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

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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

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

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 Star Touched Queen

Maya is a teenager that has high aspirations but low expectations for her life; as the most unfavored daughter of the King, Maya hopes to be left alone to study and learn for her whole life. But when her kingdom is ravaged, Maya agrees to marry the mysterious king of Akaran, Amar. But the kingdom of Akaran and Amar’s castle both seems completely empty. Despite the passion Amar seems to have for her, she isn’t sure she is safe.   Maya must unravel the secrets that Amar and Akaran’s castle hide to save herself and those she loves. Read my first look at TSTQ here. 

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Chokshi’s story is grounded in Hindu myths and an Indian cultural setting, adding plenty of novelty and unique concepts to exercise her prose on– and she is capable of gorgeous prose. TSTQ’s cultural foundation gives the characters some unique settings, ghoulies, and obstacles. TSTQ has plenty of evocative imagery and imagination, which really made up for the fact that I couldn’t connect with Maya or Amar at all.

“You look like edges and thunderstorms. And I would not have you any other way.”

Maya held very little personality, and Amar, though a sexy, passionate, and all powerful God, didn’t compel me. Despite the insta-love that blooms between Maya and Amar, they rarely talk to each other about tangible things, which of course leads to misunderstandings and barriers that felt contrived.

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There was so much promise here. The first half of this book was an enjoyable enough read- I blew through the first half with a few happy eye-rolls and smirks at the sheer dreamyness of it all, and I adored the potential of the settings and characters even if they hadn’t really blossomed yet. But the second half, and the book as a whole, left me wanting and disappointed.  The second half of the book felt rushed and lacking in actual action at the same time, like it should have been it’s own story with more depth and conflict. This lead me to wonder why the first half of the book- a whole new world, the Night Bazaar, mystical powers, romance, trauma over her experiences, and numerous trust shifts, wasn’t given the time and care it deserved.

“I wanted a love thick with time, as inscrutable as if a lathe had carved it from night and as familiar as the marrow in my bones. I wanted the impossible, which made it that much easier to push out of my mind.”

Finally, as much as the writing can be gorgeous, the book is overstuffed with visuals and stars and metaphors. There’s very little of grounding sensual description- few smells, few colors, few sounds- I honestly felt like the characters were walking an empty stage. The most gorgeous of Chokshi’s imagery is lost in a pile of metaphors that confuse rather than clarify, pillow-talk that simply doesn’t make sense, descriptor paragraphs about feelings when I have no idea what anything actually looks like.  Chokshi has the talent, clearly, for evocative language. But for my taste, she needs to kill some of those darlings to let what works really shine.

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The Star-Touched Queen is just the first book in a series, and perhaps Chokshi will hit her stride later on in the series. She is active on this book’s Goodreads page, and her explanation of the Hindu myths at the foundation of this story show so much interesting material that I wished I’d seen more of in the actual book. Maybe this is partially my own ignorance of Hindu myths; I wonder if I’d been more aware of the retelling aspects I’d have found her work more compelling.

If Chokshi gives me a firmer grounding in her foundation myths, focuses more on plot and character development, and edits her purple prose down to just that which works, I think she could create something gorgeous and powerful.  The Star Touched Queen just isn’t there yet.

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Recommended if you love flowery prose and are looking for PG-13 passion.  There are many glowing reviews of this story, and some delicious fan art to boot. This one just isn’t for me.

Tongue-in-cheek Scent Notes: Night and smoke, edges, the perfume of souls.

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(The art on this post is from Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński. The art is darker than TSTQ was, and of the wrong culture, but just so connected and cool I couldn’t resist.)

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Vegetarian

After a series of nightmares, Yeong-hye becomes convinced to stop eating meat. Her unconventional and subversive choice throws the people around her into chaos, forcing her to take her personal choice into more extreme and frightening forms of rebellion. This modern South-Korean novel explores Yeong-hye’s choice through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister to provide an allegory of modern Korean culture. The Vegetarian turns an unflinching eye on social isolation, imprisonment, and individuality that transcends culture and speaks to human nature in a deeply personal and frightening way. Read my First Look here.

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Simply put, this book messed me up. It is short and fascinating enough to read in one sitting, and that’s what I did. Yeong-hye’s personal life choice, and how the people around her respond to it, is heartbreaking. The societal response to Yeong-hye has little to do with vegetarianism itself, and more to do with individualism, making this book all too familiar. Yeong-hye’s story is like watching a bird throw itself against a cage until all her bones are broken, and then realizing that every bird feels that same desperate need for freedom. The solution that Han Kang offers to our desire to be free is nothing short of devastating*.

“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

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This book reached into me and activated a seething and quiet rage that I think many people, and specifically many women, will recognize as an animal we cradle deep inside ourselves. How we deal with that animal, by letting it free, by feeding it like a pet, or by burying it, is explored through Han Kang’s various characters, most devastatingly in Yeong-hye’s sister in the last section.

“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

Many reviews reference Kafka’s Metamorphosis when discussing this book, which I honestly feel is a disservice. Metamorphosis never spoke to me like this book immediately did. The choice to never let Yeong-hye narrate her own story adds another layer of heartbreak, anger, and strangeness, and an additional layer of feminist critique. As I read through reviews for this story, I see a distinct difference in how men and women review this book, and I can’t help but believe that Kang speaks to a distinctly feminine despair and expectation to shoulder the everyday burdens that crush us. Abutilon_-_Flowering_maple

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

This short book packs a gut-punch that left me in an existential funk for days. While it is not a happy read, I think it is one book I will be forever grateful to have found. It may make you want to abandon everything and everyone in your life, but sometimes that is exactly the kind of book a person needs to read.  The Vegetarian is powerful existential horror with a distinctly feminist lens. It is also just an excellent story, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Scent Notes: Fresh blood, flower-painted skin, and the forest after rain

*CW: The Vegetarian spends a long time with suicidal ideation, and features suicide attempts in the form of cutting, hanging, jumping, and starvation. In my interpretation, Kang does not discourage any of these behaviors. 5