Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid

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Thanks to netgalley, and to Bloomsbury for providing me with the digital copy of this novel.

Predominantly set in Philadelphia, where writer Kiley Reid lives, this was a really surprising read. That is a good thing, honest. The blurb and the opening chapters relate a story of a young black woman taking the white child she babysits for to a shop while her parents sort some emergency at home. While she’s there, she is accused of kidnapping the child and a heart sinking episode unfolds.

It quickly moves on from there though, and Emira’s character grows with each chapter she leads – her life, her friends, her hopes and dreams. The other perspective is her boss’, which is interesting as it shows both the similarities and the stark differences. They’re not too far apart in age – perhaps not even a decade – but their lives are in sharp such a fun agecontrast in lots of ways, which is really effectively communicated.  For example, Emira always calls her boss ‘Mrs’, even though Alix is desperate to call her by her first name.

The story unravels like an onion skin, or maybe a ball of wool. Alix is uncertain in her life with two small children, in a city she doesn’t know very well and excluded from her old life in New York.  She feels like a fraud, pretending she still lives in NYC in order to keep up her social media channels and progress her career as a kind of influencer. At the same time, she feels trapped in her life and hires Emira as a babysitter to ostensibly finish her book. On the other hand, Emira is in her mid twenties and watching her friends settle down with careers, houses and jobs and she has none of that security, as she doesn’t really know what she wants. She knows she loves being around the oldest child, Briar, but feels a bit uncomfortable about how Mrs Chamberlain wants to be her best friend.

The themes explored are complex ones – race, class, womenhood and the expectations placed on you from your own version of society. There’s also a strong thread around ensuring that you don’t assume you know about the characters you’re being introduced to.

This book was surprising because I had expected it to be about an arrest, a criminal record, an unjust court trial and in fact, that hook was quickly completed and it moved on to deeper, more complex narrative where all of the characters are well defined and real – I could see myself being at once friends with both of them and neither.

I’d be interested to see more from Kiley Reid, and I recommend this for something a bit thought provoking.

 

Oligarchy – Scarlett Thomas

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Oligarchy.jpgThis book review is the new one by Scarlett Thomas: “Oligarchy”. I have read some of her books previously – “The End of Mr Y” and “Popco”, although so long ago now that I struggle to remember the plot. I do remember the beautiful editions though, with the coloured edges on the pages. I am a sucker for those.

The protagonist is Natasha, a recent arrival to a mysterious English boarding school for girls, populated by the daughters of rich Europeans and Russians. In amongst the standard teen girl stuff of friends/frenemies and the hardships of having to smuggle in contraband items from outside, there was a plot thread on the historical founder of the house, apparently drowned in dodgy circumstances.

I did find this a challenging novel to finish – whether it was due to travelling a lot inbetween reading this and not being able to concentrate on it, or something else – I found it hard to picture the scenes, to form a bond with the girls in the story and to follow the narrative milestones.

There were scenes I did enjoy – Tash meeting her Aunt was interesting, but I couldn’t connect this to the rest of the story or the journey that Tash was going on. Ultimately, I don’t think I could ascertain if Tash and the teen girls were the ones we should be rooting for, or actually, the ‘bad guys’, spoiled and vapid.

While checking some facts I did come across this recent interview in the Guardian with Scarlett Thomas, which I thought was pretty interesting. It talks about her relationship with food and the decades long battle she’s had with it, mainly under the guise of ‘clean eating’ and being healthy. This is a bit of a motif in the book, as the young women are lauded for being thin even in the throes of a norovirus-esque sickness.

For fans of Thomas, I’d recommend this. It wasn’t badly written at all, I just couldn’t see the shape of the story and that made it less engaging than I had hoped.

As always, thanks to Netgalley, and to Canongate publishing house for granting me access.

 

 

 

Saturdays at Noon- Rachel Marks

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Alfie is a six year old boy in the UK with too many thoughts and feelings to know what to do with. In “Saturdays at Noon”, by Rachel Marks, we meet Alfie’s Mum and Dad (Jake and Jemma) and Emily, as their paths cross.

Jake and Emily meet at Anger Management class one Saturday, where they are paired up. As Emily gets to know Alfie, she recognises herself in him, and tries to help him communicate better. Meanwhile, Jake and Jemma are struggling in their marriage, and in trying to deal with Alfie’s meltdowns and tantrums on a daily basis.

This ticked along quite nicely, and I did enjoy reading it. It was good timing for me as we had a couple of short flights to take, so it passed the time.

Saturdays at NoonCircumstances change and Emily starts to take care of Alfie, getting closer to Jake. There are three different narrative voices – Alfie, Jake and Emily, a standard format with the adults and perhaps a little more unusual with the kid’s in there too.

Some of the plot points were pretty obvious, which is part of the fun sometimes, of course – spotting the changes coming down the line. Others were less obvious, and I enjoyed being slightly sideswiped with an unpredicted, and still believable, change of direction.

All in all, absolutely a personal story for Rachel Marks to write and no doubt an enjoyable read. A little too formulaic for me, I think, and I didn’t quite buy the central love story. I wanted to hear more about the friendship between Alice and Emily, as the couple of interactions were really fun and natural.

As always, thank you to Netgalley and Penguin for providing me with this copy!

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl – Jeannie Vanasco

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‘Things we didn’t talk about when I was a girl’ is infuriating. It’s sort of a memoir with some journalist qualities, written by Jeannie Vanasco, and it’s written beautifully. The fury comes from her descriptions, her examinations of her encounters with men which have involved, or ended with, sexual assault. It’s the stories from her friends and students (she’s a lecturer in creative writing: memoir) of their encounters with men which have involved, included or ended in sexual assault.

Unwanted contact, intrusive conversations, a refusal to listen to the clear signals, all the way to rape, either penetration with fingers or penis. All of them resulting in the woman involved feeling violation, shame, humiliation.Things we didn't talk about when I was a girl

Vanasco’s focussed one particular sexual assault – that from her ‘friend’ at high school. She had been drinking and he and another friend carried her to the basement to sleep it off. Except her ‘friend’ assaulted her instead. He raped her and while he was doing that and she was sobbing, he told her she was dreaming. The worst thing about that is that I know every woman has a similar story to tell.

This specific assault is discussed in a detached way for some, if not most of the book, while Vanasco examines different perspectives and almost seems to ‘try on’ emotions for size, wondering aloud why she isn’t angrier. I thought that was really interesting – the dissection of how she’s feeling, and how she feels in relation to her attacker. He dropped out of her life soon enough after that, but they did remain friends, at least for long enough for her college boyfriend to meet and dislike him. The lens is through the #meToo movement, as Jeannie worries that her story is too like the others and will be lost among the throng. I hope it isn’t, and I don’t think it will be, mainly because I think everyone’s stories need to be heard but also this is a different enough view, almost scientific, to stand apart.

Quite a lot of chapters are spent discussing how he feels, the impact it had (or didn’t have) on his life, via the means of telephone calls and other communication channels. These are transcribed by Vanasco and critiqued by her and her friends, also writers. I found myself rooting for her, shouting at her for apologising (!) for taking up his time, nodding along when he said he was hurt too, or drunk as well. Thankfully, her friends speak for me and a discussion takes place around his feelings,how important his perspective is and so on.

I fear that it may reach only the women who recognise and feel what she feels though – for maximum impact it needs to reach the attackers and would be rapists of society, the ones who gauge their self worth on how many women they’ve assaulted, who see women as objects to be owned, dominated and bent to their will or else. Please, if you have that guy in your friend group (or heck, if you ARE that guy), read this/get him to read this book. He might start to understand what impact that 30 second encounter has for the woman on the receiving end.

100 Days of Sunlight – Abbie Emmons

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I know you shouldn’t do this, but I really liked the cover of “100 Days of Sunlight” by Abbie Emmons, and that’s what drew me to it. It’s a YA story along the same lines of The Fault in Our Stars in that the leads are both in challenging situations. 100 days of summer

It switches first person narrative between the main characters – teens Tessa and Weston, which is interesting as you get to hear what they are thinking about the same topic or situation. 

The story opens on Tessa as she comes to terms with being temporarily blind, the result of being a passenger in the car hit by a drunk driver. Through a little bit of wangling and slightly obvious flags, Weston is enlisted to help her through this 100 days. He’s her age, eternally optimistic and, so her grandmother tells her, pretty cute. What Tessa doesn’t know is that Weston is an amputee and gets around using two prosthetic legs. In fact, he asks her grandparents not to tell her because she’s the only person who doesn’t pity him. 

Through the course of the chapters, we learn about Weston’s position and how he got there, his struggle following the amputation and coming to terms with the tough road he travels. I don’t want to give too much away so I won’t say much more about how he helps Tessa, but it’s very sweet. 

Their friendship quickly grows into something else as they spend a lot of time together. I thought, and this might be because I’m old, it was quite inappropriate that they spent so much time together in her bedroom, unsupervised. I don’t remember being allowed to do that with my male friends, and actually on some occasions she was still asleep when Weston when into her room. I think the slight discomfort was more about her being in a potentially vulnerable situation than me being a prude, to be honest. I mean, the girl is blind and her guardians are okay with a strange boy popping into her room? 

Besides that, there were a couple of other things which grated slightly. The kid’s called Weston, not exactly a common name – pretty sure one of her instagram friends would have googled him and figured out that he’d had an accident – I would definitely search online for the mysterious boy my friend is seeing. I also got the feeling that there had been a stronger thread about faith in God pulling her through which was toned down slightly to appeal to non religious types. There were some references to sermons, services and a belief in a greater power which I’m glad stopped there, to be honest, as it felt a bit out of place. 

Overall though, I liked the premise, I believed in their relationship and I wanted them to be happy with each other. The set pieces were cute and for the most part at least, appropriate, and I enjoyed reading the book.

Thanks to Netgalley for the copy and to Abbie Emmons, who self published this novel. I liked the fact that there is a website too, which has some competitions and merchandise relevant to the book. You can sign up here: https://www.100daysofsunlight.com/

 

The Farm – Joanne Ramos

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The Farm is one of those novels that I kept seeing everywhere – first on Netgalley where I was fortunate enough to receive a digital copy. The central premise is that anything is for sale – for a price. This includes women’s wombs, contracted to carry babies for time poor, cash rich women who are busy running the world. In exchange, they get a contract which includes a 9 month stay in a high end facility where they are waited on hand and foot, and multiple bonuses along the way. At least, that’s one way of looking at it.

Joanne Ramos is a debut novelist who was born in the Philippines before moving to the US. Her Wikipedia bio tells me that she then graduated from Princeton and worked in investment banking.  This is clear in the characterisations of the women we meet in the book.

The Farm has three main characters – Jane, Mae and Regan. Jane is born in the Philippines  and is struggling to make ends meet as a single mother to a young daughter. Mae is an investment banker who describes herself as mixed

The Farm

race and is the mastermind of Golden Oaks, the facility where surrogates are taken care of. Reagan is a US based host, born into a privileged family but uncomfortable with that title.

The story begins with them separately walking their paths, with a particularly well written scene involving a nanny, her infant charge and an ill advised but nearly unavoidable breast feeding episode which made me both gasp out loud and cringe.

As the novel progresses the women meet, and Jane and Reagan form two halves of a whole while Mae orchestrates.

It’s interesting to read through and think about, especially with all of the different perspectives. Is it morally wrong to sell/buy space in someone’s womb? If they’re not using it, if someone else needs it, isn’t that okay? How about restricting someone’s choices as a result – what they eat, what they listen to, w

ho they talk to, in the guise of looking after the very valuable unborn baby they’re carrying?

I enjoyed it and would recommend it, although I get the feeling that Ramos veered away from delving into the big philosophical questions too deeply in return for keeping the narrative going. Some may think it’s too sympathetic to the ‘corporate bad guys’, but actually I felt that it did a good job of showing balance and different view points.

Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing the copy and for Netgalley for supplying the platform.

Grand Union – Zadie Smith

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Grand UnionGrand Union is Zadie Smith’s first collection of short stories. She’s written loads of novels, from the more recent Swing Time to the debut and probably most well known, White Teeth. Re-reading the list of novels Zadie Smith has written, I have read all of them apart from The Autograph Man, I think.

The themes are well established – the family bonds that tie us together being more than flesh and blood, or perhaps the only ones that can tie us together are flesh and blood, which wins out against all other connections.  Morality is examined, small actions writ large on the page for the characters within.

The short stories in Grand Union explore similar themes to ones we’ve seen before. Family, history, how much your upbringing influences your opportunities, your future. I detected a bit more focus on the welfare of the planet – mentions of not/eating meat, references which may have always been in her work but I am only picking up now.

I describe myself as a fan of Smith’s work, and I remember liking the books I have read of hers. However, I don’t find them memorable, personally, so each finished book leaves me with a sense of fulfilment in completion, but a week later I couldn’t describe the plot or recall any of the character names.    I also had a look back at my other reviews, here and here, and apparently, past me did not enjoy White Teeth very much… Maybe that’s part of another theme, that of nostalgia and memories of the past contorting and changing events into something else.

So, a week or so after reading Grand Union and I am struggling to remember the stories. Flashes of them, pieces of character description come back but I couldn’t confidently lay out even one story.   Feasibly, this could be because I wasn’t paying enough attention, of course. I felt like each story was lacking in something, though – nothing really happened. I don’t mind if nothing really happens in books (and films too, I love a good old meandery Terence Malick), but in short stories there’s usually something to hang the plot from, a hook or concept.  I didn’t find that here, sadly, and actually gave up reading the last story as it was just not engaging me at all.

Basically, for fans of Zadie Smith, it’ll be great.  As for me, I have an ever increasing TBR pile which includes The Farm by Joanne Ramos and Invisible Women by Caroline Criardo Perez! What’s next on your list?

As always, thanks to Hamish Hamilton, the publishers, and Netgalley,  for providing the digital copy.