2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Wangs vs the World

Cosmetic mogul Charles Wang looses his millions, his home, and his company in the 2008 economic crash. He gathers his distant family members  for a road-trip from LA to outstate New York to crash in his eldest daughter’s farmhouse in this family road trip/ wealth teardown/ immigrant story by Jade Chang.

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I’m not sure I’ve ever read a riches-to-rags story. Throughout WvtW, various Wang family members detail brand names, fancy friends, and prestigious institutions that they can no longer access because they are suddenly poor.  And it was impossible for me to care. Empathizing with a family of millionaires is hard enough, but most of the members of this family are conceited or blind to their privilege. What Chang handles brilliantly is the slow shift from wealthy people mourning over their wealth, to a relateable family taking stock of what is left when it all crashes down.

“She said the only true thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about their mom dying. . . We were trying to joke about it, because that’s what nobody else ever does, right? And then she looked up at me, and said, ‘That bitch just keeps on dying.’”

Charles’ self-confidence and determination shift from obnoxious to inspiring. His wife Barbara, who initially seems like a gold-digger, realizes she really does love Charles. The teen and adult children struggle to find their identity when they are no longer rich or famous. The Wangs, who loose everything and must start over, emphasize the struggle of early-generation immigrants even as they challenge common stereotypes. While their struggles are inextricable from the immigrant experience, the themes of identity, purpose, risk, and home are universal and really make this book stand out.

“As many Chinas as there were, there were that many Charleses as well. Every immigrant is the person he might have been and the person he is, and his homeland is at once the place it would have been to him from the inside and the place it must be to him from the outside.”

Wangs vs the World

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2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Quick and the Dead

Three very different teen girls, all motherless and strange, share one summer in the American desert. Full of vibrant supporting characters, poignant quips, and haunting imagery, The Quick and the Dead was a surprising and often uncomfortable read.

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Joy Williams’ three teen girls were an offputting mashup of spot-on depiction, and unbelievable diatribe megaphone. There were moments of pure familiar cringe for me as rebellious eco-terrorist Alice preached to disinterested adults (which definitely still happens to this near-30 year old adult). Likewise with the steely detachment of recently orphaned Corvus, and Annabell’s most annoying whining. I loved these moments; Williams can purely distill a previously ineffable feeling with just a quick phrase. She’s remarkably good at this throughout, exposing shivery truths using childish revelations.

There was something shameful about surviving sorrow. You were corrupted. She was corrupted. She was no good anymore. She was inauthentic, apocryphal. She wanted to be a seeker and to travel further and further. But after sorrow, such traveling is not a climbing but a sinking to a depth leached of light at which you are unfit to endure. And yet you endure there.

Despite the real joy of reading some of Williams’ passages, she’s also prone to going all Tom Robbins on me (at his best, brilliant. At his worst, ridiculous.) All the characters in The Quick and the Dead speak as if they are reading a speech written by a very creative mind. They speak over and above each other, in universal ideologies and proclamations, or deep into their own navels. The only narrating character who felt remotely real to me was Annabell’s widowed and coming-out father, and he spends the entire book haunted by the insufferable ghost of his dead wife. The main characters do much of this monologuing, but the worst are the supports.

I’ve seen what comes next. Vigils. Concern is the new consumerism. A person’s worth can be measured by the number and intensity of his concerns. Candles, lighting a candle, confers the kind of fulfillment that only empty ritual can bring. Empty ritual’s important. It’s coming back as a force in people’s lives. Its role is being acknowledged. It’s the keystone for tomorrow’s dealings in an annexed and exploited world. And holding a candle, cradling a little flame with others holding their candle, cradling their little flame gives people the opportunity to experience something bigger than themselves without surrendering themselves to it.

Ugh. Look how long that block of text is. I hate paragraphs like this, even when they are spoken by evangelists (which this one is). I hate it when authors rant. It is definitely a style many people enjoy, and power to them. But it makes me feel the same way as when I’m stuck talking to a drunk stranger at a dull house party.

The Quick and the Dead was equal parts brilliant and boorish. Williams is an astonishing writer; for those who like to see an author in every spoken line, in every desiccated coyote and nursing home scrubs color, I can see how Williams would be a fave. Not my fave, but undeniably brilliant.

2017 Reviews, Non-fiction

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story About Women and Economics

Marçal spends the bulk of this conversational economic manifesto explaining the pervasiveness and frequent folly of the concept of “Economic Man”. Economic Man is the representation of humanity’s selfishness and predictability; the theory helped 18th and 19th century rational Rationalists in Tophats coat their faddish concept of humanity in a veneer of inarguable science. (I once got into a Reddit argument on a purely subjective topic with a rational Rationalist- he likely had a different hat. I lightheartedly asked him to ‘cut it out with this logic bullshit’ in our subjective discussion. RIP inbox.)  flowers8Adam Smith, the grand-daddy of many theories that lay the foundation for Economic Man, lived his whole life with his mother. She kept his house and clothes, fed him daily, and did immeasurable care work to make this man’s career and life possible. Smith did not find her decades-long labor to keep her adult son alive worth considering in his theories. “It is not in the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest,” he famously wrote, with his middle finger pointed in the general direction of his hunched and sweating mother.

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Most historical and modern economic theories are rendered laughable by the recognition of the invisible and undervalued work of women the globe over. RIP capitalism by chapter 3. “Women’s work” (caregiving, raising children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, mending, almost the entire realm of emotional labor and community building, etc. etc. etc.) is repetitive, unproductive, and rarely selfish. That women traditionally do this work has always been treated as inherent and assumed, rather than critical for a functioning society and devalued by systems of power. In the modern world, we continue to deal with the fall-out of ignoring women’s work. Ever wondered why you get reimbursed for food expenses on work trips but not childcare expenses? It’s because you have a wife at home, silly.

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Most of the economists described in this book lived, profited, and were laid to rest in famous tombs, without recognizing 50% of the economic engine (women). The rational market decided their irrational output of gendered theories was worth a lot. Reading this does not feel good.  In fact, it will make you pissed off almost immediately. Marçal’s anger translates more clearly than anything else she writes. The general moral of the story: never doubt how many very educated and enlightened people will sneer “it’s only rational, darling” when someone questions a glaring and subjective fault in their bulletproof scientific analysis of society.

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While the term “Economic Man” is used derogatorily today, the foundational concepts of Economic Man are still found in most modern economic theories and practices. Much like the Bechdel test, the early adopters of this theory did not intend for Economic Man to be anything more than an illustration of a stepping stone towards a better future. Instead, he ended up becoming both the foundation and the ceiling of some of our most fundamental understandings in society. Oops.

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Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner contains a great idea, but the book itself is repetitive, the prose clipped and too sarcastic, and the ‘proof’ implied rather than proven. This could have been a solid manifesto if it was as concise as the back blurb. If Marçal wanted to write a hard critique of modern economics, she needed a far less angry and far more rigorous writing style. I don’t doubt that Marçal is well-versed in economic history and theory, but I can’t prove it, because she doesn’t prove it.  If she was trying to do a feminist critique, she tied herself to the anger and cynicism, rather than an in-depth study of the value of women’s work and the damage of systemic abuse. This book will get someone open to these concepts fired up and curious. But in the battle against rational Rationalists with Logic and Jaunty Hats on their side, Marçal isn’t doing feminist economics many favors.

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2017 Reviews

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Mary Roach, one of my favorite non-fiction authors, takes us on a thorough journey of the human digestive system. From the first moment a food smell enters your nose, to the precise mechanisms that help food waste leave the body, Roach inspects the funny, strange, grotesque, and remarkable processes of the digestive tract, and the people who dedicate their lives to studying it.  This book is like the adult version of Everyone Poops– we can all relate.

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One of my favorite things about reading non-fiction, especially science and history, is this genre’s ability to keep me humble and grounded. Gulp, like a lot of pop-science and medical writing, revels in our mortality, our bloody mechanisms, and our folly.  People (Americans, at least) shy away from acknowledging our mortality- we avoid subjects that remind us that we are pretty much a sentient sack of meat- squishy, ever decaying, and gross. Roach, on the other hand, handles these existential triggers with a giggling joy. Her books invite the reader to lean closer and delight in the disgusting, the tabboo, the awesome.

OpenWound_660This book contains one of my favorite lines I’ve ever read. Roach was describing “fletcherizing”- a turn-of-the-century pseudoscience trend of chewing your food to liquification. As she listed off famous people who practiced this health craze (J.H. Kellogg- the major weirdo of Kellogg’s Cereals- for one)- she included ‘the inevitable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”.  I closed the book and laughed until I cried. Roach’s historical, scientific, and pop-culture knowledge and wit are apparent on every page, making her books a total joy to read.  1305_SBR_FECESGULP_ILLO.jpg.CROP.article568-large I was sad to finish GULP in just a few days. Obviously, I love Mary Roach. I’m going to like any book she writes. That said, this one is hilarious, fascinating for all audiences, and completely quotable. Reading Mary Roach is like a rollercoaster- the sheer speed at which she delivers hilarious, amazing, surprising information leaves me breathless and hungry for more. GULP

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Umami

Umami, by Laia Jufresa, interweaves the private grief, resilience, and humor of five neighbors living  in contemporary Mexico City between 2000 and 2004. A teen whose little sister drowned, trying to foster hope in her depressed mother.  Her best friend, coming to terms with growing into a woman without her own estranged mother. An older neighbor, reminiscing with his wife’s ghost through a laptop. A neurotic artist, struggling through the quiet trauma of an abusive childhood. And a little girl, doomed from the start, playing near a lake. Through nonlinear vignettes, characters question their own identity, the truth of the people they love and loved, and how one small choice can haunt a life.

Umami is vivid, character-focused, and bittersweet. As I read, I fell in love with the widow’s wife, I raged against the absent mother, I navel-gazed with the artist. The chapters with the little girl we know will die were remarkably effective, adding layers of regret and humility to the other character arcs that left me completely breathless. The voice of each character remains a bit flat (I expect this is not an issue in the original Spanish), but otherwise each character immediately dragged me into their lives, their confusion, their regrets, and their hopes. This book is a quiet, gentle, and surprisingly happy read; simply beautiful. The more I read contemporary central and south american authors, the more I’m convinced that their culture provides a brilliant ability to blend death, sadness, life, and joy in a uniquely potent way. Jufresa tackles the subjects of melancholy and regret with humor, delicacy, and great respect for the beauty of heartbreak.

Umami

2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

Haven: Beards and Bondage

After a horrifying attack leaves Claudia bleeding on the front stoop of Shepard’s cabin, the two are linked by the trauma that took Claudia’s brother’s life and forced Shepard to kill her attacker. And even though Claudia is a city-dwelling fashionista and Shep is a reclusive nature photographer, the enter into a passionate and complicated deal to find solace and companionship in one another for one week.

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First, my personal distinctions between romance and erotica: When great sex leads to love, I consider it erotica. When love leads to great sex, I consider it romance. I tend to grade romance on a different curve than erotica; I expect romance to spend much more time establishing characters, relationship details, and emotions, and I expect the plot to exist beyond the purpose of sparking a relationship. For erotica, I don’t have those expectations; I want exciting smut with recognizable and interesting humanity on display in the downtime between sex scenes. (If anyone is following my Instagram, you saw that I classified this review as a fantasy review. That’s kind of a joke, but for the most part, I do read erotica as a genre of fantasy.)

Haven lacks abundant artistic prose, the plot and resolution are both quick and extreme, and the characters’ emotional trauma is kind of fixed by kinky sex. It wouldn’t make a great romance by my standards. Luckily, Haven is very good erotica.

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The characters are sexy and confident in their needs and feelings, the plot brings a lovely emotional care context on top of a very caring BDSM relationship, and the setting is equal parts peacefully calm and steamy.  The BDSM sex featured here is explicitly consensual and depicted more accurately than other things you can find in a lot of popular BDSM writing, and both Shep and Claudia show mutual respect, joy, and meaning in their relationship. Maybe my favorite thing is that neither character sacrifices core parts of themselves to be with the other one.   Haven also features an interracial relationship (Claudia is black), female characters that don’t just talk about men to each other, men that talk about emotions with each other, a big cuddly dog, and Netflix.

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If you’re looking for a happy, emotional BDSM (light) that you don’t have to turn your feminist blinders on to enjoy, Haven: Beards and Bondage by Rebekah Weatherspoon is it. Sexy characters, sexy consent, sexy BDSM, and quite a bit of heart.

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(Shoutout to @mariannereads for this swoon-worthy photo for Shep and Claudia!)

2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Ghost Bride

Li Lan is the studious daughter of a noble but bankrupt Chinese family, and as such has few prospects for a successful marriage in 1890s Malaysia. When a marriage offer from the powerful Lim family comes, it is to wed Li Lan to their recently deceased son, Tian Ching. This ‘ghost marriage’ is meant to appease Tian Ching’s spirits after a mysterious death, and offers Li Lan her best chance at a secure life.  Li Lan refuses, but finds her dreams haunted by the jealous and powerful Tian Ching. Li Lan is drawn into the haunting parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, populated with ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, spirits both petty and monstrous, and a remarkable amount of bureaucracy. The only thing that protects Li Lan is an enigmatic guardian spirit, Er Lang, and her own determination.

This supernatural fantasy by Yangsze Choo provides a beautiful dive into a fascinating setting. The early chapters of the book take place in colonial Malaysia (Malaya, in the 1890s), which springs off the page. But it is once Li Lan enters the Chinese spirit world that Choo really shines. This is a belief system I know almost nothing about, and Choo managed to keep my enthralled and surprised without ever leaving me confused or needing more.

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Choo’s characters and plot are the many vehicles into the world that Choo creates for us, and as such are a little shallow. Li Lan serves her character purpose well; she is not dripping with detail, but neither is she a total cookie cutter. She serves to highlight the setting, mythology, and culture of the story.  While Choos characters do not have much depth, they do have nuance. Perhaps because the spirit world of Chinese belief is so similar to the real world (with class problems, servants, bureaucracy, bribes, and petty feuds and trickery)- the heroes and villains of Choo’s story are nuanced: humorous, pitiful, annoying, charming, and loathsome all together, even when they are ghoulish monsters or her very own father.

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I chewed through The Ghost Bride in two days, delighted all the while. This story does not follow the typical adventure arc a reader might expect- the love triangle barely exists, Li Lan never has to do battle with her tormentor Tian Ching, important characters come and go very quickly, the palace intrigue is not revealed in a ‘gotcha!’ moment. We never even make it to the Courts of Hell! Instead, this is a patient exploration of a cultural belief system, both the spooky and mundane, and the question of what it means to be free in a world where duty, family, and culture are more powerful a force than death itself.  The Ghost Bride is a delicate and fascinating ghost story, with just enough court intrigue, romance, and adventure to keep things recognizable for the general YA reader.

The Ghost Bride

2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

Shadows Cast by Stars

A plague has ravaged much of the world, and the only ones immune are those with American aboriginal blood. Sixteen-year-old Cassandra, along with her depressed father and angsty twin brother flee to the Island, a community that offers safety for native peoples. The Island is protected by a spiritual barrier that keeps outsiders away and spirits within. In her new home, Cassandra struggles to find her place, and learns to control her dangerous and powerful connection with the spirit world.

 

While SCbS could be described as sci fi or fantasy, it really reads more like a traditional maturation novel. Cassandra spends most of this first book worrying about her friends and family, realizing and rebelling against power dynamics within her tribe, and growing into her own as a powerful and skilled healer.

While the unique cultural elements make Shadows Cast by Stars an interesting and engaging read, there were some major problems, especially as the book progressed.

  1. The balance between the interesting and mundane felt off the entire book- Cassandra spends just too much time with introspection and teen angst. I lost count of how many scenes involved walking somewhere, and then turning around and walking back.
  2. Knutsson wrote about native culture in a way that came off as an outsider perspective, which is not what I was expecting going into this book. There are flags starting at the beginning- totems, dreamcatchers, the term “half-blood” used casually. As the book progressed, stereotypes of the native community were very roughly handled- there’s drinking and sexual assault and sexism- and Knutsson wasn’t giving me anything nuanced with any of these issues.
  3. The most interesting and unique aspects of this story were rushed and muddled. Cassandra can walk in the spirit world, where she heals and binds spirits, battles evil, and converses with both antagonistic and helpful guides. But most of these interactions felt unteathered, leaving me with no real visual understanding of the scene, interactions, or significance. I routinely felt ambivalent – Cassandra’s reactions to her various trials left me shrugging.

Overall, Shadows Cast by Stars was entertaining, but just too sloppy to entice me towards the remaining books in the series. It has a wonderful blurb and premise, and native culture is woefully underrepresented in mainstream YA science fiction and fantasy, but the delivery just isn’t there.

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