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.

Interior Chinatown

INT. GOLDEN PALACE

Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu, Vintage Books 2020

I don’t really know how to review it and this time that’s a good thing. It’s original and awkward and confrontational. With racism and hate directed at Asians (in the diaspora) it’s also very, very relevant.

And in between: fun. Throwing you off balance, not being what you expected. It’s not something I experience often, and for that alone I’d recommend this novel.

Oona Out of Order

Oona stopped trusting the mirror years ago.

Oona Out of Order, Margarita Montimore, Flatiron Books 2020

Very like my previously read novel. This review, not the plot. This also felt repetitive and a bit cookie cutter with an element that could have been really weird and eerie.

Oona time travels, but she never knows in which year of her life she’s going to end up in and after a year she’s gone again. She also doesn’t know why this happens, and can’t get used to it.

Which, okay; kind of understandable. But I don’t have to go through that as a reader at the start of every chapter? Whatever happened to Show, Don’t Tell?

At the very least, Margarita Montimore shows New York City very appealingly, and – just as with the previous read novel – leaves you with a tinge of satisfaction because of that one Life Lesson.

The Immortalists

Varya is thirteen.

The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2018

I was ready to write this one off until the last couple of pages still got me. Which makes me grumpy, because a book shouldn’t score on just a couple of pages.

In The Immortalists four siblings learn their death date. All four lives are followed, as is the impact of this knowledge on them. Around the second sibling it starts to feel a bit cookie-cutter: character aggressively denies this reality, gets destructive, wants to outrun it and [spoiler] doesn’t manage to; one way or the other. But were they running towards what they feared while thinking they were doing everything to escape it? Chloe Benjamin doesn’t give you any hint in that direction, nor room to interpret the characters’ actions like that.

Any thoughts about fate, goals in life, final destination you have to come up with on your own because the novel only provides character sketches of the people suffering.

As said before: except for the last pages, they delivered an emotional sucker punch. Could have done so a tad sooner, to turn this into a recommendation.

The Bestseller

One day God decided he would visit the earth.

The Bestseller, Olivia Goldsmith, Diversion Books 1996

Olivia Goldsmith is also the author of First Wives Club, if you were wondering why the name is vaguely familiar.

With The Bestseller she wrote another ‘The Upper Circles Can Have Issues Too’ and it’s delicious (you know I have a soft spot for that). It also made me never ever want to attempt getting anything remotely related to a novel published. Because oof. And this is publishing in the nineties.

In this novel the reader follows the stories of different authors. New ones, old ones, unwilling ones, suffering ones etc. While you get a slice of their (sad) life, you also get plenty of insight into the publishing business. It’s not good. It’s not about stories, creativity and adding something to culture: it’s about money, the bottom line, and PR.

It’s 1400 pages as an ebook and I flew through it in less than three days (okay, I had days off, but still). It’s entertaining, aggravating dramady in which very few people look good. After a few duds, this was all the fluff I needed.

De kat en de generaal

Ze keek naar de lucht.

De kat en de generaal, Nino Haratischwili, Meridiaan Uitgevers 2019

Ik geloof dat het andere boek dat ik van deze auteur las op elk “Best of” lijstje kwam dat ik dat jaar heb opgetypt, en door deze zinsopbouw is misschien al duidelijk dat De kat en de generaal niet hetzelfde effect had. Deze keer waren het maar een schamele 700 pagina’s, maar ik denk dat ik langer over De Kat heb gedaan dan Het achtste leven.

Misschien omdat er minder geschiedenis is? De vorige keer kan ik me herinneren dat ik zoveel leerde over de landen rondom de Kaukusus, en dat ik verrast was dat ook daar het gewoon zo’n zooi is/was/was geweest. Deze keer is er minder aandacht voor geschiedenis en meer wat voor impact het op het heden heeft.

Kat is een actrice die wordt ingezet door een duister figuur om nog duistere figuren te vangen die iets naars hebben gedaan in het verleden. Het duurt enkele honderden pagina’s voordat we leren wat dat naars was: daarvoor is het vooral het leven van Kat en de duistere figuren die mogen laten zien hoe ze zich door hedendaags Berlijn bewegen.

Er waren meerdere momenten dat ik dacht van “laat maar” en alleen doorlas omdat de auteur mij eerder zo’n geweldig boek had gegeven. Helaas kwam De Kat voor mij er nooit bij in de buurt, verre van.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

Lala comes home and Wilma is waiting, having returned early from visiting Carson at the hospital.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Cherie Jones, Harper Collins 2021

I liked this one, but I didn’t like this one. It’s a story far away from me; both geographically and in experience, so that’s good – that’s a reason I read. But for once I wish that those kind of stories were happier, lighter, more fun.

In How the One-Armed Sister (etc.) there’s not a lot of fun. A line of women view themselves and/or their daughters as cursed and life seems to agree with that view. There’s relational abuse, stealing, death – and very little light at the end of the tunnel. Jones shares beautiful imagery of the island, the houses, the sheds, making the (emotional) violence only starker.

Of course, these stories need to be told, deserve to be told, and so on. To me it sometimes just feels that writing from a woman of colour has to be synonymous to suffering. I know there are romances and fantasy by people of colour, but why are the family sagas so often so tough? Is this the only way of life or the only thing that publishers will support?

Both ideas left me uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean that this novel isn’t worth your discomfort.

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.