Review: Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“It wasn’t crazy to me. Being her daughter was all I’d ever known.”

Crooked Hallelujah – published by Grove Altantic, July 14th 2020

It’s 1974 in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and fifteen-year-old Justine grows up in a family of tough, complicated, and loyal women, presided over by her mother, Lula, and Granny. After Justine’s father abandoned the family, Lula became a devout member of the Holiness Church – a community that Justine at times finds stifling and terrifying. But Justine does her best as a devoted daughter, until an act of violence sends her on a different path forever. Crooked Hallelujah tells the stories of Justine–a mixed-blood Cherokee woman– and her daughter, Reney, as they move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country in the hopes of starting a new, more stable life in Texas amid the oil bust of the 1980s. However, life in Texas isn’t easy, and Reney feels unmoored from her family in Indian Country. Against the vivid backdrop of the Red River, we see their struggle to survive in a world–of unreliable men and near-Biblical natural forces, like wildfires and tornados–intent on stripping away their connections to one another and their very ideas of home.

In lush and empathic prose, Kelli Jo Ford depicts what this family of proud, stubborn, Cherokee women sacrifice for those they love, amid larger forces of history, religion, class, and culture. This is a big-hearted and ambitious novel of the powerful bonds between mothers and daughters by an exquisite and rare new talent.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Brilliant, heartbreaking, let down by the ending.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is a book about family, or rather a book about mother-daughter-relationships. Following four generations of Cherokee women in their attempts to live their lives and to make better choices possible for their daughters, this book is focussed on the peculiar relationships women can have with their mothers. The story is told chronologically but jumping forward in time, sometimes in first person, sometimes in close third person, and as such fairly introspective. Kelli Jo Ford chose to tell every chapter from the perspective of the daughter in the relationship she focusses for this moment – and I adored that choice.

I thought this was excellent – especially when Ford focussed the difficult relationship between Lula (hyper religious and often harsh) and her daughter Justine (who has her own daughter at 16). I loved the parallels between these two women who seem at first glance very different but who both try their very best to change their daughters’ trajectories for the better. Both make the best of the limited choices they have – and this limitation of choices due to poverty is at the core of this book. Justine who is prickly, difficult, lonely, strong remained my favourite until the end.

There were two things that did not completely work for me. There is a chapter in the middle of the book that is only tangentially related to the rest of the book and that I found gratuitous in its depiction of homophobic violence. I also thought that the final chapter taking place in the near future in a climate change ravaged Texas, did not completely work. I understand the thematic relevance and I loved the mirroring Ford achieved here, I just would have liked to not have it take place in the future. But even if I have slight problems, this book was for many pages absolutely brilliant and I love the tenderness Ford’s writing has for her characters. Even when the women fight, they always, obviously love each other and only want to help each other.

Content warnings: rape, miscarriage, tubal pregnancy, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, Christian fundamentalism, death of loved ones, death of animals (horse), teenaged pregnancy, robbery, homophobia, epilepsy

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

Review: Ayiti by Roxane Gay

36739756Verdict: I was always going to love it. I mean, it’s Roxane Gay.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, General Fiction

Published by Grove Atlantic, June 12th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In Ayiti, a married couple seeking boat passage to America prepares to leave their homeland. A young woman procures a voodoo love potion to ensnare a childhood classmate. A mother takes a foreign soldier into her home as a boarder, and into her bed. And a woman conceives a daughter on the bank of a river while fleeing a horrific massacre, a daughter who later moves to America for a new life but is perpetually haunted by the mysterious scent of blood.

Surprising absolutely no-one, I loved this. I am a huge Roxane Gay fan and I love her short fiction nearly as much as her non-fiction. This collection of short stories showcasts Gay’s tremendous talent and her brilliant voice. While this cannot quite reach the highs of her second collection (very few things do), I still adored this.

Gay’s stories center around pain. There is no way around that. These stories are grim and dark and very depressing. But she also, always, adds some hope, some light, and does so expertly and brilliantly.

There was not a single story in this collection that I didn’t like, which is very rare for me when it comes to short story collections. I do admit to finding the collection overwhelming in parts because of the grim subject matter and had to take frequent breaks after particularly grueling stories – but never for long because Roxane Gay has a very distinct, very brilliant voice and I cannot imagine a world where I won’t read every single thing she produces. Her observations are sharp and her thoughts on identity and pain and family and loyalty and living are important and necessary and so very very brilliant (I cannot help but speak in superlatives; after all Roxane Gay is one of my very favourite authors).

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Nine Continents – Xiaolu Guo

34496930My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: 28 August 2017

Published by Grove Atlantic, October 2017

Verdict: Wonderfully readable and immersive memoir. Highly recommended!

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Xiaolu Guo is one of the most acclaimed Chinese-born writers of her generation, an iconoclastic and completely contemporary voice. Her vivid, poignant memoir, Nine Continents is the story of a curious mind coming of age in an inhospitable country, and her determination to seek a life beyond the limits of its borders.

Xiaolu Guo has traveled further than most to become who she needed to be. Now, as she experiences the birth of her daughter in a London maternity ward surrounded by women from all over the world, she looks back on that journey. It begins in the fishing village shack on the East China Sea where her illiterate grandparents raised her, and brings her to a rapidly changing Beijing, full of contradictions: a thriving underground art scene amid mass censorship, curious Westerners who held out affection only to disappear back home. Eventually Xiaolu determined to see the world beyond China for herself, and now, after fifteen years in Europe, her words resonate with the insight of someone both an outsider and at home, in a world far beyond the country of her birth.

Nine Continents presents a fascinating portrait of China in the eighties and nineties, how the Cultural Revolution shaped families, and how the country’s economic ambitions gave rise to great change. It is also a moving testament to the birth of a creative spirit, and of a new generation being raised to become citizens of the world. It confirms Xiaolu Guo as one of world literature’s most urgent voices.

Absolutely wonderful memoir by a woman beyond impressive. She talks about alienation and perseverance, about loss and art, about growing up and finding herself, and everything in-between.

Xiaolu Guo’s life sounds like something out of a movie: born to an intellectual who had spent time in a labour camp and a mother who was part of the Red Guard (yes, her parents met in prison), given away at birth, and then given back to her grandparents (both analphabets; her grandmother of a generation where having your feet bound was normal; their relationship scarily abusive), ripped away again to go and live with her parents, she manages to attend an elite university for film-making and then to win a scholarship to study in the UK – a country that became her home. Her book is a piece of art itself.

I adored the way she plays with language; her not writing in her mother-tongue (as she has been doing for a while now) just adds to the immediacy and the sense of alienation. The further back in time she goes, the more fragmented her language becomes. When she comes closer to finding her place in the world and the person she can be, the sentences get longer, more assured. I adored this.

At the centre of her memoir are her relationships: with her artist father who influences her in a myriad of ways but cannot (or will not) protect her from her mother’s harshness and her brother’s scorn. But also her complicated relationship with China and how it influences her art and what she can and cannot write about. She writes about censorship – both external and internal and how this made it impossible for her to be the writer she knows in her heart she can be. She also writes about not fitting in anywhere and how she puts this into pieces of art. This is what makes this book both personal and universal – underneath all the cultural differences there is this common human theme of wanting to be true to yourself and of experiences of alienation but also homecoming in a foreign country. I appreciated this.

First sentence: “So many times I’ve seen England from the sky.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of Netgalley and Grove Altantic in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!

Review: The Age of Perpetual Light – Josh Weil

34496925My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: 31 May 2017

Published by Grove Atlantic, September 2017

Verdict: Absolutely stunning short stories.

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This is an absolutely stunning collection of short stories; brilliant, enlightening, poignant, and very very sad. The eight stories in this collection are all a wonder to read but some stories did not quite work for me. Maybe if the brilliant stories hadn’t been so fantastic I would have been more lenient; as it stands, this a near perfect collection – but not quite enough for 5 stars for me.

Josh Weil tells stories set in transitory moments – where something, often some invention, changes everything about a person’s life, for better or for worse. Be it the advent of electric light in a rural community in the middle of nowhere in the US or the invention of satelite mirrors that end night as we know it in exchange for never-ending light (and productivity).

There were two stories that particularly moved me and that once again showed me what a brilliant medium the short story can be:
“Long Bright Line” – about a woman who always feels observed and at the side line finding her calling and her destiny in her brilliant art. Weil manages to paint such vivid pictures of the art she creates that I felt a profound sadness at the fact that it doesn’t exist. Juxtaposed with the advent of air travel and the way women were left out, her story was an absolute wonder.
“The Point of Roughness” – about a husband whose relationship with his wife is forever changed when their adopted daughter turns out differently than he hoped. It is a story about love and loss and about unhealthy obsession and about how some people are unable to deal with change. This story made me reel with emotions and unable to look away. It is beyond stunning and one of the best pieces of writing I have read in my life.

The stories all had a profound effect on me. I adore the way Josh Weil makes his characters come alive in the few pages we get to spend with them and how every single one of them felt unique and real, even if exaggerated in their current situations. His language is vivid and unique and full to the brim with feeling and beauty and metaphor. I am beyond impressed with this book.

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!


Review: The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

32991198My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Date Read: 2 August 2017

Published by Grove Atlantic, November 2017

Verdict: Beautifully and frustratingly sparse.

Find it on Goodreads.

As London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place, shelter to shelter, to a desolate island and back again. The story traces fear and wonder, as the baby’s small fists grasp at the first colors he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds.

Written with poise and poeticism, The End We Start From is an indelible and elemental first book—a lyrical vision of the strangeness and beauty of new motherhood, and a portentous tale of endurance in the face of ungovernable change.

Beautifully and frustratingly sparse. This book is written in absolutely stunning prose that in places feels like poetry. It is stylistically wonderful – its sparseness works great in conveying the way the world has shrunk around the protagonist; minimizing her field of vision around the essentials: her new-born son and her husband.

Set in the not so distant future when the oceans have risen dramatically and drowned much of England, the main character has just given birth to her son when she has to leave London to go North. We follow her from place to place, meeting people, losing people, finding people. The plot is near irrelevant though: it is more a meditation on motherhood, on beginnings and endings, on love and loss. All the characters are only referred to by their initials, leaving the reader at a distance and rendering this very personal tale universal.

I adored the way this book was told; I enjoyed the juxtaposition of motherhood and the end-times and I found many sentences beautiful beyond words. It was a highly satisfying reading experience – however, I am not sure how much of it will stick with me. The book is too short and sparse to really tell a story and the language while stunning does not help the feeling of detachment. The book is full with metaphors and foreshadowing and mixes the personal and the universal in a highly stylized matter. But sometimes I like books told in style and glitter and beautiful sentences. Here I did.

First sentence: “I am hours from giving birth, from the event I thought would never happen to me, and R has gone up a mountain.”
I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!

Review: See what I have done – Sarah Schmidt

33779103My rating: 2/5 stars

Date read: 31  July 2017

Published by Grove Atlantic, August 2017

Verdict: I might never eat pears again.

Find it on Goodreads.

When her father and step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden – thirty two years old and still living at home – immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.

Meanwhile, others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and their own stories to tell: Lizzie’s unmarried older sister, a put-upon Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie’s uncle to take care of a problem.

This unforgettable debut makes you question the truth behind one of the great unsolved mysteries, as well as exploring power, violence and the harsh realities of being a woman in late nineteenth century America.

There are many good things in this book that would make this a great choice for a different reader. Sadly I am not that reader. I was super excited about this book – it was on plenty of people’s “most anticipated” lists, both covers are absolutely stunning, and the bit of the blurb that I read sounded exciting. I had some misconceptions though: I did not realize that this book would be gritty historical fiction, I did not realize that Lizzie Borden was 32, and for some reason I thought it would have magical realist pieces.

Sarah Schmidt sets out to retell the story of the Borden murders – murders so famous that most people in the English speaking world have heard of them (I was not one of those people). Told in alternating viewpoints following Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and an involved bystander Benjamin. Every single one of those characters, save maybe Bridget, is unbelievably awful. They are nasty, self-involved, blind to their own faults, and unbearable to spend time with. Especially Lizzie’s chapters made me want to throw things – she is without a doubt the worst person I ever had to listen to (figuratively). Every time her name was above the chapter, I groaned. I know many people do not mind unlikable characters but I think I just need to be honest with myself here. I am not one of those people; I need the characters I spend time with to be at least sympathetic or have any redeeming traits.

Sarah Schmidt has an undeniably brilliant way of painting vivid pictures that engage the readers senses in a near unique way. Sadly, here it is mostly used to paint a vivid picture of the awful living conditions of this wealthy family (the father was famously stingy). There are long and evocative descriptions of vomit, sweat, blood, period blood, and everything else nasty. The characters all eat fruit in a way that apparently leaves them covered in its juices. They do not swallow, they gulp (side note: I think this is my alltime least favourite word – it might be because I am not a native speaker but for me the action of gulping sounds super loud in my head).

This is not a bad book but it is one I did not enjoy one bit. I was undeniably the wrong reader. Sarah Schmidt has a very evocative way with words and I think she succeeds in telling her story in an original way; I thought the time jumps worked very well and the execution was really well-done. I just did not enjoy reading this and was sad to be so glad to be done with this book. But I was very glad.

First sentence: “He was still bleeding.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!