Infinite Country

It was her idea to tie up the nun.

Infinite Country, Patricia Engel, Simon & Schuster 2021

Less than 160 pages and I still walk around with it a couple days after finishing it. I don’t know if I consciously gravitate towards migrant stories and the generations after, but once again it doesn’t disappoint.

What Infinite Country adds is the clear question of “What’s so great about the USA anyway?”. It’s not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for anyone involved, and the place the family comes from (Colombia) isn’t viewed as a crap shoot essential to escape from.

Combine this with a family literally ripped apart based on their place of birth and there’s something fresh and uncanny about this short story.

Harlem Shuffle

His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June.

Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead, Bond Street Books 2021

I like Colson Whitehead’s work, previously read novels were quick reads I could appreciate for what they were. I don’t know why Harlem Shuffle didn’t click in the same way.

Maybe it’s because protagonist Carney doesn’t seem to be connected to anything or anyone, even though he has a family he risks because of his illegal actions. Maybe it’s because of the time jumps, or the lack of distress. Carney does only legal things – o, he does illegal things now as well. Okay.

Whitehead’s writing still delivers, it just took me a very long time to focus on following the plot.

Accidentally Engaged

For most urban dwellers, Sundays were a day of rest and relaxation.

Accidentally Engaged, Farah Heron, Hachette Book Group 2021

First of all: where was the editor? Within two pages letters missing, names being spelled differently? Oof.

Anyway, the best part these days about romantic novels is the build-up and characterisation. After the two get together, especially when it’s a heterosexual couple – my interest fades.

In this case it’s (surprise) food. Reena stress-bakes and cooks, and the descriptions are good albeit overly detailed after a certain amount of pages. Faking an engagement is a fun trope as well, but because we’re only told what Reena isn’t, there’s very little investment or even emotion when things implode (because of course they do).

Maybe I should just stop trying reading romance with the aim of being satisfied.

The Island of Missing Trees

Once upon a memory, at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea, there lay an island so beautiful and blue that the many travelers, pilgrims, crusaders and merchants who fell in love with it either wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries.

The Island of Missing Trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin Random House 2021

There’s just something about Shafak’s writing that turns the big into small and the small into world-impacting. I liked her previous one better – or well, was more stunned and impressed by it, but this one also makes you think and makes you feel.

Because Ada isn’t the first child to lose a parent and having to deal with feeling alienated by the living one, but add Cyprus and suddenly it’s the first story ever told.

I want the best for Ada, eat fresh figs and I want to visit the island.

The Invisible Library

Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.

The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman, Penguin Random House 2016

Sometimes I wish authors would pass their ideas to better authors or just admit that they wanted to write a TV or film script.

Because The Invisible Library has a nice ideas (book guardians that hop dimensions to collect special books, seemingly all during steampunkish/victorian times), but the landing doesn’t stick. It’s a collection of descriptions with cardboard characters.

I’d watch the series if someone else did the writing, all I’m saying.

She Who Became the Sun

Zhongli village lay flattened under the sun like a defeated dog that has given up on finding shade.

She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan, Tor 2021

Mulan but not exactly (there is cross-dressing to survive, but it goes much further and Zhu doesn’t need any man/romance, thank you very much). She takes her brother’s fate and decides to do whatever necessary to get to what he’s promised: greatness.

The language used is a bit purple and blown up from time to time, adding the feeling that we’re really deep into ancient texts instead of one just a year old. It means that you might have to invest a little, but if you want a whole different (Asian) myth, it’ll be worth it.

Shuggie Bain

The day was flat.

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart Grove Atlantic 2020

Been a while since I read someone writing so vividly. This is an appealing story because of its style and imagery, and also severely depressing because of its images and stories.

The depictions of addiction, recovery and sabotage (intentionally and unknowing) is rough and tough, a trainwreck that just refuses to stop.

Papyrus

Mysterieuze groepen mannen te paard trekken over de wegen van Griekenland.

Papyrus: Een geschiedenis van de wereld in boeken, Irene Vallejo, Meulenhoff 2021

De geschiedenis van boeken, de geschiedenis van de wereld aan de hand van boeken. Irene Vallejo heeft een lijvig boek geschreven en het merendeel ervan heeft niet eens de Middeleeuwen bereikt: moet je nagaan hoeveel er te vertellen is en hoe diep Vallejo is gegaan.

Omdat ze dit doet op een fijne, lichte toon waarin haar interesse en devotie hoorbaar is (complimenten voor de vertaler, aangezien het origineel in het Spaans is), wordt het geen moment een naslagwerk waar je doorheen moet ploegen. De auteur is duidelijk ‘van de taal’ en kan bij andere taligen het enthousiasme vergroten maar zaait zeker ook bij beginners het zaadje.

A Girl is a Body of Water

Until that night, Kirabo had not cared about her.

A Girl is a Body of Water, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Tin House 2020

What stuck with me most is how well Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi communicated the surprise and shrugs Ugandans had/felt about European ideas like time and religion. Might sound silly and/or narrow-minded but yes: not everyone cuts days into twelve hours and decides that one way of going at it is the right way. It’s all been decided before somewhere, and doesn’t mean that elsewheres should go along.

A Girl is a Body of Water plays out in a different time – Uganda in the nineteen-seventies and -eighties – and in a different world. The plot is familiar: absent parent decides to bring first child into second family. But Kirabo has plenty of other things on her mind; Sio, the mother who refused her, familial issues between her grandmother and the village witch and adjusting to private school and the city after growing up in a rural village.

Makumbi makes it all feel a bit like a fairy tale; even when dire reality sets in (war, death), it seems like something our princess has to get through to get to her happy ending. This absence and style takes some getting used to, but after you’re all in: we want the Stories of Kirabo; and we get them.

Light Perpetual

The light is grey and sullen, a smoulder, a flare choking on the soot of its own burning, and leaking only a little of its power into the visible spectrum.

Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford, Faber 2021

Sounds pretty dystopian, doesn’t it?

What if four children – who died in a WW2 bombardment – didn’t? The children aren’t extraordinary, they’re simply ‘allowed to’ play out their lives. What follows are slices of life of post-war England.

The characters make the novel, especially when the writing lacks a bit. It’s a history novel as history should be looked at: through the eyes of regular humans.