Review: Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

44290385Verdict: Slightly disappointing.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Oneworld Publications, May 23rd 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

An ambitious and assured collection of short stories from the internationally acclaimed author of Kintu
If there’s one thing the characters in Jennifer Makumbi’s stories know, it’s how to field a question.
‘Let me buy you a cup of tea… what are you doing in England?’
‘Do these children of yours speak any Luganda?’
‘Did you know that man Idi Amin?’
But perhaps the most difficult question of all is the one they ask themselves: ‘You mean this is England?’
Told with empathy, humour and compassion, these vibrant, kaleidoscopic stories re-imagine the journey of Ugandans who choose to make England their home. Weaving between Manchester and Kampala, this dazzling, polyphonic collection will captivate anyone who has ever wondered what it means to truly belong.

I found this, sadly, highly uneven and fairly unimpressive. I adore short story collections but have fallen a bit out of the habit of reading them this year. This collection was not the best choice to try to get back into the groove of reading them. Now, these are not bad stories by any means but for the most part they did not quite work for me. Part of that is down to genre preference; I like my short stories either fabulist or hyper realistic and these were neither, combining endlessly bleak glimpses into difficult lives with stories that just left me scratching my head (there is a story told completely from the perspective of a dog – something that was never going to work for me outside of flash fiction). I found the stories’ endings often abrupt in a way that did not strike me as intentional. The language is straight forward in a way that worked for me sometimes – when this book felt real and like it could be non-fiction – and sometimes not – when the stories felt unfinished.

However, when the stories worked for me, they were absolutely incredible. I adored both “Something Inside So Strong” and “Malik’s Door” a whole lot – if all these stories had been as sharp and poignant as these I would have been in love. These stories were not only cleverly constructed, the characters felt real and interesting, and the emotional heart made me hurt.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Oneworld Publication in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

38819868Verdict: Fun, fast-paced, surprisingly deep.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Doubleday Books, 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…

I love books about siblings; a lot. So I was probably always going to enjoy this but I am still glad that this was indeed the case. This fast-paced novel about two sisters, one of which is a serial killer and the other her (un)willing helper, is deceptively shallow – but below the frankly addicting language and the exhilerating twists and turns, this is also a commentary on the roles women are supposed to play and the limited option they have. It perceptively shows the impact of abuse and power imbalance while showing a fun way in which this power might be taken back.

For me, the biggest strength was the way Braithwaite’s language flows. It is breathtakingly easy to read and the rhythm she achieves is wonderful – it makes absolute sense that the author is a spoken-word artist. I rarely notice language but here I was just in awe. Her sentences flow very nicely and make for a compulsive reading experience in the best possible way.

I enjoyed the sibling relationship at the core a whole lot; it read true to life (or rather as true to life as a dark comedy about a serial killer can ever be). Korede is alternately frustrated with her sister Ayoola and fiercely protective of her. I could really empathize with this feeling. This book also made me take a look at what I would do for my own siblings – and I have to be honest, Korede’s actions do not seem farfetched to me at all.

This is definitely a fun addition to the shortlist of this year’s Women’s Prize and while it is not my favourite of the books I have read of the longlist so far, it is heaps and bounds better than many books on the list and I am glad to see in advance. I would not mind if it won the prize as well – because I do think it is cleverly done in a way that makes it seem effortless, which is really difficult to pull off.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  5. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  6. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  7. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  8. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  9. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  10. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (review)
  11. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

35020361Verdict: Middling.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Henry Holt, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a beloved go-to setting for hunger pangs and celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each character to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multi-voiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silkscreen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.

This is the first time while reading the longlist of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction that I am baffled by the inclusion of a book. While I have been struggling with many of the books, I could always see how the books would work for a different reader and see the purposeful way in which the books were structured and narrated. I did enjoy reading this book but I also found it distinctly average (my friend Rachel called it “aggressively mediocre” in her wonderful review, a phrase so perfect a description for this book that I am unsure why I should even bother writing a review).

Lillian Li follows a large cast of characters, all connected to the Duck House, a Chinese restaurant in the US that is as much the reason these people are connected as it is the centre of this novel. While I do think that books with a large cast can work exceedingly well, for me to appreciate them this large cast has to come with a particular kind of narrative voice. Here, Li attempted an intimate narration to imbue the action with an emotional heart, and I don’t think this ever came together. Scenes that should have been emotional did not work for me because I had not spent enough time with the characters to be properly invested. As such, they felt melodramatic and overwrought.

The book is at its strongest when concentrating on familial relationships, be it Jimmy and Johnny, two brothers filled with both love and contempt for each other, who loath those characteristics in each other that they wish they had themselves, or Johnny and his daughter Annie, who love each other but have never found a way to properly communicate. But for me, the most compelling relationship was between Nan (a long time manager at the Duck House) and her son Pat. This relationship tugged at my heartstrings in a way none of the other narrative strands came even close to. Pat in particular reminded me of my little brother when he was 17 and angry at the world. The interactions of lost and confused and vicious Pat and his mother, who just does not know how to deal with her struggling and difficult son, felt honest and true in a way that made me wish for a book more tightly focussed on these two.

I found the writing to be distinctly underwhelming safe for a few really wonderful sentences like this one: “It pained Nan to admit this, but he shouldn’t have bent under her hollow reassurances. She should’ve taught her son how to ask for more. The fact that he didn’t was what made him hers; they were genetic mirrors, with identical weak spots in their bones.” But for the most part the writing veered dramatically between matter-of-factness bordering on boring and overwritten melodrama (especially in the last 50 pages) in a way that I found disatisfying.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  5. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  6. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  7. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  8. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  9. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
  10. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

Review: Conversation With Friends by Sally Rooney

36136386Verdict: This book is everything.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind–and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural evil–and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential, looks like patriarchy made flesh. But however amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect. As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.

I have spent the last days periodically exclaiming “God, what a book” (or more correctly, because I do speak German in my real life, “Gott, was ein Buch!” or “Dieses Buch!”). I am feeling vaguely guilty for having given other books five stars because this book is just so much more than most of those. I am in no way objective in my absolute adoration and I don’t think I can adequately articulate how very brilliant I thought this was, so stick with me while I squeal and talk in superlatives.

I dragged my feet reading this book because the reviews are all over the place and it could have been so obnoxious (and some people think it is!): I mean, a book focussing on four fairly privileged young people making themselves miserable? A book where a thirty-something married man starts an affair with a 20-year-old college student? But this book hit me in all the right places. Rooney expertly weaves her tale, her characterization is sharp enough to cut, and her protagonist is a flawed piece of brilliance. Frances grounds this story in a way that worked exceedingly well for me and I found her, while infuriating, insanely relatable and incredibly true to life. Other reviewers have characterized her as unlikable – but I could not disagree more. She behaves stupidly, sure, but she is also lost and sad and sharply book smart while lacking emotional intelligence and I found her so very compelling. She is both the more active part of the relationship while also letting things just happen without taking action. She is incapable of communicating effectively while still being observant.

Rooney also manages something incredible here: she made me feel for the thirty-year-old man sleeping with a much younger woman and lying to his wife. Nick could have been a walking cliché, but Rooney made him so much more well-rounded while never flinching away from the fact that he behaves atrociously. Every single one of the four main characters felt real in a way that fictional characters so rarely do, precisely because Rooney lets them be contradictory and, yes, sometimes unpleasant. But for me this unpleasantness never overshadowed the sympathy I felt for all of them.

I cannot see this book not topping my best of the year list, which on the one hand is great, on the other hand it is only March and I have a whole lot Women’s Prize reading ahead of me. I will read everything Rooney had ever written or will ever write, starting with Normal People when it’ll arrive this weekend.

Review: Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

35958295Verdict: Harrowing.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: General Fiction

Published by Quercus Books/ riverrun, March 7th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

When Sarah falls for Matthew, she falls hard.

So it doesn’t matter that he’s twenty years older. That he sees her only in secret. That, slowly but surely, she’s sacrificing everything else in her life to be with him.

Sarah’s friends are worried. Her father can’t understand how she could allow herself to be used like this. And she’s on the verge of losing her job.

But Sarah can’t help it. She is addicted to being desired by Matthew.

And love is supposed to hurt.

Isn’t it?

This book broke me, quite literally. I have rarely had such a visceral reaction to a book as I had this time and I am quite unsure how to talk about it. For this very reason, I feel the need to start this review with a disclaimer: I saw so much of myself in the main character and her experiences and behaviours that I cannot be objective about the literary merit of this book but I can say with absolutely certainty that the emotional core of this book was intense.

Told in two timelines, then and now, this book traces Sarah’s twenties. The past is told in first-person and tells of her increasingly destructive relationship to Matthew Brennan, a man many years her senior who treats her abysmally. The present is told in third person, Sarah is in a new relationship but still as ever self-hating and increasingly horrible to everybody around her. We closely follow Sarah, who is in no way an easy person to spend time with, and are always privy to her self-destructive thoughts and tendencies in a way that I found highly effective and extremely claustrophobic. Sarah is, for lack of a better term, a mess. For me the past narrative work better; the intimate first person narration made it a difficult but rewarding experience; present day did not quite hold my interest at all times but managed to show just how broken Sarah is in a way that made my heart hurt.

Louise O’Neill shines an unflinching light on why a person might stay in a toxic situation way longer than they would have ever thought beforehand. Matthew is a horribly disinterested in Sarah as a person except for brief interludes when he wants sex. The sex scenes are uncomfortable to no end, Matthew showing less than zero interest in making the experience pleasurable for Sarah who does not feel like she can tell him to stop. He belittles her and makes her feel bad for being the person she is. These scenes hit me incredibly hard: In my second and third year of uni, I dated this gorgeous, brilliant, funny Norwegian with the most beautiful accent when he spoke German with me – and who never let me forget that I am not the kind of person he wants to spend the rest of his life with (too feminist, too vegetarian, too not blond enough, too abrasive, too not feminine enough and so on) or maybe I never let him forget that he was not the person I wanted to grow old with (this might very well be true as well, relationships are rarely as one-sided as I would like to make this one seem). O’Neill captures the particular heartbreak that comes from a relationship like this incredibly well. While this made for a very difficult reading experience for me, it also impressed me to no end. I am so very glad to have read this.

I received an DRC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Quercus Books in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

36112638Verdict: In parts brilliant, in parts unsubtle

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: General fiction

Published by Penguin, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

Again it feels like I am the last person to have read a book – and again I am so glad to have finally gotten to it. I adored Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You and while I don’t think this book was quite as strong, it was still brilliant enough that I will be reading every single thing she ever publishes.

At its heart, this is a book about mothers and their relationship to their children. It follows to very different women, free-spirited Mia and perfect Mrs Richardson and their children while at the same time being more of a pastiche depicting a small towns inhabitants. I really enjoyed the rambling nature of the narrative and was happily along for the ride. I thought Ng took incredible care with most of her characters and her command of language in describing these everyday scenes was wonderful.

For me the book got weaker as it neared the ending, when the story became less subtle and it became more clear what Ng wanted the reader to think. I thought this did a disservice to the wonderfully complex moral conundrum at the heart of this novel. There were no easy answers her and for me it felt like the novel pretended as if there were. I found the two women at the centre became less real and more archetypical towards the ending and as such lost power.

On the other end of the spectrum, I adored the way Ng handled the younger generation. All the teenagers felt real and believable and their relationships with each other made my heart ache with its earnesty. Especially the three women had my hearts and I wanted them to be happy; Izzy with her prickliness, Lexie with her strong moral compass that just so happens to not always include her own actions, and Pearl who just wanted to belong. Ng just really has a way of constructing believable characters that make me very excited for whatever she writes next.

Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

33160963Verdict: Lovely and heartbreaking.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Simon and Schuster UK, May 28th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Reclusive Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her story, no one is more astounded than Monique herself.

Determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career, Monique listens in fascination. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s – and, of course, the seven husbands along the way – Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. But as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

I feel like I was the last person on earth who hadn’t read this book and I am so glad I finally did. That said, it took me a while to finish this because there was a bit in the middle that dragged for me – however, man, does Taylor Jenkins Reid ever pull it back together after the 50% mark. From that point onwards, I was so very invested.

On the surface, this is the story of Evelyn Hugo’s seven marriages as told to Monique, a rather inexperienced journalist getting the chance of her lifetime to write a memoir to one of Hollywood’s greatest stars. But more than that, this book is the portrait of woman who honestly and gracefully bares her all to the world here. And I adored Evelyn so very much. She is by far my favourite part of this book; she is ruthless and ambitious but unflinchingly honest in her own portrayal. I could not help but root for her as she made her way in the minefield that is Hollywood. Whenever the storyline strayed from her, I was eager to get back to her and get to know her better. Monique on the other hand did not always work for me as the person through whose lens we are getting the story.

Told in effortless prose that compelled me to keep reading, Taylor Jenkins Reid tells her story without unnecessary flourish in a way that let her main character shine and her side characters dazzle. I adored Harry beyond measure and thought Celia was wonderfully flawed but incredibly compelling. The ending ripped my heart out but I am so glad to have finally read this.

I received a drc courtesy of NetGalley and Simon and Schuster UK in exchange for an honest review.