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, 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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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Binti

Binti is a brilliant young woman who has been offered a prestigious place at Oomza University, the most elite college in the galaxy. But Binti is Himba, a people who are closely tied to land and family, and who never travel off-planet. Binti, determined to reach her potential, makes the difficult decision to leave everything and everyone she knows behind, and travel across the stars with people who do not share or respect her customs, culture, or brilliance. On her journey, Binti encounters a cultural prejudice so strong that the vendetta between two groups threatens the life of everyone at Oomza. And Binti, with her unique genius, her cultural artifacts, and her strength born of being Himba, might be the only person who can prevent it.

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Image by David Palumbo

Okorafor writes tight passages that build an interesting and vibrant world, and she inhabits this world with fresh characters; Binti is a young genius from a culture that works with the earth. Because of this, she has a few ‘super powers’ that allow her to succeed where no one else could. Binti’s strength is her cultural heritage, inseparable from her mathematical brilliance. With Binti, Okorafor insists that people from cultures often overlooked by mainstream science fiction are crucial to our future.

Binti goes on a heroine’s journey, one standard enough to be familiar and relatable to any reader of YA literature, fantasy, or science fiction. But Binti’s specific challenges and abilities will be more intimately familiar to anyone who has been a cultural or racial outsider in a society of ignorance and prejudice.

The book’s critiques of racism, cultural isolationism, and colonial mentality are layered and nuanced.  During her journey to Oomza, Binti experiences interpersonal prejudice, white fragility, and institutional discrimination. These ideas are mostly explored through people’s response to Binti’s appearance; people despise and envy her hair, and most are blind to it’s significance. They do the same to the medicinal mud she paints her body with. In response to these varied indignities, Binti demonstrates code-switching, pride, determination, patience, and cross-cultural competency. And then the murderous jellyfish aliens come!

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Art by SharksDen- click to Deviant Art

While there are modern exceptions, so much early science fiction is written from the perspective of a dominant society (white American men), terrified against an invading force that might subvert their power. Shortly, a fear that aliens (or -gasp- communists) will colonize white America. In these stories, when a violent alien race comes along they are utterly foreign, bent on total destruction, and must be repelled entirely if humanity is to survive. Invader and invaded cannot coexist, and certainly cannot benefit one another. This is a very specific cultural viewpoint based in the West’s colonial history. This trope is not only boring at this point, but dangerous in a rapidly shrinking world that forces alien cultures to interact virtually and in person every day.

Binti rejects and critiques this trope. Okorafor, from the perspective of a Nigerian-American woman, offers a more optimistic look at cross-cultural encounters. Frankly, it’s what I’d prefer people to be reading in their science fiction.

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A woman from the Himba Tribe of Namibia.

This was a great little novella. It is an efficient exploration of the benefits of cultural diversity and a celebration of the Namibia culture, a heroine’s journey with a relatable young woman, and a refreshing alternative to colonial sci-fi tropes. I read Okorafor’s ‘Who Fears Death’ last year, and as much as I did enjoy it, I think Binti is a stronger book. The tighter structure and economically told story pack a punch, and I am so eager to read more in this series!

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Boy, Snow, Bird

** Unlike any of my other reviews, this review contains numerous spoilers. **

Boy Novak flees an abusive home and carves out a life for herself in a small 1950s American town in this novel based very loosely on Snow White. Boy falls in love with widower Arturo and his perfect, beautiful daughter, Snow. Boy and Arturo have their own daughter, Bird. When Bird is born with brown skin, Boy discovers that Arturo’s family is black, passing as white. Boy, Snow, Bird is a story about how societal pressures can create deep damage to individuals and families, the unintended abuse we heap upon even those we love, and the secrets we keep from one another and ourselves . Boy, Snow, Bird explores colorism, racism, gender, and class in America through the relationships between these three strange but believable women. Read my First Look here. 

Read more about passing in the 1950s through NPR’s look at “A Chosen Exile: Black People Passing in White America”.

I’ll say right up front that the final two chapters in this book are terrible. Especially if you are sensitive to trans depictions, I do not recommend this book or even my review of it.

Ignoring the end, this was a 4/5 book for me for a number of reasons. Boy is one of the most interesting narrators I’ve ever come across. She fascinated me as she worked through her abusive childhood, her obsession with Snow, Arturo’s betrayal, her self-hatred, and her fierce protection of Bird. She struggles as her beliefs on race and gender progress throughout her life, and she suffers guilt for her own lies, prejudice, and choices. Oyeyemi beautifully depicts how people trapped inside lies can justify so much internal and external hate and abuse; she does some wonderful things with mirrors that heighten the intensity of these themes in a dreamy, fairytale way. The writing is nuanced and compassionate, the exploration of race, colorism, and familial love is delicate and heartbreaking. If this was the impression the book had left me, I would devote more time to reviewing the positives.

But everything is ruined when Oyeyemi introduces transgenderism. I’m going to use that term, even though Oyeyemi’s depiction is so mishandled, I don’t think transgender is an appropriate term. Gender dysphoric is probably more what she was going for, but the character reads as trans so that’s how I’ll address it. The last two chapters of this book are a mess. You know how Season 2 of American Horror Story was just the most? Asylum + torture + conversion therapy + Frankenstein/Nazi experiments + zombies +serial killer + aliens….. That’s how the end of Boy, Snow, Bird felt.

Suddenly and without warning, after most of the plot has wrapped itself up,  it turns out that Boy’s abusive father was a happy, healthy lesbian woman who was raped, gave birth to Boy, and then stopped seeing himself as a woman and transitioned to live as a man.  The takeaway at the final two chapters is that sexual violence is the cause of transgenderism, transgenderism and gender-hatred are a reason and justification for child abuse, and Boy’s acceptance and forgiveness is THE CURE for transgenderism.

As bad as that is, the addition of this sudden and shallow plotline doesn’t even make sense within the overall theme. The pattern Oyeyemi has set for us is that society creates a problem, a person adapts to that problem to protect themselves/their loved ones, but adherence to that adaptation causes it’s own damage. And good people learn from this and stop hurting each other. This plays out in Boy’s rejection of Snow, in Arturo’s family, in minor plot points in the small town.  But if society caused Boy’s father to suffer discrimination (as a lesbian) and violence (as a woman who is raped), the adaptation is to hate your womanhood and transition to living as a man.

It is not that Boy’s father is passing as a man, or that he lied about his birth sex, or that he tries to raise Boy as a boy (the closer paralell to Arturo’s family trying to raise their kids and grandkids as white). No, Boy is damaged because her alcoholic father beats her, straps her to chairs, and tortures her with starving rats. Sexual assault doesn’t explain gender hate to the point of transition, and rape nor transition explain child abuse. The characters come really, really close to treating his rape not only as explanation but even as a justification for his insanity (insanity= his gender presentation and his violent abusiveness). Boy’s father never suffers or atones for his abuse of Boy on the page. He does not change, in fact the last time we see him he has attacked and held Bird hostage to his rambling in a jarring section that left me feeling ill.  Rather, the end of this rushed plot are that Boy, Snow, and Bird are going to seek him out to comfort him back to womanhood. Boy is convinced that if she forgives him and loves him, she’ll be able to reach the mother ‘that is still hiding somewhere in there”.  wtf.

I think Oyeyemi was trying to compare racial passing to gender passing, compare the societal and individual preference to whiteness we see so prevalent in Boy’s society to the societal preference for males. I think her attempt was well intentioned, and horribly mishandled. Even if I could forgive what she’s written, which I don’t, the new plot was artistically entirely unnecessary. Oyeyemi wanted to explore bigotry, secrets, abuse, and the long-term effect on generations of a family, but this book had already accomplished that before the reintroduction of Boy’s father.

I will read Oyeyemi again, because I like her writing and I think she was overambitious, more than intentionally careless or even ignorant. If this had been without the final two chapters, it could have been one of my top books of the year, a 4/5 cats rating at least. The end just poisons everything.

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