The Maid

Red flowers were blooming in the front yard, but Nanase had no idea what they were: the names of the flowers did not interest her.

Well, the summary of this novel is going to be short and clear. Young Japanese woman is telepathic and listens in on the households in which she does maid-work. Any questions?

Nanase doesn’t really manage to hold on to a job for long, which could be quite understandable when you can hear everyone’s thoughts. It turns the novel into a collection of short stories: ever so often a new household. It also makes it quite repetitive: everyone only seems to think about status, money and sex.

So, yes, maybe that’s all what people think about when they think no-one else can hear them, but couldn’t there have been some kind of addition to prevent feeling like you’ve read this already the previous chapter? Sadly not. There’s no descriptions of surroundings and Nanase herself doesn’t seem to spend too much thought on herself and her future. It sadly turns The Maid into a creative writing exercise that went on for too long.

The Maid, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Alma Books 2010

Paradise Lodge

The job at Paradise Lodge was Miranda Longlady’s idea.

‘Teenager in seventies’ England gets a job at a seniors home and learns things about life, herself and others’ must have been a curious plot to pitch, but Nina Stibbe manages to land it with a homely, gentle feeling to the story and everyone involved. Even Matron.

Lizzie Vogel is a bit of an onion; she’s got layers. Starting off this job with ‘better shampoo’ as a personal motivation, she quickly starts to see that both seniors and the people providing for them as individuals as well. Her work at the home is more exciting and interesting than school, there’s a cute guy who’s someone else’s boyfriend, and her mother isn’t all that stable through all this; all of which causes issues in a domino kind of cascade.

That might make Paradise Lodge sound severe and dire, but even though there are deaths, it’s all on the lighter side of things. Teenage problems, without being teenage disasters. Lizzie really is an onion: she goes with many things.

Paradise Lodge, Nina Stibbe, Penguin Books 2017

Freshwater

The first time our mother came for us, we screamed.

Sometimes a book leaves you with a feeling instead of easy-put-into-thoughts words. Freshwater is exciting, eerie, scary and frustrating, both the story and the story telling. It’s a book you’d recommend with a long disclaimer.

Main character Ada (or the Ada) is born with one foot in the other world, she’s possessed by creatures/things/ghosts, and they have quite the impact on her health, her life and her loved ones. It’s not just her that gets to speak either, it’s the ‘we’ and others that get to control the human Ada from time to time, or at the very least debate her decisions.

It makes for a creepy, aggravating story that isn’t always easy to get through, like it’s not just Ada that’s being dragged down and manipulated by the other ones. At the same time it’s such a balanced story about a culture (Nigerian) that doesn’t view all this as too exotic, but at the same time has elements that prevents Ada from speaking the truth. So there’s different layers to her straddling two worlds, even when she hasn’t has her creatures involved.

Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi, Grove Press 2018

The Boat People

Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes.

This isn’t a particularly uplifting story. Reading is escapism, isn’t it? Unless you never have any media-intake that won’t be the case with this novel. The subject is a three-step ladder of contemporary news: racism in politics, war zones and (boat) refugees.

These three angles are showcased through the points of view of different people: a refugee, the people helping them, and those that need to make sure that no refugee brings danger into the country (Canada, in this case). It’s easy to view the latter as the villains of this piece: they start out with a negative angle and won’t be swayed. But in today’s society it would be naive to act like that negative angle hasn’t landed on fertile land, and what does that say about us?

The same can be said from the ‘good’ immigrants that lament these refugees for not doing immigration “the right way”. We all need thoughts to comfort us, so who’s to blame for acting upon them?

Of course, nothing happening in this novel will make you think: yes, let’s deny every refugee asylum, yay! but it very much shows the booby-trapped labyrinth immigration and asylum (laws) have become. With an all too human face to it, on all sides.

The Boat People, Sharon Bala, McClelland & Stewart 2018

School reading

This school year they’ve upped the To Read ante: eight books and four short stories. After having read the eight books in the past three weeks, I can say the following: so called classics are hella depressing and the themes are all the same: love, aggression, money. With ‘class’ being a good runner up.

Which ones did I read?

  • The Great Gatsby
  • Great Expectations
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Disgrace
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Othello
  • The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Pygmalion
  • A Streetcar Named Desire

And the short stories:

  • The cask of Amontillado
    The Force of Circumstance
    A Room of One’s Own (chapter 3)
    The Garden party

Which ones did I like? Well, about that. Reading the lot of them in one go really drives how similar they are. A Clockwork Orange is much more violent than the others, but it’s all about unhappy people – usually men – in a world that isn’t all that either. The comedies were a breath of fresh air, and Othello wins for most well-meaning but utterly naive protagonist.

All the short stories seemed to have in common was superficiality (and some unhappy men). I’m glad Victoria Woolf didn’t disappoint, although it was frustrating to see how recognisable her thoughts and issues (from almost a century ago) are.

I have yet to discuss these in a school setting, so who knows which insights might still follow, but for now? We need new classics.

 

 

Pretend I’m Dead

For months he was just a number to her: she counted his dirties, he dropped them in the bucket, she recorded the number on the clipboard, and he moved down the line.

Some stories aren’t pleasant to read, but so compelling that you don’t want to give up on them ether. Mona isn’t easy to love or follow, even though it could have been with such a mercy- and pity-inducing history.

Mona is a twenty-something with a bad youth and/or possibly some mental illnesses. There are clear symptoms, but there’s also the consideration of how much comes from her background. She cleans houses for a living, even though her aunt and her sort-of-boyfriend tell her that she should change things, start living. Develop.

But that’s not easy, especially when you’re not exactly willing to do so. Mona’s got a lot of thoughts, maybe too many, and the author doesn’t let the reader off easy. This is an annoying, disgusting, frightening protagonist that might make you feel more empathetic to those neurotically atypical, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing annoying either.

Pretend I’m Dead doesn’t give answers, it just shows. I didn’t find the ‘laugh-out-loud funny’ a blurb claims, but I did want to stick around. Maybe in some way, Mona will notice.

Pretend I’m Dead, Jean Beagin, Oneworld 2018

The Word for Woman is Wilderness

The space probe Voyager 1 left the planet in 1977.

Wow. Maybe as much impact on me, albeit in a slightly different category, as Het achtste leven (voor Brilka). I’m still a bit fuzzy around the edges after having finished it. And as often with those on the edges of opinion (very good, very bad), I’m struggling a little bit with how to put into words what I like so much about this.

Because with the premise, it just as easily could have gone on to be terribly navel-gazing and Philosophical without foundation (ie fake deep babble). A young English woman deciding on going to travel ‘to the wild’ by herself, through Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. During, she’s often (very) conscious about her privilege, place in the world, safety and future, but not without keeping her eyes turned outwards. And what a beautiful, mesmerising outwards it is.

So, what does happen in this book that left me reeling slightly? It’s the insights, but also the recognisable feelings about living without a buoy, and/or direction. It’s the worries about environment and society and how you seemingly can’t have any impact on it, yet never turns into something completely depressing. And with the conclusion, it all slides into perspective.

Maybe that’s the biggest thing: it offers such a broad perspective that keeps narrowing down, without offering you the light at the end of the tunnel. It just gives you the knowledge about all that’s around you.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness, Abi Andrews, Profile Books 2018

These Witches Don’t Burn

They say there’s a fine line between love and hate.

Queer teenage witches! And it shows, in this YA, littering the story with some bad decisions and Very Emotional Moments. Because: teenagers.

Main character Hannah is a real witch, living in Salem, and trying to keep her and her family’s magic a secret from those that are ordinary humans. It gets harder when attacks start to happen, her ex-girlfriend attempts to get her back while at the same time moving on with someone else, a cute new girl arrives and her coven puts down the law on magic use. Basically ordinary teenage life, indeed.

It might be testament to Isabel Sterling’s writing that sometimes it’s all very teenager, making everyone and their decisions a bit too annoying and young for this reader. This is balanced out by Hannah’s sweet thoughts and emotions about her sexuality and crush(es), and honestly – hasn’t anyone had their Teenage Moments.

As is my usual complaint; more world building would have been welcome, but for those that are always on the look out for more queer YA: These Witches Don’t Burn is a proper one.

These Witches Don’t Burn, Isabel Sterling, Penguin Random House 2019

The Goblin Emperor

Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.

I hate to copy someone’s review but yes: if you’re about court stories, intrigue and politics in a fantasy setting, this one will do you real good. No need to call it Game of Thrones but with goblins: there’s not enough mass slaughter and incest for that. It (looks to be) is a stand alone as well, which doesn’t happen to often in fantasy either. And how often do goblins get their chance in the sun?

Well, in this book not all the time either. These are elvish countries after all, and freshly made emperor Maia is …not like the usual people in charge. He’s far from prepared for his new role, and there’s little people eager to help him out.

That’s where politics and intrigue come in. Sometimes there’s so many names and roles that it’s best just to cling to the story line, but it never turns into a list of characters. The glances at the world throughout make you long for more; another main story line about ordinary life in this steam punk-ish world would have been welcome.

All in all, it’s a solid, traditional built and written fantasy with some freshness coming from the steam punk elements (could have been more, but that’s world-building-loving me) and goblins in the spotlight.

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison, Tor 2014

After the Party

When I came out of prison my hair was white.

When we don’t learn from history something something repeat something something. Who would have thought that a book about fascism would be all too relevant again in the twenty-first century? Look, it even has women and children being brainwashed through children and ‘good people’ while parroting that above all “it’s about patriotism!”.

The title can be interpreted in two ways, I realise only now. Protagonist Phyllis returns to England when the second world war is just a spot on the horizon. She joins her sisters in a world of high(er) society, and so what if there’s stories about a very charismatic Leader whose party will take care of making Great Britain greater (I kid you not)? Parallels, anyone?

The time-hopping kind of spoils how Phyllis’ story goes, and I would have appreciated more focus on details about this “patriotic” party and their place in society. Now it’s mostly a slice-of-life look of a certain people and how easily they step into the “we just want the best (for people like us)” trap. A study of humanity – and their refusal to learn from history.

After the Party, Cressida Connolly, Viking Press 2018