The Midnight Bargain

The carriage drew closer to Booksellers’ Row, and Beatrice Clayborn drew in a hopeful breath before she cast her spell.

The Midnight Bargain, C.L. Polk, Erewhon Books 2020

Sometimes when you work hard to get a book, and when it disappoints it hits even harder. Like a book (or film) has to deliver for the sole reason of me having invested in attaining it. I even e-mailed the library about this novel (gasp!).

Luckily The Midnight Bargain didn’t disappoint: far from it. I hoped for a Victorian romance with a hint of magic; I got a historical fantasy with a hint of romance.

Beatrice lives in a world where her path leads into only one direction: marriage and motherhood. Even though she’s got magic, women can’t use it and carry children as well – society made the choice for her that she will deny magic. It’s also necessary for financial reasons: her father made bad investments and a connection to a rich family is essential to prevent them from poverty.

But of course: Beatrice doesn’t want this. She wants to hold on to magic and help her family, not be sold like cattle.

Spirits, wonderful, kind heartthrobs and dastardly competition get involved – it’s all too much fun to spell it out. Well done, cute little romance/coming-of-age: you absolutely delighted me.

High on the Hog

Dan-Tokpa Market, Catanou, Benin, West-Africa – I visited my first African market with my mother three decades ago.

High on the Hog, Jessica B. Harris, Bloomsbury 2011

It hardly can be any clearer how much this author loves her people, their culture and their history. This isn’t just a book about food or (for) black people: it’s the history of eating and about every continent is involved in some way.

This combination of travel, research and family stories taught me several new things about black history, without ever feeling preachy or as an information-dump. I’ve also learned of many things I want to eat.

High on the Hog travels from slavery to American contemporary day, and sometimes that’s a lot to take in. But Harris’ way of light, loved writing makes it feel like you’re listening in om someone’s stories while they’re preparing you a scrumptious meal. As I said – I really just want to try so many things.

Utopia Avenue

Dean hurries past the Phoenix Theatre, dodges a blind man in dark glasses, steps onto Charing Cross road to overtake a slow-moving woman and pram, leaps a grimy puddle and swerves into Denmark Street where he skids on a sheet of black ice.

Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell, Sceptre 2020

I really think that David Mitchell is my favourite male author. While Utopia Avenue wasn’t my favourite (“yes, you did your homework when it comes to how music is created, I don’t really care”), it was still a book I spent my nights on opposed to the usual screen time.

It felt like it was a character study. Of people (in the music business) during a certain era in history, but also of the era itself. The USA and England can be compared to Cinderella and one of her siblings: young, fresh and exciting versus jealous drudgery.

Jasper de Zoet (as far as I know the first time Mitchell refers to characters from other novels) delivers the eerie, magical realistic touch to the story. Is he mentally unwell – and if so, in what way? – or is there more between hell and earth? I felt like it both lifted up and brought down the story. Any more would provide spoilers, and of course Mitchell manages to interweave it thusly that anything else wouldn’t have worked.

It’s a book like an opera: if those come with drug abuse, celebrity house parties and detailed descriptions of jam sessions. After having written this, I feel like reading it for a second time. Make of that what you will.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Elif Shafak, Penguin Random House UK 2019

Wow. Meestal schrijf ik Engels-gelezen verhalen ook in het Engels op, maar deze keer (en mogelijk het tijdstip – laat opgebleven om het uit te lezen) voelt de taal ontoereikend. Wat een mooi boek, wat een mooi verhaal terwijl er zoveel lelijke gebeurtenissen zijn. Wat een hoeveeheid liefde: voor de hoofdpersoon, haar zelfgekozen familie en ook de stad Istanbul. Wat een plaatjes, ook van de gruwelijke dingen en nare situaties. Wat een alles.

Tequila Leila is dood. Vermoord. Behalve haar laatste tien minuten mogen we ook haar leven en haar beide families – bloed en liefde – ontmoeten. Een meisje dat opgroeit halverwege de twintigste eeuw in een klein dorpje, bijna in de knop gedingest voor ze kan bloeien, en dan nog Istanbul in. Waar ze leeft, overleeft, geeft. Het zou zonde zijn om meer te vertellen, alleen erover vertellen geeft mij al de neiging om het boek opnieuw te beginnen.

Het is een fragiel sprookje, een mozaïek van een levende stad (ook iets waar ik zo van houd, de stad als personage), een ode aan eigenheid. Bovenal zo mooi, zo goed, zo sprankelend prachtig.

Parachutes

I lie in bed listening for the shuffle of my father’s slippers.

Parachutes, Kelly Yang, Katherine Tegen Books 2020

Just to showcase that the element of immigration and immigrant characters can create very different stories (of course). Because this time there’s more Filipino characters (but they’re not the immigrants), but the real immigrants (although temporarily) are the so called parachutes: Asian teenagers that are dropped at prestigious American high schools so they can get an international diploma.
That was a lot of brackets used.

This is a good YA novel. It’s clearly written for a teen audience, (yet) manages to discuss subjects teenagers may experience yet know little about – sexual assault and rape, in this case. There’s even a warning about it in the front of the book, which caused me to kind-of-nervously count down to when things would happen.

That doesn’t mean that Parachutes is an after-school-special disguised as a novel: it’s the troubles of high school life, worrying about fitting in, crushes and clamouring to be older/out of there. Besides that there’s a class difference: Dani is a daughter of a single mum, working alongside her and on a scholarship, while Claire is a parachute who gets an unlimited credit card in her luggage to make sure that “she’s safe in the USA”. You read along with both of their stories.

All written super smoothly, making Parachutes a novel to stay up late for, wonder how the characters will develop further and gush about it online.

Break in Case of Emergency

“It’s hard to reproduce those kind of results if — oh, sorry,” Jen said, realizing a beat too late that the rest of the room had gone quiet.

Break in Case of Emergency, Jessica Winter, HarperCollins 2016

Good gods, absolutely everything and everyone about/in this story is/are annoying. I’ll own up to my responsibility though: I borrowed a book described as a satire.

Break in Case of Emergency tries to merge two different stories, which leads to all of that annoyance. One story is about a start-up, probably the satire part. It’s about ‘feeling’, ‘expanding’, ‘dreaming’, but no-one can give the protagonist a clear assignment because that would just be limiting. The lingo used is straight out of every #GIRLBOSS/life coach-pamphlet, so well done on that. But good gods, how annoying.

The other story is the wish for a child and all the hubbub to get one if it doesn’t come naturally. Of course, stress at a weird work place doesn’t help with that, but it’s the language used that’s so confusing that it took me several chapters to even understand what was going on.

On top of all that, the protagonist has such a bad view of herself that is just plain exhausting. As a reader I can’t fight satire and drama without finding support somewhere.

Often in a story, there’s too little plot or it’s spread out too thinly. This could easily have been two novels with plenty of moments to breathe added.

Plum Rains

Angelica was hurrying toward the crowded crosswalk, determined to get back to her elderly client Sayoko-san before the deliveryman arrived, when the view of buildings and business suits in front of her dissolved.

Plum Rains, Andromeda Romano-Lax, Soho Press 2018

Probably already this year’s winner for coolest author name, no matter if it’s her own or a pen name.

I judged this book by its cover, its title and its author name and it — didn’t necessary end badly. I don’t know if I’d recommend this, though.

At first, the story seems original. The blurb says it’s about a Philippine caretaker in Japan in the nearby future, she worries about being replaced by robots and we’re promised different moves through time across the globe.

But the women suffer. Not just regularly day to day suffering, but – without wanting to spoil – in the way women do. There’s a tiny bit of room for creating a world in which we’ll all be replaced by AI, but the rest of it is about suffering.

And I know that those stories need to be shared as well, especially with the Western audience, but I would have loved a science fiction story in which the (Asian) women aren’t just victim, caretaker, responsible and tired.

So, if you want to read it (because Japanese history, insight in life on the Philippines), you might still enjoy it if you focus on that. If you’re looking for science fiction, expect a dystopian one.

The Salt Path

There’s a sound to breaking waves when they’re close, a sound like nothing else.

The Salt Path, Raynor Winn, Penguin Random House 2019

Is this man really, really really called Moth? I mean, there’s a lot to this story about an older couple going hiking after bankruptcy and illness hit them, but why won’t anyone tell me if it’s a nick name? No-one acknowledges it as being random or quirky, the reader just has to endure a grown man, not a particularly weird grown man, being called Moth all the time!

Okay, it’s out of my system.

The Salt Path must have been welcomed by the UK Tourism Board (I’m sure such a thing exists). Even though Winn writes about plenty of hardship (in detail), I still want to do the hiking path they did, and visit plenty of the villages they did. With a bit more comfort though, that’s true.

Because, as mentioned before, for Raynor and Moth it’s a move out of desperation, not a holiday. They lose their home and work, Moth loses his health and the hike is not so much as a conscious decision as it is running away.

So, besides those descriptions of the country and the path, are there also plenty of musings on work, the future, health and family. Winn shares what life has thrown at them (a lot!), and sometimes her musings get a bit too navel-gazing, but the circumstances… you’d probably cut her some slack.

All that turns this book into some kind of saga, the Odyssey but very, very British. Maybe that’s how we should just view the decision to call a man Moth as well.

The Nickel Boys

Even in death the boys were trouble.

The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2019

I read stories by Colson Whitehead before and even though I know their subjects are heavy (Black American history, racism), there’s a certain atmosphere to them that still makes them easy to read. Like there’s a layer between the reader and the story, but the reader can feel how fragile it is.

This time it’s about a Correctional Facility (add air quotes at your own convenience) in Florida that was created in times of segregation and still works along those lines when the reader gets there. Entwined with that story are also jumps back and forward in time to show black American lives and the impact incarceration (directly and indirectly) has on them.

What I liked on top of everything else is the nicely hidden away twist: I felt like a numpty to not have picked it up, and that means that it was worked in without any fanfare nor heralded with a complete orchestra. It gives an extra punch in case you were strangely complacent with all the horrors you read.

Girl Waits With Gun

Our troubles began in the summer of 1914, the year I turned thirty-five.

Girl Waits With Gun, Amy Stewart, Scribe 2015

I judged this book by its cover, by its title and by its summary. Which meant that I went yes/yes/no on it, because I don’t care about the western genre nor showcases about how great and cool American history is. Yes, I’m fun at parties.

This novel was fun. Not in the haha-hilarious way, but entertaining. It’s based on true events (per the acknowledgments, I never heard of it), but provides a universal female experience even if it wouldn’t be: the male that can’t handle a woman not “falling in line” to his actions and demands. With this happening early into the twentieth century, everyone ignoring the women is even worse.

The Kopp women get into an accident with a dodgy factory-owner, try to get what they deserve and therefore get.. threats, violence and a lot of authority figures just shaking their heads.

None of the Kopp women are written very appealingly; I just rooted for them because the other person was so much worse. Besides that it’s an interesting look at New York City and “the back-lands” in that era.