The Far Field

I am thirty years old and that is nothing.

This library haul had a 75 percent success rate, with The Far Field being the concluding chapter (heh) of that rate.

And – as it sometimes is with good stories – with this one it’s hard to put into words what exactly is good about it. It’s not like the naive, spoiled protagonist is easy to love, nor are the other characters particularly likeable. The plot could well be called Eat Pray Love with poverty tourism, so honestly, Madhuri Vijay had the stacks against her.

But there’s so much humanity in these characters and their stories. The randomness of things, people and situations brought together and bringing the worst or the best out in each other. You could say that the protagonist leaves a trail of destruction behind, but does she even have that kind of power? What is there to destruct in a war zone?

This book is coming of age, a rapport of ordinary life in contested country, a confrontation with bias. It’s written in such an appealing way that sometimes the plot arrives second because you’re just enjoying the words.

It’s good.

The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay, Grove Press 2019

This Lovely City

The basement club spat Lawrie out into the dirty maze of Soho, a freezing mist settling over him like a damp jacket.

The pretty cover will definitely throw you off: this isn’t a light, bubbly story about a fabulous time in black music history. This is a novel about black British history, and there’s little prettiness about that.

Jamaicans are ‘invited’ to come to the motherland, but England isn’t a loving mother. Black people are denied on every level of daily living, and when a baby is found, police and white citizens take it as an excuse to go full out racist.

Louise Hare shows the endless fear and frustration as well, making you move from ‘Why not just go back?’ to ‘Why don’t you stand up for yourself?’ and ‘Why is everybody such a wanker?’. Lawrie doesn’t want much in life, but because he’s black there’s a lot of people out there that actively sabotage him.

The Empire Windrush and their people aren’t fiction, nor was their treatment of them. So even though this is an interesting look at London after the Second World War, there’s no fun and bubbles to be found here.

This Lovely City, Louise Hare, House of Anansi Press 2020

The Body in Question

“When that door opens, sign out.

Sometimes I feel like I subconsciously read in trends. Recently I seem to be on the “Oh, the ending is already here?”-kick. Definitely not a conscious decision: I don’t like those kind of stories.

This novel is pretty two-dimensional, anyway. Not necessary because of the characters or the plot, just the feel of it. Nothing touched me, it’s just there. Maybe that’s the right fit for the protagonist, maybe that’s why it has such an ending as well, but instead I felt like even the small investment I had was a waste of it.

Should I have gotten insights on the American law system? On how women can feel rudderless and make bad decisions? Or is the story just there to make the reader slightly uncomfortable and feeling defeated?

The body in question is probably not the one in the probable murder case the protagonist is in a jury for. Maybe it’s hers, maybe it’s her husband’s, maybe it’s her body of work? I don’t care enough to ponder it.

The Body in Question, Jill Ciment, Pantheon Books by Penguin Random House LLC 2019

Vinegar Girl

Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen.

What a gross disappointment, ew. Sometimes a book just doesn’t fit you right from the start. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew it starts with the introduction of characters that are quite impossible to love or even like.

This is followed by the plot (quite logical), a situation which main character balks at for approximately five chapters before completely giving into it without any clear motivation. If this novel set out to depress about how some women don’t have any outlook on life and what they want to do with it, it succeeds.

Something extra to grind my gears is that – after it has been shown that this guy she needs to help out might not be so ugly and annoying after all – there’s a demonstration of verbal abuse and aggression. And Kate just … takes it.

Combine this with an epilogue that is about as plausible as the Harry Potter’s one and it leaves a lot to be desired. Ten Things I Hate About You did this much more entertainingly.

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler, Hogarth 2016

Heartburn

6 hours (approx.)

Read by Meryl Streep, so yes, another audio book! Good gravy, does the woman has a recognisable voice. No need to get into her acting skills here, but her reading fits this story very well.

Kind of well-off woman on her second marriage and second pregnancy gets cheated on. A lot of love for New York and little for other parts of the USA, she writes cook books, he’s involved with media and/or politics, a lot of dinner parties.

It’s juicy, rich people problems with sometimes a recipe added. Meryl Streep’s voice makes it sound like you’re listening on the traumas of a rich, eccentric aunt who – when she’s isn’t full of self-pity – has some snarky oneliners and a nice eye for details (this audio book definitely painted a lot of pictures in my mind). Here, the addition of the right reader, definitely elevated quite a common (but entertainingly written) story.

So, if you want to enjoy an Ephron-production just a little bit more, try an audio book.

Heartburn, Nora Ephron, Penguin Random House 1983 (first edition)

In Five Years

Twenty-five.

It’s not often that you don’t know what you would have wanted when a story doesn’t go the way you want to. Usually I’m sure how things could have been better: this time I just knew that this wasn’t what I wanted.

I like ‘what-if’ a lot, and that’s a large part of In Five Years‘ starting point. Dannie has a premonition/hallucination/dream about herself in five years in an absolutely different situation from which she’s in right now. And she likes this situation, so she doesn’t want that other one.

Rebecca Serle doesn’t feel like using filler and jumps almost four years to get to that dream/premonition/hallucination, but in the meantime the protagonist doesn’t evolve or become a person. Dannie feels like she came from a character generator, and her boyfriend doesn’t fare much better.

Besides the key element, there’s little development that excites as well. The first twist can be seen coming from afar, and the second turns this magic realist pondering about in what ways we can influence our futures into something.. the Hallmark channel would love for their tearjerker category.

After that, all strength is gone and it’s a good thing there never was much investment in the main character(s).

In Five Years, Rebecca Serle, Simon & Schuster 2020

She-Ra

65 x 24 min.

Yes, I know, I’m surprised as well. This animated TV-show definitely took me a while to warm up to, and during the first two season (there’s five of them) I wouldn’t even have considered writing a blog about it. Somewhere near the end of season two, and/or the start of season three, it grabbed me. It grabbed me good.

She-RaBefore starting this show, I knew little about the previous incarnations of it and therefore didn’t feel the need to complain about how She-Ra isn’t a full-grown woman this time, nor about the lack of butt and boob shots (in an animated show, yes I know). It also means that I didn’t have any connection to it, and had to invest some time and energy to feel the connection.

She-Ra is fantasy, people with magic, bad guys that want to take it, colourful stuff, talking horses, but also teenagers, queer love, building your own family and views on power and the (ab)use of it. Especially when watching several episodes in a row you might notice some repetition, but as someone who skipped a few (there’s a character I could barely handle) I can say that you can still follow the main plot without confusion.

It’s also fun and bright and there’s so much heart in it, even though the shows of it sometimes made me feel a bit outside of the target audience/too old. Oh, and the animation is nice, instead of that try-hard, ugly as possible “adult” animation we have to suffer all too often.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Netflix 2018

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me?

This was my first audio book! Read/listened to, not written. I’m not Mindy Kaling. Does listening to a story make you judge it differently than reading it? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure yet.

I have little experience with audio books; solely the idea just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m too old and too impatient to be read, and what if it’s a bad voice? The second argument made me gave up on two books before managing to finish this one. Mindy Kaling knows how to use her voice, doesn’t do other voices (too often) and has people come in for their own (male) parts. It helps.

What also helps is that her story is fun, her tone and story realistic without being too self-deprecating (never nice in a woman), and plenty happens (it’s a memoir, you might expect that, but Mindy shares it). Yes, there’s a bit of an overdose of numbered lists and sometimes you could feel a bit iffy about the vocabulary used, but this book is almost ten years old already and we as a society changed towards the better on certain levels regarding language.

I’ve started listening to audio books because I wanted something different during my runs. Mindy kind of paved the way.

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? (and other concerns), Mindy Kaling, Penguin Random House 2011

Nothing to See Here

In the late spring of 1995, just a few weeks after I’d turned twenty-eight, I got a letter from my friend Madison Roberts.

I don’t mind unlikable protagonists, but in this case I very much wondered if the dislike was from knowing that a male author was writing a female character, that this female character just was too spineless, or that I just can’t handle aggressive passivity. Maybe all of the above. This, combined with the shortness of this novel, made my final amount of stars (the ones I don’t use) end up much lower than I expected when I read the summary of Nothing to See Here.

What is that summary, you ask? Well – screw up is asked to nanny two children that start burning at random moments. Bodies turning into flames without the kids hurting in any way. She is asked this by an old acquaintance she herself calls a friend and it all has to be on the down-low because the children are a politician’s.

This could have turned into scientific sci-fi, something with (a whiff off) magic realism or have this fire turn into something metaphorical, and make the entire story a commentary on class and the gap between haves and have-nots. Instead, there’s just ..situations. If Kevin Wilson solely wanted to communicate how sabotaging poverty and being directionless is, he succeeded. If he wanted me curious about his characters and the world they move around in – not so much.

Nothing to see here, Kevin Wilson, Ecco 2019

Russian Doll

8 x 26 min.

In the case of some shows you feel bad about not experiencing at the same time others did it. With some, the experience is just enhanced by going “Ooooh sh-!” to someone else.

Russian Doll posterAnd there’s plenty of moments like that in this TV-show about a woman who just keeps dying and doesn’t know why and can’t get out of this Groundhog day-situation. It being a woman played and written by Natasha Lyonne (you might remember her from Orange is the New Black) this groundhog is more like Final Destination when it comes to dying creatively.

With less than thirty minutes of runtime and eight episodes there’s not enough room for this element to get old: there’s just enough glimmers of clues to feel like you’re onto something just a bit before Nadia does.

The one con is that there’s going to be a second season: this could have been resolved, even in a possibly unsatisfying way in the last two episodes – easily. Now there’s the risk of things becoming stale.

Although Nadia’s back-to-life soundtrack might just be good enough to prevent that.

Russian Doll, Netflix 2019