Review: Everything here is beautiful – Mira T. Lee

34262106My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 21, 2017

Published by PENGUIN GROUP Viking, 16 January 2018

Verdict: It broke my heart.

Find it on Goodreads.

Two sisters: Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the vibrant, headstrong, unconventional one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When their mother dies and Lucia starts to hear voices, it’s Miranda who must fight for the help her sister needs — even as Lucia refuses to be defined by any doctor’s diagnosis.

Determined, impetuous, she plows ahead, marrying a big-hearted Israeli only to leave him, suddenly, to have a baby with a young Latino immigrant. She will move with her new family to Ecuador, but the bitter constant remains: she cannot escape her own mental illness. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until inevitably, she crashes to earth. And then Miranda must decide, again, whether or not to step in — but this time, Lucia may not want to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans, but what does it take to break them?

Told from alternating perspectives, Everything Here Is Beautiful is, at its core, a heart-wrenching family drama about relationships and tough choices — how much we’re willing to sacrifice for the ones we love, and when it’s time to let go and save ourselves.

This book broke my heart. In a million pieces.

At its heart, this novel is about the bond between two sisters (I love that!): Miranda, the older, more responsible one, and Lucia, the younger one who everybody loves. After their mother’s death, Lucia starts to hear voices and spinning out of control, leaving her husband Yonah to have a child with a younger man, Manuel/ Manny, being in and out of hospital, seemingly to get better to then just spiral out of control again. Mira T. Lee tells a complex story, dealing not only with mental illness, but also talking about experiences with immigration (Miranda and Lucia are Chinese-American, Yonah is from Israel and Manny is a illegal immigrant from Ecuador), about finding a home in the world, about finding a way to be happy. If there was one criticism of this book it would be that sometimes the author took on too much and the scope becomes too broad (the story spans different cities in the US, Ecuador, Switzerland, and China…).

What impressed me most was how complex the characters and their interactions were; even when they were at odds with each other, each stayed sympathetic to this reader. The story is told very effectively from alternating viewpoints; each time recontextualizing what happened before and adding even more depth to the story. It takes about a third of the book before the narrative shifts for the first time to Lucia’s viewpoint; everything we see from her point of view is coloured by what we saw before.

Mira T. Lee shows the difficulties of loving a person with mental illnesses, but also how difficult it is to be that person. There is a point in this story where every time Lucia does something Manny cannot understand, he blames her illness, never thinking that maybe he is not innocent in how their relationship evolves (cheating on her when she just had their baby, not understanding why she wants to work when they move to his family in Ecuador, and so on and so forth). Miranda does the same to a lesser extent: in her desire to protect her kid sister she loses sight of the fact that Lucia is still a grown-up who is allowed to make decisions her older sister would not make. She also hopes that just by making sure her sister takes her pills that the situation will be under control, simplifying the complex situation to a dangerous extent.

There are no easy answers in this book, nobody is wholly innocent in how events unfold (except for Lucia’s and Manny’s daughter, obviously), but the characters stay sympathetic throughout, they were believable in their growth and their failures, and absolutely worth spending time with.

First sentences: “A summer day in New Jersey.  A house with a yard. The younger one, four, likes to fold her body over the seat of her swing, observe the world from upside down.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Viking in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

30288282Verdict: Wonderful ode to the bond between siblings.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date Read: September 1, 2017

Published by PENGUIN GROUP Putnam, January 9, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

In 1969, four siblings visit a mystical woman who tells each one the precise date of their death. This knowledge will define each sibling’s life in various ways, be it because they live their life in spite of the knowledge or because of their knowledge. It is a novel about fate and agency, about finding a place in the world, about family and selfhood, about mistakes and guilt and forgiveness.

This book’s prologue was absolutely bloody brilliant. It had me engaged immediately and I could not stop reading there (I actually read it again when I finished the book – it was that great). Chloe Benjamin had me, hook, line, and sinker. I needed to know what happens to the children and how the knowledge of their death date will influence their lives.

Each section of the book then follows one of the children until the day they die; I especially found the first two sections following Simon and Klara to be brilliant and unputdownable. They move to San Francisco in search of a place for them: Simon is gay and Klara wants to become a stage magician instead of anything serious. Simon’s story broke my heart, from his family’s rejection to its inevitable conclusion; Klara’s story was equally engaging and their relationship was absolutely beautifully executed. The following two sections following Daniel and finally Varya were still great but more difficult as those two were not as easily likable as their younger siblings.

It is fitting that I read most of this book while on holiday with my sister because at its heart this novel is about siblings – and I do love stories about siblings a whole lot. Weirdly enough, I gravitated towards the younger, less responsible siblings for a change (I have talked elsewhere how I am the Bert in most of my relationships). I think this shows how brilliantly the characters were constructed and how real they felt. As such the characters and their believable interactions were the best part about this book.

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: Autumn (Seasonal #1) – Ali Smith

28446947Verdict: Clever, poignant, probably brilliant but too disjointed for me.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: November 27th, 2017

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

A breathtakingly inventive new novel from the Man Booker-shortlisted and Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both

Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy and the colour-hit of Pop Art – via a bit of very contemporary skulduggery and skull-diggery – Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture, and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.

Autumn is the first installment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.

From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.

My thoughts are all over the place for this book – maybe fitting because this is what this book is as well: all over the place. There is undeniable brilliance here: sentences so profound they made me stop in my tracks, word plays so wonderful I had to read them twice, musing on a great number of important things. It comes as no surprise that Ali Smith is a genius. But for some reasons these sparks of brilliance never came together for a coherent whole for me – and I guess this was also the point. There is no proper coherence in life and in art and Ali Smith captures this perfectly.

At the core of this book is the friendship between Elisabeth and her older neighbour Daniel and the profound effect on her life he has – opening to her a world of art and cleverness. This book is also filled with musings on art – especially that by women – and how art is both important and prone to being forgotten.

This relationship somehow did not work for me – I think I would have needed it to be more fleshed out. The wonderful glitzy stylistic framework was not enough for me. Somehow I was lacking an emotional core for this book to really resonate with me. This lack was reinforced by the secondary storyline of Pauline Boty. This could have been so interesting but ultimately fell flat for me. Mostly because I did not have the necessary knowledge to contextualize what Ali Smith was telling me. This feeling of lack of knowledge worked against me multiple times during this book.

I think, ultimately, I might have read the book wrong: I think it would have worked better for me if I had read this in one sitting, allowing myself to be swept up in the stylistic whimsy. This way the book would not have felt disjointed but rather a perfect microscopic view of one single moment in time. This moment being the aftermath of Brexit – which is something that is very close to my heart. I have lived in the UK for 5 years, 4 of those in Scotland and as such I have so many feelings about the UK leaving the EU. Especially because the months leading up to the Referendum were filled with xenophobic and racist discourse and because many people voting for leaving the UK voted for exactly those reasons. I am disappointed in the country I felt so welcome in, a country that is so wonderful and has so much to offer, and I am disappointed that people my age just did not go and vote (how idiotic is that?) and I am sorry for my friends who are still there, both those from the UK and those from abroad. Because this Referendum will change the country and there is no stopping this. (That was a tangent.)

First sentence: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”

Review: The Uploaded – Ferrett Steinmetz

33414577My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date read: November 8th, 2017

Published by Angry Robots, September 2017

Verdict: I only have myself to blame for this rating.

Find it on Goodreads.

Life sucks and then you die…

In the near future, the elderly have moved online and now live within the computer network. But that doesn’t stop them interfering in the lives of the living, whose sole real purpose now is to maintain the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life slaving away for the dead. It turns out that he’s not the only one who wants to reset the world…

I have only myself to blame for this. As I said before, I struggle with YA-Sci Fi but this sounded too intriguing to not pick it up. Also, I have been thinking, I might actually struggle with YA in general – there are brilliant books out there that I enjoy immensely, but more often than not it falls kind of flat for me. Which is a shame because it is such a varied genre with so many brilliant-sounding premises that I do not want to stop reading it completely.

This, again, has a brilliant premise: set in the future where a way has been found to upload conciousness into a digital heaven, the dead rule over the living. While they have endless time and resources to have adventures or learn more, they also have endless time to judge the living and ensure that only those who are worthy will be uploaded upon their death. I found this a clever way to deal with real life problems but the execution was lacking. I found  the real and devastating consequences of a democratic system where the dead are the only ones allowed to vote were not ellaborated on enough. The living conditions were remarked on (why bother with making the world look nice if these resources can be used to built better and better servers to host the deads’ subconscience?) but the consequences for a society built only to serve the dead were left too unexplored for my taste. The book stayed superficial and repeated phrases and ideas over and over again (if I have to read the phrase “lowliest of criminals” one more time I am going to throw something; also the neologisms did not work for me: “earputer” and “The Upterlife” being the most annoying offenders).

The main character annoyed me without end; I have no idea what his thought processes were for screwing up his life (and his sister’s with it) for what looks like slightly juvenile pranks. I also did not find him or anyone in the book to be very believable.

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Angry Robot in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

102927My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: November 6th, 2017

Published by Faber and Faber, 2005

Verdict: Precise, clever and so very sad.

Find it on Goodreads.

From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is another classic by the author of The Remains of the Day.

This is the second time I have read this book – I could only remember liking it and not much more so I really wanted to reread this now that Kazuo Ishiguro has wone the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I am certainly glad I did.

The novel is speculative fiction but that speculative part is only at the periphery of the meditation on what makes us human, what makes live worth living, what friendship can do for us and how to make the most of the time we have been given. It is a novel about growing up, about friendship and love, about trust and betrayal, and about loss more than anything else. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up on what at the beginning sounds like a normal boarding school but as the book progresses turns out to be something else completely. The story is told more or less chronologically by Kathy looking back at her life and greatly influenced by how she sees the world.

This time around Kathy struck me even more so than before as an unreliable narrator. She wants to see the world a certain way and makes everything else fit into that narrative. She puts her head in the sand and refuses to see the horrific reality of her life and those of her friends. But even more so, her relationship with Ruth is what made me think. Ruth sounds awful, do not get me wrong, but then again Kathy always goes out of her way to excuse her own behaviour while only paying lip service to Ruth’s intentions. Kathy’s snide remarks are always in reaction to something Ruth has supposedly done or thought. I liked how Ishiguro made their friendship so ambiguous and how the interactions have different layers to them. It added so much to my reading enjoyment and made me think about narrators in fiction and how we tend to trust them unless they make it clear that they are unreliable.

I adored the way Ishiguro tells his story, thoughtful and slowly and very clever. He builds an atmosphere of both dread and melancholy while creating highly believable characters. It is genre fiction with literary aspects which just is my favourite.

Review: Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

33375622My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date Read: November 4th, 2017

Published by Graywolf Press, October 3rd, 2017

Verdict: Beautifully written, poignant, sad, feminist short stories with a supernatural side.

Find it on Goodreads.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

I was really looking forward to this book ever since I saw a review by Roxane Gay for this; then when I read and loved one of these short stories earlier this year I was even more excited – and I was not disappointed in the least. I absolutely adored these stories and what Carmen Maria Machado has to offer. She writes just the kind of slightly unsettling and very upsetting short stories that I just adore. Her stories are twisted and mean but also beautiful beyond words. They have a core feminist message while also being stylistically awesome and never losing sight of the humanity at the core of them. The stories are highly inventive, can be read both as a social commentary and often as love stories, her characters feel real and her language is precise and wonderful.

As is usually the case I adored some stories more than others but overall this was a very strong collection and I can absolutely understand the praise it has garnered (it has been blurbed by Roxane Gay and Jeff VanderMeer among others).

I loved “The Husband Stitch” (this is the story I had read before), maybe even more so the second time around: this inventive rumination on what secrets women are allowed to keep made me mad and sad at the same time.

In “Inventory” a woman looks back on her past lovers as the world comes to an literal end around her. This story felt very different than the rest of the collection but I loved its wistful melancholy and the bleak surrounding Carmen Maria Machado evoked.

My favourite of the bunch was the novella “Especially Heinous”, written as short blurbs for a TV show (think “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” ) filled with ghosts with bells for eyes and doppelgängers that are eerily similar but very creepy. This story was unsettling and creepy but also packed an immense emotional punch.

PS: This is book is so beautifully produced; the pictures online do not really do it any justice.

Review: Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) – Jeff VanderMeer

25970139My rating: 5 our of 5 stars

Date read: October 23rd, 2017

Published by HarperCollins, Fourth Estate, 2014

Verdict: Utterly spellbinding, deeply unsettling, hauntingly beautiful.

Find it on Goodreads.

Welcome to Area X. An Edenic wilderness, an environmental disaster zone, a mystery for thirty years.

For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border– an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.

‘Annihilation’ is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.

But they soon find out that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.

Oh I liked this so.

I had this book on my TBR for what feels like forever and I am so glad I finally read it. Jeff VanderMeer has a brilliant imagination and the world he creates feels utterly original, startlingly so, but still grounded in something like believability.

There is not all that much to the plot: four women embarque on an expedition into Area X; they are the 12th expedition of this kind and all the ones that came before ended somewhat mysteriously. The reader never really learns what Area X is and how it came to be and what exactly happened to the people who went before. It becomes clear that the participants have not been told the truth but also maybe haven’t told the truth either. The biologist, who tells the story, is an unreliable narrator that I still found myself rooting for. This book is vague and does not give any answers but rather than that being annoying for me it only added to its allure. I have been thinking about this book ever since I finished it and the more I do so the more brilliant I find it.

Jeff VanderMeer’s greatest talent lies in creating an atmosphere so all-encompassing that I felt like I was part of the story. The book is highly unsettling and set my pulse running; I could not stop reading and yet dreaded finding out what was going to happen next. This creepy, unsettling, brilliant atmosphere was my favourite part of the book (and I have NO idea how they are going to try and recreate this for the upcoming movie).

First sentence: “The Tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.”