I have been sitting on this book all year! I’ve heard so many good things about it and have been meaning to pick it up for months, so I finally got the audiobook version and flew through it in a few days.
Black Cake tells the story of two siblings and the life of their mother, who has just passed away. The siblings have been estranged for several years, but their mother, Eleanor, leaves a recording for them to listen to together telling the real story of her life – all the things she never told them about herself.
It has a bit of a slow start, focusing on the 2 siblings, Byron and Benny, but once they start listening to Eleanor’s recording, I was hooked. Eleanor grew up in one of the Caribbean Islands (exact location not named), which has left its mark on her entire family, despite her children never having been there.
It’s a long book, and as with most long books, I do think it could have been shorter, but the author does cover a lot of ground. We are introduced to a lot of characters over the course of the novel and while it was sometimes overwhelming, every character was well placed and had a role to play. It’s a smartly written book, it could have been tightened up a bit, but it’s the kind of narrative where there are no thoughts out of place. The author is intentional about both the plot and the characters and I like a book that is plotted that way. That said, while everything has its place, the author does tackle a lot and I think she could have done more justice to her ideas had she focused more on a few central themes (primarily as they relate to Eleanor).
While I liked it a lot (it’s an engaging story), where I think it fails is in adequately developing Byron and Benny’s stories. Eleanor’s story is incredibly well developed, but for such a long book, I still didn’t really feel like I knew Benny or Byron or understood their relationship with one another. Their stories are briefly developed and we examine Benny’s struggles with being queer and Byron’s struggles with unconscious bias and racism in his workplace, but I felt their stories were topical and not given enough depth to be really meaningful.
Maybe it’s just that they paled next to Eleanor, but I felt that this story could have been historical fiction solely about Eleanor and it would have been just as good, if not better. There were complex relationships between all of the characters, but I do think the narrative is partially strained by the fact that we never get to meet Eleanor alive. Everything is recounted, which creates a level of separation between the events, how the main characters feel about them, and how the reader perceives them.
Despite how this review is making it seem, these are just minor criticisms of how it could have been improved, I did still really enjoy the book. It’s a great story and I loved the centering of it around the black cake. Culture and food do play a big role in who we are or become and I loved how the black cake grounds the story. I would definitely recommend and I’m interested to see what else Charmaine Wilkerson writes!
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Sarah Polley Genres: Non-Fiction, Essays Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Apr. 2022 on Audible)
Run Towards the Danger is a book I totally picked up because of the hype. It’s not the kind of book I normally read, but I’ve been seeing it get fantastic reviews everywhere, so I decided to get an audiobook copy and give it a listen. I’m not sure I would have finished it had I read a physical copy (just because I struggle with non fiction), but it works great as an audiobook and I loved that it was narrated by Sarah. The book only has 6 essays, but it’s undeniable that Polley is a very accomplished writer and her essays are quite compelling. I struggled a bit with the first one, but it’s very smartly structured in that, while each essay tackles a different topic, they are woven together to promote Polley’s overall ideas and theme.
Sorry to Sarah’s ego, but I am one of those people who wouldn’t recognize her, nor had any idea who she was. This is a bit of a disservice to myself because I’ve always been a huge Anne fan, but to be honest, I didn’t even know Road to Avonlea was a thing. I think it was probably an age thing for me, but I’ve since done a bit of digging through the youtube archives.
The core theme throughout this book is about the struggles and long term impacts of being a child actor, as well as the ethics of having children work at all. I really felt for Sarah because it seems like she really can never catch a break. She has had so many health issues thrown at her throughout life, on top of the emotional trauma of losing her mother as a young girl and essentially raising herself in a volatile film industry that didn’t care about her safety or well being.
The first essay was probably my least favourite because it was significantly longer than the rest and I thought she expanded on a lot of areas that weren’t that compelling, but it did really set the scene for the rest of the book and I thought the essays got stronger and stronger throughout. My favourites were probably Mad Genius, High Risk. and the final essay, which the book is named for, Run Towards the Danger.
Mad Genius calls out many of the prejudices that exist in the film industry and how the behaviour’s of so many men are excused, putting others at risk, and High Risk highlights the inherent sexism built into our health institutions. It’s harder to pinpoint what I liked so much about Run Towards the Danger, other than that I found it to be extremely compelling storytelling and I was fascinated to learn about concussions.
So overall, this is a bit of an odd essay collection, but I would definitely recommend it. Sarah is a great writer and storyteller.
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Grace D. Li Genres: Fiction Pub. Date: Apr. 2022 (read Apr. 2022 on Audible)
I’ve seen Portrait of a Thief popping up a few places, but for some reason I wasn’t very interested in it until I learned it was being published under Tiny Rep Books, which is Phoebe Robinson’s publishing imprint. I love Phoebe Robinson, so I took another look at the synopsis and discovered it’s about a heist and is actually fascinating! The museum heist vibes reminded me of The Feather Thief, which is non fiction that I read a few years ago and really liked, so I decided to pick up the audio version of Portrait of a Thief and quickly devoured it over one long weekend.
The comparisons to The Feather Thief pretty much end after the words “museum heist”. Portrait of a Thief is a fictional account of a 5 person crew of Chinese-American university students who decide to try and steal back a bunch of Chinese Art that has been taken by western countries throughout history as part of the spoils of war. It begs a very interesting question about art and museums and who should really be the keeper of history. The historical narrative and record has always been determined by the victors of war and colonialism, but in more enlightened times, should we re-examine who the purveyors of those artifacts are in a modern world?
This is the biggest theme raised within the book, but we also get to know 5 protagonists of Chinese ancestry and get to explore what it means to be both Asian and American – to belong to multiple identities, but to struggle to access either. Art frames the plot, but it’s really a story about diaspora.
I read this immediately prior to reading Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou, and though I really liked Portrait of a Thief when I read it, I’m struggling to review it now because Disorientation attempts something similar but totally different. Both books are a lot of fun and also slightly insane, but they are too entirely different beasts, so it’s unfair to compare them. Portrait of a Thief doesn’t strike me as such a strong read having finished Disorientation, but I’ll do my best to review it justly.
The element of fun in Portrait of a Thief comes from the heists. Its ludicrous to think of a bunch of university students robbing some of the most prestigious museums in the world, but after having read The Feather Thief, I have to conclude that it’s definitely possible, especially if you have limited connections to tie you to the crime. Without concrete DNA or video evidence, how are you really going to get caught as long as you make it out of the building before the cops arrive? (it’s probably a lot more complicated than this, but I can hypothesize).
I also liked that Portrait of a Thief has 5 very different, but interesting characters. I loved the exploration of the Chinese diaspora, but I have to admit that none of the characters really had as much characterization as I would have liked. It’s a great book, but beyond the initial presentation of the main theme – who owns art – I found the author didn’t actually explore the idea in as much depth as I would have liked. She doesn’t fall into the trap of telling instead of showing, which I always applaud in a debut. The reader is left to consider their own conclusions, I just wanted a little bit more meat to chew on while I contemplated this.
The characters, though interesting, were sadly a bit one-dimensional. The audiobook was well narrated, with the exception of how the male narrator read the female characters. I despised how meek and breathy he made the women sound and it really bothered me. They had both a female and male narrator, so I don’t understand why they didn’t just have the female narrator read the dialogue in the male narrator scenes. Furthermore, I wish this book had had 5 narrators, one for each character. I know this probably complicates production and budget, but I think it would have taken this audiobook from good to great.
Anyways, despite my complaints, I do think this is a very strong debut novel with an excellent premise. It’s not perfect and I’m definitely nitpicking having followed it up with Disorientation, but still a great book and I would recommend!
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5 Author: Lizzie Damilola Blackburn Genres: Fiction Pub. Date: Jan. 2022 (read Mar. 2022 on Audible)
So far 2022 is turning out to be the most off brand reading year for me. I feel like I’m reading a lot of different type books than I normally do and I am loving it! Whatever the opposite of a book slump is, that has been my 2022 so far!
Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? is maybe a little less off brand than some of my other reads and I was drawn to it because it sounded a lot like Queenie. It’s definitely a different book than Queenie, but like Queenie, it has been compared to Bridget Jones, and also like Queenie, people are pissed about the comparison. Honestly, it seems like everything is compared to Bridget Jones these days, but I disagreed with the haters about Queenie and I disagree with the haters about this one too. In my opinion, Yinka has the most similar voice to Bridget Jones, while solidly still being her own original character. Yinka has the self deprecating humour or Bridget, without being quite as self sabotaging as Queenie.
Yinka, Where is your Huzband? is set in London and features a British-Nigerian family. Yinka grew up in Peckham, is Oxford educated, and has a great job in investment banking. Unfortunately, despite her career success, she’s still seen as the black sheep of her family because she is in her 30’s and still not married. While her sister, cousins, and friends are getting married and having kids, Yinka hits a tough spot at work and struggles to get over her last relationship. For the most part, she is content with who she is, but the repeated pressure and embarrassment from her family to settle down spurs her to make a plan to do whatever it takes to get a date to her cousin’s upcoming wedding.
I read this as an audiobook and it did take me a little while to get into it. Things aren’t too bad for Yinka at the start of the novel, but they slowly start to fall about and the more she tries to fix things, the worse it seems to get. There are a lot of cultural expectations placed on her and it’s sad that while her family is very proud of her achievements, she is still seen as a failure for being unmarried and childless. Her mother’s greatest fear for her is that she will be an old maid who never gets married, as if marriage is the pinnacle of achievement. I thought it was a great look into the Nigerian diaspora in Britain and I both loved and was extremely frustrated by Yinka’s family, especially her cousin. Yinka gets shit on a lot, and while she had some growing to do, I do think her outbursts and anger were entirely justified.
Like I said, this is a more subtle book than Queenie. Whereas Queenie drowned her pain and depression in abusive sexual relationships, Yinka is still looking for her Prince Charming and tries to change her looks and personality to be more attractive to the men in her life. She has a deep rooted insecurity about being dark skinned and equates her self worth and beauty with not having lighter skin. She disappears into trying to be who she thinks other people want her to be, yet I admired that there were still some things she wasn’t willing to compromise on. Faith is a key part of this novel and Yinka isn’t willing to compromise her decision to remain chaste until marriage. Sometimes it felt a bit preachy, but I feel we don’t often see characters like this in mainstream literature, so I liked that it was different. Plus Yinka was never pushy about her faith.
I wish this book wasn’t being marketed as a romance though. I kind of knew going in that it wasn’t a romance and I liked that instead it’s a book about learning to love and take care of yourself. But if you’re going into this looking for romance, you will likely be disappointed. That said, I had whiplash from how many romantic interests are presented throughout the story. I kept trying to guess who Yinka was actually going to end up with, but in the end it didn’t really matter because it’s not really what the book is about.
As with any kind of book like this, I think some people will struggle with Yinka’s character. I really liked her and found her struggles to be very relatable. I understood the complicated relationships she had with a lot of her friends and family, but loved that she also had some solid relationships in her life too, namely Nana and Auntie Blessing. Her relationship with her cousin (I can’t remember her name now… Oola? Oona?) was really frustrating, but I liked the exploration of how friendships can turn toxic and how family dynamics can create unhealthy and competitive environments with the people we should love. Her cousin is looked down on by her mother for not having an education, while Yinka is looked down on by her mother for not having a husband. It’s hard for anyone to feel good about themselves and it really pitted the two cousins against one another.
So there was a lot I liked about the book, but there were also some things I didn’t like, the first of which was Yinka’s career trajectory. It was tiring how everyone kept pushing Yinka to switch careers – on the one hand, it’s great to have friends that encourage you to pursue something you’re passionate about, but I didn’t really get the vibe that Yinka was passionate about helping the homeless. It just read more to me that the author thought there is something inherently wrong with being an investment banker and that Yinka should so something more “meaningful” (as is constantly preached to us through characters like Dominic). I don’t like attaching this kind of social or moral value to jobs because most people aren’t privileged enough to have the luxury to choose since, like Yinka, their number one priority is paying the bills. Working for a homeless charity is great if that’s what you really want to do, but it doesn’t necessarily make you make you a better or more virtuous person.
In addition, I feel like Yinka was chastised a little too much for changing and experimenting with herself. Like I get the whole “be true to yourself” thing, but I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with trying new things. Like, if Yinka wants to try having a weave or learn to make Nigerian food, is that really so bad? She shouldn’t suppress and lie about who she is, but I felt she was unfairly criticized for trying something new. The poor woman just lost her job, let’s cut her a bit of slack.
Likewise I didn’t blame her at all when she freaked out at her cousin and I was a bit annoyed at Nana for her whole “you’re better than this” speech. I think that kind of attitude likely goes back to the whole Christianity aspect, that you should always self-sacrifice and take the high ground, but Yinka’s cousin was a bit of a bitch and honestly I was glad to see Yinka stand up for herself. I just feel like everyone held Yinka to an unreasonably high standard and she was always in the wrong in every interaction.
For example, you’re not a bad person for having a few drinks because you’re sad and then showing up drunk at your sister’s house. If anything I was pissed that her sister was only concerned about Yinka exposing her apologetically drunk self to her newborn baby and then putting her in a cab home. How about instead, she have an honest conversation with Yinka about what’s going on in her life and how she is coping with being jobless and husband-less in such a toxic and challenging family environment. Only one of the two sisters was being a jerk in that interaction and it wasn’t Yinka. So give me a break, Yinka was only in the wrong half the times she was made out to be. So overall, I found it to be a bit too preachy and felt the rest of Yinka’s family could also do with a bit of personal growth.
But it did feel real. The author accurately captures the unfair pressures we put on women and how we de-value each other based on social achievements and milestones. Single women can be just as fulfilled as married women, as can childless women be just as fulfilled as mothers. It was a good exploration of the pressures women face and how sometimes the easiest way to achieve happiness is through self reflection and acceptance. Overall, the novel had some flaws, but I still enjoyed reading it and admired Yinka for her perseverance and personal growth. 3.5 stars.
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 Author: Elle Cosimano Genres: Mystery Pub. Date: Feb. 2022 (read Feb. 2022 on Audible) Series: Finlay Donovan is Killing It #2
Finlay Donovan Is Killing It was an impulse purchase for me last year and I ended up really loving it, so this was one of my most anticipated reads for 2022. I can’t help but always compare this book to a train wreck because the plot goes off the rails in the most out of control way and I just can’t look away from it!
Finlay Donovan is not high brow literature in any sense, but it’s one of the most fun mystery thrillers I’ve ever read. It reminds me a lot of How to Get Away with Murder in that the plot keeps escalating so quickly that it’s hard to imagine how your characters got here, but unlike HTGAWM, Finlay Donovan never takes itself too seriously. Cosimano creates the most hilarious characters and has a heavy dose of comic relief, so even though the plot is super compelling, it’s never dark or bleak.
Finlay Donovan Knocks ‘Em Dead isn’t quite as strong as the first book, but I still think it’s a romping good time. It starts off a little bit slower and I got frustrated by Finlay and Vero keeping secrets from one another, but the plot picks up quickly and they get back to the same kind of shenanigans as the first book. If you get annoyed by characters who miscommunicate and make stupid decisions, then this book is probably not for you, but if you’re here for a super fast-paced good time then I think you will like this sequel.
I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s definitely one of those books you should read blind, but I just wanted to say that, Damn, I was into Nick in this book. I couldn’t really remember him from the first book, but he made a nice addition to this storyline. The only thing I thought could be improved was that the author/book writing plot aspect was too deja-vu from the last book. We get a new mystery, but some of the plot still felt recycled from the first book.
The ending makes it pretty clear that we’ll be back for a 3rd book and I will 100% be continuing with this series. Highly recommend the audiobook, the narrator is excellent!