An Otherworldly Tale of Loss and Longing: Review of ‘Ghost Music’ by An Yu

My apologies for a rather lengthy absence. After having Covid, the energy and focus was lacking. The good news is that yours truly is back on track and excited to share all my bookish thoughts. I read Ghost Music by An Yu all the way back in March. Fortunately, this novel had such a strong impact on me that it truly feels as though I just finished it. My favorite works of fiction are the ones that linger in my brain. Sometimes, it’s the character, other times the writing, and quite often it’s because the subject matter makes me want to learn more about that particular culture. Ghost Music is a delicious and beautiful novel that contained all of these elements. This is a work that reminded me of The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro for its use of classical piano music, but it also brought to mind some of the best works of Haruki Murakami for the author’s use of surrealism. The combination of mushrooms and music lie at the heart of the story, and while this is a work that seems complex, it’s actually a simple story about families and the ones we lose.

Ghost Music (2022) by An Yu, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

In the opening pages  of Ghost Music, we are introduced to Song Yan, a wife to her disconnected husband and has just welcomed her elderly mother-in-law into their home. Song Yan wakes in the night and finds herself in a strange room, startled by an orange mushroom growing out of the floorboards. The mushroom communicates with her, and while she doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, she’s told:

“But when you leave this room, it said, I’d like you to remember me.”

From the realms of what appears to be a dream, Song Yan wakes into the real world of Beijing and the apartment she lives in with her husband Bowen and his mother who has just moved in with them after her husband’s death. Song Yan struggles to navigate in the space between Bowen, a workaholic who appears disconnected emotionally, and her mother-in-law, who resents living with her son and his wife. Song Yan is frustrated because she feels the time is right to grow their family, while her husband is closed-off to the idea. Strange events begin to happen, such as an orange dust that begins to settle over Bowen’s childhood home, as well as a secret about him revealed by his mother.

Another mystery soon follows. When the first of many deliveries of mushrooms arrives at the apartment, Bowen’s mother recognizes them as jizong mushrooms, grown in the Yunnan province where their family lived, and a tenuous bond forms between the women as they shop for and prepare meals for Bowen that will highlight the mushrooms they receive. 

Song Yan recognizes the name of the sender of the mushrooms, Bai Yu. Could this be Bai Yu, the piano prodigy her father wanted her to emulate before she gave up performing and switched to teaching piano? This same Bai Yu mysteriously disappeared without a trace years before. Song Yan begins to reflect on taking a life path of housewife over becoming a famous pianist herself.

When the mushroom deliveries cease, so too, it seems, does the relationship between the two women in the home. Soon, a letter from Bai Yu asking Song Yan to visit him sparks another kind of connection, between the past and the present, the real and the imagined, the world of who we present as and who we truly are. Song Yan travels down a new path, one of discovering the person she is truly meant to be.

I can’t specify enough the beauty of this novel, as it shifts between the mundane world and the fantastic. Often, these two worlds overlap, throwing the reader slightly off balance. An Yu manages to give the world a gorgeous novel full of lyricism and love. Ghost Music challenges us to dig deeply into the ways we can’t escape our past, and how often we are haunted and shaped by the choices we make. While we may attempt to forget our past, too often a specter or two remains. Ghost Music is a wonderful view into some of the culture of Beijing, a novel that hits just the right note.

“We pour a bit of ourselves into everything we do, every note we play, I thought, and unwittingly, one fragment at a time, we leave ourselves in the past.”

Prejudice and Religious Extremism: Review of John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of good science fiction, as well as a lot of not-so-good. However, there are also a lot of truly great science fiction novels. These are works that, while tethered to the time and place to which they were written, also connect past and future together. Great science fiction invites us to examine the complexity of our choices and how our interactions contribute to the future. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is one of those great novels. While the writing style is very much reminiscent of a work of sci-fi from the 1950’s, its ideas and the implications for the future are what make this work a memorable book. This is a novel that I’ve been intending to read for quite some time, having enjoyed both The Day of the Triffids and Out of the Deeps. In a radical departure from Wyndham’s other novels, set in present-day England, The Chrysalids takes us to a future Earth, one that has experienced the devastation from nuclear war. Unlike the earlier two works, which both have a rather straight-forward plot, Wyndham takes a much more philosophical and thoughtful approach in his examination of religious extremism directed at anyone who is deformed or mutated. On a larger scale, this is a novel that examines the horrors of judging someone who is different.

The Chrysalids (1955) by John Wyndham, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

This is accomplished early in the novel as our protagonist David recalls his formative years and his encounters with deviations of all kinds and the people who inflict laws upon them. David has grown up in a community that views any deviation from the norm as wrong. It is a society whose tenets include “KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD” and “BLESSED IS THE NORM.” David finds that he is often looked at with trepidation simply because he is left-handed. I liked that these moments were done through the lens of a child’s frank and less biased perspective. The dogma is all around him, but when he happens upon another child who has a minor abnormality, he quickly begins to realize how unfair and cruel his society is.

The first half or so of the novel acts as more a collection of vignettes than an actual novel. This isn’t bad, as this structure helps build our understanding of this world and the prejudices of its people. We also learn more about our protagonist David and his secret abilities, as well as the other children who share them. David and a number of others in his community possess a form of telepathy, commonly referred to as “thought-shapes.” This deviation of theirs is kept secret, as the only adult who knows is David’s uncle, who works diligently in making sure his nephew doesn’t risk exposure.

Though David serves as a window into this world, the characters are at their most interesting as an integrated collection of minds, all communicating and watching out for one another. Wyndham’s representation of telepathy is interesting. Rather than about the reading of minds, it’s more about ideas and feelings being pooled together under a shared consciousness. Those that possess the gift are able to communicate mentally over great distances, but they are at a disadvantage in not being able to read the minds of neurotypical people. This helps create a nice level of tension as it often leaves David and his friends in the dark with regards to just how much the elders of the community actually know. We are also completely clueless as to what actually happens to those discovered with deviations. Are they killed, kept in isolation somewhere, or perhaps something far more sinister?

While I found The Chrysalids to be an important work of science fiction, my one complaint would be how often the other characters felt underdeveloped. This is definitely a work whose strengths are plot and atmosphere, rather than deep characterization. That’s not to say they are boring, but I did find them unmemorable. A lot of the relationships appear to be developed off page, so while it keeps the focus on the novel more on action, characterization does suffer as a result.

John Wyndham

Despite being written over half a century ago, The Chrysalids holds up just as well as any contemporary piece of science fiction. While rooted in the time it was written, during the post-war years of British austerity, this is a work of fiction that also can be applied to contemporary themes, such as religious extremism and acceptance of others who are different. Wyndham’s world of mutants and telepaths feels sadly believable, demonstrating how beliefs can either unify us, or completely divide us. The novel also serves as a frightening reminder of present-day horrors, such as the threat of nuclear war and global disaster. Science fiction stories continue to not only inspire but also serve as cautionary tales as to the choices we make.

“The essential quality of life is living’ the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.”


Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

‘The Cabin at the End of the World’ by Paul Tremblay Gave Me Nightmares

Horror fiction has always been one of my favorite genres, particularly because there are so many different ways it can play with your mind and emotions. For instance, it could be a story that plays for more shock value, bordering on the ridiculous. Watch any slasher film from the 80’s for some great examples. However, my favorite brand of horror is when the threats are more firmly rooted in reality. One of my all-time favorite examples of this would have to be Stephen King’s Misery. While the master of horror has done his fair share of otherworldly monsters, Misery is the story of a man held captive by a psychotic fan who has trapped the protagonist within her house, making it a terrifying journey from beginning to end. A Cabin at the End of the World manages to also accomplish this feat, and if a novel is going to give me nightmares, it would be this one. This is the second book I’ve read by Paul Tremblay, the first being A Head Full of Ghosts, a brilliant work inspired by paranormal fiction, such as The Exorcist. As much as I enjoyed it, I feel like I loved this novel just a bit more. Just as Tremblay reinvented the exorcism story, here he has put a unique twist on a story of home invasion. Ultimately, this is a book that focuses on two possible outcomes, both of which are absolutely horrifying.

Cabin at the End of the World (2018) by Paul Tremblay, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Seven-year old Wen and her adoptive parents, Eric and Andrew, are vacationing at a remote cabin in the middle of the New England woods. The nearest neighbor is miles away, and Wen is spending her day catching grasshoppers for observation. As Wen conducts her study, a strange man unexpectantly appears seemingly from the middle of nowhere. While Leonard is the largest individual young Wen has ever seen, he appears friendly and wins her over by helping her in the pursuit of catching the grasshoppers. Leonard and Wen talk and play, until suddenly, he tells her that three of his friends will be there soon and that it is paramount that Wen and her dads let Leonard and his friends into their cabin. Three more strangers arrive, carrying what appear to be strange, makeshift weapons. As Wen rushes inside to warn her parents, Leonard calls out: “Your dads won’t want to let us in, Wen. But they have to. We need your help to save the world.” Naturally, the family refuses the strangers entry, believing this to be a hate crime. The four strangers manage to overpower Wen’s parents, and soon the family finds themselves tied up and at their mercy. Leonard then begins to explain to them that he and his friends have been chosen to stop the apocalypse, and the only way to stop it is for the family to voluntarily sacrifice one of their own.

It pains me not to explore every method that Tremblay uses in having me question what is real. The obvious answer is that these four individuals are insane, playing on cult mentality. Every single event that happens throughout the novel can be scrutinized, explained away. Tremblay’s genius lies in the fact that he meticulously builds a story that feeds into paranoia and disbelief until events reach a breaking point. The characters in this book all have depth and complexity. Leonard, the leader of this group, takes no pleasure in the task he has been appointed to perform. His “mission” is one of pain, driven blind by his own zealotry. While he feels compassion for this family, whom he has asked to make a difficult choice to prevent the apocalypse, his mission is paramount above all. Convincing arguments are made on both sides, and there are moments when Leonard is clearly struggling. Tremblay leaves a lot of room to question whether these signs that the end is coming are real, or whether as Andrew argues, they are mere coincidences.

What makes this novel a true work of horror is that the two possible outcomes are both terrible. If the doomsday group is wrong, then that means all of the suffering of this family is for nothing. However, if there’s even the smallest chance that the world is coming to an end without a sacrifice, then that thought is pretty terrifying as well. As the novel progresses, doubts begin to enter into each side’s beliefs. Eric, who sustained a concussion early in the novel and who has had childhood struggles with his own Catholic upbringing, begins to question if Leonard and his group are right. Several shocking moments occur in this novel, and ultimately, you realize this isn’t a story about which side is right. This is a story about the choices we make when we are unsure of the outcome.

Paul Tremblay

You may have heard of this book through its film adaptation, as M. Night Shyamalan has recently adapted it for film. I’m curious to see what changes take place with the story and whether or not I will enjoy it as much. My instincts tell me that the original source material makes for the better experience. Paul Tremblay continues to impress, and believe me, Cabin at the End of the World is an addicting read that will fuel your nightmares.

“They share another long look. This one is reserved for ill-fated observers in the moments before impending, inescapable calamity, whether it be natural disaster or violent failure of humanity; a look of resigned melancholy and awe, unblinking in the face of a revealed, horrific, sacred truth. And they realize again, in this darkest hour of the darkest day, they remain alone, fundamentally alone.”


Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

An Honest Examination of Love and Heartbreak: Review of ‘Giovanni’s Room’ by James Baldwin

At the age of 24, author James Baldwin made the decision to leave the United States and traveled to Paris. He wanted to escape the racism around him, while also developing his skills as a writer outside of an African-American context. David, the young protagonist of Giovanni’s Room, takes a similar path to Baldwin. However, this is not a novel about race. Rather, this is a story about finding love, and more importantly, about finding yourself. David escapes to Paris as a voyage of self-exploration, while also escaping the toxic masculinity he observes in his father. Although this novel is not autobiographical, it does draw on Baldwin’s experiences and inspiration in the city of love. Giovanni’s Room is such an important novel of LGBTQ literature due to the book’s open exploration of sexuality and bisexuality.

Giovanni’s Room (1956) by James Baldwin, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Prior to making this trip, we learn that David had a sexual encounter with a male friend, whom he immediately ostracizes from his life. Upon arriving in Paris, he begins an affair with a girl named Hella. When David starts to plan a life with her, Hella leaves for Spain in order to work on herself, leaving David in need of company. This leads him to become intimate with an Italian bartender named Giovanni. The couple form an instant connection, resulting in a passionate love affair, and in David moving in to the titular room. David hates himself and grows to loathe his feelings for Giovanni. Yet, he is forever caught within his lover’s gravitational pull. The romance becomes further complicated by the imminent return of Hella into David’s life. Can David work out his feelings and finally stop running away from himself?

While reading this novel, I had to keep reminding myself that it was written during a time when being gay was illegal in most countries. Baldwin writes with such passionate energy, that it becomes easy to be swept up in David and Giovanni’s tumultuous romance. The writing is so evocative and poetic, that it becomes so easy to get lost when the waves come crashing down. There’s an openness here to homosexuality that had never been done prior to this novel. The message is so resoundingly clear that love transcends time and place, as well as social conventions. The words could easily apply to a straight couple. All that matters here is that these two men love each other. Unfortunately, David’s internal conflict with accepting himself forever destroys their connection.

“People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”

We experience the passion and desire that neither of the men can deny but, at the same time, you can’t turn away from David’s inner turmoil. This is more than a novel about the love between a same-sex couple. David’s story is one of self-loathing and denial. He was raised in a country that saw his feelings as wrong, so he can never fully connect to Giovanni. He transforms him into a monster, and it is utterly heartbreaking to read about is regret from a relationship that is so normal. In fact, David never finds where he truly fits in. He doesn’t want to return to his old life in America, but he grows to hate France as he is uncomfortable living in a country where being openly gay is acceptable.

As readers, we feel devastated because Baldwin manages to lift us up into the upper echelons of love but then pulls us back down to Earth with a violent crash. This novel is such a raw exploration into sexuality and gender identity. David often openly criticizes the men who are embracing their sexuality, while also taking advantage of them. This is demonstrated by his friendship with the aging Jacques, whom David uses for his own means but is openly disgusted by his friend’s behavior. The toxic masculinity of his father comes on full display as David views his friend’s effeminate ways as an insult. While not completely autobiographical, Baldwin draws on his own experiences as a gay man living in both America and France.

James Baldwin, Photo Credit: Ted Thai

At only 150 pages, Giovanni’s Room might be a short read but there are a lot of themes explored here. My meager review barely scratches the surface, and I can’t reveal more without spoiling what happens. Suffice to say, the writing is fearless and compelling, forcing you to feel empowered and heartbroken in a matter of paragraphs. This is one of the most honest novels I’ve ever read in understanding true love and pain. I want to believe that much has changed since the 1950’s, but reading this novel is a reminder that the fight for equality continues to be an ongoing battle.

“If you cannot love me, I will die. Before you came I wanted to die, I have told you many times. It is cruel to have made me want to live only to make my death more bloody.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

February 2023 Reading Wrap-Up

Month two of 2023 is officially a memory. Unfortunately, February was not a stellar reading month for yours truly. However, I did manage to read three incredible novels, which I will now briefly discuss.

Books Read:

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

If you are looking for a complex work of science fiction with tremendous world-building and characters, this is your book. However, if you are wanting something a little more intimate that explores human identity, well this is still a great choice. Micaiah Johnson has managed to craft a great work of dystopian fiction, while also serving as a multiverse-spanning adventure.

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

I have a deep and abiding love for dark and surreal horror fiction. From the first page, Catriona Ward plunges you headfirst into a mind-bending story about a man, his daughter, and a talking cat who live in this insanely creepy house not far from where a horrific murder took place. You’ll think you’ve figured it all out, but trust me, this novel delivers more twists than a roller coaster.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room might be a short read, but there is so much depth. This was my first experience with James Baldwin, and the writing is so beautiful and compelling. This is an author who can makes you feel the power of love in one sentence, and then bring you crashing down in the next. I understand why this book is considered the pinnacle of LGBTQ fiction. I’ll be posting a full review later this week.

Currently Reading:

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

2023 Goals and Challenges:

Books Read: 10/60

Books Reviewed: 8/10

Classics Remaining for Classics Club: 1/14

Translated Works: 3/10

TBR Challenge: 1/12

Read Christie Challenge: 1/12


As I reflect back on February, I discover I’m more satisfied than I originally thought. I read a fascinating sci-fi novel, an outstanding work of surrealist horror, and a beautiful, yet heart-wrenching classic. I’m still on track to complete my goals, so no worries over here.

What’s Next:

I’ve been reading The Cabin at the End of the World, as it has recently been adapted to screen by M. Night Shyamalan (no spoilers please). John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids is also proving to be an interesting read. Hopefully, I’ll continue to find phenomenal books to enjoy as we prepare for Spring.

Tell me about books you read in February. What are your reading plans for March? Let me know with a comment below!