Luster

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Raven Leilani
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2020 (read May 2021 on Audible)

It’s been too long since I read this for me to write a proper review for it, but I do want to write a short one to capture my thoughts.

I saw lots of buzz about Luster and read that it was a bit of a polarizing book. It was compared to Queenie, which is also somewhat of a polarizing book, but I read it several years ago and loved it, so I thought I might enjoy Luster as well. Sadly, I did not. I can see why this is compared to Queenie, but in my opinion it had none of the charm of Queenie.

Both books feature black women trying to find their way in the world while simultaneously combatting racism and micro-aggressions at every turn. Both women pursue (often abusive) sexual relations to avoid their personal trauma, but that is pretty much where the comparisons end. Despite Queenie raging against herself and looking for love in all the wrong places, she still had so much charm and spunk. A lot of people didn’t like the comparison of Queenie to Bridget Jones, but I actually thought it was pretty apt. Queenie struggled with her mental health, but she very much used that wry British humour as a coping mechanism.

Luster is a different beast than Queenie entirely. Queenie was trying to mend her broken heart with bad sex, whereas Edie pursues an entirely inappropriate relationship with an older white married man. Eric has a somewhat open marriage and when things fall apart for Edie, she finds herself living in Eric’s house with his wife and discovering they have an adopted black daughter.

While I did find the exploration of Akila’s character (the daughter) really interesting, a black girl fighting the same racism Edie is used to, but without the acknowledgement or understanding of her parents, this novel made me entirely too uncomfortable. I get that that’s kind of the point of the book, but the casual violence in Edie and Eric’s relationship, and the bizarre relationship with his wife, were just too much for me to handle. I desperately wanted to like it because I generally love books with unlikeable characters, but I had to acknowledge this book wasn’t for me.

I didn’t enjoy the writing and despite some good themes, I wasn’t quite sure what Leilani was trying to say with this book. I acknowledge this book wasn’t written for me though, and that’s okay. But given the choice between the two, read Queenie instead.

Of Women and Salt

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Gabriela Garcia
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)

I have read some really good books this month and Of Women and Salt is definitely one of them. I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz about it over the past few months but I couldn’t quite pin down what the plot was. I gathered it was a multi-generational immigrant story and honestly, I didn’t need to hear any more, I was sold. 

We put this on our book club voting list and it lost to The Lost Apothecary, which is really too bad because I think my book club would have enjoyed this a lot more than they enjoyed The Lost Apothecary. This book is centered around women, primarily the relationships between mothers and daughters. It’s another story that is told non-linearly (seriously, I’ve read so many of these this year), but this is one of the books where I didn’t mind the non-linear telling. Overall the plot is pretty simple, so I didn’t find it difficult to jump around as the novel focuses more on the character relationships than anything else. 

The novel kicks off in 19th century Cuba and then jumps around from there. Though someone from almost every generation of this Cuban immigrant family are featured throughout the novel, most of our time is spent close to present day with the youngest woman in the family, Jeanette. When she witnesses her neighbour being taken away by ICE in the middle of the night, she inadvertently becomes guardian to her neighbour’s daughter for a short period of time. Though they only know each other for a few days, the experience has a profound impact on both Jeanette and the young girl, Ana. 

I’m glad the novel focused on these two individuals because I did find their stories to be some of the most memorable and meaningful of the book. Though I did love the development of both Jeanette’s relationship with her mom (Carmen), and her Mom’s relationship with Jeanette’s grandmother (Delores). Beyond Delores, I don’t think going further back in the family tree really added that much to the story. The inclusion of the family tree at the start was definitely a good idea, I could see this being really confusing otherwise.

Some might question how much Ana and her mother’s story really belonged in this book, but I loved the comparison of two different immigration stories and though they are only loosely linked to one another, I thought the inclusion of both really made this a more well rounded story. 

Honestly, my only complaint about this book is that it could have been longer. It’s only about 200 pages and I really would have loved to spend more time with each of the women in this family, particularly Carmen. I felt like I had good insight into Dolores’ perspective, but I would have loved to hear more about Carmen’s experience immigrating to America and what it was like growing up under the shadow of her childhood trauma. Abuse was passed down from generation to generation in this family and I think that Garcia could have really developed this theme more to make her narrative even more impactful. I just wanted a little bit more from each of the characters, but the writing was so beautiful I’m definitely excited to see what the author will write next. An excellent debut!

Detransition, Baby

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Torrey Peters
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Jan. 2021 (read May 2021)

This is going to be a hard review to write. It took me a long time to read Detransition, Baby; not because it’s a bad book, but because it’s a heavy book in scope. As a character study, this book is incredible. Peters really gets into the psyche of her main characters and I was frankly astonished at the emotional depth to which she takes Reese and Ames. These are not hastily created characters, they are well developed individuals and Peters brings to life every aspect of their character, from their most trivial thoughts, to their deepest secrets. Don’t come to this book if you are looking for a fast-paced plot, but rather if you want to get down into the nitty gritty of what it means to be trans and the exploration of both womanhood and motherhood as a trans-woman, this is the book for you.

It’s what made it so hard to read. The plot is not told linearly and the book is chaotic in its exploration of the themes and who these people are. Peters goes to some dark places and this is not a lightweight book. For those not aware of the plot, Detransition, Baby is primarily about two characters, Ames and Reese, though Katrina also plays a central role in the story. Reese and Ames were in a relationship for many years, but Ames eventually decides to detransition back to male and accidentally impregnates his boss, Katrina. The novel explores the idea of these 3 individuals raising the baby together because Ames fears that Katrina will not understand why the idea of ‘fatherhood’ is so scary to him and because Reese is a trans-woman that has always wanted a baby.

It’s a messy book and I can see it being very polarizing. But the fact that it’s been creating so much buzz and making bestseller lists from its release is in itself an achievement. The danger I think may be that this is held up as the only example of what it means to be trans, so I hope to see many more books like this get published to both broaden the narrative, and of course, for representation. Although shoutout to the YA genre which I think has been ahead of literary fiction genre on this topic. 

There are so many ideas presented in this book that I did find myself finishing it and not knowing quite what to think. I’m still not sure if I loved it, but I can’t deny its power because I really can’t stop thinking about it and I appreciate Peters’ unapologetic telling of these individuals. This is ultimately a book about womanhood and motherhood and what it means to navigate those worlds as a trans-woman. Peters explores so much within a limited number of pages and I definitely commend her on her honesty.

My only complaint is that I wish this story had been told linearly. I’ve read a lot of non-linear stories lately and for the most part, it doesn’t bother me – but I’m not sure what this style achieved in this book. The chapters are very long and every time I finished one, I knew I would be jumping to an entirely different part of the story, so it made it hard to pick the book up again every time I put it down. I felt like I had to get re-invested in the story after every chapter because the storytelling itself was quite chaotic. 

But one thing is for sure – whether you loved it or hated it, Torrey Peters is definitely one to watch!

The Lost Apothecary

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Sarah Penner
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)

Sadly, this was one of my most disappointing reads so far this year. Not that it was a particularly bad book or anything, I just thought the plot held so much promise and it was one of most anticipated books. So when it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was definitely disappointing. 

The Lost Apothecary is set in the late 1700’s and tells the story of an apothecary, Nella, who dispenses both remedies and poisons to her solely female clientele. The goal of her apothecary has always been to help women, but after the death of her mother, Nella decides to branch out to offer women a different kind of help, that of murder. Her one rule is that her poisons are never to be used against women, only against men. 

At the same time, we have a modern day story of Caroline Parcewell, a young housewife who has just discovered an upsetting secret about her husband and decides to travel to London on their 10 year anniversary, alone. While there, she discovers about the existence of the old apothecary and sets out to learn more about it.

The plot sounds intriguing right? So why didn’t I like it? Honestly… I didn’t see the point. I thought I was going to get a nuanced story about women in tight places who seek help to improve their difficult situations. I wanted a morally ambiguous story about women and sisterhood, but instead I got a lightweight drama about a blackmail scenario that I struggled to believe wouldn’t have already happened to Nella at some point during her career as a dispenser of poisons.

There is one interesting story in the beginning when we are introduced to Eliza, but after that, I felt the author didn’t do anything new or interesting with the plot. I struggled to relate with any of the characters because I don’t think any of them were given the depth they deserved. We’re given a surface level story about Nella that I think is intended to be shocking and sad, but Penner never manages to quite connect you with her characters in a meaningful way. It’s a debut novel and she falls into the classic trap of “show don’t tell”.

I feel like I make this complaint about a lot of books, yet authors keep making the same mistake. Penner had a great idea for the book, but the execution and character development just weren’t enough to really give this story wings. It’s a great idea, but I don’t really know what Penner was trying to say, what was the point? I felt like I was getting so many conflicting messages. One of Nella’s key motivations is that she wants to keep her register alive to give voices to women instead of silencing them, but if that puts the women at risk of DEATH, then that is the strongest way of ensuring you do actually silence them. Then Caroline further silences women by keeping what she discovers about Eliza at the end a secret as well. The messages were contradictory and it really made me question what point the author was trying to make.

So let’s talk about Caroline. Why do so many historical fiction books insist on having the modern day timeline. No one cares about it! People are almost always more interested in the historical timeline as learning about the past is generally what inspires someone to pick up historical fiction in the first place, so why do so many books have modern day timelines. I was initially intrigued with how the apothecary was going to link to Caroline, but it ended up just being a fluke and I thought the scenario of events that occurred in her timeline were so outlandish and unlikely that it was hard to take her story seriously at all. 

Anyways, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a totally bad book, but it also wasn’t a great book. I’m somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. I read it with my book club and we were all disappointed, so despite the intriguing-sounding plot, I wouldn’t recommend this one.    

Swimming Back to Trout River

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Linda Rui Feng
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read May 2021)

I haven’t been seeing that much buzz about this book, so I have no idea how it got on my radar, but I found the name super compelling. Then when I read the plot and saw it was blurbed by Jean Kwok, I was super interested in reading it. 

What an understated book. It’s a simple plot with simple storytelling, but I really enjoyed it. I really like Linda Rui Feng’s style of writing and thought it was really lyrical storytelling about a family that becomes separated by time and circumstance. From the synopsis, this is the story of two parents who immigrate to America and leave their daughter with their parents in law, promising to come back for her on her 12th birthday. But the daughter, Junie, loves her life in Trout River and doesn’t know that her parents have become estranged in their new country.

The story delivered on this plot, but it’s really only a small part of what this book covers. I expected the book to mostly be about Junie, but it’s actually primarily about her parents and their connections to music. It’s not so much a multi generational story as a story of her parents growing up, their journey together, and then their journey apart. Her father, Momo, grows up in Trout River and is one of the first people to succeed and get out of the village, leaving to get a university education. There he meets Dawn, a budding violinist who teaches him to play ahead of China’s cultural revolution. Finally, he eventually meets his wife, Cassia, a nurse who has experienced her own loss through the revolution. 

Like I said, it’s an understated novel about growing up and subtly addresses the impact the cultural revolution had on many of its citizens, without being a heavy novel solely about the revolution. It’s about family, the ones we make and the ones we choose, and who we might be if events in our lives had gone differently. It’s not a long book and made for a really enjoyable read. 

The only part I didn’t really like was the ending. I found it very abrupt and would have preferred to spend a bit more time getting to know Junie rather than just her parents. That said, I loved Dawn’s character and even though she wasn’t a part of the main family, she was my favourite part of the book! Check it out if you’re looking for something a little different.