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Zen Cho – Black Water Sister

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Dark and muddy, but sometimes light and clear.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 367
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-509-80000-1
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Jess has moved ‘back’ to Malaysia from America with her parents; they are staying with relatives whilst they get on their feet. It’s difficult for Jess; not only does she not have the best grasp of Hokkien, she’s also got to manage to keep in touch with her girlfriend, Sharanya, back in America, without her parents knowing, and she’s got to decide where to find a job – in Singapore with Sharanya, who is moving for university, or in Penang where she, Jess, is now? It’s more than enough to deal with, but the voice of her dead maternal grandmother, who she never knew, has invaded her head, and Jess doesn’t know how to broach the subject with anyone, let alone get the lady out. And when it becomes clear that Ah Ma’s not going anywhere whilst Jess is there to help her with an old feud, and possibly to intercede with a goddess – or just let spirits take over her body so they can do it themselves – Jess has to face up to her unreal reality and go with it.

Black Water Sister is a low fantasy novel about ghosts and gods set in the reality of our present-day world. It is both incredibly funny and rather deep, issuing lighter moments and times of reflection and strength.

Let’s look at the comedy first because whilst it’s a mainstay of the book, it shouldn’t be the final thought where the topics are concerned. Black Water Sister is laugh-out-loud, the sort of humour I can only describe as very British, and this is because the best comparison is with the BBC series Ghosts. Ergo, if you like Ghosts, you’ll like Cho’s book. It’s got that same atmosphere of spirits and a person who doesn’t want to know they exist and would prefer they not exist, which as time goes on progresses to acceptance. The location is different, the situation is different, but the wit and sense of humour is incredibly similar. (And describing it as Very British, that does also mean that if you like British sitcoms in general you’ll most likely like it to.) It should be noted here that I’m aware the main character is Malaysian American and the book is set in Malaysia – the humour, to the best of my knowledge, fits those places too.

In Jess, Cho has created a wonderful character who slowly comes to find herself and flourish whilst giving herself up to the requirements placed upon her by others, both alive and dead (though in general, mainly those dead). As much as there is a plot, it’d be hard not to say that Jess’ development is not the most important aspect of the book, the way she deals with her worries about coming out to her family, about her ongoing relationship with a woman, about her need for a job and a decision on where that job should be. Cho’s focus on everyday worries is one of the book’s strengths – where Jess needs to become stronger in herself and effectively does so in part by becoming inhumanly strong due to her time with Ah Ma and the goddess, you might be forgiven for forgetting the very real anxieties and coming-of-age struggles that the book is grounded in.

Jess is the main character here but hot on her heels – generally literally, albeit in wisps rather than real shoes – is Ah Ma, her grandmother, who she has only now met since the lady passed on. (Never say Ah Ma has passed on – she has very much not.) Cho has created the quintessential grandmother and granddaughter relationship where the two generations are so different and struggle to understand each other, using stereotypes both global and culture-specific to both humorous and poignant success.

And to go back to the inhuman strength Jess gains – sometimes (it becomes more about Jess as she becomes stronger and less prepared to give her physical self over to the ghostly) we move to look more at the three ‘main women’ in the book in a way that’s more of a study of female empowerment and agency both generally and down the ages, with the Black Water Sister – the goddess herself – focusing on the violence she suffered in life and at the moment of her death. There are moments of both literal and metaphorical poignancy.

Religion, and religious and cultural superstition, are strong in this book, and cover a few different countries and religions, with traditional Chinese beliefs mixed with Christianity to interesting and humorous effect. (Jess’ auntie’s focus on getting out a crucifix in the face of an angry Chinese goddess at her window is a highlight.) I note this to say that the book will interest people of faith (any) and none, Cho achieving a perfect balance between respect and humour.

Black Water Sister is a ride, a riot, and a pause. It’s incredibly unique whilst having echoes of other stories, and is a perfect candidate for any forum thread called ‘books you think about long after you’ve finished them’. Simple plot; tons going on.

I received this book for review. The book is out today.

 
Elizabeth Baines – Astral Travel

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Looking backwards in order to go further forwards.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 397
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63219-9
First Published: 15th November 2020
Date Reviewed: 10th December 2020
Rating: 5/5

Now a grown-up in her own right, Josephine is composing a novel about her father who passed away a few years before. In doing this she hopes to better understand him; Josephine’s childhood was marked by a lot of parental abuse and neglect, physical and emotional, and as she tries to work through the trauma herself and to see past the blocks her mind had created to protect her, she learns more about the reasons her father and mother were as they were, why Josephine and her sister were scapegoats, and why their father changed his thoughts on his youngest child.

Astral Travel is a very careful novel that examines the effects of childhood abuse on people as they grow up. Due to its careful handling it is a difficult book to read but, in particular, readers who can relate to some amount of the text may find it cathartic.

The novel takes a few chapters to get going, owing to the question that will quickly arise – is this a book in a book, and, if it is, is it going to be a mashup of literary and magical realism fiction or something a bit different? The answer is that it is mostly not a book in a book due to the requirements of Josephine’s journey, however a more abstract interpretation of the ‘genre’ would be that it still is a book in a book, just not the one Josephine is writing. It is her research, the background she needs to find in order to write her book that we see here.

Most of the characters are unlikeable. Many will be unrelatable, but unlike that persistent idea that a book without relatable characters isn’t good (I digress, but it should be no surprise that this reviewer doesn’t subscribe to that) Astral Travel would not be what it is if you could relate. And frankly you don’t want to relate, not here, not this time.

With the book itself, Josephine’s first person narrative, set in the present day, the majority of the content looks back to the decades of the 20th century – bit from the late thirties, a few moments from earlier than that, and the decades of Josephine’s childhood and early adulthood (the 50s and beyond). This lends the book an interesting aspect – a backdrop of a less busy time foregrounded by concepts that are no longer acceptable, of which there are many and they are varied.

Josephine’s learned behaviour stops her from seeing a more normal family as the support they could be. Whilst her later in-laws have many of their own issues, their relative normality compared to the Jacksons is visible to the reader but never to Josephine. One of the unfortunate aspects of Josephine’s personal journey is that, whilst it simply may be beyond the scope of the book (which is a fair number of pages already), she does not get far enough in her exploration and self-therapy to see where people who are not like her family are okay to trust. This is likewise with Josephine’s mother – whilst her mother isn’t technically abusive, she is nevertheless somewhat complicit in the abuse and places the responsibility for not rocking the boat on her children rather than on her husband where it rightly belongs. And whilst she, the mother, has been physically abused herself, so you see the trauma there too, you can’t help but hope that part of Josephine’s further journey includes an understanding of the role her mother played, if just to make further sense of it.

The good thing is that the reader can see it all – this is why it could be cathartic for some, readers who may be further along their own paths.

To the writing itself, it’s strong and the general structure is very well thought out. Baines’ choice not to reveal ‘basic’ details such as Josephine’s name and gender, as well as a dedication to a writing style that keeps personal details hidden unless explicitly stated (barring subtext) means that you focus on the elements the author wants you to, when she wants you to. The use of white space in terms of presentation – sections are divided by blank pages – is practically a device in itself, a device more often used in poetry employed here in a way that provides literal breathing space for you to recover before you move on.

That’s one thing that ought to be pointed out, given I’ve noted that Astral Travel is difficult to read – the attention to structure and the presentation of the content (we’re back to the ‘careful handling’ here) means that whilst you might want to set it aside for a moment or two you’ll always be okay to return to it. You can’t help but root for Josephine.

I received this book for review.

 
Roselle Lim – Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop + Podcast

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Reading tea leaves. Rewriting destinies.

Publisher: Berkley (Penguin)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-984-80327-6
First Published: 4th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Like Aunt Evelyn, Vanessa can predict people’s futures, only – unlike Evelyn – she does not appreciate the ability as it takes her over and she is forced to speak the prediction aloud. This has only ever led to people running away, predicting bad news too often, and all-consuming headaches. Now grown up and wanting a better life than the one she’s living, and hoping for love beyond the odds (fortune tellers do not have long-term romance in their destinies), Vanessa agrees to spend a couple of weeks in Paris with her aunt as Evelyn opens her tea shop, to try to tame her talent into something more bearable. Paris is the city of love, and Vanessa finds her match, but she knows better than to hope for more than a few days, just like her Aunt whose own love life has been troubled.

This book could be received in two ways; for my British readers, this book is like Marmite if liking or disliking Marmite involved the ability to make an active decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Ergo, then, if picked up with an idea for a ‘normal’ book with some fun and travels in it, Lim’s latest is likely to be a disappointment. In this context, the book could be called lacking true conflict, too nice, and rather odd.

And I want to say that and have chosen those words precisely because this review will not be looking at Lim’s book from that point of view. This is because, if picked up as an escape, with a view for fun and a much happier, colourful, version of the world – Paris, here, particularly, of course – where people largely get on (and when they don’t, it’s fixable) are successful, and where magical things happen (more magical realism than outright fantasy), then Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is an utter delight.

So, like the situation with Marmite if we had something of a decision in the way we respond to it.

All this to say, perhaps, that this is a (‘the’, actually, I’d say) book to pick up when you’re wrapped up in blankets, it’s pouring with rain outside, and you want something that will make you feel good, euphoric even. (It’ll also work in the summer, more as a shady-under-the-tree or after the picnic rather than a beach read.) This book makes you feel… awesome. There is a special something about it that lifts off the page and envelopes you in goodness, even when Vanessa’s struggling.

Vanessa’s character progression is important; she narrates and her character is well-formed, however beyond her the most important elements are the atmosphere, the location, and the art. (The other characters do take a back seat in this way.) Lim’s use of Paris combines the better parts of the stereotype with the sorts of specific details that get left out of the stereotype – Paris is the city of love and happiness… and of these specific works of art that you’ll not find mentioned online quite so much. This is mostly thanks to Vanessa’s artistic nature – she stands and looks at things, and then sits down to memorialise them on paper.

Needless to say, the details inherent in creating art form a large part of the book. Another aspect that is used similarly is food, though this can be diverting. Food – the eating and description of it, formed much of Lim’s previous work, Natalie Tan’s Book Of Luck and Fortune, and the character was a chef. Vanessa, whilst her family is similar in this way, is not, and so it doesn’t work quite so well as the art – the narrative effectively pauses during meals, but it does pick right back up again following their conclusion.

So, as said, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is a pick-me-up, a magical story that is pretty impossible not to enjoy for the brightness it brings with it. Whilst you will remember the plot, it’s the value of the atmosphere, the use of location, and the symbolism of the magical realism elements Lim uses that will etch itself most into your memory – with its goodness and uniqueness, it would be difficult to forget the effect this book has on you, and quite possibly difficult not to want to keep it to hand.

I received this book for review.


This week’s podcast episode is with Tammye Huf. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Tammye Huf (A More Perfect Union) discuss her great-great-grandparents’ relationship as an 1840s Irishman and a Black American slave, the way owners used Christianity to support their views of a racial hierarchy, and the lengths reached in order to label people by skin colour.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Savior Of 6th Street

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Not at all a blank canvas.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-838-04510-4
First Published: 20th August 2020 (ebook); 22nd October 2020
Date Reviewed: 3rd November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Virgilio lives in a lower class area of Los Angeles with his mother, a spirit medium of Santería; Virgilio is an artist, respected at his local community centre. At an exhibition of the centre’s artists’ works, his paintings are admired and then bought by Beatrice, a wealthy woman from a privileged area of the city; she takes the acquaintance further than others would, attempting a friendship with Virgilio and offering to boost his work into a fine career. Despite reservations, his own and those of his mother and friends, he goes along with it, not realising a connection between the plan and the underground network of tunnels – a travel network under construction – used by many for illicit means, and by himself as inspiration.

The Savior Of 6th Street is an intriguing thriller that uses the subjects it looks at in its structure. This is to say that it has an art-like atmosphere to it from the reading perspective and may take some effort to get a hold of what’s going on in terms of what the idea is, what the author is saying, but that effort pays off a very decent amount.

To begin with, my assertion of ‘art-like’, the book obviously has a lot about art in it; in the literal use of the word we have a main character and a few secondary characters with varying roles in the art world. Virgilio the artist – you could well say in this case the struggling artist; Beatrice the collector, curator, manager; Anne the journalist, who quite possibly only works on art-based articles, the people at the community centre with Virgilio, and a couple of others it would spoil the story to name. Backgrounds and character development are shown through dialogue and specific word choices. And then, beyond this literal art, is the art-inspired way in which Ortega-Medina has told the story. The use of art as well as the religious aspects often come together in interesting ways, but then there is the prose itself where strings of words are placed together to form pieces of art in metaphor such as cars in rush hour being written as though they are a river. It’s an abstract usage – less Rococo, more Picasso – and it works very well.

A lot of the art-inspiration of the book rests on the use of religion. The main character being half Cuban, and with his mother very tied to her roots, has enabled a look at Santería, an African diaspora religion, developed over the last few centuries, which draws together elements of Roman Catholicism and traditional West African beliefs. The author not only has the religion as a religion, so to speak, but uses it to tell the story, with aspects from Catholic (and, simply, Christian) stories, such as the Crucifixion and Ascension, used as chapter headings, and likewise aspects of Santería.

(This means that it’s a good idea, if your knowledge is more Christian-only, or, indeed, neither side of things, to get a basic knowledge of the other side before reading. Research later, including – including just reading the author’s note – will open up the story to you as well, but if you like to note details and nuances, you will miss out on a few by doing only this.)

The application of Santería, then, is pretty awe-inspiring. It informs the narrative in a few different ways; questions you may have: who is the ‘savior’ exactly, in this book? How do we see the progression and fact of life? Is the fantastical element ‘real’? In effect, the book as art makes you look at life as art.

Having mentioned the potential use of ‘savior’ of the title, we can carry on across the sentence to ‘6th Street’. This is 6th Street in Los Angeles, which in basic terms largely involves a bridge that connects two areas in the city, a less privileged and a more privileged area. 6th Street thus brings two worlds together, literally, and in this book fictionally, and therein lies the basis of the tale. Many questions can be asked of the bridge’s role in the story, too, including possible abstract personification.

So there is a fair amount going on in The Savior Of 6th Street. And as said, it may take time and effort depending on your prior knowledge, but the end result is great, everything coming together, the series of literary triptychs ending in a big final piece; in the Christian sense, it’s like an extremely alternative (and definitely adult) take on the stations of the cross, and certainly an exhilarating one.

I received this book for review.

 
Marianne Holmes – All Your Little Lies

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Things stands to get better.

Publisher: Agora Books
Pages: 237
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-913-09969-5
First Published: 22nd October 2020
Date Reviewed: 23rd October 2020
Rating: 5/5

Annie struggles greatly with people – she has only one friend who is often busy, she doesn’t fit in at work, and she’s in a situation where Paul’s suddenly treating her badly after all those times he’s spoken to her nicely, sat on her desk whilst going through statistics… Annie’s always known it’s better to be on her own. After Paul escorts her out of the bar and into a taxi after she’d tried to open up to him, she travels back to the neighbourhood they share, takes his car keys from his exhaust pipe, and lets herself into his flat, eventually falling asleep. A noise wakes her up. She leaves. The next day, the local news reports that a young girl called Chloe has gone missing, and the CCTV image of Chloe, walking away from the train station, includes Annie’s car, headlights on. No one’s likely noticed it’s Annie’s car, but if she was the last person around, then she needs to say something, and that would likely lead to being found out for drinking and letting herself in to Paul’s flat. It’ll also mean having to go against her mother’s sensible advice of staying away fro people.

All Your Little Lies is a character-driven thriller, a book that balances well the elements of page-turner with the requirement to get its protagonist to where she needs to be, which is somewhat independent of the mystery that pushes it on. It’s a particularly winning formula, a pacey crime novel with a slice of the kind of atmosphere that readers who have read and enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine will likely be drawn to.

Whilst the book is written in the third person, Holmes’ attention to Annie’s thought processes blurs the boundaries at the same time as it provides an important ‘outsider’ aspect that allows that crucial reader comprehension of the character’s perception of reality and how and why they got there. This is paramount to the narrative – where you’re effectively in Annie’s head, Holmes’ approach is constantly employed to the extent that whether you can relate to any of the character’s worries personally or not, a relation between character and reader is created.

Is it difficult being in Annie’s head? Yes; this is part of the point. Seeing Annie missing the mark, and, more frustratingly, often just missing the mark, or seeing things correctly but then dismissing it, pushes you on, the drive to continue reading and hope for better for Annie a constant.

It is perhaps needless to say that Annie’s thoughts and world-view have been created and confirmed over the years due to a series of traumatic experiences. Beginning with and most determinedly, in her early years, the resulting poor social experiences have combined to leave Annie with extreme anxiety, paranoia, and a fair amount of PTSD/C-PTSD.

As you might expect, a second story thread comprising of the reason for the most damning trauma runs alongside the main thread of Annie’s obsession with Chloe’s disappearance. This thread is fairly predictable from early on, which is a good thing because it helps you understand Annie, however if there’s anything that might, possibly, be considered a draw back in this otherwise stellar book, it is the execution of the thread – it’s perhaps a bit too drawn out in terms of its telling, where reader understanding of the basic problem at hand means it’s not quite the shocking reveal it was likely intended to be. (Though this doesn’t mean it’s any less damning to read; it’s horrible.)

As we’re noting sections near the ending it’s probably worth saying that the ending chapters of the story, and the place Annie ends up in all senses of the word (physical, mental, and so on), may be quite different to what you’ve been expecting. With Holmes’ attention all on Annie, the ending isn’t particularly ‘juicy’. But it is certainly highly appropriate, and very good. Holmes never breaks away from what she’s trying to achieve, keeping the focus on Annie and her progression. Any questions you have, you’ll be well able to work out for yourself.

All Your Little Lies is absolutely fantastic. It has been well planned, well written, and the entire package is excellent. Whether you begin by liking Annie or not (either is possible) you will be hoping for her to excel in the end. Heck knows she’s going to need therapy, and here’s hoping she gets it.

I received this book for review.

 

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