Book Reviews: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Malaysia

Author: Zen Cho
Title: Black Water Sister
Narrator: Catherine Ho
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Incorporated, 2021.
Summary/Review:

Jessamyn Teoh, a recent college graduate who grew up in the United States after her family emigrated there from Malaysia during her early childhood, faces an uncertain future.  She is moving back to Malaysia with her parents where she has to adjust to an unfamiliar culture, find work, and maintain a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend while hiding that she’s lesbian from her parents.  Things grow more complicated when Jess begins hearing the voice of her deceased grandmother Ah Ma.  Soon Jess finds herself plunged into an adventure featuring a powerful real estate developer, gangsters, and gods.  To put things right, and to find justice for Ah Ma, Jess must become a medium for a vengeful goddess known as Black Water Sister.

Black Water Sister is a unique novel that blends elements of fantasy, mystery, and fish out of water story to tell a story of contemporary Malaysia.  Facets of Malaysian culture such as tradition, religion, and family are woven into the narrative.  Unfortunately for Jess (and others like her), homophobia is also a part of the Malaysian culture.  It’s an interesting and well-written story that I enjoyed.
 
Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique


Around the World for a Good Book selection for the United States Virgin Islands

Author: Tiphanie Yanique
Title: Land of Love and Drowning
Narrator: Cherise Boothe, Korey Jackson, Rachel Leslie, and Myra Lucretia Taylor
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, [2014]
Summary/Review:

This historical novel is a multi-generational saga about the Bradshaw family of the United States Virgin Islands.  The story begins in 1917 with the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States and the ongoing theme of the narrative is how the Virgin Islands are American but treated as something tangential.  Events withing the story include the enlistment of V.I. men to World War II and the Korean War, the rise of tourism and resort hotels, Hollywood using the islands as a filming locale, and the Civil Rights movement which inspires a movement to occupy the beaches that are being privatized by white American property owners and hotels.

The Bradshaw’s story starts with Owen Arthur Bradshaw, a ship’s captain, and his wife Antoinette, who are part of highly-respectable family on St. Thomas.  They have two daughters, Eona and Anette.  Owen also  fathers a son named Jacob Esau with his mistress. When their parents die (Owen in a traumatic shipwreck), Eona is forced to put aside her desires to raise Anette.  The novel alternates among the three children’s points of view as it follows their story up until the 1970s.  Yanique’s writing feels inspired by Toni Morrison and has touches of magical realism.  There’s also a lot of incest, both knowing and unknowing.

There are parts of this book that are very interesting but also some parts I found quite absurd (the Hollywood movie ends up being a pornographic film, in the 1950s?) and other times that I just wished that Yanique would get on with the story instead of circling around a point.  So, consider this a mixed review.

Recommended books:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


Author: Charles Dickens
Title:A Christmas Carol
Publication Info: Chapman & Hall, 1843
Summary/Review:

Over the course of December, I’ve participated in an online book club called A Dickens December where Charles Dickens’ classic story of Christmas redemption was released in short chunks for each day up until December 26.  I am, like most people in the English-speaking world (and beyond), very familiar with the story of the greedy and self-interested old Ebeneezer Scrooge who is transformed by spirits of the Past, Present, and Yet to Come.  Not only have I seen this story adapted into several films, but also I participated in two different stage productions in my childhood!

And yet this is the first time I’ve actually read the book.  The adaptations tend to get it right, adding embellishments more than leaving anything out.  The big thing about reading the book though is seeing Dickens way with words.  I’ve included several of my favorite passages below that show Dickens’ talent with a turn of the phrase.  As always it’s nice to revisit something familiar and see it in a new light.

Favorite Passages:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.


The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.


Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!


“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”


The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.


They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”


He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart, perhaps, than they were.


Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!


Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and, knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk


Author: Eva Jurczyk 
Title: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Narrator: Hannah Cabell
Publication Info: Poisoned Pen Press (2022)
Summary/Review:

Liesl Weiss is no sooner named the interim director of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at a university in Toronto when things start to go wrong.  A rare Plantin Polyglot Bible is supposed to be the library’s latest prize acquisition but it is missing and the only one who had seen it is the previous director who was incapacitated by a stroke.  Liesl comes to the realization that the Plantin was stolen and it could’ve been an inside job.  Was it Miriam, a librarian who suddenly stops showing up for work just before the book went missing?  Or could it be Francis Churchill, a rare books expert who Liesl is rumored to have had a fling with?

In addition to trying to solve the mystery, Liesl has to deal with people questioning her ability to do the job as a woman.  The university president certainly doesn’t want to make the theft made public because it would frighten off donors.  Working in an academic library myself, the absolute most accurate part of the book is the university’s need for reputation management and placating wealthy donors above everything else.  But it’s also a great mystery with a very satisfying conclusion.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sôsuke Natsukawa


Author: Sôsuke Natsukawa
Title: The Cat Who Saved Books
Narrator: Kevin Shen
Translator: The Cat Who Saved Books
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2021)
Summary/Review:

High school student Rintaro Natsuki is orphaned after the death of his bookseller grandfather.  Already shy and nerdy, Rintaro stops going to school and isolates himself from the world as he prepares to close up his grandfather’s bookshop and move in with an aunt.  He is surprised by Tiger, a sarcastic talking tabby cat, who tells him that he is needed to save books and leads him into a magical labyrinth within the bookshop.

On three adventures, Rintaro engages in metaphorical confrontations with a collector who keeps books behind glass, a scholar who disfigures books with notations, and an Amazon-style corporate president who treats books as a commodity.  Rintaro also starts forming a connection with a girl from his high school named Sayo.  It’s a sweet narrative that anyone who enjoys books, cats, and coming of age stories should enjoy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Vietnam

Author: Ocean Vuong
Title: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Narrator: Ocean Vuong
Publication Info: [New York, NY] : Penguin Audio, 2019
Summary/Review:

In this poetic, nonlinear narrative, the narrator – nicknamed Little Dog – writes a letter explaining his life to his mother, Hong.  The story is based on Vuong’s own life, who like Little Dog is the grandchild of a Vietnamese woman and a white American soldier, emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut as a refugee, and is raised by a single mother.  The center of the narrative is Little Dog’s teenage experience of coming out gay and his first relationship with a boy named Trevor.  The language in this book is beautifully deployed in describing ugly things, from Little Dog’s grandmother Lan’s experiences in the Vietnam War to Trevor’s narcotics addiction. From the pain, Vuong is able to extract a novel of beauty.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Bangladesh

Author: Tahmima Anam
Title: The Startup Wife 
Narrator: Tanha Dil
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Asha Ray, the child of immigrants grows up feeling like an outsider in the United States, but blossom into adulthood as a talented computer scientist.  While working on her PhD, she is reunited with her high school crush, a white American named Cyrus.  They fall in love, get married, and begin working on an app built on Cyrus’ idea of creating rituals around non-religious things that people are passionate about.  Working in a startup incubator in New York City, Cyrus begins to emerge as a charismatic celebrity tech guru, while Asha and her work are pushed to the side.

I have to say I waited too long after finishing reading to write this review because I’m forgetting the details.  But I do recall initially enjoying the book but losing interest as it went along.  Nevertheless it is an interesting take on “bro culture” in the tech world that discriminates against women and people of color as well as the immigrant experience.  There are also parts of it that oddly reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  I suspect that my engagement problems with this book were more my fault than the authors so your mileage may vary.

Rating: ***

Book Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Jamaica

Author: Marlon James
Title: A Brief History of Seven Killings
Narrators: Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis
Publication Info: [Minneapolis, MN] : HighBridge Audio, 2014.
Summary/Review:

This novel is anything but brief, but instead an epic story told from multiple points-of-view sprawling over three decades and spilling out of Kingston to New York City.  There also a lot more than seven killings depicted.  The title of novel is sort-of explained later in the narrative as a kind of story-within-the-story.

The action of the story takes place over five days.  The first two are in December 1976 and detail the attempted assassination on Bob Marley (referred to throughout the novel as “The Singer”).  Later sections of the novel are set on single dates in 1979, 1985, and 1991 and deal with the ongoing personal and political ramifications of the assassination attempt as well as the rising crack epidemic.  The narrators include gang members and dons of Jamaica’s political party-aligned gangs, a CIA agent, an American music writer originally from Rolling Stone, the ghost of a murdered politician, and a young woman desperate to leave Jamaica for the USA who changes her identity several times throughout the novel.

This is a challenging book to read due to its sprawling narrative and dozens of characters.  It’s hard to keep track of the whole story and honestly I think some of the chapters may just as well be self-contained short stories.  The Jamaican patois used by many of the characters can also be difficult although I enjoyed listening to the voice actors on the audiobook. But the hardest part of the book is that is just so brutal, violent, and unceasingly grim.  That doesn’t make it a bad book, of course, and I do like to be challenged.  But it was a hard book to read nonetheless.

Recommended books:

  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Rating: ***

Book Review: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton


Author: Kira Jane Buxton
Title: Hollow Kingdom
Narrator: Robert Petkoff
Publication Info:New York ; Boston : Grand Central Publishing, 2019
Summary/Review:

This novel depicts a zombie apocalypse in the greater Seattle region of Washington as narrated by S.T., a domesticated American crow kept as a pet by a loutish man named Big Jim. When Big Jim and the other humans turn feral, S.T. must flee with his best friend, a dim but loyal hound dog named Dennis.  Thus begins a journey of discovery for S.T., raised since hatching to be human, to get in touch with his crow identity.  S.T. learns that his mission in life is to ally with wild birds to help rescue domestic animals who are at risk from both zombie humans and larger predators (including animals escaped from the zoo).

The crude humor of Hollow Kingdom reminds me a lot of the writing of Christopher Moore.  I felt the metaphor of humanity addicted to the internet and screens was heavy handed, and my interest started to lag in the last part of the book.  Nevertheless though it is a creative work of fiction with a unique perspective.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney


Author: Sally Rooney
Title: Normal People
Narrator: Aoife McMahon
Publication Info: [S.l.] : Crown/Archetype, 2019.
Summary/Review:

This novel tells the story of two young Irish people who attend the same secondary school in County Sligo, Ireland.  Connell is a popular, working class student while Marianne comes from a wealthy family but her eccentric demeanor makes her unpopular at school.  They get to know one another because Connell’s mother works as a housecleaner at Marianne’s home.  They start a relationship that they keep secret from their classmates.

Both Connell and Marianne end up studying at Trinity College Dublin where Marianne blossoms and becomes popular while the shyer Connell feels like an outsider. Their paths cross frequently over the years, sometimes rekindling their romance, sometimes fighting.  The story is unsettling because it deals with abuse and the dark side of otherwise likable characters.  The title Normal People is ironic since both of them do not feel normal due to their intelligence and disinterest in what the people their age are typical interested in.  Overall it’s a realistic and compelling narrative.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****