The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett

This incredible novel spans from the 1950s to the 1990s, exploring issues of race, sexuality, identity and the controversial topic of passing. The book centres around the small fictional town of Mallard in Louisiana where the citizens are African Americans are light-skinned and ‘refuse to be treated like negroes.’ This is the town where identical twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, are born and the town that they run away from when they are 16 years old. Cut to 15 years later and Desiree returns to Mallard with a dark-skinned daughter in tow and hasn’t seen or heard of Stella in almost as long, ever since Stella left without a word and started living her life as a white woman.

The best part of this novel is the pacing and natural change between characters. The pacing perfectly balances pushing forward the narrative and always leaving you wanting more. The interplay of character perspectives afford you the opportunity to empathise with and relate to each of the characters in a unique way because you gain genuine insight into their life and how they’ve ended up the position they have. This is particularly important when it comes to Stella’s story. When we are introduced to Stella she is living in as a white woman in a a gated community that is facing the prospect of an African American couple moving into one of the houses. And Stella is the loudest protester of this.

Bennet’s exploration of Stella’s complicated emotions around race and the decisions she’s made in order to pass as white and benefit off her caucasian features. For Stella, being white offers the indisputable opportunity to have a better life; an oppotunity she can’t say no to as a fragile 16 year old forced to drop out of school to clean houses. However, we meet a version of Stella that lives in fear of being found out, desperately trying to keep her secrets and distancing herself from everyone around her as a result.

Bennet has written a beautiful story exploring the complexity of racism and the value of lightness among African Americans which brings together a fascinating plot and charming language in a truly incredible novel. This book asks many questions of identity; what it means feel part of a community, what it takes to distance yourself from where you came from and whether that’s even possible.

Difficult Women

Roxane Gay

Difficult Women is a collection of short stories by Roxane Gay that I recently read for the 2020 Reading Rush and I loved it.

Going into this book, I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it because on the one hand I love Roxane Gay’s writing but on the other I haven’t read many short stories and was unsure how I would found it. This meant I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed it so much I finished it in a matter of days.

The brilliance of these short stories is completely down to Gay’s incredible ability to portray women from such varied backgrounds and experiences. Despite being only one person, Gay is somehow able to write about these different women in a beautiful and truly insightful way. These stories give us excerpts of women’s lives; how they live, how they are treated and how they feel. We are given stories of women who live lives of poverty and of privilege, in loving and loveless relationships, however Gay does place a focus on the abuse and violence women can face.

Not only does Gay write about varied examples of violence experienced by women but also how different women cope with violence, how they use it, and how it impacts their lives going foward even once when it is no longer an immediate threat to them. Some of the most interesting stories focus on women who choose to put themselves in harmful or violent situations because they cannot cope with the reality of their lives and believe that they deserve to be treated as though they are nothing.

Gay writes about the tragic experiences of women with both objectivity and compassion, creating women who may as well be living, breathing people that you cannot help but sympathise with. Reading this collection will only enhance your understanding of the complexity of what it means to be a women who faces abuse.

Before the Coffee gets Cold

Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Before the Coffee gets Cold is a Japanese bestseller about a small cafe in Tokyo which offers the customers the chance to travel back in time. In this book we meet four customers, all of whom have reason to time travel, one to speak to a lover who left, one to read a letter written by her husband with Alzheimer’s, one to see her recently deceased sister and one to meet the daughter she never got to know.

This is a charming exploration of missed opportunities that begs the question; who would you travel through time to see? This novel is deeply moving, however my favourite part of reading it was finding out about the various regular characters found in the cafe. Learning about the intriguing stories of the cafe staff is a is gradually told at a pace that always keeps you on edge to find out more.

When it comes to translated fiction I generally don’t comment on the language because I am not reading the book as it was written. Therefore, although I found some of the language slightly repetitive at times, I would credit the translation as being intelligently written.

I will admit that I found there to be slightly more exposition than necessary in the first chapter which meant that it took getting through this chapter before I started to really enjoy the book. However, I also think that may be a tricky pitfall to avoid with a book fo this nature as there are various rules for the time travel that must be explained in order for the rest of the book to be as good as it was.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this unusual concept found in a charming piece of translated fiction. I would definitely recommend this quick read.

July 2020 Round Up

Another month, another list of books…It’s that time again where I look back at everything I’ve read (and watched) over the last 30 days. More in depth reviews of the books will be up over the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for those.

The Five People you meet in Heaven

  • Author: Mitch Albom
  • Publisher: 23rd September 2003, Hyperion
  • Summary: War veteran Eddie dies on his 83rd birthday in a tragic accident while trying a say a little girl. He wakes up in the afterlife to be individually greeted by five people who had an impact on his life and explain to him the meaning behind his life.
  • Rating: 4/5

Loveless

  • Author: Alice Oseman
  • Publisher: 20th July 2020, HarperCollins Children’s Books
  • Summary: Georgia starts university with her two best friends in a town on the other side of the country. She went looking for romance but instead finds questions of sexuality and identity.
  • Rating: 4/5

Exciting Times

  • Author: Naoise Dolan
  • Publisher: 2020, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Summary: Ava is a poorly paid Irish TEFL teacher in Hong Kong when she meets Julian. Julian is a wealthy English banker who likes to spend money on her and lets her stay in his guest room. Then Julian goes back to London and Ava meets Edith who actually listens to her and openly cares. But what will happen when Julian announces he’ll be returning to Hong Kong?
  • Rating: 3/5

Before the Coffee gets Cold

  • Author: Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  • Publisher: December, 2015, Pan Macmillan
  • Summary: There’s a small cafe in Tokyo that offers its customers the chance to travel to the past. However, they cannot leave their seat and they have to finish their coffee before it gets cold.
  • Rating: 4/5

Difficult Women

  • Author: Roxane Gay
  • Publisher: 2017, Corsair
  • Summary: A collection of short stories exploring the nuanced and varied experiences of being a woman.
  • Rating: 5/5

The Vanishing Half

  • Author: Brit Bennet
  • Publisher: 2020, Dialogue Books
  • Summary: Twin sisters who were once inseparable grow up and choose to live in two different worlds; one black, one white.
  • Rating: 5/5

Unorthodox (Netflix Original)

  • Network: Netflix
  • Based On: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
  • Summary: An orthodox Jewish woman flees her aranged marriage in Brooklyn to start a new life in Berlin.
  • Rating: 5/5

Exciting Times

Naoise Dolan

I’d been seeing this book everywhere and the cover is so beautiful that I decided to read it as part of the 2020 reading rush and I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. Ava is a 22 year old TEFL teacher in Hong Kong when she meets Julian, a rich English banker who likes to spend money on her and lets her move into his guest room. Then Julian goes to London and Ava meets Edith, who actually listens when she talks and openly cares about her. But when Julian announces he will be returning to the apartment in Hong Kong, Ava’s two worlds collide.

On the one hand, this novel captures what it is to be young and not know who you are or what you want with a healthy dash of social commentary thrown in, but on the other there were many instances where I was just deeply frustrated with Ava, the protagonist.

In this witty, debut novel, Ava views relationships as a power struggle, frequently proclaiming herself to be ‘good at men.’ In her mind, relationships are an emotionless transaction of other, often more material, goods (such as luxurious and deeply expensive apartments). She sees her relationship with Julian as a bizarre competition of who can seem the most disinterested in the other while they live together and have sex. Yet she also makes it her primary goal to get him to admit to having deeper feelings for her. In contrast, Ava relaxes around Edith and learns to trust in Edith’s feelings for her (even if she fails to understand the reason for them). It is Ava’s continued obsession with Julian after having met Edith that is so frustrating, because she is so clearly much happier with Edith (which she acknowledges multiple times).

However, Ava’s character is best summed up by a line in the book itself when Edith says to Ava ‘I don’t think you’re interested in having a nice life’ and this is often how Ava’s choices seem. She obsesses over what her thoughts and feelings say about her identity but never appears to question why she behaves in ways that she fundamentally disagrees with or stop her from being happy. She makes every action into a political statement but is never satisfied with the statements being made. My developing frustration with Ava as a result of this is likely why I felt a slight relief at Edith’s section of the book because someone finally calls Ava on her determination to be unhappy.

Overall, my enjoyment of the story but growing frustration at Ava’s character led to some mixed feelings about the novel. Although it is still a poignantly written assessment of class and sex and if you are fan of Sally Rooney then you will love Naoise Dolan and should absolutely read Exciting Times.

Reading Rush 2020

The End

So this year’s reading rush is over and read a total of 4 books in the space of a week, which is definitely more than I expected (even if it wasn’t quite a full 7). Below is a summary of what I read and what I thought of it, keep an eye out over the next couple of weeks for more thorough reviews of the books.

Exciting Times

  • Author: Naoise Dolan
  • Publisher: 2020, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Summary: Ava is a poorly paid Irish TEFL teacher in Hong Kong when she meets Julian. Julian is a wealthy English banker who likes to spend money on her and lets her stay in his guest room. Then Julian goes back to London and Ava meets Edith who actually listens to her and openly cares. But what will happen when Julian announces he’ll be returning to Hong Kong?
  • Rating: 3/5

Before the Coffee gets Cold

  • Author: Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  • Publisher: December 2015, Pan Macmillan
  • Summary: There’s a small cafe in Tokyo that offers its customers the chance to travel back in time, but they must finish finish the coffee before it gets cold.
  • Rating: 4/5

Difficult Women

  • Author: Roxane Gay
  • Publisher: 2017, Corsair
  • Summary: A collection of short stories exploring the nianced and varied experiences of women.
  • Rating: 5/5

The Vanishing Half

  • Author: Brit Bennet
  • Publisher: 2020, Dialogue Books
  • Summary: Once inseparable twin sisters grow up and choose to live in two very different worlds; one black, one white.
  • Rating 4/5

Upskilling in Lockdown

With lots of internships and grad schemes being cancelled over the last few months due to COVID, many people have found themselves with a lot more free time, for better or for worse. This has led to an online push to use this time effectively, and improve yourself and your skillset. While this mentality can be slightly short sighted at times, I thought I would put together a list of things that I’ve been doing since I finished university and have found myself with more time on my hands.

Taking an online course.

  • Since finishing university I’ve been completing an online proofreading and editing course. I’m hoping to begin a career in publishing and so while I have the time I decided to improve my skillset for that industry in any way that I could. It will look great on my CV and be a worthwhile use of this summer.

Getting relevant, remote work experience.

  • I am currently very fortunate to be able to live at home rent-free until I am able to get a job. This means that I’ve been able to work remotely as an unpaid contributing writer for The Publishing Post, increasing my relevant experience and continuing to use and improve relevant skills.

Job Applications

  • Having more free time has meant that I can devote more time to not only looking for jobs but also applying to them. I can give cover letters and personal statements more time and consideration than I would have before and therefore increase my chances of success.

Blogging

  • No more university work has meant more time for me to commit to this blog. I am trying to post more regularly and improve my content in the hope that more people will enjoy reading it.

Making the most of it

  • Finally, I am making the most of this and enjoying some time off before I start working full time. I currently am neither working nor studying and so I am simply making the most of some time off before entering the work force and having significantly less free time.

Loveless

Alice Oseman

I recently read Loveless by Alice Oseman in order to review it for The Publishing Post, a fortnightly magazine I work on as a contributing writer, and I had a surprising amount of thoughts on the book and so decided to write a more lengthy review of it here.

Loveless is a YA novel told from the perspective of Georgia, a quiet 18 year old who is starting university having never been kissed. This book brilliantly captures what it means to be a nervous fresher who feels completely out of their depth. While on the surface this may sound like a fairly predictable teenage narrative (of which there are hundreds), this particular story explores topics surrrounding asexuality and aromanticism in a rarely seen instance of representation.

The novel intelligently explores what it is to grow up surrounded by other people experiencing romantic feelings and relationships and wonder hwy you aren’t experiencing the same things. However, perhaps the best part is how Georgia frequently doesn’t even realise the things she isn’t feeling. She understands so many romatic and sexual feelings as unrealistic and only happening in books of films that she doesn’t even realise she’s different.

I have to mention one chapter in particualr, entitled Ellis. When Georgia returns home for Christmas after her first term at university her whole family are staying for the holiday. While I won’t give away completely what happens, Georgia ends up having an extended conversation with her older cousin, Ellis, about sexuality. Ellis is in her thirties and so the reader is given an inter-generational conversation between two age groups where this is rarely seen. It is rarely discussed how different the world has been for the current generation of teenagers compared to the millenials who are now in their thirties and so it’s easy to forget that the two can have very different experiences and understandings of sexuality and gender.

Admittedly, I found the language slightly simplistic at times, but recognise that I am not the intended audience for the book and I know that when I was I would have devoured it because the representation is fantastic. Although revisiting YA did make me feel slightly older than I would like for only being 21, it was deeply refreshing to see how societal perceptions of what it means to be LGBTQ+ have evolved and how this has translated into the YA fiction that I was desperately looking for when I was a queer teenager.

The Reading Rush 2020

The Start

The 2020 Reading Rush starts next week (20th-26th July) and so I decided to write a post of my plans for it. I have chosen a different book for all seven challenges, but I highly doubt I will read seven books so take this with a pinch of salt and don’t be surprised if I’ve combined some of the challenges in next week’s post.

Challenge 1: Read a book where the cover matches your birthstone.

  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  • My birthstone is garnet for January, which can be several different colours, including red or orange so I picked Exciting Times for this one as it’s one I’ve wanted to read for a while.

Challenge 2: Read a book that starts with the word ‘The’.

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet
  • It turns out I have surprisingly few books starting with ‘the’ on my bookcase, fortunately this was a recent purchase that I’ve been looking forward to.

Challenge 3: Read a book that inspired a movie you’ve already seen.

  • Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
  • This might have been the hardest challenge to find a book for. If I know a film is based on a book I usually try to read the book first but after a quick google search I settled for Crazy Rich Asians, a fun film that will hopefully be a fairly easy read.

Challenge 4: Read the first book you touch.

  • Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay
  • After picking several unread books off my shelf I closed my eyes and my hand landed on this collection of short stories.

Challenge 5: Read a book completely outside your house.

  • Almost Love by Louise O’Neill
  • Louise O’Neill is one of my favourite authors so I knew that if I could include this then I would and I had a gap for this challenge.

Challenge 6: Read a genre you don’t normally read.

  • The War of Worlds by HG Wells
  • I’m not generally a fan of SciFi but my girlfriend has left her copy of this book with me and it’s a really lovely copy so I thought I’d give it a go.

Challenge 7: Read a book that takes place on a different continent.

  • Before the Coffee gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  • A book I recently bought on a whim that happens to fit this challenge perfectly.

So that’s my impossibly ambitious selection of books, keep an eye out for my post-Reading Rush update to find out how many I get through and what I thought of the ones I actually manage to read. And if you’re interested in taking part in the Reading Rush then simply visit their website to find out more about it.

The Five People you Meet in Heaven

Mitch Albom

I recently came across this novel on my parents’ bookcase and I am thrilled I picked it up. Eddie is a war veteran, who dies in a tragic accident on his 83rd birthday in an attempt to save a young girl.

This is perhaps one of the most thought-provoking books I have read recently, asking questions of why we live the lives we do and the meaning behind them. The book follows Eddie, after he dies and wakes up in the afterlife, continuing with his journey through heaven where he meets five people who each had an impact on the course of his life. Despite several of these people being unknown to Eddie himself, they all altered the course his life significantly and when he arrives in heaven they are there to explain the reasons for why his life turned out how it did.

This novel concept led to an intriguing story that I couldn’t put down, particularly since the simplicity of Albom’s writing results in a quick read that requires no effort on the part of the reader. The book addresses philosophical questions around the meaning of life and the afterlife in a remarkably concise manner that forces you to confront the impact you want your life to have on those around you.

Throughout the book we are also given snapshots of different points in Eddie’s life, spending brief chapters on earlier various birtrhdays of his. This allows us the opportunity to understand why Eddie feels the way he does about his life as well as giving us greater insight into his thoughts at the time when he encountered some of the people who are waiting for him in heaven.

This is an excellent book about forgiveness, acceptance and lost love that I would whole-heartedly recommend.