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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.

 
Katy Yocom – Three Ways To Disappear

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In which the hope is that a tyger tyger does indeed burn bright.

Publisher: Ashland Creek Press
Pages: 316
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-618-22083-7
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 1st February 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Sisters Quinn and Sarah are still haunted by the death of Sarah’s twin, Marcus, in childhood, and the family’s subsequent move back to the US from India; mother and daughters left, leaving dad, the reason they were in India, behind. Now, many years later, Quinn has a young family and finds herself always worrying about her son’s asthma (he’s also half of a set of twins), and Sarah’s so far spent her career reporting on dangerous situations. When Sarah leaves her career to go back to India and join a tiger conservation, it brings things back to the fore for both sisters as well as their mother. And amidst this is the plight of the tigers and the villages that live next to the reserves, two species vying for the same resources that too often results in disaster.

Three Ways To Disappear is a very well written and carefully handled novel about trauma such as that stated above, and conservation when there is little literal space between animals and humans.

There is a special individuality to Yocom’s book. You have the two narratives that, whilst connected, are very different and enable the story as a whole to have a very diverse atmosphere to it – and I’m not talking about the different cultures and locations here. The sisters are very different, their working backgrounds and choices in regards to family are different, and whilst at heart their thoughts and, often, problems, are informed by the same events, the resulting actions are dissimilar enough that it can be easy to forget that they are indeed forged by the same thing.

The choice of family, or life in general, is where this is most apparent, particularly when it comes to Quinn. Quinn’s story is pretty mundane and quiet compared to Sarah’s life covering war zones and further violence; it can come as a surprise that Quinn’s story can have more of an affect on your reading experience and what you take away than Sarah’s does.

Let’s look at the two stories. Sarah’s is where the tiger conservation comes in and, as the cover might suggest, this is a major part of the book. Yocom’s research shines through each section, from the expected conservation, to life in the locations in India where the needs of human survival come into conflict with animal survival. Yocom details the circumstances that create this conflict – lack of land, the need to conserve whilst also acknowledging the fact that more tigers equals less space and resources for humans. She looks at communities that are obviously based in reality in both an emphatic and studious way – this book is certainly fiction, but the truths that run throughout it, and the very real issues, are laid out very well. Where Sarah herself is concerned – Sarah serves as both a fully-fledged character driving the narrative herself and a vehicle to allow the reality to show – we have the appreciation that this is a white western person looking from the outside in; however much Sarah spent her formative years in India and remembers the language local to her, she is still an outsider and makes poor choices, the choices themselves another aspect of the book that Yocom has handled with care. So, too, the use of religion and mythology, which I’ll leave there.

Away from the conservation, Sarah’s story starts with relief – along with the background we get to begin with, our picture of her is of her past career and the choice to change it for something that – if still overseas from home – is completely different. Her passion drives her – she sees something to work for and she goes for it, and this pervades throughout the book whether it’s the tigers, or the women who need an income, or a possible romance.

Quinn’s passion is different, quieter, like her life. The affects of Marcus’ death have led to her being an anxious mother, particularly as she grew up to have twins herself. Quinn’s strength as a character are in her thoughts on family, on how the present relates to today, where her family – nuclear and extended – come into it. Her twins have some growing to do, but so does she, in the way she deals with others, the advantage she gives them over her. Quinn’s narrative, whilst, as said, not the exciting one, and pretty restricted in locale, is perhaps the stronger one, which is an interesting point in itself. I’d go so far as to say that it serves as a reminder of how important every person is, regardless of how ‘average’ their life.

The book walks an interesting line between the predictable and not so – if you strip the book down to its bare basics, you will see where some of it is headed (some, not all) but with the entirety of its contents together, a lot of aspects are far more foggy to work out. It’s well done. Will you expect a romance? You might, you might not. There may or may not be one. Will you expect the ending? The same applies.

The ending is incredibly poignant, and asks you to consider the whole, starting from the beginning of what you’ve read to the final pages; it also asks you questions about specifics.

This, the winning nature of the ending, is due to the characters’ thought processes and the use of the concept of the three ways to disappear. You may count many sets of three ways, and each will bring you new understanding, opening the novel a bit further every time in a way that I can only call interactive. It’s based in the way each character copes, it’s based in the past, present, and future, and the various ways of living that are presented in the book.

Three Ways To Disappear is great. It does so much in a relatively short time, takes you to locations beyond the geographical, and it presents constant beginnings and ways forward, regardless of endings.

 
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.

 
Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance

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Small book. Big message.

Publisher: Penned In The Margins
Pages: 72
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-05852-2
First Published: 1st October 2018
Date Reviewed: 11th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

The Perseverance is a magnificent collection of poetry. Full of variation in method, the themes of racial identity and identity as a person who is deaf, together with the social perceptions of both, the book offers a wealth of examples of difference between stereotype and reality, reworkings and reclamations of misinterpretations and ignorance, in a deceptively small number of pages.

Whilst Antrobus’ poems share just a few themes between them, you’d be wrong to think that subjects are similar. Umbrella-wise, they are, but to see the poems as coming under a couple of umbrellas would be to miss the point. The ideas of discrimination and prejudice don’t by themselves, as we know, infer how much is actually going on behind the scenes, as Antrobus’ collection brilliantly shows.

This is a collection about the poet himself – his family, his experiences and thoughts – but they will speak to many. His small studies of people’s perceptions of his mixed-race self and heritage and his explanations of how it feels to be treated as lesser then because he can’t hear, which will resonate with those who’ve suffered similar experiences as well as those with other disabilities and conditions, are profound. They are needed.

The first poem, called Echo and split into a few verses, each introduced by an illustration in BSL, combines and compares Catholicism with moments in Antrobus’ experience. It looks at how a lack of sound is so often equated to otherness, before moving onto other questions and situations in Antrobus’ childhood, the days before his parents realised he couldn’t hear them.

In Jamaican British, the poet looks at the two branches of his racial heritage and the way difference is perceived, this at a time when he’s seeking to find his identity:

They think I say I’m black when I say Jamaican British
but the English boys at school made me choose: Jamaican, British?

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.
Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British. (p. 25)

Then there is Dear Hearing World, an absolutely stunning piece of writing that looks at the social treatment of deafness in general. It may prove very validating. From page 37:

I call you out for refusing to acknowledge
sign language in classrooms, for assessing
deaf students on what they can’t say
instead of what they can, […]

Miami Airport, a poem full of white space that tells you everything else the words themselves do not, is based around a particularly alarming case of ‘you don’t look deaf’ whilst the redaction and response to Ted Hughes’ poem about a school for deaf children is profound as much for the redaction (it deletes Hughes’ poem in its entirety) as it is for Antrobus’ response where the present-day poet looks at Hughes’ lack of ability to see the students, both literally and metaphorically, taking away from Hughes both a human sense and his wholly inaccurate interpretation. (You don’t have to have read Hughes’ poem to understand Antrobus’ response, though you may wish to.)

There are no half measures in this collection, and just as important as the words and language are the line breaks and that use of white space, the emptiness often saying just as much as the words.

The Perseverance is just incredible. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.

 
Anne Brontë – Agnes Grey

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Against the odds.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: December 1847
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

Heading towards poverty, and with a need to help her family, nineteen-year-old Agnes sets out to become a governess for the wealthy – people who had been her mother’s peers. In doing this she finds many awful moral codes, but she soldiers on, her desire to help and her hope in the good in people continuing.

Agnes Grey was Anne’s début, and is the more easy-going of her two novels. The book is an interesting mix of routine, mundane, content and highly satisfying theme work. It’s well-written and even during the low moments sports a hard-to-put-down quality. Anne takes a far shorter time to tell her tales than her more famous sisters, Charlotte in particular, and at least in the context of our present day it pays off. For this, Agnes Grey is also a lot calmer.

Anne covers a number of topics simultaneously, the most notable being the lifestyle and general attitudes of the wealthy seen from the position of a servant, and animal abuse; the book is largely based on Anne’s time as a governess, and the animal abuse included is unfortunately in context1. These aspects are very difficult to read at times; Anne details Agnes’ inability to discipline her charges due to rulings laid out by their parents, with the appalling result this has on their personal development. There are only two governess jobs in the book; Anne uses the second to show how all the wealth in the world doesn’t necessarily mean happiness, as she shows the affect of rose-tinted glasses on dreams that were ripe for the taking.

Agnes herself is an interesting character, being both winsome and somewhat unaware of herself. Her personality reflects the general purpose of the book, calm and informative, thoughtful, but there are occasions wherein she seems to misunderstand that people’s thoughts about her are in tandem with the way she comes across – she has a tendency to suggest people are, for example, snubbing her, without reflecting on what she did before that quite likely gave them to believe she wanted distance.

Religion is ever present, Anne’s devote faith in full force. However the use is temperate – it’s natural and devoid of any preaching, a simple aspect of Agnes’ character and understandably spoken of given Anne’s background. There is also a budding romance, nestled among the rest of the text in a way that means it’s important enough without crossing the genre line.

Lastly, it’s worth noting the value in the more philosophical aspects of the book. It is in Anne’s general thoughts, presented as Agnes’ musings, that the book is at its best, often transending time:

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt, but are such assertions supported by actual evidence?

Likewise:

If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections. Others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind, and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and visa versa with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.

Agnes Grey is a stunning novel, in the sense of the words, what is said. It’s not difficult to see why it’s not as famous as the works of Charlotte and Emily – it’s far too calm and quite frankly far too considerate, though in a good way – but it’s worth its weight in gold.

Footnotes

1 In her biography of Charlotte, Gaskell recounts: ‘I was once speaking to her about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experience as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. We can only trust in such cases that the employers err rather from a density of perception and an absence of sympathy, than from any natural cruelty of disposition. Among several things of the same kind, which I well remember, she told me what had once occurred to herself. She had been entrusted with the care of a little boy, three or four years old, during the absence of his parents on a day’s excursion, and particularly enjoined to keep him out of the stable-yard. His elder brother, a lad of eight or nine, and not a pupil of Miss Brontë’s, tempted the little fellow into the forbidden place. She followed, and tried to induce him to come away; but, instigated by his brother, he began throwing stones at her, and one of them hit her so severe a blow on the temple that the lads were alarmed into obedience. The next day, in full family conclave, the mother asked Miss Brontë what occasioned the mark on her forehead. She simply replied, “An accident, ma’am,” and no further inquiry was made; but the children (both brothers and sisters) had been present, and honoured her for not “telling tales.” From that time, she began to obtain influence over all, more or less, according to their different characters; and as she insensibly gained their affection, her own interest in them was increasing. But one day, at the children’s dinner, the small truant of the stable-yard, in a little demonstrative gush, said, putting his hand in hers, “I love ‘ou, Miss Bront&euml.” Whereupon, the mother exclaimed, before all the children, “Love the governess, my dear!”‘ (Gaskell, 1857, pp. 189-190)

References

Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London

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