2017 Reviews, Long Fiction


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. 

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.


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.


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.


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


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.  

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.”


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.”


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