Book Review: EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire


Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity
I confess I read Every Heart A Doorway on the strength of its asexual protagonist, Nancy, and I was not disappointed. But beyond Nancy, there is also a trans character (Kade), and Sumi, an Asian girl. I think Sumi may have been the only non-White character,* and it’s…not great that she essentially gets fridged.

An additional diversity shoutout to the character of Eleanor, who, in running her school finds the word “crazy” problematic and bans it. I really loved this, considering the context, and I also really loved how some characters defiantly used it and reclaimed it anyway.

Review
Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, is a murder mystery, and a coming of age story, and a portal fantasy all neatly wrapped in the same novella. It’s a minor miracle that the novella never feels overstuffed—in fact, I wanted more from it. I didn’t want it to end.

Every Heart A Doorway follows Nancy, a girl who has been to and returned from the Halls of the Dead, and who must find a way to settle back into the mundanities of the normal, regular world again. Luckily for her, she’s not the only such stolen and returned child. There are enough such children that there is an entire boarding school devoted to their treatment and rehabilitation.** Nancy’s parents pack her off, and so her story begins.

Just as Nancy is finding her footing at her new school, students start turning up dead. And not just dead, but mutilated. Nancy understands that as the most recent addition to the school, and as a girl whose portal world has such a close connection with death, she is an easy and likely suspect. She knows clearing her own name means casting suspicion elsewhere, and that means unraveling the mystery at hand.

McGuire is a deft writer. Since this is a novella, space is limited, and the cast of characters is surprisingly large for a novella. But the characters are quickly and deftly drawn. Most of them have excellent depth. The mystery itself has twists and turns and a decent red herring. The plot clipped along, quick but not rushed. I found myself more interested in the worldbuilding, though, than the mystery. There was something more compelling in the way the characters categorized the portal worlds—Wicked and Virtue, Nonsense and Logic—than the inevitable death of the next student, who I was sure was not going to be Nancy.

I was particularly fond of the ending, which wraps things up so neatly emotionally, but quickly and quietly. It made me think. It made me mull things over. I want to talk about it with people, but I can’t here, because spoilers.

As much as I am glad there was representation of a young ace woman and a young trans man, and as well-realized as a I think Nancy and Kade were, respectively, I wish their ace-ness and trans-ness had not been so…clinically written. I couldn’t help but contrast the way McGuire wrote about asexuality and gender identity with the way she wrote about the harms of patriarchy, and how in this world it so easily led to the capture of girls over boys. That section was nuanced and wry. Or compare to the embodiment of smart/pretty in Jack and Jill and how viciously that has gone awry, which is skillfully written throughout. The sections where Kade discusses his gender or where Nancy discusses her asexuality are blunt to the point of earnestness. Still, I am glad the characters were included.

3 stars*I think this is the case? If I am misremembering, please let me know in the comments, and I will amend the review.

**There are, as one character explains, actually two such schools: one school for kids who want to return to their portal worlds, and one school for kids who under no circumstances ever wish to see their portal worlds again. I found this detail particularly interesting.

Book Review: THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes On Diversity:
Magic might be thick in the air at the Cirque Des Reves, but diversity is thin on the ground.

In the whole of this long, meandering book–a book brimming with characters, a book that stretches across time and distance–there are, perhaps, two characters who are explicitly characters of color (Chandresh, who is half-Indian, and Tsukiko1, who is Japanese). Interestingly, both Chandresh and Tsukiko also happen to play double-diversity-duty: they are also The Night Circus‘s only canonically queer characters, as well.

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why did the people of color *also* have to be the only queer people? Who knows!

As far as I could tell, there were no characters with a disability. The closest we get to discussions of class and poverty is with Marco’s backstory, which is written in broad strokes and passed by quite quickly. There is one interesting and quite telling moment where Marco’s shadowy-named mentor, Alexander H-., mentions that he went looking for a student in an orphanage in the first place on the presumption that the student (Marco) would have a better life at his hands, no matter the consequences, than he would have had should he have been left destitute in the orphanage.2

I’ll get into this in more depth in the review, but I also felt that many of the women characters were not written with as much depth or centricity as the male characters.

Generally speaking, this is book full of lovely language and striking images and wonder. But it is not a book much interested in diversity.

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diversity magic was not allowed at the night circus

Review:
In some lucky towns, the Cirque Des Reves springs up unannounced  and opens from dusk until dawn. The circus is black and white – the costumes, the great white-flamed bonfire, the painted dirt, even the food. It is a world of shadow and light wreathed in unknown, unseen magic. The circus is the sight of a contest: the beautiful young illusionist, Celia Bowen, is no illusionist at all. The magic the performs is real. The strange and wondrous creations in the tents are real, too. Some of them are hers, and some of them are her competitors: the circus creator’s unassuming assistant, Marco Alisdair. The pair of them are locked in this competition, and bound to the circus, but neither of them know what they are competing for, or how it will end, or why they were chosen to compete in the first place.

There are many who adore The Night Circus. It is a lovely book. Morgenstern is an entrancing writer, and the plot is threaded together very well. All the loose ends are woven together by the end of the book; there are no extraneous variables. The pacing is such that you have to be floored with Morgenstern’s language and description, or captivated by the story itself, to wait it out to see how the apparently disparate elements of the book unify by the end, but Morgenstern as a writer is sure-handed enough that I felt certain that they would all come together in the end. If you are not engaged with either her style or the plot of the book, though, your patience with the slowly weaving tapestry of The Night Circus may falter.

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like this, but, you know, a book

This was a book I wanted very much to like and didn’t. I appreciated Morgenstern’s skill, and she has it in spades. But for all her luxurious description of the outputs of Celia and Marco’s magic, I ended up with very little understanding of what it actually was to be a magician. For a book ostensibly about two highly talented (if sequestered) magicians, there was very little about the magic itself. What did it feel like to use it? How did it work? What were its limits and scope? How many magicians were out there, and how did that make the world of The Night Circus tangible different from our own? If there were no answers to these questions, why make Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair magicians in the first place? Why not make them, I don’t know, architects, instead?

Really, this is not a book so much about magic. Magic is the backdrop here, sketchily worked out (but very beautifully written about), and the story is about a pair of star-crossed lovers. And this is fine, or rather would have been, if Marco had not been emotionally manipulative and deeply creepy as a character. The love story as it was portrayed was very strange, since it seemed written to be this sweeping grand romantic thing. And yet–Marco was a terrible, callous, desperate person. And Celia was little more than a phantom. We get very little of her in terms of interiority. Their love story is told more than shown. It is obvious that Morgenstern can write a natural, sweet love story, because there is once in the book–Bailey and Poppet–but the central narrative focuses on Marco’s fixation with Celia and Celia’s acquiescence to it, which is passed off here as love.

Again, this is a beautifully written book, and masterfully structured. But it didn’t work for me. The ending was too pat, and the central relationship was too hollow. For a book where the main characters should have been inside the magic, the worldbuilding felt half-realized. The entire book felt too coy by half.

3 stars


1Tsukiko was, to me, by far the most interesting character in the book. She was also one of the few characters who became more interesting as the book went on instead of less interesting. I kept wishing the book had been about her instead.

2When Marco’s mentor said this, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ever been poor. It struck me as the kind of things a person who had always lived comfortably says about the presumed horrors of being poor, the unknown shock of lack. I actually can’t imagine that knowing the arcane wonders would be worth unwittingly losing one’s freedom forever. Self-determination is constrained when living in poverty, this is true, but at least there’s a semblance of it.

Book Review: ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity:
There is a sliver of diversity here, but it’s probably not what you’re looking for.

The Jewish character is smart, but Very Wrong and Stubborn.

Literally the only person of color in the entire book is a voodoo-using evil bogeyman ghost out to kill people. He is Black. And evil. And he eats animals sometimes.

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Review:
Cas Lowood is a ghost hunter, like his father before. He is training, honing the edge of his talents, because he needs to be as good as possible when he goes up against the ghost that took down his dad. He’s only seventeen, but he’s been at this for three years, and he’s nearly ready. This next hunt is his final test: Anna Dressed In Blood. She’s supposed to be vicious. The stories about her are chilling. He can’t wait to go after her.

But when he gets to Thunder Bay Ontario–with his witch mother and their witchy cat in tow–nothing goes according to plan. Anna is a force, and deadly, but there is more to her than he expected. Civilians get involved, and it turns out he needs their help. And then everything goes sideways.

Anna Dressed In Blood is a well-written book that, for me, had several fatal flaws and suffered in comparison to other, better works tackling similar themes. Blake can write, and she has a knack for characterization. The book was well-paced and readable, the characters are generally well-rounded. Carmel, especially, surprises and delights. Blake has talents; this book was not the book for me.

The premise (extremely masculine but very sensitive teenage boy goes ghost-huntin’) bore such a strong resemblance, especially in the opening pages, that I couldn’t help comparing it to Supernatural.

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Supernatural has a lot of problems–the women keep dying. The people of color keep dying. But as a show that explores just how toxic masculinity can be it is pretty damn good. This is clearly a theme Blake was trying to explore in Anna Dressed In Blood; as Cas slowly picks up his entourage, and even more slowly begins to regard them as friends, he opens up new vulnerabilities.

The difference between Cas Lowood and the Winchester brothers is that Cas never actually had to do any of the things he’s doing. He decided to put this pressure on himself. We are told, in the book, that he is very special and must fight all these ghosts with his very special ghost hunting knife to which–maybe, it remains unclear–he is blood-bound. But his mother clearly wishes he wouldn’t do this, even as she enables him.

(Sidebar: Dear Cas’s mom–stop enabling him. Why are you enabling him? Since he was fourteen he has been doing this shit that got your husband killed? You’re just…letting him do this? What the shit, you’re a witch. And a parent. Put your foot down. Do not move him around multiple countries allowing him to murder dead people, which is clearly very dangerous. It is well-established that John Winchester was a shitty parent do you want to be like John Winchester, lady??)

Dean and Sam were forced into this life. They had no choice. There was no normalcy for them, and on top of that, they are not in high school. Watching the show, I do have to navigate around questions like really, though, when do you do your homework if you are out ghost hunting all night. And, having been forced into that life, the Winchesters’ emotional arcs are more defined and starker than Cas’s.

Then it turns out it’s less a Gory Horrible ghost story than this kind of ghost story:

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but gender flipped and they’re in high school

Yeah. The kind with kissin’.

I mean, Anna is still pretty destructive, but not when it comes to Cas1. He uncovers her Tragic Past (of course she has a Tragic Past) and then promptly falls in love with her. And she likes him back. And they canoodle and stuff. And…all his friends and his mom are cool with it.

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Why are they cool with it? How is this a sustainable relationship? Things Go Down at the end, but things would go down one way or the other. Did Cas see himself as a seventy year old man with ghost-Anna on his arm? Was he planning to introduce her to people? What if she was tied to the town–was he going to leave and return occasionally? Just…no one brought up any “hey, friend, your girlfriend is a ghost, that is an interesting life choice” conversations at all.

This part of the book really pales in comparison to Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria. Like Cas, Jevick falls for a ghost. Unlike Cas, he realized very quickly how limiting their different experiences of existence are for their budding relationship. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet portrayal of love. If you are looking for a love story about a man and a ghost, that’s what I would point you to. But it’s an extraordinarily different book than this one (not horror at all, for starters).

With all of this I doubt I ever would have become an Anna Dressed in Blood superfan, but I would have rated it a solid four stars had there not been a few glaring plot holes and dangling plot threads. The worldbuilding felt half fleshed out. The plot moved–but on inspection key pieces just happened and didn’t make much sense. Anna’s murder, especially made little sense to me (specific questions are spoilery and under a cut here). Same with the final Big Bad.

3 stars

1For reasons that are never really explained. Plot threads be hangin’.

Spoilers below Continue reading

Book Review: FIREFIGHT

Firefight_BrandonSanderson

Amazon | Goodreads

Firefight is Book 2 in the Reckoners series. You can read my review of Reckoners Book 1, Steelheart, here.

FYI, there are some minor spoilers in the footnotes.

Notes on Diversity:
Compared to Steelheart, there was nowhere to go but up, really.

2002

Sanderson did go up. He could have kept Firefight populated by only white people1, but he branched out a little. The book is still defined by a masculine voice and masculine quest, and the team of Reckoners is still led and organized around male leaders (though women are present), but at least there are some prominent characters of color: Regalia and Newton, specifically.

But. Regalia, the main antagonist of the book, is a Black woman. That in itself is not a problem. Black women can be the bad guys, sure. But. In making Regalia an Epic–specifically an Epic with powers that manifest as omnipresence and her positioning as the owner/protector of Babilar, she is like a cross between the Magical Negro trope and the Black Boss Lady trope.2 That is to say that clearly some effort went into making her race visible, but I’m not sure Sanderson pulls it off. She seems like a collection of cliches to me, which is distasteful in itself. Readers of color might bounce especially hard off her. YMMV.

And Newton zips around, being horrible, for a long, long while before being revealed as Asian canonically. Given her assumed Epic name, and given that we get no actual description of her as a person–but elaborate descriptions of the havoc she wreaks–I assumed she was White until halfway through the book. That she was Asian seemed to be mostly an afterthought.


Review:
I read Firefight on the strength of the plotting in Steelheart. But Firefight lags. It’s a middle volume with middle volume weaknesses: it builds lore up, and the plot of this volume is mostly setup for the Grand Finale coming in the next book.

It’s not a terrible book. I devoured it in days. I would have devoured it quicker except that Sanderson indulged far too often in his gimmick of writing in David Charleston’s terrible metaphors. One or two absurdly bad metaphors I can handle, but not one per page. David Charleston, as a character, seemed to be on a one-man-mission to teach himself how to produce elegant metaphors on demand, going so far as to stop conversations with his elusive Epic girlfriend who is maybe but probably not evil but that everyone thinks is evil but he knows better in order to write down her better metaphors.

The book could have been trimmed. Reading it felt like a prelude, or perhaps, the first act of the final volume. The Reckoner series should have been a duology, maybe, not a trilogy. Too much setup, too much effort, for too little payoff. Too many characters and settings that we’ll likely not see again in the third volume.

There were interesting things in the book. The difference between how David expected Obliteration to be and how Obliteration actually was was well done–but again unless this plays some role in the last volume this could have been a separate short story.

In sum, those who loved Steelheart and are captivated by the Reckoners will probably love this slightly less. It’s a little meandering. If you’re looking for diversity, this isn’t and never was the place to look. I’ll check out Calamity because I’ve read the rest, so why not?

3 stars

————-SPOILERS BELOW————-

1think Nightweilder in Steelheart was Asian? He came and went so fast that honestly I don’t really remember, but I think so. Pretty sure everyone else was White, though. And despite Tia and Megan being in the mix it read like a sausage party. A straight sausage party.

2The fact that both of these tropes are typically reserved for ‘positive’ portrayals of racist caricatures actually fits with what Sanderson does with Regalia’s character over the course of the book. Regalia has an aborted redemption arc; she’s dying of cancer, and wants to hand her city over to a ‘trustworthy’ Epic–a one Jonathan Phaedrus, Prof, of the Reckoners. Which means her entire plot is about a Black woman handing her power over to a White man. Yes, she is dying. Yes, they were friends. BUT STILL. THAT IS WHAT THE BOOK HINGES ON. It…rubbed me the wrong way.


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Book Review: OOGA BOOGA [contains minor spoilers]

OogaBooga_GerryWalker

Amazon | Goodreads

FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Notes on Diversity (this section has some spoilers):
The first thing you need to know about Gerry Walker’s Ooga Booga is that it’s a book written to interrogate and extrapolate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. In other words, it’s a book steeped in Blackness. All the central players in the book are Black, and their Blackness is key to the plot: the book literally hinges on genetic differences between Black and non-Black individuals. I…had questions about this, which I’ll get into in the review downstream, but suffice to say the cast was predominately Black. Walker makes a point of acknowledging that Black individuals come in all different skin tones, too, which is another key element of the plot I’ll get to in a minute.

But. The book goes utterly sideways with regard to its representation of queer characters. A prominent character is queer–I thought at first, just a pleasant happens-to-be-queer character– and is revealed to be a classic duplicitious conniving snake-in-the-grass queer character. There was literally no reason for this that I can think of. He was just…the only queer in the book, and he was heartless and evil. Because. Reasons.

Also, there is an Fat Evil Scientist who is at times jolly. FYI.

But. Walker does use the speculative fiction conceits he introduces in the book to explore, with some nuance and respect, the intersections of race, poverty, and sudden dis/ability to great effect.

What I’m saying is in terms of diversity–specifically in terms of intersectionality–Ooga Booga tries very hard. It gets some things right and gets some things wrong.


Review:
The Black Lives Matter movement mattered1. It mattered enough, actually, that Black boycotts finally shut things down. Corporations finally noticed the full brunt of Black earning power. A trap was set. Some years in the future, Black people begin to fall prey to a mysterious disease, one that strikes them down, strips them from language, replacing it with something called New Speek–a burst of undulating, ever-changing consonants and vowel sounds that can’t be learned.2 As the New Speekers transition, they are ripped from their homes, taken to camps. They lose their jobs. Reentry to society is troubled at best when they do regain English. And, inevitably, there are shootings. The context Walker sets up here is pitch-perfect. It is absolutely eerie. The first chapter, which chronicles New Speeker Patient Zero–a five year old girl–is heartbreaking.

From there, the book redirects its attention onto Vanessa Landing, a white-passing biracial woman who transitions to New Speek at literally the worst possible moment. Her world comes crashing down around her. She loses her high-powered job and is shunned by her former friends. Her veneer of whiteness is shattered. As she rebuilds her life from the ground up, she does so fueled by righteous fury at how Newspeekers are being treated. She becomes an activist, campaigning for their rights. Into her orbit comes her faithful assistant Fisher Coach, a rising rap star named Perry Ironside (who raps in New Speek as Ooga Booga), and her eventual husband, the dull but immensely malleable Eric Dickerson. From there the plot drifts between very a solid political thriller and a frankly saccharine star-crossed romance.

Ooga Booga has its strong points. Walker’s analysis of how Black people are corralled and controlled is cogent and full of horror. New Speek is brilliant–a perfect double edged sword, at once potentially dehumanizing those it affects while simultaneously giving them a secret way to communicate and organize resistance. And, really, given the way Black people are already forced to code switch New Speek as an extrapolation is not far off the mark. Ooga Booga is best when articulating these tensions and exploring them.

But Ooga Booga has deep weaknesses, too. I think the book would have been stronger if  it had focused on a secondary character, Cam Ventura, who never regained English after transitioning to NewSpeek. He is forced to run and scramble and organizes Newspeekers from the fringes of society. Vanessa Landing herself struck me as an odd choice–why focus on someone so white-passing? Her claims to to her Black identity in the text are inherently validated by her ability to speak New Speek, but never once does anyone interrogate her light-skin privilege or the fact that perhaps she is adopted by the mainstream as an acceptable figurehead for Newspeekers precisely because of her ability to pass as a white woman. Once in the text Vanessa makes mention of the Black community’s need to address colorism within its ranks, but nothing past that is mentioned despite constant mentions of her light eyes and blond hair and pale skin. This, combined with the reliance on lazy tropes (evil queer, evil fat person) and the constant stream of questions I had about how New Speek functioned and who transitioned and why left me distracted while I read the book. After the extraordinary first chapter I never fully engaged with the text again.

Your mileage may vary. My guess is that some people will read this book and be able to skim right past the tropes that rubbed me so wrong. Some people are not nearly so over-thinky as me and will not have so many questions about why some members of the population transitioned to New Speek while others did not. For those people, this may be a five star book. For me, the strengths and weaknesses of Ooga Booga existed in a near-equal and uneasy balance.

3 stars

1This is clear in the back cover copy, which you can read in the Goodreads or Amazon blurbs, but it wasn’t actually clear in the text of the book until, I think, 70% of the way through. As I read the book, I thought I was reading a sort of alternate-universe book where the events happening were that universe’s version of our Black Lives Matters movement. When it was revealed that no, actually, it was the same universe but the book was set thirty or so years in the future I was momentarily confused.

2The Big Reveal here actually seemed to have more to do with melanin production than African ancestry directly. This raised questions for me–were there dark-skinned Asian individuals who transitioned to New Speek? If the main character, Vanessa Landing, a biracial women who is extremely white-passing can transition to New Speek, then how precisely is it tied to melanin production? I know I’m overthinking this, getting far too deep in the weeds here, but I have questions. And this conception of Blackness kept leading back to a one-drop-rule line of thinking wrapped up in discussions of “melanin production” without unpacking that there are other racial categories that also produce melanin. It just read as clumsy to me, or possibly unfinished.


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Book Review: ESTRANGED

Estranged_AlexFedyr
FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Alex Fedyr’s debut novel, Estranged is a resilient and unexpected genre-bender of a book. It’s as much steeped in crime thrillers as it is paranormal horror. It’s half-zombie and half-vampire. Though Estranged suffers from a few problems that, I think, might be debut-author missteps, on the whole the book is a solid effort.

Kalei Distrad is a cop in Celan, where she works clean up on Estranged attack sites. The Estranged can kill Untouched people with a brush of skin-to-skin contact, and Kalei lost her parents to them. All she wants is to become a Warden—a member of SWORDE, the front line against the Estranged. That’s who Kalei is when we first meet her. By the end of the first chapter, Kalei is someone completely, wholly different. By the end of the book, Kalei is reincarnated one over again.

Suffice to say Fedyr keeps the plot moving. Plot and pacing are used to excellent effect; Fedyr juggles multiple plot arcs, each well-paced, each unifying at the end of the book to good effect. There was one major twist I felt was unbelievable1, but otherwise, each twist was satisfying and surprising.

The Estranged themselves are innovative, interesting horror creatures: Fedyr takes elements from both zombies and vampires, but makes them something else entirely. Like most monsters, the Estranged are posited to interrogate something about human nature, and the Estranged raise a host of questions about addiction. Anyone who has struggled with addiction or has lived with or loved someone who has dealt with addiction will engage with this book on a whole deeper level; I know I did. The complexities of addiction are on display here, most especially that addicts are still people, even in the throes of their addiction, even when it makes them do terrible things, and while that doesn’t absolve what they do it does complicate what it means to be human.

Some of that lovely nuance gets lost in spots where Fedyr’s choices as an author distract from the plot and the characters. For example, I was confused by two characters with almost exactly the same name who are allies to Kalei (hint: Mar and Marley are not the same person). A more problematic example is the use of what reads like feigned African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to code at least one White character as sketchy and low class. Later in the book, this character essentially code-switches between AAVE and Standard English. Given that this character is White, this is deeply appropriative of Black culture, and the character traits Fedyr was trying to communicate to the reader about this character using code-switching and AAVE to begin with were not necessarily positive. I am a White reader, but there is a good chance that a reader of color, especially a Black reader, could see this as a major race fail.

In sum, Estranged is an engaging and thoughtful horror novel, and a solid first effort from Fedyr albeit with some missteps. It ends with a chilling cliffhanger, and I hope Fedyr is writing a sequel so I can see what happens next!

3 stars

1To my point about Estranged being a debut book, this particular plot twist would have flown better with more foreshadowing and groundwork laid earlier in the book.

Book Review: DERVISHES

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Dervishes by Neal Starkman seems to be equal parts beat novel, radical feminist ethnography, and discarded Woody Allen script with a dash of someones’ physics dissertation thrown in as a garnish. It had a decidedly John Barth-esque quality to it.

The book is structured as the diary of a one Carolyn Anderson: assistant physics professor in Seattle currently facing a crisis in her professional life when her research funding dries up. Carolyn, in a fit of teenage cheekiness, dubs her diary “Lady Di.” The entries are conversational; an ongoing back and forth between Carolyn and her silent foil. Lady Di is a good listener and gives Carolyn the space to dig up her old war wounds. At the time she starts diarizing, Carolyn identifies as a lesbian, but she uses much of her diary to excavate her relationship with Philip Lester, a former lover with whom she never quite got the closure she needed.

In the mode of Woody Allen, the book tries to weave together philsophizing and blase comedy. Sometimes, as with an anecdote about a wayward crab on a beach excursion that starts horrifying and ends bittersweet and funny and revealing a humanity about Philip I didn’t think would ever get revealed, it works marvelously. Sometimes it doesn’t. Always, it’s ambitious.

The philosophical questions that the book wrestles with—that Carolyn and Philip and Carolyn’s current lover, Stephanie, wrestle with—are largely questions of identity and authenticity. To what extent, Philip asks, can one be truly authentic when one pins one’s identity on the prattle of others? If you say ‘I am X’ (a lesbian, a feminist, a socialist, a professor) to define yourself, and take on the trappings of that group, then you buy yourself some comfort from thinking. You buy yourself an in-group. But what is the cost of that?

Carolyn’s current lover, Stephanie, is a radical lesbian, and she veers the other direction. For her, everything is the movement, the community. If you are not fully bought into that, Stephanie seems to feel, then what’s the point? What are you contributing?

Carolyn spends the book spinning between these two extremes. And they are extremes, each as equally misinformed as the other. Philip’s myopia about groups and affiliation leaves him more and more isolated. His insistence that he might be a man, sure, but his refusal to engage with what having been raised as a man and what living in the world as once means drives a wedge between him and his beloved Carolyn as she develops more and more of a feminist consciousness. Stephanie, on the other hand, takes things as given which should not always be taken as givens, and her reluctance to ask questions leaves Carolyn suspicious.

This is, all in all, a curious book. I love that it’s voice is Carolyn’s—a lesbian scientist, someone who is not perfect and does not pretend to be, someone who struggles and questions herself and those around her. But I wish that Carolyn herself had been more front and center. She too often faded into the background for me; though it’s her book, her story, and her diary, it often felt like she was reporting on what other people did around her. And in specific, though she was a lesbian, much of the text was devoted to the autopsy of her relationship with Philip, poor doomed misanthropic unlikable Philip, who all too slowly mansplains his way right out of her life.

Some of this can be attributed to Carolyn herself, perhaps. Maybe she perceived herself to be more passive than she really was. It’s her diary, after all, and there is room to interpret her as an unreliable narrator. But that could also be wishful thinking on my part. I wanted her to take her life by its reins. She does so at the end, but over and over we watch, as ‘Lady Di’, trapped as this brilliant woman (she has a doctorate in physics, come on) gets pushed and pulled this way and that. Her inner monologue as it’s poured out to her diary is acerbic and sharp. I wanted her actions to be as acerbic, as sharp.

But, still, there’s much in the book worth liking. The characters are well drawn—though I would’ve liked more time with Stephanie to have fleshed her character out more. Generally I am wary of men writing from women’s perspectives, but Starkman was a pleasant surprise. Carolyn felt authentic to me.

3 stars

Book Review: THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING

thegirlwhowouldbeking

Kelly Thompson’s THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING is a strange little book. Slim and quick, the book follows a pair of young women who stumble upon ancestral god-like powers. The pair exist as a fixed duality: Bonnie Braverman is the good one, and Lola LeFever is the bad one. The book switches between their perspectives as both grapple with their newfound abilities.

This book is one part homage to and one part send-up of superhero cliches. There are dead-parent-origin-stories and mad-cackling-at-oddly-named-henchmen. There are several explosive fights between the hero and the villain. This book has the strengths and the weaknesses of its specific genre, and for my money, it falls prey to a common issue: the villain ends up being so much more interesting than the hero that I ended up rooting for the wrong character.

I gave this book three stars, and if I’m honest, it’s because I’m splitting the difference. Bonnie’s sections were a two. I found her flat, two-dimensional. She is an example of “goodness” reading as lacking in depth or complexity. She starts at least a little interesting: when the book opens, Bonnie is a silent seventeen year old living in a group home. She’s been in the system since she was six, when both her parents died in a car crash which she instinctively knows is somehow related to her shocking strength and speed. She stops speaking. She becomes a ghost in her own life, and then the power grows and pushes her to intervene, to protect the people around her. And then she . . . gets a boyfriend. And starts speaking. And works a quirky bookstore job and makes a quirky bookstore friend and becomes less and less interesting with each page. The fact that she spent literal years in silence is not addressed. The feelings of displacement and uncertainty she seems to feel from being an orphan and ward of the state clear up right quick. It is possible to write an extremely good character who is also very compelling and idiosyncratic (see Atticus Finch or Minerva McGonagall) but Bonnie is not that character.

Standing in sharp contrast is Lola. Her story opens with a carefully plotted matricide. Her voice is immediately funny and heartbreaking at the same time, and the clumsy-witty sharpness of it does not let up once in the book. Her sections were a pleasure to read. The entire book is written in a stream-of-consciousness-lite first person-present tense, but Lola’s sections held much more immediacy and urgency than Bonnie’s did. Even as she falls prey to standard villain killers—madness, a moment of misplaced mercy, hubris—her voice remains distinct and arresting.

Honestly, though, what drew me so much more towards Lola’s narrative than Bonnie’s is that Lola’s is, deep down, an abuse narrative. It’s about Lola trying to make sense out of what she is and how she was treated and why she was treated that way. Replace “superpowers” with “mental illness” and basically you’ve got my childhood (without the matricide). Lola’s story encapsulated a lot of questions I’ve spent my adult life asking myself: if my abusive parents and I share genes, but they also raised me, then what parts of me that are messed up are because it’s encoded in me and what parts are scars left over from all those years in that house? How could I possibly untangle that? Where is that fine line between compassionate acceptance of my flaws and permissive self-enabling of my destructive tendencies? If history has repeated itself for generations—my great-grandmother abused my grandmother who abused my mother who abused me—then is it even possible to break that cycle? Lola reminded me of myself at eighteen, fresh out of a crappy home life and trying to posture and swagger into a better version of myself without realizing all the posture and swagger were the worst things about me.

She is a deeply real character, finely realized, and desperately tragic. I ended up rooting for her because in real life I rooted for myself. I kept hoping Thompson would subvert the Big Trope and pull a fast one on me—I very much wanted Lola to emerge as the good one, to have a redemption, to become sane and stable. That is not what happens. Well, she gets a redemption, of sorts, but it’s a hollow one. All in all, the GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING is a standard by-the-numbers retelling of superhero tropes with one truly standout character.

3 stars

Book Review: THE SCAR

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China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag is a strange, fascinating, massive place. THE SCAR, the second of Mieville’s trio of Bas-Lag novels, starts the story in New Crobuzon, where PERDIDO STREET STATION took place, and then quickly moves out to explore far, exotic corners of the world. The worldbuilding, this organic exploration, represents the best part of THE SCAR.

THE SCAR takes place immediately after the events of PERDIDO STREET STATION. The fallout from PERDIDO STREET STATION sets the plot of THE SCAR in motion: the New Crobuzon militia is rounding up all of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin’s known associates. Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac’s, flees the city before they can get to her. She learns an arcane language and secures a place on a ship bound for Nova Esperium, a fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. She plans to lie low in the colony for a few years until the heat dies down. She is forced to run, but Bellis is certain it’s temporary.

Bellis’ plans are ruined when the Terpsichoria is taken by pirates.* The ship is boarded, the commanding officers are shot, and the ship is comandeered. The pirates steer the Terpsichoria to Armada, a legendary city of stolen ships adrift in the Swollen Ocean. The remaining crew and passengers of the Terpsichoria are absorbed into Armada’s population, given housing and jobs, but are told in no uncertain terms that they can never leave the floating city. Some, like Bellis, are horrified. But there were others on the boat who don’t mind so much. Tanner Sack, a Remade man grotesquely punished for a crime by a magical reshaping of his body, was on the ship as a prisoner sent to Nova Esperium to serve as slave labor. While the press-ganging robs Bellis of her freedom and agency, to be treated as any other citizen, to be paid for his work, gives Tanner Sack his dignity back and wins his loyalty in the process.

Armada is the real star of the book. The story is primarily told through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine and Tanner Sack, both new to the city and press-ganged, but the heart of the narrative is a tale of political intrigue and the obligations those in power have to those they are supposed to serve. Armada reads as a real place, with a real economy. It’s a parasitic city, but it’s a living, breathing place. The factions that make up Armada spar with each other, try to undercut each other, and ultimately coexist to keep the city alive. Mieville’s descriptions of the city itself, from the way comandeered ships are repurposed to become city parks and industrial areas and living quarters, to the petty rivalries between the city’s leaders, are endlessly fascinating.

Madness and greed exist in Armada, too, personified here as the Lovers, the rulers of Bellis’ district. The Lovers, a pair of scarred people whose codependence is both deeply disturbing and awe-inspiring, have conceived of an ambitious and dangerous plan which involves a sea monster, an ill-fated scientific expedition and quantum mechanics. The Lovers’ obsession horrifies and fascinates both Bellis and the reader, and ultimately endangers the city of Armada and everyone within it.

The book is well-paced and well-plotted. The worldbuilding is wonderful. The abstract concepts Mieville toys with here are interesting. But, ultimately, the book didn’t quite work. This was one of those rare books where I was totally in love with it at the start and slowly, inexorably fell out of love with it by the end. The reason was Bellis. I loved Bellis—I loved her misanthropy, her urgency, her cold, intellectualized take on the world. I loved having her as the dominant narrator. At the start of the book, Bellis was a breath of fresh air. Finally, here was a smart, remote woman lead who found her way through the narrative on her own. Truly, this felt like her story. In Bellis’ voice, Mieville exercises a degree of stylistic control rare for him. The writing was simple and smirking and evocative.

But by the end of the book, Bellis is utterly, completely stripped of agency. It was as if, over and over, Bellis had to be taught a lesson, had to be cut down to size. That Bellis turns out to have been the pawn of a half-dozen equally arrogant and willful men over the course of the book bothered me. It undermined everything I liked about Bellis, everything that was subversive about her in the first place. And, honestly, I thought Mieville was better than that. Bellis Coldwine is, more or less, the polar opposite of Avice Benner Cho, the protagonist of EMBASSYTOWN, which I loved. He writes Avice as a woman who is brilliant and decisive and who changes the fate of an entire world. She doesn’t really see herself as the driver of those changes, though she undeniably is. Bellis, on the other hand, believes herself to be doing things, making changes, and has that ripped away from her by the end of the book. That she wasn’t seems to be a thoughtless choice. Bellis is made a fool of and for no good reason. The book is still interesting and engaging, but Mieville’s misuse of her character was enough for me to realize that I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to or tried to.

3 stars

*Honestly, Bellis is a case study in terrible luck.

Book Review: SWEET THURSDAY

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John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday revisits the people and places of Cannery Row. Set after World War II, some of the cast of the Row has changed—Lee Chong has moved on, and his store is taken up by a clever criminal by the name of Joseph and Mary Rivas; the Bear Flag brothel is now under the care of a star-chart-reading madam named Fauna; while Mack and Hazel still remain at the Palace Flophouse, the rest of the tenets have changed over the years. The book is centered around the two biggest changes: Doc has gone to war and come home again, and a girl named Suzy arrives on Cannery Row. Both are wounded, stubborn, deeply lonely people, and the folks of Cannery Row take it upon themselves to get the two together.

As is typical for Steinbeck’s work, Sweet Thursday appears simple but is actually rather complex. It is, on the surface, a somewhat saccharine love story. It’s a love story mostly about how a woman can save a man, can fix him, which means that the love story is really about the man and much less about the woman. That’s one of my least favorite kinds of love story, frankly, which meant this book was not always what I wanted it to be or what I wanted to read. But a deeper reading makes this a weightier, darker book. This book is as much about redemption as it is about love. It’s as much about reconciling the past as it is about building a future. Doc comes back from the war changed—hollow and flat and listless and angry, or what we today might call PTSD-stricken. We don’t know what he saw in the war, but I’m sure it was nothing pleasant. Suzy shows up on the Row penniless and hungry, on the run from what is hinted to be a nasty failed marriage. She is angry and listless, too.

To some extent, this is a slapstick book. Steinbeck’s raucous, corny style of comedy is in play throughout. But counterbalancing that is a weirdly pervasive casual violence. Characters who seemed so gentle in Cannery Row, like Hazel and Doc, pick fights, break bones and nearly strangle others. Doc spends several pages literally enraging octopi to the point of death. It’s threaded through the book, start to finish, and I found it a little disturbing. Everything in the book reads like a desperate scramble to right things, to get things back to the equilibrium of the first book, both in the plot and in the writing itself.

Sweet Thursday is not Cannery Row—and I doubt it’s really trying to be, so while one is a sequel of the other it’s ultimately an apples-to-oranges comparison. It’s a different book: where in Cannery Row the characters were the backdrop and the place was the protagonist, the characters take center stage here. Sweet Thursday has a much more linear and traditional narrative plot, which, perhaps, comes as part of it being more about the people than the place. It is a good book on its own merits, but it feels unfocused. It feels like Steinbeck’s heart and his brain were trying to write two different books here, and he was never quite able to resolve those inconsistencies.

bookreview3stars