book review: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

37570595._sy475_

 

FRIDAY BLACK by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
★★★☆☆
Mariner Books, 2018

 

Like most short story collections, Friday Black has its highs and its lows, and on the whole I’d say it lands somewhere in the middle. But that’s not to dismiss Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s skill at dark, grotesque speculative fiction, which is on full display in a number of these stories, from the harrowing opener The Finkelstein 5 (a man brutally murders 5 black children with a chainsaw and claims self-defense) to the devastating Zimmer Land (a Westworld-style themepark where participants play out fantasies in which they defend their families by murdering intruders).

However, from an opening that promised thematic cohesion (at least where the first three stories were concerned – all playing with the tension between inward identity and outward emotion), it started to flounder a bit. The Hospital Where introduces huge ideas and never really follows through. Three stories make the exact same point about consumerism, begging the question of why they were all necessary to include. The final story, Through the Flash, drags on and on while getting less interesting the further it goes.

My average rating for these 12 stories is 3.25, so 3 stars it is, but I do want to stress that I did enjoy this collection. I think Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is one of the most exciting, daring new voices I’ve read in fiction all year. This is a searing, unapologetic collection about violence and black identity and capitalism, and how inextricable those themes are. I’d ultimately recommend giving this collection a shot if it interests you, but if you’re just interested in reading one story from it, make it The Finkelstein 5.


You can pick up a copy of Friday Black here on Book Depository.

book review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

40492788

 

THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See
★★★☆
Scribner, March 2019

 

It took me over three months to finish this book, and it wasn’t for a lack of interest in the author; this was my seventh Lisa See novel and interestingly, not even my least favorite. I wouldn’t say there’s anything ostensibly wrong with this book, and it’s not exactly a radical departure from the rest of See’s historical fiction: it follows a friendship between two women against the backdrop of a turbulent period in East Asian history (though here the setting is the Korean Jeju Island instead of See’s usual China).

But despite the tried and true blueprint whose familiarity should have been comforting, I really struggled to get invested in The Island of Sea Women. I think my main issue was with the protagonist, Young-sook (whose name I just had to look up even though I finished this book only two days ago, so that’s never a good sign). Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are haenyeo – female divers – and See’s exploration of this culture is as thorough as ever. However, Young-sook herself makes no particular impression, and I think it’s mostly down to how anemically drawn her character is: she’s a model haenyeo, so she loves being a haenyeo; she’s meant to desire marriage and children, so she desires marriage and children; she’s meant to honor her family, so she honors her family. She’s a collection of cultural values rather than a distinct person – a pitfall that I think See gracefully avoids with the protagonists of each of her other novels that I’ve read. I don’t ordinarily feel that she needs to sacrifice character development to establish historical context, but sadly I did here.

About 60% through the book, during a scene of a horrifying and brutal massacre, See’s decision to tell this story through Young-sook’s eyes finally, finally made narrative sense to me, but up until that point, I had been wondering why the focus hadn’t been on Mi-ja – an infinitely more interesting character for the ways in which she didn’t fit as neatly into the society in which she was raised. Their friendship is competently portrayed, but it’s missing a spark for me that I felt in so many of her other books, notably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.

And I think that’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about this book: it’s competent. It’s a great crash course in Jeju history for those of us who weren’t already familiar with the island. It’s an occasionally heart-wrenching story about loss and the inability to forgive. It’s just not spectacular, and it never quite gains the momentum needed for the most brutal scene to make as much of an impact as it should have.

All said, I liked this book but I didn’t love it, but I undoubtedly should have pushed myself through the rocky beginning rather than dragging this reading experience out for three months; and everyone else seems to adore it, so I’d encourage you to give it a shot if it interests you. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls remain my go-to recommendations.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Island of Sea Women here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #6: nonfiction and theatre of the absurd

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

38799469

BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
★★★★☆
date read: February 26, 2019
Knopf, 2018

Wow. This was every bit as wild as everyone has been saying. Bad Blood is probably the best embodiment of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ that I have ever read. Trust me, you do not need to be interested in Silicon Valley or business or medicine in the slightest to be riveted by this incredible piece of investigative journalism.  You can pick up a copy of Bad Blood here on Book Depository.

592951

WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
★★★★☆
date read: April 7, 2019
Faber & Faber, 2006
originally published 1952

This is famously ‘the play where nothing happens,’ so I certainly didn’t expect this to be the surreal, madcap romp that it is. I’m going to have to think about this one for a while.  You can pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot here on Book Depository.

 

1035312SPY PRINCESS by Shrabani Basu
★★★☆☆
date read: May 22, 2019
Sutton, 2006

This is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to be sent into occupied France, who was executed at Dachau after being imprisoned for a year and not revealing anything under extensive interrogation. But while Spy Princess certainly has value in filling in the gaps left by other biographers, it does occasionally beatify Noor at the expense of other women (what does Shrabani Basu have against Mata Hari, my god) and fall victim to making very generic statements about Noor’s life when there isn’t documented information (i.e., a page-long description of the global advancement of WWII followed by a lazy statement like ‘Noor was worried about this’). Still, Basu does an impressive job at chronicling Noor’s life and contextualizing her legacy.  You can pick up a copy of Spy Princess here on Book Depository.

13944THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
★★★☆☆
date read: May 28, 2019
Atria Books, 2006

In this book’s introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.  You can pick up a copy of The Secret Life of Houdini here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

38720267

 

BOTTLED GOODS by Sophie van Llewyn
★★★☆☆
Fairlight Books, 2018

 

I think Bottled Goods is an interesting, impressive book in a number of ways, but I can’t help but to feel a bit underwhelmed by it. It tells the story of Alina, a young woman living in 1970s communist Romania, whose family comes under surveillance when her brother-in-law defects to the west. Blending a quotidian story with elements of Romanian folklore, this book is a unique, magical creation that I think will satisfy a lot of readers despite its brevity.

But while I was particularly intrigued by its ‘novella-in-flash’ premise, it turned out that the whole flash thing kind of ruined it for me. Each of these chapters is brief – some are a few sentences, some are two or three pages – and each jumps the narrative ahead several weeks or months with no preamble. I hadn’t realized just how much I appreciate a consistent pace and flow in storytelling, but I guess it makes sense, because I’ve noticed over the years that my reading speed gradually increases the further into a book I get; at the very beginning, before I’ve been pulled into the narrative, my mind wanders easily and I find myself rereading the same passages over and over. That’s what kept happening to me with this book – it’s only 190 pages, and rather tiny pages at that, but it took me probably six or seven sittings to get through it, because the jolting pace made it particularly difficult for me to care about any of it.

But anyway, all of that has more to do with me as a reader than what this book does or does not offer. I think it offers a lot: it’s a perceptive commentary about a young woman living under an oppressive governmental regime, an interesting counterpart to Milkman on the Women’s Prize longlist (though I think Milkman is the stronger novel in just about every conceivable way). And I did find its unique style both paradoxically stimulating and distracting; hopefully it will fall more toward the stimulating end of the spectrum for a lot of readers. Finally, I know that everyone who knows me was worried about my reception to this book as soon as the words ‘magical realism’ entered the summary, but I actually didn’t mind that element – I’m not sure it added anything that couldn’t have been achieved with more literal storytelling, but it was an interesting way to comment on the lengths one goes to in order to escape an oppressive government. So on the whole, not really the book for me, but a solid book nonetheless.


You can pick up a copy of Bottled Goods here on Book Depository.

book review: The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott

40953912

 

THE MISSING YEARS by Lexie Elliott
★☆
Berkley, April 23, 2019

 

Beginning with the terrifically gothic premise, The Missing Years is an easy book to like. Ailsa Calder, a young woman living in London, finds herself inheriting half of an old Scottish manor when her mother dies. Though she initially wants nothing to do with it, she’s unable to sell it unless the joint owner agrees; the problem being that the other half belongs to her father, who disappeared without a trace twenty-seven years ago. So Ailsa moves into the manor with her half-sister, and from the very first night, she can’t shake the suspicion that something is deeply wrong with the house.

The atmosphere in this book, as I’m sure you can imagine, was pitch-perfect, and that’s really the main reason I’d recommend it. The setting of a creepy old house in the Scottish Highlands is hard to mess up, and Lexie Elliott mercifully uses it to its potential. The potentially supernatural element (is the house actually haunted?) is mostly kept ambiguous until the conclusion, which is how I prefer it when a supernatural element encroaches on a thriller; it’s always interesting to me when characters feel like they’re losing their grip on reality.

The problem with this book for me was that it was severely under-edited. This is a very slow-building mystery, which is fine, but when your book is a slow burn, you still need something to propel it forward; instead I felt like The Missing Years was just spinning its wheels for about two-hundred pages. I felt like I was slowly being driven mad by the sheer amount of repetition here – I wasn’t sure I could take another instance of Aisla anthropomorphizing the house without losing the last shred of my own sanity. I’m not kidding, there is barely a page where Aisla doesn’t reflect on the feeling that the house is watching her, which I thought was a rather ham-fisted addition to what was otherwise a fantastically rendered setting.

I still mostly enjoyed reading this, and I’d suggest picking it up if the setting appeals to you, but if you prefer your thrillers on the fast paced side, it’s probably best to skip this one.

Thank you to Berkley for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Missing Years here on Book Depository.

book review: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

40245130

 

LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE by Valeria Luiselli
★★★☆☆
Knopf, 2019

 

I think the books that fall into the ‘admired it, didn’t like it’ camp are some of the hardest to review, and that’s exactly how I felt about Lost Children Archive. I think this is objectively a very good book. Valeria Luiselli sets out to do something incredibly ambitious, mixing media forms and offering a wealth of commentary on migration and displacement. But all that said, it left me feeling rather uninspired.

This book and its main narrator are unapologetically aloof, and I think that was the main problem for me. Luiselli leans heavily on intertextuality to spin this story, and I was reminded of two other books I’ve read recently: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li. Incidentally, the female narrators in all three of these novels are nameless, and all three of their narratives are mired in literary references. But I felt like Nunez’s and Li’s narrators were using these references to cultivate a sense of self – I felt like I was gaining an understanding of who they were through this technique. In contrast, I never got a sense of who the narrator of Lost Children Archive was supposed to be – the intertextuality here read as generic and often soulless intellectualism. And it’s frustrating because at one point the narrator says “reading others’ words, inhabiting their minds for a while, has always been an entry point to my own thoughts,” which really resonated with me as a reader, but I ultimately found her own thoughts to pale next to those of the authors she quoted.

But none of this is to say that Luiselli isn’t a good writer. Her prose is incredibly well-crafted, and it’s hard not to admire her technical skill. And thematically, this book is quite the feat: Luiselli examines the U.S.’s current border crisis through the eyes of a family taking a cross-country road trip, whose marriage is disintegrating due to the husband and wife engaging in two passion projects whose ideologies and practicalities conflict.

About three-quarters of the way through the novel, the perspective shifts to the narrator’s son, and while I preferred this section (as this is where the plot actually started advancing), I wasn’t convinced by his mature narrative voice, and at this point the weird mythologizing of the ‘lost children’ started grating. This is largely a narrative about voicelessness, which doesn’t attempt to give voice to the migrant children as much as highlight their absence in the narrative, and while I respected what Luiselli was trying to do, it fell a bit flat for me.

So ultimately, a mixed bag. I’m glad I read this, I think it deserves to be longlisted for the Women’s Prize and I won’t be upset when it probably makes the shortlist, but while I admired it and found it punctuated by moments of utter brilliance, on the whole it was a bit of a chore to get through.


You can pick up a copy of Lost Children Archive here on Book Depository.

book review: If, Then by Kate Hope Day

40641074

 

IF, THEN by Kate Hope Day
★★★☆☆
Random House, March 12, 2019

 

If, Then is a quiet, speculative novel about four neighbors living in suburban Oregon. Ginny and Mark are an unhappily married couple, Samara is a young woman coping with the recent death of her mother, and Cass is a young mom who’s had to sacrifice her academic ambitions for motherhood. Gradually the novel introduces the possibility of parallel realities which have begun to overlap, as each character starts to see visions of an alternate version of themselves. Throughout the course of the short novel we study each of these characters and unearth the decisions each of them made which prevented their other self’s reality from coming to fruition.

While I enjoyed this from start to finish and found the ending in particular to be utterly brilliant, I ultimately think I was hoping for more from this novel’s speculative angle. Suburban life is chronicled convincingly, and each character is constructed carefully, but I don’t think this digs deep enough to be the kind of character-driven novel it’s trying to be. This could have been offset by the concept of parallel realities playing a larger role, but instead, that element is more of a vehicle used by the author to explore the novel’s central concept: if I had done this instead of that, then what would have happened as a result? Still, it’s a quick and thought-provoking read, and though it’s underdeveloped in places I think some of the ideas it raises are interesting enough to make up for that. 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of If, Then here on Book Depository.