Review – We Are Not Like Them by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza

Review – We Are Not Like Them by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza

‘Timely’ is a word often overused in the publishing industry, but I can’t think of a description more apt for We Are Not Like Them*, a story of race and friendship dually written by real-life interracial friends, Christine Pride and Jo Piazza.

Summary:

Childhood best friends, Riley and Jen, have never discussed the fact that Riley is black and Jen is white. Race has never played a part in their unshakeable bond, that is, until Jen’s husband, a police officer, is involved in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager. The incident shakes the community but also causes racial fissures to appear in their friendship – have they just been ignoring these wider issues for all these years?

My Review:

From an entertainment perspective, I was really immersed in this story and despite the heavy content matter, it was an easy read which I flew through on a single train journey. Yet thinking critically about the novel after closing that final page, the ease of reading is somewhat problematic. Of course, this is intended as commercial fiction and it’s definitely a book that is going to spark discussion, but my issue is that it doesn’t probe far enough.

Each chapter alternates between Riley and Jen’s perspective and as the narrative goes on, we piece together details of their friendship; how it was formed in their early childhood, how they drifted apart when Riley went to college and befriended another black girl who Jen felt threatened by, all the way into their present relationship which still feels somewhat strained despite the fact that they’re living in the same city as one another for the first time in years. So much is left unsaid between the friends and they spend the majority of the novel avoiding each other’s calls and tiptoeing around one another, afraid to rock the boat. As many others have noted, when the inevitable conversation about race did come, it came too late.

Also, despite the fact that this is a co-written book, Riley and Jen’s chapters often didn’t feel distinct enough. There’s an interesting interview with the two authors at the back of the book where they discuss their collaborative creative process (the process being that both writers worked on Riley and Jen’s chapters). Although this helped the book to flow so that their voices didn’t feel disjointed, they almost felt too close and I can’t help but feel it may have been more powerful if each writer had taken a protagonist each.

My biggest gripe though was the ending. It felt rushed and too idealistic, everything was tied up a little too neatly. Jen really played the part of the white victim throughout the book, and I’m not sure how much she really changed by the end of it. Furthermore, the young boy who was the victim of the shooting seemed to be all but forgotten and the focus shifted entirely to their friendship.

There was a lot of promise here and I admire Christine and Jo for co-writing a book and keeping these conversations about race front and centre, but there just wasn’t enough depth in the narrative. I read that they’re thinking of writing a non-fiction book about interracial friendships, so I’d be interested to see if that could work as an accompaniment or supplement to their novel.

Star Rating: 3/5

*{AD – PR Product – With thanks to HQ Stories for my gifted copy. We Are Not Like Them is out now.}

Review – Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Su

Review – Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Su

I have a particular soft spot for books rooted in Korea, with Winter in Sokcho, If I Had Your Face and Crying in H Mart all being some of my favourites, so of course, I was incredibly excited to read Lemon.* Short, quirky translated fiction is normally such a hit for me, so I’m sad to say that this one just missed the mark.

Summary:

In 2002, whilst Korea is swept up in World Cup Fever, nineteen-year-old Kim Hae-on is brutally murdered. Two suspects quickly emerged, hin Jeongjun, whose car Hae-on was last seen in, and delivery boy Han Manu, who witnesses Hae-on in the passenger seat of Jeongjun’s car just a few hours before her death. With no evidence and strong alibis, the case was closed. Now, seventeen years later, Kim Hae-on’s family, particularly her younger sister, Da-on, want the truth.

My Review:

Now, I wouldn’t go into this thinking that you’re going to be getting a detective story or thriller, moreover, it’s a character examination of those impacted by grief and trauma. In this sense, it reminded me of Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg.

I wasn’t expecting a thriller when I first opened this book, so I wasn’t disappointed with that, however, the story jumps about from so many perspectives that I couldn’t keep up with who everyone was or how they were all linked. Just as I was starting to get to know the characters a bit, their chapter would end and we’d move on to someone else. I can’t help but feel that this would have worked much better as a longer novel or maybe as a short story collection.

There’s also absolutely no resolution to Kim Hae-on’s murder, which isn’t necessarily a criticism as so many murders sadly do remain unsolved but paired with the confusing multiple POVs, I felt really dissatisfied with the ending.

It wasn’t all bad, I really enjoyed the discussions around beauty standards which feature frequently in Korean literature and Kwon Yeo-Sun is a great writer, but this just fell flat. I didn’t dislike it and it was certainly a gripping read to fly through in one sitting, I just don’t think it’s one that is particularly memorable.

Star Rating: 2.5/5

*{AD – PR Product – With thanks to Head of Zeus for my gifted copy}

Review – With Teeth By Kristen Arnett

Review – With Teeth By Kristen Arnett

I’m finally trying to catch-up on my backlog of reviews and to kick things off is this queer piece of literary fiction which was every part disturbing as it was gripping.

Summary:

All Sammie wants is to take care of her family, to paint a ‘picture perfect’ queer family, but as Sammie begins to grow resentful for being the stay-at-home mother whilst her wife, Monika, goes out to work and as their son, Sampson, becomes increasingly difficult to handle, she realises that parenting isn’t quite so straightforward.

My Review:

This is one of the only books I’ve ever read about a queer family and I thought that the exploration around the expectations of two queer women raising a child was really thought-provoking. Arnett is one of those writers who has the ability to make the mundane entertaining, and after the book opens with an intense event that will have you on the edge of your seat, it quickly settles back into a character assessment, both of Sammie but also of her son.

Sampson is a deeply-disturbed child who manages to bring out the worst in Sammie. Any moments of tenderness are sporadic and the majority of their interactions are terse and end in some kind of disaster. I honestly couldn’t work Sampson out and the ending left me even more confused…

Something else was also missing for me with the character arcs, I’m all for an unlikeable protagonist but Sammie’s moaning started to wear thin. Her character doesn’t ever really undergo any transformation and none of the relationships seem to develop much, it started to feel a bit flat and repetitive. Perhaps I missed something and there was more resolution in the ending than I gleaned from it.

A great premise for a book and Arnett is definitely a talent, but a few elements could do with a little polishing in my opinion. But who am I to say? Give it a read and see for yourself!

Star Rating: 3/5

*{AD PR Product – With thanks to Little, Brown Book for my gifted copy}

Review – Crying in H Mart by Michele Zauner

Review – Crying in H Mart by Michele Zauner

Arguably one of the most widely-read memoirs of the year, I’d not seen a single bad review for Michele Zauner’s, Crying in H Mart*, so, of course, I went in with high expectations. I think we can all get swept up in the excitement of a popular bookstagram title, and sometimes I look back on particular books and wonder whether I actually enjoyed them or whether I was just caught up in all of the hype, but I can’t see this being the case for Crying in H Mart. What a BEAUTIFUL memoir that is deserving of all the praise.

Summary:

At the age of twenty-five, Michele Zauner AKA Japanese Breakfast, lost her mother after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Her devastating loss at such a young age forced her to learn how to forge her own identity as a young mixed-race woman without her mother’s Koreanennes to guide her. She seeks to reacquaint herself with her mother’s language, culture and history, largely through food and cooking, whilst she navigates growing up. We follow her through the highs and the lows, through life-changing events such as meeting her husband and performing her first gigs with her band, yet her mother remains present throughout.

My Review:

Michele writes so rawly and there’s a lot of guilt mixed up in her grief (as I think there always is with death): guilt about her turbulent teenage years; the way she treated her mother; the fights they had, but this only made it more real. As much as we try, death is an element of life than none of us can control; the regret and the ‘what ifs’ are always going to be there and Michele doesn’t try and sugarcoat the relationship with her mother in any way.

The most tender moments in the memoir come from the times when mother and daughter are united by food. I loved the descriptions of their trips to H Mart together and all of the delicious dishes they’d try, honestly, it’s impossible to read these passages without finding yourself hungry. Michele and her mother had a lot of differences, but their love for good food always brought them together. Even when her mother was sick, Michele took it upon herself to provide nutritious meals which are thought to aid healing. Mealtimes are important in many households as a way of bringing people together (especially in a lot of Asian households), but food takes on a whole new level of importance when it is not only a way of bonding with a parent but also keeping them alive.

Memoirs are always a hard genre to review, but somehow, this feels even more difficult than normal. Death is one of the biggest mysteries and grief one of the most devastating emotions, yet the love that radiates from Michele’s relationship with her mother will truly make anyone’s heart swell. I’ll cherish this for a very long time and will be holding my family members that little bit tighter.

Star Rating: 5/5

*{AD – PR Product – A big thank you to Picador for my gifted copy of Crying in H Mart.}

Review – An Island by Karen Jennings

Review – An Island by Karen Jennings

I’m going to be honest and say that I doubt I would have picked up An Island if it hadn’t been longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, but as a sucker for an underdog, I gave it a go.

Summary:

Seemingly a simple story, Jenning’s story of a lighthouse keeper and a man who washes up on the shores of the island one day serves as a wider allegory for colonialism and the plight of refugees. Unfolding over four days, the story is tense and claustrophobic as Samuel (the lighthouse keeper) adjusts to being the sole occupant of the island for two decades.

My Review:

Rich in symbolism and metaphor, reading An Island sometimes felt like reading a text for school in the sense that everything seems to hold meaning (I can imagine this being taught in classrooms around the world and students asked to write a paragraph on the symbolism of Samuel’s chickens). Even the unnamed refugee himself seems to be more allegorical than a three-dimensional secondary character. Unable to communicate, Samuel becomes increasingly paranoid of his presence and begins to grow concerned about the frailty of his own body and the vulnerabilities of old age.

As expected, this short novel does get quite repetitive, but I suppose anyone who lives alone on a remote island would have a fairly mundane life. I expected the pace to pick up with the arrival of the presumed refugee, but it was still quite slow and I did get a little bored.

The passages where Samuel details memories from his past when he was incarcerated during his country’s fight for independence under rule of the dictator definitely piqued my interest more than those on the island. The insights into his past explained a lot of the way he behaves, but I still found him a difficult character to sympathise with.

An Island isn’t quite in the same league as a lot of the other big names who were longlisted for the Booker Prize and I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t make the short list. It missed the wow factor that has become synonymous with literary prizes (although I will say, THAT ENDING!) Not my favourite, but a great book to spark a discussion.

Star Rating: 3/5

Review – The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Review – The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Do you ever read a book that has such vivid descriptions that you physically feel like you’re inside the pages? This was my experience when reading Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel, The Paper Palace. This has already been chosen as a Reese’s Book Club pick and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this hitting our screens some time soon (not only because Heller was the former Head of Drama Series at HBO).

Summary:

Unfolding over a 24-hour period, ‘The Paper Palace’, Elle’s family’s second home in Cape Cod where she spent every summer as a child, provides the backdrop for this family drama. I’m lucky enough to have family based in the US who I have taken trips with to Cape Cod as a child, so this book was really nostalgic for me (luckily, my trips weren’t quite as eventful!) Everything kicks off one balmy hot day as Elle takes her morning swim and begins replaying the events of the night before… the night where she had a steamy encounter with her childhood best friend, Jonas, whilst her husband and family were inside the house only metres away.

My Review:

You would be forgiven for thinking that this book was going to be a cringey ‘will they/won’t they’ romance because I was kind of expecting that too, but my oh my, The Paper Palace is full of surprises. Of course, Elle and Jonas’ desire for one another is always rippling under the surface of this story, but there is so much more to it than that.

We get the sense early on that their affair has been a long time coming, built up over the years of their friendship, but what we don’t know is just how deep their friendship runs. Elle takes us back through the years, the summers spent with her sister at ‘The Paper Palace’, all the way through her adult years where she meets her husband. Her relationship with Jonas is often strained, yet there’s a dark secret from their childhood which always keeps them bonded to one another.

Elle is a really convincing protagonist and I couldn’t help but feel myself sympathise with her. She’s spent her whole life trying to please others, in turn, refusing to allow herself the man who she has loved since they were children. I thought that Heller portrayed family beautifully, that strong protectiveness where you will do anything for one another, yet also the compromises and the spite/jealousy.

I didn’t see the plot twist coming at all, and for those of you who love a family drama that is all-consuming with twists and turns that will make you audibly gasp, you’re in for a treat. It’s quite hard to review this book without giving away spoilers, but I do want to warn that some of the content is very graphic, so I’ll put the trigger warnings down below for anyone who might be concerned about them.*

I’d say if you’re a fan of writers like Celeste Ng and Brit Bennett, then you’d really love this book. I have nothing but praise for The Paper Palace, it was the perfect summer read which I will be warmly placing in the hands of friends and family.

Star Rating: 5/5

{AD – PR Product – A big thank you to Penguin Random House for my gifted copy).

*(Trigger Warnings – Rape, sexual abuse)

Review – Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Review – Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Summary:

Beautiful World, Where Are You is the older sister of Sally Rooney’s first two novels. It’s sophisticated, more mature and nuanced. In typical Rooney fashion, it centres on relationships and failings of communication, yet unlike her other novels, we are treated to the perspectives of four characters, Felix, Alice, Simon and Eileen. We follow each of the characters as they navigate their relationships with one another, yet Rooney keeps them at an arms length from the reader through the use of a third person narrative which creates distance.

My Review:

Rooney’s writing has definitely progressed since Conversations with Friends and Normal People, she’s always had an incredible talent for capturing raw emotion and her dialogue is always spot on, but I think BWWAY definitely stands out as a pinnacle point in her writing career. Her first two novels were just the start and with her third, she’s graduated to an entire new level.

The chapters alternate between the present and email exchanges between Alice and Eileen in which they discuss some pretty big topics including religion, capitalism, climate change, fame and the publishing industry. I’ve always found the love/hate discourse surrounding Rooney odd as she’s such an unproblematic author, but this is definitely her most outspoken book yet.

I found the discussions on the publishing industry most interesting and we are given an insight from two perspectives, that of Alice, a hugely successful (and wealthy) author, compared with Eileen’s, a low paid editor at a literary magazine. These exchanges were especially interesting when considered in relation to Rooney’s own career as, like Alice, she is an incredibly successful author yet also very private (ironic considering the marketing campaign for BWWAY). This being said, I did begin to tire of their emails after a while and they became increasingly pretentious (seriously, who’s sending emails to their friends like that?)

The relationship between Simon and Eileen was definitely my favourite and I found myself most looking forward to their chapters. There are some beautiful moments between them and Rooney writes about intimacy like no other, but, of course, these moments don’t come without their setbacks as the pair fail to communicate their wants and needs.

Eileen and Alice’s friendship was a strange one, I definitely enjoyed reading about an older friendship and found myself relating to a lot of their struggles with maintaining relationships post-graduation, but I never felt like I truly got to know them. Alice’s struggles with her mental health also fell flat when I think of, for example, Connell’s in Normal People (but perhaps I shouldn’t pit the two against one another).

My biggest bug bear was the ending. I won’t spoil it, but it felt really rushed and cheap, almost like a last attempt at appealing to our current culture. Obviously the whole point of the novel is to discuss the mundane and I love how Rooney can make the ordinary feel so special, but I wasn’t ready to read about ~that~ just yet.

Overall, this definitely wasn’t my favourite Rooney novel (Normal People still holds that title), but I did enjoy it nonetheless. The things I disliked about it definitely didn’t detract from the genius that is Sally Rooney and I can see this going down as a modern classic.

Star Rating: 4/5

Review – Magma by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir

Review – Magma by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir

Magma* was one of my August reads for Women in Translation month and what a read it was! Despite the extremely heavy content of this book (TWs include mental health, self harm, abuse, abortion), I gulped it down greedily in one sitting (I’d almost forgotten what a rare joy it is to be so completely consumed in a book!)

Summary:

Set in Reykjavik, Iceland’s baltic temperatures provide the perfect backdrop to this spine-tingling story of abuse and manipulation. Lilja, a young university student, falls deeply in love with an older, beautiful man who reads Latin, is a strict vegetarian (and is all-around pretentious). Their relationship develops at a whirlwind pace which is mirrored by the short, snappy chapters (almost like vignettes) and before you know it, they’ve moved in together. As her obsession for him grows, she submits to him in order to please him in any way, in turn, losing her sense of self along the way.

My Review:

There is no doubting that this is a dark read, Hjörleifsdóttir doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of sex which are borderline pornographic and the cruelty of Lijla’s partner slowly mounts like lava until the volcanic eruption at the end of the book. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to everyone but I couldn’t look away, there’s something so twisted in human’s fascination with violence, but Hjörleifsdóttir’s writing is so engrossing that it wasn’t until I’d closed the final page that I really began to question just why I’d enjoyed such a toxic and shocking story.

Yet this was also why I loved this book so much, it doesn’t shy away from hard truths but, instead, forces the reader to address just how commonplace this kind of cruelty is. Hjörleifsdóttir dedicates this book to those like Lilja who live in silence and whose suffering may go undetected by others. I’m not suggesting that this book is for everyone, but I do believe that these stark and, quite frankly, realistic depictions of abuse are so important in fiction as sadly, they are the lived reality of too many.

Those who enjoyed Boy Parts and Acts of Desperation are sure to enjoy this and Hjörleifsdóttir is an author I’ll be keeping my eye on. Have you read this one?

Star Rating: 4/5

*{AD – PR Product – A big thank you to Picador books for my gifted copy of Magma.}

Review – Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

Review – Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

It’s taken me an abnormal amount of time to write my review of this book. Granted, I’ve been in a bit a slump with both reading and writing reviews this month, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I actually wasn’t the biggest fan of Before My Actual Heart Breaks. It was one of my most anticipated books of the year and has all of the elements of a book that I would usually LOVE, but something about it just didn’t work for me.

Summary:

BMAHB is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles where bombs, bullets and endless wakes are commonplace. Unlike many of her classmates, Mary Rattigan was an ambitious child, she wanted to make something of herself. Yet when Mary finds herself pregnant at the age of sixteen, all of her plans fall to pieces. Driven by shame as part of the staunchly Catholic community, Mary’s parents make the decision to marry her off to their neighbour, John Johns, so that no one finds out what a little T.R.A.M.P she’s been.

My Review:

Starting with the positives, I thought that this was a really unique read when compared to the other novels I’ve read by contemporary Irish authors. I’m a big fan of the millennial fiction being written by a lot of female Irish writers at the moment (of course, Sally Rooney is leading this brigade), but it was refreshing to read something a bit different.

Delaney captures the setting of the story so very well, from the use of dialect down to the descriptions of the rural Northern Irish landscape, I truly felt that I could have been there. This is one of the first books I’ve read set during the troubles in Northern Ireland and it was definitely an eye-opener. Delaney was brought up during the troubles and I really think that her personal experiences helped her to capture the fear of her characters. This being said, some of the more lengthy passages which went into great detail about the historical context, although important to know about, did pull me out of the story.

This definitely isn’t a bad book, it’s well-written and I can see why a lot of people would love it, but I found it really hard to get invested. It’s a long book at nearly four-hundred pages and I found it incredibly slow. Mary is also quite an irritating protagonist, and although I sympathised greatly with her difficult upbringing under an abusive mother and a father who remained silent and passive, there were so many times where I just wanted to shake her. I also wish that some of the secondary characters had been explored more, for example, some of her siblings or her childhood best friend, Lizzie Magee. A lot of characters are introduced but don’t actually serve much of a function despite having some of the most intriguing storylines. I suppose it’s meant to be Mary’s story, but I wanted more.

For anyone looking for a fictional account of growing up during the troubles in Northern Ireland, I’d maybe give this one a go, but sadly, it wasn’t for me. I’m disappointed, but you can’t win them all!

Star Rating: 3/5

(Trigger Warnings – Animal abuse, domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape, abortion)

September Reads Wrap-Up

September Reads Wrap-Up

I feel like it’s been a long time since I posted on here! How’s everyone been doing? I’ve honestly just been feeling really burnt out in August, I’ve still been posting pretty regularly over on my bookstagram account, but reviews have been taking a backseat for sure. The miserable weather hasn’t helped and I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump, but I’m on annual leave this week and want to catch-up on some content.

August has definitely been a mixed bag and one minute I couldn’t put a book down and the next I would go days without reading. The month got off on the wrong foot with my first read, Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney. I’ve finally composed my thoughts on this so a review will be coming later this week, but, spoiler alert, I wasn’t a massive fan. I felt like I was having a bit of a personality crisis when I didn’t vibe with it – sad books are my jam!

The book I picked up after this was actually my first DNF (did not finish) of the year and that book was The Silence of Scheherazade* by Defne Suman. Translated from Turkish and set throughout the Ottoman Empire collapse, I was intrigued by this historical fiction, but after I’d read 125 out of the near 500 pages and didn’t have a clue who anyone was or what was going on, I decided to bench it. I might return to it at some point, but it’s a no for now.

After a bad start, my next read really pulled me out of my slump. August was Women in Translation month, so of course, I had to incorporate this into my monthly TBR. Translated from Icelandic, Magma* was short, sharp and punchy. Written in vignettes, I flew through this slim novel in one sitting despite its dark subject matter. A standout of the month for sure.

The third book I read was my favourite of the month and I can already see Reese Witherspoon planning to make this into a series after she made it one of her book club picks. The Paper Palace* is the ultimate summer read, I was transported to the sandy beaches of Cape Cod and completely consumed in this family drama. I know that hyped books can be hit and miss, but this one really does deserve all the praise it’s getting.

My final read came in the form of a slim but powerful novel, An Island by South African author, Karen Jennings. I’d not heard of this until late, but after it shocked the book world by being longlisted for the Booker Prize, I was intrigued. Apparently there were only 500 copies of this printed initially, but after it was longlisted they printed an extra 5,000. I’d get your hands on one sharpish!

I’ve been super behind on reviews, but I promise I’ll review all of my August reads for you soon! What was your favourite read of August? I’d love to hear!

Happy reading,

Em x

*{AD – PR Product – Thank you so much to Picador, Penguin Random House and Head of Zeus for my gifted copies of Magma, The Paper Palace and The Silence of Scheherazade}