Bolla

Having made the world, God began to regret his creation.

Bolla, Pajtim Statovci, Pantheon Books 2021

Delivered on its promise of being “Brokeback Mountain in Eastern Europe”. Except there’s no cowboys, and an even larger divide because of war going on, so throw in some Romeo & Juliet in there as well.

Arsim, Albanian, married falls for Milos (single, Serb) in nineties Kosovo. If that isn’t enough of a challenge, both his wife’s pregnancy and the regional war follow soon.

Bolla is a small story – less than two hundred pages – yet somehow manages to make this romance very intimate and a window to look through at the (developing) war. War is people, war is ideas but it’s also societies that just try to keep moving on, staying upright. But love needs more than ‘staying upright’ and Statovci shows it full of ache and longing. Neither characters make good/great decisions, but do they have any other options?

Not something you’d call a nice read, but definitely a good one.

How to be an Antiracist

I despised suits and ties.

How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, Penguin 2019

With certain books you feel bad about not loving it. This is important information, this is something to learn from, and I struggled from beginning to ending.

That’s partly because of the style of this book: much too often it felt like I was paging through a dictionary because definitions are added to everything and repeated often. It could be that I spend too much time online that I am already familiar with plenty of terms, but no matter if it’s for rookie or the more experienced: the message has to be delivered in an attractive way. And I know repetition is key to learning and remembering things, but now I just remember the repetition; not the message.

Kendi combines his own story with the story of racism and anti-racism and doesn’t protect himself in either. Maybe it’s better to look at this like a part of encyclopedia instead.

The Patriots

On a Sunday in August, a boy and a one-armed man appeared on the platform of the Saratov train station.

The Patriots, Sana Krasikov, Penguin Random Books 2017

Russia and the Soviet continue to endlessly fascinate me. With almost 600 pages and jumping through time to get different angles, The Patriots provides.

That also means that sometimes you have to invest a little bit to follow along. A lot of names and not always a clear sign of which era you’re in keeps you on your toes, I guess.

An American woman moves to the Soviet because the revolution doesn’t happen quickly enough in the USA, in her opinion. We probably all know enough history to know that from a welcome foreigner, she turns into a unwelcome visitor and suffers along with the rest of locals just as easily. Even if you know, reading about it once more just shows that there’s no limit to (unpleasant) surprise.

Generations follow, the Soviet stays the same. It continues to baffle me how recently this all played out, but I will gladly take more stories about it.

Her Royal Highness

“There’s a unicorn on this.”

Her Royal Highness, Rachel Hawkins, Penguin Random House 2019

I find some time to read in between the films. Although you don’t need much time for this 200 page YA novel that is a wish-fulfillment fantasy involving Scottish castles, royalty and a Cool Girl. It’s YA, very obviously. That I didn’t pull out any hair in frustration about dumb teenage actions is a compliment to the author.

Millie likes geology and doesn’t care about her looks. Because of Reasons she decides to do her final year of high school in Scotland. There, she becomes the room mate of a princess. A snooty, tiresome princess but oh no – are those feelings?

It all works: the surroundings, the side characters, the absolutely wonderful love interest. While struggling to get through The Shadow King and seemingly to only pick serious films or duds – this was a breath of fresh air.

The Witch’s Heart

Long ago, when the gods were young and Asgard was new, there came a witch from the edge of the worlds.

The Witch’s Heart, Genevieve Gornichec, Penguin Random House 2021

I love a good retelling. Mythological, it is. Madeleine Miller did it with Greeks, Genevieve Gornichec goes way up North with Loki’s story from one of his wives’ point of view.

Angrboda is much more than Loki’s wife: she’s a powerful witch, a threat to the Norse gods (mostly in their eyes, she just wants to be left alone), and a calm soul. She wants to live her little life, but mythologies aren’t build on that. So there’s an unfamiliar feeling (love) for an unreliable person (Loki), pregnancies, children and terrifying visions about (growing) threats. As it goes.

Gornichec doesn’t attempt an old-timey tone that will assure you this is a myth: she tells it like one. There’s a clear chronology, little side steps, lovely visuals. A novel like a comfortable sweater — if you manage to ignore the several deaths, abuse and apocalypse. It’s still a myth, after all.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Elif Shafak, Penguin Random House UK 2019

Wow. Meestal schrijf ik Engels-gelezen verhalen ook in het Engels op, maar deze keer (en mogelijk het tijdstip – laat opgebleven om het uit te lezen) voelt de taal ontoereikend. Wat een mooi boek, wat een mooi verhaal terwijl er zoveel lelijke gebeurtenissen zijn. Wat een hoeveeheid liefde: voor de hoofdpersoon, haar zelfgekozen familie en ook de stad Istanbul. Wat een plaatjes, ook van de gruwelijke dingen en nare situaties. Wat een alles.

Tequila Leila is dood. Vermoord. Behalve haar laatste tien minuten mogen we ook haar leven en haar beide families – bloed en liefde – ontmoeten. Een meisje dat opgroeit halverwege de twintigste eeuw in een klein dorpje, bijna in de knop gedingest voor ze kan bloeien, en dan nog Istanbul in. Waar ze leeft, overleeft, geeft. Het zou zonde zijn om meer te vertellen, alleen erover vertellen geeft mij al de neiging om het boek opnieuw te beginnen.

Het is een fragiel sprookje, een mozaïek van een levende stad (ook iets waar ik zo van houd, de stad als personage), een ode aan eigenheid. Bovenal zo mooi, zo goed, zo sprankelend prachtig.

Luster

The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light.

Luster: A Novel, Raven Leilani, Bond Street Books 2020

I don’t know if this is going to be a review about Luster or a confession.

Luster works hard, while simultaneously not doing shit to get the reader to feel something about its protagonist. Do we pity her, get angry at her, are grossed out by her? Can we blame her decisions or outlook on life when you see what she’s been dealt and the society she lives in?

It’s the kind of book I can’t get any grip on, an endless frustration that I can’t steer in any direction. I want a conclusion, no matter how unhappy. I want a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s a coming train. What I don’t want to be is infected by the manic, the passivity, the ugliness of it all.

This isn’t about bad relational decisions or how rudderless my generation is, it’s how Raven Leilani puts her hand on your neck and keeps forcing you to watch and think and experience.
Is that not something I enjoy? Am I a cookie-cutter reader?

Or is it simply that the confrontation is too big, the despair too overwhelming, and the possible life line too brittle?

I’m angry at this novel. I’m frustrated by the impact I allowed it to have on me and how I feel I have to defend myself. A happy ever after wouldn’t even have satisfied me at the end, I want to put this growth to bed so I can calm down again.

A confession it is, then.

Mexican Gothic

The parties at the Tuñóns’ house always ended unquestionably late, and since the hosts enjoyed costume parties in particular, it was not unusual to see Chinas Poblanas with their folkloric skirts and ribbons in their hair arrive in the company of a harlequin or a cowboy.

Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Del Rey 2020

It’s always tricky to read a hyped book, I’ve mentioned this before. Is it a hype because people jumped on the band wagon, or does it really deserve all praise?

I wanted to say that I don’t know with this one, but I think I do. The promo laid it on thick that for once this wasn’t a Latin-American author writing magic-realism and that her scares were genuine. Magic-horror, terror, gothicness! I, far from a fan of horror, was curious because of the denial. I understand – no-one wants to be cornered as a one-trick-pony, but why not promote the story if it was So Different Than Any Other?

Maybe because it isn’t. Noémi moves to a scary, old house far away from civilisation to help a cousin that sent her a nerve-wrecking letter. Is it abuse, is it gas lighting or is it [add drums here] something else?

I won’t answer that question, but will say that Moreno-Garcia takes her time for a build-up only to throw everything at you in the last fifty pages.

It’s a nice roller-coaster ride, but nothing we haven’t experienced before.

Sex and Vanity

Dearest Lucie and Charlotte,

Sex and Vanity, Kevin Kwan, Doubleday 2020

Yes, the author of Crazy Rich Asians and the rest of them.

Is it fair to judge a book like this on more than its promise and if it’s delivered? Like a “real” novel? Well, there’s different kinds of judging of course, but what if I just mention what’s going on?

The plot is an enemies-to-lovers trope. Although the hate seems to be one-sided, and isn’t very clearly motivated. He wears speedos and looks good in them? He’s different from other men and makes her feel things? Okay, I guess?

But maybe that’s because of my next point: characterisation. It’s not great. For any of them. Every character gets one trait, and most are high in clichés.

Surroundings? World-building? Yes, ma’am! Here’s what we came for: Kevin Kwan is a who’s who and what’s what on riches, royalty, relationships and rumours. It’s lavish and lucious and enormously over the top all the time. It’s empty glitter filled with names you might not even recognise, but it all sounds very glamorous and filthy rich.

Just read quickly: there’ll be too much sparkles in your eyes to notice the things lacking.

Frankissstein

Lake Geneva, 1816

Reality is water-soluble.

Now, what to think and say about this one? Unlike The Body in Question, I’m struggling because I’m thinking too much about this story. It’s bewildering, it’s scary, it’s also kind of soothing with showing you how humans and their ideas about identity, life and death have always been around and probably forever will be (in whatever shape).

This isn’t a retelling of Frankenstein, or maybe partly, or maybe only inspired by it. Mary Shelley gets a plot, so does Ry and Victor Stein. There’s layers and century-deep connections, but never in a Gotcha!-way.

Winterson surprised me with a memoir I liked (which doesn’t happen often, as recently mentioned), but I didn’t know what to expect with a novel of hers. After Frankissstein, I still don’t. I find it hard to believe that she could write something like this again, if it’s even a ‘this’.

I’d recommend this novel to everyone who allows themselves to be taken along for a ride. I’d also recommend it because I still don’t know how to place this story and would love to pick other people’s brains. While still in their heads, of course.

Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Cape London 2019