The Au Pair

We have no photographs of our early days, Danny and I.

Right up my alley, this one. Family secrets, a tinge of the supernatural and people using lipstick to write on mirrors.

After a death in the family, Seraphine discovers a photograph that makes her doubt her family history. She’s always felt different (isn’t that how it always starts?), and now feels like she can finally turn that feeling into something solid.

Good thing she still lives in her family home and plenty of hints are quite easily found. Is it witches, fairies, or just the cute little villagers that had always enjoyed a good gossip about the weirdos in Summerbourne house?

We are strung along just a tad too long, but the decorations along the way are fun enough to not be very disgruntled about it. In less than 300 pages Emma Rous sets up an entertaining tent with solid poles keeping up a well-set story. If there would have been more room for the supernatural, I would have given it an extra star.

The Au Pair, Emma Rous, Penguin Random House 2018

An Ocean of Minutes

People wishing to time travel go to Houston Intercontinental Airport.

Is dystopia less scary to me when it happens in the past? For someone that doesn’t like dystopian stories, this is the second one I read in two months.

This time it’s an epidemic and time travel that gets us where we end up; although – we end up in the past. The protagonist is sent into the future from the eighties, and ends up in 1998. Oof, isn’t that an awful long time ago?

Of course, because that’s how it goes, things go quite awry, and Polly has to adjust not just to a new time, but to new surroundings and societal rules. This being a dystopian story – things didn’t improve.

The twist of this story – it masquerading as a love and time travel story, while it really isn’t – is also the most appealing feature of it. Besides that it’s too muted, lamenting and passive to feel anything but a tinge of relief of having finished this.

An Ocean of Minutes, Thea Lim, Penguin Random House 2018

Ons soort Amerika

Ik heb de verkeerde kinderwagen gekocht.

Pfwa, maar weer bewijs dat je niet altijd de recensies moet geloven. Aan de andere kant: props voor de recensie die dit boek zo aantrekkelijk maakte. Net alsof niet iedereen het kan (ij .red).

Nu is elke recensie persoonlijk, hoe professioneel dan ook. Misschien was het niet meeslepend voor mij omdat ik geen witte man en vader ben, en zelf ook onderdeel van het Amerikaans dagelijks leven ben geweest. Misschien heb ik over de delen heen gelezen die ik verwachtte (lekker Amerikaanse aapjes kijken) omdat ik op den duur een beetje ‘zoned out’ raakte door weer een hoofdstuk dat begon met hem achter de kinderwagen.

Aan het einde van het boek vraagt Anton zich niet af waarom hij niet meer heeft gedaan, en ik ook. Met twee jonge kinderen is er niet de vrijheid om á la Leaving Las Vegas los te gaan in de VS, maar deze man is niet verder gekomen dan de koffiezaak.

Ik vermoed dat de ‘ons’ uit de titel de witte bevolking van Cambridge is. Wat zij van Amerika vinden – op wat wegwerpzinnen na – is na 200 pagina’s niet bepaald uitgediept.

Ons soort Amerika, Anton Stolwijk, Prometheus 2018

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

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

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

The Woo-Woo

“Miss Wong, you’re seriously ill,” the neurologist in a midtown office said, preparing to offer me a sympathy tissue.

Has it been more since a month since my last use of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’? Because Lindsay Wong’s truth is far stranger than fiction. A Chinese-Canadian woman that grows up in a family that is rife with mental illnesses and superstition, but completely refuses to acknowledge the first one and follows the second one in (self)destructive ways.

It’s always interesting to have a look behind someone else’s door, and I always try to learn more about contemporary Asians (immigrant or not). In this case, I felt like I was just gaping a lot at the page, because is this how it goes? Or is this solely the impact of the denial about mental illnesses? And is it bad that I laughed (in disbelief) so often?

Because there’s drug dealing neighbours that pay their neighbour’s children to hang out with theirs, disgusting-sounding meals, insults viewed as different level of endearments and barely a plain, ordinary family member with an ordinary, healthy life around. Lindsay isn’t easy to love either, but gosh darn it, no-one should grow up in such an environment. And I don’t ask for it often, but: I’d definitely read a sequel.

The Woo-Woo, Lindsay Wong, Arsenal Pulp 2018

The Lonely Hearts Hotel

On that day in 1914, a young girl banged on the door of the Hôpital de la Miséricorde in Montreal.

Boy, does this author love her metaphors like a dog likes a bone. Don’t use them as a drinking game, you will end up in the hospital. Even though it’s becoming quite noticeable after a while, I have to admit that they add to the fairy-tale like feeling this story already has. The development and rise of orphans in Great Depression North America, involving clowns and mobsters, maybe they deserve a metaphor every other sentence.

Main characters are Pierrot and Rose and share the chapters whenever they are together or apart. They’ve got very different views on life and what they want from it; making the fairy-tale like feeling disappear before it can give a (happy) end.

Besides that, there’s the surroundings this plays out in. Montreal with its alive snow, New York with the buildings full of possibilities and risks. It’s all written very visually, which neatly distracts from the small plot holes or just hiccups it provides. This story is pretty and enticing; everything else is subordinate to it.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel, Heather O’Neill, Riverhead Books 2018