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

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, 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

Ink

In a near-future America, anti-immigrant sentiment has escalated. “Inks,” temporary workers, permanent residents, and first-gen citizens, are tattooed on their wrist and submitted to interrogations, discrimination in the workplace, and traffic checks. Over the ten years of this novel, the repercussions of ‘othering’ this population transform into vigilante kidnapping, mob violence, and population control. The violence grows, but so does the efforts of the resistance. Ink explores how technology, family, history, and privilege can tear apart and hold together communities.   Read my first look here. 

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With the exception of this photo, all other photos on this review were taken at US detainment camps or raids.

INK tells the story of communal resistance through the eyes of four characters: a white journalist looking to uncover a story, a Guatemalan recent citizen who uses her relative privilege to help others in her community, a mixed race teenage hacker who discovers just what her mother’s workplace is doing to inks, and a white artist who uses his unique abilities to protect people. Through these characters eyes, Vourvoulias lauds the resilience of the (mostly) latinx community that fights back using technology, magic, art, and science. Vourvoulias uses these human connections to remind us that politics is about people, and even in the face of brutal bigotry, people continue to live, care for one another, and resist injustice.

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INK was enraging; anyone who has been paying attention to global and US rhetoric will see just how close we are to some of the realities in this book. At the same time, reading INK was rejuvenating. This is a book about the magic of human connection that keeps us alive in our darkest times. In INK, sometimes that magic is literal – there are spirit jaguars, demon gnomes, and clouds of golden bees. But the real magic of INK is regular people resisting complacency, choosing to love themselves and others, risking everything for other people, and standing up against an unbeatable enemy.

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I appreciated INK’s nuanced depiction of characters and movements. The people that make up the resistance in INK is both inspiring and flawed; the movement struggles with infighting, color and class privilege, sexual violence,  white fragility, and many failures. Likewise, the perpetrators of violence are not just brutal kidnappers or murderous vigilantes, but teachers, nurses, and bureaucrats who are just ‘following the rules’ when the rules are oppressive and inhuman. Vourvoulias specifically calls out well-meaning but clueless white people who are trying to be allies- she lets the awkward and uncomfortable confrontations happen, and it really was a delight to see.  I wanted more of Meche and the other immigrants actually affected by the story, rather than so many injustice-adjacent white folks, but I think Vourvoulias was writing a story about community resistance, and the reality that white people have a duty to get involved, for better or worse.

There are some flaws here; Vourvoulias veers strangely into certain stereotypes and absurdities a few times in this book. She romanticizes gangs, mysticises brown people, and trends towards  white-savior moments. Black, native, and Asian folks are almost entirely absent from this story, oddly. These are exceptions, though. Vourvoulias mostly succeeded in balancing the complexities of racism, bigotry, privilege, state-violence, and resistance in a moving and heartfelt story set in a very real-feeling America.

Migrants who just disembarked from a U.S. ICE bus wait for a Greyhound official to process their tickets to their next destination at a Greyhound bus station in PhoenixThis book should not really be listed as Spec Fiction, Sci Fi, or dystopia. Most (safe) people in the world of INK go about their normal lives, ignoring the years of people disappearing from their communities, imprisonment, injustice, and dehumanizing rhetoric. Most citizens do not take notice of the atrocities befalling the Inks until there is a violent riot.

Meanwhile in America today:

  • 41,000 people detained in immigration centers.
  • 75,000 black women and girls missing in the USA.
  • 34,000 youth locked up in America for non-violent crimes, more than 7,000 of those youth committed ‘offenses’ that are not even crimes.
  • The highest rate of incarceration in the world, with justice systems that have been found by the UN to have extreme racial bias.
  • The president has called, numerous times, for a registry of Muslims, and the administration is currently working to be allowed to deport any immigrant for any paperwork flaw, even if they’ve been a citizen for 20 years.

Seems like contemporary fiction to me.

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One of the superpowers of reading is the ability to feel what it is like to be another person. Empathy is what enlightens us and allows us to be better people. If you are looking for fiction to help you connect immigration policy, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and good allyship, this one may be for you.

Scent Notes: Gravel dust,  frankincense and red wine, and disinfectant

INK

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Gustav Sonata: A Novel

In a post-WWII village in Switzerland, Gustav builds a deep friendship with the sensitive Anton.  Throughout childhood, Gustav tries to understand his widowed mother Emilie’s cold indifference to him, his mythical father, Emilie’s resentment of Anton’s Jewish family, his own poverty compared to Anton’s wealth, and the stark contrast between his and Anton’s lives.  Through decades of Gustav and Emilie’s lives, author Rose Tremain explores the impact of choice, or lack of choice, on individuals and society as a whole. Told in three parts, first in Gustav’s childhood, then his parents’ heartbreaking history, and finally when Gustav and Anton are old men learning to ‘be who they always should have been’, Tremain spins a cautionary tale about action and inaction between painfully staid Gustav, histrionic Anton, and despondent Emilie. Read my first look here.  

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This is a photo of Swiss verdingkinder- contract children. The Gustav Sonata is not about the verdingkinder, but they are worth reading about. Read more here. 

According to reviews, this is a book about neutrality, morality, and cowardice- and the choices of Gustav are mirrored by Swiss neutrality in WWII. But this book is less about war, or any one event, and more about how human choices ripple through many lives. That human truth, the characters of this book, are much more compelling to me than any broader application. Gustav is a sweetheart who spends a pitiful lifetime trying to adhere to Swiss expectations put forth by his mother; he almost never finds the joy he deserves. Anton, a passionate and privileged musician with doting parents, can never find satisfaction or peace. Emilie’s story, told through Gustav’s narration as well as her own, compelled me through this novel. Emilie battles her depression, gender norms, poverty, the powerlessness of women (Swiss women couldn’t vote until the 1970s!), racial resentment, dashed expectations, devastating loss, and maternal guilt. Emilie was both my favorite and most despised character. All three characters, and the language and structure of the book itself,  felt very Swiss to me: stark, self-reliant, aloof, and desperately hiding a deep well of un-accessed emotion.

“He taught himself to laugh instead. Laughing was a bit like crying. It was a strange convulsion; it just came from a different bit of your mind. The trick was to move the crying out of that bit and let the laughter in. And so he’d pick himself up and carry on, laughing.”

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Tremain is a genius at conveying misery with restraint. There are so many moments within this book that precisely capture the mundane pain of poverty, isolation, longing, depression, guilt, and regret. The Gustav Sonata is beautifully wrought, and subtle, and melancholic– all things I tend to enjoy. But the secrets, and quiet disappointments, and nurtured hidden resentments, and dashed hopes, and squashed passions just kept building, thin layer upon thin layer until whole lives were obscured. My heart ached for these characters, and the people in the world like them. There is a glimmer of joy at the end of this novel, worth reading to, but even that held great conflict for me.

 

“He thought that this was how he was going to live life from now on, savouring small pleasures and not looking beyond them for happiness that was more complete.”

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The Gustav Sonata is about action- taking it or avoiding it. But life is not simple. Characters who do the right thing, or take chances, or follow their passions, are left lamenting their impulsive kiss, their blind ambition, their humanity in the face of genocide. The characters who defend against risk are equally punished. Many characters, like the Swiss during WWII, chose indifference, neutrality, paralysis in the fact of this uncertainty. That, too, is a failure.

The Gustav Sonata made me depressed for a few days while reading it. It also made me grateful. I am not Gustav, with a cold family and paralyzing uncertainty. I am not Emilie, a life of bitter regrets and resentment. I am not Anton, so self-absorbed that I am blind to those that matter around me. Maybe reading the Gustav Sonata could be a Stoic exercise- cathartic in some ways.

This one is hard to recommend. It is phenomenal, delicate, subtle. But I also didn’t like reading it. If you need a kick in the ass to act on what you know you want, or what is morally right, then read this book. It won’t tell you that everything will be ok when you make the right choice, but it will make you terrified of letting that choice slip you by.

Scent Notes: Anise-seed liquor, the fresh summer breeze coming off the mountain, and cherry blossom trees.

Copy of Aunty Lee's Delights