This Lovely City

The basement club spat Lawrie out into the dirty maze of Soho, a freezing mist settling over him like a damp jacket.

The pretty cover will definitely throw you off: this isn’t a light, bubbly story about a fabulous time in black music history. This is a novel about black British history, and there’s little prettiness about that.

Jamaicans are ‘invited’ to come to the motherland, but England isn’t a loving mother. Black people are denied on every level of daily living, and when a baby is found, police and white citizens take it as an excuse to go full out racist.

Louise Hare shows the endless fear and frustration as well, making you move from ‘Why not just go back?’ to ‘Why don’t you stand up for yourself?’ and ‘Why is everybody such a wanker?’. Lawrie doesn’t want much in life, but because he’s black there’s a lot of people out there that actively sabotage him.

The Empire Windrush and their people aren’t fiction, nor was their treatment of them. So even though this is an interesting look at London after the Second World War, there’s no fun and bubbles to be found here.

This Lovely City, Louise Hare, House of Anansi Press 2020

Frankissstein

Lake Geneva, 1816

Reality is water-soluble.

Now, what to think and say about this one? Unlike The Body in Question, I’m struggling because I’m thinking too much about this story. It’s bewildering, it’s scary, it’s also kind of soothing with showing you how humans and their ideas about identity, life and death have always been around and probably forever will be (in whatever shape).

This isn’t a retelling of Frankenstein, or maybe partly, or maybe only inspired by it. Mary Shelley gets a plot, so does Ry and Victor Stein. There’s layers and century-deep connections, but never in a Gotcha!-way.

Winterson surprised me with a memoir I liked (which doesn’t happen often, as recently mentioned), but I didn’t know what to expect with a novel of hers. After Frankissstein, I still don’t. I find it hard to believe that she could write something like this again, if it’s even a ‘this’.

I’d recommend this novel to everyone who allows themselves to be taken along for a ride. I’d also recommend it because I still don’t know how to place this story and would love to pick other people’s brains. While still in their heads, of course.

Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Cape London 2019

The Body in Question

“When that door opens, sign out.

Sometimes I feel like I subconsciously read in trends. Recently I seem to be on the “Oh, the ending is already here?”-kick. Definitely not a conscious decision: I don’t like those kind of stories.

This novel is pretty two-dimensional, anyway. Not necessary because of the characters or the plot, just the feel of it. Nothing touched me, it’s just there. Maybe that’s the right fit for the protagonist, maybe that’s why it has such an ending as well, but instead I felt like even the small investment I had was a waste of it.

Should I have gotten insights on the American law system? On how women can feel rudderless and make bad decisions? Or is the story just there to make the reader slightly uncomfortable and feeling defeated?

The body in question is probably not the one in the probable murder case the protagonist is in a jury for. Maybe it’s hers, maybe it’s her husband’s, maybe it’s her body of work? I don’t care enough to ponder it.

The Body in Question, Jill Ciment, Pantheon Books by Penguin Random House LLC 2019

Notes from a Young Black Chef

About seven and a half hours

I think I’m getting the hang of this audio book thing. It even made me thoroughly enjoy a memoir!

This is the first time I’ve heard of this man; this novel is part of the Black Lives Matter-category in one of my libraries. That’s one reason I decided on borrowing it, the other is his function: he’s a chef.

And he makes the dishes sound so good, the passion for food and cooking so clear that his career couldn’t have been otherwise. There’s struggle on his road to it (and that’s putting it nicely), but Onwuachi has such strength that it turns into a rags to riches to rags to riches to rags Hollywood-approved story instead of self-pitying lamenting. And the author shares how and why he continuously had the strength to do so.

The good thing about reading an unknown’s (to you) memoir is that you won’t be confronted with things you already know; the bad thing is that it can make you wonder why you’re spending your time on a stranger’s story. In this case, it felt like I was listening to a Black Western playing out in streets and kitchens, brought so enticingly that I regularly cycled a bit further to just keep listening.

Notes from a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi, Penguin Random House Group 2019

Vinegar Girl

Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen.

What a gross disappointment, ew. Sometimes a book just doesn’t fit you right from the start. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew it starts with the introduction of characters that are quite impossible to love or even like.

This is followed by the plot (quite logical), a situation which main character balks at for approximately five chapters before completely giving into it without any clear motivation. If this novel set out to depress about how some women don’t have any outlook on life and what they want to do with it, it succeeds.

Something extra to grind my gears is that – after it has been shown that this guy she needs to help out might not be so ugly and annoying after all – there’s a demonstration of verbal abuse and aggression. And Kate just … takes it.

Combine this with an epilogue that is about as plausible as the Harry Potter’s one and it leaves a lot to be desired. Ten Things I Hate About You did this much more entertainingly.

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler, Hogarth 2016

Heartburn

6 hours (approx.)

Read by Meryl Streep, so yes, another audio book! Good gravy, does the woman has a recognisable voice. No need to get into her acting skills here, but her reading fits this story very well.

Kind of well-off woman on her second marriage and second pregnancy gets cheated on. A lot of love for New York and little for other parts of the USA, she writes cook books, he’s involved with media and/or politics, a lot of dinner parties.

It’s juicy, rich people problems with sometimes a recipe added. Meryl Streep’s voice makes it sound like you’re listening on the traumas of a rich, eccentric aunt who – when she’s isn’t full of self-pity – has some snarky oneliners and a nice eye for details (this audio book definitely painted a lot of pictures in my mind). Here, the addition of the right reader, definitely elevated quite a common (but entertainingly written) story.

So, if you want to enjoy an Ephron-production just a little bit more, try an audio book.

Heartburn, Nora Ephron, Penguin Random House 1983 (first edition)

Momo en de tijdspaarders

Lang, lang geleden, toen de mensen nog heel andere talen spraken, waren er in de warme landen al grote en prachtige steden.

Ten eerste vraag ik me af waarom Engelse titels veel meer woorden een hoofdletter geven dan Nederlandse. Toen realiseerde ik me ik dacht dat de auteur Michiel en niet Michael heette.

Tot slot sta ik er bij stil hoe kinderboeken soms betere, duidelijker boodschappen geven dan so called volwassen boeken. Het is hier simpel: wat gebeurt er als tijd letterlijk als geld wordt afgeschilderd? Er is geen ruimte meer om te leven, want dingen kunnen altijd sneller en al het ‘onnuttige’ wordt verwijderd. Inclusief plezier, liefde en rust. Steek die maar in je zak.

Daarnaast is er een vreemde eend in de bijt als hoofdpersoon om te laten zien dat het niet allemaal volgens de norm hoeft, en een grote liefde voor verhalen tellen, vrij spelen en zelf uitzoeken wat je leuk vindt, wat kan en wat mag.

Oh, en dan ook nog even een filosofische dip richting het gebied van hoe de hemel er uitziet en wat tijd voor invloed er op heeft.

Kom daar maar eens mee in een volwassen roman.

Momo en de tijdspaarders, Michael Ende, Lemniscaat 1975

In Five Years

Twenty-five.

It’s not often that you don’t know what you would have wanted when a story doesn’t go the way you want to. Usually I’m sure how things could have been better: this time I just knew that this wasn’t what I wanted.

I like ‘what-if’ a lot, and that’s a large part of In Five Years‘ starting point. Dannie has a premonition/hallucination/dream about herself in five years in an absolutely different situation from which she’s in right now. And she likes this situation, so she doesn’t want that other one.

Rebecca Serle doesn’t feel like using filler and jumps almost four years to get to that dream/premonition/hallucination, but in the meantime the protagonist doesn’t evolve or become a person. Dannie feels like she came from a character generator, and her boyfriend doesn’t fare much better.

Besides the key element, there’s little development that excites as well. The first twist can be seen coming from afar, and the second turns this magic realist pondering about in what ways we can influence our futures into something.. the Hallmark channel would love for their tearjerker category.

After that, all strength is gone and it’s a good thing there never was much investment in the main character(s).

In Five Years, Rebecca Serle, Simon & Schuster 2020

De mannen van Maria

We gingen om te baren, verscheept op bestelling van de heren ginds, zeven meisjes die vaak niet eens waren gekust.

Het verhaal van hoe ik aan dit boek ben gekomen is bijna net zo’n bevalling als alle reizen binnen dit boek – en het speelt zich af in de zeventiende eeuw ten tijde van de VOC. Dus nee, niet bepaald soepeltjes en vlot.

Was het de moeite waard? Nu lijkt het net alsof ik alle Nederlandse auteurs over één kam scheer, maar ook dit boek gaf mij weer het Hasse Simonsdochter-gevoel. Avontuur, en er zijn niet genoeg avontuurboeken voor volwassenen zonder dat er gelijk met kennis wordt gepatst of er meerdere wijze Levenslessen doorheen zijn gevlochten.

De mannen van Maria laat dat allemaal lekker links liggen. Natuurlijk, er is ongetwijfeld veel research gegaan in het verhaal van Maria van Aelst, de VOC, Batavia en de andere koloniën, maar het valt niet op. Het is allemaal een soepeltjes weggewerkt onderdeel van het verhaal: het opgroeien van een vrouw die in deze tijd op de Forbes-cover zou staan en wereldwijd bekend zou staan als self-made influencer.

Het verhaal moet even opwarmen, meerdere wegwerpopmerkingen á la “maar dat is niet belangrijk”/”dat is niet mijn verhaal”/”daar kan ik niets over zeggen” storen in het creëren van het plaatje van een niet al zo nette VOC-geschiedenis. Maar net zoals Maria zichzelf steeds verder ontwikkelt, vindt het verhaal haar weg ook op den duur.

De mannen van Maria, Anneloes Timmerije, Querido 2019

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me?

This was my first audio book! Read/listened to, not written. I’m not Mindy Kaling. Does listening to a story make you judge it differently than reading it? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure yet.

I have little experience with audio books; solely the idea just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m too old and too impatient to be read, and what if it’s a bad voice? The second argument made me gave up on two books before managing to finish this one. Mindy Kaling knows how to use her voice, doesn’t do other voices (too often) and has people come in for their own (male) parts. It helps.

What also helps is that her story is fun, her tone and story realistic without being too self-deprecating (never nice in a woman), and plenty happens (it’s a memoir, you might expect that, but Mindy shares it). Yes, there’s a bit of an overdose of numbered lists and sometimes you could feel a bit iffy about the vocabulary used, but this book is almost ten years old already and we as a society changed towards the better on certain levels regarding language.

I’ve started listening to audio books because I wanted something different during my runs. Mindy kind of paved the way.

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? (and other concerns), Mindy Kaling, Penguin Random House 2011