Yellowface by R. F. Kuang – a deliciously dark satire on the publishing world ★★★★★

June Hayward is desperate for success as an author. She’s longing to achieve that perfect trifecta of huge commercial gains accompanied by high-profile literary prizes and a legacy on literature for generations to come.

So the sudden death of literary darling Athena Liu, leaving behind an unpublished manuscript, presents in itself an… opportunity.

June is convinced that if she were a little more ‘diverse’, rather than a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl from Philly, she’d be a lot more successful. She’s obsessed with and deeply resentful of Athena, both during her life and after her death. The manuscript Athena leaves behind tells the little-known story of the Chinese Labour Corps, the Chinese workers recruited by the British Army in the first world war. And June knows she’s hit the jackpot, and frantically begins to put her stamp on it. This might be the book to catapult her into the recognition she feels she very much deserves.

‘I’d somehow absorbed all the directness and verve of Athena’s writing. I felt, as Kayne put it, harder, better, faster, and stronger. I felt like the kind of person who now listened to Kanye.’

Her agent loves it, of course, and a bidding war ensues. Ironically, Athena’s words are stripped down to be made more palatable for the white reader: racist epithets (authentic to the deeply racist period) are removed, June slices out a chunk of characters because she can’t get the names straight, the white baddies are turned Chinese. And the audience laps it up: June hits meteoric success. She publishes under the name ‘Juniper Song’ (Song being her middle name from a hippy mother), complete with an ‘ethnically ambiguous’ author photo on the book jacket.

But the threat of someone finding out the truth about the book’s origins plagues her day and night.

It’s a biting and deliciously dark story, satirizing the publishing world in a very on-the-nose way (but that’s precisely the point). This one is definitely for the publishing nerds among us, so be prepared to tear through a lot of June reading her own Goodreads reviews and searching for her name on bookish Twitter circles. She’s an utter narcissist and can’t avert her gaze, even as she’s ripped apart on the internet and everything teeters on the brink of catastrophe.

Of course, we’re not supposed to like her. She’s brazenly discriminatory against the Chinese community as she continues to profit of the story, disparaging ‘funny-smelling’ Chinese food, moaning about Chinese elders not speaking in English, deciding she can suffer through a reading at a small-town Chinese American Social Club by imagining ‘the optics of an Instagram post of me eating catered Chinese food, surrounded by admiring Chinese fans.’ And yet, as insufferable as she is, you can’t stop invested in how her story will play out.

I sunk my teeth into this and couldn’t put it down: it’s very fast-paced and hardly drops a beat (the ending is a little nuts, but weirdly it worked?) and one of the best books I’ve read this year. I can’t wait for it to be published so I can hear the rest of the commentary on it (it will all be rather meta).

With thanks to HarperCollins for the advanced copy. Yellowface by R. F. Kuang will be published in May 2023.

Sharp social commentary on a city in flux – Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley ★★★★

Mozley’s London is sprawling, humming, in constant flux – and home to a cast list of of down-and-out addicts, property developers, villainous heiresses, aspiring actors, ex-hitmen…It’s a melting pot in the true sense of the word. And the focus around which this multi-layered plot spins is one crumbling townhouse in Soho, on the cusp of being snatched up into rampant capitalist clutches and converted into luxury flats and whatever else: a ‘blank slate’ for the centuries-old building.

The townhouse is home to a brothel, and the sex workers won’t go quietly. Precious and Tabitha have been there for decades, and it provides a safe space for them to work – a far cry from the horror stories of the girls on the streets. They’re drawn with compassion and insight, and were my favourite characters in this populous novel. They’re entangled with many other individuals – by way of geographical proximity or chance or both – but the nemesis here is the cool and calculating Agatha, daughter of a long-deceased billionaire gangster who is set to inherit his vast property fortune, much of which is in Soho. And she’s willing to do so through legal and not-so-legal means (without getting her own hands dirty, of course).

And while property is the hottest commodity, London itself exists as a Dickensian-esque character in its own right, a place where ‘night… is brighter than the day. The spread of muddy phosphor illuminates dark corners. The emphasis of shapes that sunshine melts. The drawn, bending, sonorous beams of buses loping from stop to stop.’ Where history is layered upon history, a place simultaneously ancient and modern. Having spent several very happy years in London, I loved the way Mozley captures the spirit of city, the rich tapestry of metropolitan life in all its grubbiness and glory.

‘The stone came. Bricks and mortar replaced trees; people replaced deer; sticky gray grime replaced sticky brown dirt. Paths carved by the tread of animals were set in stone, widened, edged with walls and gates. Mansions were built for high society. There was dancing, gambling, sex. Music was played and plays were staged. Bargains were struck, sedition was plotted, betrayals were planned, secrets were kept.’

It might hit you over the head with its social commentary, but you can’t really argue with it. While I would have loved for a bit more depth to some of the characters (though I do doubt there are many redeeming qualities in Agatha, she was quite the cartoonish villain), the astute way Mozley writes character made each person feel distinct, even in a long and sometimes unwieldy cast list. There’s a lot to unpack here – gentrification being the obvious, but also autonomy and identity and class, and how to survive (and thrive) in a city where unfettered capitalism is pushing the marginalised even further to the margins.

The short chapters propel you through the plot and the prose is rich while still being accessible. It’s hugely entertaining and also sharp, witty, and very readable.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, where a translator navigates language and power ★★★★½

We don’t know much about our protagonist. All we do know is that she’s somewhat of a rootless individual, who has recently moved to the Hague to translate at the criminal court. Despite the first-person perspective and the intimacy of seeing the world through her lens, we don’t even find out her name.

She’s unsure of the Hague, a place with a shiny veneer that conceals a darker underbelly. But she makes a friend, art curator Jana, and begins an affair with a married (separated) man, Adriaan. There’s something compelling about her, and all we come to know about her is through her emotionally astute observations of the world she inhabits.

As an interpreter, she has a keen awareness of the vagaries and complexities of language. She finds herself interpreting on behalf of a former president on trial, a warlord from an unnamed developing nation responsible for ethnic cleansing and mass murder. As she spends hours each day as the vessel through which his horrifying testimony passes through, it’s as if the horror of what she’s describing is lost in the act of interpreting it.  

‘…Interpretation can be profoundly disorientating, you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken…that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses meaning.’

She keenly feels the responsibility of her role, the necessity of conveying the testimony in a truthful way. As the accused unnervingly tries to build rapport with her, she reflects on her job to ‘make the space between languages as small as possible’. She determines that she will not ‘obfuscate the meaning of what he had done… there would be no escape route between languages.’ It is important that he has his day in court, even as she recognises the disproportionate prosecution of African war criminals as those in the West are overlooked. There is an uneasy, unwanted intimacy between them, as she speaks his words for the court to hear day in and day out.

And in her personal life, there is an absence of closeness. Caught up continuously in her own head, she asks herself whether Adriaan will return from his extended visit to Lisbon, ostensibly to finalise his divorce, as she remains in his apartment, alone. She’s an intriguing, enigmatic character – I hestitate to add that despite this she is not the tortured millennial protagonist of much contemporary lit fic – and much of what we learn about her is through her own churning over of her intimate thoughts.

Not unsurprisingly, for someone who writes in such a highly-attuned way about language, Kitamura’s writing is brilliant – incisive, taut, saying so much without trying too hard. I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoyed this as much as I did – vaguely plotless novels aren’t really my thing – and I think it has to come down to the writing style, which makes it hard to put down. Her crafting of an atmosphere of unease, her ruminations on the nature of language, her navigation of gendered power dynamics – it all packs a real punch in this slim novel.  

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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Reputation by Sarah Vaughan

Happy (US) Publication Day | Reputation by Sarah Vaughan

Happy publication day to Reputation by Sarah Vaughan! I devoured this a few months ago and would recommend it as the perfect vacation thriller.

Here are 5 things to know about Reputation to help you decide if it’s the book for you…

  • Sits somewhere between a courtroom drama, political thriller and domestic noir
  • Looks at what it takes to be a woman in the spotlight, particularly in politics
  • Examines the seedy underbelly of the tabloid media and the lengths they’ll go to for the story
  • Whip-smart wordplay in the courtroom scenes will have you on the edge of your seat
  • A sharp focus on contemporary issues in our cultural conversation

Enjoy!

10 books with fruit on the cover

Inspired by the recent Top Ten Tuesday prompt of ‘Books with —- on the cover’, I decided to try this one out…

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Devotion by Madeline Stevens

New Animal by Ella Baxter

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Things We Say In The Dark by Kirsty Logan

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (sorry, I had to)

Final scores:

Apples: 1
Oranges: 3
Strawberries: 2
Peaches: 2
Pomegranates: 1

Can anyone identify the fruit on the cover of ‘New Animal’? Maybe I need to be more adventurous.

Reacting to one-star reviews of books I love

Reacting to One-Star Reviews of Books I Love

I can’t remember where I first saw it (if you’re the creator, let me know!) but I love the idea of this book tag. Disclaimer that everyone is entitled to their own bookish thoughts and feelings and just because they’re wrong about these books, doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. 😉

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Okay, most of the scathing reviews of GWO took umbrage with the lack of punctuation. Which I get – I do! When I recommend this book to people, I always warn them about this particular style quirk. I know that it’s a personal preference thing (which I personally liked, once I got used to it).

But how can this reviewer call the characters uninteresting? We literally have socialist anarchist artists living in squats in London in the 80s, which may be many things, but it certainly isn’t boring. That’s just one example amidst a huge cast of characters that span genders, sexualities, backgrounds and time frames.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I confess I did laugh out loud at: ‘If chapter 14 is an example of how Brits flirt, I can’t believe their whole race isn’t already extinct.’ Then I went back and read chapter 14, and laughed again to see Rochester’s line ‘does my forehead not please you?’

I think this reviewer needs a bit of a history lesson, though. This is stuffy and staid Victorian times, and this chapter 14 dialogue is about as risqué as you’re going to get.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”

– favourite line from Jane Eyre

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Did I read the same book as this reviewer? I am left scratching my head, wondering if I somehow missed a fifty shades esque romp couched in the language of a multi-generational family epic of love and loss in 20th century Korea.

The reviewer actually makes a fair point about getting attached to characters you then don’t see again, as the narrative jumps forward to the next generation. I don’t disagree that that was mildly dissatisfying at points. BUT – that is the only part of this review that is sensical to me.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This did elicit a wry chuckle, perhaps ELaIC is pretentious – honestly, that’s never something that’s bothered me very much in and of itself, so I am the right market for this book.

I enjoyed how the scathing takedown of the book in paragraph two actually describes what I loved about the book – the charming wistfulness, the innovative prose, the playing around with traditional form.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I just want to preface this by saying I am no Sally Rooney stan. I enjoyed Normal People, didn’t love Conversations with Friends, so was intrigued by the hype around BWWAY but didn’t go into it with any real expectations.

But I do think it’s fascinating that she invokes such strong emotions in people. There is some real vitriol in the negative reviews for BWWAY. But I picked this one as I don’t actually disagree with it being self-indulgent, essentially plotless, with pretentious characters. I guess this is just a matter of to what to degree you enjoy and/or tolerate such literary tropes.

(P.S. – finishing out of spite is funny, though.)

10 books with disembodied female faces on the cover

If you hadn’t noticed, the publishing industry has got a bit of a thing for this.

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday prompt is books with —– on the cover. I surveyed my Goodreads shelves and it was very obvious that there is a trend at play – disembodied female faces in various states of artiness.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Hysteria by Jessica Gross

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Real World by Natsuo Kirino

I could go on, but I’ll stop at 10. Are there any other covers in this category that spring to mind?

The other passenger - louise candlish - book review

Privilege, envy, twists & turns in The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish ★★★½

If you were able to commute by riverboat, wouldn’t you? Gliding along the Thames with the wind whipping your hair, instead of crammed onto an airless tube hundreds of feet underground? It certainly sounds like the appealing option for Jamie, whose panic attack on the underground was a viral sensation, for want of a better word.

He’s not alone in his riverboat commute. Kit, a twentysomething who works in insurance, joins him on the regular. Along with two others, they form a little group calling themselves the water rats.

Jamie and Kit begin an unlikely friendship. Jamie is in his late forties and lives with his partner, Clare. He left the corporate rat race after he could no longer face the suffocating enclaves of the tube, and now works at a café. Clare, a successful estate agent, laments his lack of ambition but remains with him, the long-suffering girlfriend.

Kit’s girlfriend, Melia, has just begun working with Clare. She’s extremely attractive, a fact that Jamie, predictably, can’t help but notice. But Kit and Melia, once aspiring actors, are up to their eyebrows in debt, and are green with envy at Jamie and Clare’s beautiful Georgian house (owned, of course, by Clare’s parents).

‘We were accustomed to the house being an object of envy, even among our peers. Prospect Square, a five-minute walk from the Thames, is an intact Georgian conservation area sometimes used in the filming of period dramas… We were fortunate by anyone’s standards and every so often the realization would take possession of me: I’ve got it made here. I’m #Blessed.’

Despite Jamie being hashtag blessed, he can’t help but jeopardise everything for himself. He’s a pretty deficient in the charisma department right from the start – a compulsive liar who laments ‘woke’ culture and clearly doesn’t know a good thing when it’s staring him in the face. We have some sympathy for him – his claustrophobia is undoubtedly life-limiting and serious – but those reserves quickly run out when he gets himself in a very sticky situation indeed. Because the book begins with him disembarking the boat one December morning with two detectives waiting for him, wanting to question him over the disappearance of Kit. The last time they were seen together, they’d been fighting.

This was a smartly-written and plotted thriller – Louise Candlish’s voice is sharp and distinctive – a pleasure to get lost in. I had some ideas about where the plot was going, but the twists and turns still kept me hooked. I enjoy a dollop of social commentary with my thrillers, and Louise Candlish delivered, as she interrogates the generational divide and how privilege and financial freedom – or otherwise – shape our lives. I’ve knocked off some stars for the pacing – a solid start and punchy end were hampered by a dragging plot in the middle when we don’t know what’s happened to Kit and things meander slightly. But it’s still a deliciously absorbing read.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Other books by Louise Candlish…

The No-Show by Beth O'Leary - published today

Happy Publication Day | The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

Happy publication day to The No-Show by Beth O’Leary!

I’m a big Beth O’Leary fan, and her latest book is no exception. Three women are all stood up by the same enigmtic Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day – and over the course of the novel, we begin to understand why. The characters are a fully fleshed-out and authentic cast, and although there are some darker turns that the story takes, it’s told with O’Leary’s trademark warmth and compassion.