Book Review, Fiction, Review

Book Review Round-Up: January to June 2023, Part 1

5.00 avg. rating (99% score) - 1 vote

Anyone who has run a book review website or a bookstagram knows that sometimes, you just have to read for the sake of reading, and take time off reviewing.  That’s what I’ve done for the last few months and it has been glorious.  For the most part, it gave me time to be discerning, for the most part, of the books I picked to read.  But also, ironically perhaps, without the pressure of having to write a review in a certain amount of time, I ended up writing these reviews far more easily that those I write under a self-chosen deadline.

Review of ‘Angola Is Wherever I Plant My Field’, by João Melo

Summary: here.

I picked up this collection of 18 short stories on a whim, because it had the word “Angola” in the title and I have been yearning for the continent it belongs to.  It is very different from the kind of book I usually read, and I had a wonderfully delightful confused time going through the mostly humorous and sometimes quite absurdist stories depicting Angola’s history and its postcolonial realities.

One story—the one bearing the same title as the collection—was just one long sentence, reflecting the chaos of the war the story is about.  I could feel the pressure and the anxiety, the ebb and flow of hope and despair, throughout this one sentence story.  One story ended with the statement that the refuge camp is where home is, which broke my heart; a refuge camp is not fit to be anyone’s home, after all.  The Baptism had me in stitches; a priest is personally offended that one of his congregants hasn’t baptised his children.  He spends most of the story on his high horses, only to be brought down when he finds out the real (amusing) reason why.

Honestly, I was woefully unprepared for this book.  It was delightful and riveting, confusing in its unusual for me structure and yet reminiscent of the kind of storytelling I grew up around.  I couldn’t stop reading, and each story left me with endless questions—least of all, the many questions about Angola I spent way too much time on Google finding answers to.

Review of ‘All That It Ever Meant’, by Blessing Musariri – Highly Recommended

Summary: here.

Oh, how this story broke my heart every few pages.  I mean, it is about the death of a mother, leaving behind Baba and his three children, so that really hit home for this mama.  All four of them have different ways of coping.  Baba draws into himself, disappearing at a time his children need him the most.  Older sister Chichi is rebelling, befriending the wrong person at school and getting into all kinds of trouble.  Little brother Tana just wants some attention and routine.  And sensible, quiet middle sister Mati is lost in the middle of it all, trying her best to give Tana what he needs and keeping her big sister in line.

Needless to say, it’s a lot.

Along comes Meticais, a supernatural being – perhaps a ghost, a wise person, or maybe even an imaginary friend, we aren’t quite sure – wearing the most fabulous outfits and giving the most enigmatic yet mostly wise advice.  “It’s so easy to let things go that it’s frightening, and that’s why we don’t like to do it. We can’t be sure of anything if we’re not holding on to a feeling about someone else, especially anger, that’s how we stay connected to our own sense of what is right.  It feels good to be right.”

Meticais comes along as Baba takes the kids to their native Zimbabwe.  Rediscovering their homeland becomes an opportunity for the family to knit back together.  “’We’re going to sit and breathe,’ said Baba, ‘and let our souls catch up with our bodies.’”  But it also gives a terrible secret the opportunity to be unveiled. “A story changes with each telling.  Even a story about yourself. And even when you tell is differently to someone, there’s always a part of you that knows the real truth. Sometimes we don’t let that part speak. We keep it quiet and still in dark corners so only people who know to go behind things can look to see.”

Review of ‘Nanny Returns’, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Summary: here.

I picked this one up because I really wanted to know what was going to happen to Grayer.  I felt so sorry for him in the first book, and I was hoping that, by some miracle, his parents would have learned to take better care of him.  But alas, of course not.

I do think that this book was such a missed opportunity to delve into the ways that materialism, power, greed, and status can keep a parent from doing their duty to, well, parent.  It could have been an excoriation of the devastating effects of extreme riches and its related materialism on family life and on institutions such as education.  I mean, come on—Nan is at the intersection between spoiled children of the ultra-rich and their teachers trying to excuse every behavior in order not to lose their money.  Ripe for a thorough commentary, and yet…

Alas, it was pretty much a big mess, in my opinion.  Filled with unnecessary name dropping and scenes that didn’t add anything to either the story or to the development of any character or relationship, the book felt, at times, like a way for people without extreme riches to mock the ultra-wealthy.  It presents all ultra-wealthy people in a stereotypical, one-dimensional way—meaning there isn’t a single redeemable character—in description after description of things, people, and situations that all seem to have been added to underline, overly so, the ridiculousness of the entitlement of the ultra rich.

The way that Nan entangles herself right back into the lives of Grayer and his family also seems very unlikely, even for a work of fiction.  There is no logical build-up within the context of the book other than Nan’s guilt, which isn’t explored nearly enough to explain why she would risk to much for him.

While I do not recommend this book, I do hope that someone with more insight into the dynamics of classicism and elitism, as well as materialism and the effects of all three on family life, will write a better version of both books.

Review of ‘Revenge Wears Prada’, by Lauren Weisberger

Summary: here.

I feel like the title made me, as a reader, expect something that we don’t get in this book, which is a lot of Miranda Priesly.  And because she doesn’t really make much of an appearance, it took me some time to separate my disappointment from the emotions brought up by this book.

The writing is pretty great; the pacing and the descriptions were great.  I liked how the name dropping was treated in this book; just enough to underline the amounts of money involved in every event, like Andy’s wedding, but not enough to overtake the story or become clumsy.

The character development, however, seemed weak.  It would have been so much better to not just have a description of what happened since the day Andy walked out on Miranda, but explore the emotions and, most importantly, the trauma.  I really feel like one of the big things missing from this book is an exploration of Andy’s trauma, as well as Emily’s denial.

The way Andy’s relationship turned out also came out of the blue.  I’m not saying Andy’s decision was wrong, but rather, it wasn’t traced well enough.  And more importantly, before the final act that pushes Andy to make her final decision, there is a line in which she states that she had been thinking about doing this for a year at that point.  Like, what?  When?  Why didn’t we know about this?  Other than the letter, there was nothing to indicate that it was even a thought in Andy’s mind.

I wouldn’t really recommend this book, quite honestly.  If it’s available to you and you have the time, sure.  But there are many other, much better books to pick up.  And I would even recommend picking up The Devil Wear Prada again.  Although to be fair, I am wondering if I should reread that one and see if it still holds up after all this time…  Was it actually good, or was I too immature of a reader and swept up in the insanity surrounding the phenomenon that the movie was?

Review of ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Summary: here.

I devoured Reni Eddo-Lodge’s podcast by the same name some time ago, so I was really looking forward to reading this book—and it did not disappoint.

The title recalls the frustration of Black people who try to explain their experiences within a racist society only to be gaslit and ignored on every side.  It includes an overview of Britain’s history of slavery, lynchings, and police brutality issues, and their link with the obstacles that exist to this day that leave the status quo frustratingly and increasingly unequal.

I was expecting the book to be pretty much the written version of the podcast; however, although the topic was obviously the same, the content overlapped rather than being identical.  So it turns out that the book and podcast are complementary.  As a Canadian, it was also nice to get out of the US bubble.  The reality in the UK is of course different than the one here, but learning about racism in that country gave other perspectives that I feel could potentially apply here in Canada as well.

Rene Eddo-Lodge also offers a way forward, which includes listening (really listening) to people of color, learning from their perspectives what both the reality of the situation and potential ways out are, intervening instead of being quiet (and thus complicit) bystanders, and learning to address inequalities at their root, rather than superficially.  She emphasizes that this reality does not have to remain the status quo, and that we have the power to create a just world, if only we arise to make it so.

Here are two great quotes from the book, that resonated with me as a Canadian trying to understand the role of racism in her country:

“While some people called what happened in Tottenham and Brixton a riot, others called it an uprising – a rebellion of otherwise unheard people. I think there’s truth in both perspectives, and that the extremity of a riot only ever reflects the extremity of the living conditions of said rioters. Language is important – and the term ‘race riot’ undoubtedly doubles down on ideas linking blackness and criminality, while overlooking what black people were reacting against.”

“But I don’t think my ignorance was an individual thing. That I had to go looking for significant moments in black British history suggests to me that I had been kept ignorant. While the black British story is starved of oxygen, the US struggle against racism is globalised into the story of the struggle against racism that we should look to for inspiration – eclipsing the black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.”

Thank you to Raincoast Books and Simon & Schuester Canada for ARCs, to Orca Book Publishers for review copies, and thank you to all the publisher who sent me electronic ARCs through Netgalley!

5.00 avg. rating (99% score) - 1 vote

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