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.

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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

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

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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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Aunty Lee’s Delights

After becoming a widow, Rosie Lee devoted herself to her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where she serves Singaporean home cooking and folksy wisdom in equal measure. But when one of her dinner guests turns up missing and a body is found washed up on a beach, Aunty Lee discovers another passion: solving murders. Aunty Lee’s Delights is a charming mystery about the many types of people and ideas coexisting in Singapore, and how to manage the clashes of culture and class that take place there. Read my First Look here. 

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This is a light little read full of cute witicisms and surprisingly nuanced cultural critique. Aunty Lee functions as the compassionate and curious heart at the center of a group of very different characters: fussy traditional wives, adventurous modern women, religious tourists, conceited ex-pats, gay men and women, uptight police, and the servant class of Singapore. Aunty Lee serves them all with spicy food, relaxing teas, homespun wisdom, and general compassion. Aunty Lee is the type of hero we don’t see too often – curious, caring, and capable.

“As far as Aunty Lee was concerned, people ought to go through the ideas they carried around in their heads as regularly as they turned out their store cupboards. No matter how wisely you shopped, there would be things in the depths that were past their expiration dates or gone damp and moldy—or that has been picked up on impulse and were no longer relevant.”

It can be difficult to decide where a book lands on representation when it is written by and for another culture than my own. I know nothing about Singapore or the people and cultures that weave together everyday life there. But the author, Ovidia Yu, is Sinagaporean. Aunty Lee’s Delights seems to purposefully grapple with cultural differences, and it feels as though Yu is trying to use Antuy Lee as a megaphone for tolerance and understanding. And to an ignorant reader like me, the whole thing came off as very, very sweet if not a bit shocking at times.

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Ultimately, I don’t think I like series mysteries. I hadn’t read one since my Nancy Drew days, but in my grand project of diversified reading, I thought it was only right to try another one out as an adult. I liked almost everything about Yu’s novel, except the genre. When I read mysteries, I feel like everything is in sketch rather than vibrant color. Just not my kind of reading experience.  BUT, if you do like mysteries, I think this one is probably going to charm you. Aunty Lee is a lovely character- a widowed busybody chef who solves mysteries- and the details of Singaporean culture and everyday life really add a meaningful novelty to the genre.

Scent Notes: hot peppers and pickled cucumbers, cardamom tea, and baby powder.

Aunty Lee's Delights

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