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.

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!

True Biz by Sarah Novic - book review

True Biz by Sara Nović is an exuberant, revelatory story about Deaf culture ★★★★½

‘True Biz’ is an incredibly eye-opening read that introduced me to Deaf culture in all its exuberance. Centuries of marginalisation from the hearing world have led Deaf communities to form a strong cultural identity and myriad ways of successfully navigating the world around them. It’s by no means a utopia – they have to grapple with daily discrimination in anything from trying to buy a bus ticket to seeking medical treatment – but their rich and distinctive identity shines through these pages.

Charlie, one of our three protagonists, is born Deaf to two hearing parents. Medical wisdom at the time tells them that she should get cochlear implants as early as possible, and that learning to sign will be a detriment to her learning to speak. The implant does not deliver the results promised, and Charlie finds herself struggling at mainstream school and isolated from both the Deaf and hearing communities around her.

That is, until her Dad wins a court case to enrol her at River Valley School for the Deaf. The students there, led by the big-hearted force of nature headmistress February, are Deaf children from all walks of life. At River Valley, they are enveloped in an environment with signing teachers, administrators, nurses and groundskeepers all around them. For Charlie, who has been suffering through try to interpret spoken language for years, it’s a steep learning curve.

‘Fewer things were more motivating than a fear of one’s own extinction, and Deaf people were already on the verge.’

On the page, Charlie’s isolation from language is shown through blanks. When she fails to understand something in spoken language or in sign, it appears as a –––––. That’s just one of the many ways in which Nović uses the written form (which I heard her talk about as being creatively restrictive, in comparison to the full-bodied movement of ASL), to convey part of the Deaf experience.

February assigns Austin to befriend and guide Charlie through her first few weeks at school – a boy whose upbringing could not have been any more at odds with hers. He comes from a family who are ‘somewhat mythical in the Deaf community, the playing out of a great sociolinguistic isolationist fantasy’ – multiple generations of successful Deaf people who have households that fully embrace and embody the culture.

This book accomplishes so much, every page rich with insight into not only Deaf culture but also how – just as in the real world – poorer children or Deaf children of colour have very different experiences to their richer, whiter counterparts. We learn about Deaf history, the evolution of American Sign Language (and Black American Sign Language, born out of segregated Deaf schools in the 20th century), and the civil rights movements fought by Deaf people throughout the centuries.

…And on top of all of that, there’s a rollicking good plot – a coming-of-age story that also confronts the breakdown of a marriage, first loves, ageing parents, new babies… My only quibble is with the ending, which felt hurried and slightly unfinished. But nevertheless, it’s an immersive and revelatory book – I loved it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
The Hop by Diana Clarke - book review

Book review: ‘The Hop’ by Diana Clarke – a refreshing, propulsive and empathetic story of the modern sex industry ★★★★½

Kate grows up poor, in rural New Zealand, with her unconventional mother, who she adores. To supplement the household income, Kate and her best (and only) friend Lacey start giving kissing lessons at school, and then go to work in the local strip club once they’re old enough.

In her early twenties, running from tragedy, Kate crosses the ocean and lands in Las Vegas to work at a legal brothel, The Hop, under the moniker of Lady Lane – the stripper name she picked with Lacey as a kid, the name of her first pet plus the street she grew up on. She’s tall and thin and white and blonde, and ruffles some feathers when she arrives. The other women working there – trans women, women of colour, older women – know that their pimp, Daddy, has hit the jackpot.

The portrayal of sex work in this book is like nothing I’ve ever read in fiction. It’s not all roses – like any other job, there are good days and bad days – but it’s empowering, and energizing, and it makes Kate feel good. The bunnies at The Hop come from all walks of life, but they are all there by choice. It’s something that society struggles to accept.

‘They want there to be another reason, something deeper, they want to hear that you were unloved as a child or that you were abused as a teen…As if money isn’t enough of a reason to do anything. As if staying alive isn’t enough of an answer.’

The prevailing narrative where sex work is concerned is grittiness, trauma, poverty, tragedy – but this book is nuanced and fiercely feminist. It brims with energy, even as it confronts challenging and harrowing truths. For the women at The Hop, working in a legal brothel presents the only safe option to pursue their profession, with sex workers on the street being murdered, assaulted and attacked on a daily basis.

I loved the structure of this novel. I was daunted at first by the prospect of it flitting between so many voices – it’s a risky move. While Kate’s first-person narrative dominates the story, we hear too from best friend Lacey, pimp Daddy, Bunnies Betty, Mia, Dakota, Rain, the Vogue features editor who’s writing a piece on Kate, a celebrity lookalike of Kate, Willa Jordan… but you know what? It works. The characters are so vivid that it unfolds almost like a play or a documentary, building up a richer picture of the story and context without distracting from the narrative trajectory.

‘”Does it look like I’ve sold my body?” I said, “I’ve had guests who have served in the military and lost their legs. I’ve had guests who sleeved their arms in factories. I’ve had guests whose bodies are failing them, who’ve had to opt out of surgery because of America’s health care system. Does it look like I’ve sold my body?”

It’s propulsive and refreshing and funny, too.

‘It happened soon enough after the #metoo movement … for Lady’s video to become big news. The debate over what constituted assault was at its climax, darling, and not the good kind. Walmart changed their name to #WalmartToo for the month, which was a lot to unpack. Facebook changed their logo to teal, the color of, I guess, sexual assault? Thank god for the conglomerates, darling. Saving the world once hashtag at a time.’

This book sucked me in the same way as Diana Clarke’s first novel, Thin Girls. I wasn’t sure at first, but once the narrative picked up steam I was completely hooked, and sad to part with the characters when it ended. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see what Diana Clarke does next.

With thanks to HarperCollins via Edelweiss for the advanced copy. The Hop will be published on 7th June 2022.

Book Review - The No-Show by Beth O'Leary

Book review: Beth O’Leary’s ‘The No Show’, a charming and wise contemporary romance with emotional heft ★★★★

Meet three women: Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane – all stood up by the same enigmatic Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day. These three couldn’t be more different – Siobhan is a seemingly self-assured life coach, extroverted and fashion-conscious. Miranda is a tree surgeon who can more than hold her own amongst a group of lads. And unassuming Jane is rebuilding her life after fleeing London in mysterious circumstances, and volunteering at a charity shop in Winchester.

Joseph seems like the perfect guy. He’s handsome, thoughtful, smart, and a devoted carer to his mum with dementia. But there’s something he’s holding back from all of them – they can’t quite get the full story. Something’s not quite adding up.

‘Beautiful, careful simplicity – that is the life Jane has built for herself. And then there’s Joseph. Certainly beautiful, not at all simple.’

While there are central romances in this story, it’s very much a novel about relationships in all their many forms. Beth O’Leary’s characters are, as always, living and breathing on the page –  a fully-fleshed-out and authentic cast you’re invested in and rooting for. I particularly enjoyed the friendships between the characters – Jane with the exuberant Aggie, Miranda and her insufferable but endearing baby sisters Adele and Frannie, Siobhan’s flatmate and steadfast best friend Fiona. These characters are never wallpaper in her stories – they play essential roles in shaping the narrative.

What I found refreshing and surprising about The No-Show is the way that O’Leary took it in a direction I wasn’t expecting – there’s a big reveal about three-quarters of the way through and things start to fall into place in a satisfying resolution. I wouldn’t profess to be good at spotting these things in advance, but I would never had guessed the cleverly constructed conceit at the heart of the book.

‘It’s not exactly the way she imagined this moment – more livestock, for instance – but here is her chance to tell Joseph how she really feels about him.’

I so enjoy Beth O’Leary’s writing (she’s really the only author of this genre I read), because she’s able to balance emotional heft with moments of levity and humour. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill contemporary romantic fiction – there’s emotional depth and an exploration of hard-hitting and life-altering events. It might be a little darker than you’re expecting, but it’s pulled off with O’Leary’s trademark warmth and compassion.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, get it on your TBR for April 2022!

CW: depression, baby loss

With thanks to Quercus for the advanced copy. The No-Show will be published in April 2022.

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books on my winter tbr

10 books on my winter 2021 TBR

Here’s another overly-optimistic list to see me through the dark winter months.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness
by Claire Vaye Watkins

‘A darkly funny, soul-rending novel of love in an epoch of collapse–one woman’s furious revisiting of family, marriage, work, sex, and motherhood.’

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra

‘A brilliant debut novel that brings to life an abandoned hospital where a tough-minded doctor decides to harbor a hunted young girl, with powerful consequences.’

by Richard Powers

‘With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son’s ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers’s most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?’

by Ted Chiang

‘In these nine stunningly original, provocative, and poignant stories, Ted Chiang tackles some of humanity’s oldest questions along with new quandaries only he could imagine.’

by Katie Kitamura

‘A novel from the author of A Separation, a taut and electrifying story about a woman caught between many truths.’

The Promise
by Damon Galgut

The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.’

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria
by Wendy Pearlman

‘Reminiscent of the work of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, an astonishing collection of intimate wartime testimonies and poetic fragments from a cross-section of Syrians whose lives have been transformed by revolution, war, and flight.’

A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf
by Virginia Woolf

‘Between these points of time unfolds the private world – the anguish, the triumph, the creative vision – of one of the great writers of our century.’

To Paradise
by Hanya Yanagihara

‘From the author of the classic A Little Life, a bold, brilliant novel spanning three centuries and three different versions of the American experiment, about lovers, family, loss and the elusive promise of utopia.’

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
by Caroline Criado Pérez

‘Celebrated feminist advocate Caroline Criado Perez investigates the shocking root cause of gender inequality and research in Invisible Women​, diving into women’s lives at home, the workplace, the public square, the doctor’s office, and more. Built on hundreds of studies in the US, the UK, and around the world, and written with energy, wit, and sparkling intelligence, this is a groundbreaking, unforgettable exposé that will change the way you look at the world.’

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

Some recent posts

Top 10 Tuesday | Books on my autumn 2021 TBR

I think by now I’ve come to accept that I don’t have the dedication to read all the books I optimistically put on a TBR. Shiny new books pop up on my radar and distract me; life gets in the way. But as I’ve mentioned before, I can’t resist a list, and it’s nice to have something to aspire to. If you’ve read and can recommend any of these, let me know!

An incandescent memoir from an astonishing new talent, Beautiful Country puts readers in the shoes of an undocumented child living in poverty in the richest country in the world.
When it comes to revenge, even good people might be capable of terrible deeds. How far might any one of them go to find peace? How long can secrets smolder before they explode into flame?’

Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love.

(Yes, this is back on the TBR again and I’m determined to tackle it before the year is out!)

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this beguiling debut novel that brilliantly brings to life the residents of a small English town in the grip of the seventeenth-century witch trials and the young woman tasked with saving them all from themselves.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last thirty years – from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to post-Taliban rebuilding – that puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of this country in intimate, human terms.’

Jennifer Egan’s cool, transcendent prose meets Karen Thompson Walker’s speculative eye in this luminous literary debut following two patients in recovery after an experimental memory drug warps their lives.

An incisive and exhilarating debut novel of female friendship following three Anglo-Nigerian best friends and the lethally glamorous fourth woman who infiltrates their group—the most unforgettable girls since Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda.

‘Mia Eliot has travelled from London to LA for pilot season. This is her big chance to make it as an actor in Hollywood, and she is ready to do whatever it takes. At an audition she meets Emily, and what starts as a simple favour takes a dark turn when Emily goes missing and Mia is the last person to see her.’
‘Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer on the brink of financial ruin when she accepts the job offer of a lifetime. Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen to complete the remaining books in a successful series his injured wife is unable to finish.’

Days of Distraction
‘Equal parts tender and humorous, and told in spare but powerful prose, Days of Distraction is an offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale, a touching family story, and a razor-sharp appraisal of our times.’

(Another one back on the TBR, but I am still very interested in giving this a go).

An exciting blend of thriller, literary, memoir, and historical fiction – I feel good about this TBR pile! What’s coming up on your fall/autumn lists?

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

Some recent posts

Book Review | The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

There’s something just so delightful about Beth O’Leary. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, but you know that it will be equal doses of funny and heartfelt; intensely readable with genuine characters and a solid storyline.

The Road Trip doesn’t disappoint. Addie and her sister Deb are on a road trip up to Scotland for their friend Cherry’s wedding. As luck would have it, not long into their journey someone rams into the back of their mini. That someone happens to be Addie’s ex, Dylan, and his insufferable friend, Marcus. Dylan and Marcus’s car is wrecked, and in a moment of madness, Addie and Deb take pity on them. They all bundle into their mini – along with Rodney, who’s a fellow wedding attendee and stranger to them all.

In the narrative that ensues, we witness the comical scenes of five grown adults packed into a mini with a not inconsiderable amount of tension, not enough aircon, and Rodney who keeps whipping out a tub of flapjacks, as if that will solve everything. Much amusement ensues with the arrival of Kevin the truck driver, and an unfortunate pit stop that ends in a missing persons search.

‘I have a feeling that if this journey had been any longer, it would have become progressively more Lord of the Flies, and Marcus probably would have eaten somebody.’

Alongside the present-day journey to Scotland, we get alternating chapters in both Addie and Dylan’s point of view, charting the early beginnings – and eventual ending – of their relationship. This is where you need to be prepared for what is a messy, sad, complicated set of circumstances – where issues of class, privilege, education, parental pressure, alcoholism, sexual assault, etc. come to light. I can see why readers wanting a pure light and fluffy romance might find the inclusion of ‘grittier’ themes to be a disappointment, but I felt that O’Leary deftly explored these issues while also providing the reader with light relief. In another author’s hands it might have felt at best contrived and at worst totally distasteful and mismanaged, but here it worked perfectly in tandem.

‘I think he’s going to say it, and once he has, that’s it, like he’s putting a time stamp on our lives. Creating a before and after. I feel it coming like I’m speeding toward something, and for one panicked moment I think I ought to slam on the brakes.’

I wish that the author had cut Marcus less slack – he was truly insufferable and I didn’t entirely buy into his redemption arc – and there could have been more done to establish an emotional chemistry between Addie and Dylan in their early scenes to build a firmer foundation for a swept-off-your-feet romance. But these are small comments in a book that kept me up reading. This isn’t normally my genre of choice – but as long as it’s got Beth O’Leary’s name on it, I’ll be adding it to the TBR.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Book Review | Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Our lives are inextricably shaped by the material facts of our birth. And for the young men living their gilded youths at Oxford University in the early 1990s, they’re pretty much untouchable. Our narrator describes the ‘smooth, smiling faces’ of ‘men who will sail through life: Eton, Oxford, parliament, government.’

And twenty-five years later,  these men have risen to seats of power, just as they always expected to. In close-enough to the present day (although 2016 seems like a lifetime ago now), our narrator Kate Woodcroft is a prosecutor, specialising in convicting perpetrators of sexual assault.

One day, the papers get their hands on a grubby new story: a junior Tory minister, James Whitehouse, has been caught with his trousers down as his affair with a much younger member of staff is exposed. The Prime Minister being a close friend from Oxford, James is reassured the whole nasty matter will quickly blow over – until his mistress, Olivia, comes forward with an accusation of rape. James’s wife, Sophie, determines to remain the doting and devoted wife, even as doubt begins to gnaw at her.

What follows is a nail-biting courtroom drama, where driven, successful Kate is convinced of James’s guilt – but has her work cut out in trying to ensure justice is served. The world of the court is one that she admits is ‘archaic, anachronistic, privileged, exclusive’. And these privileged, white, upper-class men truly believe them are impervious to the rules – of law, of morality, of common decency. (It was interesting to read this not long after the story broke of the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, having an affair with a coworker in the midst of stringent lockdowns where you weren’t allowed to hug your mum, much less fornicate with a colleague…)  

‘“I sometimes wonder if we spoiled him. Let him believe that his opinion was always right? I suppose school inculcated that feeling—and Charles, of course, never brooking an argument. Perhaps it’s a male thing? That complete self-belief: the conviction that you never need doubt your opinion. The girls don’t have it and neither do I. He was like it as a little boy: always lying at Cluedo; always cheating at Monopoly, insisting he could change the rules. He was so sweet, so persuasive, he got away with it. I wonder if that’s why he thinks he still can?”’

Vaughan shifts timelines and perspectives, keeping the varied pace of the novel and giving us historical context that feeds into the present-day drama which is unfurling. Whilst there aren’t many twists and turns to be had, this is suspenseful and well-crafted book that lays bare the lives of the rich and powerful, puts consent and conviction under a microscope, and explores the ramifications of toxic masculinity – when combined with money and privilege, a lethal cocktail. A slow burn, but a recommended read nonetheless.