On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Let me begin again.

Golly gosh, how to explain this? It’s a memoir, it’s a fever dream, it’s an obituary – maybe? And did I like all of it, any of it, only the parts that I read at night? It was, in a way, beautiful, though. A kind of experience hard to put into words.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of those titles that seem to be singing around in ‘Serious Reader’ circles for a while. It’s not loud enough to feel like it’s been hyped, nor is a celebrity book club attached, but there is the vibe of “Haven’t you read it yet?” around it. To me, anyway.

Ocean Vuong wrote poetry before, and it shows in his descriptions, his look on life, how it feels like he weighed every word before putting it down. It’s in juxtaposition with the subjects he writes down: the suffering of his grandmother and mother, the lack of family, being an immigrant child, being the only different one while growing up. All of it feels absolutely anchor-less.

Can you have an opinion about something that runs through your mind like sand through your hands? I’m sure you can, but I’m just going to stick with ‘an experience’ and a weird feeling of honour that Vuong allowed you in.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, Penguin Random House 2019

The Secrets We Kept

We typed a hundred words per minute and never missed a syllable.

While I’m absolutely lukewarm about stories that use the World Wars as their background, the Cold War or anything involving the USSR/Russia has easily my interest (peeked). The Secrets We Kept ads love for literature to that. Ace in the hole, you’d say.

I can’t pinpoint why it isn’t one. It’s an appealing, enticing story; easy to read, pretty easy to follow (several chapters keep you in the dark about who’s the protagonist now — at least for a page and a half) and voices could have differed a bit more from each other. But that’s details I discover looking back, not necessarily crippling me during reading the story.

The secrets kept the title mentioned are from both The Agency (American security) as from Russian individuals that dare do things The State doesn’t agree with. Of course, there’s secrets on other levels as well, and this isn’t  a Cold War story in the way of ‘pick a side and follow through’. These women and typists carry more responsibility than their detailed-described looks entail.

It’s a fun novel to read, easily calling up images and with no frills when not necessary. I’m honestly surprised that I’m not more excited about it.

The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott, Bond Street Books 2019

Albatross

“Would you mind if I measured your extremities?”

Never thought that I’d be disgruntled by a happy ever after, but here we are.

The nice things about this story: a love for fountain pens, writing, language and for the majority of the time a very grounded few of oneself of the protagonist. It starts out as a fun, coming-of-age story with a weird quirk. No, I don’t give a toss about golf, but thankfully the protagonist recognises that and doesn’t bother the reader too long with descriptions of the game. One of the side-characters is completely annoying and would never get the function he has in real life with such behaviour, but soit. Fiction.

The albatross of the story is Adam. His teacher takes his measurements and – by calculating them through a random study by annoying side-character – discovers that he is a golf talent. Golf success follows, even though Adam doesn’t care about the game at all. The money doesn’t hurt though, and that’s largely his motivation for making the decisions he makes.

At first Adam is baffled by all of it, but he all too soon and smoothly takes it all in, and from that part on – there’s just not much to the story. He gets everything he wants, life moves in the direction he wants, his love story finishes the way he wants to … it’s all quite dull.

And this is just partially coming from a place of jealousy.

Albatross, Terry Fallis, McClelland & Stewart 2019

The Au Pair

We have no photographs of our early days, Danny and I.

Right up my alley, this one. Family secrets, a tinge of the supernatural and people using lipstick to write on mirrors.

After a death in the family, Seraphine discovers a photograph that makes her doubt her family history. She’s always felt different (isn’t that how it always starts?), and now feels like she can finally turn that feeling into something solid.

Good thing she still lives in her family home and plenty of hints are quite easily found. Is it witches, fairies, or just the cute little villagers that had always enjoyed a good gossip about the weirdos in Summerbourne house?

We are strung along just a tad too long, but the decorations along the way are fun enough to not be very disgruntled about it. In less than 300 pages Emma Rous sets up an entertaining tent with solid poles keeping up a well-set story. If there would have been more room for the supernatural, I would have given it an extra star.

The Au Pair, Emma Rous, Penguin Random House 2018

An Ocean of Minutes

People wishing to time travel go to Houston Intercontinental Airport.

Is dystopia less scary to me when it happens in the past? For someone that doesn’t like dystopian stories, this is the second one I read in two months.

This time it’s an epidemic and time travel that gets us where we end up; although – we end up in the past. The protagonist is sent into the future from the eighties, and ends up in 1998. Oof, isn’t that an awful long time ago?

Of course, because that’s how it goes, things go quite awry, and Polly has to adjust not just to a new time, but to new surroundings and societal rules. This being a dystopian story – things didn’t improve.

The twist of this story – it masquerading as a love and time travel story, while it really isn’t – is also the most appealing feature of it. Besides that it’s too muted, lamenting and passive to feel anything but a tinge of relief of having finished this.

An Ocean of Minutes, Thea Lim, Penguin Random House 2018

Paradise Lodge

The job at Paradise Lodge was Miranda Longlady’s idea.

‘Teenager in seventies’ England gets a job at a seniors home and learns things about life, herself and others’ must have been a curious plot to pitch, but Nina Stibbe manages to land it with a homely, gentle feeling to the story and everyone involved. Even Matron.

Lizzie Vogel is a bit of an onion; she’s got layers. Starting off this job with ‘better shampoo’ as a personal motivation, she quickly starts to see that both seniors and the people providing for them as individuals as well. Her work at the home is more exciting and interesting than school, there’s a cute guy who’s someone else’s boyfriend, and her mother isn’t all that stable through all this; all of which causes issues in a domino kind of cascade.

That might make Paradise Lodge sound severe and dire, but even though there are deaths, it’s all on the lighter side of things. Teenage problems, without being teenage disasters. Lizzie really is an onion: she goes with many things.

Paradise Lodge, Nina Stibbe, Penguin Books 2017

The Boat People

Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes.

This isn’t a particularly uplifting story. Reading is escapism, isn’t it? Unless you never have any media-intake that won’t be the case with this novel. The subject is a three-step ladder of contemporary news: racism in politics, war zones and (boat) refugees.

These three angles are showcased through the points of view of different people: a refugee, the people helping them, and those that need to make sure that no refugee brings danger into the country (Canada, in this case). It’s easy to view the latter as the villains of this piece: they start out with a negative angle and won’t be swayed. But in today’s society it would be naive to act like that negative angle hasn’t landed on fertile land, and what does that say about us?

The same can be said from the ‘good’ immigrants that lament these refugees for not doing immigration “the right way”. We all need thoughts to comfort us, so who’s to blame for acting upon them?

Of course, nothing happening in this novel will make you think: yes, let’s deny every refugee asylum, yay! but it very much shows the booby-trapped labyrinth immigration and asylum (laws) have become. With an all too human face to it, on all sides.

The Boat People, Sharon Bala, McClelland & Stewart 2018

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

Fire and Blood

The maesters of the Citadel who keep the histories of Westeros have used Aegon’s conquest as their touchstone for the past three hundred years.

Are you in need of more Westeros now the TV-show is so close to ending and the book series it might be based on might never finish? Do you love dragons and politics in your fantasy? Boy, do I’ve got a recommendation for you. For those that are looking for fantasy and just grabbed the newest book your library had on offer? Hm-mweh.

George R.R. Martin has always been a bit Tolkien-light when it comes to his descriptions over show-don’t-tell. Fire & Blood is Martin gathering all those descriptions he probably ever used to spend time on one Westeros family: Targaryen (yes, I know we can discuss if they’re a Westeros family). Remember from the Bible those family trees lists that went on forever? That’s Fire & Blood, just with more descriptions added of how people look and from time to time how people (brutally) died in one of the many fights and wars.

Is that a bad thing? That depends on what you want from this book. This isn’t an epic telling; it’s closer to an encyclopedia with some prose added (and repetitive at that; there really couldn’t have been more side steps to other countries and families instead of hearing how another sibling-pair marries each other?). Do you just want more of Martin’s Westeros (I did)? This will work for you, as long as you don’t read it too much in one go – mentioned repetitions will really start to show.  And those dragons? Well, they’re … pretty?

Fire & Blood, George R.R. Martin, Penguin Random House 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