The Nickel Boys

Even in death the boys were trouble.

The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2019

I read stories by Colson Whitehead before and even though I know their subjects are heavy (Black American history, racism), there’s a certain atmosphere to them that still makes them easy to read. Like there’s a layer between the reader and the story, but the reader can feel how fragile it is.

This time it’s about a Correctional Facility (add air quotes at your own convenience) in Florida that was created in times of segregation and still works along those lines when the reader gets there. Entwined with that story are also jumps back and forward in time to show black American lives and the impact incarceration (directly and indirectly) has on them.

What I liked on top of everything else is the nicely hidden away twist: I felt like a numpty to not have picked it up, and that means that it was worked in without any fanfare nor heralded with a complete orchestra. It gives an extra punch in case you were strangely complacent with all the horrors you read.

Girl Waits With Gun

Our troubles began in the summer of 1914, the year I turned thirty-five.

Girl Waits With Gun, Amy Stewart, Scribe 2015

I judged this book by its cover, by its title and by its summary. Which meant that I went yes/yes/no on it, because I don’t care about the western genre nor showcases about how great and cool American history is. Yes, I’m fun at parties.

This novel was fun. Not in the haha-hilarious way, but entertaining. It’s based on true events (per the acknowledgments, I never heard of it), but provides a universal female experience even if it wouldn’t be: the male that can’t handle a woman not “falling in line” to his actions and demands. With this happening early into the twentieth century, everyone ignoring the women is even worse.

The Kopp women get into an accident with a dodgy factory-owner, try to get what they deserve and therefore get.. threats, violence and a lot of authority figures just shaking their heads.

None of the Kopp women are written very appealingly; I just rooted for them because the other person was so much worse. Besides that it’s an interesting look at New York City and “the back-lands” in that era.

Oona Out of Order

Oona stopped trusting the mirror years ago.

Oona Out of Order, Margarita Montimore, Flatiron Books 2020

Very like my previously read novel. This review, not the plot. This also felt repetitive and a bit cookie cutter with an element that could have been really weird and eerie.

Oona time travels, but she never knows in which year of her life she’s going to end up in and after a year she’s gone again. She also doesn’t know why this happens, and can’t get used to it.

Which, okay; kind of understandable. But I don’t have to go through that as a reader at the start of every chapter? Whatever happened to Show, Don’t Tell?

At the very least, Margarita Montimore shows New York City very appealingly, and – just as with the previous read novel – leaves you with a tinge of satisfaction because of that one Life Lesson.

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.

The Bestseller

One day God decided he would visit the earth.

The Bestseller, Olivia Goldsmith, Diversion Books 1996

Olivia Goldsmith is also the author of First Wives Club, if you were wondering why the name is vaguely familiar.

With The Bestseller she wrote another ‘The Upper Circles Can Have Issues Too’ and it’s delicious (you know I have a soft spot for that). It also made me never ever want to attempt getting anything remotely related to a novel published. Because oof. And this is publishing in the nineties.

In this novel the reader follows the stories of different authors. New ones, old ones, unwilling ones, suffering ones etc. While you get a slice of their (sad) life, you also get plenty of insight into the publishing business. It’s not good. It’s not about stories, creativity and adding something to culture: it’s about money, the bottom line, and PR.

It’s 1400 pages as an ebook and I flew through it in less than three days (okay, I had days off, but still). It’s entertaining, aggravating dramady in which very few people look good. After a few duds, this was all the fluff I needed.

Made You Look

90 min.

Short documentary – existing almost completely out of talking heads – about an art scam I’ve never heard of before. Yeah, I’ll take it.

Made You Look shows that you don’t need much or a long running time to keep someone’s attention. I wasn’t invested in this story nor its characters and yet (maybe because of that?) I was suddenly down ninety minutes.

Of course, maybe it’s a commentary about inflated worth in the art-world and how some people will believe everything for clout, but I mostly just had fun because of greedy people and stupid decisions.

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.

The devil and the dark water

Arent Hayes howled in pain as a rock slammed into his massive back.

The devil and the dark water, Stuart Turton, Sourcebooks 2020

It’s been a day since I finished the book (I had to rush the last 200 pages because of a deadline), and I’ve only become more flabbergasted since. There really was a 410 page build-up for something that was turned around in five pages.

The devil and the dark water goes for the Sherlock Holmes-trope of a gentle, slightly goofy very intelligent small man and a brute of a protector; this time they’re called Sammy and Arent. The location is a WIC-ship and is it a devil or something or somebody else that is causing all of that chaos and mayhem? Dum dum dum, etc.

The other thing that makes this caper less fun (the first thing being “The Twist”) is that it all goes on for too long. The author mentions that he didn’t want to add more characters, but he could have done a character-cut twice more to bring some clarity and add some speed.

In all honesty, I think it would have been a more exciting and original story if he would have started with The Twist and showed those shenanigans in seventeenth-century Europe. But Turton already promised a next book, so who knows.

Probably Sammy and Arent.

Lady in Waiting

One morning at the beginning of 2019, when I was in my London flat, the telephone rang.

Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of The Crown, Anne Glennconner, Hachette Books 2020

If you feel like you need more after watching all of The Crown in one go, are a fan of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ or just want to see how the aristocratic one percent lives – this is your book.

Because Lady in Waiting Anne Glennconner (she’s Princess Margaret’s friend and Lady in Waiting) doesn’t only come from that category – pretty much everyone she knows does. And those that don’t, are celebrities through music, art and film – the only thing missing is the aristocratic element. Those are also the only people that aren’t related to her or her husband in some way — because in England royalty and the level below that — everyone is.

Anne (I honestly don’t know if she should get a title) lives through a large part of the twentieth century and goes through almost the same amount of houses as she goes through years – on many continents. With her anxious, aggressive, loud husband she has five children who provide their own problems, while she has to be head of the household of several households and take care of Princess Margaret in every possible way as soon as she’s around. In a fictional story an editor would have told the author to start culling this huge amount of detail, story lines and disasters 100 pages in. But this is someone’s life.

Mostly it just shows that heritage, money and a network won’t prevent you from suffering trauma, while simultaneously making you see how much of a circus it all is. Honestly, if this is her truth; give me fiction.

Lady MacBeth

90 min.

This is a bit like The Favourite, except it’s simultaneously milder and meaner. Less laughs, whimsy and absurdity than that film; more cold-blooded actions.

I don’t think that the character of Lady MacBeth desires any kind of introduction: she leaves a path of destruction as one does. This time, the lady is just a brat with little background and motivation, and absolutely no remorse.

That’s a relief, to be honest. She wants to, she does so, and we move on. The missing background isn’t bothersome, the motivation is clear as nothing more than ‘because I want to’. It also makes the film solely about her: other characters are almost extras, and it provided a watching experience that’s different.

Will it stay with me? Maybe. Was it something new I needed? Yes. I immediately checked which other films A71 Entertainment provides, which I’d definitely call a compliment.