Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

Interior Chinatown is unlike anything else I’ve read. The book is written as if it were a TV show, with exterior and interior shots and dialogue laid out in script format, but it’s also about a TV show and the lines between what’s ‘real’ in the universe of the book versus what’s only acting are never terribly clear. Charles Yu writes in the second person, which was much more palatable than the second person narrative in The Raven Tower.

Even if Older Brother were not actually a real person, he would still be the most important character in some yet-to-be-conceived story of Chinatown. Would still be real in everyone’s minds and hearts, the mythical Asian American Man, the ideal mix of assimilated and authentic.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

Despite the confusion about what was happening, Interior Chinatown managed to maintain interest. The reflections on living as an Asian-American weren’t subject to the same uncertainly as the action of the plot; the descriptions of living in the SRO above the Golden Palace restaurant (or the film set of the restaurant…) were particularly memorable.

Your whole life you’ve wanted to be Kung Fu Guy, to be something you are not, and here is this person who is whatever she is at all times.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

The romance was sweet, though the rapid jumps in timeline meant it didn’t have as deep an emotional impact as it might otherwise have done. The biggest problem with Interior Chinatown was that it set the scene at one pace but then sped through the rest of the story so much faster that it felt disjointed.

It was a surprise to find Interior Chinatown listed as a comedy; the comedic tone didn’t come through, though that may be because Charles Yu was parodying a specifically American experience. The section which was supposed to be a children’s show was particularly surreal, so that may have been funny to people who found comedy in Geek Love.

Overall, Interior Chinatown probably merits a second read at some point in the future.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery — Firm Favourite

Previous in the series: Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Avonlea has everything I love about Anne of Green Gables: the gorgeous descriptions, the endearing character moments, the most perfect slow-burn love story of all time. While reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books, I feel like Charlotta the Fourth: constantly watching Anne in the hopes that I might take on a little of her character if only I try hard enough. Even though I’m 34 and Anne’s only 17 in this novel, she’ll always feel like an aspirational figure of impossible enchantment. Some might find that cloying, but I simply get swept up in Anne’s spell the same way her most ardent admirers do.

Fortunately, some of the other characters are a little more down to earth. Before this reread, I’d entirely forgotten about Mr Harrison, but I love how he morphs from tirading bachelor to almost a kindred spirit in a matter of moments. I’d forgotten about Marilla adopting the twins, too, and this time around I felt quite bad for Dora. She’s constantly described as being incredibly obedient and yet she is so overlooked that adults describe her as monotonous and forgettable. She’s a child! As an overlooked orphan herself, it really feels as though Anne could have taken more of an interest.

But what is the use of being an independent old maid if you can’t be silly when you want to, and when it doesn’t hurt anybody?

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

Of course, Anne of Avonlea‘s true kindred spirits are Paul Irving and Miss Lavender Lewis — Echo Lodge with its fairy echoes is one of the most memorable settings on Prince Edward Island. I spent much of the book waiting with bated breath for Anne and Diana to finally stumble upon the little stone house. Miss Lavender inviting the girls to share the tea she prepared for pretend guests is up there among my favourite moments in the series.

As I said in my review of Anne of Green Gables, Gilbert Blythe continues to be literature’s most perfect romantic lead. His steadfast love for Anne, even before she is ready to realise it, never fails to make me feel emotional, and I know that Anne of the Island will have even more perfect moments of happiness for the pair of them.

“That’s a lovely idea, Diana,” said Anne enthusiastically. “Living so that you beautify your name. Even if it wasn’t beautiful to begin with… making it stand in people’s thoughts for something so lovely and pleasant that they never think of it by itself.”

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

No book is perfect, so I draw attention once again to the fact that Anne’s female friends her own age are, barring Diana Barry, fairly forgettable. Jane and Priscilla are different from one another, but I literally can’t remember a single thing either of them did in the previous novel, and by the time I start the next I doubt I’ll remember what distinguishes them. Diana makes up for it all, though, because her friendship with Anne is so beautifully encapsulated on the eve of her engagement. It was another moment that made me all misty-eyed.

“Another chapter in my life is closed,” said Anne aloud, as she locked her desk. She really felt very sad over it; but the romance in the idea of that ‘closed chapter’ did comfort her a little.

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

I love the whole Anne series so whole-heartedly that I literally hugged the book to my chest every evening after I finished reading. I can hardly wait to carry on inhabiting Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beautiful world.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Next in the series: Anne of the Island.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal — New Review

Cover: bookshop.org

The premise of Unmarriageable appealed to me: Pride and Prejudice set in contemporary Pakistan. Retellings of the same story are usually interesting, and while I’ve experienced a few modern takes of Pride and Prejudice, the Pakistani setting made this one stand out as something different. Soniah Kamal makes it work well in several ways: the urgency placed on getting the Binat sisters married, and the way their family’s reputation reflects on their eligibility feels much more at home here than it might in a British retelling.

We like reading and we have growing up abroad in common. We both grew up multi-cultural kids. We know no one person represents a group or a country in things good or bad. We know how to plant roots where there are none. We know that friends can be made anywhere regardless of race or religion. We know how to uproot. We know how to move on from memories, or at least not let memories bury us.

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable‘s characters are interesting, too. Alys and Darsee have a history of displacement in common with each other, and with me, which is something fresh bringing them together, as is their love of literature. It surprised me, at first, that Jane Austen actually exists in the novel, but it made sense. The criticism of Anne de Bourgh by her re-imagined character was a particularly nice touch. Soniah Kamal also takes the award for the grossest version of Mr Collins since the original, he actually made my skin crawl.

“You wait, Mummy,” Qitty said, “Bathool the fool is going to do something so unforgivable one day that my being fat will be nothing in comparison.”

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

In some places, Unmarriageable stuck too closely to the original. It was fairly obvious what was going to happen, with relatively few surprises, which made reading the book an experience in exasperated impatience. That said, there were some differences, mostly in the characters rather than the plot. And at one point, I genuinely questioned whether Alys Binat was going to end the book unmarried, which would certainly have been a twist!

Unfortunately, what really let Unmarriageable down was the prose; it was just terrible. Sentences rambled in a way that made me cringe almost as much as Farhat Kaleen. While I could understand what Soniah Kamal was getting at, there was no grace in it, and I kept being thrown out of the world by constructions like ‘she was beginning to believe that truly of what use was beauty without a brain that could plot’.

Usually, I say that characters are the most important part of a book for me, but Unmarriageable has taught me that prose quality is at least equally significant, if not more so.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Like Moab is My Washpot, Brideshead Revisited seemed wonderfully romantic to me when I read it at 23, having bought it because a boy I liked was reading it. Over ten years later, I remembered the relationship between Charles and Julia, but had forgotten that they were both married to other people, and that they don’t even get a happy ending. While I’d like to think this second reading was more objective, the truth is that it’s probably just as subjective, but in a different way.

While I found all the characters in Brideshead Revisited interesting, none of them struck me as particularly true to life. The whole book has the dreamy, unreal tone of a Neverland — where the characters never grow up, or at least where Charles’ perspective of them and his worldview never really changes. He’s always looking back on history through a particular lens, and the story ends where it began, so that each scene has the same kind of feeling.

”But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
”Can’t I?”
”I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
”Oh, yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
”But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
”But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Even with very little understanding of Catholicism, I found the theological discussions interesting. Like everything else, there’s a lot that goes unspoken, and I probably missed a great deal of context which would’ve helped me understand what the characters were struggling with. On the other hand, Charles is also an outsider to the Marchmains’ religion, and to some extent their social class, so maybe feeling a distance from it all is the intended effect.

Although I didn’t love the romance, or the characters, this time around, I still appreciated the prose, and found plot interesting, if rather sad.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

When I reviewed Red Seas Under Red Skies, I said that fantasy heist meets pirate adventure was tailor-made to my interests. Senlin Ascends proves that even when a book has one’s favourite elements, there’s no guarantee it will become a favourite. Senlin Ascends has an art heist!, piracy!, a group of misfits struggling against society! and yet I’m not at all sure I’ll ever read the next book in the series.

The Tower of Babel is most famous for the silk fineries and marvellous airships it produces, but visitors will discover other intangible exports. Whimsy, adventure, and romance are the Tower’s real trade.

Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends gets off to a bad start. The first two thirds of the book consist of Senlin’s episodic encounters with a world and a cast of characters that unrelentingly want to screw him over. The Tower of Babel was such a disappointing, chaotic place that I found myself wondering why I was supposed to want to read about it. To give full credit to Josiah Bancroft, that’s not entirely his fault: I made an early assumption about Senlin’s relationship with Marya which coloured his rescue mission as more cynically hopeless than intended.

Even an art heist wasn’t enough to get me on board, because although Senlin had to work with others to pull it off, there was no sense of connection to any of the characters. Tarrou gave the impression of being too superficial to ever be relied upon, and Senlin had left everyone else he’d encountered worse off than when he found them, which didn’t encourage much sympathy.

It is easier to accept who you’ve become than to recollect who you were.

Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Fortunately, there was a turning point when almost everything I disliked about the book changed at once: Senlin took responsibility for the consequences of his actions, he started connecting with other characters who had stories of their own and I was finally able to hope that his quest might not be as doomed as I’d first assumed. The leaps of personality taken by Senlin came a little too quickly, but I was so relieved not to be miserable reading about this unpleasant place that I didn’t really mind.

The ending of Senlin Ascends is promising, which is a weird thing to say about the ending of a book. It left me torn about whether or not to continue the series; does the potential of a group of misfits attempting piracy on an airship outweigh the fact that I really didn’t enjoy most of the book? Fortunately, my TBR is long enough that I can put the decision off for several months….

Rating: 2 out of 5.