As with so many of the books I DNF, this was okay, but not good enough for me to finish. Patel’s writing flows well and has an elegance to it, but the character work here let this novel down for me. My biggest issue was that this novel felt like it was going through the motions of the myth rather than telling us a story where the character’s decisions organically moved the plot along. A lot of the plot beats felt like they occurred because the myth necessitated it, and not because it made sense within the context of their characters and their relationships (I don’t know the original myth this is based on, though, so take this with a grain of salt). I understand that this is a retelling and so must, in some way, follow the course of the original story, but I would’ve liked to see it told in a way that made it feel a bit more authentic to the characters.
The Mask of Mirrors of M. A. Carrick
DNF at 32%/200 pages
The thought of reading 400 more pages of this book made me want to jump off a cliff. I was just so deeply, deeply bored reading this. Sure the pacing is slow and the worldbuilding is convoluted, but by far my biggest issue here is the lack of any kind of meaningful character development or dynamics. These characters exist just to act and react to things; they have feelings but only insofar as those feelings serve to move the plot forward. And as characters, they are just AGGRESSIVELY BLAND. In the 200+ pages of this that I read, i did not experience a single emotion; I wasn’t surprised or moved or angry or sympathetic or intrigued–just nothing. I could not care less about what happened to these characters, least of all Ren, who had about as much personality as a paper towel. I just couldn’t do it anymore, so I decided to cut my losses and call it quits.✌
Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
DNF at 25%/70 pages
I really did not get along with this book. The prologue was brilliant: moving, evocative, intriguing. It pulled me right in to the story, and almost made me cry–it was that good. But then once we got on to the actual book it all just…fell apart. The biggest issue for me here is the writing: it does not read smoothly at all; it had a very fragmented stop-and-start quality to it that made me aware of every single second that I spent reading this book. (After I DNFd this I started reading a book whose writing I actually got along with and the difference was like night and day.) Add onto this a narrative that felt very dry and lifeless and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington
DNF at 15%/100 pages
Not to be dramatic but this book is everything I hate about fantasy: so painfully bland, with not a single iota of personality to be found anywhere. Nothing about this book held my attention in any way. I read 100 whole pages of it but couldn’t tell you a single thing about these characters if I tried.
The Betrayed by Reine Arcache Melvin
I was really excited to read this–I’ve read so few novels set in the Philippines–but unfortunately it didn’t work for me as a novel. I actually quite liked the beginning of the book, but after that I felt like the plot and narrative structure were a bit fragmented, which made it hard to follow these characters and track their relationships and development. The narrative as a whole had a tendency to flit from one character to the next, one moment to the next, with few interstitial scenes to really do the work of connecting together those moments and making the narrative as a whole more cohesive.
I also DNFd The Stardust Thiefby Chelsea Abdullah, Little Foxes Took Up Matchesby Katya Kazbek, and What Isn’t Rememberedby Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, which I have full reviews up for here, here, and here, respectively.
Frustrating, irritating, infuriating, yes, but more than anything, The Arsonists’ City was just a deeply, deeply unpleasant book.
This book reminded me of The Most Fun We Ever Hadby Claire Lombardo, which is just about the most damning indictment I can give it. There are some books I dislike, and there are some books I actively hate. This was the latter.
Let’s begin with the characters, who are, according to what I’ve written in the notes on my phone, “absolutely fucking insufferable.” And I stand by that statement. The characters in this book are, by all measures, adults; in their 30s and 40s, in long term relationships or marriages or even with kids. Tell me why, then, they act like children all. the. time. “Petty” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Like of course adults can be immature or childish and petty, but god these characters just stretched the limits of what I was willing to tolerate–and then promptly broke through those limits and became absolutely intolerable. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single character in this book infuriated me. Every single one. First of all, it feels like everyone is constantly cheating on everyone else in this book. Wives cheat on husbands, husbands cheat on wives, boyfriends cheat on girlfriends, girlfriends cheat on boyfriends. If there is a character in any semblance of a long-term relationship in this book, rest assured that they will cheat and/or will have already cheated on their partners. Cheating can be explored in a way that’s interesting or engaging–simply giving me a book full of cheaters is not really the way to go about doing that.
There are a lot of characters in this book, and all of them are annoying in their own unique ways. We have Mazna, the matriarch of the family, whose chapters give us a look into her childhood and lost love. This is all well and good, except that Mazna is judgemental, sanctimonious, and snobby; everyone constantly sings her praises and yet there is not a single sympathetic thing about her that the reader can latch on to (at least this reader). Then we have Mazna’s children, who I’m just going to quickly go through because I hated them all: Ava, the cheated-on mother, which is a tired trope that is no less tired in this book; Mimi, the sad, failing musician who’s held a grudge against his sister for the last however-many years because she has a successful music career; and Naj, whose life seemingly and exclusively consists of concerts, partying, and drugs, all rendered in a very boring way for all their supposed excitement. So yeah, not to beat a dead horse or anything, but I really did not like these characters.
Aside from that, there were also a couple more things that I didn’t think this book did very well, to say the least:
– There is no sense of place in this book. Part of why I was so eager to read it is because I am always desperate for books by Arab authors that are set in Arab countries. This one is set in Lebanon and Syria (as well as the US), and yet there’s barely any sense of those countries’ environment or culture beyond the very superficial (your occasional mention of maklouba or kenafeh or whatever).
– Tonally, this book is SO melodramatic. It needed to be toned down like several thousand notches. I can’t be invested in a touching family portrait if the characters and story are crafted with the subtlety of a brick to the face.
– I hated the way this book talked about women’s bodies. Are women conditioned to constantly critique their own and other women’s bodies? Yes. Did I think this book portrayed this reality well whilst also calling attention to how it can be and is problematic? Absolutely not. There’s literally a scene where Mazna has lost a of weight because someone she loves has just been MURDERED and her sister comes in to take care of her and this is what we get:
“‘You’ve lost weight.’ (There is a trace of wistfulness in her tone. Her own body has expanded with age, like a layer cake. Though Nawal knows it’s wrong–her poor little sister, who’s always seemed to Nawal on the edge of disaster, chasing after lofty, unlikely ideas–she cannot help but admire Mazna’s flat stomach, the perch of her collarbones as her sister dresses.)”
Like???? Can we not have a single moment of peace??? Do I really have to read that in the midst of the aftermath of a horrific MURDER ????
– I was expecting a lot from the writing since the author is a poet but I didn’t feel like it gave me much. It was definitely a little weird sometimes, and not in a good way. For example: “‘Mazna.’ Her name sits like a pet in his mouth. It sounds like what you’d call a woman.” Like, what does that even mean ??? make it make sense please
Anyway, I did not get along with this book in any way, shape, or form. There was not a single redeemable thing about it for me, and frankly there is nothing about it that can make up for how much I hated its characters. I’m going to take a breath, finish writing this review, and then try not to think about this book ever again.
hi everyone!! so earlier this year I read and loved The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (tr. Frank Wynne), which followed three generations of a family from Algeria to France. and ever since reading it, I’ve really wanted to explore more fiction with stories that follow characters over multiple generations, so here we are: a list of multigenerational family sagas! some of these I’ve already read–in which case I’ve linked my review–and the others I’m hoping to get to at at some point this year. 👀
Disoriental by Negar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)
The story of a young girl and her family, at the core of an exploration of Iranian history.
WINNER: Prix du Style, Prix de la Porte Dorée, Lire Best Debut Novel, Le Prix du Roman News.
Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran at the age of ten in the company of her mother and sisters to join her father in France. Now twenty-five, with a new life and the prospect of a child, Kimiâ is inundated by her own memories and the stories of her ancestors, which reach her in unstoppable, uncontainable waves. In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, generations of flamboyant Sadrs return to her, including her formidable great-grandfather Montazemolmolk, with his harem of fifty-two wives, and her parents, Darius and Sara, stalwart opponents of each regime that befalls them.
In this high-spirited, kaleidoscopic story, key moments of Iranian history, politics, and culture punctuate stories of family drama and triumph. Yet it is Kimiâ herself—punk-rock aficionado, storyteller extraordinaire, a Scheherazade of our time, and above all a modern woman divided between family traditions and her own “disorientalization”—who forms the heart of this bestselling and beloved novel.
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (tr. Frank Wynne)
Across three generations, three wars, two continents, and the mythic waters of the Mediterranean, one family’s history leads to an inevitable question: What price do our descendants pay for the choices that we make?
Naïma knows Algeria only by the artifacts she encounters in her grandparents’ tiny apartment in Normandy: the language her grandmother speaks but Naïma can’t understand, the food her grandmother cooks, and the precious things her grandmother carried when they fled. Naïma’s father claims to remember nothing; he has made himself French. Her grandfather died before he could tell her his side of the story. But now Naïma will travel to Algeria to see for herself what was left behind–including their secrets.
The Algerian War for Independence sent Naïma’s grandfather on a journey of his own, from wealthy olive grove owner and respected veteran of the First World War, to refugee spurned as a harki by his fellow Algerians in the transit camps of southern France, to immigrant barely scratching out a living in the north. The long battle against colonial rule broke apart communities, opened deep rifts within families, and saw the whims of those in even temporary power instantly overturn the lives of ordinary people. Where does Naïma’s family fit into this history? How do they fit into France’s future?
Alice Zeniter’s The Art of Losing is a powerful, moving family novel that spans three generations across seventy years and two shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a resonant people’s history of Algeria and its diaspora. It is a story of how we carry on in the face of loss: loss of country, identity, language, connection. Most of all, it is an immersive, riveting excavation of the inescapable legacies of colonialism, immigration, family, and war.
Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira (tr. Eric M.B. Becker)
Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters tells the story of Brazil through the histories of a twenty women. It opens with Inaia being born in 1500, at the moment when the Portuguese arrive in Brazil and continues through to the present, tracing this fascinating lineage of women against the historical backdrop of Brazil’s ups and downs, challenges and triumphs.
Where Dogs Bark with Their Tails by Estelle Sarah-Bulle (tr. Julia Grawemeyer)
An award-winning best first novel in France, Estelle-Sarah Bulle’s Where Dogs Bark with Their Tails, the story of Guadaloupe emerges through the epic, lively tales of one family and their larger-than-many-lives sister, Antoine.
A young woman born in the suburbs of Paris, whose skin color and memories of occasional childhood visits alone connect her to her father’s native Guadeloupe, yearns to understand her lineage and her métis identity. Upon her request, her old aunt Antoine, the eccentric and indomitable family matriarch, unveils the history of the Ezechiel clan, and with it, that of the island over the course of the twentieth century.
In a spirited account, punctuated by interludes from other family members, Antoine tells her life’s story: a childhood spent deep in the countryside, an ill-fated romance between her upper-class mother and farmer father, the splendors and slums of the capital city, Point-à-Pitre, the eruption of modernity, the rifts in a deeply hierarchical society under colonial rule—and the reasons she left it all behind.
Through the unforgettable story of the Ezechiels, a richly textured account of the Guadeloupean diaspora emerges, spanning decades and crossing the Atlantic. With lush language and vivid storytelling, Where Dogs Bark with Their Tails examines the legacies of capitalism and colonialism, and the loss of a beloved mother, and asks what it means to be caught between worlds, and how we might reconcile past, present, and future.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
A stunning literary debut of two young women on opposing sides of the devastating Sri Lankan Civil War—winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia, longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize
Before violence tore apart the tapestry of Sri Lanka and turned its pristine beaches red, there were two families. Yasodhara tells the story of her own Sinhala family, rich in love, with everything they could ask for. As a child in idyllic Colombo, Yasodhara’s and her siblings’ lives are shaped by social hierarchies, their parents’ ambitions, teenage love and, subtly, the differences between the Tamil and Sinhala people—but this peace is shattered by the tragedies of war. Yasodhara’s family escapes to Los Angeles. But Yasodhara’s life has already become intertwined with a young Tamil girl’s…
Saraswathie is living in the active war zone of Sri Lanka, and hopes to become a teacher. But her dreams for the future are abruptly stamped out when she is arrested by a group of Sinhala soldiers and pulled into the very heart of the conflict that she has tried so hard to avoid – a conflict that, eventually, will connect her and Yasodhara in unexpected ways.
In the tradition of Michael Ondatjee’s Anil’s Ghost and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is an emotionally resonant saga of cultural heritage, heartbreaking conflict and deep family bonds. Narrated in two unforgettably authentic voices and spanning the entirety of the decades-long civil war, it offers an unparalleled portrait of a beautiful land during its most difficult moment by a spellbinding new literary talent who promises tremendous things to come.
Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (tr. Polly Gannon)
One of Russia’s most renowned literary figures and a Man Booker International Prize nominee, Ludmila Ulitskaya presents what may be her final novel. Jacob’s Ladder is a family saga spanning a century of recent Russian history–and represents the summation of the author’s career, devoted to sharing the absurd and tragic tales of twentieth-century life in her nation.
Jumping between the diaries and letters of Jacob Ossetsky in Kiev in the early 1900s and the experiences of his granddaughter Nora in the theatrical world of Moscow in the 1970s and beyond, Jacob’s Ladder guides the reader through some of the most turbulent times in the history of Russia and Ukraine, and draws suggestive parallels between historical events of the early twentieth century and those of more recent memory.
Spanning the seeming promise of the prerevolutionary years, to the dark Stalinist era, to the corruption and confusion of the present day, Jacob’s Ladder is a pageant of romance, betrayal, and memory. With a scale worthy of Tolstoy, it asks how much control any of us have over our lives–and how much is in fact determined by history, by chance, or indeed by the genes passed down by the generations that have preceded us into the world.
Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma
In 1796 Trinidad, young Rosa Rendón quietly but purposefully rebels against the life others expect her to lead. Bright, competitive, and opinionated, Rosa sees no reason she should learn to cook and keep house, for it is obvious her talents lie in running the farm she, alone, views as her birthright. But when her homeland changes from Spanish to British rule, it becomes increasingly unclear whether its free black property owners–Rosa’s family among them–will be allowed to keep their assets, their land, and ultimately, their freedom.
By 1830, Rosa is living among the Crow Nation in Bighorn, Montana with her children and her husband, Edward Rose, a Crow chief. Her son Victor is of the age where he must seek his vision and become a man. But his path forward is blocked by secrets Rosa has kept from him. So Rosa must take him to where his story began and, in turn, retrace her own roots, acknowledging along the way, the painful events that forced her from the middle of an ocean to the rugged terrain of a far-away land.