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.

Capharnaüm

124 min.

I watched this entire film with focused energy and still don’t know why this is the title. It’s not the only thing lacking: the summary says this is about a street kid suing his parents for being born. It really is about Zain and his lack of control over things, plus his attempts to change that.

He tries to save his sister, he tries to save a left-behind toddler, he tries to save himself a bit. The streets of Yemen provide little, but Zain tries to take all of it.

It’s hard to believe that this is fiction, that it’s only actors that were put through this. Especially the boy playing Zain pulls story-lines off that would have been scoffed or laughed at with a lesser actor.

After, you’ll be glad that this time it was fiction. It just won’t make it easier to acknowledge that this way of living is reality for plenty of people.

And the court case? Or the title? Meh, I can do without.

Trickster Drift

The clouds finally broke into a sullen drizzle after a muggy, overcast day.

Trickster Drift, Eden Robinson, Alfred A. Knopf 2018

I can’t remember the last time I was so consciously waiting for a book. I read Son of a Trickster a long while ago, so why library – why did it take you two years to get me a sequel that was written in the year I read the prequel? Rhetorical question, I don’t need an answer.

With the first novel it took me a while to adjust to the story and appreciate what I took from it. With that knowledge, I expected to struggle again this time, but get a satisfying pay-off. Except – no struggle in sight. The e-book is almost 600 pages and I flew through them. Maybe Robinson found her flow, maybe I did, but I didn’t want to stop reading.

Jared has escaped some of the wild, eerie, lethal shit that was braided through his life and surroundings, but not all of it. And now he’s adding sobriety and study to them. So even though it seems like there’s more love and care around him, we should probably give him a break when he doesn’t immediately (positively) react to it (I tried, boy – did I try).

As it been two years since I’ve read the previous book, I can’t say if this one got scarier or more gory, but gosh – there’s a fine line between things that should only be myths and our reality in Robinson’s world.

It’s deliciously eerie, and can the library please get the completing novel in soon?

Educated

I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn.

Educated, Tara Westover, HarperCollins 2018

“Holy shit” might simultaneously be very fitting and entirely inappropriate for these memoirs from a woman that grows in Mormon surroundings with a family that seems to be a magnet for mental and physical disaster.

Tara’s father is sure that the End of Days is near, Iluminati are real and that the government is out to get you and brainwash you. The children are home-schooled and are expected to devote their entire lives to the family. Some of them do so easier than others, and not everyone has the mental health to do so.

Straighter put: there’s several not-diagnosed issues walking around and as everything is God’s will or a government-threat, there’s no room to change things. Even in cases of life or death.

Through a combination of circumstances and clear decisions; Tara starts to see things differently, starts to develop differently. Educated is the story of where it started, how it went and where it (for now) ended. It’s also a pamphlet for education, mental health care and a supportive society.

Bumblebee

114 min.

I wrote ‘Hailee Steinfeld surprised me again’ in a review, fully believing that I had already reviewed this film and therefore could connect to it. Reader, I didn’t. Maybe because I was too surprised about liking a Transformers-film? I can hear my brothers sneering that “robots aren’t so dumb after all, eh?”. Anyway, this is a review for the film Bumblebee.

I can still remember the director of this mentioning how this would be an origins-film with heart, similar to The Iron Giant. I can remember because I scoffed at that, loudly. After Michael Bay’s nonsense with endless fight scenes, explosions and jokes about primary and secondary sexual body parts, the bar was below the floor. Try not to have your Transformer sound like a black rapper-cliché first before saying such things, director (they’re two different people, Michael wasn’t involved in this one). Not pestered by nostalgia, I was ready to watch this film with half an eye and still complain the entire way (I’m sure sometimes we pick films/series that can be followed with just half of our interest).

Except for the first couple of minutes, there’s very few robots in this, and because of certain reasons the main one can’t even talk. That’s one point in their favour. Next is – I will absolutely admit it – the fact that Bumblebee is quite adorable and main character Charlie (Steinfeld) really plays well off him. There’s so many charming moments that this could be called a “boy and his dog”-film, instead of it being Actiony Adventure (capitals essential). Bumblebee (not his first name, by the way) is on the run, Charlie is feeling alone and misunderstood, of course they find each other.

Another plus in my book is that there’s room for development of their relationship. Not just a five minute montage to quickly move on to fighting robots and exploding buildings – we get a glimpse at Charlie’s motivations and what’s going on with Bumblebee. Wow.

The run length completes my compliment-trifecta (not going to read back to see if I have three compliments): yes, it’s almost two hours, but you don’t notice because aforementioned room for development. I would have zoned out by number three of six action scenes in a row, but now I didn’t even want to pause for a bathroom break. This film had me.

And yes, just like The Iron Giant, it also made me cry at the end.

De paradox van geluk

Voorjaarssneeuw, holten in de grond verstild tot witporseleinen kommen.

De paradox van geluk, Aminatta Forna, Nieuw Amsterdam 2018

Van sommige boeken is het makkelijk onthouden dat je ze hebt uitgekozen door een recensie, zeker als dat recent is gebeurd. Jammere in dit geval is dat ik niet weet wat mij aanstond in die recensie om dit boek te kiezen, en dat ik na het lezen van het boek nog steeds niet weet waarom die recensie schijnbaar zo positief was.

Het flauwste is dat dit boek niet slecht is: het is niet slecht geschreven, naar of saai. Er zijn elementen die het echt op hadden kunnen trekken naar een boek dat je de adem beneemt en je helemaal toegewijd maakt aan de levens van de hoofdpersonen. In plaats daarvan is de stijl zo koeltjes, de karakters zo passief dat het allemaal maar kabbelt.

En dat met een Amerikaanse die in Londen is gaan wonen om stadsvossen te onderzoeken. Een man die jarenlang in oorlogsgebieden heeft gewerkt met psyche en nu in Londen verschillende draden probeert op te pakken en aan andere eindjes te knopen. Een vermist kind, de verschillende klassen in de stad en de angst van de mens van ‘wilde natuur’. Er zijn verschillende onderwerpen en vraagstukken die interessant zijn en tot denken aanzetten, maar dan alweer uit beeld worden geschoven of halfhartig worden afgehandeld.

Niet elke auteur kan meerdere plots even succesvol jongleren en overeind houden. Als Aminatta Forna (of haar redacteur) wat duidelijker keuzes had gemaakt, hadden we de diepte in gekund. Nu is er alleen gedobber, met wat schouderophalen.

Pride

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.

Pride, Ibi Zoboi, Balzer + Bray 2018

It’s embarrassing how angry this book made me. At myself. Being confronted with racist, classist and other thoughts wasn’t what I was suspecting from reading a YA retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set in contemporary Bushwick (New York City, USA).

So, first of all: “Why has it to be such a big family?” Because it’s just like the original material.

“Why is protagonist Zuri so angry and unyielding all the time?” Because she’s a teenager, of colour, gentrification and poverty.

“Why doesn’t Darius try harder to fit in with the majority?” … and this from a person that proudly called herself ‘alternative’ in high school. Shame on me.

Good thing is that all the frustration was directed at me, because I feel like Zoboi did really well with this. It’s no carbon copy, there’s all the right emotions and worries (now fitting because of puberty and a quickly changing surroundings), and Bushwick and its inhabitants as a welcome third party. Which such people, no wonder Zuri is willing to fight.

A novel like this is the YA that should be heavily promoted and adapted, instead of book 234 out of the CC club. Because a good story comes with insight (of the self), which is a good thing for all ages.

Unreliable narrators and obsession

They must think I don’t have long left, because today they allow the vicar in.

Bitter Orange, Claire Fuller, Fig Tree 2018

I first saw Freya at my high school.

The Swap, Robyn Harding, Simon & Schuster 2020

New template, new way of posting? I read the second book to have something different from the first (because my previously planned book was also in a historic setting), turns out I got another portion of unreliable narrator and obsessive behaviour. Oh, well.

All protagonists are female, how often does the combination of unreliable narrator and obsession happens with male characters? Frances is close to forty, while Low and Jamie are a teen and a thirty-something. The set time period is different as well, but both books end in murder (or do they?).

The Bitter Orange covers up the thriller/mayhem part better, masquerading for a long time as a story of a woman as exciting as a dry black bean in technicolour surroundings. She has to evaluate gardens of a neglected mansion and finds people who have to do something similar, but don’t really do it. They make her think that she could be technicolour, instead.

The Swap on the other hand starts out with a clear manipulator; an ex-social media influencer for Pete’s sake. She twists everyone around her pinky finger, but some you don’t want around your pinky or other body parts…

Both stories have appealingly-written surroundings, dramatic characters and don’t attempt to make you root for them. It’s train wrecks waiting to happen, with an extra point to The Bitter Orange for a more subtle lead-up to the twist.

Neither are stories that will end up on your Best Of-list (probably), but they’re good for what they attempt to be.

She-Ra

65 x 24 min.

Yes, I know, I’m surprised as well. This animated TV-show definitely took me a while to warm up to, and during the first two season (there’s five of them) I wouldn’t even have considered writing a blog about it. Somewhere near the end of season two, and/or the start of season three, it grabbed me. It grabbed me good.

She-RaBefore starting this show, I knew little about the previous incarnations of it and therefore didn’t feel the need to complain about how She-Ra isn’t a full-grown woman this time, nor about the lack of butt and boob shots (in an animated show, yes I know). It also means that I didn’t have any connection to it, and had to invest some time and energy to feel the connection.

She-Ra is fantasy, people with magic, bad guys that want to take it, colourful stuff, talking horses, but also teenagers, queer love, building your own family and views on power and the (ab)use of it. Especially when watching several episodes in a row you might notice some repetition, but as someone who skipped a few (there’s a character I could barely handle) I can say that you can still follow the main plot without confusion.

It’s also fun and bright and there’s so much heart in it, even though the shows of it sometimes made me feel a bit outside of the target audience/too old. Oh, and the animation is nice, instead of that try-hard, ugly as possible “adult” animation we have to suffer all too often.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Netflix 2018

An American Marriage

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.

Layers upon layers to uncover and think about in a book that could just be summarised by its title: yep, it’s about a marriage. Between Americans. But these Americans are Black, one of them is wrongfully incarcerated and what is a marriage if it’s largely between people of one is in prison?

This way, Tayari Jones looks at the prison system, racism, the institution of marriage, the first ones in families to go study and the burden that comes with it. This is a story that creeps under the skin, leaves you staring in the distance afterwards – empty and fulfilled at the same time.

Because what would have happened if Roy wouldn’t have been locked up? The marriage wasn’t perfect, but which one is? What if they would never have married? What if they would have grown up in another state or even another country? In what ways is the USA to blame for this entire situation? How is ancestry to blame (if so)?

It’s a testament to Jones’ writing that none of this adds an essay-like feeling to the novel: it’s a story first. A painful one, with glimmers of hope.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones, Harper Collins 2018