The Education of an Idealist

“What right has this woman to be so educated?”

The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power, Harper Collins 2019

Pfew, this is a big one. I put this one on my list because I was curious about looking behind the curtains of the White House and the NATO, but those parts were the ones that made me lose (some) interest.

The idealist in question is Samantha Power and this book is her work memoir. Her resume includes foreign (war) correspondent), several functions within Obama’s team, author and US representative at NATO. Yeah, she went places.

All her experiences and insights into different systems are sad, frustrating and terrifying and they’re so many of them. Hundreds of pages on how American political actions work, sometimes even repeated (maybe to show how slow and grinding the system is?).

It’s all interesting, and I wouldn’t have had a deadline I might have spend more time on it, but for one week it’s just too much. A sharper edit, a tighter story telling or just more darlings killed might have left me feeling less relief when I finally reached the acknowledgments.

It’s Not Like It’s a Secret

“Sana, chotto… hanashi ga arun-ya-kedo.”

It’s Not Like It’s a Secret, Misa Sugiura, Harper Collins 2017

It warms y heart to see YA that 1. doesn’t involve inappropriate relationships; 2. doesn’t have damaging ideas about body, romance and society; and 3. has queer protagonists. And it seems to happen more often!

Sana isn’t sure about her sexuality yet, and her life gives her plenty of reason to be distracted: a state-swapping move, her father possibly having an affair and her Japanese mother rejecting everything that would make both of their lives easier.

Her problems are not necessarily teen-related: it’s to Misa Sugiura’s merit that she doesn’t make them bigger or smaller because of the protagonist’s age. And yes, there are oh-my-god-teenagers moments, but the author sells those well as well. Honestly, this is a YA novel that deserves the blurbs and attention.

The Hidden Palace

Of all the myriad races of thinking creatures in the world, the two that most delight in telling stories are the flesh-and-blood humans and the long-lived, fiery jinn.

The Hidden Palace, Helene Wecker, HarperCollins 2021

I don’t remember exactly why, but I remember absolutely loving in that swept-away-recommend-everyone way the prequel to this: The Golem and the Jinni. Maybe it’s a sophomore slump or the time between has dropped the rose colour from my glasses, but I didn’t love this one. Sadly.

My biggest complaint is how compartmentalized it felt: there’s never much room given to have the story flow, instead of continuously moving on to another character, another angle, another location. It’s like the notes for a story; not a story.

Of course, it’s still a wonderful look at a young New York city (although not that young anymore, with the first World War around the corner), a broad view at the mythology/-ies of golem and jinns. Some of the new characters add to the stories of the golem and the jinn, others take up too much space and sentimentally planned scenes (assuming, of course) don’t pull at the heart strings at all or only very little.

It’s all too one-dimensional, but there’s rumours there’ll be another book. Maybe the third time is the charm – again.

The Shape of Family

Karina sat outside the principal’s office, kicking her feet against the wooden bench.

The Shape of Family, Shilpi Somaya Gowda, Harper Collins 2019

This probably pulled me in with its promise of ~dark~ family problems, but it turns out that the problems are dark in the most sad and depressing way and as a reader you’re just the bystander of seeing trauma tear a family unit into half-drowning islands.

The thing is: it’s not unrealistic that people that have bad things happen to them continue to have bad things happen to them. Sometimes they just seem to be magnets. But it is written in such a focused way that it seems only to be about scoring sadness points. {this is were mild spoilers follow} From death to separation to self harm and relational abuse: a large part of the 300 pages is just heaping it on. What am I reading this for: to learn how bad things happen?

Besides that; if it would have been written wonderfully and mind-blowing: okay. There’s no original idea in the world left anyway. But this just felt like we were going through the motions in hope of attaining some emotional response. I honestly should start writing down where I get my recommendations from.

Parachutes

I lie in bed listening for the shuffle of my father’s slippers.

Parachutes, Kelly Yang, Katherine Tegen Books 2020

Just to showcase that the element of immigration and immigrant characters can create very different stories (of course). Because this time there’s more Filipino characters (but they’re not the immigrants), but the real immigrants (although temporarily) are the so called parachutes: Asian teenagers that are dropped at prestigious American high schools so they can get an international diploma.
That was a lot of brackets used.

This is a good YA novel. It’s clearly written for a teen audience, (yet) manages to discuss subjects teenagers may experience yet know little about – sexual assault and rape, in this case. There’s even a warning about it in the front of the book, which caused me to kind-of-nervously count down to when things would happen.

That doesn’t mean that Parachutes is an after-school-special disguised as a novel: it’s the troubles of high school life, worrying about fitting in, crushes and clamouring to be older/out of there. Besides that there’s a class difference: Dani is a daughter of a single mum, working alongside her and on a scholarship, while Claire is a parachute who gets an unlimited credit card in her luggage to make sure that “she’s safe in the USA”. You read along with both of their stories.

All written super smoothly, making Parachutes a novel to stay up late for, wonder how the characters will develop further and gush about it online.

Break in Case of Emergency

“It’s hard to reproduce those kind of results if — oh, sorry,” Jen said, realizing a beat too late that the rest of the room had gone quiet.

Break in Case of Emergency, Jessica Winter, HarperCollins 2016

Good gods, absolutely everything and everyone about/in this story is/are annoying. I’ll own up to my responsibility though: I borrowed a book described as a satire.

Break in Case of Emergency tries to merge two different stories, which leads to all of that annoyance. One story is about a start-up, probably the satire part. It’s about ‘feeling’, ‘expanding’, ‘dreaming’, but no-one can give the protagonist a clear assignment because that would just be limiting. The lingo used is straight out of every #GIRLBOSS/life coach-pamphlet, so well done on that. But good gods, how annoying.

The other story is the wish for a child and all the hubbub to get one if it doesn’t come naturally. Of course, stress at a weird work place doesn’t help with that, but it’s the language used that’s so confusing that it took me several chapters to even understand what was going on.

On top of all that, the protagonist has such a bad view of herself that is just plain exhausting. As a reader I can’t fight satire and drama without finding support somewhere.

Often in a story, there’s too little plot or it’s spread out too thinly. This could easily have been two novels with plenty of moments to breathe added.

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.