The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey | Book Review

Fans of the 2017 Oscar award-winning movie, The Shape of Water, need look no further than this sensual book about a cursed mermaid who falls in love with a local fisherman who saves her from captivity after she is caught swimming in the Caribbean by two Americans.

Blending magic and myth, The Mermaid of Black Conch is a truly tantalising book that draws the reader in. Set in the mid-1970s, the book revolves around the story of a woman cursed by other jealous women to live as a mermaid, and what happens when she is captured and falls in love with a man. What makes the book powerful is Roffey’s way of writing, which is poetic and direct: each word feels carefully chosen to evoke emotions from the reader. Roffey makes you believe in the existence of mythical creatures and guides you into a world that feels familiar yet alien all at once.

For anyone craving a literary fix and looking to be transported to another time and place, this is an absolute must-read.

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy | Book Review

A heartwarming read that can be gobbled in seconds, or savoured in bite-size pieces.

I recently interviewed with a publishing company for an editorial assistant position working with their gift books list. Ahead of the interview, to prepare, I visited several bookshops to chat with booksellers about what kind of gift books they had in stock and what was selling well/poorly.

Cue the introduction to this gem of a book. I devoured this beautifully cloth-bound picture book in one go at the store, and felt the world change and become brighter around me as I flipped through the gorgeous illustrations presented in this modern day fable. The book tells the story of a boy who wanders into the wild and along the way, befriends animals who teaches him about the world around him.

If you’re looking for a beautiful, uplifting book to share with a friend, this is it.

Must I Go by Yiyun Li | Book Review

“Posterity, take notice!” 

So begins Must I Go, acclaimed author Yiyun Li’s fourth novel. This epistolary work follows Lilia Liska, a cynical 81-year old woman, as she reminisces on life. Flipping between the past and the present, the book tackles themes of mortality, grief, and family, as Lilia obsesses over the published diary of a long-deceased former lover, and annotates his journal entries with her own thoughts and commentary to be left behind for future generations to peruse. 

Having heard great reviews of Yiyun Li’s writing (Li is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship and the PEN/Jean Stein book award), I had high hopes for this book, which ultimately faced a slow death. I found Must I Go a disappointing first foray into Yiyun Li’s body of work: the novel is a heavy, introspective read, and I quickly felt weighed down as I slogged through page after page of dense prose.

My biggest problem with this book was that I found it, frankly, boring. While Li’s cutting descriptions at times captured my imagination, there was little to offset the fact that the novel as a whole was poorly paced and lacked a sense of tension. Most books have a beginning, a middle and an end, where the writer lulls the reader through various trials and tribulations to come to some sort of conclusion: an emotional revelation, or fresh insight on life, perhaps. For Must I Go, that was not the case. As I made my way through the story, I often felt a lack of direction, and Lilia’s abstract monologues on life and death did little to resonate with me.

While the odd poetic or insightful phrase jumped out at me – “the moment you want to be remembered by another person you give him the power to forget you” – for the most part, time seemed to slow as I read this book. Lilia is not meant to be a likeable character – that much is clear from the first few chapters of the novel. But the disdain she holds towards everyone in her life was difficult to read for more than a few chapters at a time. Lilia’s life has not been easy – she grew up with parents who had little respect for each other in a loveless marriage, and her daughter committed suicide – and the contempt she holds for other people is evident with each abrasive critique made. As a woman in her early-20s who still has joie de vivre, it felt exhausting to live inside Lilia’s head.

What kept me reading was the elusive promise of some astounding revelation, where everything would come together and the story would have a sense of purpose. Yiyun Li’s reputation precedes her, and I was drawn to reading Must I Go because I was certain I would encounter literary genius. Not only has Yiyun Li studied an MFA at the prestigious University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, but she also teaches Creative Writing at Princeton University, my alma mater. Perhaps, then, part of the disappointment I felt towards this book is of my own making. I held unrealistically high expectations for Li: from Must I Go, I expected to be blown away – to experience from this book the kind of lingering emotional conflict that contemporary classics like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day evoke.

Sadly, that was not to be. Take notice: readers who revel in antiheroes, introspection and prosaic monologues will find Must I Go the perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter’s evening. Those like me who are searching for something more tangible and hopeful to dig their teeth into would be better off reading something else.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicone Valley Startup by John Carryrou | Book Review

This book was a technically great, insightful read that unfortunately, I didn’t connect with emotionally.

Bad Blood tells the true story of the collapse of a multi-billion dollar healthcare startup, Theranos, which promised to revolutionise the medical industry through the invention of a machine that could carry out blood tests with but a prick of a finger. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was widely viewed as the Steve Jobs of the healthcare industry, but in reality was a fraudster who duped investigators, FDA officials and her own employees into believing that Theranos’ technology worked, when it didn’t. Following a tip from a former Theranos employee, in late 2015, the Wall Street Journal’s John Carryrou exposed Theranos through a series of front-page articles, and this book presents the full story of Theranos as per Carryrou’s investigation.

While acknowledging that this book intelligently digs into the underbelly of Theranos’ history and Holmes’ lack of ethics, I have to admit this book lacks the indefinable quality that makes me love to read. To me, this book felt educational, but not exciting, and no doubt my opinion is shrouded by my inherent bias towards a love of prosaic fiction vs. investigative non-fiction.

Ardent fans of investigative non-fiction will love this story, and I would recommend this book to that audience for its educational value and clear storytelling. Carreyrou explains Theranos’ technological issues concisely, and this book tells a gripping tale filled with white-collar scandal that poses pertinent questions about our society: how is it that one startup could commit such heinous crimes and get away with it for so long? What drove Holmes to these delusions of Theranos’ capabilities, that had the potential to put millions of lives at risk? How did the culture of Silicon Valley contribute to Theranos’ rise?

The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson | Book Review

As far as final instalments in a series goes, this one was pretty decent.

I first picked up Truly Devious in 2018, during my final year at University, and fell in love with the series. The Hand on the Wall is the third and final book in the Truly Devious trilogy, a YA murder mystery which follows Stevie Bell, a true-crime aficionado, as she enrols at the infamous Ellingham Academy with the intent of solving a legendary cold case of kidnapping and murders. As Stevie investigates, strange things begin to happen in the present day, and people start to go missing. The Hand on the Wall wraps up the trilogy, flipping between the past and the present to tie up all the loose ends.

Objectively, there isn’t much wrong with the book. Johnson’s style of writing is easygoing, the book’s plot is intricate and interesting, and there is ample representation of different kinds of people (cis, queer, disabled, to name a few). The problem for me was that by the time I got my hands on this book, two years later… well, the story was no longer as exciting. Perhaps if I read the whole series again from the beginning, I’d enjoy it, but even though this final instalment was well-paced and well-written, I frequently found my mind wandering as I read, and I skimmed portions of the book.

In my opinion, this book suffered the classic final-book-in-a-series disease, where it couldn’t possibly live up to the intrigue that had been built across the first two books.

Did I enjoy reading this book? Yes.

Did I enjoy the series as a whole? Sure.

Would I read it again? Probably not.

Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi-Coates | Book Review

In one word: meh.

Even before the upsurge in the Black Lives Matters movement earlier this year (2020), Between the World… was a book that I had been planning to read for a long time. I was excited to pick this book up for several reasons: it had a gorgeous title, a beautifully plain book cover (yes, I do judge books by their covers), and it had won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2015. I didn’t know much about the book going in, but these details were enough to intrigue me.

Unfortunately, for me personally, this book did not resonate.

Although I loved the concept of the book – an epistolary work, in which the author writes a letter to his adolescent son to expound on his life as a black man living in America – I found it hard to connect to Coates’ style of writing. While the stories and themes that Coates touches on all held the potential to be highly moving, in my extremely subjective opinion, his use of prose detracted from his ideas. Coates’ experimental, stream-of-consciousness style of writing lent the book a feeling of inauthenticity – at odds with its contents – and I frequently found myself either having to take breaks from reading, or having to re-read certain sections to remind myself what had happened.

Does the book have some great ideas, and uplift the traditionally marginalised narrative of how terrifying and stifling it is to be black? Yes.

Does that mean I enjoyed this book? Unfortunately, no.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney | Book Review

I don’t know what it is about Sally Rooney, but she just gets it.

Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends (CwF), is set in Ireland and follows Frances, a 21-year-old college student, as she embarks on an affair with Nick, an actor in his 30s. Similar to Rooney’s Normal People (her better known novel about two teenagers’ mutual attraction that has since been adapted to a highly acclaimed BBC TV series), the plot of CwF is simple: Frances is a girl navigating her inexplicable attraction to a married man. As the story unfolds, sub-plots involve explorations of Frances’ relationships with her family, her charismatic and sharp ex-girlfriend, and Nick’s wife.

I can’t put my finger on what made this book stand out to me. At first, I was compelled to read because I had heard great things from a friend; at some point though, I became invested in Frances’ character development and Rooney’s style of storytelling.

Rooney has a way of choosing words carefully to evoke feelings, and while none of the characters in the book are likeable, certain moments felt relatable and raw. Rooney is brilliant at conveying emotions of hurt, jealousy and despair: as Frances realises that she is not as in control of her feelings as she initially believes, we see her lash out, and grow.

Still, even though this story left a big positive impression on me for its emotional impact… something about Rooney and her writing throws me off. In private conversations, I’ve used the words “loaded nothingness” to describe Rooney’s style of writing. Quite frankly… Rooney’s style of storytelling feels like a grown-up version of YA author John Green’s. Throughout the novel, we live inside Frances’ head and watch her train of thoughts unspool, and Frances and her acquaintances discuss everything from communism to the meaning of love. Her characters are simultaneously self-obsessed and self-possessed, yet aloof: so above their circumstances that they are capable of detaching themselves to make social commentary even while living moment-to-moment.

Separately, as a woman, I found Rooney’s portrayal of troubled college girls icky. In both Normal People and CwF, Rooney’s protagonists are waif-like young women, who have no life goals, barely eat, severely lack self-esteem, commit self-harm, and seek approval from men. For all that these women are viewed as independent, they are highly co-dependent, and exist as manic pixie dream-girls, to help others fulfil their lives. Despite being the central protagonist of the story, and a working-class struggling student, Frances has no career plans, and frequently has bland thoughts admitting she doesn’t care at all about her future. Frances herself is uninteresting, and her existence is almost solely centred around Nick.

I think I find Rooney’s depiction of women distasteful because for all their perceived independence and strong-will, they orbit around weak love interests, and set-backs lead them to spiral into acts of self-harm and self-criticism. I probably also find it icky because there is some truth to this narrative: people aren’t inherently interesting, strong women have a weak side, and self-harm and low self-esteem is prevalent among young women.

But still. Yuck.

For me, this is the rare book that borders the line between love-and-hate. I simultaneously want to re-read it, while throwing it across the room.

Make of that what you will.

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

It pains me to say that for me personally, this book really missed the mark.

Going into reading, I had high expectations. The book seemed promising: it had a beautiful title, and was an own-voices Asian-American novel that had been nominated for the National Book Award in 2019. Quickly, I found that this book was not for me.

I am and always will be a sucker for beautiful prose, and On Earth… is chockfull of it. The problem is, with how fragmented the story was – flipping between the past, the present and different character perspectives – I often spent more time decoding the prose to figure out what was happening than enjoying the book itself. Every now and then, the odd scene would pop up that caught my interest, but besides that, I held little to no investment in the story, and ended up skim-reading parts, hoping to find the will to continue.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller | Book Review

Warning: this book hits hard.

Just as I had named Mark Mansen’s self-help book my favourite non-fiction read of 2020, Miller’s Know My Name dethrones it to take the top spot. Given how brilliant this book is, I am both unapologetic about my sudden change of heart and the fact that this book review is longer than usual.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller is a heart-wrenching memoir that tells one sexual assault survivor’s story. Miller is “Emily Doe”, the previously unnamed victim of the highly publicised Brock Turner sexual assault case of 2015, and the author of the viral 12-page Victim Impact Statement published by Buzzfeed, that among other things galvanised a movement pushing for changes in the way the California legal system handles cases of sexual assault.

On its own, Miller’s story would have stood up as powerful, provocative and necessary in a climate where victims of sexual assault rarely receive justice for the pain inflicted upon them, and women are blamed for their behaviour when receiving unwanted advances. But what makes this book unique is Miller’s writing style, which provokes readers to engage with these issues on a personal level.

Several times throughout this book, I had to take a break from reading to compose myself. Miller’s beautiful, evocative prose, and her ability to contextualise her experiences as part of a broader problem that women around the world face every. single. day. broke my heart. As a woman, I related to Miller’s discomfort, fear, and outrage as she recounted smaller moments in her life – both before and after the incident – when men made her feel like her body was a liability, through harassment like cat-calling.

By telling her story, Miller humanises the bigger picture of violence against women, and highlights how privilege tips the balance of power in the legal system. Even when convicted guilty on 3 counts of sexual assault, Turner’s background of being a white, wealthy, Stanford student mitigated the punishment he received. Miller criticises a culture which has for so long allowed perpetrators of sexual assault such as Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Larry Nassar to not only continue committing heinous crimes on female bodies, but to hold positions of power. Crucially, Miller poses the question of how problematic moral stances on race, class, and gender inform the legal system, and intertwines the issue of violence against women with other issues, including that of violence against black people.

Had Turner never assaulted Miller, I have no doubt that her voice would have shone through as a writer. The maturity of her writing dazzles in the imagery she chooses to weave into her story.

There is so much more I could say about this book, but for now, I choose to end with a series of quotes that moved me, in no particular order:

  • There are heroes in this story
  • We are designed to bend and fold, to comfort ourselves and each other
  • I decide what I am capable of
  • You have to hold out to see how your life unfolds, because it is most likely beyond what you can imagine
  • Having extra needs does not make you too difficult, too time consuming, but worthy of compassion and love
  • It’s never too late for a new beginning
  • Over the span of our lives, we may not see everything that we want corrected, but still we fight
  • I do not exist to be the eternal flame, the beacon, the flowers that bloom in your garden
  • Denying darkness does not bring anyone closer to the light
  • History is happening now, and we are a part of it
  • Do not become the ones that hurt you. Stay tender with your power
  • Never fight to injure, fight to uplift
  • I dust myself off, and go on

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Mansen | Book Review

If there were ever a year where the world was in need of a good self-help book, 2020 would be it.

The Subtle Art… by prominent blogger Mark Mansen is a refreshing, tongue-in-cheek read that provides a common-sense approach to finding happiness.

Broadly, Mansen argues that true happiness comes from:

  1. embracing failure and discomfort as part of a learning process to solving worthwhile life problems, and
  2. disregarding (or ~choosing to not give a fuck~ about) unimportant problems

Reading this book felt like having a conversation with a drunk uncle at a dinner party: mildly offensive, yet eye-opening. In exploring his key ideas, Mansen seamlessly intertwines personal anecdotes about everything from poop to suicide, with explorations of Buddhist philosophy and origin stories of The Beatles and Metallica sprinkled throughout.

Much of Mansen’s thesis is common-sense, and comes from a privileged perspective. While Mansen argues that his philosophy of ~caring less about the little things, and more about the big things~ is something that can be practiced by everyone to bring about greater happiness, it would be flippant to assume that this outlook can be the solution to every problem (say, homelessness or poverty).

Regardless, Mansen’s style of writing is compelling and to date, this is probably my favourite non-fiction book of 2020. As a working/middle-class, college-educated British-Asian female who experiences the occasional bout of existentialism, this book spoke to me, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner | Book Review

Longlisted for the National Book Award for 2019, Fleishman Is In Trouble is Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel that follows fictional Toby Fleishman’s journey as he deals with the disappearance of his ex-wife. Through the story of one upper-middle class man’s divorce, Brodesser-Akner explores complex themes of marriage, gender and success, and her evocative prose and comedic style of writing compels the reader to keep turning pages. Written from multiple perspectives, Brodesser-Akner’s train-of-thought style of writing creates a sense of intimacy with the characters; throughout the book, this intimacy is underpinned by an undercurrent of sexual tension as the protagonist, Tony, experiences a sexual awakening post-divorce and details his numerous encounters with women met through his favourite dating app, Hr.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is ultimately a story told with unique flare that leaves a lasting impression on the reader, with a slow-burning yet strong narrative arc. At its core, it is a feminist novel that impresses upon the reader the multi-faceted challenges women face whether single, married or divorced at different stages in their lives.

Educated by Tara Westover | Book Review

Beautiful prose, bewitching memoir.

Educated chronicles one woman’s true, yet fantastical, story of growing up as the sheltered daughter of survivalist religious zealots. Exploring themes of familial conflict, abuse and the role of education, in this memoir, Westover documents the path she took from being a home-schooled child without any formal education, to studying at some of the greatest institutions of Western higher education, including Harvard and Cambridge.

Westover’s story is difficult to read: by her own account, she is the victim of emotional and physical abuse and negligence at the hands of her own family. Yet, the story is compelling because of her vulnerability. If at times, Westover’s memories of events seem embellished for the sake of producing a compelling narrative, the raw emotions and internal conflict that she expresses engages the reader. As the book progresses, Westover graduates from being ignorant of the world around her and other narratives (to the extent where at the age of 17, the word Holocaust holds no meaning to her), to learning as historian to grapple with different truths and wrest meaning from texts. Without preaching, this memoir relays the importance of education to providing freedom of thought and independence.