Real Life (Brandon Taylor)

Real Life is the first novel by Brandon Taylor.
Finished on: 13.3.2022

Content Note: child sexual abuse, sexualized violence, (critical treatment of) racism

Plot:
Wallace works on his doctorate in Chemistry at a small Midwestern university. His life is spent mostly in the lab, with occasional meet-ups with his friends, most of whom are also pre-docs in Chemistry. Wallace, being the only Black person in the lab, coming from a poor background and being one of the few queer people at university, doesn’t feel like he belongs, but so far he has muddled through. But over the course of one weekend, the balance he has found in his life shifts considerably, though.

I expected Real Life to not be a happy book, but I didn’t quite anticipate just how heavy it would be (content notes in the book would have been nice). That being said, it is a sign of how well-structured and well-written it is to make you feel this weight. And it is certainly worth subjecting yourself to it.

The book cover showing black boxes on a red background, vaguely reminiscent of lab results. On top of one of the boxes is a sparrow.
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A Spark of Light (Jodi Picoult)

A Spark of Light is a novel by Jodi Picoult.
Finished on: 19.11.2021

Content Note: abortion, anti-abortion terrorism

Plot:
A hostage situation at the last reproductive health clinic in Mississipi that performs abortions is coming to an end. People have died and the situation is tense, as one can imagine. For hostage negotiator Hugh McElroy they are even more tense than usual – because he realized that his own daughter, Wren, is one of the patients held captive. And his sister Bex, who accompanied her, was already brought to the hospital with a potentially deadly gunshot wound. As Hugh desperately tries to find a connection with hostage taker George, and as the hostages inside – all in the clinic for different reasons, as patients and workers and even as spies for the anti-abortion camp – try to get through the terror, things start to move very quickly.

A Spark of Light is a really good read. A layered look at the complexities around the topic of abortion that gives everyone a say, but still remains firmly in the pro-choice camp. And it chose an interesting structure to tell its story.

The book cover showing the title on an off-white background. At the very bottom are three blots of color.
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Die Vergiftung [The Poisoning] (Maria Lazar)

Die Vergiftung is the first novel by Maria Lazar [German link]. [I am not aware of an English translation of the novel.]
Finished on: 12.11.2021

Plot:
Ruth is 20 years old. She lives with her mother, her brother and her sister, but she doesn’t get along with any of them. Nor does she like their striving for the bourgeois ideals, or at least the appearance of those ideals. The only member of her family she relates to, at least a little, is her Uncle Gustav. Ruth herself just broke up with her older lover, a chemist, and is reeling, even more so when she realizes that her mother had an affair with the same man. With nobody to really turn to and feeling like she doesn’t belong anywhere, Ruth drifts through encounters shaped by ambivalence.

Die Vergiftung is an excellent novel, a strong debut with evocative language in a lyrical style that makes sure you feel everything that Ruth is feeling. I was really impressed by it.

The dark blue book cover with the silhouette of a woman with a billowing skirt in a slightly lighter blue. The "I" in the book title is a syringe.
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Chéri (Colette)

Chéri is a novel by Colette. I read the German translation by Roseli and Saskia Bontjes van Beek.
Finished on: 12.10.2021
[Here’s my review of the 2009 movie adaptation.]

Plot:
Léa has lived a full life as the lover of various rich men. Now that she has grown older herself, she has instead taken a young lover herself, Chéri. Chéri is the son of her friend Charlotte and almost 25 years younger than her. He is a petulant, aimless but beautiful man and Léa never expected to be with him for as long as they have. When he tells her that he will get married soon, Léa is surprised at how hard the news hits her. And Chéri, too, finds that life without Léa isn’t quite what he expected.

Chéri is a beautiful written, insightful character study that I very much enjoyed to read. I am definitely looking forward to reading its sequel.

The book cover showing a painting of a fireplace with various pieces of clothes strewn around it.
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Pizza Girl (Jean Kyoung Frazier)

Pizza Girl is the first novel by Jean Kyoung Frazier.
Finished on: 11.8.2021

Content Note: stalking, alcoholism

Plot:
She is 18 years old, pregnant and works as a pizza delivery girl. Living with her mother and her boyfriend who seem way more excited about the baby than she is, she has no idea where to go from here. She doesn’t even want to think about it. Then she delivers a pizza one day to Jenny and her son. Something about Jenny’s apparently chaotic life and her ponytail draws her in, and Jenny, too, seems to take an interest in the “Pizza Girl”, as she calls her. She starts waiting and hoping for Jenny’s call to the pizza place every week – but soon that isn’t enough anymore.

Pizza Girl should be a heavy book but somehow Frazier manages to keep it light and quick despite the many difficult topics she touches on. While I appreciate that, I would have also liked to feel the heaviness a little more. That being said, it’s certainly a memorable novel and a very good debut that will stay with me.

The book cover showing a graphic of an open, empty pizza box in front of a black and pink background.
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The History of Bees (Maja Lunde)

The History of Bees is the first novel in the Climate Quartett by Maja Lunde. I read the German translation (Die Geschichte der Bienen) by Ursel Allenstein.
Finished on: 9.8.2021

Content Note: misogyny

Plot:
1852, England. William is a biologist who dreams of studying bees. But after a professional setback, he hasn’t managed to get out of bed for months now. Maybe he’ll find new energy, though.
2007, Ohio, USA. George is a bee farmer, hoping that his son Tom will follow in his footsteps. Tom has other plans, though.
2098, China. Tao is one of many human pollinators, doing her best to fill in for the bees who disappeared and left agriculture and with it humanity in a life-threatening situation. But the work is hard and pay is meager.

The History of Bees is an okay read, at least once you get through the first half. While I found the topic interesting, the execution was difficult for me to enjoy.

The book cover showing a bee lying on its side as if dead.
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Biskaya (SchwarzRund)

Biskaya is the first novel by SchwarzRund.
Finished on: 30.6.2021

Content Note: suicide, mental illness, eating disorder, (critical treatment of) racism and queermisia

Plot:
Tue is a Black woman in Berlin. She grew up on Biskaya, an island state that is part of the EU, but moved to Germany when she was still pretty young. Now she is the singer in punk band with a pretty good reputation and some success. But Tue struggles with her mental health, with being a Black queer woman in Germany, with her band members and with her flatmates. It is only with her best friend Matth, also queer and Black, that she feels at home.

Biskaya is an ambitious book. In some ways it is rather obvious that is a debut novel and maybe not quite as polished as you’d expect, but it is definitely worth it for the interesting perspectives it provides.

The book cover showing a slightly abstract painting by the author, a human figure in red, around the upper arm what could be a green bracelet with yellow pearls.
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This Brutal House (Niven Govinden)

This Brutal House is a novel by Niven Govinden.
Finished on: 21.6.2021

Content Note: (critical treatment of) homomisia, transmisia, queermisia

Plot:
Teddy grew up with the Mothers, gay leaders of a voguing group who also took in the kids that came to walk with them and, more often than not, did not have a (safe) home – like Teddy. By now, Teddy is grown up and works for the city. That’s why he becomes the point person when the Mothers start a silent protest in front of city hall, camping there, holding a vigil, not saying a word – because their children have been going missing and nobody seems to care. Teddy has to navigate his conflicted loyalties, his own past and his childhood love for Sherry, one of the missing.

I will come right out and say it: I struggled with This Brutal House. It has beautiful prose, but I could not get into the style or the story.

The book cover showing a black and white photo of a group of people lying on the pavement in (a) protest.
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The Black Flamingo (Dean Atta)

The Black Flamingo is the first novel by Dean Atta, with illustrations by Anshika Khullar.
Finished on: 10.5.2021

Content Note: (critical treatment of) racism, homomisia

Plot:
Michael is a Greek-Cypriot and Jamaican, gay, Black boy in England. Figuring out what that means exactly isn’t easy. Throughout high school, he figures things out together with his best friend Daisy. But it isn’t until university where Michael discovers drag for himself that he really finds answers to the question of who he is.

The Black Flamingo is a novel in verse written for a younger audience about identity, race and sexual orientation. In theory, this sounds like a challenging novel to say the least. In practice, it is a wonderfully easy, touching read that challenges in such a way that you barely notice what it’s doing. It is absolutely fantastic.

The book cover showing the drawing of a young Black man wearing black feathers, cradling a black flamingo. He is surrounded by pink feathers and four pink flamingos.
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The Story of a New Name (Elena Ferrante)

The Story of a New Name is the second of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. I read the German translation (Die Geschichte eines neuen Namens) by Karin Krieger.
Finished on: 4.4.2021
[Here’s my review of the first novel.]

Content Note: rape, domestic violence, abuse

Plot:
With Lila’s marriage, she and Elena develop away from each other even more. But at the same time, they cannot let go of each other. Elena watches from a distance as Lila’s abusive marriage to Stefano turns ever more complicated by her husband’s business relations. Meanwhile Elena is dating Antonio more out of a sense of obligation, while still yearning for Nino who seems to be everything she aspires to. After Lila has a miscarriage, she asks Elena to accompany on a holiday to get her strength back. During that holiday, their paths cross with Nino and everything changes.

After reading My Brilliant Friend, I was reluctant but curious to continue, not quite sure what apparently millions of other people saw in the novel. The same thing is still true for The Story of a New Name. I read it, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either and I am still scratching my head as to why this series has gotten quite this big.

The book cover showing an illustration of a woman in a bridal gown standing on a balcony over the sea, her veil blowing in the wind together with petals from her bouquet.
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