January is a month for reading and recovery.  Well, it was for me anyway, having had a rather intense bout of COVID.  The choice of books each month will always be a mishmash of something old, something new, something borrowed and  ALWAYS something blue!  Looking at the snapshot of this month's books, it's clear there was a certain train of thought.  Some books were disappointments, some asked questions and two of them informed my own memory and writing. I've given very brief reviews of a few of them.  Let me know if you've read any of them and what you think too. 


WEIGHTLESS by Sarah Bannan
Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2015

You won't find this in the Crime Fiction section in either your bookstore or the library. It will probably be shoved in with the YA cautionary tales which is a real shame because it deserves better.  The structure, the narrative voice, the pacing - all pure crime.  Try casually picking this up and putting it down without finishing it.  It's the voice of 2011's high school middle America - but not as we know it - and it's terrifyingly prescient of today's middle class conservative communities.

  Bannan, a Georgetown graduate who migrated to Ireland, skilfully and consistently uses the fourth person narrative voice.  As a result, we, the reader are automatically made complicit with the crime.  'We' are the unidentified crowd of 'innocent' bystanders, the slightly envious crew of high school girls/boys who observe everything and do nothing.  We watch as a girl is transformed through others' jealousy and envy into an idol, a monster, a victim and finally an icon.  The 'perpetrators' are diminished to the hell of community colleges, grocery packing, weight gain and mediocrity.  However, the end of the novel leaves no room for doubt:  the true culprit is the spectator - us.

  Bannan's created an understated novel that delivers a hard punch well above its weight due to such control and mastery of voice.  HIgh school drama won't get it the status it deserves but, technically, it's still the best I've read this year.  An exceptional and unforgettable read.

THE DEAD WOMEN OF JUAREZ by Sam Hawken, Serpents Tail (2011)
THE DAUGHTERS OF JUAREZ - A TRUE STORY OF SERIAL MURDER SOUTH OF THE BORDER by Teresa Rodriguez, Diane Montane with Lisa Pulitzer, Atria Books, NewYork (2007)

I read both of these, one after the other to try and see which told this horrific story with more humanity.  While the first, a crime fiction novel, uses all the expected tropes:  bad-guy-made-good, the narcoftrafficante, the chola with a good heart, the bad guys, the heartbroken, cynical cop, the good cop, it is not really about the 'dead women' at all.  However, there's a great sense of place and build up of tension.  I definitely smelled and saw more of Juarez in the novel than in the non-fiction account by Rodriguez.  The complex male characters revealed the liminality of Jarez and its attraction for drug cartels, American rich kids, the rustic poor but, ultimately, it was disappointing as the main characters the reader invests in are all dead one third of the way in and we have to start, effectively, a whole new book.  It ends, of course, with all the bad guys dead.  A bit like a Quentin Tarantino film but certainly no women, alive or dead.

  The Daughters of Juarez, on the other hand, sticks to the facts and details: the who, what, where, when and why.  It's structured so elegantly, despite the convoluted trajectories of 'investigations' and builds to a terrifying climax, thrusting the onus clearly on the reader.  This novel does not take poetic licence; it's gritty, ugly, heartbreaking and real, focusing on the plight of these young girls, women and their families, the complicit acts of violence and brutality levied against not only them but the poor.  It's a form of terrorism to create the ideal conditions to develop Drug Traffic Grand Central for Mexico.  This meticulously researched book reminds me of Sonia Faleiro's The Good Girls which was set in Uttar Pradesh.  Both books include a minute-by-minute reconstruction of last moments and the aftermath following the discovery of the bodies.

  So...for me, Daughters of Juarez is built like a novel whereas The Dead Women of Juarez reads like a cross between a polemical essay and a postcard of Juarez.  I am better educated having read both anyway.

YELLOW FACE by R F Kuang, Harper Collins (2023)

WOW.  It truly must suck to live in fear of The Big Cancel.

  Although this is being hyped as an insight into the publishing industry, I honestly didn't think it was.  Or if it is, it's no more nefarious than would be expected and certainly less so than the music industry.  R.F. Kuang is the precocious flavour of the moment, writing tome after tome after tome. So this is almost refreshing:  an erudite, hyper self-conscious and cynical (obvs - she's an educated millenial author) first person narrative voice, apparently 'white' but actually what is defined most is its youth.

  The narrator voices the exact same doubts and questions I, and others, had to wade through thirty years ago - pre-internet.  So it was admittedly tiresome to read in places - as I'd already laboured through it all years previously.  A bit like resitting an A level paper when you're too old to care.  

  Maybe I'm just too old to read books like this.  I think it's a rite-of-passage novel rather than an 'insight' into the publishing world. This novel weill still be read and referred to years from now as it deals with a young author coming to terms with the limitations of politics, the freedom - or restrictions - of language and the insecurity of reputation.  It could have been 2023's answer ot 'Catcher in the Rye' but it's by a prolific, public author so , not. Not that.  It's definitely an academic's perspective on authenticity - as opposed to an auteur's.  I guess one of the reason's why I found it hard to warm to was that I didn't like June or Juniper any more than I liked Athena.  The rhetoric carried me along nicely but I was desperate for some oxygen, some life.  I've not found publishiong to be this sterile, vacuous place; there are some real humans in there. And don't get me on my soapbox regarding diasporic narratives.  Anyway, all I can say is I'm really glad I was born before 1990. It must truly suck to believe The Cancel is The Worst Thing That Can Happen.  Some of us  have lived quite happily cancelled for decades.