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.

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.

The Midnight Library

Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.

The Midnight Library, Matt Haig, Harper Collins 2020

I was very excited about this one because it’s something I do: daydream about what life would be like if I had done A instead of B. I didn’t expect the depression-part and very dire play-out of this idea, which made parts of it definitely a tougher, more realistic read than expected.

Because Nora Seed gets the opportunity to look at her other lives. The ones she would have had with one big or smaller decision made, at another time, with another person. She experiences those lives in the body of the other versions of her, adding to the alienation of life she already felt in the first place. It creates a combination of pity and impatience – why won’t she just be satisfied?

In the end, pity and fear win out. Is this our reality? Would I do things better? Does it really all hinge on one decision? And why are there always so many regrets?

Still, it won’t stop me day-dreaming about other lives.

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.

Never Have I Ever

The game was Roux’s idea

Never Have I Ever, Joshilyn Jackson, P.S. 2019

This was a snack novel that turned out to be one of the better snacks you can get. Like – you were aiming for something sweet, but suddenly there was flavour as well, you know? Like that.

I’ve mentioned before how I’m a sucker for Rich Community Problems and that’s what sucked me into Never Have I Ever as well. Our main character has a lovely life in a perfect community but Oh no! a disruptive presence appears. Her lovely life is based on not-so-lovely things. Mama Bear has to come out! Etc., you know how it goes.

Which made me write a post about it (there’s books I don’t write blogs about – plenty) is that there’s a surprise. And Jackson pulls it off well. Thing about surprises is that you need little to kill them, so I’ll end with this: for a fun ride with this trope, try this novel.

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.

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

The Dutch House

The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs.

I changed my mind on this book maybe three – four times. Pretty cover -> meh summary -> positive reviews -> where is this story going? -> Oh. Oh wow.

Wasn’t that an exciting trip to go on?

This book is the house it’s about, but at the same time its story never gets as bright and colourful as the interior of the house. Even before the big thing that changes everything happens, there’s a thick gray layer over not just the people of this story, but the story itself.

It doesn’t make the story less appealing, but it did make me long towards that version of the story: if Ann Patchett would halfway flip to the owners under whom the house prospered, I wouldn’t even have minded and this coming from the woman who despises different times – same houses stories.

Still, the story as it is found its way under my skin. On family, on bitterness, on deciding what you need for yourself instead of for someone else. And in the end – yes: oh wow.

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett, HarperCollins 2019

Don’t You Forget About Me

Tapton School, Sheffield, 2007

‘You loved me – then what right had you to leave me?

Ah, delicious by-the-numbers contemporary romance with just a few reminders of real life to not make it saccharine sweet. My kind of romance.

Boy meets girl, they fall in love, it’s the end of high school – fade out. Man meets woman, claims he absolutely can not remember her, even though she recognises him straight away. What’s going on? What happened during the fade out? And why is her mother less-than-supportive about pretty much everything she does?

Don’t You Forget About Me hits all the spots in chronological order, has the fun friends/side kicks (pleasantly fleshed out, that doesn’t always happen), and a few laugh-out-loud laughs.

Main Georgina sells it, though. Her frustrations, fears and self-doubt never get navelgazy or woe-is-me, but are (too) recognisable. She’s for the single women in their thirties, with the shitty job and the feeling of being without direction but unable to find the compass either.

I read McFarlane’s Who’s That Girl? before, and think I can conclude that for fun, romantic, quick-to-read time this author is a good fit.

Don’t You Forget About Me, Mhairi McFarlane, HarperCollins 2019

The dangerous art of blending in

I should have guessed something was up when I was walking home.

Somehow I expected a softer story: the title, the subject (teenager doesn’t dare to come out), the surroundings (a small American town). But the author doesn’t hold his punches, like the mother of the protagonist doesn’t. I know that’s considered a spoiler, but I feel like that subject should come with a warning.

Evan’s life isn’t an easy one. His mother views him as lazy and evil, and his father almost never steps in when she gets aggressive. He doesn’t dare to come out to anyone, and all his energy goes to keeping all his different worlds (home, church, school, friends) apart.

Things change when his good friend starts to change, and when someone from Bible-camp shows up. Collision happens, and Evan can’t stop it.

The language used is clean and honest. Sometimes the tone feels a little bit too much like that from an after school program, but one has to remember that first of all these are a teenager’s feelings, and second of all, this is all too often someone’s reality. Besides that, you just want better. And possibly push his mother into the Grand Canyon.

The dangerous art of blending in, Angelo Surmelis, HarperCollins 2018