecessary exposition and weighed down by self-indulgent fanservice, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a train-wreck of a novel. The story lacks rhyme or reason, things happen only to advance the plot (regardless of whether they make sense because what is even logic?), there are no stakes (Coriolanus having to eat cabbage soup and not being able to pay taxes are hardly sources of tension), the characters are ridiculous and one-dimensional, frequently the writing veers into the ludicrous, and the author doesn’t trust her readers to reach obvious conclusions by themselves.

Having recently re-read the Hunger Games trilogy, I was reminded of how good a writer Collins is.
One of the strengths in THG series lies in Katniss’ first person narration which brings immediacy and urgency to her story. In THG Collins’ exploration of the ethics of violence and the conflict between survival and sacrifice struck me as being both nuanced and intelligent. There was also a certain ambiguity that allowed, nay encouraged, readers freedom of interpretation.
Which begs the question…Collins, what happened?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes may be the prequel to THG trilogy, but it’s an altogether different beast. Which would have been fine by me if it had been ‘different but good’. What we have instead here are simplified discussions about human nature (are we inherently bad? Do our circumstances shape who we are ? Are we responsible for what we do in order to survive?), an unconvincing story that is dragged-out for 500+ pages and is populated by goofy characters.

The novel strives for depth, yet its attempts to address the nature/nurture question and other moral quandaries result in a clumsy and overt parable that is leagues from being a satisfying or insightful philosophical inquiry into human nature. An example of this would when Dr. Gaul assigns Coriolanus Snow and other mentors homework along the lines of: “Write me an essay on everything attractive about war.”
What follows is a predictable and cringe-y scene in which they express their different opinions (shocking I know). Was that the only way to include a discussion on the ‘positives’ of war? It seemed a desperate, and rather pathetic, attempt to throw into the story some ‘serious’ material. Just because the characters who are talking about these things have ancient-Roman-sounding names that doesn’t make their conversations any more meaningful or thought-provoking.
Not only does the character of Dr. Gaul exist to tick the ‘mad scientist’ box (I will get to her in due time) but she’s also there so she can explicitly ask characters ‘challenging’ questions regarding their moral and political tenets. So subversive and illuminating is she that she says things such as: “Who are human beings? Because who we are determines the type of governing we need” and “What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. The tributes. And you, too. How quickly civilization disappears.”
We also have characters like Sejanus Plinth who although District-born has spent the last few years in the Capital, and he comes out with: “You’ve no right to starve people, to punish them for no reason. No right to take away their life and freedom.”. Did this guy just suddenly realised what kind of world he lives in? After years of Hunger Games he’s like ‘nah, that’s wrong. Humans should be free.’ (as if he doesn’t know that his words will have consequences?).
Away with Plato. Move aside Nietzsche. Sontag? Get out of here. There is a new philosopher in town.

Corny philosophising aside, the writing was weighed down by obvious statements which made the characters seem rather simplistic. Worst still we have cheesy gems such as “you’re mine and I’m yours. It’s written in the stars”, “although he didn’t believe in it, he tried to channel her telepathically. Let me help, Lucy Gray”, “The cabbage began to boil, filling the kitchen with the smell of poverty. ”
What in the world? I’m supposed to take this seriously?

The third person narration didn’t do the novel any favours. Most of Coriolanus’ thoughts and feelings aren’t articulated so that his character is given no new depths. Collins’ shies away from portraying him as a truly morally corrupt yet self-delusional person, making him into a not very convincing ‘he’s not that bad’ kind of guy. He’s an orphan who is tired of eating cabbage soup and not having money. Boo-hoo. His personality is just so tepid…he’s sort of ambitious, sort of a liar, a ‘sort of’ kind of person. Look, I wasn’t expecting the next Ripley or Humbert Humbert but Coriolanus is such a non-entity. While the narrative makes it seem as if he’s this cunning and charming guy, Coriolanus’ no Machiavelli. His elitist views are exaggeratedly rendered, so much so that they make him into a caricature of the contemptuous heir. Even those scenes in his family apartment or the ones where he’s with Tigris or Lucy Gray did not make Coriolanus any more believable or sympathetic. His ‘arc’ as such was merely motivated by his desire for wealth. As the descendant of a powerful yet crumbling Aristocratic family he believes he’s entitled to more than just cabbage soup for dinner. And of course, he hates Sejanus because ‘new money’.

From the first chapters characters are classifies as either good or bad. Throughout the course of 500+ pages they don’t change. Their thin personalities remain fixed.
Because of this the cast of characters is entirely forgettable. Although their names may appear on a page, their personalities remain largely non-existent. Coriolanus’ fellow students and mentors….did they even possess an individuality ? With the exception of holier than holier-than-thou Sejanus, these ill-defined Academy kids soon morphed with one another. What they say or do matters very little. They are mere accessories to Coriolanus’ story (we get it, although they have been indoctrinated to believe that the Districts are scum, they are not entirely entirely desensitised to violence or cruelty).
Lucy Gray was just so ridiculous. She seems one of the few random characters to have a normal name, and yet there was something comical about the way a ‘distressed’ Coriolanus would shout out her name. While the narrative did seem now and again aware that she was treated as an object, the way she’s depicted seems to corroborate this. She just didn’t convince me as an actual human being. At times she seemed a twelve year old Marie Sue, at times she seemed to have walked off the stage of a musical, and yet we are meant to find her intriguing?
The adult characters are unintentionally funny. From the ‘deranged’ Dr. Gaul (who speaks only in cliches and is not at all intimidating) to Dean Highbottom (whose surname merely brought to mind Neville Longbottom) who for some reason I don’t care enough about doesn’t like Coriolanus. These two, similarly to the other characters, do not leave their assigned roles (in this case ‘the mad scientist’ and ‘the bitter guy who for reasons holds a grudge against the protagonist’).
The characters in this novel are clownish. They have wannabe-Roman names, they speak in clichés and come out with uninspired maxims.

The world-building relies on readers having read THG. Which is weird given that this is not a sequel.
Panem is a dictatorship because reasons.
The novel also has a weak sense of place. The Capitol is barely delineated. The Academy is a building, Coriolanus lives in an apartment, and the Hunger Games take place in an arena. The architecture of these places is obviously irrelevant. Who even cares about descriptions of the characters and their environment? (I do).

Minor spoilers ahead
One of the first things that did not seem very rational was that the Capitol assigned the tributes to eighteen-year olds. Sure, the childhoods of these Academy students were marred by the war, but in comparison to the tributes, they’ve led a fairly privileged existence. But however rich their education may be, they still lack experience. They have little insight into the entertainment industry and just because they’ve discussed war strategies doesn’t mean that they could give any useful battle tactics. One thing is theory, the other one is practice. Yet, we are supposed to believe that the powers that be
decided that this particular group of students will mentor the tributes for the upcoming Hunger Games. The reason for this ‘mentorship’ is to make the Hunger Games more popular, garner some extra views or I don’t know. To me this seems an ill-conceived plan.
Anyway, let’s go along with it: mentor=more entertaining Hunger Games. Okay, so why am I meant to believe that the same people who are working extra hard to make the Hunger Games more interesting would let the tributes starve for a few days in a zoo cage? So they can collapse and die as soon as they enter the arena? Why even bother with the mentors then?! It was quite clear that the only reason why the tributes end up in a zoo cage is to remind us readers that to the ‘civilised’ citizens of the Capitol, District people are less than ‘animals’.
There were so many scenes like this. They did not make sense but they are theatrical. Characters are attacked, killed, and or tortured for effect. For all she writes about violence and human nature, Collins’ will often sacrifice believability for exaggeration. The whole thing with Dr. Gaul and her snakes was laughable. She’s such a crudely drawn figure that it was impossible to feel intimidated by her actions. The violence in this novel seems closer to that of splatter film.
The Hunger Games themselves are not only boring but they are described in a yawn-inducing way. The games section reminded of how in THG films they occasionally showed the game makers watching Katniss to make up for the fact that in the book we had Katniss’ narration to fill the moments of ‘quiet’. There was something so impersonal about these Hunger Games that I really did not care to see the way they would unfold (we know who is going to win anyway).

Shockingly enough, I struggled to finish this novel and ended up skimming a few pages in the final section. I’m baffled. What is this mess? What was it trying to achieve? It adds nothing to the THG. Coriolanus is not nuanced nor is he believable. If anything he seems a very different shade of evil to that of President Snow. We still don’t know much about the war. We get it, the Capitol suffered at the hands of the ‘rebels’. Collins’ tries to make this particular Hunger Games more significant by making characters come up with ideas that will be implemented in the following Hunger Games (like the sponsors or whatnot). For some reason Collins’ has to ‘foreshadow’ later events or can’t help but to reference mockingjays (“the show’s not over until the mockingjay sings”) and ‘the hanging tree’ song. What was the point in Tigris? She had a small cameo in the …why try to make her ‘important’? Especially since her role in this prequel in pretty irrelevant.

With so many pages did we really need to have passages in which earlier conversations reappear in italics? Why not trust that your readers will be able to remember what Coriolanus is referring to?

Last but not least: I am so done with the ‘muttations’. They were the weakest aspect of THG trilogy and to dedicate so much page time to them is just…

Moral of the story: approach prequels with caution.

My rating: ★✰✰✰✰ 1 star

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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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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht — book review

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“He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to.”

To begin with I was intrigued by Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht’s writing is both intelligent and beautifully oblique. Her descriptions of the moral and physical landscape of the Balkans are evocatively rendered. Although Obreht avoids naming countries, alluding merely to ‘my side’ and ‘their side’, she does give her readers a strong impression of the communities she writes of. Whether she is describing them before or after this ‘unnamed’ war, her prose is piercing. She easily disentangles the feelings that different generations have during a war.

Populated with folkloric characters and examining themes such as cultural memory and death, I was prepared to be mesmerised by The Tiger’s Wife. The tale within tale structure of her novel brought to mind some personal favourites (such as books by Elif Shafak and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land) but I soon found myself wanting the narrative to focus and develop our protagonist more. Natalia Stefanovi’s personality remains off-stage, and she often seemed to function as a mere mouthpiece for her grandfather. The few scenes which gave us an impression of their relationship were far more poignant than those countless ones focusing on Galina’s residents. Ultimately Natalia’s narrative feels meaningless. She doesn’t embark on a quest nor does she come to re-asses her grandfather or his stories, she seems merely to be reiterating these tales, and she offers few personal insights.
The tiger, Gavran Gailé (the deathless man who Natalia’s grandfather encountered years before), and the deaf-mute woman know as the tiger’s wife were the figures to which the various tales stories returning to. While the tiger was painted in a fascinating and mythical light, the tiger’s wife struck me as a passive and one-dimensional character.
While Obreht’s depictions of death, illness, and war are haunting, and her story does reveal the desperation and exhaustion experienced by those in war-torn countries, I did find her story to be ultimately inconclusive. If Natalia had played a more active role in the novel I would probably enjoyed this novel more.
Still, Obreht’s prose does merit attention, and I will certainly be reading her next novels.

“It was another thing they never talked about, a fact I knew somehow without knowing how I’d ever heard about it, something buried so long ago, in such absolute silence, that I could go for years without remembering it. When I did, I was always stunned by the fact that they had survived it, this thing that sat between them, barricaded from everyone else, despite which they had been able to cling together, and raise my mother, and take trips, and laugh, and raise me.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel — book review

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“We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”

Once again I find myself in the minority but I just didn’t find The Familiar Dark to be a very riveting read. From its gratuitous and cliched opening pages (in which two twelve year olds are murdered) to its stagy finale, I had a hard time believing in the story I was reading.

Some of my favourite books, such as Winter’s Bone and Sharp Objects, depict rather bleak realities, but they do so convincingly. Here, Eve Taggert’s narration is so exaggeratedly ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ as to be hard to buy into. Although she says that she has spent all her life in the same small town, she often describes its people’s ways through comparisons (saying things on the lines of ‘in other places people would react differently/here rules are different’). Given how insular her world is, it seems weird that she would so often view her town and her family through an outsider’s lenses.

The many metaphors about darkness and poison also struck me as contrived. Eve’s circumstances spoke for themselves. Abuse, neglect, sexual harassment, rape, poverty, and addiction are the norm in her town, especially for women. Would she really waste her time thinking of allusions or similes for ‘darkness’?
In spite of her truth seeking/no bullshit attitude she conceals certain knowledge from the reader…for what purpose? To ‘shock’ us? It seemed weird that Eve, who is able to see through her community and the dubious intentions of the people around her, would lie to herself and to us about someone’s identity.

Eve’s narration aside, I did find the novel to be evocative. The dialogues where for the most part believable as was Eve’s grief. Her search for the truth behind her daughter’s murder is filled with both tense and sorrowful moments. Her rage was also convincing, as were her reflections regarding the limited options women in her position have.

The Familiar Dark sacrifices realism for the sake of dramatic twists. Moments of poignancy or insight into Eve’s life are often lost beneath the author’s overemphasis on ‘darkness’.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin — book review

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Rusting Earth…The Fifth Season is a spectacular read.

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all.”

Reviewing The Fifth Season is no small feat. We have N.K. Jemisin’s writing style, her intricate and all-encompassing world-building, and her unflinching and emotionally resonant storytelling.
Even upon a second reading, I find myself simply in awe of what Jemisin has achieved with this novel. Although her novel interrogates themes that are often at the core of many sci-fis and fantasy books, and its racial, social, and geo-politics carry echoes of our own world. Some of its imagery and ideas brought to mind Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as some of Studio Ghibli’s films. And given this novel focus on nature one could see it as a work of environmental fantasy. Yet The Fifth Season, with its unprecedented structure and its intricate constructions, is a novel like no other.

“According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life.”

By switching between three different perspectives (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) Jemisin is able to present her readers with three different stories which are unified by an overarching theme of survival. In spite of their different ages, circumstances, and locations, these three women are orogene, that is they possess orogeny, the ability to manipulate earth and stone. In this world, known as the Stillness, orogenes are seen as dangerous abominations. Yet, given the frequent earthquakes and the continent’s mercurial weather, orogenes do come in handy. The constant othering experienced by orogenes makes readers question whether a society such as this should even survive the end of the world. After all life in the Stillness is not just. Here your second name indicates your use-caste (which is inherited by one’s same-sex parent) and the only way to avoid these strict and predetermined hierarchies is to become commless, and be consequently cut off from the rest of civilisation.
Jemisin’s novel asks whether a society that is conditioned by such class differentiations and that maintains a systematic system of oppression and injustice should be considered ‘civilised’ to begin with. Readers, alongside some of the characters, begin to see Father Earth’s rage (which according to stonelore is the reason why there are so many earthquakes and environmental disasters) as justified.

“Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.”

In the opening of the novel we witness the destruction of the most powerful city in the Stillness, Yumenes. Its obliteration opens a rift in the earth and causes the start of a season, a merciless winter that is likely to last for centuries. For Essun, a forty-year old woman living in a small comm, the world is ending in more ways than one. After a terrible act of violence in which Essun’s not yet three-year old son Uche is killed by his own father, and her husband, Essun is forced to leave her comm in a desperate attempt to find her daughter. Hope, love, and revenge spur her onwards as she embarks on a desperate pursuit of her husband. The start of a brutal season has forced many into leaving their comms and Essun is not the only one to brave the treacherous landscape of the Stillness. Hatred, confusion, and guilt follow her as she attempts to catch up to her husband and daughter. Soon however she finds two companions, both outsiders of sorts, and their presence makes the survival of each day easier. Although Essun’s chapters (told through a 2nd person narration) are weighed down by her grief and trauma, her love for her daughter and the fragile connections she forms with her two companions alleviate the tragic tones of her story.
By comparison Damaya’s chapters retain a sense of innocence in spite of the ill-treatment and manipulations she is repeatedly subjected to. Once her parents discover that she possess orogeny, Damaya, a child from the Nomidlats, is taken to the Fulcrum, a paramilitary order that ‘trains’ orogenes. In the Fulcrum not only does Damaya have to learn to control her orogeny but she has to survive the dangerous contempt of her classmates. The Guardians, an order that controls the orogenes, instil fear and compliance in the young orogene. We read of the way in which this environment affects Damaya and the way in which it slowly yet surely skewers her worldview so that she begins to see herself as someone worth hating.
Last but not least there is Syenite, a fourth-ringer member of the Fulcrum who is assigned to various jobs around the Stillness and whose latest assignment is not as easy as she’d hoped. Partnered with Alabaster, a ten-ringer who was born into the Fulcrum, Syenite hopes to earn a ‘ring’ after the completion of this mission. While Syenite seems to have grown adjusted to the ways of the Fulcrum, and of the way in which orogene are treated by their society, when she is implicitly ordered to make more orogene, a seed of resistance takes root in her. Her story shows readers the politics of the Stillness: from the socioeconomics of the comm Syenite and Alabaster are sent to, to the larger political landscape of the Stillness. Syenite retains a hope for a future that is different, one in which orogene are not oppressed, weaponised, and discriminated against.
In each chapter we read of different types of survival. What Essun, Damaya, and Syenite experience is not easy to read. They are used, abused, controlled, othered, and persecuted by a system of power. Yet Jemisin doesn’t let her novel or her characters be completely obscured by the bleakness of life in the Stillness. The connections they form with others provide us with many emotionally powerful and heart-stirring moments.
This novel confronts so many serious themes and issues that it is difficult to pinpoint some of them. One could read this a story of survival, a testimony of humankind’s ability to adapt, or a tale that focuses on the impossibility that is maintaining one’s moral integrity or sense of self in a world that marginalises, enslaves, and oppresses those that are deemed different or undesirable. There is an urgency in the stories of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, one that made me read with my heart in my throat. The constant sense of danger, of a catastrophe on the horizon, made this novel hard to put down (even the second time round).

“The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.”

One of the reasons why The Fifth Season has such compelling narratives is Jemisin’s jaw-dropping world-building. There is so much depth and richness in her world that it is all too easy to visualise it. She provides us with stunning descriptions describing the geography of the Stillness (its various landscapes and formations to its weather) so that it feels as real as it does for the characters who inhabit it. Jemisin seamlessly integrates throughout her narratives a lot of the Stillness’ history. We are given an impression of this world through its stonelore—which brings together history, science and myth and informs many of the customs of the people of the Stillness— and through the knowledge of the various characters.
From their beliefs to their language(s) and traditions, Jemisin meticulously constructs this world in a way that always leaves us wanting more. She allows her world to retain a mysterious allure so that she can later on surprise us with certain revelations.
There are a lot of horrifying things in the Stillness. From the seasons to the caste-system…what becomes apparent is that there are few safe places in this land.
Throughout the course of her novel Jemisin seems to be asking her characters and us whether we should consider nature, and Father Earth, to be the villains of her story given the destruction and pain they cause or if the fault lays on the people.

Breathtaking world-building aside, we also have Jemisin’s specular writing. Her prose can be in turns elegiac and gritty, graceful and direct. Through her razor-sharp narration she captures the incongruent reality of living in a world which seems hell-bent on killing you. Jemisin’s magnetic writing style provides us with plenty of arresting scenes, clever expressions, and mind-boggling descriptions of the orogenes’ powers. Time and again she juxtaposes destruction with creation portraying horrific moments in a hauntingly beautiful way.

Final verdict:
This novel is a triumph. The crème de la crème of speculative fiction.

 

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman — book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger — book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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