Book Review: The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

The Flatshare
THE FLATSHARE by Beth O’Leary (Published by Quercus in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★★ (4.5 stars)

Ahhh. Ahhh.

(That’s the sound that the male protagonist makes when he’s freaking out. Argh, he’s such a precious cinnamon roll.)

I needed something light and ridiculous and distracting, and this hit all the right notes.

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Book Review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone
RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson (Published by Riverhead Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

In its synopsis, Red at the Bone is said to touch on a number of important issues—namely “sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood”—and while I do see those issues portrayed well in the novel, the heart of it for me is the question of what happens when a mother rejects motherhood and chooses instead to strike out on her own in the world as a woman. Red at the Bone succeeds in exploring this with nuance and insight.

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Book Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)

It’s rare to find a novel that can strike a balance between comic lightness and depth of insight, especially one that tackles weighty issues like race and class. Reid, however, achieves that elusive balance effortlessly in her newest book, Such a Fun Age. Here, Reid’s singular contribution is her comic portrayal of the kind of racism perpetuated not through violence, name-calling, or structural snubbing (as we often see in the media), but through an excess of unexamined good intentions. She sheds light on a distinctly liberal brand of racism that can be more pernicious for its lack of visibility, and in doing so, she reconfigures the outdated dichotomous notion of “conservatives are racist” / “liberals can’t be racist” into a spectrum where anyone without sufficient self-awareness—regardless of ideological affiliation—can be guilty of racial prejudice.

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Top 12 Novels of 2018

2018 was a year of reading-related milestones for me. It’s the year that I joined Goodreads, first set a reading challenge for myself – which I was able to exceed, yay! – and read genres outside of my comfort zone.

But on top of that, I’ve discovered the kind of fiction I like to read. Just two years ago, while I was finishing a minor in literature, I was reading “Literary Books” that I was supposed to like if I was to be a “Serious Literature Student.” The problem was, I didn’t like half of them. Reading was a source of dread rather than enjoyment. I could have said so in my papers, but I was just too reverent of the canon and my brilliant professors to say otherwise.

Not so now. I feel that in the past two years, and especially this year, I’ve become more aware of what I really enjoy in fiction. I’m happy to say that this year, I’ve read a handful of truly wonderful books that I’ve enjoyed reading to the point of losing sleep over.

Here’s the list of my favorite novels read this year, in order of date read.

1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Published in 2014 by Serpents Tail (First published in 2013)

We are all completely

My Rating: ★★★★★ | We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story about the family we’re born into and the family we make for ourselves. It’s told from the point of view of Rosemary, the youngest daughter, and the narrative shifts between past and present to unravel the story behind Rosemary’s unusual family. What I loved about this is that despite it being a heartbreaking story about an unhappy family, it’s still told with so much gentleness, affection, and hope. Through Rosemary’s voice, Fowler also provides incisive insights about the puzzling dynamics of family love and favoritism. On a larger scale, she also explores themes of science and ethics, animal rights, and activism. It’s a complex book with extremely engaging storytelling, and one I’ve been recommending to my friends since.

2. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Publishing (First published in 2013)

The signature

My Rating: ★★★★★ | Yes, this is the very same Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love, and while I have no intention of reading that one, I found The Signature of All Things an engaging, masterful novel. I found this at a booksale, and I found myself drawn in from the first sentences: “Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800. Swiftly — nearly immediately — opinions began to form around her.” The rest of the novel tells the story of Alma Whittaker and her tough and brilliant explorer of a father, Henry Whittaker. It’s the story of the world in the 19th century, and of a brilliant, curious, sheltered woman with a keen scientific mind who finds her own corner of that world to explore. It’s a novel of ideas – the ideas of the time that made the industrial revolution possible, and about the scientific ideas that would change the world.

I loved this novel for its ambitious scope, its engaging storytelling, and its memorable characters. I remember staying up until 4 am to finish this, and afterwards I felt breathless because I felt like I’d seen the world and lived the entire century of Alma’s remarkable life. I recommend this with caution since there are sections about sexual exploration and spirituality and the magical that might put some readers off, but as for me, I found it to be organic to a novel as wide in scope as this. I’ll definitely be rereading this again.

3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Published in 2004 by Vintage (First published in 1992)

the secret history

My Rating: ★★★★★ | I loved this book, but I also understand why not many people would. The Secret History is about a group of misfits at an elite college who take a subject on Ancient Greek under a brilliant, charismatic professor. You can understand why they’re misfits: for the most part, they are pretentious, painfully self-centered, and unlikeable. Even the narrator, with a working-class background that contrasts starkly with that of his rich classmates’, is unlikeable for his spinelessness.

But here’s the thing: I like unlikeable characters – as long they’re understandable. And these characters are remarkably fleshed-out. The dynamics of these characters’ relationships with each other are fascinating to read about, especially how that dynamic changes as the line between good and evil blurs, and after they murder someone in their group. I also loved the storytelling: at the outset, we already know there’s a murder, but what the story unravels is why he was murdered, and the aftermath of that murder.

I found The Secret History is a dark, gripping story, with fascinating characters and a chilling exploration of the fine line between good and evil. The novel may not be to everyone’s liking, especially because of its pessimistic portrayal of human beings and claustrophobic atmosphere, but it did make for a great story.

4. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber

Gillespie and I

My Rating: ★★★★★ | Gillespie and I is told from the point of view of an elderly Harriet Baxter as she looks back on her relationship with the artist Gillespie in her youth. I can’t say much about the plot without giving it away, but I liked this one for its unreliable narrator and the unexpected plot twist at the middle of the story. I seem to have a weakness for unlikeable characters, because Harriet eventually becomes unlikeable herself, but I found myself eager to listen to her and believe in her until the end, which is a testament to Harris’s writing.

5. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

Published in 2001 by Back Bay Books (First published in 1961)

Franny and Zooey

My Rating: ★★★★★ | This is perhaps the shortest book on my list, and it’s not technically a novel as it is two novellas published in one book. Anyway, technicalities aside, I loved Franny and Zooey for the in-depth characterization and the frenetic, breathless dialogue between the titular characters. Like The Secret History, this is a novel about smart, good-looking, pretentious young adults. Unlike The Secret History, there’s no murder, only an existential crisis. People may be unsatisfied with the resolution of the existential crisis at the end, but the resolution didn’t matter to me as much as the acerbic, exasperating, covertly affectionate back-and-forth between the siblings and their mother. I found myself rereading the flow of the dialogue because it flowed so well to me. I read this while my mother was confined in the hospital, and it was the only book that was able to provide a much-needed reprieve from the situation, even for a little while.

6. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Annihilation

My Rating: ★★★★★ | Another novella, and one I’d picked up specifically because it promised to be a short read. Part sci-fi and part horror, Annihilation is a chilling novella about the mysterious Area X. Previous expedition members murdered each other, and one expedition committed mass suicide. Still, a twelfth expedition is sent to the area, ostensibly to collect samples and record observations, but what they find there is far more sinister than anything they’d imagined. What made this engaging for me was the way various deceptions were unravelled: the deception of the authorities who called for the expedition, and the deception of what Area X is. Another thing that kept me on the edge of my seat was the unknown entity at the heart of Area X. Most of the novel is driven by the fear of something unknown and the desire to finally discover what it is, and it was an extremely effective in driving the story. Not all questions were answered by the end of the novel, though, but since this is part of a trilogy, I’ll let it pass.

7. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Published in 2002 by Modern Library (First published in 1987)

Crossing to Safety

My Rating: ★★★★★ | I find myself at a loss for words for Crossing to Safety. No summary can do it justice; any attempt at summary makes it sound more boring than it really is. It’s what others might disdain as a “plotless” novel, but it doesn’t need the drama and twists of plot to succeed as the story of the intertwined lives of two couples. Crossing to Safety charts how the evolution of the unlikely friendship between an rich couple and a struggling couple. It’s a portrait of human relationships in all their exasperation and affection, and character sketches of human beings with all their goodness and their flaws. Stegner’s prose is beautiful in its simplicity and its rhythm. He has a talent for capturing the qualities of a place (the characters and the story is intimately tied to the place) in words that seem to do it justice by how beautiful the sentences sound.

It took a certain mood for me to get into this—I was finally able to settle back into this in a more meditative mood, with nothing pressing to be done—but it’s worth it. I loved Crossing to Safety for the beautiful language and complex and incredibly human characters—I would say among all the novels I’ve read this year, Stegner’s prose is hands-down the best. I have a feeling this is the sort of novel I could relish on subsequent rereadings.

8. The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel

Published in 2017 by Doubleday (First published in 2012)

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

My Rating: ★★★★★ | I’ve written a full review of The Travelling Cat Chronicles here, so I’ll just paraphrase what I’ve said. The Travelling Cat Chronicles is the story of the bond between cat and owner. This book is a tender meditation on relationships and companionship, both human and non-human, and on grief and letting go. At first, the first-person voice of the proud, grouchy, snobbish cat of the title, Nana, had me chuckling and snorting; but towards the last chapter I was just crying like a leaky faucet, even when I saw the ending coming. The simple, clean prose of the book was beautiful, and gave the feeling of having space for the wonder described in the book. I’d definitely recommend this to everyone, especially cat lovers.

9. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Published in 2017 by Viking

Eleanor Oliphant

My Rating: ★★★★☆ | Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a heartwarming novel about the lonely, socially awkward Eleanor with a past she carefully tries to conceal, and how she eventually finds meaning in her work and her relationships. What struck me about this novel is the positive portrayal of asking for help for one’s mental illness, and a realistic rendering of the journey of recovery from it. I gave it only four stars because Eleanor’s language didn’t feel realistic to me at times, but in the end I found it readable and charming. It’s the kind of novel I would recommend to most of my friends, because I’m sure everyone will find a little bit of Eleanor in them.

10. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Published in 2017 by Washington Square Press

The Seven Husbands

My Rating: ★★★★☆ | Once I started reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I couldn’t put it down. I think it has to do with the storytelling: The famous yet intensely private Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell about her scandalous past with her seven husbands, and she chooses to tell it to a little-known journalist, the narrator Monique. The novel tries to answer the questions of why seven husbands, and who among them did Evelyn love best? (Hint: It’s not who you’re expecting.) It also slowly unravels the reason why Evelyn chose Monique, in particular, to reveal her story to. The subject matter – old Hollywood and an actress’s many love affairs – is already interesting, but the way the story was framed made it feel like listening to gossip, which made it addictively readable. But in the end, I gave it only 4 stars because I felt it didn’t adequately address the issues of racial and LGBTQIA+ representations that were themes in the novel. I’m also not sure about the purported feminism in the novel. Still, it’s engaging and it sparks interesting discussions, so I’d definitely recommend this to my friends.

11. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Published in 2009 by HarperCollins e-books (First published in 1937)

Their Eyes were watching

My Rating: ★★★★☆ | How could I not read a book with a title like that? And I’m glad that the prose of the novel definitely lives up to the title. I found myself highlighting and rereading long passages that had the rhythm of poetry in prose. That said, the subject matter of Their Eyes Were Watching God was not pretty. It tells the story of African-Americans during a time when most were still slaves from the eyes of a Black woman. There are mentions of violence due to racial discrimination, and there are also descriptions of domestic abuse. It was not a comfortable read, but a highly enlightening one. Hurston, I think, was ahead of her time in portraying the experience of the African-American woman, and how she eventually comes to liberate herself from the abusive men she’s been with. She’s deemed, and rightfully, one of the pioneers of Black feminist fiction.

12. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published in 2012 by Ecco (First published in 2011)

Song of Achilles

My Rating: ★★★★☆ | I’m a sucker for retellings, and The Song of Achilles hit all the right notes, including queering the relationship of Achilles and his best friend, Patroclus. I loved the prose and the descriptions of the setting, and even when I knew how it was going to end, I still teared up towards the last chapters. The reason why I’d only given it 3.75 stars was that the prose reminded me of slash fanfiction – there were times that it just bordered on being purple prose. Sometimes, Patroclus and Achilles also struck me as one-dimensional, and their relationship with each other and with other characters wasn’t complex either. Still, this was an enjoyable retelling, one that I’d be recommending to mythology fans everywhere.

Well, that’s it for my 2018 in novels. How did your 2018 in books look like? Here’s to hoping that 2019 will be a great year for reading, too.

Book Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel (Published by Doubleday in 2017)

My Rating: ★★★★★

This was my last read for 2018, and what a read it was.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is the story of a stray cat turned pet, Nana, and his owner, Satoru. The story begins with how Nana becomes Satoru’s pet, and then fast-forwards to a few years later, where Satoru and Nana go on a road trip to visit old friends and to find a new home for Nana, for reasons the owner is unwilling to disclose. Narrated from both feline and human points of view, this novel is a tender meditation on relationships and companionship, on grief, and on letting go. It’s a beautiful, poignant read that I would recommend to everyone, especially to cat lovers.

The story begins from the point of view of Nana, the cat. Nana is a gruff stray cat with an abundance of both sass and street smarts. Nana’s voice is distinctive from his first meeting with Satoru:

‘Is it okay if I stroke you?’

No, thanks. I batted one front paw at him in what I hoped to be a gently threatening way.

‘Aren’t you a stingy one,’ the man said, pulling a face.

Well, how would you like it if you were sleeping and somebody came by and rubbed you all over?

Eventually, Nana comes to live with Satoru after the latter saves him from an accident. Even then, though, Nana isn’t very demonstrative of his affection for his owner. Five years later, for instance, when Satoru announces that he intends to let Nana go, Nana simply says:

Life, be it human or feline, doesn’t always work out the way you think it will.

If I had to give up living with Satoru, I’d just have to go back to the way I was five years ago. . . . I could go back to being a stray tomorrow, no problem.

I wouldn’t have lost anything. Just gained the name Nana, and the five years I’d spent with Satoru.

Already, though, under that gruff, stoic voice, there is a hint of sadness at having to part with Satoru. It seems Nana is deliberately minimising the sentimentality of their imminent parting, which actually belies the depth of emotion he is trying to conceal. 

Following Satoru’s statement, they embark on a road trip to meet up with potential new owners for Nana. All these potential owners were Satoru’s friends in his youth, and we meet them in the order that Satoru had become friends with them. Each chapter unfolds from the point of view of the friend, told in third person, and the point of view of Nana, and it shifts from past to present time. This kind of storytelling effectively portrays the mystery of how friendships form, grow, and finally change over time, as people drift apart and begin to live different lives. The poignancy of these narratives are interspersed with Nana’s – and the other animals’ – humorous commentary on the relationships and personalities of their masters. The effect of this sort of storytelling on me was that I’d be chuckling over a few sentences, and then just a mere paragraphs down I’d be teary-eyed and overcome with emotion.

Another thing I loved about this book was the simple, clean prose. I only noticed how beautiful this was at Chapter 3 1/2, “Between Friends”, during which Satoru and Nana travel through the Hokkaido countryside. The landscape truly came alive with the prose. I looked up the pampas grass and the purple-and-yellow wildflower fields that they passed through, and it must have looked something like this.

What I found so moving about the prose describing the landscape was the feeling of spaciousness – the feeling of the vastness of nature against the smallness of the human (and feline) life. Reading this part put me in a quiet, contemplative mood.

This chapter also served as a turning point, where both Satoru and Nana finally come clean about how deeply they feel their bond as owner and pet, and how inseparable they’ve become. It reaffirms the value of the companionship between human beings and animals, and how it may be as important as the bonds we also have with other people.

From this point in the story onward, I was more or less reduced to a leaky faucet. I kept having to put the book down to wipe my eyes in order to keep reading (and to keep from getting the pages wet). Afterwards, when I’d finally finished the book, I had to put it down and take a deep breath to savor the words of the ending and to linger just a little while longer in the quiet, beautiful world of The Travelling Cat Chronicles.

It is a wonderful, poignant book. Would definitely recommend to everyone.

My story will be over soon.

But it’s not something to be sad about.

As we count up the memories from one journey, we head off on another.

Remembering those who went ahead.

Remembering those who will follow after.

And someday, we will meet all those people again, out beyond the horizon.

Read from December 28 – 29, 2018 | Goodreads Account