All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi
2019, 291p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories–equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can–beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.

Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth. In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval–a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.

Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.

Haha, what even is this book about?

I don’t know. I like a dash of magical realism – I’m a big fan of Sarah Addison Allen. But I have to admit, this I think, was perhaps a bridge too far for my personal tastes? I hadn’t heard of Helen Oyeyemi before receiving this but I was really quite intrigued by the premise and the cover. The cover of this book is stunning. The gold is foil and it contrasts so nicely with the more subdued background.

Perdita is a 17yo girl living in England with her mother, an apparent expat from the country of Druhástrana, a country that no one really knows where it is and only three countries every acknowledge its existence and now two of those countries have revoked that. Apparently it’s maybe somewhere near Czechia or maybe Hungary or whatever but it has entirely closed borders and you can’t get in or out without some truly drastic measures being taken. Perdita’s grandmother escaped with her daughter (Perdita’s mother) Harriet. Now Perdita has taken the chance to visit her mother’s homeland.

I think I quite enjoyed the set up for this, the story of Harriet and Perdita in London and what Perdita does in order to visit her mother’s homeland……then it delved into Harriet’s past as a child/teen in this mysterious place of Druhástrana and somewhere in that section I think, is when I felt that this book and I kind of started to part ways. Things just started to get a bit too strange and I couldn’t really figure out where it was going…..or why. My knowledge of Hansel and Gretel, which people are saying this is retelling of, is a bit vague but there is a lot that just simply doesn’t seem to fit. I try not to read reviews of books I’ve read until after I’ve written my own review but I did glance at reviews on Goodreads and it seems a 50/50 split of people praising its brilliance and amazing writing and people who like me, were a bit confused what was going on and felt the story was a bit over their heads.

Reading is always your milage may vary and I think for me this was a good indication of how much magical realism I enjoy – more a pinch than the whole dumped in amount. There were too many things here that I felt weren’t particularly adequately explained and just ignored away because it was magical realism and didn’t require an explanation. Which okay, fine for some probably but it made it too difficult for me to really sink into the story because I was always wondering about things. And the story kind of petered out about halfway through and went from heading somewhere to just…..not. I didn’t understand why Perdita did what she did and what it achieved, or didn’t achieve. The writing was good, excellent even but the story was just lacking for me. It was super quick, which was in its favour (especially as I read this during a break from slogging through an 830p book) and it was difficult…..but I did find that I spent a lot of time wondering what the heck was going on and why something was either happening or not happening.

Safe to say, this isn’t my sort of story. But it seems that Helen Oyeyemi has a lot of fans and her books are widely praised so I might be tempted to try something again and see if perhaps I enjoy her style more on further exploration. And if not, well then I’ve given something a go.


Book #44 of 2019

I discovered upon finishing this that I can use it towards my Reading Women Challenge. Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria so I’m ticking off category #3. It’s the 7th book completed for the challenge out of 26.

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Gingerbread – Rachel Cohn

After reading Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares recently and loving it, I decided to investigate each of the authors a little more. I chose Rachel Cohn first simply because my library has quite a few of her books. Gingerbread is the first in a trilogy so I nabbed that one.

Cyd Charisse has just been kicked out of her prestigious east-coast boarding school and is now back living with her parents in San Francisco. Her mother Nancy is a thin, non-eating type and Sid-dad (stepfather) is a wealthy CEO type. Cyd Charisse is rebelling against everything at the moment – rattling around the house and greater San Francisco causing trouble and acting out. The only things she seems to enjoy are hanging out with Sugar Pie at a nursing home and her boyfriend Shrimp, a surfer of small stature. She also has Gingerbread, a doll her real father Frank bought her the one time they met in her life, an all too brief meeting in an airport.

As kids who haven’t met/had much to do with their real parents, Cyd Charisse idealises Frank and acts out against Nancy and Sid, who she is actually living with, who take care of her. She pushes boundaries simply to see if they notice and it hurts her when they don’t. When they finally do notice and punish her accordingly, all she can do is throw in their faces that hey, she’s already been doing it for quite a while now. So why punish her? It’s a very real teenager thing to do (I may have done it myself once or twice!) and so Nancy and Sid think that it might be best if Cyd Charisse does actually go and spend time time with Frank – 3 weeks. Frank was married when Cyd Charisse was born but his wife died a few years ago and now it seems like he’s finally willing to get to know Cyd Charisse.

Her boyfriend Shrimp tells her that he thinks they should take a bit of a break and so Cyd Charisse, although upset about Shrimp, still heads off to New York with stars in her eyes, dreaming of her reunion with her real father. She’s brought back to Earth with a bit of a thump – Frank isn’t even there to pick her up and also seems reluctant to announce that she’s his daughter. He tells people that she’s his niece (although the two are so similar looks-wise that it seems it would be impossible for Frank to deny paternity) and his god-daughter. He spends hardly any time with Cyd Charisse, other than carefully orchestrated and organised “quality time” which usually is limited to dinner. It is left to Cyd Charisse’s older, gay brother Danny to take her under his wing and show her New York. Cyd Charisse is a lover of coffee and Danny and his partner run a cafe/cake shop so Cyd Charisse starts working some shifts there as a barista. She’s very happy doing that and realises that just might be what she wants out of life. With Shrimp around though, preferably.

In New York Cyd Charisse will finally have to confront and get past the ghost of the event that has changed her life. The thing that has made her act out, crave attention, crave something. She’ll realise that what she did was hard and that she did it all by herself and that she is a stronger person for being the one who could deal with it, the one who had to.

Cyd Charisse is not always a likable protagonist but I loved reading this novel. She’s selfish and she’s wilful and she’s hurting and does silly things and she also spends a lot of time talking to a doll. And I loved her. I felt for her when she told her story and I felt for her that she had no one to really tell it to properly and be there for her at the time. She was funny and smart and although sarcastic and often a bit childish, that was real and believable. I’m sure I was still plenty childish when I was 16-17 and her voice for me is a true one. I would’ve liked to actually see more of Shrimp – we see very little of their relationship and then Shrimp requests a break and Cyd Charisse heads to New York. I assume the second novel (called Shrimp!) is going to be all about her attempt to get back together with him, so I might get a bit more of an idea of what he’s like when I read that. Shrimp wasn’t really important in this novel, he was more a bit of background information on Cyd Charisse in that she makes different relationship choices now. She just needs to learn to make different choices for herself in other areas and New York is the first step to that.

The other characters are skilfully portrayed – Nancy is a strict but also slightly unconventional mother and I very much liked Sid-dad, Cyd Charisse’s tolerant and loving stepfather. Frank was a distant parent, unsure how to go about forging a relationship with his now grown-up daughter and Danny was fun and interesting. Lisbeth, Cyd Charisse’s half-sister was drawn well, having trouble coming to terms with her new teenage sibling but putting on her best game face and making the effort. The subject matter was no where near as light as I first thought just from reading the blurb on the back of the book and the fun surface read successfully explored some darker and more complex topics and issues.


Book #118 for 2010

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