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: 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

Mysteries/Thrillers | Darling Rose Gold, The Keeper, & Force of Nature

Aside from romance, I also find myself reaching for the occasional crime novel or fast-paced thriller as my comfort reads. It sounds strange if I put it that way, but what I consider to be ‘comfort reads’ are books that can quickly transport or distract me, and thrillers can be very absorbing.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been very lucky with the genre lately. Here are my reviews of Stephanie Wrobel’s Darling Rose Gold (2020) and Jessica Moor’s The Keeper (2020), two of my most anticipated thrillers this year which turned out to be disappointments. Thankfully, I just finished Jane Harper’s Force of Nature (2017) this week, which turned out to be very satisfying.

Continue reading “Mysteries/Thrillers | Darling Rose Gold, The Keeper, & Force of Nature”

Enemies-to-Lovers Romances | The Worst Best Man & The Unhoneymooners

I just adore a good enemies-to-lovers romance. Everything about this trope gives me life—from the completely ridiculous reasons the characters hate each other, to the petty pranks, the wicked banter, the bristling sexual tension, and finally to the ANGST of surrendering to their “”worst enemy””… I could go on and on. I just love it. I love all of it. I lap all that up to fill the void in my soul.

But as much as I love the trope, I can also get very nitpicky about it in a way that I don’t get with other tropes, mainly because I want the elements to be done a certain way—i.e., The Hating Game (2016) way. I like a lot of banter, competitiveness, and sexual tension, plus a lot of steamy scenes and maybe a couple of pranks tossed in on the side.

While the books below aren’t quite The Hating Game, Mia Sosa’s The Worst Best Man is probably closer to how I like my enemies-to-lovers done. The Unhoneymooners was cute, but it wasn’t steamy enough for me. (My rule for a hate-to-love romance is that the strength of hatred should be proportional to the steaminess of the sex. While I have no way to quantify this, the proportion just felt off-kilter for this book.) Also, weirdly enough, I only started liking The Unhoneymooners during the “lovers” part, and was bored out of my mind during the “enemies” part.

Still, both were fun, breezy reads, a great way to pass the time during this quarantine.

Continue reading “Enemies-to-Lovers Romances | The Worst Best Man & The Unhoneymooners”

Book Review: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Reading Queenie is like watching a car crash happen in slow motion: I was afraid of the inevitable collision, but I was also bored at its progression, and bored is the last thing I want to feel about a novel like this. 

Continue reading “Book Review: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams”

Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Published by Saga Press in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Guys, I am CRUSHED. On paper, I was so sure this was going to be a 500-star read for me. I mean, a sci-fi novella about a pair of star-crossed, time-travelling lesbian assassins?? In epistolary format???? HELL YES.

But after reading it, I just felt… disappointed.

sad

Everything that looked good on paper just fell apart in execution.

Continue reading “Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone”

Mini-Review Monday #1 | 3 Murder Mysteries I’ve Read This January

Hi everyone! So, I saw other bloggers doing mini-reviews, and I thought that it’s perfect for me since I have a backlog of books I want to review, but don’t have enough thoughts on to fill a full review. So my Mini-Review Mondays will be a quick lightning round of books about a particular theme or books I’ve recently read.

Without further ado, I’ll be talking about the three murder mysteries I’ve picked up just this month. It’s strange to hear, but I find a good old-fashioned whodunnit very comforting. It actually makes sense that I was in the mood for murder mysteries at the start of the year – beginnings have always been daunting for me, and immersing myself in the clean, black-and-white world of murder mysteries may have given me the reassurance I needed to face the uncertainty of the new year.

In any case, here are the three murder mysteries I’ve read so far this January, in order of date read.


1. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Published by Orion in 2016)

My Rating: ★★★★★ (4.5 stars)

Magpie Murders is actually two books and two mysteries in one, but despite the length I devoured the book in the space of a few hours. It was enjoyable, gripping, and very, very clever.

At the beginning of the novel, we have our protagonist, editor (and, unbeknownst to her, future detective) Susan Ryeland, preparing to read the latest mystery by her publishing company’s most prized writer, Alan Conway. But the further along Susan gets in Magpie Murders – Conway’s manuscript – the more she realizes that it holds clues to solving a mystery that happens in real life – and that she seems to be the only one who sees it. So, with the insatiable and compulsive curiosity of a true mystery lover, Susan follows the trail of bread crumbs Conway has left for her in his novels to discover the identity of the killer.

This was a highly addictive page-turner that kept me up until early morning. Both mysteries were very tightly plotted – I can just imagine Horowitz storyboarding and sequencing everything on a large bulletin board just to keep track of all the  little clues, details, and characters that have to be in place for both mysteries to come together neatly at the end – and I was delighted that a number of the clues that involved wordplay. It was still very satisfying to watch the clues from Conway’s Magpie Murders and Horowitz’s Magpie Murders line up.

I also found Horowitz’s commentary on mystery tropes interesting. Susan, for example, talked about how the solution to cases seem to depend in part on the serendipity of stumbling on particular clues, or how real-life interrogations don’t go as smoothly as fictional interrogations. They weren’t particularly subversive, though, since Horowitz ultimately uses the same conventions to forward and wrap up the mystery in the book. Still, the meta-fictional lens was refreshing – simultaneously a reverent acknowledgement of Christie’s legacy and a sly commentary on her bag of tricks.

All in all, this was a great read, and I’d be anxious to get my hands on the next book in this series.

Read from January 3-5, 2019

2. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (Published by Agatha Christie Classics in 2018; first published in 1920)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

I found that my appetite for cozy mysteries was really whetted after reading Magpie Murders, so I just had to pick this up – the Queen of Crime’s first novel (i.e., where the entire genre of murder mystery began). This doesn’t yet have subversiveness of her famous works (i.e., Orient Express and Roger Ackroyd), but all the familiar elements are there – Poirot’s mannerisms, the red herrings, and of course, all the clues hidden in plain sight. I kept changing my mind about the identity of the killer and couldn’t fathom how it was done until all was revealed at the last chapter.

My only complaint about this particular book was that it became too unwieldy towards the end – everyone seemed to be acting suspiciously in ways that really weren’t connected to the murder, and everyone seemed to have sufficient motive to kill. It made for very long and convoluted explanations from Poirot, which, admittedly, were too much for my ‘little gray cells’ to handle. I’m also not very good at visualizing spaces or remembering details like where X was at Y time, so it took me awhile just to comprehend the sequence of events that Poirot was laying out. (That might also be why I might never tire of murder mysteries – I’m just no good at keeping the clues straight, so I’m always surprised at the end!) Very enjoyable though, and exactly what I was in the mood to read.

Read from January 8-9, 2019

3. Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie

Evil under the Sun
Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie (Published by HarperCollins in 2014; first published 1941)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

This edition is part of an Agatha Christie box set that just arrived at my doorstep this week. I bought the set as a gift to my brother, since he wants to get into mysteries, but it actually doubles nicely as a gift to myself, since his books are stashed in my shelves anyway… 😉

Evil under the Sun is the 24th book in the Hercule Poirot series, and in it, Poirot investigates the murder of a famous actress on a beautiful island where he’s vacationing. Admittedly, I wasn’t as interested in the blurb as I was in the title, which I knew to be a biblical allusion. I always find titles drawn from other works intriguing since the work is poised to be a specific take on the work of origin.

As will be explained a few pages into the book, ‘evil under the sun’ is a phrase taken from Ecclesiastes 6:

1 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead.

Sure enough, this is one of the themes in the book – it seems that all the main suspects are wealthy or rich in some sense (in fame, for example), but can’t seem to completely enjoy their good fortune because they’re still longing for that elusive one more thing that would make their lives complete. In fact, this longing – or this desire, which is its more urgent form – underlies the conscious motivations of each suspect for committing murder.

As such, Christie plays with this notion of evil and achieves surprise by turning the notion of ‘evil’ around. But then, how the killer went about the murder strained belief. It was just too gimmicky, and I think not even the sharpest mystery reader would have been able to guess it with all the clues lined up.

Another thing that didn’t work for me: I found the third-person omniscient perspective disorienting, especially coming from the concentrated first-person narration of Captain Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It felt like a cheap trick for the omniscient narrator to zoom in on the characters during their most incriminating moments, only to abruptly cut the scene before further context can divest them of suspicion. It felt like an amateur writer’s sleight-of-hand rather than the more masterful manoeuvres of a respected author.

Also, compared to the three other Christie novels I’ve read, this was more bloated than usual with a cast of inconsequential characters. A number of them were introduced in the beginning, which made me think they would play an important part in the story; but despite their numerous appearances and the perplexing number of lines dedicated to their peripheral remarks, they contributed very little to the murder investigation itself.

I’m wondering if Christie used them in the story to form a composite image of the murdered actress’s character in the minds of the readers. In that sense, it’s an interesting device – after all, we don’t usually have access to the interiority of public figures; instead, we stitch it together from fragments of gossip. Christie achieves this effect by having every minor character voice their quite authoritative opinions of the dead actress, despite never having interacted with her before. Intriguing set-up, but I still wish she’d prune away some of the cast.

I sound like I’m nitpicking her work now – this always seems to happen when I sit to write a review – but really, I wasn’t thinking any of this while in the grip of the story. I always enjoy the compulsively readable nature of Christie’s works and I look forward to the next book I’ll pick up from her oeuvre.

Read from January 10-13, 2019

Mini-Review Monday:
3 Murder Mysteries I’ve Read This January

I’m still very much in the mood for murder mysteries or thrillers, so if you have any recommendations, please let me know in the comments! I’d really appreciate it. 🙂

Find me on Goodreads!

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

The Turn of the Key

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware (Published in 2019 by Gallery/Scout Press)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (2.5 stars)

The Turn of the Key, Ruth Ware’s fifth and most recent novel, is my introduction to her work, and I picked it up because, well, I was in the mood for creepy gothic houses and creepy kids. (It’s a really weird reading mood to have, especially right before the New Year, but oh well.) On those counts, it definitely delivered – the house was creepy and the kids were downright hellish – but sadly, all that elaborate atmospheric set-up had very little payoff at the end, and I was left feeling confused and vaguely betrayed for want of a satisfactory ending.

I’ll backtrack a bit. The Turn of the Key is told from the point of view of the protagonist, Rowan Caine, who is hired as a live-in nanny for four girls at the large, picturesque, sprawling home of Bill and Sandra Elincourt in the Scottish highlands, described as a house with gothic architecture fitted with modern technology (it’s something of a smart house). Throughout the first few chapters, Rowan repeatedly emphasizes how perfect the job opportunity is – “almost too perfect”, with its salary of £55,000 per year – as a way of foreshadowing the ugliness behind that veneer of perfection.

But then we’re already clued in to these dark undercurrents from the start, because Rowan’s story is framed as a series of letters to a lawyer she’s writing to from her prison cell while awaiting trial for her alleged murder of one of the Elincourt children. The letters are her desperate attempt to prove her innocence, and to convey the “ugly, unvarnished truth” of what really went on in Heatherbrae House. 

So far, so good. For the first ten chapters or so, I was completely hooked – I love the epistolary format, and this sort of narrative framing had already positioned the readers (or me, at least) on Rowan’s side, as if I were Mr. Wrexham, the lawyer she was writing to. And I knew I would still try to be on her side, even if she proved to be an unreliable narrator.

Over the next few letters, Rowan narrates how she’d chanced upon the nannying position, how badly she wanted the job, and her subsequent interview with Sandra Elincourt (her employer). On that interview prior to accepting her job, she also met the girls – two school-aged and one baby – all of them sullen and bratty. One of them even warned Rowan to stay away from the house because “the ghosts won’t like it” – just as they had driven away the three nannies before her.

Rowan, however, is undeterred by these warnings, and once she’s hired as the nanny she moves in to Heatherbrae House with the family. But on her first day, Sandra and Bill Elincourt had some conference to attend to, so they leave Rowan with the kids and quickly take off. This struck me as outrageously irresponsible – who leaves their 8-year-old, 5-year-old, and few-month-old baby with a complete stranger? It seemed to me like the author’s way of keeping the couple out of the picture so the real action could happen, but I was curious enough about what would happen that this illogical decision on the part of the Elincourts didn’t really detract from the reading experience.

Sure enough, when the parents leave, strange things begin to happen. This is where Heatherbrae House really comes to life. It’s so central to the story that it becomes a character, and Ruth Ware excelled in her description of old-school creepy and modern-day creepy – imagine a home with gothic-style architecture, complete with a hidden poison garden for a backyard, but also with cameras installed in every room, disembodied Siri-like voices speaking from the walls to anticipate your needs, and technology suddenly malfunctioning in the middle of the night. The house felt nearly sentient, almost like it could be the antagonist of the novel. In fact, I couldn’t read this at night because I was half-afraid that the walls of my room would move – I wouldn’t have been surprised if Ware’s novel suddenly morphed into sci-fi/horror midway and Heatherbrae House really did come alive.

And, honestly, that might have made for a more interesting book than the events that followed. This is basically what happened next: the kids were difficult. Rowan loses her temper at them. Strange footsteps were heard in the middle of the night. Household items mysteriously disappear and reappear in their proper places. Rowan suspects the hot gardener and the old housekeeper are the culprits. The eldest Elincourt child comes home, threatens that she knows something about Rowan. . . . and then, suddenly, inexplicably, someone ends up dead.

What started out as a murder mystery morphed into a horror story, which then mystifyingly turned into something of a domestic drama. I can’t say much without giving the ending away, but I can say that even as I was thoroughly confused at the book’s genre-identity crisis, I raced to the end in hopes for some explanation for what was happening, or that the ending would tie back neatly to the beginning. But no such thing happened. Sure, we did eventually find out who the killer was, but that discovery wasn’t even particularly important anymore, smothered as it was by all the new elements that had been introduced too late into the story.

In conclusion, I was disappointed with this novel, especially since I wanted to like it at first. It might have been better had there been a few more chapters or an epilogue, or if she’d introduced the other elements earlier on in the story (or not at all, actually). Still, this wouldn’t detract me from reading Ware’s other works – I was still impressed by how she’d tried to frame this story, and I was genuinely spooked by the house. Here’s to hoping her other books will be better.

Read December 30, 2019 – January 3, 2020 | Goodreads Account

Book Review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (First published in 2017)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Named the Pulitzer Prize-winner for Fiction in 2018, Less follows the misadventures of Arthur Less, a white, middle-aged gay writer whose literary success – or general lack thereof – is encapsulated in the phrase “one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”, as he runs away from his problems (i.e., the wedding of an ex-boyfriend of nine years).

Like any book lover, I love reading books about books and books about writers, especially if, like Less, it promises to be a sly critique of the literary establishment while gently poking fun at the insecurities and ambitions of writers. On this count, it definitely delivers. Less, a “moderately successful” but ultimately obscure writer, takes odd writing jobs in order to make a living, like interviewing H. H. H. Mandern (even the name is meant to be a mockery), a famous sci-fi writer of a popular but melodramatic space opera series; writing travel articles that other writers didn’t want to take; and giving (sparsely attended) talks about his famous former lover, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He was once nominated for an obscure gay literary prize, which he didn’t win; and another obscure literary prize in which the judges were mostly teenagers, which he did win. It’s part tongue-in-cheek commentary of the literary world, and part wry observations of the author about himself.

Besides this, there were also other things I liked about the book. The characterization of Less, for example, and the gently mocking and affectionate tone of the omniscient narrator of the novel. “From where I sit,” the narrator says in the opening line of the novel, “the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.” Despite reaching fifty, Less is weak-willed, and he comes off as indecisive and naive, but he is ultimately a soft-hearted and sincere writer who yearns to be liked – a contrast to the jaded, antisocial, world-weary writers I often meet in other books. This passage more or less describes him:

Once, in his twenties, a poet he had been talking with extinguished her cigarette in a potted plant and said, “You’re like a person without skin.” [. . .] “You need to get an edge,” his old rival Carlos constantly told him in the old days, but Less had not known what that meant. To be mean? No, it meant to be protected, armored against the world, but can one “get” an edge any more than one can “get” a sense of humor? [. . .]

Whatever it is—Less never learned it. By his forties, all he has managed to grow is a gentle sense of himself, akin to the transparent carapace of a soft-shelled crab.

Another thing that surprised me about this book is that it’s actually a love story, and I always have a soft spot for romance. I didn’t expect it from the blurb – I guess I expected it to be a journey of self-discovery – but the surprising, heartwarming ending made me realize otherwise.

That said, there were things about Less that didn’t really work for me. I couldn’t articulate why right after reading, since all I felt at the time was a quiet disappointment – as in, “That’s it?” I was expecting something more from a Pulitzer, but I couldn’t put my finger on what the “more” was.

I know why now, though. For one, the plot consists of things just sort of “happening” to Less – aside from initiating the trip across the globe to run away from his problems, Less hardly initiates anything else. Both good and bad things simply happen to him, and when they do, he doesn’t achieve any sort of new insight or growth. It definitely feels like deus ex machina is at work, which doesn’t sit well with me, especially since Less is a character-driven novel. Even the ending made me faintly suspicious, as heartwarming as it was, because it felt like love was magically called in to solve Less’s problems.

Another thing that left me dissatisfied was the surface exploration of important themes, like Less’s being a middle-aged gay writer. It’s briefly touched upon in the story, especially with narrator’s reflection that Less seems to be “the first homosexual ever to grow old”, but the phenomenon of being an aging homosexual felt like labels tacked on to Less, but not actually explored. Being middle-aged and gay seem like vague, external sources of unconscious anxiety, rather than a lived experience that Less had to grapple and come to terms with. This, I think, is a result of a flaw in Less’s characterization and in the choice of narrator. Casting Less as a soft-hearted, sincere, but ultimately naive character, and using a narrator who cannot fully articulate all of Less’s thoughts, limits the way these important themes can be delved into and explored.

All in all, though, Less was an enjoyable read. It did make me smile and laugh, especially while I was reading the mistranslations in the chapter on Germany. But, in the end, while the character was endearing, the storytelling was mediocre. It just didn’t live up to my expectations of it, especially with all the hype surrounding it.

Read from December 21 – 23, 2018 | Goodreads Account

Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoPachinko by Min Jin Lee

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

After thinking about it, I decided to give this 3 stars. I wanted to rate it higher, but in the end I found that the novel failed in one of the main things it set out to do, which was to explore the nuances in questions of race, motherland, and nationhood.

I’ll start with what I liked about it. This novel was an epic family history spanning four generations of immigrant Koreans in Japan, at a time when Koreans were discriminated against. Right off the bat I knew I had to read it, since 1) I adore family sagas (e.g., Middlesex andOne Hundred Years of Solitude), and 2) it’s a novel set in East Asia, populated by East Asian characters. My own family is a family of Asian immigrants in another Asian country, so while the situation is not exactly the same, I felt I would find echoes of our history in this one.

And for the first half of the book, I wasn’t disappointed. I saw my own grandmother in Sunja, and I saw the hard life my grandparents must have lived in Yoseb and Kyunghee. I understood the emphasis on hard work, education, and most importantly, giving back to one’s family. Also, I found Min Jin Lee’s choice of narrative voice and point of view extremely important: She used a limited third person point of view, and relayed all events – whether happy or tragic – in a matter-of-fact tone, and in language closer to an anthropological account than to fiction or poetry. In my view, the utilitarian nature of the language mirrors the practical attitude of most of the characters. Any interior thoughts are narrated in the same manner as external events, and even then, are not explored beyond a few brief lines; this emphasizes the fact that interiority and identity are not given as much importance as survival against a capricious fate. This quiet, outward resilience, as opposed to the kind of resilience crowded by positive affirmation and self-talk prevalent in this generation, is encapsulated beautifully in the first line of the novel: “History has failed us, but no matter.” No matter what happens to them, Sunja’s family always get their bearings and will do whatever it takes to survive.

But things started to fall apart at the halfway point, around the stories of the third generation. Unlike the previous generation, Noa and Mozasu, Sunja’s sons, don’t necessarily do things out of a reactive striving against a harsh fate for the sake of survival; they possess more interiority and agency. But the language of the storytelling remains the same as the one used for the previous generations – it’s still that matter-of-fact narration, with only an executive summary of the character’s thoughts and feelings – so the characters’ actions come off as insufficiently foreshadowed and unnecessarily melodramatic. It gets worse towards the end of the book, since it was populated by the points of view of various minor characters that I didn’t really care about. It’s a case where depth is sacrificed for breadth; as a result, most characters were not fleshed out.

One consequence of this is that issues of race and nationhood are explored in a rather simplistic manner. There seems to be no change in how the characters view their status as foreigners from Sunja’s time to Solomon’s time (Solomon being her grandson, the fourth generation), and I think this is because the characters themselves are woefully one-dimensional. The world is still split between “good Koreans” and “bad Koreans”, or “good Japanese” and “bad Japanese”. Morality is also absolutely defined: pachinko (gambling) parlors are “bad”, but Mozasu, Solomon’s father, is a “good” businessman and Korean because he never cheats, he pays his taxes, he is fair to his employees and his family, and so on. Questions of race, motherland, and nationality, and questions of morality, remain black and white and dichotomous.

I think part of the reason people love this is that this is a novel about bad things happening to good people, and by nature we gravitate to rooting for the good people and the underdogs. And yes, I did like most of the characters in the novel; it’s almost impossible to dislike them. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re flat characters who rarely change throughout the course of history.

Overall, though, it’s an engrossing novel; I think most people would enjoy it. I just expected more from it, I guess.

Read from August 18 – December 28, 2018 | Goodreads Account