February

Helen watches as the man touches the skate blade to the sharpener.

How long do you mourn the dead? Helen loses her husband in her early twenties, mother of three and pregnant of their fourth child. This doesn’t just turn her into a widow, but in a single parent, in someone who has suffered, in a sore reminder to her surroundings.

Lisa Moore shows Helen’s world, how she carries on without moving on. There is a sadness always present, one that is light and heavy at the same time. Of course she continues living, she has children and a family. Of course she can’t step away from the thought of ‘what if’, of missing the one she decided to be with for the rest of their lives.

Would their lives have been better without the accident? Would Helen and her husband even have stayed together? No-one will ever know, and that’s what the author puts down well.

February, Lisa Moore, Chatto & WIndus 2010

Girls For Breakfast

I’m standing on top of the water tower behind my house, thinking about my death and the inevitable bronze statue the graduating class will erect in my memory.

The amount of times I thought “is this really how boys think?” while reading this YA novel was probably staggering.  Of course, this is fiction, from another time zone and – with the Korean background of the main character – laced with race-connected details. And yet. Really?

The reader follows Korean-American Nick Parker from eight to eighteen, more or less. He’s at his graduation day, hiding away and looking back on his desperate need for popularity, girls, friendships and fitting in.

Nick’s discovery at a certain age that he is a banana, that he may think himself as white but definitely isn’t viewed as such, keeps Girls For Breakfast from becoming another navel gazing coming of age story. He doesn’t just has to deal with growing up, he has the whole different race thing going on, without his consent.

Girls For Breakfast, David Yoo, Random House Children’s Books 2005

The Residue Years

It’s years beyond the worst of it, and it’s your time, Mom, a time of head starts and new starts and starting and not stopping – of re-dos and fixes, of gazing at full moons and quarter moons and seeing what before were phantasms for-reals.

Sometimes people have already said it and said it better: “A raw heart wreck of a novel .. one of the fictional families I have cared about most” (Amy Hempel).

A poor, black family tries to adjust to the drugs-addicted mother coming back from rehab. She tries to adjust to society, life, and family, but none of those are very cooperative in giving her a a second, third, fourth chance. Her older son tries hard to avoid the cracks, but just stumbles from one to another, because life is different for a black man versus a white man.

Things go a bit better before they turn a lot worse again, and it hurts and it aches because the reader can’t do anything about it. This is simply the reality for some people, and even it knowing is uncomfortable, it’s better than not knowing.

The Residue Years, Mitchell S. Jackson, Bloomsbury 2013

Kraken

An everyday doomsayer in sandwich-board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum.

A second chance for this author, by me. I read something by him before, but felt like he was better at creating worlds, than keeping a plot together. But as I am a huge fan of a good case of world-building, I couldn’t resist giving it another try. This author has loads of awards and fans, maybe it was for a reason.

Again, China Miéville creates a flabbergasting, mind-blowing world. He starts off with a speed that you can keep up with, but further into the book there are more and more details stacked on, making you page back to pick up the plot again, instead of enjoying the story. This isn’t necessarily bad, just demands a bit more attention from the reader.

Main character Billy works in a museum. From the museum is a dead giant squid stolen. Besides him being the unlikely hero of different religions living in London, there are also a few apocalypses coming up and some gruesome bad guys that work hard to trigger and/or prevent those from happening.

It’s an epic, and demands time and attention. It’s up to you to chose to give it.

 

Kraken, China Miéville, Pan Books 2010

The Highest Tide

I learned early on that if you tell people what you see at low tide they’ll think you’re exaggerating or lying when you’re actually just explaining strange and wonderful things as clearly as you can.

This book in one word: heartfelt.

Sometimes it’s too obvious that the author wants you to know how odd its main character is, how special in its weirdness. Jim Lynch manages to show Miles in all his different ways, but never turns him into a caricature, in something that you will only experience in fictional stories. But this teen, although experiencing some weird things, could definitely exist.

Miles lives in a small town near a bay and loves everything the ocean and maritime nature can offer. This, combined with his lack of length, makes him the odd duck. Finding strange things and becoming a (local) media star, turns (pun intended) the tides for him. Suddenly his being different is amazing, he’s viewed as an expert on every subject related to the ocean, while his (social) life starts falling apart.

Is finding an oarfish really so amazing if your crush is in trouble and can you care about clams if your parents might be divorcing? Miles’ story meanders through a teen’s life with amazing details on ocean life. A pleasure to read.

The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch, Bloomsbury 2005

Short Girls

After Miles left, Van began checking the security alarm every time she entered the house.

What’s the difference between chick-lit and a story about two sisters and their careers, love-lives and family connections? Okay, there can be big differences when the one genre refuses to act like women are individuals with a multidimensional character, but that’s bad writing, not a genre problem.

Anyway, Short Girls. Two Asian-American sisters who stumble through life, love, family and career while trying to discover why they drifted apart. Their father is the unwelcome thing that binds them, continues to bring them together because of his needs, his inventions, his struggles as a short man and as an immigrant.

Besides the very recognizable (daily) things, Nguyen shows the strange world of being a minority, always knowing that the first judgment will be on your not-of-the-majority looks. Even for the American born sisters there are several extra layers of being different.

Short Girls gives a nice insight into the life of at the same time remarkable and ordinary women.

Short Girls, Bich Minh Nguyen, Viking 2009

The Shadow Girls

It was one of the last days of the twentieth century.

Immigrants aren’t less human than those that have been living in one country or even city for the past hundred years. Somehow that’s still hard to remember. The reader, led by the hand of main character Jesper Humlin, is taught the tough way.

Jesper isn’t a character to be proud of. He’s a slightly successful poet who thinks the world’s against him and will only do something for his own gain. Meeting three (illegal) immigrants at first makes him think about what an amazing inspiration they’ll be, until he realizes that they’re human and have their own stories, not for him to take.

And like that he steps aside to give room to those stories, to show that sales numbers aren’t that important when you traveled through the entirety of Europe in hope of a better life. It’s brutal, but never sentimental. Because these girls deserve more than just sympathy and a pat on the head, they deserve their humanity.

The Shadow Girls, Henning Mankell, Harvill Secker 2012

Eleven Days

The United States Navy SEALs came out of the Teams that served in Vietnam; they in turn came out of the Navy Seabees, the Scouts and Raiders, and the Underwater Demolition Teams used during World War II.

‘What happens to those that are left behind?’ is regularly asked when military families are the subject. In case of Eleven Days, the question applies to both sides. It’s not only the mother getting left behind by her son and his father, it’s the son being left behind by her, his father, and the possibilities of ordinary life.

Sara and Jason aren’t a conventional mother and son and their relationship is similar. That doesn’t mean that when she gets the news of him being missed, she deals with it any differently than anyone missing a loved one. This mother just has a large safety net made by neighbors, military men and her son’s godfathers to catch her.

The novel tells not only Sara’s story, but also Jason’s. His need to become a part of the American army, his silent suffering because he never knew his father, the feelings of finally belonging somewhere when he finds his place in his team. Him ending up missing is almost a side plot, this is about war and peace, wrong and right, family you’re born with and family you create yourself.

It’s not a happy story, and it takes a bit of work to get through it, but if you want to ponder these subjects, I’d tell you to give this a chance.

Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter, Alfred A. Knopf 2013

what happened to goodbye

The table was sticky, there was a cloudy smudge on my water glass, and we’d been seated for ten minutes with no sign of a waitress.

From time to time a bit obvious, but so very sweet. I’m repeating myself, but this is just more proof about how there are good children/teenagers books around. This time it’s about new beginnings, identity and whatever happens when parents divorce.

Mclean follows her father around the country for his job, fixing badly functioning restaurants. In every new location, she invents a new identity. Drama queen, student council girl, loner. Her father fixes the restaurant, she makes sure that they can have an easy, domestic life.

Of course this time, things go differently. She forgets to give herself a new identity, the friends might be real friends and the high-strung relationship with her mother finally comes to an explosion. It’s giving, living and learning as an adolescent. A nice look into the teenage mind.

what happened to goodbye, Sarah Dessen, Viking 2011

NW

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.

A story about those that want to be more than where they came from and fight for it, and about those that slip into the rut that their ancestors have created for them. Not a history story, but contemporary London.

Keisha (later Natalie) and Leah are the main characters, you’re a fly on the wall at several situations, back and forth through the ages. There is a third character, sandwiched between their story lines, but – with me – he failed to stay upright in the fight for sticking around in my mind. Which is kind of fitting, because he fails to stay upright in life as well.
Keisha is the first in her family to get a thorough education, she wants different surroundings but becomes disappointed when these things don’t bring her pure happiness either.
Leah goes through the paces until she realizes they lead her to a place she doesn’t want to be. To a person she possibly doesn’t want to be.

NW can well be considered as a social commentary, but without any high horses or Loud Messages. These people are the commentary and the part that are commented on. Are they less for having no goals or wanting to escape their backgrounds? Is NW a cesspool or just another place where people try to make a living?

Sometimes the language, the people and the hopelessness of it all frustrated me. But for anyone who looks a peek beneath the hood of “our Western culture” I’d recommend this book.

NW, Zadie Smith, Hamilton 2012