The Voting Booth

I don’t like it when people make hyperbolic statements, so I really mean it when I say I’ve been waiting for this day my entire life.

The Voting Booth: Make it count, Brandy Colbert, Hyperion 2020

A YA-novel that wants to tackle the American voting system, (and) voter suppression. While adding a budding romance, because would it be YA without a romance?

Brandy Colbert manages to pull it off for her target audience. Older eyes may be rolled because of ‘found-love-in-a-day’, or Marva’s utter devotion to improve the system, but for those of her age it might well be uplifting and motivating. And the novel is almost as run-on as that one sentence.

Yet it never gets overly preachy, nor naive. Marva wants to help someone to vote, and discovers how hard that can be. The person she helps is a cute guy, but that’s only a slightly distracting factor. Something else sabotages her, but the story turns convoluted nowhere.

As a teacher, I’d definitely view this as an option to educate about the (American) voting system, but as a softie for teen romance I’d definitely recommend it to everyone who wants a not-saccharine shot of that.

Hench

When the temp agency called, I was struggling to make the math work.

Hench, Natalie Zina Walschots, Harper Collins 2020

Well, this was much more fun and smarter than expected (I feel like I open a lot of posts with that sentence). The summary didn’t particularly help in telling me what to expect – it skipped on the entire science fiction-element – making me think that the main character was going to do the administration for some kind of mob boss.

Nay, she does so for a super villain, and she’s good at it. Because there’s plenty of math and paper work to be done in a world where superheroes don’t mind collateral damage, human or otherwise.

Shenanigans (violent and otherwise) follow while our protagonist has insights about what’s good, what’s evil and how power should come with responsibility but those in power often neglect that tidbit. It’s also just silly fun about life as a henchperson. I was slightly worried about the ending because both possible routes felt unsatisfactorily, but Walschots pulled that off nicely as well. I love it when it story comes together as neatly as this one.

The devil and the dark water

Arent Hayes howled in pain as a rock slammed into his massive back.

The devil and the dark water, Stuart Turton, Sourcebooks 2020

It’s been a day since I finished the book (I had to rush the last 200 pages because of a deadline), and I’ve only become more flabbergasted since. There really was a 410 page build-up for something that was turned around in five pages.

The devil and the dark water goes for the Sherlock Holmes-trope of a gentle, slightly goofy very intelligent small man and a brute of a protector; this time they’re called Sammy and Arent. The location is a WIC-ship and is it a devil or something or somebody else that is causing all of that chaos and mayhem? Dum dum dum, etc.

The other thing that makes this caper less fun (the first thing being “The Twist”) is that it all goes on for too long. The author mentions that he didn’t want to add more characters, but he could have done a character-cut twice more to bring some clarity and add some speed.

In all honesty, I think it would have been a more exciting and original story if he would have started with The Twist and showed those shenanigans in seventeenth-century Europe. But Turton already promised a next book, so who knows.

Probably Sammy and Arent.

Amnesty

All of the coastline of Sri Lanka is indented, mysterious, and beautiful – but not place is more mysterious than Batticaloa.

Amnesty, Aravind Adiga, Picador 2020

I finished this not long after watching White Tiger, the film that’s based on Aravind Adiga’s previous novel. Without much of a plan – it just came together like that.

Amnesty poses the question about how to follow the law when you’re not following it to start with. Sort of. Danny has overstayed his visa in Australia and is viewed as an illegal immigrant, but he also thinks that he knows who the murderer of one of his cleaning clients is. Will his wrong be righted by doing the right thing?

I was embarrassed by the amount of time it took me to recognise that this isn’t a crystal-clear-cut situation. If you’re viewed as illegal, society thinks it owns you nothing and will throw you out as soon as you’re noticed. One good action won’t outbalance the horrible (air quotes) action of you outstaying your welcome. Danny flits through life and always has to wonder where the hits will come from. He’s surviving, not thriving because he’s invisible – not seen by authorities and government, moving below the surface.

You can’t yell at him to stop picking up the phone and go to the police right away: he’s just trying to keep his feet on Australian soil.

Queenie

I locked my phone and carried on looking at the ceiling before unlocking it and sending a follow-up “xx.”

Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams, Scout Press 2019

Just as with Luster I sometimes felt like this book wasn’t for me, that I shouldn’t read it. Should a white person even accept the ever-so-honest soul-baring of a black woman, even though – as a reviewer put it – it’s “reminiscent of Bridget Jones”?

Of course, I still stuck my nose in it. And it stayed there. Because even though sometimes it was very uncomfortable at times – Queenie has some less than healthy coping mechanisms for what life throws at her – you root so hard for this woman. Not because she’s written in a fun, recognisable way but because of what she’s experienced and is still experiencing and still trying.

What I also appreciate – and I’m sure that if both author and protagonist would have been male, this would have gotten a lot of attention as Great Coming of Age novel – is that there’s no easy way out. Neither mince words, the happily ever after is the slightly-alright-half-way-there. To manage that, and still be funny and have a realistic outlook on life: good stuff.

The Dark Gifts trilogy

  • Gilded Cage
  • Tarnished City
  • Bright Ruin

For YA, there’s a surprising amount of politics and commentary on political systems. Mostly still on a YA-level – don’t expect deep-going analyses and there’s just a hint of ‘maybe grey is the best possible option in a world of black and white’ but it was a pleasant surprise. It even kept me going through the first book after realising the author was setting up the plainest of romances.

Anyway, there’s magic users in power and not-magic users that have slavedays: ten years of their life have to be devoted to working for the country with nothing in return. Of course there are people who agree with this, who disagree with this, and those that just want to be and/or stay in power.

Two families are followed, on either side. Some are skeptical from the start, some naive, blood flows, death follows, and more and more often reality sinks in.

That sometimes it’s all a bit clunky and certain plot lines aren’t as neatly finished as they could have been might be a sign of its target audience, or just a lack of editing. Either way, it was more fun entertainment than expected. I didn’t even mind it being a trilogy.

Lady in Waiting

One morning at the beginning of 2019, when I was in my London flat, the telephone rang.

Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of The Crown, Anne Glennconner, Hachette Books 2020

If you feel like you need more after watching all of The Crown in one go, are a fan of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ or just want to see how the aristocratic one percent lives – this is your book.

Because Lady in Waiting Anne Glennconner (she’s Princess Margaret’s friend and Lady in Waiting) doesn’t only come from that category – pretty much everyone she knows does. And those that don’t, are celebrities through music, art and film – the only thing missing is the aristocratic element. Those are also the only people that aren’t related to her or her husband in some way — because in England royalty and the level below that — everyone is.

Anne (I honestly don’t know if she should get a title) lives through a large part of the twentieth century and goes through almost the same amount of houses as she goes through years – on many continents. With her anxious, aggressive, loud husband she has five children who provide their own problems, while she has to be head of the household of several households and take care of Princess Margaret in every possible way as soon as she’s around. In a fictional story an editor would have told the author to start culling this huge amount of detail, story lines and disasters 100 pages in. But this is someone’s life.

Mostly it just shows that heritage, money and a network won’t prevent you from suffering trauma, while simultaneously making you see how much of a circus it all is. Honestly, if this is her truth; give me fiction.

Group

The first time I wished for death – like, really wished its bony hand would tap me on the shoulder and say “this way”- two bags from Stanley’s Fruit and Vegetables sat shotgun in my car.

Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life, Christie Tate, Avid Reader Press 2020

I guess that mental health is a theme of mine now. With The Midnight Library, Crazy Ex Girlfriend and this one, you could call it a mental-health-trilogy. This one is the only non-fictional one of the three, although Rachel Bloom has admitted to her own issues with mental health inspiring CEG.

In Group, Christie has a collection of them. Issues with relationships, families, romance and food all lead to that first sentence. Therapy isn’t new to her either, but without effect, so why even try the worse option of group therapy?

As someone with little therapy-experience, some of the things her therapist put her through are wild. Some of her reactions to it are even wilder. Is this how (group) therapy works in the USA? There’s a strong truth-is-stranger-than-fiction vibe, but it also shows that when it comes to mental health that desperate measures are the only measures sometimes.

It’s sad and frustrating how stuck Christie is, and impressive how she turned her story into something appealing and entertaining. This isn’t a pamphlet for group therapy or a complaint about society’s ideas about adulthood, relationships and therapy. It’s the story of a group, and it’s a good one.

The Midnight Library

Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.

The Midnight Library, Matt Haig, Harper Collins 2020

I was very excited about this one because it’s something I do: daydream about what life would be like if I had done A instead of B. I didn’t expect the depression-part and very dire play-out of this idea, which made parts of it definitely a tougher, more realistic read than expected.

Because Nora Seed gets the opportunity to look at her other lives. The ones she would have had with one big or smaller decision made, at another time, with another person. She experiences those lives in the body of the other versions of her, adding to the alienation of life she already felt in the first place. It creates a combination of pity and impatience – why won’t she just be satisfied?

In the end, pity and fear win out. Is this our reality? Would I do things better? Does it really all hinge on one decision? And why are there always so many regrets?

Still, it won’t stop me day-dreaming about other lives.

Killers of the Flower Moon

In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma.

Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, David Grann, Doubleday 2016

With some books, it’s clear how it could be turned into a film or TV-series. Some seem to be written for that transition, this one doesn’t. And yet: guess which story is turned into a film.

This could be a deep-digging, terrifying and beautiful look at the wild west in the USA and the horrible treatment of native people; there’s so much happening that you might wonder how it could have all happened in just a couple of years. That also means that plenty of those details are going to be cut out: this film isn’t going to be six hours long, of course.

Because in the beginning it’s simple: Osage people are killed by white people because of their riches. Corruption and racism reign the small towns, including the law enforcement. How is crime solved when the victims are viewed as less than human? The murders are blatant, the villains are almost cartoon-y evil, and the incompetence is staggering.

It all makes for a very detailed western – the birth of the FBI is really the least interesting part of the entire story. It’s – besides the spotlight on corruption and racism – a demonstration of journalism and research: the author just kept on digging and flourished by other people’s needs to document their lives.

Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.