August Reads

August has been such a great month for diverse reads. As women in translation month (#WIT), August for me has provided another great opportunity to read global women’s voices often ignored by English-speaking publishing companies (who prioritize english-written works and when they do seek translated books, skew heavily male). In addition, I’ve read Radio Silence by Alice Oseman for Chanelletime‘s Crusty Book Club and am looking forward to the next month’s reads. In between some heavier reads, I’ve also reread the manga Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase, however, I’ve only included the first book in this list for a series review (super cute, just as I’ve remembered).

Moving forward, I’d also like to join the Year of Asian Readathon 2020 – though I’m far past halfway through the year, I’ve already read about 39 books (counting manga) written by Asian authors all over the world and I’m confident I’ll be reading more towards the end of the year. I’ll continue to track progress through my monthly reading updates with a final review at the end of the year!

All photos courtesy of Goodreads

Also, I’ve updated all links for last month’s reviews of July books – apologies for the error there!

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

Everything suddenly was a lot and a lot and so wide that she felt like crying. But she didn’t: her eyes glistened like the dying sun.

Short Description: A conflicted writer finds himself obsessively documenting the life of an unfortunate young woman.

Critic Quote: “Most late work has a spectral beauty, a sense of form and content dancing a slow and skilful waltz with each other. Lispector, on the other hand, as she came to the end of her life, wrote as though her life was beginning, with a sense of a need to stir and shake narrative itself to see where it might take her, as the bewildered and original writer that she was, and us, her bewildered and excited readers.” –The Guardian

My Verdict: A unique, brief tale well worth the read for its inventive phrases and turn of events.

The Phoenix Years by Madeleine O’Dea

It was the spirit that drove a lot of things in those years. All over China people were trying to make their own decisions and find their own way, not just in universities, but on the farms, and among the burgeoning group of independent traders who were beginning to change the face of the cities. People wanted to be themselves. More dangerously, many of them wanted to be heard.

Short Description: A journalist records the history of China’s government movements from 1950s to early 2000s from the perspective of artists.

Critic Quote: “This book is a rare, vital, compassionate record celebrating what a cross-section of extraordinary people in China have managed to create and to share with the world. The multiple vantage points woven together in their stories ensure that there is something for any reader interested in modern China. ” –LARB China Channel

My Verdict: Detailed and ornate, this account is well worth the read, though it’s a bit verbose and daunting for those new to contemporary Chinese history.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I send you this letter on a falling star. Reentry will score and test it but will not melt it away. I write in fire across the sky, a plummet to match your rise.

Short Description: Two time travelers working for opposing factions send letters as they travel across battlefields and historical locations and eventually fall in love. 

Critic Quote: This Is How You Lose the Time War has a poetic internal structure: the image and the turn, an affective center of motion that occurs within the characters and the reader rather than entirely within a narrative arc. I wouldn’t call the prose lush; in fact it’s quite sharp, almost crisp, in its deployment of metaphor and comparative language as well as its dialogue. ” –Tor

My Verdict: Poetic, grandiose language worth perusing, even if I had no idea what was going on for most of the novel.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. That fire, in short, is its food. If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.

Short Description: A young woman finds herself in an ill-fated love affair when she is cursed to serve her mother until death instead of marrying her love and, in agony, infuses her emotions into her magnificent cooking.

Critic Quote: “I’m not always a big fan of magic realism, but it works well in this novel because, oddly, it seems natural. This is a great book that – thanks to its creativity and strong heroine – is as satisfying as one of its meals.” –Hispanic Reader

My Verdict: Beautiful writing and wonderful integration of recipes within plot. Though I loved the drama of it all, I wish the characters had more depth/complexity to them as the lack of this made it harder to connect with them and their decisions.

Full Review HERE

Tesoro by Yesika Salgado

I wasn’t born tough. I was soft a long time. but I did inherit a mouth that never stops. I can talk my way out of any room, into any heart. what to do with this kind of power? how to keep it from going bad? every day I wake up, I say to myself, be good. be good. be good. sometimes I’m not and I think about it for weeks.

Short Description: A poetry collection recounting the author’s various experiences on gender, race, and sexuality in relation to the people around her.

Critic Quote: “Salgado’s writing presents glimpses of childhood memories and disappointments, proposing that her audience digs into their own experiences with familial love.” –Study Breaks

My Verdict: An overall strong collection, with some poems being more powerful than others. Though I prefer her previous collection over this one, I still enjoyed it nonetheless.

Last Night with the Earl by Kelly Bowen

Beauty can be found everywhere, should you only look. It is not a finite commodity. It changes with time and circumstance to become something new and different, but no less valuable. Your aunt is no less beautiful now than she was fifty years ago.

Short Description: After a disastrous parting, a haunted earl returns to his home to find it leased to a women’s academy where a past love now teaches art, unsealing old feelings and deep wounds.

Critic Quote: Last Night with the Earl is one of those books that, when upon finishing, made me wonder why the hell I waited so long to read it in the first place. It’s rich in emotional development and has one of the wittiest heroines I’ve ever read.” –Smart Bitches Trashy Books

My Verdict: Some pacing issues, but otherwise a sweeping, emotionally rich, romantic read (perhaps now one of my favorite romances).

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

The beam of light flashed across her own face and she thought, Yes, me, Khady Demba, still happy to utter her name silently and to sense its apt harmony with the precise, satisfying image she had of her own features and of the Khady heart that dwelled within her to which no one but she had access.

Short Description: A collection of three stories centered on women dealing with their struggles balancing life between France and Senegal.

Critic Quote: “It can take a while to acclimatise to NDiaye’s style, which incorporates a thread of hallucinatory symbolism about flowers and flight. John Fletcher’s translation rightly preserves long sentences that can, at times, verge on awkwardness. But the prose compels with its astonishing range and precision.” –The Guardian

My Verdict: Confusing to follow narratively and thematically, I unfortunately cannot recommend this disappointing read.

Full Review HERE

The Sarashina Diary by Lady Sarashina

The ordering of passages in the Sarashina Diary has a close relationship to the two themes that run through the diary. One, overt, is the deluding force of an infatuation with literature, and the other, covert, is the saving, or at least consoling, powers of literature.

Short Description: A brief account of a young woman’s life during 11th century Japan.

Critic Quote: “She filled her text with insights and a sense of empowerment unsuitable for the public eye, especially as a mother and wife, and her written truths prove the healing powers of literature. Passages mixing narration and poetry are interwoven to form the story of her renunciation of the world and her simultaneous understanding of it. A thousand years later, her legacy is renewed through this great translation.” –Japan Times

My Verdict: A worthwhile, quick read full of wonderful descriptions and insights on Japanese life for women years ago.

Full Review HERE

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart

But that evening, sitting alone in my cabin, I didn’t yet indulge in such thoughts. I didn’t weep, I didn’t touch my bottle of rum, I only thought that the door of grief is never shut.

Short Description: This story follows the Guadeloupe lineage of a group of women as they find their own unique paths during a time of historical and social change within their country.

Critic Quote: “Any course on women or black writers of the western hemisphere will be enriched by its inclusion.” –Scholar’s Compass

My Verdict: Absolutely breathtaking, masterful descriptions that astonish even through translation. Highly recommend.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

They were both made of the same star stuff. The same primordial fires that had coalesced to form their respective planets had been so close, on a grand cosmic scale. A near-infinite universe, and they were practically next-door neighbors. Looking into his eyes was like looking into ten billion years of history, like she could see the particles and rocks and gasses coalesce over eons, until somehow, impossibly, here they both were.

Short Description: A young woman finds herself as the sole translator for an alien species and must discover their purpose in coming to Earth as well as the mysterious disappearance of her family.

Critic Quote: Axiom’s End is one of the most unique science fiction novels in years. It’s a heartfelt story of alien first contact, but, luckily, unlike so many “big idea” sci-fi books, it’s utterly unpretentious.” –SYFY WIRE

My Verdict: I loved the detail Ellis took in describing the alien culture as well as the bond developed with the main character. Overall, this is a well structured, paced, and realized story. 

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi

Does language, any language, flow more easily when the subject is love?

Short Description: A general fleeing an oppressive regime is confronted with a Refugee Services translator whom he once held within his prison.

Critic Quote: “Tightly plotted, this fierce literary thriller packs complex emotions in a small space, tackling difficult and essential questions about power and our responsibilities to one another.” –Kirkus Reviews

My Verdict: A powerful, visceral, emotional story of hope, love, and resistance. There are some aspects, such as the author’s dealing with mental illness and disability, that are somewhat concerning and did not age well, though.

Full Review HERE

Guarding Temptation by Talia Hibbert

But as their laughter faded, so did the mirage of their memories. Because this wasn’t before. Not even close.

Short Description: A political writer receives a bevy of threatening comments, prompting her to ask her childhood friend to help keep her safe until she devises a plan, only to realize their closeness has reignited old feelings.

Critic Quote: “This novella has so much of everything I love in romance. Longing and yearning. (I say it all the time, but I LIVE FOR longing and yearning). A heroine determined to put the world to rights. Body positivity. Fantastic sex. Gentleness and tenderness. So much humour and spark. All the fluffy protective vibes.” –Love Always

My Verdict: Love Hibbert but this novella didn’t connect with me. :/ Maybe an expanded piece on this “friends to lovers” trope would have worked.

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

But there is something about you that makes me wish I could speak like you do—I’ve watched you from afar and you really are the best person that I have met in my whole life. You possess the ability to make people listen to you without question, even if you don’t often use it. I almost want to be you. Does that make any sense? I bet it doesn’t. I’m just rambling on. I’m sorry.

Short Description: A group of high schoolers dealing with the stress of college preparations meet through a podcast, changing the course of their lives forever.

Critic Quote: “ I adored Radio Silence for its uniquely realistic writing and three-dimensional diverse cast. I’d recommend it to everybody, but in particular if you’re looking for a diverse contemporary read.” –The Guardian

My Verdict: A well-written look at the struggles of high school and power of teen friendships. I really enjoyed Oseman’s empathetic and realistic depiction of teens, and the simplistic writing style really helps augment the dialogue and action of the story (though, it sacrifices opportunities for more meditative, ornate, memorable prose). Overall, it was a lovely read, but perhaps something that may have been more impactful if I had read it in high school.

Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes by Elizabeth Lesser

Becoming familiar with our culture’s origin stories and tracing their influence is a surprisingly effective way to take stock of our own lives and to claim an authentically powerful voice – one that proclaims not only our equal rights but also our unique capacities and concerns.

Short Description: A collection of essays on the author’s loose musings on how women’s voices are often ignored and demeaned throughout mainly Western history.

Critic Quote: “Emphasizing individual over community work, Lesser does not address whether it’s necessary to build spaces in which women can be heard, and her guidance on how women can tell their own stories is minimal. Still, readers will find this lucid and detailed presentation of feminist ideas motivating.” –Publisher’s Weekly

My Verdict: Ugh – no, this book was full of confused, sloppy, narrow-minded analysis. For those looking for a feminist/woman-centric read this is NOT IT.

Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman

BIG FRIENDSHIP is a bond of great strength, force, and significance that transcends life phases, geography, and emotional shifts. It is large in dimension, affecting most aspects of each person’s life. It is full of meaning and resonance. A Big Friendship is reciprocal, with both parties feeling worthy of each other and willing to give of themselves in generous ways.

Short Description: Two best friends recount the story of their strong friendship and what they’ve learned on the science of maintaining strong bonds.

Critic Quote: “The same wit and chatty style of the podcast infuse the book. A hybrid of memoir, cultural criticism and advice, “Big Friendship” describes experiences that are common in deep friendships but rarely acknowledged. ” –Washington Post

My Verdict: Like a mixture of Hard to Love by Braillen Hooper and The Myth of the Nice Girl by Fran Hauser. Maybe if I was a fan of the authors’ podcast I’d feel more connected to their story — I honestly don’t feel like I learned much or was moved by their narratives.

The Door by Magda

I seldom dream. When I do, I wake with a start, bathed in sweat. Then I lie back, waiting for my frantic heart to slow, and reflect on the overwhelming power of night’s spell. As a child and young woman, I had no dreams, either good or bad, but in old age I am confronted repeatedly with horrors from my past, all the more dismaying because compressed and compacted, and more terrible than anything I have lived through. In fact nothing has ever happened to me of the kind that now drags me screaming from my sleep.

Short Description: A writer enlists the assistance of a strange housekeeper and their lives quickly become entangled.

Critic Quote: “It’s astonishing that this masterpiece should have been essentially unknown to English-language readers for so long . . . suffice it to say that I’ve been haunted by this novel. Szabo’s lines and images come to my mind unexpectedly, and with them powerful emotions. It has altered the way I understand my own life. [It is] a work of stringent honesty and delicate subtlety.” –The New York Times Book Review

My Verdict: Slow, but wonderfully written with compelling characters, especially when put in context with the historical introduction.

Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase

Even though you’re not by me side, Night, you will forever be my first man, my Zettai Kareshi

Short Description: High school student Riiko is desperate for a boyfriend, so much so that she orders a robotic one online! Little does she know the antics she’s getting herself into or the love that is waiting for her right around the corner.

Critic Quote: “This manga deserves an 8/10 for being a short but sweet series that makes you wish for a non-human boyfriend.” –Rosehood Review

My Verdict: I remember reading this in high school, still a cute, a nice cozy read (don’t expect anything ground-breaking, lol), though perhaps it hasn’t aged the best with some its tropes.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

In Blake’s mind, her life before him had been tragic, her whole family swallowed up. She preferred him to think of her that way. Blank. A curtain hung between her past and present and she could never peek behind it. Who knows what might scuttle through?

Short Description: Two light-skinned twin sisters diverge after a tragic event, leaving one to envelop herself within her black community while the other passes for white, their lives reconverging in inexplicable ways years later.

Critic Quote: “But within its fairy-tale structure, The Vanishing Half is able to be ambitious with its characters. Bennett duly enters into the minds of each of her major players, one after another, and she is thoughtful enough to be empathetic with each in their darkest moments.” –VOX

My Verdict: Incredible writing here – the way Bennett moved from scene to description to summary was really spectacular. These characters were so well explored and I was thoroughly invested in all their emotional journeys. Though I did find the beginning a bit slow and the ending a bit rushed, I truly enjoyed this read and would highly recommend it.

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