Dandelion

My father’s older sister Auntie Choo Neo placed chicken satay sticks on the backyard barbecue.

Dandelion, Jamie Chai Yun Liew, Arsenal Pulp Press 2022

If you’re still looking for children-of-immigrant stories. This time, the mother disappears and stays gone. It makes for an incredibly frustrating story; can’t the suffering be put on pause for a bit? – but it never takes over Lily’s story.

Dandelion shows all the small ways of feeling alien and does it well.

The Dictionary of Lost Words

Before the lost word, there was another.

The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams, Affirm Press 2020

Why, why would you write this in first person?

After having finished this book, I know why. To make sure that we not only get a limited view of an interesting time, but also to make sure all the added drama really strikes home. I’d say.

I thought this story about how women were allowed to add less to the creation of the Oxford Dictionary than men would have been interesting on the subject of language, gender, and history. Instead I got a soap opera lead by a Mary Sue.

Frustrating.

The Books of Jacob

Once swallowed, the piece of paper lodges in her esophagus, near her heart.

The Books of Jacob, or: A Fantastic Journey Across Seven Borders, Five Languages, and Three Major Religions, Not Counting the Minor Sects. Told by the Dead, Supplemented by the Author, Drawing from a Range of Books, and Aided by Imagination, the Which Being the Greatest Natural Gift of Any Person. That the Wise Might Have It for a Record, That My Compatriots Reflect, Laypersons Gain Some Understanding, and Melancholy Souls Obtain Some Slight Enjoyment, Olga Tokarczuk, Riverhead Books 2022

Loved The Silmarillion? House of Leaves? And 17th century mid-European history? This 900 page novel might just be the thing for you!

You don’t? Avoid this.

Lessons in Chemistry

Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbeltless cars without giving it a second thought; back before anyone knew there’d even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big war were over and the secret wars had just begin and people were starting to think fresh and believer everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.

Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus, Doubleday Canada 2022

Oh, I had fun with this one! It’s history and a commentary on society’s sexism (in the sixties), there’s a bit of romance but more importantly female friendships and why one should invest in it and oi – there’s chemistry.

Literally.

Elizabeth Zott, our protagonist, is a scientist, a single mother and an opinionated voice on telly. Neither of those are approved of by a lot of people.

Author Bonnie Garmus throws a lot at her, but she manages to do so that it doesn’t turn into a melodrama, but someone’s life story (which happens, there are very tough breaks). Also essential is the speed and style of the story; nothing feels frilly or extra.

I flew through the 300+ pages in a day.

Breasts and Eggs

If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had.

Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami, Europa Editions 2019

Why didn’t I read the blurbs: Haruki Murakami loved it, and it used to be a short novella. I think that shows very clearly: the second ‘book’ is more coherent and easy to read, although mostly in comparison with the first book – not others.

Once again this is an “I feel like I should like this more”-story, but there’s something that just left me lukewarm. Yes, interesting views on motherhood and surrogacy in Japan, but did it have to be put down like this? Hard to chew on, tough to invest in.

Infinite Country

It was her idea to tie up the nun.

Infinite Country, Patricia Engel, Simon & Schuster 2021

Less than 160 pages and I still walk around with it a couple days after finishing it. I don’t know if I consciously gravitate towards migrant stories and the generations after, but once again it doesn’t disappoint.

What Infinite Country adds is the clear question of “What’s so great about the USA anyway?”. It’s not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for anyone involved, and the place the family comes from (Colombia) isn’t viewed as a crap shoot essential to escape from.

Combine this with a family literally ripped apart based on their place of birth and there’s something fresh and uncanny about this short story.

Accidentally Engaged

For most urban dwellers, Sundays were a day of rest and relaxation.

Accidentally Engaged, Farah Heron, Hachette Book Group 2021

First of all: where was the editor? Within two pages letters missing, names being spelled differently? Oof.

Anyway, the best part these days about romantic novels is the build-up and characterisation. After the two get together, especially when it’s a heterosexual couple – my interest fades.

In this case it’s (surprise) food. Reena stress-bakes and cooks, and the descriptions are good albeit overly detailed after a certain amount of pages. Faking an engagement is a fun trope as well, but because we’re only told what Reena isn’t, there’s very little investment or even emotion when things implode (because of course they do).

Maybe I should just stop trying reading romance with the aim of being satisfied.

The Invisible Library

Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.

The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman, Penguin Random House 2016

Sometimes I wish authors would pass their ideas to better authors or just admit that they wanted to write a TV or film script.

Because The Invisible Library has a nice ideas (book guardians that hop dimensions to collect special books, seemingly all during steampunkish/victorian times), but the landing doesn’t stick. It’s a collection of descriptions with cardboard characters.

I’d watch the series if someone else did the writing, all I’m saying.

She Who Became the Sun

Zhongli village lay flattened under the sun like a defeated dog that has given up on finding shade.

She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan, Tor 2021

Mulan but not exactly (there is cross-dressing to survive, but it goes much further and Zhu doesn’t need any man/romance, thank you very much). She takes her brother’s fate and decides to do whatever necessary to get to what he’s promised: greatness.

The language used is a bit purple and blown up from time to time, adding the feeling that we’re really deep into ancient texts instead of one just a year old. It means that you might have to invest a little, but if you want a whole different (Asian) myth, it’ll be worth it.

A Girl is a Body of Water

Until that night, Kirabo had not cared about her.

A Girl is a Body of Water, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Tin House 2020

What stuck with me most is how well Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi communicated the surprise and shrugs Ugandans had/felt about European ideas like time and religion. Might sound silly and/or narrow-minded but yes: not everyone cuts days into twelve hours and decides that one way of going at it is the right way. It’s all been decided before somewhere, and doesn’t mean that elsewheres should go along.

A Girl is a Body of Water plays out in a different time – Uganda in the nineteen-seventies and -eighties – and in a different world. The plot is familiar: absent parent decides to bring first child into second family. But Kirabo has plenty of other things on her mind; Sio, the mother who refused her, familial issues between her grandmother and the village witch and adjusting to private school and the city after growing up in a rural village.

Makumbi makes it all feel a bit like a fairy tale; even when dire reality sets in (war, death), it seems like something our princess has to get through to get to her happy ending. This absence and style takes some getting used to, but after you’re all in: we want the Stories of Kirabo; and we get them.