I was convinced that my reading had slowed significantly in April, but I ended up reading 10 books for a total of 39 this year. If I could read 11 in May for an even 50 by the end of the month, I’d be really happy.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
In a world ravaged by environmental disaster, Lauren Olamina lives in relative affluence with her family within a walled community. But when she loses her family, she is forced to leave home. Lauren, whose father is a preacher, has long since rejected the religion she was raised in, in favour of one of her own making. As she journeys north in search of safety and stability, she finds recruits for Earthseed, her religion. There are a lot of interesting political implications in this novel (environmentalism, anti-capitalism), and I really enjoy that the narrator is a young Black woman. Dystopian fiction tends to be very overwhelmingly white, and racism is explicitly addressed in the narrative. However, this definitely felt like the first book in the series, with a bare-bones plot that leaves a lot of loose ends. I think I’ve probably exhausted my teenage interest in dystopian fiction, but this would be a great read for someone who’s really into the genre.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
Another world suffering from environmental disasters – specifically, frequent earthquakes which regularly wipe out small towns. A small group of people with special powers, Orogenes, can affect seismic activity, and for decades Orogene children have been raised in a special military facility in order to control and harness their powers. This is an interesting fantasy world that avoids a lot of the tropes the male-dominated, white-dominated fantasy canon often indulges in. Jemisin normalizes same-sex relationships, trans people, and non-normative family structures and offers a cast of well-developed Black characters. The themes of oppression, discrimination, and self-determination are well-rendered. This is a complex world, and it took me a while to get my bearings; there was a lot of (necessary) exposition used to set the tone for the action to come later in the series, which made it a promising but not entirely interesting standalone novel. Fantasy isn’t really my genre, so I probably won’t continue on with this series, but I think fantasy fans (especially those who are tired of the same old) will enjoy this.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
This ended up being my favourite book in the Neapolitan series; the political commentary is absolutely searing, and it feels like the first two novels were truly building to this point. Ferrante exposes the hypocrisy of the educated upper middle class’s socialist activism excluding and even harming those they claim to liberate. As Elena struggles to live up to the hype of her first book in the wake of motherhood and domestic duty, she develops a true political awareness not based on regurgitating others’ opinions; meanwhile, Lila is bursting with true class consciousness, though it is almost impossible for her to act on this. This series has always brilliantly explored how women’s minds are so often wasted, nowhere more explicitly than in this novel. There were so many lines that just stopped me in my tracks, brimming with acidic clarity. For example, on the subject of male domination of academic and creative spaces: The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable, I said to myself, it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition.
The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde
The most recent novel in Fforde’s expansive Thursday Next universe, our heroine Thursday has taken a new job and uncovered a new conspiracy meant to further the interests of the evil Goliath corporation. The alternate early 2000s Britain is as clever, quirky, and endearing as ever, though I do miss Thursday’s adventures inside the Bookworld. That said, when you’re looking for something light, you really can’t go wrong with a book involving time travel, clones, and a pet dodo. I’m happily anticipating the next book in the series!
The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz
The first novel in the reboot of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is pretty obviously a cash-grab. The writing in the original trilogy was not exactly an exemplar of the craft, but there was a venom and compulsive readability that made the descriptions of every food item Lisbeth ingested worth it. The plot of the first book especially was clever and twist-y. This book just fell flat. There was very little tension; the plot was simplistic; the book lacked the original series’ focus on misogyny. (The Swedish series is literally called “Men Who Hate Women”!) This novel is more to the point than Larsson’s often meandering prose, but it’s just not as interesting.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
The conclusion of Ferrante’s ambitious, sweeping Neopolitan novels is every bit as angry and depressing as the previous book. Lila and Elena continue to grow together and apart as they settle into middle age. There is hardly ever any relief offered in the accounts of our protagonists’ lives in their working class Naples neighbourhood, and the writing is simply unrelenting in its precision. I found the first two books in the series a bit hard to get into, but the last two were utterly compelling. I get the hype now – there’s something uncanny, jarring, unforgettable about this story.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
The body of Ada, a baby born in Nigeria, houses several spirits born of a snake god. She moves to the US for university and, when she experiences sexual trauma, the spirits begin to emerge. It’s never clear if this a metaphysical novel – that the spirits truly do exist – or if this is a metaphorical exploration of mental illness. Perhaps it’s both. I just couldn’t help but feel that this novel was a perfect example of style over substance. I found the prose a bit too much and the depth of the story a bit too little. It’s strange to say that, because there’s a lot going on: fractured families, diaspora, sexual assault, self-harm – I just never fully felt anything about any of it. There was very little in the way of character development, which is bizarre in what you might imagine would have to be a character-driven novel. (This is a story about multiple consciousnesses inhabiting one body!) This didn’t feel plot-driven (because there isn’t much plot), or character-driven, or literary. It was just, like, some themes that weren’t particularly thoroughly explored.
A Mind Spread Out On the Ground by Alicia Elliott
Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott’s insightful, compassionate essays primarily focus on the lingering effects of her childhood: raised in poverty on the Six Nations reservation by an abusive father and bipolar mother. She explores contemporary Indigeneity and the intersections between mental illness, poverty, nutrition, family dysfunction, racism, colonialism, and more. At times I wished the writing itself had been pushed just a little bit further; there are parts that feel a bit social justice academia jargon-y, which tends to give the impression of an underdeveloped and unoriginal style. However, the ideas presented in these essays are thought-provoking and necessary.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
In 2000 in New York, a privileged, mid-twenties narrator decides to spend a year sleeping. Her cold, unloving parents died in quick succession when she was in college, and her only “assets” in life are a clingy, status-obsessed friend, a much-older on/off boyfriend who truly sucks, and a poorly-paid job at an art gallery. The worst psychiatrist in the world prescribes her an endless supply of sleeping pills, and she spends months doing nothing but sleeping, watching movies, and hating every second she spends with her friend Reva. Seriously, that is what makes up the bulk of this novel. I really like the idea of a female narrator who is gross and shallow and unlikeable and a complete nonentity emotionally, and I found it interesting how disinterested the narrator is in her own life. But it was so difficult to connect with anybody that I never fully found myself absorbed in the narrative, which, as I said, is very repetitive. The writing is deadpan and funny, but not quite as sharp as I’d hoped for. I think a novel like this which lacks much in the way of both narrative and character needs brilliant, precise writing, and this fell short of that for me. I think Moshfegh is talented, but I won’t exaggerate and say that she’s amazing. She’s a good writer, better than many. But I wanted this to affect me emotionally, to make me think. I wanted to love it or at least to find something to sink my teeth into, but it ended up just being an easy read with an ending that managed to be both cheap and predictable.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede, a straight-laced nurse, and Ayoola, who is selfish, impulsive, and beautiful, are sisters living in Lagos. Their relationship is strained, which is not helped by the fact that Ayoola has a habit of killing her boyfriends. She claims she has only killed in self-defense, but Korede isn’t sure – yet she is always there to clean up after Ayoola (literally). This is a great concept with a somewhat lacklustre execution. I found it really exciting to see this novel set in Nigeria, since popular genre novels seem to revolve around the Western world. There’s more going on this novel than the title implies; it’s actually not very violent, nor is it a thriller. It’s fast-paced, but the story and ending are something different and surprising, and it’s primarily about interpersonal relationships. The bond between the sisters is fraught: their personalities are very different, but they are loyal to each other due to their shared abusive childhood.
I wish the characters had been more developed. Korede is a jealous, bitter wet blanket whose main personality trait is that she cleans a lot. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration: she’s the more interesting of the sisters because she’s very self-righteous but such an enabler. Ayoola, on the other hand, feels underdeveloped, and forget about any depth in the auxiliary characters.
I did enjoy the fast pace: it made for a breezy read (this could easily be read in one sitting), and I think it was perfect for the tone and plot. However, it does feel a bit disjointed and sometimes lacked flow between its very short chapters. There was an interesting backstory that I wish had been expanded on more, but maybe that would have bogged down the pace.
I think this book is well worth a read if the premise interests you, but it’s not exactly a literary masterpiece.
My favourites this month were definitely the last two books in the Neopolitan series as well as A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Otherwise a pretty middling pack, once again.
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