A Year without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova

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I must begin my review of A Year without Mom, a graphic memoir, with several apologies. A good graphic book review will appraise both the art and the story. Here’s apology #1: my understanding of art is low. So is my knowledge of art terminology. My description of the art will therefore be layman and subjective since I don’t quite know the conditions that make an illustration great.

Now, I could –and will—attach some pictures of the contents so you can visualize the art style. Well, here comes apology #2: I have no camera, only a cell phone and bad photography skills to boot. So yeah, questionable photo quality ahoy! You would be forgiven for thinking this post will be terminally useless and clicking the back button. For the rest of you intrepid ones, carry on!

The titular mother of A Year without Mom has been accepted to a graduate program in the United States, leaving her twelve-year old daughter Dasha behind in early 90s Moscow. Life goes on for Dasha as she continues school and navigates friendships and crushes.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the 90s Moscow setting would make this memoir lean slightly political. I thought the same. We were both wrong. Any political and historical context is glossed over entirely. You could tell the same story of 6th grade tribulations anywhere, be there Moscow or Addis Ababa or London.

I expected a dramatic story where mom’s absence overwhelmed Dasha with the task of fending for herself while dealing with a murky political climate. What I got was an everygirl story. A Year without Mom is a misleading title as the mother’s absence never felt strenuous. Dasha has always lived with her grandparents and mom being MIA still means two loving family figures and nice vacations during school holidays. A more appropriate title would be Grade School Drama as this memoir is all about Dasha’s nascent puberty. Dasha goes to school. Dasha worries about the “coolness” of good grades. Dasha has hormonal crushes. Dasha wonders if her friends are true.

I’ve read some goodreads reviews that describe the plot as dull/mundane/soporific/all of the above. One commenter stated that if it weren’t for the Moscow setting no publisher would even try to publish this book. To some degree, I agree that the “plot” feels quite throwaway and not very memorable but after page fifty, it’s crystal clear that Dasha Tolstikova wasn’t trying to follow in Marjane Satrapi’s footsteps with Persepolis. A Year without Mom is meant to be relatable, not informative. A Year without Mom shows no matter where you are, some feelings and experiences remain the same.

Once I realized that this was a piece of juvenile literature with no intention of making a grand statement, I enjoyed A Year without Mom more. There were moments when I chuckled and hung my head in shame at Dasha’s actions –so similar to my own youth and present (cough, repetitive screams of “MY LIFE IS RUINED!” cough).

I like the art more than the story. The art is in pencil and ink wash, with limited, muted colors. The color scheme (or lack thereof) is the first thing that struck out at me. Nearly everything is paper white and ink gradations, making the pages a succession of white, grey, and near-black tones. Rarely, there’s red to liven up Dasha’s cap, a character’s clothing, or the blush of one’s cheek. Rarer still are splotches of navy blue.

The art style itself is lovely, whimsical, and childlike. It looks like something a child would draw, which adds to the authenticity of a young girl’s voice.

A Year without Mom is part of my Frankfurt book loot. I’m happy to own it, as I like the art. But come now, how can you not be happy to own a freebie? For those of you considering a purchase, I’d say a youngsters and tween girls would be happy to have it. Adults should tread with more caution.

Some pictures below to give you folks a peek at the illustration style:

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Dasha’s apartment and front door

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Dasha and her friends

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Interior of a school

Book Tag: My Life in Books

The lovely Marwhal once again tagged me in a fun book tag that I am very happy to participate in.

  1. Find a book for each of your initials

I have quite a long name, so for brevity’s sake I will only use my first, middle, and last name. All together, they add up to R-C-S. Here are my choices:

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R is for Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I read this novel in August and while it is not my favorite book of the year, it is technically faultless. I still think about this novel from time to time; I especially cannot let go of Yates’ masterful characterization. There is a reason why I found Revolutionary Road quite funny, despite its crushing tragedy and that reason is Frank Wheeler. Oh Frank, you silly, silly man. So unlikable! And yet, so shockingly true to flesh-and-blood people. So charming, so charismatic! Yet so false and desperate. So many found you onerous. Yet I found you a delightful scream!

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C is for Cotillion by Georgette Heyer, a recent acquisition of mine. I’m very excited to read this, as it has been described as “a literary bubble bath” and “like pink champagne.” Who doesn’t want to read something light and frothy and romantic and uplifting? We can’t all survive on literature alone. Yes, yes, I have clearly misnamed this blog.

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S is for Saman by Ayu Utami. Very thought-provoking, especially for a city girl like me. I was –and still am- quite ignorant on how corrupt central government and big business can affect negligible villages. But Saman gives a piercing, distressing portrait on just one small example in novel form. It’s a shame that most of the press this book gets is for its depiction of female sexuality. I would think corruption and human rights abuses should generate more uproar but hey, sex is so distracting, innit?

  1. Count your age along your book shelf: What book is it?

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A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Gosh, I’m so ashamed to say that I’ve only read book 1 and 2 of this series when I love the story so much. When you can juggle multiple characters and POVs and plot points and characterizations, yet make things comprehensible to the reader, you are a talented author. GRRM is certainly a talented author. I just have too many books. Will try to dive back into the series next year. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

  1. Pick a book set in your city/state/country

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Senja di Jakarta (Twilight in Jakarta) by Mochtar Lubis. An Indonesian classic I have yet to read. I hear Lubis is very harsh on Jakarta in this novel since this book is all about Indonesian corruption and the unsavory characters that populate the city. This novel was published in the 60s and everyone who has read it has said the corrupt practices evoked this book is still applicable fifty years later. Since I plan to write an author spotlight on Lubis, I hope to read Senja di Jakarta very soon.

  1. Pick a book that represents a destination you would like to travel to

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Out by Natsuo Kirino. This is an odd choice, since Kirino’s depiction of life in Tokyo is scathing. The characters here work numbing, menial jobs. A lot of horrible things are done to people. Yet boring jobs and crime happen in every city. It’s probably not healthy to build an idealized version of any place in your mind. Kirino’s prose, despite her subject matter, is pristine and effortless and I look forward to reading more of her work.

  1. Pick a book that is your favorite color

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One of my favorite books has my favorite color as its cover scheme. Perfect. Reams has been written about The Handmaid’s Tale but I do have an unpopular opinion about it. Beneath the din of whether this book is science fiction vs. speculative fiction, my own belief is that this is domestic fiction. This is a book about the small spaces women make for themselves, the steady ways women try to survive despite the grind and oppressions of life.

  1. Which book do you have the fondest memory of?

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The easiest question! The Adventures of Tintin. Thanks to Herge, my first big dream was to travel the world. I was sad that reviewing Tintin on this blog proved to be an unpopular endeavor, it seems that not a lot of people care for this series anymore. Yes, some sentiments are outdated. Yes, there’s racism in Tintin in the Congo. But Tintin is life-affirming too. The most beautiful depiction of friendship! The lesson that changing yourself for the better is hard and will slap you with setbacks, but you can do it. And Captain Haddock! Who doesn’t love Captain Haddock?

My favorite of the series (and this was excruciatingly hard to decide) is probably Explorers on the Moon. An engaging plot, the funniest slapstick and dialogue, and a darkness I did not expect to see at something aimed for children are the ingredients for something truly sublime.

  1. Which book did you have the most difficulty reading?

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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. So many sleepless nights were spent during high school trying to figure out whether the nanny was insane or if there really were supernatural forces at work. I still have nothing. I still don’t know anything! Not to mention, James had a lifelong torrid affair with commas. Gosh, he loved endless sentences. It was exhausting trying to make sense of his excessive clauses

  1. Which book in your TBR pile will give you the biggest sense of achievement?

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Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Russian epic. Bigger-than-a-brick tome. Nuff said.

I know I’m supposed to tag others in turn but I’m not sure who would want to be tagged. I love being tagged but I don’t think this sentiment applies to everyone. So anyone who wants to do this tag, please go right ahead!

The Apple: Crimson Petal Stories by Michel Faber

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The Apple: Crimson Petal Stories is a companion to Michel Faber’s famous novel The Crimson Petal and the White. It’s what it says on the tin: a collection of seven short stories set in the Crimson Petal universe. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen The Crimson Petal and the White, but it is an epic doorstopper. I took one good look at my as-of-yet unread copy and whispered “No.” Definitely not. I wanted something short and so decided to start with The Apple first. I hope I haven’t spoiled details from The Crimson Petal and the White, but if I have, oh well.

All the stories in The Apple, bar the final one, are slices of life during London Victoriana. Only the ending story is set during the Edwardian era. Largely plotless, these loosely connected stories serve more as peeks into how characters of different classes lived, from those living in brothels to those residing in gentrified homes. Sometimes the tales overlap as a respectable gentleman thinks of a prostitute and vice versa. There’s allusions to historical happenings such as slavery in the Americas and the suffragette movement.

I stormed through this book in two days but could have easily finished The Apple in one sitting if I had the chance. This a very fluid, very easy read. There’s no heaps of description to bog you down, no elaborate stylings to slow your reading. This is instafix and I almost feel recharged for my next read. But that’s not to say Faber has no skills. Some of the word choices in The Apple are lifted from the Victorian era the stories are set in, yet somehow Faber made The Apple incredibly readable.

Something that completely disarmed me was how funny The Apple turned out to be. I chuckled loads. Normally, I expect –and like- my historical fiction to be serious and strait-laced. But there were many turns of phrase and dialogue that had me giggling, which really added to the entertainment factor of The Apple.

From the story “Chocolate Hearts from the New World:”

In the professional judgment of Dr James Curlew, his unfortunate daughter had, at the very most, five years left before it was all over. Not her life, you understand; her prospects for marriage.

From the story “The Fly, and Its Effect upon Mr Bodley:”

Girl Number Two is wholly unfamiliar to him, a sloe-eyed Asiatic with lustrous black hair.

‘Mr. Bodley, meet our newest,’ says Mrs. Tremain. ‘She is from the Malay Straits. Her name is something like Pang or Ping, but we call her Lily. Lily, stand up and greet the gentleman.’

Nudged under the elbow by Girl Number One, Lily scrambles to her feet, and curtseys. She is perhaps four foot eleven, but very beautiful.

‘Fuck, sir. Fuck,’ she says, brightly.

‘We are teaching her English, sir,’ says Girl Number One, ‘beginning with the essentials.’

Despite being very much entertained by The Apple, it wasn’t a very memorable read at the end of the day. It was great as a quick and easy read and certainly did its job very well, but I don’t think it stands head and shoulders above other quick, easy reads. The Apple didn’t feel exceptional and some of the stories feel throwaway, as though they were rough drafts of scenes Faber considered adding into The Crimson Petal and the White. That’s fine though. I doubt Faber’s intention with The Apple was to create a masterpiece. More like to have some writerly fun.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

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Following her mother’s dying wish, twenty-three year old Mary Yellan moves to live with her last living relative Aunt Patience at the eponymous Jamaica Inn. Jamaica Inn may as well open with “It was a dark and stormy night;” so bleak, so gloomy, so rain-and-windswept is Mary’s journey from mild and fertile Helford to the barren Bodwin moors. Not only does Mary have to deal with the desolate atmosphere, she is treated with great suspicion and disdain by anyone who learns she is heading to Jamaica Inn. No one respected ever goes to Jamaica Inn anymore, Mary is warned. Strange things happen in Jamaica Inn. Strange and terrible things. But Mary is headstrong and has a promise to fulfill, so to Jamaica Inn she goes.

When she arrives, the Aunt Patience she remembers as a bright figure; lovely and laughing, has turned drab and meek, cowed under the thumb of her husband, the nearly-seven-foot-tall Joss Merlyn. Joss is drunken, vicious, and brutal. He warns Mary to shut her eyes and ears to the happenings at Jamaica Inn. There is a locked room at the inn that Mary must never enter.

One day, a group of men described as the dregs of the countryside convene at the inn’s bar. After a few drinks, the men torment one of their own, leaving a disgusted Mary to keep to her room. It is there she sees the men’s wagons deposit heavy cargo into the inn’s locked room. As Mary’s suspicions turn to smuggling, she overhears a member of the band argue against her uncle Joss. A fight breaks out. And Mary later sneaks to the bar only to find a hangman’s noose hanging from the rafters.

As the plot thickens, two new characters enter the fray: Francis Davey, an albino monk and Jem Merlyn, a charming horse thief and Joss’ younger brother. Mary struggles to decide who to trust and against her better judgment grows attracted to Jem.

Jamaica Inn is without a doubt the most fun book I’ve read this year. It’s almost too fun to be considered a classic. I read my first du Maurier, Don’t Look Now, last year and loved it so much I proclaimed du Maurier a new favorite author of mine. Her short stories were spine-tingling, atmospheric Gothic horror and I picked up Jamaica Inn expecting more of the same. It’s not the same. It’s an entirely different beast. Jamaica Inn is still atmospheric, with its intensive descriptions of bleak landscape, but its genre is more Gothic romance and adventure yarn rather than Gothic horror. It’s a fabulous page-turner and I stormed through the novel. The tension is palpable and there were moments when my heart thumped in worry for Mary Yellan’s safety.

Jamaica Inn isn’t without its flaws. I guessed the plot twist and the conclusion deflated a little. But my biggest issue is that the characters veered a little too close to two-dimension territory. Mary, our heroine, is predictably plucky and spirited. She feels a bit clichéd. So do the monk and the horse thief. du Maurier’s greatest character creation in Jamaica Inn is probably Joss Merlyn. His presence and physical description is appropriately menacing. But the reader can easily tell that a lot of his manner is just bluster. Like most bullies, Joss is weak, really. After suffering his worst alcohol bender, courtesy of threatening Mary and Aunt Patience to hand him brandy, he whines to them, “Why did you let me drink?” Joss’ faults are always with the drinks or the Merlyn curse, never himself.

Something about Jamaica Inn promises to be a darker read than it turned out to be. The threat of rape hangs above Mary throughout the novel.  The specter of domestic abuse sticks to Aunt Patience like glue. Jamaica Inn follows genre conventions in the end. Mary is never harmed despite the dangers around her. Nothing too grisly is written. All’s well that ends well on the final page. Or is it? I simply couldn’t shake off the curious feeling that du Maurier intended Jamaica Inn to be darker than its final product, so I actually found the “happy ending” quite horrific.

Did anyone else, like me, interpret the “happy ending” of Jamaica Inn as something very dark?

First Page Impressions – Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) by Eka Kurniawan

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Indonesian edition of Lelaki Harimau

Pity us Indonesian bibliophiles! Books at bookstores are plastic-mummified to such vacuumed perfection that it is impossible to flick through novels and get a feel for the writing before buying. Word of mouth, an author’s popularity, and plot blurbs are all well and good. Yet they do nothing to capture an author’s prose.

Perhaps luck was on my side the other day. Or perhaps the blue moon peeked through. Insert other hoary phrases here. Very recently, I found some unwrapped books at a mall bookstore and had fun snooping the contents. But I’m writing this to talk about the first page of one specific novel: Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) by Eka Kurniawan.

Eka Kurniawan is one of the brightest stars of contemporary Indonesian literature. Lelaki Harimau has been translated to English, Italian, French, and German. Meanwhile, his other famous novel Cantik itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound) has been freshly published in English by the New York based New Directions Publishing to critical acclaim. Seeing his popularity, some predict he will equal Pramoedya Ananta Toer in being the most readily available Indonesian writer internationally. Belying Kurniawan’s place in Indonesia’s literary establishment is his age. Born in 1975, he is very young for his accomplishments.

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English Edition of Beauty is a Wound

It is with shame that I’ll admit: I only learned about Kurniawan’s works and existence quite recently, sometime this year, prior to the English publication of Cantik itu Luka. Out of curiosity, I bought a plastic-wrapped Cantik itu Luka and it has languished on my bookshelf ever since.

Seeing an unbound copy of Lelaki Harimau, I thought ‘why not? I don’t even know what his writing is actually like’ and proceeded to read the first page. Boy, what an experience.

One word: cacophonous. The first sentence alone battered me with an avalanche of words. It was sensory overload. Kurniawan’s sentence structure is long, elaborate, and stuffed with excessive commas. If it sounds a bit Henry James, it’s only in structure. Kurniawan is no realist and there is nothing dry and Victoriana about his writing. Kurniawan’s style is lush and baroque almost to excess. It’s also lyrical, although the writer’s aim clearly isn’t “prettiness” as the writing is deliberately juxtaposed with bawdy, vulgar diction. The overall effect is raucous and transporting.

If there is one author and work Kurniawan is giving a wink to here, it’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The first sentence of Lelaki Harimau is obviously a send-up of One Hundred Years of Solitude’s opening line. A death, a pivot on said death, and poetic description.

This is a writer who demands your attention. You don’t write like this unless you want attention.

The first page of Lelaki Harimau both repulsed and attracted me. Kurniawan is clearly ambitious and the cynical part of me thinks his writing screams “Give me a prize! NOW” For all the highbrow name I’ve given this blog, I’m more interested in good old-fashioned storytelling than literary experimentation. I was repulsed from reading the second page because the novel’s effect is just too much, too dizzying. It’s not what you want when you are just casually strolling by.

Yet I am also intrigued. Does Kurniawan’s ambition match his skills? More importantly, something about Kurniawan’s prose serves as a metaphor for Indonesia itself. Kurniawan’s prose is, as I mentioned, cacophonous, luxuriant, sensuous, excessive. Indonesia is a country that is brash, colorful, loud, lush, abundant, unsubtle, beautiful. You need to focus if you want to take everything in or it’s just a battery of sensory overload.

My attraction is obviously stronger than my apprehension as Cantik itu Luka is moving up on the priority reading list. I just need to make sure I have a clear, focused mind before I attempt it.

A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees by Yoshida Kenko

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My Penguin Little Black Classics edition was translated by Meredith McKinney

Part of the Penguin Little Black Classics line to celebrate Penguin’s 80th birthday, A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees is a brief selection (fifty mini pages!) of the monk Yoshida Kenko’s main work: Essays in Idleness. I myself would hesitate to call the content essays. Rather, they seem more like loose diary entries where Kenko jotted down stories he had heard, opinions he had, his life philosophies, etc. There’s a certain disjointment to these vignettes, a lack of unifying theme as Kenko’s thoughts jumped from one topic to another.

Reading A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, I had the suspicion that Kenko never meant to have his essays read by the general public. They were written simply for his own pleasure. As such, Kenko’s writing is loose-lipped. There’s a lot of complaining here and Kenko can come across as overly judgmental and too strident. I laughed when Kenko described a beautiful hut, where:

There was not a sound except for the soft drip of water from a bamboo pipe buried deep in fallen leaves. The vase on the altar shelf with its haphazard assortment of chrysanthemums and sprigs of autumn leaves bespoke someone’s presence.

Moved, I said to myself, ‘One could live like this’ – but my mood was then somewhat spoiled by noticing at the far end of the garden a large mandarin tree, branches bowed by fruit, that was firmly protected by a stout fence. If only that tree weren’t there! I thought.

Such priggishness! There’s something wrong with a man who can’t appreciate a good mandarin tree, I tell you!

Some of Kenko’s ideas were shockingly old-fashioned. He wrote:

Needless to say, the great ruler, and even the lesser nobles who are granted attendant guards to serve them, are also thoroughly magnificent. Their children and grandchildren too are still impressive, even if they have come down in the world. As for those of lesser degree, although they may make good according to their rank, and put on airs and consider themselves special, they are really quite pathetic.

Despite all this talk of exalted seed and pathetic plebs, Kenko contradicts himself too – and displays a compassionate side. It’s not all snobbery.

But the high-born and exalted are not necessarily fine people, surely. A dull, stupid person can be born into a good house, attain high status thanks to opportunity and live in the height of luxury, while many wonderfully wise and saintly men choose to remain in lowly positions.

And there is this little bit of wisdom:

As for how to improve people’s lives, there can be no doubt that it would benefit those below if people in high positions were to cease their luxurious and wasteful ways and instead were kind and tender to the people, and encouraged agriculture. The true criminal must be defined as a man who commits a crime though he is though he is as decently fed and clothed as others.

Reading A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees is like slowly getting to know a person. Sure, you disagree on many points. But you find common ground. And sometimes you find yourself surprised at how well your newfound acquaintance can illuminate a point.

Kenko’s essays had no unifying theme but he particularly enjoyed writing about the transience of life. What else did you expect from a medieval monk who hailed from the land of cherry blossoms? There’s really no new revelation, no epiphany here. Rather, Kenko wrote gentle reminders for us. The daily grind for wealth and more wealth is exhausting and only hurts us in the long run. Nothing is eternal in this illusory world. Live calmly and serenely. You know all of this, but it’s nice to be reminded once in a while. It feels fortuitous that I happened to pick up this little book exactly when I need to be reminded.

There was a lovely passage about the natural beauty of every month of the year in medieval Japan. It made me long for a time machine or a plane ticket for the Tanabata festival. There was also a catty and amusing passage about disgraceful drunks and delightful drunks.

A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees isn’t memorable. But it had a calming effect throughout. Like the bookish equivalent of green tea.

Kota Lama & Sepotong Cerita Cinta (Old Town and a Slice of Love Story) by Herdiana Hakim

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Jenny is the stereotypical career woman: steely, high-achieving, ambitious, and a perfectionist. She gives a slight whiff of the woman who turns her nose up at all things feminine. At the very start of the novel, she meets her co-worker Diana, a great fan of Kartini, Indonesia’s pioneer of women’s rights and women’s education. Jenny dismisses Diana’s idol, saying that Kartini is too old-fashioned. Immediately after this, things start going south for Jenny. She is skipped over for promotion at work (unfairly, she thinks), her tough, equally alpha mother has a stroke, and her long-estranged father re-emerges into her life.

Basically, Jenny’s life is ripped from its foundations. As a rule, perfectionists are not good at dealing with failure. They’re not even good at dealing with surprises. I should know, I have some perfectionist tendencies. So we watch Jenny have something of a crisis. She doesn’t know what to do about her career, she expresses shock at her mother’s “weakness,” she doesn’t know how to sort her mother’s bakery, and she especially doesn’t know what to do with her father’s arrival. So she takes the easy route and avoids all the troubles altogether. Another chance meeting with Diana, who is still trying to convince Jenny of Kartini’s merits, has Jenny agreeing join a historical tour of Kartini’s life in the Javanese town of Jepara. It is during this tour that Jenny is somehow transported to the past and finds herself face to face with Kartini herself.

So yes, a time travel story. So very, very easy to get wrong.

I’m all for color in the lines, by the book, think inside the box novels. Especially when you need a comfort read. As a quick, easy read, Kota Lama & Sepotong Cerita Cinta delivers. The pages turn fast and it’s easy to visualize scenes. Hakim’s description of Javanese towns and the local cuisine are effective and accessible. So much so I thought with a bit of effort she can easily transition to a travel writer.

Another thing I appreciated was the way Hakim wrote Jenny’s mini-breakdown. Like I mentioned, I can be a perfectionist myself and Jenny’s reaction to events really rang true. Even the pattern of avoidance behavior made me cringe since I do the same myself.

Despite finding good things to say about this novel, I also found some great flaws. The biggest trouble of all was how I couldn’t suspend my disbelief. How on earth did Kartini’s sister buy the “I’m from the future” excuse in less than five minutes? Additionally, what I know about Javanese aristocracy is that mainly they are a socially-conscious lot. There’s no way Jenny could have hung out so freely with Kartini and her sisters. Sure, Kartini was ahead of her time, but would she really make friends so quickly with a suspicious stranger?

Because I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, I found the novel artificial and unbelievable during the time travel portion. Which was very unfortunate, as the time travel is the bulk of the novel. Even the small interactions and dialogue between Jenny and the Kartini sisters rang false, which in turn makes the revelations Jenny finds about Kartini feel unearned.

It almost feels like Kota Lama & Sepotong Cerita Cinta would be better off without the time travel. Either that or the time travel portion should be longer, fleshed out more, developed more. That’s probably my own personal preference talking though. I think my suggestions would make the novel a slow read and not everyone enjoys that.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel but didn’t adore it. I needed an easy read and it delivered on that front. I’m just not sure if it stands head and shoulders above other quick, easy reads.