Book Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

freshwaterTitle: FRESHWATER
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Release Date: February 13, 2018
Pages: 240
Publisher: Grove Press
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

How does one talk about a book that is essentially a very personal memoir? Freshwater is a semi-autobiographical tale about a young Nigerian-Tamil woman named Ada who lives with multiple selves. That is, her consciousness appears to be made up of a group of ogbanje, spirits from Igbo folklore. They are one and they are many; the book’s narration is delivered from three perspectives, that of all the ogbanje, one particular manifestation named Asughura, and Ada.

To say that this book was mind-blowing is an understatement. I had seen a lot of hype surrounding Freshwater on Twitter, and I had sort of come to the conclusion that this was going to be a straightforward metaphor for multiple personality disorder. It’s not, and not just because the author has straight-up said that it’s not. You’ll find yourself doubting as you read. It’s actually quite a spiritual tome, which I was not expecting, so I found myself constantly having to adjust my expectations and my perceptions.

That’s the thing about Freshwater: it completely challenged all of my perceptions of reality, particularly the traditional Western understanding of psychology. It’s easy to forget that the field of psychology is artificially constructed, that mental illnesses are not ontological realities but very human and very Western categories created mostly by men who came with their own biases and particular worldviews. To my understanding, this is what Freshwater is challenging. Ada is considered mentally ill by some of the people in her life, but she – and her ogbanje – do not believe it to be so. Are we meant to take the ogbanje literally, then? Are we meant to believe they are real? Perhaps. I have to say I’m not entirely certain. I would love to sit down with the author and just have a lengthy, in-depth conversation about this book.

The prose is absolutely stunning. I found myself re-reading entire paragraphs multiple times to savor the lyrical and sensual prose. It maintains a certain elegance throughout, even as the events occurring in the narrative veer from ugly to mundane. There’s something about it that almost makes you want to believe this <>is a story told from the perspective of ageless spiritual beings. For my fantasy readers, this has elements of age-old epic fantasy that made me shiver in delight. I’d recommend this book to absolutely everyone, for it is an unprecedented foray into unfamiliar realities.

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Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

simon vs the homo sapiens agendaTitle: SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA
Author: Becky Albertalli
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 303
Publisher: Balzer and Bray
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I knew virtually nothing about this book except that was it about a gay teen. That’s it. But I’d heard so much about it I didn’t even read the summary before diving straight in. The book gets straight to the point at once:

“It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t notice I’m being blackmailed.”

With that, the reader is privy not only to the overarching plot, but also to Simon’s humor. Being in his head is hilarious; he’s got this kind of approach to life where he takes everything in stride and mostly with humor, and it leads to a character who is impossible not to like. He’s utterly charming. Unfortunately, he’s being blackmailed.

Simon is gay, but nobody knows this except for “Blue,” a fellow gay boy he has been anonymously emailing. When Simon forgets to log out of his email one day, a fellow classmate named Martin takes screenshots of his emails and blackmails Simon into setting up Martin with Abby, a new girl Simon is good friends with. But Martin isn’t as douchey as you would think. However, Simon tries his best to comply with Martin’s demands, and as the story moves along, Simon’s life changes irrevocably, and subtle hints are dropped about Blue’s identity.

I absolutely loved the reveal of who Blue was. I thought Albertalli did a fantastic job. I was totally surprised, but then I nodded my head because the reveal made perfect sense. Now I kind of want to go back and re-read this book just to watch for all the clues we were given. And I’d totally be down for re-reading this; it was so much damn fun. Like I said, Simon’s narration is engaging and hilarious, and the book is a super quick read. I think I finished it in a few hours? I mean, I also couldn’t put it down, so much so that I stayed up until 4AM until I finished it. It was just so readable and fun!

And it’s so sweet and happy! Like, it doesn’t completely ignore the realities of being a gay man in in the American South, but it still shows us gay people just being happy and carefree, which was amazing. There’s so much friendship and love and positivity here. I actually really love books with happy endings and happy characters, so this book just made me super happy and cozy.

Book Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

30319086Title: IF WE WERE VILLAINS
Author: M.L. Rio
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m not quite sure how to start this, because this book was an unexpected emotional roller coaster for me. It’s incredible to me that I started this book struggling to tell the characters apart and by the end I found myself loving each and every one of them. Inevitably, my review is not going to properly express the admiration I have for this book, which was all at once captivating, humorous, and tragic. I will do my best to express how much I loved it without spoiling anything, as I think this book is best read knowing as little about it as possible.

At Dellecher Classical Conservatory, an exclusive school for the arts, only Shakespeare is performed. Seven fourth-year theater students have played the same archetypes, both on and off the stage, throughout their years at Dellecher. In their fourth year, however, a reshuffling of the cast roles unsettles the carefully constructed dynamic in this group, and soon one of their number is dead. The narrator, Oliver Marks, has spent ten years in prison for this crime, and as the book opens he begins to tell his story.

Rio has crafted seven individual characters and breathed life into each and every one. Yes, some characters were weaker than others, but ultimately it is the clash of these personalities, as well as their affections for and resentments towards one another that propel this narrative forward. One of my favorite tropes is that of “found families” and that is what you will find here – a slightly dysfunctional family, perhaps, but a family nonetheless. It is this utter familiarity with one another that makes it so easy to get to know these characters and love them. True to its artistic inspiration, this book is an investigation of monumental themes like guilt and villainy, love and loyalty, and the boundary between art and life. The tangled relationships between this group of characters is the driving force of the narrative; the complexity and ambiguity between the seven of them is unabashedly human, delightfully endearing, and, of course, occasionally uncomfortable. It makes for intense, rich reading.

This book is also an examination of the havoc wreaked by toxic masculinity and a subversion of normative expectations, neither of which is immediately obvious, but both of which are as integral to the plot as Shakespeare. The critique of toxic masculinity is remains somewhat obscure, unfortunately, and I do wish that it had been more clearly interrogated, though I also understand why the author chose to leave things more ambiguous. Wonderfully, however, the subversion of normative expectations (and that’s as specific as I’ll get) is unequivocal.

Speaking of richness: the prose is incredible. More than once I found myself pausing to re-read paragraphs for the sheer joy of the language. Rio uses words to paint vivid mental images of Dellecher, deftly crafting a dramatic and atmospheric setting. It’s rare that I feel so utterly transported to a place I’m reading about, but in this book, I could feel the beauty and the claustrophobia inherent in a small, enclosed campus like Dellecher. I can still picture the cold, still lake, the stars reflecting on its surface, with a tower rising out of the trees in the background. The author’s uses of analogy and metaphor are also absolutely superb, lending elegance to a narrative that could have easily devolved into melodrama given its lofty inspiration.

There’s a lot of Shakespeare in here, both literally and intertextually. Not only are there huge chunks of Shakespearean quotes as part of extended, lovingly described performances, and not only do the characters often speak in Shakespearean quotes to one another, the entire narrative is framed as a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespearean themes lurk in every corner, discussed by the characters and hinted at by the author. That is not to say this book is only for Bardolators, however: personally, I’m not Shakespeare’s biggest fan, and yet I was able to enjoy this book immensely. It certainly won’t hinder your reading experience, in my opinion, only enhance it. If you’re worried it makes things melodramatic and pretentious, don’t be – yes, there is an inherent pretentiousness to characters speaking in Shakespearean sonnets, but it is something the characters and the author are all too aware of. It is this intense self-awareness that makes the book – and the characters – much more likable than their counterparts in The Secret History, a book with similar events but radically different themes.

By the end I was surprisingly emotional. As a person, the ending made me want to curl up into a ball and sob, but as a reader and a writer, I thought it was very fitting, artistically and thematically. This is a thrilling, engaging read, with gorgeous prose, likable characters, and plenty of literary allusions. What more could one want? I highly, highly recommend this book, even if literary fiction isn’t normally your jam (it certainly isn’t mine). M.L. Rio is definitely an author whose career I will be keeping a close eye on.

Book Review: The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman

26061581Title: THE DARK DAYS PACT
Author: Alison Goodman
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 490
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Once again, this series astounds me with the immense amount of historical detail present! As a history nerd, and a huge fan of 19th century England (well, and the 19th century in general), I was delighted to learn about things like bathing machines and French spies.

This book picks up right where we left off, with Helen in Brighton with Carlston and the gang, training to be a Reclaimer. Their holiday is not as idyllic as it should be, however, with Carlston slowly descending into madness and an old nemesis with the power of the Home Office comes with a confidential mission for Helen and Mr. Hammond.

While the first book was somewhat languidly paced to allow for worldbuilding, this simply powers through with a fast-paced, thrilling plot with high tension and very high stakes. This plot doesn’t neglect character development, however; Helen grows in strength and confidence in this book, and other characters, such as Margaret and Mr. Hammond, are further fleshed out as well. Even Carlston does well, though I still don’t like him as much as I think the author wants me to. Alas.

This series has single-handedly reignited my interest in historical fiction, which is a pretty impressive testament to how awesome it is.

Book Review: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

15993203Title: THE DARK DAYS CLUB
Author: Alison Goodman
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 482
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I. Love. This. Book. You know when you’ve come to enjoy a book so much you don’t want it to end? I was torn between finishing this book quickly to find out what happens, and reading it slowly to savor every scene. I was hooked from the very first chapter, where the setting is quickly and fastidiously established as Regency England. A fascinating time period, and the skill of Alison Goodman’s research shines from every page! I truly felt like I was in Regency London; Goodman pays close attention to fashion, smells, common foods, popular dances, weather, locations, and so on. It all lends the book an extreme authenticity that makes it an absolute pleasure to read. I feel like I’ve just received an intriguing history lesson on Regency London! When I say this I don’t at all mean to indicate that this felt dry or textbook-like! On the contrary! But as a history nerd I do enjoy all the little details that popped up.

In The Dark Days Club, Lady Helen Wrexhall discovers that there is more darkness in the world than she first thought, and that she is inextricably bound to it. As she is introduced to this underbelly she discovers her new powers and abilities, all under the guidance of the mysterious and detested Earl of Carlston, a man who shares Helen’s powers but is also suspected of killing his wife. He and Helen share a budding but unresolved romance – in true Regency fashion, it is quite a slow burn and for the most part remains within the bounds of propriety. I think he’s a little bit of an asshole, but for me that’s what makes him interesting, that he’s so imperfect – he’s a good person, but he doesn’t have great bedside manner, so to speak.

Helen is a much more pleasant character – bright, curious, kind, but also not the stereotype I expected. She is more realistic than that: not quite rebellious, not quite so eager to shirk the boundaries of normal life and society, merely tiptoe around them. She’s a modern day women magically inserted into a Regency-era world to be the ~Exceptional Woman~. Rather, she is a realistic Regency-era woman who is heavily shaped by the customs of her time and place. She also shares a camaraderie with her maid (who becomes her partner in crime in a way), which was so refreshing to see! Female friendship is always appreciated.

The mythology here is fantastic! Not supremely original, but executed brilliantly, in a way that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details. Goodman created such an interesting world here, one with suitably high stakes that kept the tension high throughout the novel. By the 80% mark I was walking around my house doing things with my Kindle in my face because I simply could not put the book down! I absolutely love books that turn into compelling page-turners, and I love books that feel like home, which this book did. I’m a sucker for period drama set in England, and this book hit on everything I ever wanted: high-society drama, historical accuracy, the supernatural, loads of gory murder, sardonic dialogue, and nail-biting mystery!

I’m going to stop babbling because this review is long and effusive enough, but hopefully it has managed to convey the depth of my enjoyment of this book!

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

29283884Title: THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 513
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

The first time I heard about this book I was attending a MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. It came up when one of the presenters wondered whether there were any YA books that actively critiqued white male privilege. That’s really all I knew about the book, but I added it to my TBR. Discovering it was an adventure romp though 17th century Europe featuring two queer protagonists was an added bonus.

This book is unabashedly queer, and I love it for that. Perhaps it’s anachronistic, but I don’t even care. Henry “Monty” Montague, privileged son of an earl, is heading off for his Grand Tour of Europe, along with hist best friend Percy (a biracial young man) and his younger sister Felicity. Things don’t go quite as planned, however. After Monty pulls an embarrassing stunt, he and his company are set on by bandits. As they flee, they end up caught in an alchemical conspiracy which leads them to run from Marseilles to Barcelona to Venice to Santorini.

Part of the fun of this novel is the descriptions of all these cities – Mackenzi Lee has visited most of them, and it’s clear in her writing. Her details just feel authentic, vividly bringing to life these wildly different places frequented by the gang. In addition to her spectacular writing, her dialogue is absolute fire! There are so many entertaining conversations between these characters. And of course I have to mention the narration itself – it’s first person POV and being in Monty’s head is like being at a comedy club run by a rather sardonic fellow.

I loved Monty. I loved him in the way you have to love rakes and scoundrels and unlikeable characters (to the Great Comet crowd: he reminded me of Anatole!). He grows over the course of his adventure, with the help of Percy and Felicity, who are constantly calling him out on his privilege. I adored sweet and sensible Percy as well! The pair balanced each other quite well and their romantic scenes together were so sweet (and sexy). And of course, Felicity! To illustrate how badass she is, let me tell you that at one point she nonchalantly begins stitching herself up without even wincing. I loved her friendship with Percy and the bonding moments she had with her brother Monty. I’m so excited the sequel is going to be about her.

This was an absolutely wild ride from start to finish, but it’s also a book with substance. Not only does it tackle issues of race and gender, but it looks at mental illness as well. None of it feels forced, either. Sure, the conversations the characters have regarding these issues might be a bit anachronistic, but I don’t care. They’re executed well and they only serve to improve the characters’ relationships. This was such great fun!