The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi: a translator discovers a sinister shortcut ★★★½

‘Translation…is highly mathematical. It’s about retaining the feeling, the thing underneath.’

Anisa spends her days adding subtitles to Bollywood movies, when what she really wants to be doing is translating great works of literature. Her Urdu – her mother tongue – isn’t quite good enough, and other than English, she doesn’t speak other languages. That is, until she meets Adam, a polyglot who can converse a dazzling array of tongues like a native speaker. He’s also a white guy, making this particularly unusual.

He’s mediocre in most other ways, poor Adam, but his aptitude for languages is certainly quite the draw for Anisa. After they begin dating, he reveals that his impressive skills weren’t exactly acquired by years of dedicated study. Rather, he tells her, there’s a cutting-edge retreat that promises fluency in a couple of weeks – with a hefty price tag, and a scary-looking NDA that promises jail time for anyone who discloses a word about their experience to anyone else, ever.

It’s a bizarre, cultish experience – the details of which I won’t spoil – but, sure enough, Anisa emerges a fluent speaker of German, suddenly able to digest Goethe and Freud and Nietzsche in the original with ease. The critical acclaim and profile she’s always longed for begins to fall into her lap.

‘Being taken seriously felt nice. I felt that people were listening to me the way they listened to men, carefully, attentively, as if something of great value might drop out of my mouth at any moment.’

But once the novelty wears off, she’s back to feeling a general malaise. And she finds herself increasingly worrying about what really goes on at The Center, and how exactly she was able to absorb a new language at such rapid speed.

I loved the punchy writing and the darkly comedic moments, like when Anisa contemplates how best to protect herself when returning to The Centre: ‘I considered arming myself with pepper spray and a penknife but only thought of it the day before leaving and by then, even off Amazon Prime, they wouldn’t arrive in time.’

This is a deliciously moreish novel. It explores race, privilege and colonialism, the acts of assimilation and appropriation, and takes us on a journey from London to Karachi and New Delhi, noting the rifts between developed and developing worlds.

‘A sense of utility seeps in when you’re exposed, so closely, to the way the world is. In the West, they keep it all at a distance. The old, the poor, the dead – outsourced, deported and dismissed, hospitalized and imprisoned, or else bombed via remote control.’

This book started off as a solid four stars, but there were a couple of things that ultimately held it back for me: the pacing is a little uneven, veering from recounting play-by-play conversations in detail to broad brush strokes where months or years pass. I felt this could have been slightly better controlled so as not to throw the reader off. The next problem is that it overall feels like a brilliant premise that hasn’t been fully developed: we’re left with a lot of unanswered questions and ambiguity, with the sense of the ending having been wrapped up in a hurry and leaving a question mark over what it was really saying. It was trying to do a lot, particularly in the second half, which meant it lost some of the focus and zest it had started with, and wasn’t able to reconcile and tie the themes up in a satisfying way by the end. Nevertheless, it was still a fun and read-in-one-sitting kind of book.

With thanks to Picador via Netgalley for the advanced copy. The Centre will be published in the UK on 6th July 2023. Quoted material subject to change prior to publication.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Illuminating stories of tragedy and tenderness: Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty ★★★★

The interconnected stories in Night of the Living Rez document in equal parts the bleakness and tenderness of life on the Penobscot Indian reservation in Maine, told through the eyes of our protagonist David.

In a nonlinear structure, we meet David as a young boy, a teenager, and a middle-aged man, navigating a complex heritage while addiction, death, and poverty envelope and at times threaten to suffocate him. These are raw and unflinching stories that would be relentlessly harrowing if it weren’t for the compassionate storytelling and occasional wry humour.

As a child, David is already learning that happiness is just out of reach. ‘A week went by, a week in which happiness seemed to course through our veins like blood,’ he reflects. ‘But since then I’ve come to think that it wasn’t happiness but instead numbness.’ Numbness becomes a recurrent theme as he approaches adulthood. In an attempt to self-medicate the pain away, his life becomes about procuring and consuming an endless supply of pills and making endless trips to the methadone clinic with his friend Fellis.

There’s an oppressive claustrophobia to the stories which so rarely take us anywhere other than the confines of the reservation, a place that is by definition an enclosed, limited space – itself ‘a burial ground’. And our characters’ lives are narrower still – there is no escaping the kind of future they have inherited, the intergenerational trauma that haunts them. Even as they come of age, there’s no real getting out or going anywhere. David and Fellis while away their days taking drugs, smoking, watching Netflix, stealing money. There is a sense that nothing else is waiting for them on the other side of childhood.

‘When I sat down, my grandmother was smiling at me, smirking almost, like she knew the totality of my life, knew where I came from, where I was presently, and where I was going.’

Human connection, though, offers a glimmer of hope. David is loved by his mother, sister, and grandmother – despite, in her ailing mental state, mistaking him as her late younger brother. They make it through as best they can, even when their best isn’t much. They’re fighting an uphill battle against the forces of history, economic disparity, disenfranchisement – but Talty is careful never to hit the reader over the head with these broader themes, instead weaving them into a rich and illuminating narrative.

‘On the side of the road we stood, staring into a path that could bring you about anywhere. The last glimmers of day covered the rez roads, but the trees shrouded the path in darkness, a tunnel of never-ending light.’

His writing about the reservation itself is brilliantly evocative and haunting. The environment is often wet, cold, fecund, inviting, hostile. Hair gets trapped in frozen snow, a carpet of caterpillars is squashed underfoot, dark pines carry branches that sway ‘like smoke.’ It’s a place rendered mythical and that also brings us sharply back to reality: when David and his friends seemingly catch sight of a legendary monster in the woods, it turns out to be David’s inebriated older sister.

We root for our characters, wanting them to want something more for themselves. It’s a poignant and powerful book, keenly observed and compassionately told.

‘Maybe the right question is How do we get out of here? Maybe that’s the only question that matters.’

A richly imagined, unforgettable debut: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez ★★★★½

As Olga Dies Dreaming opens, Olga is preoccupied with high-end napkins. She is in the throes of planning a wedding for the New York elite – a job for which she has little enthusiasm, but from which has built a successful career. She’s turned forty and is sleeping with an odious construction mogul (who turns out all the more odious as time goes by) who she met on his private jet whilst arranging his daughter’s wedding. On paper she is well-off, well-respected (with a regular slot on breakfast television) and well-educated – although none of these things appear to bring her much joy.

On paper, her brother Prieto is also living the so-called American Dream. Touted as the ‘Latino Obama’, he is an elected Congressman representing Brooklyn, fighting to protect the interests and livelihoods of his Black and Brown constituents even as the neighbourhoods in which he grew up gentrify at an alarming rate. But he’s battling with his own demons, blackmailed by cartoonish property developer villains into doing their bidding – directly at odds with his political and moral imperative – because he is unable to truly accept his own identity.

‘How much, she and her brother realized, they had internalized this, becoming these people who needed to be seen in order to exist.’

At the core of what pushes and pulls these two characters is the absence of their parents, their mother in particular. ‘Every single thing she had done with her life,’ Olga reflects, ‘she had figured out for herself.’ Her stalwart independence hides a more painful history: their father was a drug addict who died of AIDS, and their mother abandoned Olga and Prieto when they were children to pursue an anarchic life of a revolutionary fighting for a free Puerto Rico (and a fascinating, if sometimes slightly heavy-handed, history lesson to the reader ensues).

Yet rather than vanishing, never to be heard of again, their mother Blanca keeps tabs from afar and writes to the siblings over the years – letters which are interwoven into the story. She seems incapable of knowing ‘the difference between missives and mothering’, and her often-derisory letters contain nothing but political lectures and disapproval of the choices her children are making in her absence. There’s a lot to unpack about the weight of parental expectation and how these characters are both drawn to and pull away from the values Blanca so ardently believes in.

There is an irrepressible energy to this story as we are propelled through social and political events (like the devastating Hurricane Maria that destroys the island’s infrastructure) that intersect with the lives of these characters. The culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora is tightly and effectively woven into the novel, and I adored the wider cast of richly imagined members of Olga’s extended family. Gonzalez shifts in and out of different viewpoints, providing us a fuller picture of these complex people – Prieto, who Olga idolizes, is derided by others as an insufferable politician. She also sees him as someone adept at ‘linguistic mezcla’ and an ‘ability to be all facets of [himself] all at once’ – the irony being that for years he has been hiding both his true identity and corruption. Our heroes and heroines are not straightforwardly good or bad.

There’s heaps of heart as these characters learn to navigate the legacy their mother left them with and forge their own paths in life and love. The writing sizzles and propels the plot, even when some of the backstory threatens to slow us down. I loved this complex and compelling story about political and personal histories, capitalism, colonialism, and so much more. It really packed a punch.

The Office of Historical Corrections Danielle Evans Book Review

The haunting of history in modern America: The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans ★★★½

TW: domestic violence

Two months into the new year, and I’m on my second short story collection. As with all short story collections, this one is somewhat uneven – but when it works, it really works.

The back cover copy refers to how history ‘haunts us’ in this book, and that hits the nail on the head. These character-driven stories explore racial injustice, sexism, the inescapability of history, and how to reconcile all of these in contemporary America, through the lenses of mostly Black, female protagonists.

Grief is everywhere we turn, and yet Evans’s meticulously controlled and precise writing prevents the narrative from ever feeling bogged-down or emotionally congested. There is the generational trauma of a wrongful conviction of a great-grandfather a century before (Alcatraz), a woman at a wedding who ends up on a road trip with the bride in the direction of the house where her sister was shot by her husband (Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain), a drug mule who boards an interstate bus alone and leaves with a toddler, raising him until it’s no longer tenable (Anything Could Disappear).

‘For a week before the wedding, her sister had been terrified of rain, and Rena had lied about the weather report to comfort her, and the weather had turned out to be beautiful, and her sister turned out to be beautiful, and Connor turned out to be the man who, a year later, suspected Elizabeth of cheating because he’d seen a repairman leave the house and she’d forgotten to tell him anyone was coming that day, and so he put a bullet through her head.’

The writing coolly sweeps you along and then punches you in the gut.

The titular novella, The Office of Historical Corrections, is built on a brilliant premise: a government funded project, the Institute for Public History: a ‘solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it.’ Cassie’s job is to correct the public record – souvenirs with the dates wrong, an off-colour poster about Juneteenth in a cake shop. And it’s all the menial bureaucratic work of a lowly government employee until she’s embroiled in the case of a historical lynching in a small Wisconsin town and a colleague who has gone to set the record straight, igniting the ire of local far-right racists.

‘White people love their history right up until it’s true.’

The premise is superb, as I said, but the rhythm felt off in this one: the short stories packed a bigger punch in their economical word count than a novella that takes up about a third of the book’s page count. It felt simultaneously over-long and under-explored, and even though it was a deft conclusion to the themes in the short stories that preceded it, I didn’t feel it was strong enough to be the axis of the book. Nevertheless, there are some really powerful, incisive stories in here, by an assured and refreshing voice.

Beating the backlist in 2023, AKA working my way through an out-of-control bookcase

Surveying my stacks of books that have now spilled out from the bookshelves and into piles, I decided it was time to participate in the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. As per the challenge, it is: ‘designed to help you tackle all the books you keep meaning to read and still haven’t’.

The guidelines are simple:

  1. The book must be published in the previous year or earlier (for the 2023 challenge, anything published in 2022 or earlier counts).
  2. You have to start and finish the book in 2023.
  3. I’m adding a third guideline that I have to own a physical copy of the book, as this is the real impetus behind reading these

Any format, any genre. Re-reads count, and you don’t have to own the book. It’s open for the entire year so whenever you feel like jumping in, you can!

Prompt: meant to read it last year (and every year for the past 6 years)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien (2016)

Prompt: multiple points of view

Of Women and Salt
by Gabriela Garcia (2021)

Prompt: recommended by a bookseller

The Hierarchies
by Ros Anderson (2020)

Prompt: more than 450 pages

The Warmth of Other Suns
by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Prompt: featuring travel (time optional)

I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories
by Kim Bo-Young (2021)

Prompt: set on a continent you don’t live on

The Republic of False Truths
by Alaa Al Aswany (2018)

Honestly, I’ll be very happy if I get to these 6 this year without getting distracted by shiny new books!

2022 round-up: favourite book covers of the year

With just 11 days left until 2023 (say it isn’t so!), here’s the first round-up post to finish the year – covers from books published in 2022 that would have me plucking them off the shelf in a bookshop in no time. We all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but these are just *chef’s kiss*.

Recent book reviews

Stay True by Hua Hsu: a lyrical and devastating coming-of-age memoir ★★★★½

TW: Murder This perfectly sized memoir is beautiful and devastating. Hua is a college student in California in the 90s: a time of internet chat rooms and mixtapes and Nirvana and zines, a rich social and cultural history constructed through objects and pastimes – many of which are long gone. And given this past which…

The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi: a translator discovers a sinister shortcut ★★★½

‘Translation…is highly mathematical. It’s about retaining the feeling, the thing underneath.’ Anisa spends her days adding subtitles to Bollywood movies, when what she really wants to be doing is translating great works of literature. Her Urdu – her mother tongue – isn’t quite good enough, and other than English, she doesn’t speak other languages. That…

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz - book review

Inventive, twisty thriller with dark academia vibes: The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz ★★★★½

Books about the writing world are catnip to me. Combine that with one of my favourite genres, the psychological thriller, and I am the perfect audience for this inventive, twisted story about success, creativity, and the limits of both.

30-year-old Alex has ‘risen up the ranks from bleakly underpaid editorial assistant to bleakly underpaid associate editor.’ She had been working on her own writing, but since a catastrophic fall out with her best friend Wren (the circumstances of which are slowly revealed to us), she’s had impenetrable writer’s block. Seeing other friends in her writers’ circle garner mainstream success is a difficult pill to swallow.

‘A hungry, wolfish feeling reared up in my gut. What would it feel like to hold your own book in your hands for the fist time? For it to be a physical object, a thing that people paid for?’

Alex and Wren had bonded over their shared love for kooky author Roza Vallo, known for her deliciously dark novels that push the boundaries of genre. A series of fortunate events land Alex a spot at Roza’s much-coveted writing retreat in her remote 19th-century mansion in upstate New York. The only problem is, Wren will also be there, and Alex doesn’t know how she’ll manage being in such close proximity to her ex-best-friend, under such claustrophobic and high-stakes circumstances.

Because this is no ordinary writing retreat. The five young women chosen will each have to complete a full manuscript during their time at the mansion (which was, coincidentally, the historical site of two mysterious and brutal deaths). One will be chosen for an eye-wateringly big publishing deal at the end. And Roza, they discover, has a darkness both on and off the page, enjoying her mind games in the name of sparking their creativity. From the start, her unpredictability is what keeps the writers – and the reader – on the edge of their seat. 

‘Her jeans had a large tear and skin showed through like a bone poking through flesh.’

The atmosphere is spellbinding as the writers begin to work under the extreme pressure to perform – and when a major snowstorm cuts off transport and communication to the mansion, well, any seasoned thriller reader will know that this is when things get really hairy. 

So yes, I loved it – mostly. The first quarter, this was a five-star read for me. Things lost momentum a little during the middle, and the end went a little nuts (as psychological thrillers are wont to do). I also wasn’t as keen on the passages interspersed in the narrative showing Alex’s own writing – it took me out of the ‘now’ of the novel and I felt myself skimming past to get to the meat of the story. But overall, it is fresh and original, with three-dimensional characters and a complex exploration of friendship, trauma, sexuality, and the promise and pitfalls of literary fame. 

Many thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books for the advanced reader’s copy. The Writing Retreat will be published in February 2023.

A galvanizing account of the power of female rage: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister ★★★★½

Women aren’t supposed to display rage. While men’s ire is ‘comprehensible’ and ‘rational’, angry women are chaotic, unhinged, unnatural. Of course, we’ve got a lot to be angry about. This double standard is just one more addition to a growing list of rage-inducing injustices. In this powerful, incisive account, Traister traces the history and power of women’s anger, how it has been received and perceived over time, and how it is inherently powerful. Written in the months following the election of Donald Trump, this is very much a book about a particular contemporary moment in American history.

The rage of women, Traister convincingly and meticulously argues, is a catalyst for societal change in the US – despite the disdain, disgust and ridicule that is heaped upon these women. Mamie Till, the mother of lynched schoolboy Emmett Till, insisted upon an open casket at his funeral: the world would not be permitted to look away from the unimaginable racist violence inflicted upon him. Mamie Till, Traister writes, is ‘most often pictured as a grieving mother being held up at her son’s coffin, weeping… What we are never trained to consider is that alongside her sorrow and suffering was a burning rage.’ This was a rage that would help propel the struggle for civil rights and change the course of American history. She also turns to Rosa Parks, often presented in a sanitized way and lauded for her stoicism and refusal to show anger – when in fact she had been a ‘lifelong furious fighter against sexual and racial violence, a defender of black men wrongly accused of sexual misconduct by white women, and an elected NAACP secretary who investigated the rape claims of black women against white men’. As a more contemporary example, she turns to the crusade of the Parkland students, demanding an end to gun violence in the wake of another horrific school shooting. 16-year-old Sarah Chadwick, in a tweet that went viral, responded to Trump’s thoughts and prayers with ‘I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Do something instead of sending prayers.’ Such rage galvanized Chadwick and her peers towards nationwide protests and resonated with millions of Americans, for whom her anger spoke to their own desperation over the inevitability of relentless gun violence. The year before, the election of a white supremacist and abuser to the White House in 2016 inspired the Women’s March movement and a resurgence of activism for women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

In the twenty-first century, it is still ‘unfeminine’ to be angry. To be angry is to be obscene and hysterical, our anger is pathologized. Women in the public eye – particularly those in politics, such as Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris – are frequently discredited for transgressing that boundary: ‘The best way to discredit these women, to make them look unattractive, is to capture an image of them screaming’, Traister writes. ‘…The act of a woman opening her mouth with volume and assured force, often in complaint, is coded in our minds as ugly.’ Ugly, unlikable, not to be trusted. By contrast, white men display rage with impunity, and are often portrayed in a far more sympathetic light – just think of the so-called ‘lone wolf’ perpetrators of mass shootings who are supposedly misunderstood loners or lovesick teens – something Traister explores in a later chapter, using the term coined by Kate Manne: ‘himpathy’.

We have the voices of stalwart feminists throughout – Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and many more – peppered with Traister’s own personal experiences, lending depth and personality to the essays. I felt seen in her chapter about tears as ‘one of the most frequent outlets for our wrath’ and the depressing truth that they are ‘fundamentally misunderstood’ by the men who witness them. There is nothing more infuriating than involuntary weeping out of fury – except for the fact that men may misread the anger as sadness, something to be pitied.

‘One of my sharpest memories from an early job, in a male-dominated office, where I too once found myself weeping with inexpressible rage, was being grabbed by the scruff of my neck by an older woman—a chilly, hard-ass manager of whom I’d always been slightly terrified—who dragged me into a stairwell. “Never let them see you crying,” she told me. “They don’t know you’re furious. They think you’re sad and will be pleased because they got to you.”‘

She also takes care to explore how anger is not perceived the same across colour lines: Black women must resist ‘America’s cheapest caricature’ of the Angry Black Woman. Quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘for black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted’. Similarly, while white women’s tears – of anger, rather than rage – can be perceived sympathetically by white men (or indeed, weaponized by the women themselves) – the same cannot be said for the perception of a Black woman expressing emotion in the same way. They are not afforded the same sympathy, and suffer to an even greater extent as race and gender intersect.

A large part of the book is spent discussing #MeToo in an impassioned and clear-eyed way, where she turns to her own experience of meeting Weinstein as a young journalist. She describes the movement as giving us a ‘view of the architecture of sexism that had been holding everything up.’ The cacophony of voices speaking out meant that women could no longer be derided and disbelieved: there was safety and power in accumulative rage – and perhaps the beginning of breaking everything apart.

‘If they are quiet, they will remain isolated. But if they howl in rage, someone else who shares their fury might hear them, might start howling along.’

In art, and media, and politics, and justice – female rage can incite change. While we are at a different moment now – both better in some ways, worse in others, reeling from a global pandemic and the fall of Roe v Wade, this book still feels powerful, and galvanizing, and a convincing rallying cry to embrace our anger.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner: A piercing page-turner of obsession and reinvention ★★★★

We’re in London, just before the turn of the millennium. Meggie, a transplant from South Africa, works a ‘media monitoring’ job where she combs through the day’s news to summarize horrible crimes. It’s there that she is drawn into the orbit of her enigmatic colleague Sabine. When Sabine switches to the night shift, Meggie follows her growing obsession for the beautiful Belgian woman and decides to join her. She both desires her – she thinks – and desires to be just like her.

‘Negative space is the lifeblood of obsession. In the late nineties, I felt as I was mostly negative space. Although I wasn’t the daughter my mother wanted, I’d never had the guts to rebel. She said I was like my father: passive, meek, defined more by what I bumped up against than what I chose.’

In Sabine, Meggie sees a window of opportunity: she can reinvent herself in Sabine’s image: glamorous, destructive, mysterious. The nocturnal existence wrecks Meggie in almost every conceivable way: she can’t sleep during the day, so she simply stops sleeping. She breaks up with her steady but boring boyfriend. She quits her further education pursuits.

There’s a hallucinatory feeling to the novel once Meggie begins her nightshifts. She befriends her colleagues Earl, Lizard, Sherry and Prawn, and together they drink and take drugs for lack of anything better to do. I loved the haunting, twilit London of the book, the seedy clubs and bars, the pubs that pour you a pint (or stronger) at 8am, and the oddball crew Meggie spends her days and nights with.

Meggie and Sabine’s friendship – maybe more – takes over Meggie’s life. Sabine both lures her in and lets her go, cruelly ignoring her for weeks, kissing her and then calling her “my cute friend who I kiss”. She’ll send Meggie blank texts on her new phone so she can get her attention without giving her anything in return. Meggie is desperate to know Sabine, but finds it hard to scratch below the surface. And she falls ever deeper into a spiral of self-destructive, dangerous behaviour in a pursuit to escape who she is.

‘Our Cinderella coach had turned into a pumpkin. Sabine would be ever divine whereas I was just Megan again; I couldn’t get beyond the body, the mood, the self. There was a walk, a wait, a train, a bus. As we tenderly parted ways, I tried to think, This is only the beginning – But I knew, even then, it wasn’t true.’

Meggie, despite her very poor decision making, is an empathetic and vulnerable character who encapsulates what it is to be adrift and desperate in your early twenties. We come to realise that the novel is being narrated by Meggie twenty years into the future, which provides interesting perspective and distance from those intoxicating days. It also means we see what ultimately unfolds between the two characters over time. I felt the ending to be a little uneven, not quite as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. Still, it’s a blistering page-turner of a book.

TW: sexual violence, drug abuse