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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Top 5 Tuesday: Top 5 Cover Buys

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Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm. This week’s topic:

FEBRUARY 6TH – Top 5 Cover Buys

Now, I don’t actually buy a ton of books, so I just talked about the books that I added to my TBR because of their cover. Not just because of their cover, though – their summaries enticed me to, but the major draw was the cover.  I…kind of overdid this a bit, since I have nine and not five books, but oh well. Pretty covers and all.

Does anyone see the pattern? Because I sure do! It seems I love really detailed, busy covers with a ton of color and pattern-work.  I think the exception is The Crimson Ribbon? I especially love it if covers are bordered in the corners (I’m sure there’s a word for this), like Under the Pendulum Sun (the only book here I actually own, purchased without reading the summary, because THAT COVER), Jane Steele, A Curious Beginning, and Beast.

Don’t get me wrong; I sometimes like simple, minimalist designs as well, but there’s just something about this style that makes me feel like the artist is taking full advantage of the fact that they’re, well, an artists.  You know? Pretty much anyone can make a decent minimalist cover design, but these covers here take some serious skill.

P.S. I have to give a shout-out to The City of Brass and the two books in the Dreamblood Duology.  They don’t really match the style I discussed above, but they’re absolutely gorgeous and take some serious artistic skill too.


P.P.S.
If I ever get a book published and I get to have some say over the cover, I’m showing them this post.

Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking jack the ripperTitle: STALKING JACK THE RIPPER
Author: Kerri Maniscalco
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 326 (on Kindle it’s 276?)
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(2.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Despite being such a short book (my Kindle says 276 pages!), Stalking Jack the Ripper took me a remarkably long time to read, which tell you a lot about its pacing. For a murder mystery set in Victorian London, this book sure is a predictable snooze-fest. That’s essentially my main issue with it; I could have overlooked all the other flaws if the book had been as fast-paced as it promised. Instead, it dragged and dragged, with a lot of totally pointless scenes, which is some kind of accomplishment for a book this short.

It’s a shame, because I did like the atmosphere here; it was compelling enough to keep me reading. Unfortunately, a genre thriller set in 19th century London inevitably had me drawing a comparison so the infinitely more compelling Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, which was the best book I read last year. Perhaps if I hadn’t had Goodman’s book to compare this to, I would have been less disappointed.

I’m likely also thinking too critically here. The heroine, Audrey Rose (what is with that name! seriously, I know Audrey is a historically accurate name and all but I cringed every time I read it), reads like a 21st century teenager transplanted to 19th century London, and she keeps talking all about how she can be smart and pretty at once. I know, I know, this isn’t a treatise on feminism, who cares about anachronism in a genre thriller, this is probably really empowering for teen girls, etc. I know. I just wish the author had been a bit more subtle about it rather than banging us over the head with it constantly. Again, I can’t help but think of The Dark Days Club – the heroine in that novel is strong and eschews certain aspects of traditional femininity, but she does it realistically, within the bounds of how a 19th century woman would think.

As for the killer’s identity, it was pretty obvious by the mid-point of the book, especially when the writing started laying it on really, really thick with a red herring. Red herrings are not supposed to be that obvious! You may as well have said “this is exactly the opposite of what the truth is.” It made very little sense to me, character-wise, and it seemed like it was just done for shock value. The character seemed to do a complete 180.

The romance is actually the least terrible thing in this book? Usually I detest the Inexplicable Heterosexual Romance, but in this novel it was neither inexplicable nor detestable. The love interest, Thomas Cresswell, is kind of unique when it comes to male YA love interests, and I found him oddly charming. So he was fine. There were basically no other characters, though? The only other female character was Audrey Rose’s cousin Liza who was…fine, I guess, but I really thought that Audrey Rose would use her gender to talk to the prostitutes and other disreputable ladies of the East End. That’s my own fault for having that expectation (this actually happens in the sequel to The Dark Days Club, and goddamn I really need to stop comparing these two books!).

After all this I’m still kind of tempted by the next book in this series though? There was definitely something compelling about this book despite all its flaws. Perhaps it’s just the setting. This one was Victorian London, the next book is a boarding school in Romania, the third book is a cruise ship…it’s like the author is pulling ideal settings out of my brain. But can setting and atmosphere really be enough for me to keep going? Who knows. Tune in soon to find out.

What do you guys think? Does the sequel get better? Should I invest my time and energy or nah?

The Writer’s Tag

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Nobody tagged me for this, but I saw it on Reading Every Night and thought it looked like fun! I’ve been writing a lot more recently.  Not only has the quality of my writing improved, but so have my habits. I’ve become more at ease with the kind of writer I am and what works for me.

What genres, styles, and topics do you write about?

I write mostly fantasy! I tend to flit between YA and Adult, or fall in that nebulous category right in between, but usually it’s fantasy. Although I do have one women’s fiction/romance work that’s hidden deep within the recesses of my laptop and shall not be seen by any human eyes for a long, long time, if ever.

A lot of the topics I write are things that I want to see in books, so, female friendships, lots and lots of female characters, f/f relationships, men and women being friends and just friends, diverse characters, non-western fantasy settings, women who are not defined by romance, trope subversion, and lots of magic.


How long have you been writing?

For a while! I wrote my first completed short story when I was…twelve, I think? It was a murder mystery called “Jealousy Can Be Murder.” It had a cover page with Microsoft Word images. It was really, really terrible. Right around the same time I started writing Inuyasha and Harry Potter fanfiction.


Why do you write?

I love creating different world and different characters. But I also need to write, because if I don’t, my head gets so cluttered with different thoughts and plots and people that I can hardly think straight. I daydream a lot, and a lot of those daydreams turn into my stories. If I don’t get them on paper, they drive me insane.


When is the best time to write?

There’s never one specific time; it really depends on my mood. Sometimes I’ll be all fancy and go to a nice coffee shop (rarely), but most of the time I’m just sneaking in time to write whenever I can. Usually it’s during my free time at work. Sometimes it’s weekend evenings when the house is quiet.  Sometimes it’s at night after I’ve come home from work. I’ve found that it’s good to write whenever and wherever and not tie it down to a certain aesthetic or anything.


What parts of writing do you love and hate?

The parts of writing I love are…

  • Creating new characters and giving them names and descriptions and personas
  • Creating maps of new worlds and world-building in general
  • The initial burst of energy and inspiration when I can’t stop writing
  • Making pretty sentences

The parts of writing I hate are…

  • Plotting.  I loathe plotting and I always worry that I’m terrible at it. There’s just so much thought that needs to go into plotting, you know? It’s like, is there enough conflict? Do the characters have realized arcs that mesh with the plot? Is there an inciting incident, climax, etc? Is it interesting enough? Is it fast-paced? Is there a twist? Where’s the twist? Is the twist shocking enough? Does everything make sense? It’s obviously the crux of the novel but I’m so insecure about it.

How do you overcome writer’s block?

Whenever I’m “blocked” it’s usually just because I’m stuck with something to do with the plot. This usually comes in the outline stage, since I’ve discovered I don’t like to start writing unless I have a completed outline. Anyway, whenever this happens, I either go read another book to get some inspiration or try to find inspiration from something else. Pinterest is great for that.


Are you working on something at the moment?

I’m working on many things! I have a fantasy WIP that I’m pretty serious about; it’s fully outlined and I’m halfway done writing it. Once I’ve edited it I want to start querying for agents with it, so fingers crossed. I have a bunch of other WIP novels in the works, and also a bunch of short stories.


What are your writing goals this year?

  1. Finish my current WIP, edit it, and start querying.
  2. Finish the two short stories I’ve been working on since forever.
  3. Outline another WIP.

I don’t quite know who to tag (I suck at tagging anyway), but if obviously if you feel like doing this, go forth, and pingback to me so I can read your answers!

Top 5 Tuesday: Series I Want to Start This Year

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Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm. This week’s topic:

JANUARY 9TH – Top 5 series I want to start this year

I’m generally not especially good with series unless they really, really wow me. I find that most series don’t really need to be series, or at least don’t need to be as long as they end up being. Furthermore, I have a really, really crappy memory, so I often need to wait until the entire series is out so that I can read it all at once, which is kind of annoying. I don’t always dislike series, however – there are some series that I wish would stretch longer, because I love them so much! Fingers crossed that the ones I talk about below turn out to be like that!Read More »

Book Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

34275232Title: THE HAZEL WOOD
Author: Melissa Albert
Release Date: January 30th, 2018
Pages: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is an odd book, so odd it took me some time to decide if I liked it. I think I did, despite its strangeness, and despite the fact that it set itself up as one thing and turned into something else entirely (what I like to think of as Mara Dyer Syndrome).

We begin with the main character, Alice, explaining that she has spent her life on the run with her mother, Ella. What are they running from? It’s not quite clear – they call it “bad luck.” Ella thinks it has something to do with her mother, Althea Proserpine, the author of a strange book of fairy tales called Tales From the Hinterland. Ella doesn’t talk about her mother and Alice has never met her grandmother. Her life is strange, but she doesn’t think too hard about it. When Ella vanishes, seemingly kidnapped by real-life Hinterland characters, Alice has little choice but to team up with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland fan.

The first half of the book, which I actually enjoyed more, is half scavenger hunt, half road trip. It plays itself out like a variety of different genres – psychological thriller, mystery, supernatural horror – yet never quite settles into any one of them. It is only a bit past the halfway mark when this turns into the incredibly weird portal fantasy it was always meant to be, as Alice navigates her way through the Hinterland, which is kind of a creepy Wonderland. There’s a lot of really clever and shocking twists that I enjoyed, and a lot of strange fairy-tale logic that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, which I didn’t love. A lot of the time I felt like my brain was struggling to wrap itself around what exactly was happening, but it almost seemed like the book was trying to tell me the logic of it all isn’t important, because it’s a fairy tale, and it’s magic.

I want to address something I’ve seen in a lot of reviews so far: Alice’s character. Yes, she’s extremely unpleasant. But she isn’t meant to be likable. She is specifically written as horrible because there is a specific reason for how horrible she is, which is revealed towards the end. Plus Alice is aware of her bitterness and her rage, aware of how she can’t control it no matter how hard she tries, aware of how it claws its way up into her throat from her belly like a beast she has no power over. Basically, the narrative foreshadows the fact that her anger isn’t normal and that it makes her horrible. Besides, it makes her a compelling character, even if I didn’t like her (and I really, really, really didn’t like her).

I was much more fascinated by her mother, Ella, and more than once found myself wishing we had gotten to know her better. More is revealed about her towards the end, but I still wanted more. What I appreciated, though, was the bond between her and Alice, and how it essentially formed the crux of the entire narrative. Mother/daughter relationships like this are quite rare to see, and I loved that Ella and Alice’s love for each other was the backbone of this story. The budding romance with Ellery Finch is slight and ends up subverting the YA romance trope in a really intriguing way.

This book is compelling, mesmerizing in a weird way, and vaguely creepy. I finished it in two days because it’s such a quick read (but with lovely, occasionally dreamy prose) and I was pulled in by the mystery. The story keeps you guessing again and again and even when you think you understand what’s going on there’s more to learn. Again, it’s an odd book, and I’m not entirely sure I completely understood it. Like I said, it operates on fairy tale logic, which to me often feels nonsensically metaphorical and slippery, like it’s not meant to make any kind of sense.

Despite this, I enjoyed it very much, mainly because it’s rather unique! I really have never read anything quite like this before, and it was gripping, so it gets a high rating from me.

Book Review: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

17163123Title: TIPPING THE VELVET
Author: Sarah Waters
Release Date: 1998
Pages: 472
Publisher: Virago Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

How do I even begin to describe and review this mountain of a book, on which tomes of literary analyses have been written? Tipping the Velvet has been, alternately, described as a bildungsroman, a picaresque novel, literary smut, lesbian fiction…and I would say that all those descriptions are very, very accurate. It was a very rich, intense read, and also a rather raunchy and bawdy one.

Tipping the Velvet is styled as an autobiographical narration of one young woman’s coming of age in London. Nancy Astley, Whitstable-oyster girl, finds herself captivated by male-impersonator Kitty Butler, and leaves her home to join Kitty in London, where she soon joins Kitty on the stage. There is no traditional plot, such as it is; like a picaresque novel, this is mostly a series of loosely connected events. This, I will admit, tempered my enjoyment slightly; I’m a fan of the traditional plot structure. Without it, Tipping the Velvet seemed to drag on quite a bit in some places. However, this flaw is easily excused when one looks at the novel’s other qualities.

Sarah Waters has said that this is a “re-imagining” of of Victorian London rather than a recreation; that is, this is not so historically accurate as I had hoped. Waters has said that there is precious little evidence of such a flourishing lesbian underbelly to 1890s London, and that she has built up her version of the time period from little snatches of evidence. It’s disappointing, to be sure; I was rather under the impression that I was reading a historically accurate and well-researched recreation (given Waters’ Ph.D in 19th century gay and lesbian fiction). In hindsight, had I been a more critical reader I may have noted all the winks and nods Waters gives that point towards various embellishments.

The historical accuracy in this novel comes in the form of rich, vivid, sensory description of 19th century London; Waters brings to life the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of the city, from music-halls to pubs to slums to socialist union houses. I felt like London had come to life before my very eyes, and I found myself aching to walk the streets of the city to look for the remnants of history that Waters describes with such care and detail. 19th century London itself becomes a character in its own right, as Nancy navigates its various neighborhoods and social spheres and becomes a different person in each one.

Nancy’s malleability as a character is off-putting and makes her rather difficult to like. She flits from one life to another with relative ease, casts her family aside and never thinks of them, and is on the whole rather self-absorbed and with little self-awareness of the fact. She is, however, a compelling narrator, and her distinct voice engaged me from the very first page of the novel. Her character is also refreshing; no shame regarding her love for other women or her desire to dress up like a man. There is no tortured coming out story here; from the start Nancy acknowledges her love for women and is scornful of those who don’t accept her. Her open embrace of non-normative sexuality and lifestyles is what contributes to her eventual split from her first lover, who is fearful of losing herself to such predilections. As time goes on Nan embarks upon a sexual awakening, going from shy, hesitant sex in the dark with Kitty, to prostitution while dressed as a man, to playing mistress to a predatory wealthy woman who engaged in abusive behavior.

The sex is always explicit, and it’s revelatory. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like this novel; its contributions to the canon can hardly be understated. It was probably a bit too raunchy for my tastes, however, verging very close to erotica at various points (apparently Waters read a lot of 19th century pornography when studying for her Ph.D). I found myself exhausted that so much of Nancy’s life revolved around sex and sexual encounters. Not that I necessarily wanted something more chaste, or that I wasn’t giddy to finally read a depiction of lesbian sex in literary fiction, but there is just something I can’t articulate that made me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps it seemed that the eroticism was given more weight than actual love between the women? I’m not quite sure.

For all that, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this novel in all its incredible detail; I hardly have the words to describe how much 19th century London comes alive here. Despite the loose plot structure of the story it was nearly always compelling and intriguing, exploring class, gender, and sexuality through the eyes of a sexually brazen young woman who is unashamed of her desires. I will also say, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, that the novel ends quite happily and provides the appropriate amount of closure, allowing Nancy to acknowledge how much she values her openly lesbian lifestyle and to settle down with a woman she loves.