October 2020 Round Up

It’s the end of another month and despite the chaos of moving house and starting a new job, I’ve still managed to squeeze some reading in so please enjoy and happy Halloween!

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe

  • Author: Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  • Publisher: Picador, 2020
  • Summary: Following on from Kawaguchi’s debut novel, this delightful sequel returns the reader to a little cafe in Tokyo that can transport customers back in time and explores how we’d go to see the ones we love.
  • Rating: 4/5

The Other Mother (Audiobook)

  • Author: Jen Brister
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Summary: Stand-up comedian, Jen Brister, recounts the trials and tribulations of raising twin boys as a same-sex couple, and being the ‘other’ mother.
  • Rating: 3/5

After the Silence

  • Author: Louise O’Neill
  • Publisher: Riverrun, Quercus, 2020
  • Summary: The infamous murder of the Crowley Girl has been talked about on Inisrun for the past years, but now a pair of Australians have arrived to make a documentary on the case and old wounds start to reopen.
  • Rating: 5/5

The Silent Patient

  • Author: Alex Michaelides
  • Publisher: Orion, 2019
  • Summary: Alicia was living what seemed to be a perfect life until the day she shot her husband 6 years ago and no one knows why. And she hasn’t spoken a word since.
  • Rating: 3/5

Olive

Emma Gannon

I saw Olive floating around book Twitter for a while and will admit to completely falling for the cover and being more drawn in by that than anything else. I guess sometimes I really do judge a book by it’s cover and so huge credit to the cover designer of Olive. However, once I started reading the novel I was immediately captivated.

Olive centres a group of four female friends who have known each other since childhood but are now in their mid-thirties, and three of them are either mothers or are on the journey to becoming mothers. This leaves the titular character, Olive, feeling isolated as a result her recent conclusion that she did not want to have children and the subsequent end to her relationship with her partner of 9 years.

By comparison, of Olive’s closest frinds, one is married with three young children, one is married and about to give birth to her first child and one is suffering from endometriosis and going through the rigorous process of IVF treatment.

As someone who has very mixed feelings around the prospect of motherhood and the process of becoming a parent, I really enjoyed this book because it considered aspects of the choice to not have children that I had not previously considered. As a 21-year-old the decision of whether to become a mother is purely a personal one that I have a lot of time to consider and don’t need to worry about for the next 10 years. However, I had never thought about the aspect of not choosing to have children that would differentiate you from those in your life who do choose to have them.

This is brilliantly dealt with in the book because at no point do you feel like any of the characters have done anything wrong. Each character is dealing with vastly different issues in their personal lives that make it very difficult for them to relate to each other. Olive is going through an incredibly difficult break up and struggling with the choice not to have children and just wants to talk to her friends about it but it’s impossible to talk about not wanting children with a friend who is desperately trying to have kids and in the midst of invasive IVF treatment.

The main conflict of the book is found in Olive’s friends finding her self-centred and overly focussed on the idea that having children is simply terrible (which is obviously not what you want to hear if you have kids). However, because we read the book from Olive’s perspective, and likely because I am somewhat sympathetic to Olive’s feelings towards motherhood, I did not find her either selfish or too critical . I think that the style of writing plays a role in achieving this as we spend a lot of time reading about Olive’s thoughts, with less time on interations between her and her friends, who are currently very busy with children, and only a minimal sense for how the dynamic between them has changed. This leads us to sympathise with all the characters, and simply highlights the difficulty of your life diverging from those of your friends rather than making any comment on whether or not a person ought to have children.

Overall, I would consider this an excellent novel for any young person wrestling with the question of whether to have children or facing the prospect of their life diverging from those of their friends and would definitely recommend it. This is an enjoyable book which makes for a fairly easy read that you can’t put down.

Little Fires Everywhere

Celeste Ng

I was recently prompted to read Little Fires Everywhere after watching the trailer for the TV show. I was intrigued by the concept but knew I wanted to read the book first and I am so glad that I did.

The novel centres around two families living in 1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio, who are brought together through they’re children. However, the matriarchs each take vastly different approaches to parenting. Mrs Richardson is committed to the rules, believing that if everyone simply conforms to the right way of doing things then there will be a perfect community, whereas Mia is an artist who has moved from place to place with her daughter, Pearl, living how she wants to and never staying in one place for too long.

This unspoken conflict between Mia and Mrs Richardson ultimately comes to a head in a custody dispute between family friends of the Richardson’s and a co-worker of Mia’s. After Bebe hits rock bottom and doesn’t know where to turn she leaves her baby at a fire station, where a social worker is called and the baby ends up being placed with the McCulloughs, who have been trying have a baby for almost a decade. Once Bebe finally receives the help she needs she desperately wants her baby back and so beings the tense custody battle and the catalyst for the downfall of Mia and Mrs Richardson’s relationship.

The story at the centre of the novel was what primarily caught my attention as it allows for exploration of the intersection between motherhood and socio-economic circumstances. This book considers how we as a society punish mothers simply because they have less money or struggle from social difficulties, such as being a single mother or an immigrant. If a mother feels unable to care for her child and abandons them, at what point does that become an irreversible decisions?

Finally, I think part of the brilliance of this novel is also found in how well Ng writes about Shaker Heights. On the surface, Shaker Heights seems like an idyllic place to live, where everyone has a nice house and every child goes to a good school, but the more I found out about it, the uneasier I became. The way Ng was able to create a building tension around seemingly harmless aspects of the community was very impressive. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the bins being kept at the back of the house, rather than the front, but every time a little rule like this is mentioned I was left feeling slightly more unsettled. This ever-present tension meant I couldn’t put the book down, always on the edge of my seat, waiting to find out what was going to happen.

This book is well-written with a simple story of motherhoos at its heart that still keeps you turning the pages, desperate to find out what will happen next. I would definitely recommend this book.

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.