Book Review: The Death of Vivek Oji

The Death of Vivek Oji opens with the title character’s corpse being dropped off on his mother’s doorstep in Nigeria. The story that follows is a non-linear exploration of Vivek’s life leading up to his death, and the impact of his death on his friends and family.

The book: The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I started The Death of Vivek Oji with lukewarm feelings, but the book grew on me over time. One aspect of the book that initially underwhelmed me was the writing. Perhaps the breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical prose of Freshwater (Emezi’s debut novel) unfairly heightened my expectations, but I felt that the writing in this novel (especially the dialogue) left a lot to be desired. As I read on and let go of my expectations, however, I found things to appreciate about the writing: there were some beautifully evocative passages that pulled at my heartstrings, and Emezi’s infusion of Igbo language into the dialogue helped to keep me immersed in the setting of Nigeria.

The novel’s structure is another area that I disliked at first but came to appreciate. At first, I felt like the book’s focus on many characters’ perspectives came at a detriment to nuanced development of any individual character. But the benefit to having so many different main characters is revealed when their stories come together to paint a beautifully complex portrait of the title character, Vivek, and of Nigerian society as a whole. While I do still think that a couple of the side stories could have been omitted, I loved the way Emezi weaved disparate narrative threads together to reveal a powerful bigger picture.

On the note of threads being woven together, I loved this novel’s imagery and symbolism. There were many references to plaiting (i.e. braiding) throughout the novel, which I appreciated given the novel’s braid-like narrative structure. I also really liked the theme of pictures: the novel opens and ends with references to photographs, and pictures end up playing an important role in the novel’s plot.

And speaking of the plot, I found the story itself to be compelling. The novel opens with Vivek’s corpse being dropped off at his parents’ house, so it is no secret that he is going to die, but the circumstances surrounding his death are unknown. As the novel progresses and the pieces of the story come together, Emezi drops hints and signs about how Vivek is going to die, but they keep the true story behind his death a mystery until the very end. For me, Emezi’s storytelling successfully built intrigue, dread, and suspense – which is definitely what I want from a novel with mystery elements.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Death of Vivek Oji. While I had some issues with the dialogue and character development, I feel that Emezi’s conclusion to the novel made the entire read worth it. And to those who read and loved Freshwater, just keep in mind that this is a very different novel!

Book Review: Death in Her Hands

Death in Her Hands is about an elderly widow named Vesta, whose mundane life is disrupted by a note that she finds while walking her dog in the woods. The note says “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Vesta’s curiosity about this note slowly begins to consume her, and she starts spending the majority of her time trying to solve the murder mystery with what limited information she has.

The book: Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

If you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery novel, you won’t find it in Death in Her Hands. Although the novel has some elements of mystery, the real focus of this story is the narrator’s mental and emotional state. Vesta is elderly and lonely, and without much factual information about the mysterious note she found in the woods, she spends most of her time pondering hypothetical situations that could have led to Magda’s death. As she becomes increasingly obsessed with Magda’s death, Vesta’s grip on reality – and therefore the events of the novel as described by Vesta – becomes hazy.

Conceptually, I think what Moshfegh did with Death in Her Hands was clever and interesting. Humans are extremely good at telling stories, and we are especially prone to telling ourselves stories to make sense of situations that don’t have an obvious explanation. When we do this without enough factual information, however, we can get lost in spiraling thoughts that are no longer based on reality. I find the stories that people tell themselves fascinating, and I can appreciate the ideas behind Moshfegh’s detailed exploration of an elderly widow getting lost in her own mind.

While I appreciate what Moshfegh was trying to explore in Death in Her Hands, I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. This 270-page novel takes place over the course of a couple days, and most of that time is spent inside Vesta’s unreliable mind. The combination of slow pacing and an unreliable narrator who may or may not be losing her mind just didn’t work for me – especially since I had expected the book to be more of a mystery than it turned out to be. I kept waiting for the mystery to pick up, but it never really did.

Although Death in Her Hands didn’t work for me, I still recommend checking it out if you were previously interested, or if it sounds interesting to you based on this review. Many of my issues with the book are the result of my own expectations, so if you go into this book knowing that it is not a typical mystery novel, you will likely have a better time with it.

Trigger warnings: fatphobic narrator and an animal abuse scene that I wish I could unread.

Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Both a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, Where The Crawdads Sing follows “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark from early childhood, when she is abandoned by her family and left to survive alone in the marshes on the North Carolina coast, to early adulthood, when she becomes a suspect in a murder case. The two timelines alternate throughout the book until Kya’s coming-of-age trajectory eventually catches up to the murder trial.

The book: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery/coming-of-age
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

The gorgeously immersive setting of the marshes on the North Carolina coast immediately drew me into this book, but the first 100-or-so pages moved very slowly, plot-wise. Some of that slowness seemed necessary to portray Kya’s self-reliance and loneliness. The mundane details of her fishing, cooking, and doing handiwork in her shack demonstrate how hard she worked to survive alone. The long, slow-moving passages where Kya observes wildlife and ruminates in nature allow the reader to really feel the slowness and loneliness of Kya’s day-to-day life. But that being said, the novel still could have been around 60-70 pages shorter.

It’s also worth noting that Owens phonetically spells out the characters’ Southern dialects. I found this jarring and uncomfortable at first, but quickly got used to it and even found that it further immersed me in the Southern setting. I don’t think that the phonetic spelling of dialects in this book was problematic, since Owens was born and raised in southern Georgia and speaks with a Southern dialect herself.

Where this book really shined for me was in its tender portrayal of societal and environmental issues. Through Kya’s story, Owens demonstrates how hard it is to get an education in certain parts of the United States, how individuals from poor communities can end up in perpetual cycles of disadvantage, and how being “othered” by society has detrimental effects on a developing child. While showing all of this, Owens also compassionately rejects stereotypes: she never judges Kya’s mom or siblings for abandoning their family, she demonstrates that Kya is quite intelligent and resourceful despite lacking a formal education, and she even portrays Kya’s abusive father with considerable nuance (not so much so that it excuses his abuse – just enough to show that he is complicated).

I also enjoyed the way Where The Crawdads Sing spans multiple genres. The book is described as a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, but being set in North Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s before the Civil Rights Movement, it is also very much a historical fiction novel. The book also crosses into romance at times, and into courtroom drama toward the end. And as mentioned before, there is beautifully vivid nature writing throughout. However, some genres were explored more successfully than others. I found the legal/courtroom drama scenes to be the most engaging and evocative, and the romance to be a bit trite.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s not a perfect novel, but I appreciated its immersive setting, its themes of accepting others and rejecting stereotypes, and the page-turning courtroom scenes toward the end.


Side note: based on the Goodreads rating (4.5), most readers really connected with this book, so perhaps I’m being too harsh or just didn’t connect with the writing as much as others did.

Unimportant fun fact: the author, Delia Owens, and I went to the same universities (although not at the same time, and not in the same order).

Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

My latest read for the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. This novel, told from the perspective of 9-year-old Jai, tells the story of several children from an impoverished neighborhood in India, all of whom disappear around the same time. Inspired by the detective shows he has seen on TV, Jai decides to investigate the disappearances with the help of his two best friends.

The book: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

One of the biggest strengths of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is that it compassionately draws attention to major issues in present-day India, including: disappearing children, poverty, wealth inequality, religious tensions, and police corruption. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear how these issues are interconnected and part of a larger systemic problem. All of this is shown through the perspective of a 9-year-old child who doesn’t quite understand how the world works, but is still impacted by all of these issues.

Prior to reading this novel, I had been skeptical about the story being narrated by a 9-year-old child. After reading the novel, though, I don’t think it would have worked from the perspective of an adult. By telling Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line from a child’s perspective, author Deepa Anappara is able to highlight serious issues of corruption and wealth inequality in contemporary India, without ever seeming preachy or self-righteous. And by developing realistic child characters with unique backgrounds, perspectives, and dreams, Anappara prevents the disappearing children from being viewed as just statistics.

Note: there are potential spoilers in the paragraph below:

While this novel was eye-opening and brilliantly written, the story itself was a bit slow. I thought the plot especially lost momentum around the second half of the novel, when more children continued to disappear but Jai and his friends got no closer to making sense of the disappearances. And while the book’s ending was certainly realistic, it was also disappointing. I think this was intentional: just as I was left wanting more resolution from the story, the families of missing children are left wanting answers about what happened to their children.

All in all, I recommend Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. The characters are compelling, the setting is immersive, and the book draws attention to societal issues in contemporary India (in a compassionate way). The book may leave you feeling unsettled, but it is well worth the read.

Welcome to Night Vale (mostly void, partially stars) (yes this post is also about cake)

The book: Welcome to Night Vale.

Last week I read Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s fiction/mystery/fantasy novel inspired by their hit podcast of the same name. The book follows the independent lives of two Night Vale women: Jackie Fierro, a 19-year-old owner of the town’s pawnshop who has been stuck at age 19 for what feels like centuries and cannot remember her childhood, and Diane Creyton, a working single mother of a 15-year-old shape shifter. Eventually, their stories intersect and the two join together on an adventure to the mysterious town of King City. 

Welcome to Night Vale is certainly weird – creepy, even. Night Vale is a world in which children get piñatas full of bees on their birthdays, angels named Erika are part of the community (though you mustn’t acknowledge that they are, in fact, angels), there is a 24-hour diner where a tree serves invisible coffee to customers, and – oh yeah – time just doesn’t work there. These things (and more) all set Night Vale apart as a weird and mystical place, but other aspects of Night Vale felt unnervingly familiar: there is a general mistrust of science, the government forces citizens to acknowledge facts that are contrary to reality, and there are police officers who “instead of looking after our interests, work under arbitrary authority to unfairly target and extort those who are least able, societally, to fight back.” I found it fascinating that since the novel’s publication (in 2015), America has become a lot more like Night Vale (or maybe these similarities were always here, and I just didn’t notice until recently). In this way, Welcome to Night Vale struck me as surprisingly profound.

Other, less dark, descriptions of life in Night Vale were also profoundly relatable. Take, for example, this description of the Moonlite All-Nite, a 24-hour diner that appeals to individuals dining solo: There is nothing more lonely than an action taken quietly on your own, and nothing more comforting than doing that same quiet action in parallel with fellow humans doing the same action. This simple description of solo-dining is so deep and instantly relatable! Perhaps this is what makes Welcome to Night Vale so compelling: despite taking place in a dark and creepy fantasy world, the authors describe mundanity and humanity in profound and poetic ways that immediately resonate, and make us feel connected to the odd land of Night Vale.

There were only two things that I didn’t like about Welcome to Night Vale. The first was the interweaving of “the voice of Night Vale” passages. These are chapters that are written as radio broadcasts from Night Vale Community Radio station. I understood the idea behind this – the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is presented entirely as a radio broadcast to its citizens (for those who haven’t listened: think Prairie Home Companion but creepier)  – but in the novel, these passages just weren’t very effective. In my opinion, they did not illustrate anything that the 3rd-person narrative chapters couldn’t. 

The other issue I had with Welcome to Night Vale was the ending of the story. A couple components of the mystery just weren’t resolved satisfyingly (and there’s one thing that wasn’t really resolved at all). For the first 350 pages, Welcome to Night Vale was a compelling and addictive page-turner that I couldn’t put down. Then, near the end of the book, the mystery is explained to the protagonists who have gone through so much (including sprinting through a hellish horror-library and somewhat losing their minds) to solve it…and I just found myself thinking “that’s it?” I was a bit underwhelmed, but maybe that was the point, because the protagonists seemed pretty miffed about the explanation too. As I type this, I feel pretty sure that the underwhelming explanation of the mystery was probably intentional. 

So Welcome to Night Vale is mysterious, weird, intriguing, and moving. Would you believe me if I told you that, on top of all of that, it’s also funny? Well, it is. This passage, for example, had me laughing out loud at midnight while my fiancé tried to sleep: …attacking a person with a hatchet…is technically a crime. But Leann made it work by engaging in semiotic arguments with law enforcement about what is assault and what is a business plan. Also this gem: Ralph’s…offering fresh food and low, low prices, although never at the same time. 

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale is a great read. As a mystery novel, it is compelling and nearly impossible to put down. Night Vale is simultaneously strange and relatable, making the fictional fantasy world surprisingly endearing. And, of course, the writing is beautiful, moving, and oftentimes funny. 

The bake: “Mostly void, partially stars” cake.

For Welcome to Night Vale, I decided to bake a cake based on the phrase used to describe the Night Vale sky in chapter 1 of the novel: “Mostly void, partially stars.” It seems that “mostly void, partially stars” has become emblematic of Welcome to Night Vale fandom. You can find clothing, fan-art, and even tattoos inspired by this quote. 

Because it’s the holiday season here in the U.S., I also wanted this cake to be seasonally festive. I chose a white chocolate cake with cranberry curd filling and cream cheese frosting. I colored the frosting purple using gel food coloring because I associate Night Vale with purple (probably since the podcast logo and novel’s cover are both this color). I also decorated the top of the cake with silver and gold sprinkles to look like stars. But not too many sprinkles because it should be mostly void, only partially stars. 

The finished cake: purple and starry.

This was the hardest cake I have ever made, and I am happy with how it turned out. As you can probably tell from the picture below, I had difficulty cutting the cake horizontally and filling it. But that is fine. Every component of the cake worked, and that in itself was an accomplishment (I had never successfully made a curd before, I was so worried that it wouldn’t set). And the cake as a whole is delicious: the sponge is rich and buttery, the frosting is sweet, and the curd is wonderfully tangy. Taken together, each component of the cake blends to create a delightfully satisfying dessert. Also, an added bonus: when you cut into the cake, a bit of curd spills out from the center; a bleeding cake seems very Night Vale. 

This is what it looks like sliced: slightly uneven and bleeding curd. Still delicious.