Conservation of Shadows

It is not true that the dead cannot be folded.

Conservation of Shadows, Yoon Ha Lee, Prime Books 2020

Now that’s what I call fantasy. Or scifi. Maybe both. Either way, there is fantasy and there is science (fiction) and it’s mind boggling, eerie and beautiful (not just for linguistic and/or math enthusiasts either). Eat that, tropes.

Conservation of Shadows is a collection of (short) stories previously published by the author. It’s about colonialism, wars, music, writing, reincarnation or maybe only death.

Especially the first five – six stories tickled my imagination, but even when you get used to Lee’s style and subject choice the originality stays with you.

My only complaints are that some stories deserve entire novels and that – for an e-book – it’s almost too much, too dense. Experience this relic from a future time through paper, I’d advice.

Rules of Civility

On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art – the first exhibit of portraits taken by Walker Evans in the late 1930s on the New York City subways with a hidden camera.

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles, Sceptre 2011

As with my previous review, this novel can be summarised in one sentence. The characters however, can not.

Young woman in NYC 1940s moves up through class-levels while learning things about society and what she wants.

Just like in his following novel, Amor Towles manages to make a lot out of a little, without rocking any kind of boat in any way. A little less sofa, that’s all. You’re not completely detached, but never manage to break the surface either. Towles makes it feel like this is how he wants to be, in complete control of the story/stories.

It’s only about that, and do with it as you will. If you want.

Pride

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.

Pride, Ibi Zoboi, Balzer + Bray 2018

It’s embarrassing how angry this book made me. At myself. Being confronted with racist, classist and other thoughts wasn’t what I was suspecting from reading a YA retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set in contemporary Bushwick (New York City, USA).

So, first of all: “Why has it to be such a big family?” Because it’s just like the original material.

“Why is protagonist Zuri so angry and unyielding all the time?” Because she’s a teenager, of colour, gentrification and poverty.

“Why doesn’t Darius try harder to fit in with the majority?” … and this from a person that proudly called herself ‘alternative’ in high school. Shame on me.

Good thing is that all the frustration was directed at me, because I feel like Zoboi did really well with this. It’s no carbon copy, there’s all the right emotions and worries (now fitting because of puberty and a quickly changing surroundings), and Bushwick and its inhabitants as a welcome third party. Which such people, no wonder Zuri is willing to fight.

A novel like this is the YA that should be heavily promoted and adapted, instead of book 234 out of the CC club. Because a good story comes with insight (of the self), which is a good thing for all ages.

Sex and Vanity

Dearest Lucie and Charlotte,

Sex and Vanity, Kevin Kwan, Doubleday 2020

Yes, the author of Crazy Rich Asians and the rest of them.

Is it fair to judge a book like this on more than its promise and if it’s delivered? Like a “real” novel? Well, there’s different kinds of judging of course, but what if I just mention what’s going on?

The plot is an enemies-to-lovers trope. Although the hate seems to be one-sided, and isn’t very clearly motivated. He wears speedos and looks good in them? He’s different from other men and makes her feel things? Okay, I guess?

But maybe that’s because of my next point: characterisation. It’s not great. For any of them. Every character gets one trait, and most are high in clichés.

Surroundings? World-building? Yes, ma’am! Here’s what we came for: Kevin Kwan is a who’s who and what’s what on riches, royalty, relationships and rumours. It’s lavish and lucious and enormously over the top all the time. It’s empty glitter filled with names you might not even recognise, but it all sounds very glamorous and filthy rich.

Just read quickly: there’ll be too much sparkles in your eyes to notice the things lacking.

Unreliable narrators and obsession

They must think I don’t have long left, because today they allow the vicar in.

Bitter Orange, Claire Fuller, Fig Tree 2018

I first saw Freya at my high school.

The Swap, Robyn Harding, Simon & Schuster 2020

New template, new way of posting? I read the second book to have something different from the first (because my previously planned book was also in a historic setting), turns out I got another portion of unreliable narrator and obsessive behaviour. Oh, well.

All protagonists are female, how often does the combination of unreliable narrator and obsession happens with male characters? Frances is close to forty, while Low and Jamie are a teen and a thirty-something. The set time period is different as well, but both books end in murder (or do they?).

The Bitter Orange covers up the thriller/mayhem part better, masquerading for a long time as a story of a woman as exciting as a dry black bean in technicolour surroundings. She has to evaluate gardens of a neglected mansion and finds people who have to do something similar, but don’t really do it. They make her think that she could be technicolour, instead.

The Swap on the other hand starts out with a clear manipulator; an ex-social media influencer for Pete’s sake. She twists everyone around her pinky finger, but some you don’t want around your pinky or other body parts…

Both stories have appealingly-written surroundings, dramatic characters and don’t attempt to make you root for them. It’s train wrecks waiting to happen, with an extra point to The Bitter Orange for a more subtle lead-up to the twist.

Neither are stories that will end up on your Best Of-list (probably), but they’re good for what they attempt to be.

The Animators

Introduction to Sketch was held in Prebble Hall, a building Professor McIntosch called “Ballister’s dirtiest secret” during our first class.

The turn around on this novel is incredibly impressive. It took me three – four chapters to change my mind about abandoning it, it’s incredibly ugly and depressive and scary and I think I’m even angry after(/about?) finishing it. It’s also one of those books you just want to press upon everyone just to see if they had the same experience, if it can touch different people in the same way.

Its ugli- and darkness might be its winning element, it creating a story that dumps you outside of daily life and makes you wonder how you can ever participate again. It isn’t ugly like a Gillian Flynn-creation, no murder here. It’s the way in which women are even less shown in fiction: dark and bitter and scared and a myriad of bad decisions while being bottomless wells of imagination and creativity.

This book isn’t to be summarised; it would fall incredibly short while at the same time preparing you for something it isn’t. To me, it was confrontational about daring to create and to create all – not just the cute stuff. About family and friendship and identity in an USA that made never have felt more filthy.

It’s a blast, it’s a terror. Read it so we can discuss.

The Animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker, Random House 2016

The Ninth Rain

You ask me to start at the beginning, Marin, my dear, but you do not know what you ask.

Yoohoo, traditional fantasy alert! Although.. our unlikely heroes this time are very unlikely and not all that heroic. Not yet anyway, but of course this is the first book in a series.

The Ninth Rain plays out in a pretty much post-apocalyptic world. There’s the memory of darkness and despair, but some are living through it more than others. There’s an ancient race that should have been the heroes but fell, there’s humans that – like humans do – just toil on. And then there’s a threat of things that might just come again.

Yes, there’s the burly male, the scared little young woman with more power than she can control and the eccentric bringing them all together, but they don’t fit their clichés exactly. Combine that with a luscious world building and it matters very little that this plot has been done before. You get that comforting ‘Down the fantastic rabbit hole’-feeling in return.

The Ninth Rain, Jen Williams, Headline 2017

Spoiler Alert: the Hero Dies

Our relationship was over before it began.

I’ve read another memoir. Maybe it reads easier when you don’t know the person writing it, or the recent ones just were written entertainingly and well. I’m guessing the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Michael Ausiello is an entertainment writer, and this story is about how his partner dies. With a title like this there’s little surprise to the ending of his story, but Ausiello manages to write it in such a way that you start to doubt that title – the man knows what works to keep your reader compelled, after all. So there’s chapters about the highs and lows of their relationship, the beginnings and (almost) break ups. He writes himself down while his partner is plucked from the heavens, even when he’s being quite terrible.

It’s a story very close to someone; and to recognise that these people are(/were) really alive makes it sometimes terribly uncomfortable. Should the reader be around of another round of bad news or self-doubt? Is it not too close, to follow someone’s mourning on this level?

Because Spoiler Alert is about love and loss and other four letter words, but also very much about Michael Ausiello.

Spoiler Alert: the Hero Dies; a memoir of love, loss and other four letter words, Michael Ausiello, Atria Books 2017

The Far Field

I am thirty years old and that is nothing.

This library haul had a 75 percent success rate, with The Far Field being the concluding chapter (heh) of that rate.

And – as it sometimes is with good stories – with this one it’s hard to put into words what exactly is good about it. It’s not like the naive, spoiled protagonist is easy to love, nor are the other characters particularly likeable. The plot could well be called Eat Pray Love with poverty tourism, so honestly, Madhuri Vijay had the stacks against her.

But there’s so much humanity in these characters and their stories. The randomness of things, people and situations brought together and bringing the worst or the best out in each other. You could say that the protagonist leaves a trail of destruction behind, but does she even have that kind of power? What is there to destruct in a war zone?

This book is coming of age, a rapport of ordinary life in contested country, a confrontation with bias. It’s written in such an appealing way that sometimes the plot arrives second because you’re just enjoying the words.

It’s good.

The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay, Grove Press 2019

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race

It wasn’t until my second year of university that I started to think about black British history.

I guess August was for non-fiction, or that This Lovely City just put me in the mindset to learn more about black British history. Because of course, of course – in some way you know that the islands aren’t an utopia for black and brown people, but how much of black history is focused on the USA (effectively making it possible for Europeans to dodge any responsibility?)? Turns out – when it comes to my knowledge – a lot.

Don’t write this title off as a history book now (why would you write off any book because it has history, you don’t love history?), because as anything involving people; history is just one part of it. As Eddo-Lodge explains it probably better than I do: intersectionality is a thing, and you can’t discuss a human issue without looking at the place where it intersects.

So, this book is about history, about feminism, about the media and white privilege. It’s about health and education, and every other part of human life. In clearly cut chapters, in clear language, Eddo-Lodge doesn’t only answer the title’s question, but also explains to you why you should take responsibility regarding it.

And just like that, I’ve got my first book for my students to read (from).

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Bloomsbury 2017