BOOK REVIEW: SELF-PORTRAIT WITH GHOST by MENG JIN


Self-Portrait with Ghost is a strange and elusive collection, slippery and compelling, defying easy understanding and so drawing your attention all the more.

First: Jin’s writing is so impressive, at times keen and direct, at others more reflective and analytical. Her stories are elusive in the sense that they don’t easily give you that aha moment at their end, that moment that clinches together the whole point of the story and, in doing so, makes it immediately understandable. Instead, they make you look twice, go back and try to put your finger on what eluded you the first time, or else try to make sure that what you got out of the story was in fact in line with what it was trying to do. More than anything, they’re just really interesting stories: I didn’t fully “get” all of them, but rather than that alienating me, it just drew me to them all the more. I didn’t “get” all of them, but I wanted to–and that’s what ultimately made them so compelling to me.

Though all distinct in their own ways, these stories also feel like they’re echoes of each other, particularly in the way that some of them reconfigure themes and ideas from other stories. “Suffering” and “Self-Portrait with Ghost,” for example, both deal with the troubled (?) distinction between reality and unreality, what is real and what is not. In the former story, the narrator attempts to give us an account of Ling, a woman overtaken by an increasing sense of paranoia; in the latter, the narrator encounters the ghost of her dead friend, who forces her to question her approach to her academic work. “Philip is Dead” and “First Love” are another pair that felt complementary to me, both stories that explore how romantic relationships shape–or indeed warp–your sense of self. Where “Philip is Dead” examines this in the context of artistic practice, “First Love” delves more into the nature of want and longing.

“Alone, she inched toward that feeling. It was painful, unbearable, to not have another against which to orient herself. It was also the closest she felt to free.”

Thematically, the stories of Self-Portrait with Ghost are concerned with how we know ourselves through others: in contrast to others, in opposition to them, in imitation of them, or simply alongside them. It’s a collection that’s interested in how we construct our sense of self not just through relationships–friends, lovers, family members–but also through narrative and art more broadly. In some stories like “Suffering,” “First Love,” and “The Three Women,” this is more of a thematic focus, whereas in a story like “The Odd Women,” it’s very much literalized through the inclusion of speculative elements (the only story that’s overtly speculative). When it comes to thematic focus, the title of the collection also effectively gestures at what it’s interested in exploring: “Self-Portrait with Ghost” speaks to how self-portraits, this conception of our selves by our selves, can be based on illusory images we may have of ourselves, or even of others. (That’s my interpretation anyway ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

“Who are they, and who is he? The patches on Ling’s face are real–this I can see. So she has summoned me in, to read her life, so what is boring and endless might achieve the grace of plot. Because I do pity Ling, pity her suffering and its intractability, how she’s wound her life around herself in these most exquisitely foolproof chains. I pity her so much, I envy her. Would my own mind ever be capable of such imaginative feats as these?”

My favourite stories were “Suffering,” “First Love,” and “The Odd Women,” though honestly I felt like all of them had something that I liked or was drawn to. “The Odd Women” is the real standout here, in my opinion. It’s the longest story, and the most ambitious one, and it absolutely sticks the landing–which is doubly great, because it’s also the concluding story, ending the collection with a nice flourish.

Self-Portrait with Ghost was a collection whose stories I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in, but rather one that intellectually engaged me; a “thinking” book more than a “feeling” book–and a really great one at that.


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BOOK REVIEW: A LADY FOR A DUKE by ALEXIS HALL


More of a 3.5 stars, but I still really loved this.

I love me a good angsty romance, and A Lady for a Duke was angsty, and then some. Two chapters into this and I was already so deeply invested. This novel has such a great setup, and Hall does an excellent job at not just drawing it out–the pining!!!!–but also sticking the landing when it comes to the payoff. I loved our two main characters, Viola and Gracewood, and even more I just loved how much they cared for and took care of each other. I especially enjoyed the fact that they each got internal conflicts that felt hefty–that’s not to say that this is a dark romance, per se, but that these characters’ growth over the course of the novel felt really earned to me. They each have to work to grow and to make sense of who they are and what they want, and it’s exactly for that reason that when they do actively decide to be together, it feels all the more rewarding.

If there’s one critique that I have about A Lady for a Duke, though, it’s that the characters admitted their feelings for each other a bit earlier than I would’ve liked. It was nice that their feelings were out in the open and they could be safe in the knowledge that the other character felt the same way about them, but I felt like having them be so honest early on–I think maybe it was around halfway through the novel?–meant that it deflated some of that tension that made the first half so enjoyable and compelling. I wouldn’t have wanted them to keep everything bottled up, either, but I feel like there could’ve been a way to keep some of that tension going whilst also having them be honest with each other.

Overall, though, this was an excellent romance; everyone on my feed has been loving it, and I’m glad to say that I, too, loved it.

Thanks so much to Forever for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!


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BOOK REVIEW: SEE YOU YESTERDAY by RACHEL LYNN SOLOMON


This was so cute! I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything that I’ve read by Rachel Lynn Solomon before, and See You Yesterday was no exception. This story works so well because of its premise, which has definitely been before, but which I think Solomon does particularly well: the stuck-in-a-time-loop plot. Our two leads, Barrett and Miles, find themselves stuck in a time loop in their first year of college, and on their first day of classes no less. This setup, then, allows for the story to explore and develop a lot of things: the romance, for one, but also a lot of coming-of-age things that the characters are just starting to learn about themselves. And I just really loved seeing the relationship between Miles and Barrett develop over the course of the story–there are some lovely little moments here, and Solomon writes them in a grounded, moving way. Definitely recommend this if you’re looking for something quick and cute, regardless of whether you usually read YA or not.

Thanks so much to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!


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