Mini-Reviews: An American Marriage & The Mothers

For this post, I decided to review together two novels by Black women who wrote about the lives of Black, middle-class individuals: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and The Mothers by Brit Bennett. Incidentally, both these novels also follow three main characters who happen to be involved in a love triangle. I’m not a fan of love triangles, but while these two novels did veer melodramatic, I also ended up enjoying them anyway. I’ll get right to it.


An American MarriageAN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones
First published by Algonquin Books on January 29, 2018
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

An American Marriage is a thought-provoking novel about what loyalty and fidelity mean in a marriage, especially after the unimaginable happens and all one’s plans for the future are destroyed. We follow three narrative voices: Roy and Celestial, the newleyweds, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood best friend. Roy and Celestial have been married for only a little over a year when Roy is falsely convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Initially, the couple is hopeful that the decision will be reversed, but the layers of bureaucracy and the deep-seated prejudice against black men in the criminal justice system makes this a long and drawn-out process. As a result, Roy and Celestial then find themselves reluctantly settling into their strange, new, and separate lives.

Continue reading “Mini-Reviews: An American Marriage & The Mothers”

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark VanessaMY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by William Morrow on March 10, 2020

My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)

I’ve read My Dark Vanessa way back in May, and back then, I’d given this book only four stars because of some issues I had with the plotting. But as I was writing this review, I realized that I was barely even looking at my old notes while writing it—which hardly ever happens—meaning the story really stayed with me. So I’m bumping up my rating to 4.5 stars.

My Dark Vanessa is about the ‘relationship’ of Vanessa, the protagonist, and Strane, a teacher thrice her age. The narrative alternates between the past and the present, with the past exploring the 15-year-old Vanessa’s perspective during the height and drawn-out aftermath of their relationship, and the present depicting a 32-year-old Vanessa as she is forced to confront the nature of her relationship with Strane, especially after one of his other victims comes forward and reaches out to her for solidarity and support.

Based on its synopsis alone, it’s clear that My Dark Vanessa goes into detail into some heavy and uncomfortable material—for example, there are graphic depictions of grooming and rape in the novel—but what makes reading these even more uncomfortable is how Vanessa romanticises their relationship, and how she continues to defend him from his accusers. However, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clearer that defending Strane was Vanessa’s way of defending herself, and that the heart of the novel is Vanessa’s struggle to reframe their relationship from one of a ‘love story’ to one marked by manipulation and abuse.

Continue reading “Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell”

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal PeopleNORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney
First published by Hogarth on August 28, 2018 

My Rating: ★★★★★

Argh! This is already my third attempt at this review and I still can’t find the right words to express what I felt about Normal People. I always find it harder to write about books I really love, because I either shamelessly gush about them or analyze them to death, and I can’t seem to find a proper middle ground. In this case, my first draft of this was rather fangirl-y and embarrassing, and my second sounded too cold and critical for a five-star review, so… here’s to hoping that third time’s the charm.

Continue reading “Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney”

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The Heart's Invisible FuriesTHE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
First Published by Hogarth Press on February 9, 2017

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

I started reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies back in January, put it away for awhile, and then finally picked it up again in a buddy read with Emily @ Literary Elephant. (Thanks for agreeing to read it with me, Emily!) This novel is a huge favourite among readers of both commercial and literary fiction (it has a rating of 4.47 on Goodreads), and based on its synopsis it sounds like the kind of book I’d enjoy. Plus, it has a fantastic opening line:

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.

Unfortunately, despite the strong first chapter, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. Emily commented that this would have been called “women’s fiction” if Boyne had been a woman, and that made a lot of sense to me. The Heart’s Invisible Furies felt formulaic and melodramatic, with many scenes designed to “pull on a reader’s heartstrings”. This is not meant to belittle women’s fiction—I actually enjoy women’s fiction, and you all know I read all sorts of excellent ‘trash’ books—but I was led to believe that The Heart’s Invisible Furies was more… well, literary, and it just wasn’t.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows Cyril as he takes us through the events of his life, starting from his birth in 1945 to a few days before his death in 2015. Throughout the first half of his life, Cyril struggles with coming to terms with his being gay, especially being gay in a deeply conservative and repressed Ireland in the mid-1900s. Once he has made peace with who his queer identity in the second half of his life, he then struggles with finding a home for himself.

I’ll start with what I liked about this novel. Boyne is skilled at depicting the sociocultural milieu of Ireland during Cyril’s formative years, including how the rigid, moralistic attitudes of the Church towards sexuality. Because of this, people like Cyril’s mother, who bore him out of wedlock, and Cyril himself were subjected to both physical and social forms of punishment, like being beaten up in bars by other patrons, or being refused for a job. Of his boyhood years, Cyril says wryly:

It was 1959, after all. I knew almost nothing of homosexuality, except for the fact that to act on such urges was a criminal act in Ireland that could result in a jail sentence, unless of course you were a priest, in which case it was just a perk of the job. I had a crush [on Julian], but . . . I thought I was just a slow developer; the notion that I could have what was then considered a mental disorder was one that would have horrified me.

Boyne also illustrates this attitude at work years later, when Cyril is in New York in the 1980s during the first wave of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Since I’m reading this during the time of COVID, I was struck by the similarities between the deaths of the early waves of AIDS patients and the COVID patients now—these patients often died alone, in isolation. However, in the case of the HIV/AIDS patients, Boyne depicted how much more painful this isolation was, because once the patients’ loved ones found out they had the “gay disease”, they completely cut off ties with them. It wasn’t only a medical illness, it was also considered a moral one, and it was the stigma often made it unbearable to its sufferers.

However, aside from its historical accuracy and the injustices committed towards the queer community, I found the rest of the novel sloppy in execution. The first thing that tipped me off was the highly unrealistic dialogue between the children in the novel. This is a conversation between Cyril and Julian, his childhood crush, when they were just seven years old:

“Do you have any dirty magazines?” he asked me then.

“No,” I said, shaking my head.

“I have. I found one in my father’s study. It was full of naked girls. It was an American magazine, of course, because naked girls are still illegal in Ireland.”

“Are they?” I asked, wondering how they bathed if that was the case.

“Yes, the Church doesn’t let girls be naked until they’re married. But the Americans do and they take off their clothes all the time and let their pictures go into magazines and then men go into shops and buy them with copies of History Today or Stamps Monthly so they don’t look like perverts.”

While I’m not a parent and I don’t work with children, I don’t think this is something seven-year-old boys talk about. Plus, the syntax and the vocabulary are too adult-sounding to me. I have a ten-year-old nephew and even he doesn’t sound this sophisticated yet.

Aside from the unrealistic dialogue, I had difficulty suspending disbelief for most of the plot. By the end of the first half, Emily and I were joking that Boyne probably wouldn’t end each part without getting one of his characters jailed, killed, or maimed, and we weren’t so far off the mark. As a reader, this made me feel like Boyne was manipulating me into caring for the characters because of the tragic situations he puts them in.

There were also too many coincidences that happen in the characters’ lives, and they were so heavy-handed that I couldn’t take their ‘chance’ meetings seriously. At one point I wondered if The Heart’s Invisible Furies could have been a sitcom instead, because of how comically absurd the dialogue, the coincidences, and melodramatic tragedies are.

The biggest disappointment for me, though, was the characters. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is often touted as a character-driven novel, but I found most of the characters one-dimensional. For example, the only thing that Julian seems to be is blatantly heterosexual. His adoptive parents repeatedly insist to a seven-year-old Cyril that he’s just adopted, and that he’s not “a real Avery”. What sort of parent does that? Plus, Cyril himself was a passive figure in his life. He just allows things to happen to him, and when he finally does take action for something, he’s reluctant to take responsibility for his mistakes. For a first-person narrator, I also found nothing memorable about his voice—he sounded just like everyone else in the novel.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about The Heart’s Invisible Furies. On one hand, it was entertaining to read in a soap-opera way, and there were parts that were genuinely moving. But on the other hand, I wasn’t sold on the plot or dialogue, and the arbitrary seven-year gaps made it difficult for me to become fully invested in any of the characters. So… three stars it is. I’m very much the minority here, though, so I’d still recommend this to fans of historical fiction. Maybe if you went into it not expecting something poignant or too literary, you’d like it better than I did.

Have you read this book, or any book by Boyne’s? What do you think of his works? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from May 11-22, 2020

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press on June 4, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

Everyone who’s read this book always remarks on the language first, and now I know why. Vuong’s command of language is simply astounding; I’ve never read anything like it before. Written in the form of a letter to his mother who can’t read, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous follows its narrator, known only as Little Dog, over three significant developmental periods in his life: his childhood, where he grapples with the aftermath of the Vietnam War on his family and his fraught relationship with his mother; his late teenage years, where he explores his sexuality with Trevor, the “redneck” son of the tobacco plantation owner; and his young adulthood, during which he comes into his own as a writer.

Continue reading “Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong”

Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

How We Disappeared v2

HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
Published by Hanover Square Press on May 7, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

How We Disappeared tells the story of a young Singaporean girl’s experience as a ‘comfort woman’, a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers during World War II. I was initially cautious about this book because stories about sexual violence (and especially sexual violence during wartime) can slide into the realm of trauma porn, but thankfully this book doesn’t fall into that trap. While Lee does zoom in on her protagonist’s traumatic experiences, she also situates them in the larger context of healing from the trauma, which makes the novel ultimately hopeful in tone rather than oppressively bleak.

Continue reading “Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee”

Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Djinn Patrol
DJINN PATROL ON THE PURPLE LINE by Deepa Anappara (Published by Random House in 2020)

My Rating: ★★★★

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line follows the point of view of nine-year-old Jai in the basti (slums) of India and his two best friends, Pari and Faiz, as they investigate the disappearances of their peers. They form a Golden Trio of sorts, with Jai as the instigator of their ‘adventures’, Pari as the whip-smart Hermione figure, and Faiz as the reluctant sidekick (though reluctant only because he has work). Inspired by crime shows like Police Patrol and Live Crime, they travel around their basti to list down suspects and interrogate the people who last saw the missing children.

Continue reading “Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara”

Book Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

The Most Fun We Ever Had
THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD by Claire Lombardo (Published by Doubleday Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★

The Most Fun We Ever Had follows the lives of one white upper-class family over the course of four decades. We have the parents, Marilyn and David, who are still deeply in love after forty years of marriage; Wendy, the eldest daughter, who drinks and sleeps around to cope with the loss of her husband; Violet, the overachiever turned stay-at-home mom whose perfect life falls apart when her past resurfaces; Liza, a newly-tenured psychologist who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by her unemployed long-time boyfriend; and Grace, the youngest and fresh out of college, who tells her family a lie that quickly spins out of control. When their secrets come out, old tensions and rivalries resurface, forcing each family member to confront and to rely on each other more than ever before.

Continue reading “Book Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo”

Book Review: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is in Trouble
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Published by Random House in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★

I feel so torn over Fleishman Is in Trouble. On one hand, I found the writing brilliant, but the sheer density of the prose also wore me down. I like how it explores the unequal and gendered division of labor in marriage, but the upper-class context makes me wonder about the universality of its insights (i.e., is it just a case of “rich people problems”?). All this made for an uneven reading experience. If we’re talking about enjoyment alone I would’ve given it 3 stars, but since it’s so much better than most of the longlisted books I’ve read so far (bar Girl, Woman, Other, of course), I’m going with 4 stars.

Continue reading “Book Review: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner”

Book Review: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Dominicana
DOMINICANA by Angie Cruz (Published by Flatiron Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★

I always feel uncomfortable when I have to give a book a low rating, but I really can’t give this one any higher, so here we are. As other reviewers have mentioned, the biggest problem with Dominicana is that it’s a tired and overused story of the immigrant experience. It’s riddled with the melodrama of a soap opera, populated by one-dimensional characters, and narrated in a flat and detached manner. At the very least, I expected to learn something new about Dominicans and Dominican culture, but the details about that were so thin that they could have easily been any other marginalized racial group.

Continue reading “Book Review: Dominicana by Angie Cruz”