A recap of all April book reviews from @overeducatedwomenwithcats.
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1. South by Babak Lakghomi
✨Advanced Readers Copy✨
South by Babak Lakghomi
Publication Date: September 12, 2023
South is the story of an investigative journalist, B, assigned to work an offshore rig in the south of an unnamed country under a totalitarian regime. The assignment seems doomed from the beginning; when he arrives there is only one person that talks to him and he disappears shortly after. Soon B sees the futility in his placement, but receives conflicting information from his editor and his shipmates when he tries to leave. B becomes stagnant; he’s rebuffed by the powers at hand and his anxiety morphs into fear when his situation rapidly changes. It’s never clear who he is afraid of or what he is guilty of, but the more he searches for truth, the more lost he becomes. There are moments in this book when the reader is left completely unmoored as B spirals into his own misery and madness, but Lakghomi created enough foundation for the reader to hold on to. We absolutely loved the unique first person perspective of someone slipping into insanity and the novel’s sparse prose added to the surreal landscape, haunting narrative, and captivating imagery. For fans of Kafka, or reader’s looking to dip their toes into a surrealist novel, we highly recommend South.
Thank you @netgalley for the advanced readers copy of South.
2. You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat is a debut novel that takes you for a ride through emotional turmoil, fraught relationships and the pains of growing up and out of the reach of our parents. The narrator is in what appears to be an unfulfilling relationship, but we quickly learn she is a "love addict" who runs when relationships get real- though fortunately, she checks herself into rehab. Unfortunately, her unhealthy attachment to others continues while in rehab. While at first it's hard to understand this complex character, as the novel progresses, more flashbacks of the narrator's complicated relationship with her difficult mother, the secrecy surrounding her bisexuality, the tensions she feels as a Palestinian American, and her childhood in the splash-zone of parents' unfulfilling marriage help put her character and actions into perspective. If you can hold on, this novel rewards you with the musings and often frustrating actions of a beautifully complex woman.
3. What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
The novel opens with a shipwreck on an unnamed, idyllic Mediterranean island. Yet another boat packed to the brim with desperate refugees has attempted and failed the treacherous passage. There is only one survivor, a young Syrian boy named Amir, who must now hide from the island authorities trying to send him back. While on the run, he teams up with a native island teen girl, Vanna, and together they must breach the barriers of language and culture to get him to safety.
What follows is a complex and haunting story. The perspectives shift back and forth from the past to the present, giving voices not only to Amir and Vanna, but also the refugees aboard the ship and the colonel in charge of “protecting” the island from migrants. It is a story of empathy and determination, but also one of hostile politics in a brutal world. For those interested in reading this book, do yourself a favor and dive in without reading too much else about it. Spoilers abound and the devastating weight of the narrative hits harder if you go in blind.
Author Omar El Akkad is an Egyptian-Canadian journalist who now lives in Portland, Oregon.
4. Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami’s essay collection, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, is a well researched and incredibly insightful piece on what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. Lalami uses personal anecdotes as a catalyst for the larger conversation of xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, and the arbitrary nature of borders. While the research portion heavily outweighs her personal experiences, Conditional Citizens is still a fast-paced read. We love how the last chapter is a call to action and her reflection on how the world could be - “Sometimes, I wonder what this county might look like if no one had to go bankrupt because of medical costs; no one had to be made homeless because of low wages; and no one had to go into debt to receive an education. I don’t think that’s a particularly radical thing to imagine.” We loved this non-fiction read and recommend to those looking to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics of immigration, race, gender, and the not-so-disguised caste system in America.
5. The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar
The Thirty Names of Night is a haunting coming of age story of a young Syrian American closeted trans boy. The story starts with him, unnamed through most of the story, standing on the rooftop of his teta’s apartment in New York, watching birds fall from the sky as he contemplates how much has changed since his mother died five years before. Despite her passing, her ethereal form is still present and guides him to the discovery of the lost journal of Laila, a Syrian American artist that mysteriously disappeared 60 years before. Within the pages of the journal, our unnamed narrator discovers the history of queer and transgender people within the Syrian immigrant community of New York. The unearthing of these stories help him identify with his truth, and he chooses a name. The Thirty Names of Night mesmerizes with its gorgeous prose and reminds us of the importance of self-love and acceptance. We loved this book and highly recommend it.
6. The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
The Other Americans is many things at once – a murder mystery, a love story, a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives. It employs one of our favorite structures, each chapter told from the perspective of a different character. Some events in the book are even presented in different perspectives in back to back chapters, so you see things first one from character’s point of view and next from the other character that they are in conflict with. It’s an engaging technique that enables the reader to empathize with (almost) every character, especially given the spectrum of characters Laila Lalami presents here. Lalami also explores conflicts both big and small: an Iraq war vet contrasted with a Moroccan immigrant family who dealt with racist treatment after 9/11; the tension within that family itself as sisters and parents clash; feuding neighbors and friends. Some of the characters felt more organic than others, and there were points where it felt like an agenda was poking through, but Lalami still brings more people to life in this one novel than some do in multiple novels and we enjoyed the ambition. It’s a relatively quick read, recommended for folks who like multilayered stories!
7. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
In the wake of relentless bombings around his Baghdadi neighborhood, Hadi wants to find a way to honor the victims. He believes that by stitching together the body parts he finds among the rubble, he can force the government to acknowledge they are a whole human being deserving of a proper burial (clearly “Frankenstein in Baghdad” is a very apt title). What follows is a wildly creative and immersive read, a deeply unsettling tale of grief and vengeance. As the story unravels, we hear from several other unreliable narrators -a magician, a journalist, and a government agent- who are each investigating suspicious events that have been happening around this same neighborhood. Saadawi has written a short but impactful novel that touches on the true meaning of justice, how fear perpetuates hate, and the surreal horrors of war.
8. Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy is a book for our times- and especially fitting for Earth Day. The protagonist, Franny, decides to follow Arctic terns on what is probably their last migration to Antarctica; like many other species, these birds are dying off due to climate change. Franny "befriends" a group of fisherman and gets herself passage to Antarctica. As the ship progresses southward, we dive into Franny's history- especially her current issues with the husband she's left behind. She's also forced to confront the harsh realities- and damaging ecological consequences- of the fishing industry, a complex task given that the fisherman have kindly taken her aboard. This book is full of multifaceted and flawed characters and is a beautifully written ode to a world that is slowly coming to an end. We loved how she wrote about nature, seamlessly weaving that theme throughout prose about relatable human experiences. Excellent read for #earthday
9. Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka is a literary novel about Ansel, a serial killer mere hours from his execution determined to avoid his fate.
Rather than focus solely on Ansel, as is typical of media portrayal of serial killers, Kukafka focuses also on the stories of the women surrounding him; his mother, a victim of abuse struggling to save herself and her children, his victims, the women whose lives he stole, a detective, driven to obsession, and some of the women left behind in the wake of the murders. Through these women’s stories, the reader grasps the devastating impact wrought by Ansel and in a stunning feat of mental gymnastics also gains the capacity to empathize with him.
Notes on an Execution asks us whether monsters are born or made, and if redemption is possible. It forces us to visualize in agonizing detail what execution by the state via death penalty means. It is devastating and heavy to be sure, but the combination of captivating prose, compelling plot, and thought provoking perspective make this a highly recommended read by the OWC.
10. Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head: Poems by Warsan Shire
As we near the end of April we wanted to recognize one of our favorite poetry collection of the past year. After watching the Lemonade video that accompanied the studio release by @beyonce, we were blown away not only by the songs (It is Queen B after all) but the poetry during the transitions. We were left wondering, who wrote these powerful words? A quick google search lead us to Warsan Shire, the Somali British writer who wrote the poems for the film (and the Disney film, Black is King). With Shire now on our radar, we were ecstatic about the release of her first full-length poetry collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by the Voice in Her Head. These poems focus on the experiences of refugees and immigrants, the strained relationships between mothers and daughters, Black women, and teenage girls. While the poems are heavy on the heart, the care that she uses portraying each story exemplifies the compassion she brought into this collection. We were moved by these poems, we recommend this collection, and we will read any future releases by this author.
11. Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories & Songs by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Another rec to close out #NationalPoetryMonth is Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. The book is a mix of genres, including poetry, short stories, and even some songs. The pieces explore slices of Indigenous life, love, and healing from different perspectives, including ancestors. Most of them are quite short, vignettes really, but even in a few pages they pack a punch and leave you with a lot to digest and unpack; the book can be read and re-read with more to uncover each time. More than being plot-driven, the pieces explore feelings, tones, and setting as the characters grapple with disentangling themselves from the damaged legacy of colonialism and reclaiming Indigneous love. Our main quibble is that there is supposed to be a music/spoken word album to accompany the book, but it's no longer available on the website - @arpbooks, can we get it back?!
12. Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
✨Advanced Readers Copy✨
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Publication Date: May 2, 2023
Powerful and timely, Chain-Gang All-Stars shows a future where humans suffer from a corrupt penal system and callous, capitalistic greed. Loretta Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx are the stars of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE), a televised series where inmates are placed on teams, fight to the death in arenas, brawl in melees, and grapple with unsuspecting murders on their own team. The entire experience is referred to being “on the circuit” and prisoners earn their freedom if they survive three years on it. Most prisoners are killed during their first arena fight, but Thurwar is facing her last few months on the circuit with her teammate and lover, Staxxx, by her side. While these women and their teammates allocate all their efforts to training and survival, the producers of CAPE air their lives (and deaths) as a seasonal reality show with rules bent and changed at their will. As the current season comes to an end, Thurwar discovers a devastating rule change that will irrevocably alter the course of the program.
Chain-Gang All-Stars is an incredible think piece on a very plausible future of our privatized prison system. It was unclear whether this was an alternate reality or dystopian future, but we loved how the author included anecdotal footnotes about the present day prison and legal systems in America. This information fueled our anger towards the systemic racism in our “justice” system and made the read even more compelling. This book is already on our radar for an OWC top book of the year and we feel this is a must read for 2023. Thank you Pantheon Books for our advanced copy of this incredible book!