Book Review: SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

Ah, this book is so wonderful. Sing, Unburied, Sing has such richness in it. While the plot follows one family, that family has deep wells and particularities in it, like all families. Ward shows just how specific southern Black culture is with Jojo’s family, but also how much of a monolith it isn’t. Jojo’s family contains within it many different kinds of trauma and many different roots to different kinds of people.

Content Warnings for Book

This is not a light read. Content warnings for:

  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Drug use and abuse, plus a near overdose
  • Police brutality towards Black people, including towards a Black boy
  • Depictions of brutality and imprisonment
  • A murder/hate crime
  • A lynching

Review

Blurb (from Goodreads):

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a fascinating and beautiful novel that is fixated on rootedness and liminality. The tension between the two–presence and absence, movement and stasis–threads throughout the book. Structured as a road novel, in more ways that one, the interweaving narratives themselves are stories of change, of movement, of moments of crisis. But the backdrop of these moments is the fixedness of family, this idea of familiarity and stability, which, even when it’s just an idea is sometimes enough for someone to draw hope from.

There is a lot going on in this book. Ward is an uncannily gifted writer, moving from character to character with sharp ease, making every scene count, driving toward a final image that left me breathless and tied everything that went before together.

The story Ward tells here is hard to read, but it is timely. And it’s not always hard. There is genuine warmth and kindness, blooms of hope in the darkness. These are people who are surviving and who have always survived. Jojo’s relationship with his grandfather and his relationship with his sister is so loving it almost hurts. And Leonie, for all her faults, clearly draws comfort from the ghost of her brother.

The way Ward writes ghosts makes me feel like they are lurking everywhere in the world, tucked just out of sight. She uses them to spell out the heavy weight of history, the scars that history leaves us with. The ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing have form and voice–they drive the plot as much as the corporeal characters do–but it’s not so far from real life. We are haunted by the brutalities of the past. We are shaped by traumas. They lurk in our minds and our bones, have their own echoes, and that is a kind of form and voice.

Takeaway & Rating

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a stunning and heartwrenching book about America’s current and past treatment of Black people. I just loved it so much.

5stars

 

Book Review: STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

Most people in the book, including the eponymous Strange, are an unspecified shade of fantasy brown. This has its pros and cons: there is at least some nominal representation for people of color here; Taylor has not chosen to populate her fantasy world with random White people. However, the representation may only be skin deep. It’s certainly something to read and have a brown person there on the page, but these are brown people without the weight and depth of a specific culture or history behind them.

That said, Strange the Dreamer does have some rather excellent representation along a couple of other axes. There are a pair of out queer characters just living their lives, loving each other (yay!). Lazslo Strange grew up a foundling, in poverty, and has a storyline where his class and how its constructed is sharply contrasted to that of Thyon Nero. The similarities and dissimilarities between them–the points of access one has to the other, and that the other lacks, for instance–speak volumes about the resources each commands or doesn’t, and how having resources (or not) throughout one’s life shapes how people interact with the world around them.

Strange the Dreamer also does a lot with the representation of and the theme of disability. Trauma, especially, leaks through the pages here, though Strange himself is one of the few characters untouched by it. Character after character is scarred, is broken, either physically or psychologically. There are missing limbs, missing memories, and missing people. One thing the book does extremely well is take note of the old wounds abuse leaves, and the way that people adapt to their vulnerabilities.

Content Warnings for Book:

  • Rape is described and alluded to
  • Emotional abuse and physical abuse are described and alluded to
  • There are references to stolen and murdered children
  • Mind control and coercion (I count what Minah is doing to the ghosts as this since the ghosts are still sentient and non-consenting)
  • Arguably self-harm (Thyon Nero’s over-extraction of his spirit fluid)

Review:

Blurb (from Goodreads):

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

 

Strange the Dreamer is a luxurious treat of a book. I sunk into it and was swept up by it. There is a lot to love about it, and it starts, squarely, with Lazlo Strange himself. Lazlo is a wonderful protagonist: as bookish as the person reading the book, imaginative and sharp-tongued, humble and clever, a genuinely kind nerd who ends up on the quest of a lifetime alongside a frenemy to the one place he’s always wanted to go.

The trek to Weep was my favorite part of the book. It’s in this section of the book where Lazlo really shines. You see how he comes into his own on the road, how likable he is, and how inherently decent he is. The core mystery of Weep itself lingers around the edges of the story during these early chapters, teasing the reader, while the characters come into clearer focus. Some of the characters, like Calixte, the queer thief who ends up Lazlo’s quick friend, and Thyon, the alchemist who is perpetually wary of Lazlo’s inherent kindness, are real standouts.

Weep itself is a strange place, both within the story and as a reader. The Weep of reality is little more than a creepy sketch: we get the floating citadel, the scarred husks that still live in terror, and very little else. The Weep of Lazlo’s dreams is flooded with description, florid and bright, a complete and completely different place. I’m not sure how intentional this disconnect between real Weep and dream Weep was, but it was jarring for me that I had so little sense of place in real Weep.

The lens of the story narrows when Lazlo arrives in Weep, as well. Characters who were important on the journey suddenly drop off the page. New characters arrive. The change in cast is abrupt. Most notably, Thyon Nero, who was so fundamentally important in the first third of the book nearly disappears. This is not to say that the book is badly constructed–in fact, the ending has a huge twist which, when revealed, takes many very small asides and neatly slots them together like a puzzle box. That is to say that this reads almost like a duology shoved into one volume: Strange Gets To Weep, then Strange Dreams There.

There is one thing I did not like about Strange the Dreamer, and that was his romantic arc. I had two issues with it. First, it was predictably instantaneous and felt juvenile for it. Second, there was, in the particular societal moment we’re in, an age gap between the parties that made me uncomfortable.

Sarai, Lazlo’s love interest, was a decently interesting character in her own right,* but she was fifteen and naive. Lazlo had to be around twenty. Much is made in the book of his virginal stature, so he might be a pure and untouched twenty, but he is still a grown ass man, and by description, not a small one. The age difference between them was not romantic; it was uncomfortable. It was a power differential I could not unsee, and it was compounded by complications with the reveals with the endings. As Sarai’s role in the story becomes more constrained, Lazlo’s role takes on more power. By the end of the story, they are on far from an even playing field in their partnership.

Takeaway & Rating:

Strange the Dreamer is a lovely and intricate book. Despite a mishandled love story, this book has a cast of fascinating characters and tackles some heavy questions about the aftereffects of catastrophe and trauma. It’s definitely worth a read, and I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel.

4stars

*Sarai was sweet, and kind, and sequestered. She was a Rapunzel type, and I could have stood to see her have more bite to her, but she did have depth to her, and backbone when it counted.

Book Review: THE BOOK OF JOAN by Lidia Yuknavitch

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

The Book of Joan seems to have a very complicated relationship to marginalization and oppression, and it doesn’t seem to realize it. This is a book that is trying to say something about the nested issues of gender oppression and environmentalism, but because the story takes place on a space station, and because there are issues of access getting to that space station, the cast is largely wealthy and largely (literally) White.

This is a book full of very strange contradictions. For example, queerness is represented–Trinculo is a queer man, and Joan and Leone are clearly in love. However, none of those characters are in a satisfying relationship. Trinculo is queer and obsessed with what he’s lost, and ultimately becomes a tragic/fallen queer character. Joan and Leone are a pair of untouched and intact people, in love, but they can’t consummate their relationship because of Joan’s otherworldy abilities. So, even though queerness is threaded through the book, no one is getting what they want. No one is happy. The way these queer characters are written feels regressive.

Content Warnings for Book:

Oh, wow, so many:

  • Transphobia, in multiple ways, at multiple times, by multiple characters. IT WAS A THING.*
  • Racism in the form of literal colorblindness–the ascendant denizens of the space station CIEL all have paper-white skin, and one of the protagonists, Christine, remarks that this transformation renders race a meaningless construct. I don’t think that’s actually true at all.**
  • Sexualized and gendered brutality more than once. Women’s bodies throughout the book are a site of violence.
  • There is at least one especially vicious beating of a queer man, and it happens, in my reading, at least partially because of his sexuality.
  • Christine burns text into her skin, and the scarification she practices is both ritualized and commodified. There are scenes throughout the book of her practice where she describes the act with extremely explicit and lurid detail, so if you have a sensitive stomach go in knowing. There is also an element of this thread of the text that really treads a line of self-harm in my reading of the book.

Review:

Blurb (from Goodreads):

In the near future, world wars have transformed the earth into a battleground. Fleeing the unending violence and the planet’s now-radioactive surface, humans have regrouped to a mysterious platform known as CIEL, hovering over their erstwhile home. The changed world has turned evolution on its head: the surviving humans have become sexless, hairless pale-white creatures floating in isolation, inscribing stories upon their skin.

Out of the ranks of the endless wars rises Jean de Men, a charismatic and bloodthirsty cult leader who turns CIEL into a quasi-corporate police state. A group of rebels unite to dismantle his iron rule—galvanized by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her and communes with the earth. When de Men and his armies turn Joan into a martyr, the consequences are astonishing. And no one—not the rebels, Jean de Men, or even Joan herself—can foresee the way her story and unique gift will forge the destiny of an entire world for generations.

A riveting tale of destruction and love found in direst of places—even at the extreme end of post-human experience—Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan raises questions about what it means to be human, the fluidity of sex and gender, and the role of art as means for survival.

Reading The Book of Joan was an immensely strange experience for me. I enjoyed this book, and I hated it.

Let me explain.

Lidia Yuknavitch is a great writer. She writes with passion and urgency and fluency. I could not stop reading this book even as it became clear that this book was Definitely Not For Me. I just loved the way she wrote. I loved the way she put sentences together. I loved the way she structured the book. She does this fantastic thing where she starts the book in first person in Christine’s POV, then switches to Joan’s POV in third person, then switches to Christine again, this time in third person, and then ends the book in Joan in first person. It worked! I could not believe that it worked, and I loved it!

But the content of the book itself was not good. It was like walking through a restaurant, and everything looks and smells amazing, and then you realize it’s a seafood restaurant and, oops, you’re allergic to shellfish.

The thing about The Book of Joan is that it was trying to have a conversation with me that I was deeply uninterested in having. Yuknavitch is trying to talk about sex and gender and the primacy of binaries in both of those things, and their relationship to environmentalism, in ways that I am fundamentally sick of hearing about. This is an allegorical, and somewhat satirical book, and for a book like that to work, you have to be willing to engage with its philosophical underpinnings. The philosophical underpinnings of The Book of Joan seem largely rooted in lesbian separatism, trans-exclusionary radical feminism, and literally no understanding of asexuality at all.

Leaving aside that the actual mechanics of the plot (CIEL, the rapid mutation of humanity to shed genitalia, etc) do not make sense and were not adequately explained, the book overlooked the actual real-life fluidity of gender and sexuality, despite what the blurb said.

  • In a world where virtually all people suddenly have androgynous bodies, everyone is still using binary gender pronouns. Why? And also, do no non-binary people exist, either before or after? Yes, I understand that the move to this new body cause Christine dysphoria, but the move to this new body would actually remove a lot of my dysphoria! Nothing like this was explored at all in the book.
  • Was no one asexual or aromantic on CIEL? These people were obsessed with having sex.*** There was truly no one who was like “oh, well, no worries.” COME ON.
  • Besides that, there’s more than one way to explore one’s sexuality beside with genitalia. Think broader.

This is not even getting into my actual plot questions, which are legion. The big issue was that this book was deeply transphobic. Joan, the hero of the book, is the type to talk about “womb magic.” The main villain is eventually revealed to be a transgender man–and after the reveal, is gleefully deadnamed and misgendered for the rest of the book. The horrific acts he metes out are directly linked in the text to his hatred of women and his own body. This is a book that made me, as a reader, feel targeted by the text itself.

Takeaway & Rating:

The Book of Joan is a glorious hot mess of a book. Yuknavitch is a talented writer, but her ideas about gender and sexuality are outdated, and her play at allegory left me cold.

2stars

*Again, I really cannot in good conscience recommend this book to others with its handling of trans issues.

**Take, for example, people of color who are also albinos. Race is, of course, about pigmentation, but it’s also about far more than pigmentation, and only a white writer would think that literally whitewashing all bodies would eliminate racism.

***One of the Plot Questions I had, and maybe it was explained and I missed it, was that Jean De Men forbade everyone on CIEL from banging For Reasons, but I don’t know what those reasons were?? So, no one had junk, but wanted to bang, but COULDN’T, so it was VERY FRAUGHT. But I know had I been on CIEL that a) I would have been way less dysphoric than I am this moment and b) I would have been the only one there with any damn chill.

 

Book Review: THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN by J.Y. Yang

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

The inclusiveness of The Black Tides of Heaven was, honestly, a big draw for me. I’d heard about Yang’s approach to gender and gender fluidity as a piece of the worldbuilding before I knew much else about the novella, and that was one reason I picked it up.*

The Black Tides of Heaven is populated with Asian characters with an inclusive and expansive understanding of gender. You are a kid, and then you grow up and decide what your gender is, and then it is confirmed–sometimes just socially, and sometimes both socially and medically. It’s worth noting that the author, J.Y. Yang, is Asian and non-binary.

Content Warnings

  • Character death
  • Terrorism
  • some gender dysphoria (when Akeha considers what life would be like were he to declare himself a woman)
  • An act that reads as a suicide

Review

Akeha and Mokoya are twins born to fulfill a debt. The Protector, who keeps her nation dependent on Slack magic, sends them to a monastery in order to drive another child into greater magical proficiency. So sets the stage: the young twins are little more than their mother’s pawns. All the nation is in her hands. But Mokoya has a great, burgeoning talent: she can see the future. As they grow up together in the monastery, Mokoya with her talent, and Akeha in her shadow, their paths diverge. Mokoya is drawn closer to her mother, her gift used for political gain. And Akeha slips out of his mother’s watchful gaze. He finds his way to the Machinists, the rebels, and with them, stands against his sister.

Yang can write, and do so beautifully:

Akeha was not used to watching their twin speak delicately, putting down their words as if they were stacking porcelain cups.

Check this out:

His supplier was a praying mantis of a man he had met in a narrow alley in Cinta Putri.

There are gems like this on nearly every page. I loved the way this novella was written. But the summary above makes the novella sound linear and easy to parse. It isn’t. There are pages of things that happen that go nowhere, then the plot lurches ahead, and I wasn’t sure exactly how or why. There was gorgeously written worldbuilding exposition, then some character development, then a burst of plot that felt like it came out of nowhere. The book just had a very strange rhythm to it, and I felt like I never quite got the hang of it. I never quite settled in, despite the lovely prose.

An example is the way the relationships were developed. Akeha’s especially, since Akeha was the main protagonist. Akeha was paired briefly with Thennjay, who for pages and pages was caught in a whirlwind romance with Akeha’s sister, Mokoya. Since the moment Thennjay met Mokoya, the two of them are fawning over each other. Akeha is gnashing his teeth in the background, because at this point in the story, he hasn’t confirmed a gender, and is pissed that his sister is using feminine pronouns for herself around Thennjay. He feels weird and excluded. He doesn’t trust this dude. And also future vision reasons for not trusting this dude.

Eventually, Akeha is confirmed a man and decides to leave everything he knows. Thennjay comes to say goodbye. He is like ‘hey you should stay.’ And then things ALL OF A SUDDEN TURN ROMANTIC. I did not see this coming at all.

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The reason I am going into such great detail about Akeha and Thennjay is because it happens again. Akeha goes on to meet a man named Yeongcheow in his journeys. Yeongcheow has mad connects. He and Akeha start traveling together. They talk about religion and fallen freinds. They meet new allies. They fight together. Swell!

Much later, in the dark where they lay in bed, skin to skin…

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When did they hook up? I ended up furiously flipping back, looking for things I’d missed. Little things like this kept happening. When did I miss the gender confirmation for Mokoya’s daughter? When did I miss this key plot point? When did I miss this character’s introduction? There was loving detail about places and elements of the Slack, but character elements were just dropped into the book in a way that felt very frustrating and disorienting to me.

I got a wonderful sense of the world and how it works. I understand what the Slack is, kind of, and who can use it. I understand the dangers of its restricted use and what it means for the denizens of this world. I loved the conception of gender and the use of Slack for gender confirmation! But the characters were dolls moved around in this beautiful world. The plot was a shadowplay. And that made the book unsatisfying for me.

Takeaway & Rating

I wanted to love this novella and didn’t. The writing is lovely. The worldbuilding is careful and fascinating. But the characters are flat and confusing, leading to a plot that is both shallow and convoluted.

3stars

*As a note, I’m not entirely sure how this colored my reading or review of the novella. I actually prefer to get a rec, then read the either blind to the contents or totally spoiled, not halfway in between like this. It sets up impossible expectations.

Book Review: THREE DARK CROWNS by Kendare Blake

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

At least in my reading, this is not a very diverse or inclusive book. As far as I can recall, there are no queer characters. Fennbirn seems like a pretty white place. I’m sure class distinctions exist, but since the plot follows three would-be queens, we’re seeing Fennbirn through the eyes of the haves–doomed haves, bitter haves–but they are still haves.

There is an argument to be made that the book, however obliquely, provides disability in the form of two of the three queens. Mirabella’s sanity is questioned more than once. The impact this has on Mirabella, and the way this colors how others treat her in turn, is a decent reflection of the stigma many people with mental health issues face. And there is Katharine, the poisoner queen: her training requires her to imbibe poison after poison, leaving her frail and weak. The fragility of her body leaves her in a state of chronic pain and fatigue, which is itself a form of disability.

Content Warnings for Book

  • Katharine’s training, mentioned above, is laced with emotional and physical abuse. I’d argue that the training itself is abusive, since her guardians are feeding a child poison from a very young age, but on top of that, Katharine is pinched, and bruised, and belittled. Later she is subjected to emotional manipulation by yet another guardian (this time turned lover).
  • There is HELLA gaslighting in this book, y’all.
    • Mirabella is pretty much constantly subjected to gaslighting by everyone, all the time (see note above about her mental health).
    • Arsinoe ends up on the receiving end of gaslighting by her best friend Jules. Arsinoe, the naturalist queen, is far outstripped in naturalist magic by Jules, and turns to charms and spells–“low magic”– to make her powers appear greater than they are in her demonstration. Though this struck me as an entirely sensible course of action, Jules tells Arsinoe it’s beneath her and that she should be ashamed of herself.

Review

Book summary (from Goodreads):

When kingdom come, there will be one.

In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born—three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.

The last queen standing gets the crown.

The great strength of Three Dark Crowns is its worldbuilding. Fennbirn has weight and history. There is depth and detail here that satisfied my atlas-loving genealogy-craving nerdself. With every reveal of the intricacies of the setup, with every exception and twist, I wanted to know more history. I wanted to know about the great naturalist queens, and how the poisoner families had come to power in recent reigns, and how the elementalists hadn’t just blown them all to smithereens already.

The great weakness of me as a reader is that I overthink everything. So, even with worldbuilding as deep as this, there are still holes. There will always be holes. And when I am as delighted by the worldbuilding as I was with Three Dark Crowns, the seams will show a little harder. When I am left asking questions, I will be a little more bitter. The late-stage reveals of the book felt overly convenient and contrived given how thorough and organic the worldbuilding was throughout. Especially the final reveal, which had me questioning the supposed and demonstrated intelligence of a great many characters. If this was the case the whole time, then how was everything supposed to work?

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All of this is to say that Three Dark Crowns is exactly my kind of book: it is a sprawling, slow, and intensely character focused secondary world fantasy novel. It has very clear stakes: there are three potential queens, and only the most powerful will survive*. The book puts you right into the brains of each of the three queens, forcing you to sympathize with each, daring you to pick and root for a favorite. As each queen makes preparations for her last year of training, and possibly her last year alive, you learn more and more about the land they might rule if they live.

Each of the contender queens is well-drawn and compelling. Katharine has to her advantage the political machinations of the poisoner families, but alas, she is not herself a very strong poisoner. Mirabella is an enormously strong elementalist–but she is apparently unstable. And then there is Arsinoe, the underdog. The naturalists have no political power, and Arsinoe, though clever and quick, has no solid grasp of naturalist magic. All three queens have strengths, and all three queens have weaknesses. It’s anyone’s throne.

Blake takes her time with the book. Instead of urgency, she works with dread. She lets the inevitability of two people’s deaths permeate the pages, and we watch as each of the would-be queens deals with this horrible finality in her own way.

Takeaway & Rating

A slow burn horror of circumscribed lives and forced choices, Three Dark Crowns pits queen against queen. There’s a love triangle in there, but really you should read it for the zombie bear and all the variations on teenage dread.

4stars

*Obligatory Highlander reference below

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Book Review: COURT OF FIVES by Kate Elliott

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

  • The Efeans are coded brown, for sure. Jessamy, while mixed-race, seems to get read by her countrymen as a brown women more often than not. Additionally, Jessamy’s internal experience as a mixed-race person is discussed throughout the book.
  • Jessamy’s sister, Maraya, has a club foot. The book explores, briefly, issues related to disability and how society punishes people with disabilities for literally just existing.
  • Jessamy’s sister, Amaya, is definitely queer. It’s unclear if she’s a lesbian or bisexual, but she’s definitely got a thing going with her best friend, Denya, and it’s delightful.
  • There are also explorations of class and religious differences throughout, though set against a secondary world.

Content Warnings for Book (contains spoilers):

  • Attempted murder of Jessamy’s mother and sisters by entombment

Review:

Jessamy, daughter of a Patron army captain and a Commoner woman, has one driving dream: win the Fives. The Fives are the sports competition that anyone can enter–men, women, Commoners, and Patrons. The Fives don’t care who you are or where you come from, just that you’re strong and clever and agile. The problem is that if Jessamy wins the Fives, she has to pull off her mask, and her father has forbidden her to run them.

But then, her father’s benefactor dies, and her family’s life is thrown into chaos. A new benefactor, Lord Gargaron, swoops in, and he is particularly vicious. He marries her father off to his niece. Jessamy’s mother and her three sisters conveniently disappear. And Jessamy is taken to Lord Gargaron’s Fives training stable–a new potential revenue stream for him.

Jessamy is a wonderful character. At times selfish and mercurial, at others stalwart and loyal, and always clever, she is one of my favorite people to read about in a long time. Jessamy is every inch a bright, rebellious teenager. There is a moment, fairly early in the book, where she has been training on the sly for the Fives. She knows her sisters have been in on it. But she is floored when her mother reveals that she knows Jess has been sneaking out to go training. I loved that–I loved that she is not quite as smart as she thinks she is, that she is not quite as independent as she thinks she is. She is still stretching her wings, testing them, and she has the cavalier nature that comes with easing into adulthood while being protected and loved in childhood. She is a beautifully realized character.

The worldbuilding is also beautifully realized. Efea and its various wars mean different things to different people. To Jess, who hears about them mostly from her father, who has risen through the ranks of the army, they mean prosperity and order. To her fellow trainee, Kal, who is a prince twice over, they mean family squabbles and political bickering. To Ro-Emnu, a Commoner poet who helps her out of a very tight spot, they mean colonization and stolen history. All of these interpretations are true. All of these are not quite the whole story. Though Jessamy is the only POV character in Court of Fives, she has enough meaty conversations about parts of her world she’s never seen or took for granted over the course of the book that we get to see this kind of fractured idea of truth.

Truly, the character work is superb, the worldbuilding is excellent, and the plot is engaging. I really, really enjoyed Court of Fives. The only missteps I think Elliott made were in the romance between Jess and Kal. Kal was a necessary and central character to the plot, both for Jess’s arc and her father, but I was never convinced of their romance. And Kal, how would he retain such a naive sweetness about him having grown up with someone like Gargaron with his uncle? I found both the romance and his purity of heart unrealistic, and it stuck out all the more because the character writing for literally every other character was so strong. Kal really felt like a plot device more than a person, in virtually every sense, and the book was weaker for it.

But still! Read the book for Jess. Read the book for Maraya, who wants to be an Archivist. Read the book for all the little side characters who bring in depth and shading to Efea, like the woman who runs the old stable that Jess used to train at. The scene where she turns away Jess after she’s placed at Gargaron’s stable is heartbreaking. Read the book for the layers of history it has at its core, for the way it slowly reveals that the Fives are more than just games and so few in Efea seem to remember that. Just read the book. It’s pretty damn good.

Takeaway and Rating:

Are you craving a book with rich worldbuilding and a kickass girl lead character? Do you want to see her break some rules and save some people? Court of Fives by Kate Elliott will satisfy that craving for sure.

4stars

Book Review: THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

Not a lot here to speak of, honestly. The Walls Around Us is focused tightly on three characters–Amber, Ori, and Vee. Of the three, Ori does double duty representation. She is biracial, and she is poor.

There was a moment in the book that made me suspect that Amber could be read as queer, but it’s not canonical. There appears to be no actual canonical queer rep in the book, though Amber discusses, occasionally, that there are queer girls in the juvenile detention center where she lives.

There are vague depictions of mental health issues and disability in the sections in the juvenile detention center–the clearest example is the character of Kennedy who eats her own hair–but none of them are fleshed out into fully realized characters. Each of these characters is literally “this is a broken girl, and here is her mark of brokenness in this broken hellhole.”

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all the girls at Aurora Hills, aparently

It is an extremely unidimensional depiction of mental health, and given the complicated relationship between mental health, correctional facilities, and the way poverty intersects with all of that, it is a handling that is rife with issues. As in, if you are someone who is aware of these things it may or may not rub you the wrong way. If you are not someone who is aware of these things, it may play into your biases and reinforce ideas about how crazy people are dangerous. For this reason, I knocked a star off my overall rating.

Content Warnings:

  • violence, some gore
  • drugs used for escapism
  • some low-level creeping ableism in the Aurora Hills sections

Review:

Vee is the best ballerina in town and bound for Julliard, but she wasn’t always the best ballerina. Ori used to be the best ballerina, but that was long ago. That was before the murder of those two girls, before the trial, before she got sent to Aurora Hills Detention Center. Before she died. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma is about Vee and about Ori, but mostly it’s about Amber–Ori’s roommate during her brief stay at Aurora Hills.

The novel jumps back and forth between Vee and Amber’s perspectives. Vee tells a story about her history of dance and her relationship to the Ori-that-was. Amber, the real heart of the book, tells an altogether different story. Serving as the voice for all forty-two girls detained at the Aurora Hills facility, Amber tells her story of regret and lost future as a way of explaining all forty-two lost futures.

But Amber, while trying to tell her story and the story for her forty-one companions, is a confused character. She spends as much time in her narration trying to uncover what is happening to her as she does explicating things for the reader, which is actually quite exciting to read. Aurora Hills becomes a site of uncanny intrigue–at once horrifying for what it is and what it will be, and like Amber, it is unsettling for the reader to be so unsteady in time and place.

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Me and Amber through like 60% of the book

Suma constructs a complicated narrative, and does so beautifully. Threaded through a narrative about professional jealousy and the people we cast aside are also near constant allusions to Macbeth. Vee sometimes thinks she still has blood on her face. The color red is evocative and pervasive. There’s even a feast, and ghosts at the feast.* At one point, hallucinatory vines reclaim the walls of Aurora Hills and all I could think was Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.

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plants are creepy

The biggest weakness of the book (aside from the lurking ableism that ate at me) was Ori. She is ultimately to perfect a character to have any real depth. Neither her relationship to Vee or her relationship to Amber gives her any depth, and she never has any POV scenes of her own. Vee and Ori’s story is one of jealousy and isolation: Ori is the natural, the one with god-given talent, even though Vee is the one who wants so badly to be the ballerina. It’s a story that’s been told before, and it brings nothing new to the table. Vee shrinks in Ori’s shadow, and Ori dulls herself for Vee’s sake.

Ori and Amber’s story is one of small kindnesses in harsh places. Amber takes Ori under her wing, and falls a little bit in love with her. It is ultimately because of Ori that Amber makes the final choices she does, though why exactly this girl has moved her so is unclear since this girl’s personality remains unclear throughout the book. She is a sweet and empty enigma. The threat she is to Vee is clear, but the salvation she represents to Amber never crystallizes.

Takeaway & Rating:

This is a fascinating and beautifully written book with a steely heart of vengeance written into every page. I loved it, but as someone with mental health issues I felt othered by it at the same time. Be careful with this one–check it out if you’re interested in murderous ballerinas and patient girls with angry hearts, but know this book might not love you back.

3stars
*Fun questions for your book club that you didn’t ask for! Who is Banquo? Who is Duncan? Does it matter???

 

Book Review: WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS by Anna-Marie McLemore

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

Something I dearly, dearly love about this book is that it’s a depiction of small town America, but that small town is diverse. There are people of color in that small town. There are people with disabilities in that small town. There are queer people in that small town. And there are transgender people in that small town.

Just like in the small town where I grew up, where, yes, people were queer even though it was in Texas. My town was a mix of brown and black and white and Asian. It was poor, and with that came a bevy of people living with disabilities. McLemore created a story about growing up and surviving and eventually thriving in a small town that felt real and true and representative.

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Content Warnings for Book:

  • Transphobia (addressed and subverted throughout, but it is there)
  • Self harm/suicidal ideation (Sam throws himself in a river and is rescued by Miel. Miel has her own particular brand of self-harm in there, too.)
  • Physical assault (Miel gets crammed into small spaces by the Bonner sisters and gets parts of her body removed by said Bonner sisters, which causes her literal physical pain)
  • Child abuse (like all of Miel’s pre-water tower memories are horrible)

Review:

When Miel was five, she poured out of the water of the felled water tower. Sam was the first person to talk to her, and the two of them have been inseparable ever since. Miel, her hem perpetually damp with water from nowhere, grows inexplicable roses from her wrist and lives with Aracely, who cures the town’s citizens of lovesickness. And Sam works the Bonner’s pumpkin patch and wrestles with his gender day and and day out. When the Bonner’s pumpkins start turning into glass, and the Bonner sisters turn their sights on Miel’s roses, Miel and Sam are faced with hard choices and harder truths.

I loved this book. I have been foisting When the Moon was Ours on anyone who will have it since I read it. It has not one but two of the most sensitive and nuanced portrayals of trans people that I’ve read in a long, long time. It is a rich, living book, and you can feel in every page McLemore’s identity as a Latina writer. The way Aracely’s house is depicted, the language, there is a depth here that truly reflects the need for #ownvoices literature. I took this book slow, and luxuriated in it like you do a hot bath. I didn’t want it to end. As an AFAB* non-binary person, the depiction of Sam, especially, read so true that sometimes it made me tender and raw.

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me reading literally every scene with Sam in it

But there was, perhaps, too many things in the book. Too much texture. Honestly, we could have had one book of just Sam, Miel, and Aracely coming to grips with each other, and entirely separate (and incredibly creepy) book of the Bonner sisters and their weird coffin and glass pumpkins. There are so many good ideas and flourishes here that some get crowded out. Some are not given the space to breathe and develop. It is a book that either needed to be bigger and longer and even more intricate, or sharper and smaller and more precise.

McLemore is a gifted writer. Virtually every character is full of life. The town itself is a character, something living and breathing, a place at once constraining and comforting. This is an essentially character driven book, one about Miel’s uncovering of her past and how it informs her future, and Sam’s solidification of his gender identity. It does both things beautifully. But the meandering plot driving those realizations is an odd vehicle for it. At times, the plot feels absolutely crucial to Miel and Sam’s self-discoveries, but at other times, the plot feels divorced and separate from them.

Takeaway & Rating:

Read it! Read this rambling witchy story of two teenagers shambling towards themselves and love and happiness! Also, maybe brush up on La Llorona first if you’re not super familiar, but then read it, and roll with the book as it throws a million things at you because this is a sweet and tender book I wish I’d had to help guide me to myself as a sixteen year old.

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*Assigned female at birth

Book Review: ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity:
Generally excellent diverse sci-fi book. All three major characters are people of color. All three are portrayed, in places, as queer. There are definite scenes/sections that tackle issues of disability.

But. The book, I think, really really fails with trans issues (see below).

Review:
There is Adrianne and Antoine. Or Adrian and Atoinette. Or Adrianne and Antoinette. Or Adrian and Antoine. Anyway, there are two, and they love each other, but there is a trauma, and it tears them apart. Because no matter how much you love someone, sometimes there are forces in life that can still rip you apart. Sometimes the two are lovers. Sometimes they are siblings. Sometimes one is a parent, and the other is a child. But always, always, there is a deep and abiding love, and always, always, there is a horrible loss.

This is a strange little book, and I went into it completely uninformed*. I am finding it, honestly, hard to review it.

Brissett is a writer of scope and specificity, both, which I love. The narrative spins and twists back on itself, coiling and expanding in turns. It starts in a perfectly normal setting, realist, and then adds layer upon layer of weird. The first bit of weird is that in the next scene, the characters who were heterosexual lovers are now gay men. Later, the genders change once more (now they are again a heterosexual couple) but the setting shifts–Adrianne is a sort-of vestal virgin in Roman-esque future world. There is a war. Antoine is a soldier. The narrative shifts again. Wings are involved. The narrative shifts again: an alien invasion.

Throughout, there is a core to Adrianne/Adrian’s character and to Antoine/Atoinette’s character–or, perhaps more precisely, a chain of love between them–that never shifts. It evolves, they evolve, and sometimes they revert, but that fact of their relationship never changes even as it is clear something key is disintegrating around them and breaking down.

This is a lovely book. But something happened about halfway through that made me step away from it and claim some distance.

200

sad zoidberg is sad about the spoilers below

*****SPOILERS*****

There is a third character, Hector/Helen, who features as a sometimes friend and sometimes leg of a love triangle. In one of the twists of the narrative, Adrianne winds up institutionalized. At the same mental institution is Helen, apparently institutionalized because she is a trans woman. But in the text, she is consistently referred to as Hector, and referred to using male pronouns. They become friends, and later Helen dies a heroic death to save Adrian (their gender flips again) because he is the only who accepts her for who she is (even though Adrianne/Adrian, too, has been referring to her as ‘he’ and ‘Hector’ in the unspoken elements of the text.).

This is…this is a particular issue of mine. I dislike it when trans people are thrown to the wolves to make cis people heroic and accepting. And I dislike it even more when their (our) transness is made hypervisible by breaking the consonance of how they (we) are referred to in dialogue and how they (we) are referred to in narration. Having a character call Helen by the name she prefers, but think of her as Hector, is a type of misgendering. It is a qualification and a marker of difference.

This is a minor part of the story, that is a fact. But it so disturbed and disappointed me that I had to leave the rest of the book untouched for over a week. As a trans reader, I personally felt misgendered and ignored and small just by reading this treatment of a trans character.

*****END SPOILERS*****

And that is a shame, because this book is really good. Especially the ending. I still can’t shake that piece above, but pushing past it really got to the good stuff. The book has heart, and the book has philosophy. The way the pieces of the book fit together, the fluidity of Brissett’s writing, it’s all a wonder to behold. Except for that. But that, while a small piece of the text, was a huge thing for me as a reader.

I just wish the book didn’t also make me feel like I was a set piece. So, how the hell do you rate a book where you are pretty sure you would have loved it if it hadn’t been for that one part that made you feel like you were a tool for cis people? I guess…I guess you split the difference.

3 stars

*This is, actually, my preferred way to read things. I either want no information about a book except a rec to read it, or I want to be spoiled completely. I like to either let the story unfold with no expectations, or I like to let it unfold knowing what’s going to happen and able to watch for the seams.

Book Review: THERE ONCE LIVED A GIRL WHO SEDUCED HER SISTER’S HUSBAND, AND HE HANGED HIMSELF by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity:
Petrushevskaya’s stories are not diverse on the surface. It’s not explicit, but I read most of the characters as white. The stories–love stories, the cover claims–appeared to be hetero in nature.

The bulk of these love stories are focused on women, and what is remarkable about these stories is the great breadth of Russian femininity* that Petrushevskaya tracks through her stories. The stories are pulled from the full spread of her writing career, and across them we have old heroines and very young heroines and heroines settling into middle age. We have hopeful and dour heroines. Beautiful, but mostly homely heroines. Bright and slow heroines. Heroines of virtually every description.

And, also specific to Russia, we have heroines that live in Soviet Russia and heroines that live in a Russia which has once again begun to flirt with capitalism. We see, through Petrushevskaya’s eyes, the great and remarkable changes that Russian society went through while she lived, and how great (or small) an impact those changes made on the daily lives of its citizens.

Review:
Petrushevskaya has a light hand with narration and a uncanny, unflinching eye for vicious detail. These are love stories, but they are horror stories, too. These are stories, almost uniformly, about how completely random and obliterating and destructive love can be. She is a sly, deadpan writer, and the stories are like those told by your aunt who’s seen too much and who is always slightly drunk at holiday dinners, but who is charismatic and fascinating anyway.

The only real fault I have with the collection is repetition. Sixteen stories is a lot to read in one go, especially when the themes are so consistent and similar. I wish the collection had been shorter, that the ten best and brightest had been chosen. But, then again, every anthology is a bit of a shot in the dark, yes? My top ten are probably not your top ten.

Speaking of, stand-outs (for me, anyway) were “Two Deities”, “Tamara’s Baby”, “A Happy Ending,” and especially “Milgrom”.

4 stars

*I would not venture to say that she is somehow speaking to all of womanhood or across all women’s experience. That is certainly not true. But she does seem to speak to a great swath of Russian women’s experience (I would think–I am not Russian).