Review: Enter Title Here, Rahul Kanakia

Hands up everyone who’s been on the hunt for a thoroughly Slytherin YA heroine! If that’s what you’re after, Rahul Kanaki’s Enter Title Here is the book for you.

Enter Title Here

Enter Title Here is about a girl called Reshma who is first in her class (due to a lawsuit her parents filed when the school tried to change the system by which GPA was calculated) and badly wants to get into Stanford. She’s cynical enough about the system — ever since her parents got cheated by a Silicon Valley cutthroat lady — that she believes she has to have a “hook” to overcome her mediocre SAT scores. And she decides that her hook will be an agented novel that she will write over the course of the school year, all about a studious Indian American girl like herself who gets a boyfriend, makes friends with the popular kids, and goes to parties.

White people like to think we’re all emotionless study machines. They tell themselves that their kids might not do as well in school, but at least they know how to enjoy life. Well, I’ll spend a month enjoying life and then, oh, I expect it’ll “transform” me. I learned in English class that stories often end with the character having a staggering realization: an epiphany. And I expect to have one sometime right around September 28.

By the end of the novel, I’ll turn into a whimsical girl who harvests all the possible joy from each moment and lives a carefree existence and lets the future take care of itself and all that other bullshit.

Spoilers: That’s not exactly what happens.

Enter Title Here tries less than maybe any other YA novel I’ve ever read to make its protagonist likeable. Even when Reshma gets caught screwing up, she’s mainly sorry that she got caught and will have that much more of an obstacle in the way of her success. She’s cynical about her relationships — romantic, platonic, and parental — and even more cynical about the world she lives in. She’s cynical, but she’s not wrong: The goalposts for success in high school are clear, and she’s got a keen eye on how to meet them.

Kanakia does something really sensible in this book, given what an unreliable narrator Reshma is. (She lies about a lot of stuff that we only find out about when other characters do — and then Reshma says, oh yeah, I didn’t mention that before because it wasn’t a big deal.) It can be hard to tell what Reshma’s like as a person — where she’s all talk and where she’s absolutely living the way she says she’s living — so Kanakia has sensibly included a few characters who’ve got Reshma’s number. In her interactions with Alex and George and even the slightly-pitiful Aakash (whom Reshma selects to be her temporary boyfriend), we’re able to see Reshma’s loneliness, her honesty, her intensity, and her spots of vulnerability, in ways that she’s slightly concealing from us otherwise. It’s a neat trick in what might otherwise have been a rather cold-hearted book.

Huzzah Slytherins! (I’m not a Slytherin tho, I am a Ravenclaw, but still, Slytherins get a bum rap, and I liked Reshma.)

Review: The Caretaker, A. X. Ahmad

Mm, at last, a thriller set in Martha’s Vineyard that takes into account the bloody conflict between India and Pakistan (and sometimes China) over who rightly owns Kashmir. I read about author A. X. Ahmad in NPR’s 2015 Book Concierge, and yes, I am embarrassed that it took me over a year to finally read The Caretaker. But such is the life of a reader.

The Caretaker

I was kind of joking before — I have not been specifically yearning for a mystery novel set in Martha’s Vineyard that also incorporates the Kashmir conflict. But it’s kind of great that one exists. A. X. Ahmad has written two books about ex-Indian army captain Ranjit Singh and the mysteries in which he finds himself enmeshed, and this is the first. When Ranjit takes a job as a caretaker for the rising star politician Senator Neals, who recently negotiated the return of a hostage from North Korea, he anticipates a quiet winter for himself and his family as the Martha’s Vineyard vacationers clear out for the season. Instead he ends up embroiled in international intrigue and deception, his family slated for deportation as he scrambles to figure out what is happening in time to restore their life of normalcy.

I don’t read many mysteries and am therefore not particularly qualified to speak to whether one is good, but The Caretaker was an immensely satisfying read for me. Ranjit takes the job as caretaking with the intent of using the extra cash to buy a nice winter coat for his beloved daughter Shanti. When the situation spins wildly out of control, he remains competent and careful, working through the information he possesses to try and get the situation back under control. It’s a fun and exciting story with characters I enjoyed, and I’d definitely read a second one.

In not-so-great elements, here is where I have to cop to being extremely my father’s daughter. One time I was talking to my dad about some romcom he’d checked out from the library, and I asked him how he liked it. “I didn’t like it at all,” he said, the most indignant that a human man has ever been. “The guy and girl are cheating on their boyfriend and girlfriend! This was supposed to be a comedy!”

LOOK. I would JUST HAVE PREFERRED IT if Ranjit hadn’t cheated on his wife. I just would have felt happier about him as a protagonist is all, if he hadn’t slept with the Senator’s wife — not once! SEVERAL TIMES, a bunch of them while his wife and daughter were meantime in a detention cell.

Apart from that, an excellent read. I understand that Ranjit and his wife are separated at the start of the second book in this series, The Last Taxi Ride, so if Ranjit sleeps with any ladies in that one, I won’t have to be so fussed about it.

Friends, am I being unreasonable? Is it fine for people in books to cheat on their spouses and I should just suck it up and accept it as part of the literary landscape? Also, does it seem to you that dude detectives in ongoing mystery serieses are particularly prone to cheating on their spouses?

Murder Bunheads, the YA Series

Mmmm, this was the YA duology I badly needed, you guys. Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton saw into my soul and recognized that I have had a slightly grim reading year this far and that I needed a ballet boarding school book, the soapier the better. Tiny Pretty Things and its sequel Shiny Broken Pieces were there in the clinch.

Tiny Pretty Things

What a perfect book (and sequel) for my mood. Tiny Pretty Things follows three narrators at the American Ballet Conservatory: Bette, the blonde legacy ballerina whose bullying hounded another girl out of school the year before; June, who struggles with an eating disorder and always finds herself in second place; and Gigi, a rising star in the conservatory with an eye on Bette’s boyfriend. The book acknowledges that the ballet school is very white, but our narrators are more diverse: June is Korean, and Gigi is black. In a world of not nearly enough books about cutthroat ballet academies, there are catastrophically not nearly enough books about cutthroat ballet academies with protagonists of color.

As you’ll have gleaned from the previous paragraph, while these books are a lot of fun if Murder Bunheads are your thing (they are absolutely my thing, I would read a thousand books about Murder Bunheads), they do deal with some difficult topics you may not be in the mood for. June has an eating disorder, Bette pops pills, there’s racism in the ballet (shocking, I know), and there’s an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the second book as well as a severe allergic reaction leading to hospitalization. Plus, I mean, obviously bullying. THE MOST bullying.

“HOW ARE THESE BOOKS FUN THEN JENNY?” you may be screaming, and look, I don’t have a good answer. I like reading about Murder Bunheads, and I have done since I was a wee tot and I picked up Battle of the Bunheads at a book sale in Maine. These books are fun because the characters keep thinking of absolutely awful things to do to each other. Nobody is above it. Everyone is terrible. I would hate it if they were in any other setting, but since they’re in a ballet school I ate it up with a spoon.

Review: Swing Time, Zadie Smith

Two biracial girls grow up in the same bit of northwest London, attending dance classes together. Tracey has real talent, and our unnamed narrator does not, and Swing Time is about the unexpected paths their lives take as they grow into adulthood.

Swing Time

Content warning, there is very little dance school in this book. The narrator pretty quickly stops taking dance, so if you were going into Swing Time singing a little song to yourself like “dance school dance school dance school dance school,” you might end up disappointed. That’s not what I was doing or anything. It’s just something I thought of. That a person might do. Who liked reading about dance schools.

Halfway through Swing Time, I told Alice and Whiskey Jenny that I was considering giving it up. Two-thirds of the way through Swing Time, I was back in, while accepting quietly to myself that as a general rule, Zadie Smith’s fiction — like Michael Chabon’s — simply is not for me.

I loved Swing Time best when it got out of northwest London, which makes me suspect that I am completely missing the point of Zadie Smith, famed chronicler of life in northwest London, and that you shouldn’t listen to my opinion about this book or any Zadie-Smith related topics.1 Once the narrator and Aimee begin traveling to Africa to set up an Oprah-like school for girls there, I was 1000% more engaged in the story. I had occasional issues with the way the narrator presents her own life vs. life in Gambia,2 in particular:

Food preparation was not for me, nor was washing, or fetching water or pulling up onions or even feeding the goats and chickens. I was, in the strictest sense of the term, good-for-nothing. Even babies were handed to me ironically, and people laughed when they saw me holding one. Yes, great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality. They’d met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take.

Maybe this was intended to showcase the narrator’s naivety about developing countries? It doesn’t feel that way — in general she’s portrayed as being awkward and unsociable to the Gambian folks she encounters, but not un-self-aware — but maybe I am misreading. If I am not misreading, then I have sneers to give to this quite patronizing idea that one way of living — close to the land, near large groups of family, butchering one’s own meat, struggling to get by — is more “real” somehow than another way of living. All ways of living are real, and I’m sure y’all understand why the particular idea that closeness to the Land and the Family is more real/authentic than, for instance, city living makes me a little twitchy just at this present historical moment.

HOWEVER. Apart from that one bit, I really enjoyed everything where the narrator is in Africa watching Aimee try to Do Good, an enthusiasm that everyone in Aimee’s entourage knows will not last. While Smith isn’t necessarily saying something I don’t know about charity work in developing nations, she’s writing about something I rarely see depicted in fiction with the specificity it receives here, namely the disconnect between intention and reality in international charitable giving.

Okay okay okay, I know that my interests are not everyone’s. But that is a topic of interest to me, and one that rarely arises in fiction by Western writers.

By contrast, I could not possibly have cared less about the relationship between the narrator and Tracey that forms the backbone of this book. I have two hypotheses as to why that could be. It could be that Zadie Smith never sells me on the friendship. You don’t see a single thing about the narrator that Tracey likes, or a single thing about Tracey that the narrator likes. I had no idea why these two people spent time together and continued to be in each other’s lives.

My second hypothesis is that I am finished, or close to finished, with stories about wild girls and the unwild girls who have complicated relationships with them. I possibly have read enough of those books, and I possibly am finished with them. I’m not sure. I’ll do further research on this matter and let you know the outcome.

Meanwhile, what are some dance school books you can recommend me? I love books set in dance schools and there are never enough of them.

  1. Except that her essays are really good and she has the face of an angel. Those opinions remain solid.
  2. Ready for a lengthy footnote? Here’s what happened. Zadie Smith never says “Gambia” but I figured it out anyway. The narrator says what countries are nearby — Benin, Togo, Senegal — and what groups dominated the country, and I narrowed it down in my head to Ghana or Gambia. And then she said something about the President for Life, and that was enough information to tell me Gambia. It was incredibly justifying of all the reading about Africa I have done / want to continue doing. Also please read this Alexis Okeowo sum-up of what’s going on with the president in Gambia (someone else got elected, but the sitting president won’t leave).

Review: When the Moon Was Ours, Anna-Marie McLemore

When the Moon Was Ours is as good an argument as you’ll possibly ever see for the value of #ownvoices in publishing. I say that because I can’t stand magic realism and I’m not that excited about straight-up romance in YA, and When the Moon Was Ours — a magic realism romance — nevertheless still made me feel so happy and grateful for its existence. It’s the story of a Latina girl called Miel and a Pakistani-American trans boy called Sam and their struggles to come to terms with their identities and their feelings about each other and the mystical forces at work in their town.

When the Moon Was Ours

Just absolutely everything about Miel and Sam’s relationship made me happy. I love it that McLemore lets them have sex YOU KNOW AS TEENS DO SOMETIMES and they aren’t punished for it. I love it that even though they are clearly devoted to each other throughout the book, they also mess things up with each other and have to apologize and figure things out with each other afterward. I love that they’re desperately attracted to each other (yay for depicting passion in queer relationships!) and sometimes that’s good and easy, and sometimes it makes already-complicated issues more complicated.

The truth slid over her skin, that if she loved him, sometimes it would mean doing nothing. It would mean being still. It would mean saying nothing, but standing close enough so he would know she was there, that she was staying.

And I love that they get a happy ending. Queer kids deserve happy endings.

What else, let’s see. Oh, I loved it that the antagonists of the book, four nearly identical white sisters who have ruled the town all their lives and are trying to keep that situation going, are still clearly the protagonists of their own stories. I got anxious around the midpoint that the Bonner girls were being set up as Bad Femininity to contrast against Miel’s Good Femininity, which is a trope I could not be more tired of, but the climax of the book reclaims enough interiority for all the Bonners to satisfy my greedy heart.

It’s interesting — When the Moon Was Ours is not, as I’ve said, my type of book. I prefer a book that bothers less about lush prose and more about thrilling adventures and robot pals perhaps; less magic realism and more straight-ahead magic with really specific rules and nefarious power struggles perhaps. But I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to have a book like this in my hands and know that it’s available to teenagers, to let them know a little bit more about the possibilities the world offers.

Review: Death, an Oral History, by Casey Jarman

Note: I received Death: An Oral History from the publisher for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Death an Oral History

So my favorite thing about Death: An Oral History is the story of its genesis. Casey Jarman noticed that he hadn’t yet lost anyone he couldn’t afford to lose, and it started to cause him anxiety about death. He therefore decided to spend the next few years of his life talking, reading, and thinking extensively about death, with the ultimate goal of producing a collection of interviews with people familiar with death.

This is very very relatable to me. I have learned that when you are afraid of something, it’s either fine to live your life without that thing (like acid trips or the many species of spider that live in Australia) and then you are fine to go on avoiding it, or else it is diminishing/impossible to live your life without that thing (like taking long walks alone at night while a lady or people I love dying or getting a job in publishing and moving to New York without knowing anybody there) and then you have to make a decision about your priorities. I am terrible at not being afraid of things, but I am excellent at triaging. (I am too jittery and on edge to enjoy long walks alone at night, which defeats the purpose they would otherwise be serving. People I love are definitely going to die. I really wanted to work in publishing.)

Jarman interviews a wide range of people who spend their time thinking about death: a retired warden on death row who now opposes the death penalty, a grief counselor, a songwriter whose lyrics deal with the inevitability of death, a hospice volunteer. Each of his interviewees has considered death extensively from a certain angle, and each of them is able to say what they’ve learned about it, what they believe it means, how they believe people can approach it in a healthy way.

As oral histories go, I liked this one a lot. Inevitably, a few of the interviewees rubbed me the wrong way — I have no patience for woo-woo granola bullshit, and I had to quit reading the interview with the psychedelic scientist who’s convinced we could all have peaceful and pleasant deaths if only we dropped a lot of acid at the crucial time.1 Most of them, though, spoke with respect about the dead and the process of dying, and the book made me feel — and I hope made Casey Jarman feel, bless him — that there are people in this world who have the process of death under control and who can see the rest of us through it.

  1. Ugh okay that’s not a fair representation of her position but “psychedelic hospice” is a thing she wants to do and I just cannot with people sometimes.

Review: Death by Video Game, Simon Parkin

Who here is a gamer? Show of hands, please! I went into Death by Video Game with a very low level of gaming knowledge, and people with a low level of gaming knowledge is who I recommend this book for. I suspect that readers with knowledge of the gaming world would say “fie” to this book.

gamers reading this book, probably
gamers reading this book, probably

THIS IS NOT A CRITICISM. I found Death by Video Game during a random, but pleasant, browse through my library’s catalog, and it is exactly what I wanted it to be: A series of journalistic sociology essays about the worlds and possibilities of video games, from people dropping dead at gaming cafes after hours of play, to fundraisers that depend on gamers being willing to play mind-numbingly dull video games for hours upon hours, to games that realistically explore some of the most difficult and terrifying things about being human. And I came away from the book feeling how I wanted to feel: That there are worlds of knowledge under the sub-heading “video game,” and I should dedicate some time to learning more about them.

Death by Video Game

(Jenny Learns Something New and Gets Excited about It: An Autobiography in Infinite Chapters.)

Did it make me want to play video games? Yes, but not enough for me to actually do anything about it. Knowing my addiction to stories as I do, I am sure that if I got into gaming, it would quickly consume my life (very expensively!) and I would never get anything else done ever again. So I continue to opt out of gaming. I feel the same way, roughly, about getting your ears pierced. Earrings would delight me! I would have tons of them! And it would cost money and I’d have to keep track of all of them and it’d be one more damn thing for me to worry about when I’m getting ready in the morning.

I know, it's unusual
how other adult women respond to discovering that my ears are not pierced

“But what’s your favorite thing you learned from this book, Jenny?” Glad you asked! My most favorite thing is that the EVE Online, a science fiction video game, has an elected player council called the Council of Stellar Management that meets once a year with the game developers, CCP, in Iceland to talk about new planned features and to represent player interests to the company that owns the game.

“Council members can have very different ambitions and concerns depending on which part of space their hail from,” explains CCP’s Ned Coker. “You may have somebody who lives in the galaxy’s outer reaches and, as such, they will have a very different viewpoint to those that live in a more centralised area.”

Fascinating, no?

Parkin also talks about the way games encourage imaginative identification to an extent that less immersive media do not. In a game like That Dragon, Cancer, it becomes impossible to separate yourself emotionally from the experience of having a baby who’s dying, because the game forces you to experience it from the viewpoint of the caretakers. He rejects the idea that video games are “just games,” or that the worldviews of the games have no effect on the worldviews of the gamers. At the same time, he doesn’t delve very deeply into this topic (or any of his topics), since the idea is more to provide a window into the variety of games that exist than to provide substantial critiques of gaming culture.

Verdict: An excellent, readable introduction to the video games and player types that exist in our wondrously varied world.

Review: The Wangs vs. the World, Jade Chang

One of the side effects of this election is that I’ve become very clingy and emotional. I burst into tears over design specs at work yesterday, and it’s not because design specs are inherently moving. It’s a reminder from my dumb, finicky heart, I guess, that love is what we have when the world is dark. So The Wangs vs. the World fit nicely with my current mood — a book about how a family holds tightly to each other at a time when they have lost everything.

Wangs vs the World

Charles Wang came to the United States to make his fortune, and that’s exactly what he did, building a cosmetics empire from the ground up. But an ambitious new project, launched just before the financial crash at the end of the second Bush presidency, has reduced them to almost nothing. Charles, his second wife Barbara, youngest daughter Grace and son Andrew, all pile into an ancient clunker to drive across the country to live with Charles’s eldest daughter Saina, a disgraced art world it-girl who has retreated to a house in upstate New York to escape media attention.

Though The Wangs vs. the World does satirize the worlds and lifestyles of the very wealthy, its primary concern is the relationships between these family members. Jade Chang is wonderfully specific in her portrayal of these five people and what they are to each other.

Saina always enjoyed her sister so much more in the particular than in the abstract. Grace in person was funny and self-aware. Grace on the phone was unrelenting and concerned with the smallest of slights — in between visits, that became the only Grace that she remembered.

She also captures an element of sibling relationships that I rarely see writers do well, which is the lifetime of shared in-jokes and common vocabulary that ties them all together. Saina and Andrew and Grace are separated by years and years, but they remain tremendously fond of each other. When Andrew ditches the family road trip and stays in New Orleans to lose his virginity, Grace isn’t just mad that he’s left her alone with the adults; she misses him. At a time when I’m wanting to grab all my friends-and-relations in massive hugs and never let go, it was great to read a book about a family who truly enjoy each other’s company.

The book is also wonderfully funny, although I wouldn’t say that funny is the point of it. Chang refers to Saina’s “human-rights disaster of an engagement ring,” and the passage where she describes Saina’s various art shows is — to someone like me, who loves art and finds the art world incomprehensibly ridiculous — perfect. Chang is satirizing a lot of different things in this book, and as it hurtles towards its conclusion, its wonderful scope started to feel a trifle overstuffed. But it’s well worth overlooking this minor complaint for a book as joyous and sincere as this one.

(Oh, also, writers of America? In Louisiana, we don’t say “Nawlins.” We just do not. I am sorry you have been misled on this. You can say “New OR-lins” from now on.)

Review: How I Became a North Korean, Krys Lee

As I’ve possibly mentioned once or twice (or thrice maybe?) on this blog, I find the country of North Korea morbidly fascinating. Even in an election season where the impossible-to-believe comes true on what seems like a daily basis (not in a good way), North Korea remains an unknowably impossible sort of country to have in the modern world. So I obviously was always going to read How I Became a North Korean.

How I Became a North Korean

This debut novel by Krys Lee, who has worked with defectors from North Korea herself, follows three characters on a long and strange journey to find a reality that they can accept. Yongju is the son of privilege in North Korea, forced to flee after the Dear Leader kills his father in cold blood; while a pregnant Jangmi allows herself to be sold into marriage in China in the hopes that her new husband will believe the baby is his. The non-North Korean of the group is Danny, a Korean American teenager in search of meaning.

How I Became a North Korean is a weird fever dream of a book for a weird fever dream of a country. If some of the plot twists seem unlikely, it can’t even compare to the unlikelihood that a country like North Korea could exist, this rarefied environment in which the country’s leader acts with utter impunity against his own people, and of which so little is reliably known that we can’t even assess what needs to change.

(Except, you know, everything.)

Krys Lee is writing about something I haven’t encountered before, which is the difficulties that North Koreans face after crossing out of their own country. Though rescue organizations do exist, Lee has had some experience with predatory Christian agencies less interested in helping refugees than gaining more donation money from visitors. This experience informs the bulk of the book, as North Korean refugees find not safety but a new kind of captivity when they leave their country.

Also appreciated: our dude narrator has feelings about our lady narrator, but he doesn’t make his feelings her problem. He is kind and supportive of her and I appreciate it. Also:

I was alarmed and amazed that she had somehow freed herself. She hadn’t been broken after all, only hoarding her strength.

Have you read/reviewed this one? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

Review: The Secrets of Wishtide, Kate Saunders

Note: I received a copy of The Secrets of Wishtide from the publisher for review consideration.

I do not read many mysteries. I think the reason is that so many mysteries come in serieses, and as a completist I find this very daunting. (Yes yes I am in love with the Amelia Peabody books, of which there are infinity, but I started reading them when I was like fourteen so it barely counts.) Also, a lot of mysteries feature divorced dude private eyes wandering around thinking bitter thoughts about their exes. Or really gruesome autopsy details. And I don’t like those things.

However, The Secrets of Wishtide is the first in a series, so there’s nothing to be daunted by; and it stars a widow detective in Ye Olden Days who has nothing but affectionate memories of her deceased husband; and they didn’t hardly have autopsies in Ye Olden Days. Problems solved! Moreover, it’s by Kate Saunders, author of this World War-I1 era sequel to Five Children and It that my library keeps taunting me that it’s in stock but then when I get there it’s checked out again.

Secrets of Wishtide

Curate’s widow Laetitia Rodd is engaged to find dirt on a woman called Helen Orme, whom the son of wealthy industrialist Sir James Calderstone is determined to marry, even though she is Unsuitable. Whilst pursuing this perfectly reasonable and harmless investigation, she finds herself at the center of NUMEROUS MURDERS and must discover what is up before an innocent man is hanged for the crimes.

Someone (probably Shae?) on Twitter compared this series to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and while Mrs. Rodd lacks Miss Fisher’s devil-may-care attitude to societal rules as they govern her own behavior, the book does share Miss Fisher‘s keen awareness of the ways gender norms keep women in check. Nearly every woman Mrs. Rodd encounters in this book has faced censure for stepping out of her society-approved lane, and the severity of the consequences are deeply informed by class and wealth. By the same token, Mrs. Rodd takes frequent advantage of her own relative invisibility as a poor-but-respectable widow to make inquiries of people she otherwise might have no access to. She is cloaked by marriage and position in a cloud of anonymity not available to women like Helen Orme.

So Saunders’s examination of that was a lot of — well, not fun, because it’s depressing, but it was interesting to see in an old-time mystery series. There are plenty of clues and red herrings to follow up, and if the final resolution of the mystery wasn’t tremendously shocking (due to not enough suspects), it was still a fun ride. There is a gruff and skeptical police inspector who — and I hope I’m not speaking out of turn here — can be expected to form a mutual grudging respect with Mrs. Rodd as the series continues. And y’all know how I feel about that.

  1. Pretend that hyphen is an en dash.