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

Crosstalk

By the time Briddey pulled into the parking garage at Commspan, there were forty-two text messages on her phone.

“You were so busy discovering if you could, that you didn’t spend time wondering if you should”, to paraphrase a certain fictional character involved with dinosaurs. Another subtitle could have been ‘Communication, are you sure it should be endless?’

And all that while I was recommended this novel as good representation of the romance genre. Maybe I should have known better, this author wrote Doomsday Book.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any romance (although it’s a spectacular slow burn), it just means it’s surrounded by the scientific element of getting an implant that will make you sensitive to the emotions and moods of your loved ones. Sounds like a bad idea, right?

It turns worse when some things happen that shouldn’t and some shouldn’t that should. Willis spends a lot of time on lore, which a bit too often leads to “I can’t tell you that right now!” cop outs. It’s the only frustrating thing about the novel, and the only thing that brings the tempo down.

Honestly, with certain elements going haywire, you could even use this book as an argument for taking internet- and social media use down a tad. The romance, and the lore, are bonuses.

Crosstalk, Connie Willis, Gollancz 2016

 

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 Talented Ribkins

He only came back because Melvin said he would kill him if he didn’t pay off his debt by the end of the week.

Now how to talk about this one. There’s a fantastical element in this story (several, if you consider all the individuals involved), but I definitely wouldn’t call it a story from the fantasy genre. Maybe more magic realistic? Anyway, these talents can come in quite handy, but brought ruin to almost every owner – every member of the Ribkins family.

The Ribkins are a black family, with one generation starting out as activists (during the Civil Rights Movement) but seeming to have ended up in crime. Each of their stories rub against historical facts, which makes the people with extraordinary powers trope so much more realistic, and keeps the focus on those people, instead of what they do with their powers.

This is combined with a playground (Florida) that somehow manages to make all of it more surreal and real at the same time. Of course the main character needs to dig up money he hid around the state, of course their last name has a wonderful background. Ladee Hubbard bakes all of it together, and it tastes strange, but good.

The Talented Ribkins, Ladee Hubbard, Melville House 2017

A Beautiful Work in Progress

I sat on the king bed at the Best Western Mountain View in East Ellijay, Georgia, the night before the Double Tap 50K race at Fort Mountain State Park in the Cohutta Mountains.

I expected much more pages being about running, training, exercise and the judgment people reserve for fat people doing sports. Which is kind of sloppy of me, because it says right there in the title: a memoir. And no person came out of the womb with running shoes on.

So, after my initial lack of excitement about learning about this woman I’ve never heard before and didn’t know why I should have, I kind of got over it. I’m interested in what she had to say about her (long distance) runs, we’ll take the rest as it comes.

With Mirna Valerio being a fat collection of minorities in contemporary USA, there’s so much more to her stories about running and exercising than the regular blood, sweet, and tears (although they do show up). This might make you a bit impatient about the next story about a trial run, but it also shows you that nothing happens in a vacuum; not even exercising and sports.

So, for that, you could read this memoir. And, honestly, there’s definitely different kinds of motivation in it. You just have to work a bit harder for it. If not – there’s plenty of ‘regular’ running stories to be found.

A Beautiful Work in Progress; A Memoir, Mirna Valerio, Grand Harbor Press 2017

The Bone Clocks

I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.

Even though his motives are getting more familiar with every book you read by him – does this man love time travel and parallel worlds – I can’t ignore a David Mitchell offering.

As per usual, there’s seemingly random people connected in seemingly random ways, throughout time and space on earth. It all starts on the thin line between ‘Is there something out there’/people’s delusions, but – as Mitchell does – it erupts into some very fantastic science fiction closer to the ending. Don’t bother with this story if you prefer your stories doubting, this author likes to jump around over that line.

But there’s just something about how he creates his characters and their surroundings that makes me want to follow along. So, yes, carry on, doing what you do. For the time travel/’consider this afterlife’/’it’s all connected’ fans, you can’t go wrong with this author.

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell, Alfred A. Knopf 2014

Stay with Me

I must leave this city today and come to you.

I typed and deleted the start of this blog for about four times. It’s an impressive story, a frustrating one, not a happy one but a hopeful one? Here’s me scoring high on cliché bingo.

So, okay. Stay with Me is about a Nigerian couple that can’t conceive and because offspring is very important, is offered (‘offered’) a second wife to make sure offspring does happen. But this is liking saying Lord of the Rings is about some rings, there’s much more to it.

It’s not just a slice of life, it’s a slice of culture. It’s for everyone who isn’t familiar with Nigeria and Nigerians, a look behind the scenes. Yes, we all have relationships and romances, but how, why, and in what way? What sacrifices are desired (by the partners, their families, their surroundings), and who are you if you’re not parents of a child/children?

I was warned beforehand that the subject could get pretty heavy, and there have been times I cursed out outdated ideas and the people still clinging to them. But as an anthropological view, as a psychological view, and to freaking root for Yejide.. this story has a strong pull.

Stay with Me, Ayobami Adebayo, Alfred A. Knopf 2017

4 3 2 1

According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and the booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.

The amount of times I thought ‘this would have been more interesting with a female protagonist’ was more than ten. The amount of times I wondered if Paul Auster has any kind of editing team or editor is even higher. Seriously mate, if you need fifteen-plus item lists to get to almost 900 pages, consider aiming a bit lower in page number.

Oh, and definitely change that ending.

What did I like about this story about a young Jewish boy growing up in fifties – sixties – seventies’ USA? Well, it’s one big ‘What if’ story. Every chapter starts with a new Ferguson, but some of them die, some of them grow up to be sterile, some have parents that divorce, some get into accidents. And Paul Auster shows the impact of all these internal and external factors on a human life.

But besides that, he shares a visual description of every woman in the boy’s life, and of every sexual encounter and masturbation session. And then there’s the lists.

If I’d be more aggressive about this time wasted, I’d create an abbreviated version of this book; instead I just want more ‘What if’-stories that won’t repeatedly tell me about a boy’s first erection.

4 3 2 1, Paul Auster, Faber & Faber 2017

Number One Chinese Restaurant

The waiters were singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese.

One main disappointment about this story: not enough descriptions of food. In some ways, this one felt like an international version of De zoetzure smaak van dromen; also the (immigrant) family in and around a Chinese restaurant. Except this one has a lot more infighting and drama. And as I said before – less descriptions of food.

So, what does happen in this novel? No-one seems to be very happy with their place in society. All are connected to a Chinese restaurant, but some (feel like it’s) in the wrong way, and some want to cut all ties. There’s the son of the owner, employees that have been there for decades, and those at the fringes of their lives. A fire doesn’t make things easier, even though it was slightly expected to.

It’s not the most accessible of novels; there are very few people to like and sometimes side plot lines take a bit too much space. On the other hand: it’s mostly the male characters that are the annoying ones, and all of it shows humanity. With a title and subject like this, it could have easily become a collection of stereotypes about Asian Americans: instead you’re shown that family and finances issues work the same in every (sub)culture.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lilian Li, Macmillan Publishing 2018

Before We Were Yours

My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon.

Adoption isn’t an easy subject, but the historical story line of Before We Were Yours shows at the very least how it definitely shouldn’t be handled.

There are two story tellers in this novel about an “orphanage” that basically stole children from poor people and sold them to rich families. One is the girl and her siblings that go through it, the other connected to her through different generations. This element sometimes makes it a little bit Lifetime-ish, although her motivations for discovering more are at first more political than personal. ie the sob story starts later into the story.

Weaved in between these two is a romance that isn’t quite necessary, but not horribly done either. I feel like the subject is what elevates this novel from being just another one of the paperbacks your gran reads and pushes upon you because it’s “so exciting”. It’s an easy, accessible read, but the horror of the “orphanage” and the reality on which its based, is what gives the story its pull.

Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate, Penguin Random House LLC 2017