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So the sudden death of literary darling Athena Liu, leaving behind an unpublished manuscript, presents in itself an… opportunity.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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Desire and danger in razor-sharp campus novel Vladimir by Julia May Jonas ★★★★

You may also know this book by this very sultry cover.

This is a blistering, subversive, unputdownable read. Which really, you should be able to tell from the cover with the half-naked man.

In a liberal arts college in upstate New York, our narrator – an English professor in her fifties – has fallen madly in lust with Vladimir, a fellow faculty member in his forties. At the same time, her husband John is facing suspension over a series of allegations of sexual impropriety – he had multiple affairs with students in the past (and a tacit understanding with his wife: ‘When I suggested the availability of freedom he didn’t need much encouragement—he is still a cad, I like cads, and he is one.’)

The students aren’t happy with her for standing by her man. They plead with her to feel empowered enough to leave him, they sign petitions. Their discontent threatens her own position with the department. She finds this all rather tiresome. Her concerns are her husband (who mildly infuriates her most of the time), her daughter (an only child) who has problems of her own, her desire to write something of value. And her infatuation with Vladimir.

Jonas flips the male gaze on its head as we see Vladimir through – and only through – the eyes of the narrator. She describes him in uncomfortable detail, eating him up. Her obsession with him fuels her ability to write, and she writes in frenzies.

I loved how the characters explored the nature of art – writing in particular – a writer writing about writers talking about writing is one of my favourite things.

‘We talked about the rise of autofiction, and how most of the creative-writing students at the college did not even want to write fiction, but creative nonfiction instead, and primarily autofiction and memoir. I said it was because they were so obsessed with themselves they couldn’t imagine existing outside of their viewpoint. John said it came from an anxiety about representing identities and experiences other than their own. Vlad posited it was because they had grown up online, representing themselves via avatars, building brands and presences and constructions of selves before they even knew that’s what they were doing.’

It was hard to agree with the narrator on her views of her husband’s transgressions, but it was easy to like her in a perverse way, to be swept up in her razor-sharp and nuanced view of the world and rich inner life. We rarely see fifty-something women in literature with unapologetic desires.

THEN… there’s a jaw-dropping moment two thirds in when the stakes all get ratcheted up a notch. I’ll leave it there so as not to give any spoilers – but this was such a seductive, wry, complex novel that resists easy categorization – if that sounds like your cup of tea, go get it on your TBR.


5 literary fiction reads for AAPI heritage month

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. I’m going to be doing a mini-series on books I’ve loved by AAPI authors in different genres, and coming up first are my favourite lit fic reads – to be enjoyed any time of the year!

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Read if you like: short, lyrical novels about growing up and discovering your sexuality, navigating the immigrant experience, the trauma of war, the power of storytelling and survival, and the occasional inscrutable metaphor.

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades

Read if you like: books set in New York that celebrate girlhood in its many forms, the trope of being a ‘good immigrant daughter’, stylistically bold writing, and something you can read in half an afternoon.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Read if you like: having your heart torn into a thousand pieces.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Read if you like: slow burn novels about family dynamics, the unease of unbelonging, quiet and sad prose, and the ripple effects of trauma.

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

I haven’t yet started this, so this is from Goodreads: All the Lovers in the Night is acute and insightful, entertaining and engaging; it will make readers laugh, and it will make them cry, but it will also remind them, as only the best books do, that sometimes the pain is worth it.

Do you have anything you’d add to this list? Let me know!

I’ll be continuing this miniseries with a post spotlighting dystopian fiction by AAPI authors later this month.

Book review - Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

Book review: ‘Burntcoat’ by Sarah Hall – art and love in the shadow of a deadly virus ★★★★

There’s something unsettling about reading a moment in history as that moment is still happening. There’s not the perspective that comes from distance from the event having passed, it feels all a bit too close to home.

Thankfully (I suppose?) the virus ravaging Sarah Hall’s fictional world is not Covid-19 but something even worse, even deadlier, even more contagious. If it doesn’t kill you the first time, it will live in your cells until it does.

Why would anyone want to read about a pandemic while we’re still very much not through the woods of a pandemic? For me personally, it helps me to make sense of our current time. And this is a short book that is ambitious in its aims – it interrogates the meaning of art, particularly in the face of death, what it is to be intimate, and how precarious and precious life really is.

The precariousness of life is something Edith, our protagonist, knows only too well. When she’s a child, living in rural Northern England, her writer mother has a massive brain haemorrhage. The spectre of her catastrophic injury hovers over them both – while she regains some function, the doctors warn that a similar event could happen again at any time. As such, Edith is raised ‘capably and neglectfully, by a borrowed woman and her shadow.’ Eschewing a chronological timeline, the novel jumps around from Edith’s childhood, her rise through the ranks to become a celebrated modern sculptor, her period of lockdown at the pandemic’s onset and the years that have passed since.

One of the axes around which the plot spins is Edith’s relationship with Halit, a chef who has fled war in the Middle East. They meet shortly before the pandemic descends, and not wanting to spend lockdown apart, Halit moves in to Burntcoat, the converted warehouse where Edith lives and creates her art. Their relationship moves swiftly, an accelerated timeline in the face of the oncoming apocalypse. Their intimacy is a place within which to shield from the horrors unfolding in the outside world – the overspilling hospitals, widespread food shortages, society brought to the brink of collapse.

‘Do you remember? Is that even possible? The dark, burning river. The turning tide; everything loosening beneath tight forces. None of it was happening and it was all unstoppable. Closing the door when we got back, and promising each other we would be all right. All we had was love, its useless currency, its powerful denial.’

There’s a lot of sex in this book, but it’s the well-written kind – not too anatomical or too metaphorical. The atmosphere around Edith and Halit is also built up in a thick and feverish and sensual way – Sarah Hall’s vivid descriptions of place reminded me of Sarah Moss’s Summerwater.

‘I would walk back to the grandfather house in the arboreal dusk, the leaves above luminescing and murmuring like the low voice of a woman. The morning sun behind the forest was golden and open, the mouth of a fish.’

Sarah Hall began this at the start of England’s first lockdown. And two years on, the book starts to make sense of what might come next. Maybe we’ll learn to treasure the unimaginably precious and infinitely fragile life we’ve been given, maybe we won’t.

‘The world doesn’t come back as it was before. The seas and mountains remain, the cities slowly fill up again, jets take off over ochre and turquoise aprons. Finance begins to move. Children are allowed to play together. Humanity is re-established. There is grief, its long cortège; the whole world joins and walks. Such shock is both disabling and enlivening; everything before was a mistake. We will do it differently; we’ll repent. Consume less, conserve more, make sense of our punishment. It’s been said the virus reached levels of superiority other pathogens never have. Like the vastation of ice ages, and condensed gene pools, language, blood and milk, it will evolve us. Of course, the old ways return. Our substance is the same; even with improving agents. We are our worst tendencies. We remain in our cast.’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book review: ‘Fight Night’ by Miriam Toews – a hilarious and moving adventure through the eyes of a nine year old ★★★★½

Well, this was a riot.

Nine-year-old Swiv has been kicked out of school, so she’s spending more time than usual with her heavily-pregnant mum, Mooshie and decrepit but vivacious grandmother, Elvira. 

The matrilineal bonds in this family are messy, but they’re inseparable and they love each other fiercely. Mooshie is an aspiring and angst-ridden actress who spends her days fighting with directors. Elvira is the larger-than-life octogenarian who sprays hose pipes at policemen, lives in sweatpants and says ‘bombs away!’ when her pills scatter on the floor. What we come to learn is that both adult women are also battling trauma – that of growing up in a repressive religious community and of losing two close family members to suicide. Swiv’s father is nowhere to be seen.

‘Lou looked sad and happy at the same time. That’s a popular adult look because adults are busy and have to do everything at once, even feel things.’

Swiv, our narrator, is simultaneously innocent and wise. She knows her grandmother’s cocktail of drugs off by heart, is exasperated at her mother’s desires to smoke and drink whilst pregnant, and yet recoils in horror at the discovery of a pair of her aunt’s thongs and can’t quite understand why the adults around her behave as they do. But she is laugh-out-loud funny without being contrived, an authentic and refreshing voice that parrots the expressions of adults in her own niave way.

‘Mom is having a complete nervous breakdown and a geriatric pregnancy which doesn’t mean she’s going to push an old geezer out of her vag, it means she’s too old to be up the stump and is so exhausted.’

There’s an irrepressible energy within these pages, and it’s told in a stream-of-consciousness style with no speech punctuation. Don’t let that put you off – it sweeps us up in its tide and takes us along on the journey, as Swiv and Elvira embark on a chaotic trip together to the US.

Fighting in this book is a triumphant rallying cry to persevere against tragedy, repression, patriarchy – all the forces that work to dim the light of these vivid and unforgettable women. ‘She has to fight to feel alive and to balance things out,’ Swiv says of her grandmother. ‘So she keeps fighting. She said we’re all fighters, our whole family. Even the dead ones. They fought the hardest.’

It’s hilarious and moving, and truly original. Right down to its bittersweet ending, it’s a triumph. 

‘Maybe you should tie me to the mast! Grandma shouted. Like my friend Odysseus! She winked at me. She was still drinking! If we tied Grandma to the mast and we tipped, she’d drown. I could hear Mom’s voice in my head saying, Why the hell did you tie Grandma to the fucking mast!’

how high we go in the dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Book review: ‘How High We Go In The Dark’ by Sequoia Nagamatsu – dazzling, devastating stories from a plague-ridden world ★★★★

I had to take a break from plague books in early 2020. But here I am again.

Scientists studying the melting arctic tundra unwittingly release a deadly plague, buried in the ancient remains of a young girl. Soon, the world is ensconced in a new, deadly virus – a world that we learn about through fragmented (but interconnected) narratives that take us up from that fateful year of 2030 to hundreds of years into the future.

‘It’s hard to ignore the Earth when it slowly destabilizes beneath you as you sleep, when it unlocks secrets you never asked for or wanted.’

It sounds relentlessly bleak, and even more so when I tell you that the primary victims of the ‘first wave’ of this virus are children. In response to the mounting, unimaginable death toll, cities build ‘euthanasia parks’, designed as ways of enabling dying children to have one last day of fun before slowly being put to sleep mid-air on a rollercoaster. It’s a harrowing image, but a compassionate one: in the face of global tragedy, we find new ways to grieve and process death. It’s told with bucket loads of empathy, forging human connections between the reader and the characters even as we only know them in short vignettes.

The novel explores how we are changed by loss and also the grimly inevitable industry of death that springs up around it, a late capitalist enterprise for the plague age. In this universe, you can store memories of loved ones inside the plastic carcass of a robot dog; book a room in an ‘elegy hotel’ where you can spend time with the corpse of your friend or family member; pay to have your remains liquefied into a sculpture and set out on the ocean to dissolve. Melancholy is everywhere you turn in this book.

‘… something snapped in us when the dead could no longer be contained, when people didn’t really get to say goodbye. Cryogenic suspension companies proliferated, death hotels, services that preserved and posed your loved ones in fun positions, travel companies that promised a “natural” getaway with your recently departed. I remember Mr. Fang reminding us upon hire to always exude customer service, to never upset the guests, to remember that we were a hotel first and foremost, a funeral home second.’

It’s literary/science/speculative fiction, but transcends parameters of genre in many ways. I found it to be deeply imaginative, illuminating and original, and particularly liked the fresh perspective that came from almost all the characters being Japanese or Japanese-American.

Although it is a novel, the short story structure means it inevitably falls into short story pitfalls – some are much better than others. I preferred the human, grounded stories to the high-concept science-fiction takes, but that might just be personal preference. Even when things do get high-concept, Nagamatsu retains the human element – parents and children, siblings, lovers, friends – these intimate relationships are at the heart of the stories. There’s an attempt at the end to circle back in a cosmic origin story, that I didn’t find altogether successful – but can see that it was included in an attempt to bring some world order and connection to the narrative.

Finally, I think it’s important to talk about hope. There is hope in this novel – it may be bittersweet, or fleeting, but it is there – there are ways to rebuild in the wake of tragedy. Human connection remains the glue that holds together a fractured world.

‘We need a party to break the silence, to begin to heal. Had she lived, I know there would have been one every week—parties to forget, parties to remember, parties to dance the night away. She would have declared that the postapocalypse doesn’t mean we stop dancing.’

Books similar to How High We Go In The Dark

Girl A by Abigail Dean

Book review: ‘Girl A’ by Abigail Dean – a transfixing story of rebuilding a life after horror ★★★★½

I almost stopped reading this book a few pages in. But I’m glad I didn’t.

I was worried, at the start, that this would be a ‘trauma-porn’ kind of read – a litany of horrors, a will-they won’t-they escape their captors. And whilst the horror is there – spoken and unspoken – this book is so much more about how to rebuild a life after enduring such cruelty and suffering, and about the myriad and complex ways it affects each of the Gracie siblings who made it out alive from the ‘house of horrors.’

Lex, the titular ‘Girl A’ who manages to escape the house at fifteen years old, is our first-person narrator. Abigail Dean resists giving her ‘plucky heroine’ status, or making her broken beyond repair. Instead, she’s a complex, empathetic and unreliable narrator. Her siblings were all split up and adopted by different families, and 15 years on are varying degrees of well-adjusted. The sibling dynamics were portrayed in a fascinating way: rather than necessarily being bonded by such a uniquely horrifying trauma, there is guilt, fear, incomprehension.

‘When I looked at my siblings, frailer around the table, it seemed as though they’d taken a little flesh from each of us and made something new.’

This isn’t a fast-paced read – we’re constantly drawn back, the present-day narration never gathering too much momentum until we’re pulled back to a slowly unravelling past. We learn how the children slid from a relatively normal existence – if moderately poor and unloving – to a hellscape of being chained to their beds, deprived of food to almost starvation and routinely abused by their maniacal father, supposedly compelled by the word of God. Thankfully, Dean spares us most of the graphic details, but the oppressive atmosphere of dread is unbearable – and hard to look away from.

‘The poverty crept into our lives like ivy on a window, slow enough that you don’t notice it moving, and then, in no time, so dense that we couldn’t see outside.’

We know that the horrors end – which is what makes reading these flashbacks slightly more bearable; these children escaped, grew older, began life on their own terms. Except the fate that awaits each of the children is complicated.

In one particular anecdote that gave me chills, Lex has made it to university – several years older than her peers, on account of her catch-up schooling. They’re out one night at a Halloween party, and she sees a bunch of fellow students dressed up as nightmare-material IRL criminals – Ted Bundy, Myra Hindley, Ian Brady – and her very own parents. The sight of it is enough to make her almost lose consciousness in horror.

In the present day, Lex has been named executor of her mother’s will, her having died in prison. The Gracie children have inherited the house where they were imprisoned, and through the course of the novel Lex grapples with this inheritance and what to do with it. A physical manifestation of all they endured, its presence looms large within the story, the squalor and misery of those four walls terrifyingly vivid.

It’s a transfixing read, the characters so intricately rendered and the prose so expressive and gut-wrenching. Don’t go into this expecting an edge-of-your-seat thriller – but if you’ll sit with the characters a while, you’ll likely be just as drawn in as I was. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

Massive TW/CW for child abuse, substance use.