City of Brass

In the markets of eighteenth century Cairo, thieves, tricksters, con artists and outcasts eke out a living swindling rich nobles and foreign invaders alike.

But alongside this new world, the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits, of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert – full of enchantment, desire and riches – where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.

Many wish their lives could be filled with wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about her. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…

Be careful what you wish for.


City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a rich and imaginative fantasy that weaves elements of Islamic folklore with the political machinations of monarchy to create a vivid world filled with tension – of both the romantic and warmongering kind.

The story starts with Nahri, an orphan surviving via the means of the age-old con (fake healings, telling the future, the occasional exorcism, etc) who stumbles from the life she had known as just another Cairo trickster into the magical world of the djinn, beings born of fire who live, for the most part, in a magical land hidden from the human world by, you guessed it, more magic. This dangerous new world of flying carpets, flesh-eating ghouls and terrifying demon-djinn known as ifrit – regular djinn are sexy, ifrit decidedly not so. From what I gather there are a lot of claws and fangs happening – might hold the keys to Nahri’s mysterious past, if she can only get her new sexy djinn friend Dara to answer any of her questions.

I clicked with Nahri right away. A survivor well versed in thinking on her feet, she’s always got a witty retort and a means to make a buck tucked in her back pocket. She has an unusual talent for diagnosing and healing, skills she’s honing with a local pharmacist, and dreams of leaving Cairo behind to seek a career in medicine – even though that’s not something women really do, where she’s from. She can also speak any language as soon as she’s heard it, which is just very cool, honestly.

On the other hand, we have Ali, the other narrator of City of Brass. The prince of Daevabad, the aforementioned hidden magical land, he took me a lot longer to warm up to. But now, two books in (I finished Kingdom of Copper a couple of weeks back), I have come to the conclusion that this was kind of the point. Ali is not an easy person to like, but as I, and Nahri, discovered, he does kinda grow on you. Ali is the kind of guy who is stubborn about all of the wrong things. He holds himself up as the one with principles and his identity is very much wrapped up in that, but the principles – if not the high and mighty attitude that comes with them – seem to melt away when they present any personal risk. Trapped by the confines of royal life and his politically and personally domineering father, there’s a sense throughout City of Brass that he isn’t a fully formed person yet, and though to start with I read him as a weak manboy I didn’t have a lot of time for, after a while his story became one I could engage with. But initially, I’m not going to lie to you, whenever the narrative flipped from what was happening with Nahri to what Ali was up to, the story massively slowed down for me.

City of Brass is, in many ways, a totally perfect book for right now. Rich and complex, Chakraborty goes deep on the many different tribes of the djinn, their histories (a lot of which are bound up in conflict) and how those have led to the balance of power we see in Daevabad now. Keeping track of what different tribes were, which tribes didn’t like other tribes and how those feelings impacted Ali and Nahri required my whole brain. It was exactly what I needed – when I picked up the book and stepped into the world of Daevabad, everything that was going on in my day fell away. There’s not much higher praise for a fantasy than that, right?

Also, the sexual tension between Nahri and Dara… It’s also a very effective distraction.

Just saying.

Dominicana

Fifteen-year-old Ana Canción never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk up in Washington Heights.

As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, dance with Juan’s brother, César at the Audobon Ballroom, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

In bright, musical prose that reflects the energy of New York City, Dominicana is a vital portrait of the immigrant experience and the timeless coming-of-age story of a young woman finding her voice in the world.


Joining Bookstagram (follow me!) meant that I was fortunate enough to see a huge amount of books by Latinx authors flood my timeline during Latinx Heritage Month. One of them was Dominicana by Angie Cruz and wow am I glad this book came into my life.

I have never read a story quite like this before. A complex, heartfelt and necessary exploration of an immigrant experience, Ana’s story will stay with me for a long time. There is a sense of immediacy and urgency to Cruz’s glorious writing – it lives entirely in the present tense – that grips you close, holding you deeply inside Ana’s experience in such a way I have rarely seen portrayed with quite such thrilling effectiveness. You’re blinkered by Ana’s experiences – but in a good way. As a reader you adopt her expectations, her understanding of the world and her context in such a way that every moment of her life and her move to the US and all of the alienation, fear and excitement that comes with it feels like your own. It’s incredibly tough at times – domestic violence is a regular feature of Ana’s world – but compelling to read such a closely written portrait of a life.

Part of the way Cruz has achieved this is her deft approach to the political moment of the New York Ana lands in. You understand her context only as she far as she does – which doesn’t include any knowledge of the country and its cultural landscape. So, when she and her new husband move in across the street from the Audobon Ballroom in January of 1965, a month before Malcolm X is assassinated there – and goes on to see from her window a small part of what his community mourning him looks like – you know this has happened and what it means, but Ana does not, so you the event and its after effects remain cloaked in painful mystery. She doesn’t speak any English and her husband won’t allow her to leave the house without him, and there’s no means for her to learn more – so the reader doesn’t either. I found it so refreshing the way Cruz doesn’t waste time spoon feeding context. She treats the political situation in the Dominican Republic in a similar way – you get enough of a sense of what is happening from the story and what it means for Ana and her family, but if you want to understand in more depth (which I would always recommend), you can do further research. The story doesn’t ask it of you, but it does give you a compelling reason to do so.

This is just one of the ways Cruz has crafted how utterly unknown New York is to Ana when she first arrives – the entire city is a question mark, and that fear of feeling lost the moment you step out the door alone was so present, especially in the early chapters of the book before Juan’s return to the Dominican Republic. The realness of that fear only increases the joy at its overcoming.

Dominicana is a unique immigrant narrative entwined with a powerful coming-of-age story – and as you’ll know I’ve you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I love nothing more than reading about a woman stepping into her own. And let me tell you, Ana is a character you want to scream and applaud loudly from the side lines for. Ana has as much self doubt as any 15-year-old – and the sort of weight on her shoulders no one, but especially not one so young should have to carry – but she holds herself with this quiet strength that grows steadily throughout the narrative in a way that was utterly delicious to read. In the process of building her life in New York, Ana falls down a lot – whether that’s from trusting the wrong people, or because what she wants is incompatible with what she needs to do for her family – and there is a bracing authenticity in how she faces it all. Cruz has written a book uninterested in the happy, neat ending of a girl riding off into the sunset, but one that instead revels in the complexities of human relationships, and the never-ending push and pull of duty to family verses duty to self.

It’s an extraordinary piece of writing about an experience too often sidelined. Cruz has crafted a novel that demands the spotlight.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

When, at sixteen, Janie is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before she meets the man of her dreams – who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds.


“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

I have been meaning to pick up Their Eyes Were Watching God since I read Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness a few years back. Janet wrote of the book with so much love – and I wanted feel closer to Janet/continue to live inside of her brain, so I determined I would read it too so it could be like something we shared (does anyone understand what I mean by this?). It took me a few years, but, like most things, I finally got around to it. And let me tell you, there’s a reason people have such strong feelings about Zora Neale Hurston.

It’s really hard to use the words ‘women’s empowerment’ without cringing, but I’m going to ask that you allow me to do so here. Because Their Eyes Were Watching God is a complex and nuanced look at how one Black woman, Janie, empowers herself in 1930s America. In fact, I think we should remove the cringe factor altogether. We still live in a world where women’s empowerment is a political conversation – albeit one that has been hijacked by a very white, #GirlBoss style of feminism that is much more about buying things than changing things. But, when stripped of its corruption by capitalism, it is a political conversation still.

I digress.

Janie’s story takes her through three husbands: Logan, a much older man Janie’s grandmother marries her off to because she believes it’ll give her her best chance – he’s rich; Jody, another older smooth talker Janie runs off with at the first opportunity; and, finally Teacake, the man who ends up being pretty much the love of her life.

I am deeply resistant to the idea of a woman’s empowerment being wrapped up in a man – as anyone who has ever read a review of mine may have picked up on… – so the structure of Janie’s story as one completely bound up in the men she was in relationship with challenged me, but, I think, ultimately showed me something I hadn’t really considered before.

Her first husband, and her second husband even more so, thought of Janie – young, beautiful – as a symbol of their own success. In the all-Black community of Eatonville, the town where she and Jody live together they are basically the ultimate power couple, owners of the General Store that is the centre of the town’s community, and eventually mayor and – I guess? – mayoress. But Jody is deeply controlling, and won’t allow Janie to participate in the town’s community – he barely even lets her to speak to people. He wants only to hold her up like a trophy, another of his achievements.

In a lot of ways this is what women are taught to want, right? It certainly seems like an enviable position to a lot of other women in Janie’s orbit. But it denies her freedom and agency; she is just another of those caged birds, cut off.

She was borned in slavery when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool tuh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she tol me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”

When Teacake, a much younger man, comes along, he offers Janie everything she’s never had before. Fun, music, vitality, and actual love, the sort of active give and take that has very little to do with the alienating idolatry Janie has experienced before. This is not to say their relationship is perfect – it is in many episodes deeply problematic. Teacake often spends Janie’s money without asking, and there is sometimes violence in their relationship – but despite all this he is the man that Janie has chosen for herself. And it is that choice that represents such a turning point for Janie. She steps down off of the high chair and into her life. It’s a complicated life, with a guy we might not have chosen for her, but it is finally her own. As Zadie Smith writes in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition: “the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches far beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.”

As you will note from the quotes I have chosen, this book includes a mix of omniscient narrator, written in standard English and speech written in dialect. Dialect puts a lot of people off, but it really needn’t. It takes a minute, but you tune in – and once you do the voices leap off the page. Or as Zadie puts it in her gorgeous intro,“her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all.”

I note this mostly because I know dialect scares a lot of people away – might have scared me away if I had realised what I was getting myself into – but it really needn’t. Trust me.

Janie’s story is one you need to read.

White Teeth

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.


Until recently I haven’t read a lot of British books, especially the really famous ones like White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I suppose because my serious reading addiction began with YA, which is such a US-dominated market, before stretching in more recent years to authors like Stephanie Danler, Catherine Lacey and Jia Tolentino – your basic Belletrist book club reading list – not to mention how America-centric a lot of the TV we’re watching is…

Basically what I’m saying is as a young-ish, internet dwelling person you sort of end up adopting the US as the norm, which is something I hadn’t even really realised I’d done until I discovered how intensely refreshing I found books like Queenie, Girl, Woman, Other and Everything I Know About Love – books that look at the deep problems and deep silliness that I see in my own days.

White Teeth was a particularly powerful example of this. A novel that spans two(ish) decades, it’s a multi generational story of multiculturalism, immigration and racism that came out in 2000, but still felt very much like a contemporary novel. In it, Zadie touches on micro aggressions, white fragility and white saviourism – conversations we’re having in such depth right now (at least, I should caveat, on my feeds, though if The Social Dilemma has taught us anything its that what’s true for us certainly isn’t for everybody!) – but at the time of the book’s publication, at least among its white readers, I imagine were somewhat more fringe. I couldn’t decide whether this felt like progress (we’re having these conversations now!) or its opposite (we’re still having these conversations?).

It’s a book that is deeply concerned with questions of identity, particularly immigrant identity and how that is formed in a country that is often either hostile, or ignores you altogether. The book comes from a multitude of perspectives and two different families, parent and child, which means you experience this from so many different angles. For Samad and Alsana Iqbal, who immigrated from Bangladesh, so much of that identity is bound up in loss. From the loss of their one-time home to watching their children grow up and reach, it seems, ever further and further away from their heritage with every passing year, there is a sense of grief that often expresses itself in ways destructive to their family.

But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance.”

Equally for their kids there is a sense of loss from growing up in a country that so often excludes them, stereotypes them, perpetuates violence against them.

I’ve written about this a lot lately, but here in the UK we quite like to pretend that we don’t have ‘a race problem’, that all that is – going back to my previous point – ‘an American thing’. In this novel Zadie dispenses with the myth completely, representing multiculturalism for what it really is – enriching, joyful and filled with opportunity, but also complex, fraught and rife with the problems of systemic racism we still refuse to tackle.

It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all that, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.”

It’s also an intensely funny novel, filled with unexpected dramatic irony in how it all unfolds. There are no words wasted. Every moment of this story leads to the dramatic – and utterly ridiculous – finale, highlighting how each decision we make ripples outwards in ways we cannot foresee. Much as it is a novel about loss, it is also a novel about the past, and its refusal to stay back where you left it. You carry every piece of your life with you, for better and for worse – and even though it’s often maddening and painful, there’s something hopeful in it too, I think.

I truly haven’t read anything quite like this before. I have since become completely obsessed with Zadie Smith, seeking out her podcasts, essays, interviews – there is something about her intellect that is simultaneously comforting and challenging.

I might be in love with her.

I’m okay with it. In this shittiest of years, she might be one of my best discoveries.

(I know it sounds sort of ridiculous to talk about ‘discovering’ Zadie Smith cause I know she’s really famous, but whatever. I’m sorry, okay? I’m late to the party! But I am here now. With bells on.)

It’s Black History Month, so I’m dropping in with an accountability check for my fellow white readers in particular. How diverse are your bookshelves? When did you last pick up a book written by a person of colour? If your answers to those are ‘not very’ and ‘um…’ then you need to do something about that. Not sure where to start? Hop over to Instagram and follow @bookishandblack, @theblackbookblog1 and @novelallure to get started building your reading list. Also pick up Zadie Smith. Seriously. I can’t believe I lived my life this long without her.