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!

What’s Mine and Yours

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Naima Coster
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021 on Audible)

This was an impulse buy because I liked the audiobook narrator. I always have such a hard time finding audiobooks because I own so many hard copies of the books on my TBR and I don’t want to pay for them twice. I’ve seen a bit of buzz about What’s Mine and Yours, but I wish I was seeing more because this book was excellent! Honestly, I don’t know why this is only rated 3.67 on goodreads, I feel like it must be misunderstood because so many of the characters are unlikeable, but definitely a 4.5 star read for me.

Unfortunately the synopsis of the book is a bit misleading. The book is pitched as being about the lives of two students from North Carolina whose school is being forced to integrate. This is a small part of the story, but really this is a multi-generational saga about the families of those two students – the impact of their childhoods and their parents’ influence on who they become and how their lives continue to intersect throughout the years. It reminded me a little bit of Ask Again, Maybe because of the ripple effect that single circumstances can have on a person and on a family. In this case there’s not necessarily one catalyst so much as a series of events, but it still makes for a really interesting character study.

This novel touches on so many themes: grief, growing up, race, class, abuse, family, love. Gee grows up with his headstrong mother Jade, who wants the best for her son, but struggles to be there for him in the way he needs after a tragic incident. Noelle grows up under the shadow of her mother, a white woman who has been dealt her own difficult hand in life, but fails to recognize how her white privilege blinds her and creates a wedge between her and her half-Latina daughters.

With so much going on in the book, I did find it a little hard to follow by audiobook in the beginning. The author doesn’t use a linear timeline to tell the story, for a good reason understanding the surprising ending, but it did make it hard to follow at times. I think the strongest themes of the book are those of race and class, but Costa accomplishes a lot in under 350 pages. I didn’t love the ending, but I loved how this book is a character examination of these two families. The narrative isn’t proportionally split between all the characters, but by looking at each of the family members, we get to recognize the larger scope of the story. 

Lacey May was the most interesting character for me. I struggled with her character because she really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. She’s blind to how her children perceive her and she’s not ashamed of her blatant racism. Despite her strong character, she fails to be able to stand on her own two feet, always relying on the men around her, and even as an old woman, she still uses the same old antics to manipulate her daughters. But she makes for an interesting character study because you know there are tons more women out there just like her. 

Unfortunately the plot is already getting hazy in my memory, but definitely recommend this if you’re looking for a nuanced and engaging story!

Infinite Country

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Patricia Engel
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

I decided to read Infinite Country because I’ve been seeing a lot of good reviews and the narrator in the audiobook sample sounded excellent! I’m so glad I picked it up because I ended up really liking it. I found it mildly confusing to keep track of the characters at the beginning, but this was a really moving story about how it feels to be divorced from your homeland and the struggles mixed-status families face in staying connected to one another.

Infinite Country is split between Colombia and America and tells the story of a family who move to America and overstay their visas. Elena and Mauro never intended to stay in America, but the uncertainty of returning to Colombia and the fact that some of their children are now American-born, they decide to stay. Eventually they become separated – with half the family returning to Colombia and the other half living undocumented in the States. 

Like the book, I’m going to keep my review short. The story had some interesting plot points – especially with the part of the family living in Colombia – but at the end of the day it’s a simple story about the trauma many families experience in trying to immigrate to America. Nothing in this story really surprised me (except for the bad thing Talia does), it’s a story I feel like I’ve heard many times before. Families that seek a better life and are forced to live in poverty and taken advantage of because of their fear of deportation. But I loved this book because it is deeply humanizing. We get to spend time with each family member and experience each of their longings and struggles. I really connected with each of the characters, especially Mauro, and I was moved by their tenacity.

Immigration forces everyone to make tough choices and I really appreciated this in-depth look at its impact on one family. At less than 200 pages, I read this in two sittings and definitely recommend it for everyone!