Friday, January 5, 2024

Book Review: Cinder

Book Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer 

Goodreads Description: Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless Lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg.

She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

My Review: I picked up Cinder about 10 years ago when the book released, so this review has been a long time coming. As the cover and title suggest, Cinder is a steampunk retelling of Cinderella, set in a futuristic New Beijing filled with cyborgs and robots. It expands the original story by introducing a deadly plague that's crippled the globe and tense intergalactic politics centered around a possible royal marriage. In the midst of all this lives Cinder, who works as a mechanic in a Tatooine-like market in order to buy herself a new ankle and car to escape her abusive family.

Let's start with the positives: Meyer's characterization is on point. The chemistry between Cinder and Prince Kai is POPPING. They're both strong, charismatic individuals with their own lives and motivations who end up crossing paths again and again until it leads to something more. It's a satisfying change from YA books where the love interest seems to have no life outside the main character. I was also pleasantly surprised by the political drama between the Lunar kingdom and the people of Earth/New Beijing. Meyer simplified world politics into a handful of state powers to create an us-vs-them structure between Earthlings and Lunars, while still showing how New Beijing is under pressure from other states to make peace with the aliens. This simplified political drama feels perfect for YA readers transitioning from younger fantasy stories towards adult "romantasy," with court drama, politics, and inter-cultural clashes. Despite that, the line between Earthlings and Lunars was depicted as very black and white. Meyer describes how Lunars are savage, totalitarian, and oppressive to their own peoples, committing genocides and using mind control without hesitation. While there is some evidence that "not all Lunars" are evil, the book doesn't do enough to show that good and evil are not tied to one's race. It's trying to play out a more adult political drama, yet falls back on a childish good guys and bad guys dichotomy that feels out of step with what the rest of the book is trying to do. 

While the book does make an effort to avoid the "love at first sight" trope, it steers headlong into "not like other girls." In the years since this book was written, a lot has been said about the "not like other girls" girl who presents herself as "one of the guys" while putting down girls with traditionally feminine interests. This trope ultimately perpetuates misogyny by pitting women against each other while arguing femininity is somehow inferior. Cinder uncritically leans into this trope -- she puts down other girls for wanting to go to the ball, she implies other girls are vapid while she's smart because she cares about mechanics, she resists Prince Kai's flirting and somehow this is supposed to make her cool, etc., etc. This book could have thoughtfully deconstructed and subverted the trope, as Cinder's condescension could have been seen as a defense mechanism for the insecurity she feels about her cyborg parts, but instead the book uncritically embraces the trope without any awareness for the misogyny being perpetuated. In the wake of feminism's sisterhood movement, this book feels both cringey and dated. 

As far as plot goes, I was disappointed by how predictable it was. The book is a retelling, so I expected a certain degree of predictability, but the new parts of the story that Meyer added-- the plague, the politics with a different state, the Lunar people's magic (or lack thereof) -- were so predictable that it was a struggle to stay focused. There was no attempt to subvert expectations - it was almost cliched in the way it did exactly what you thought it would, yet the narration ups the drama by trying to make these incredibly mundane plot twists seem shocking. Perhaps it's my years of reading that make this book so predictable, because Cinder isn't bad at what it does. If you want something that plays into your exact expectations for a teen princess story, then Cinder is it, but unfortunately, that's all it is. 

The final letdown for this book was its lackluster sense of setting. Despite being a steampunk world set in a futuristic Beijing, little effort was put into worldbuilding. We get some description of cramped alleyways, concrete, or tall skyscrapers, but other than that, the world is largely blank. Meyer relies on the droid characters and Cinder's cyborg parts to expand the steampunk elements, yet only utilizes them aesthetically and makes no effort to show how their addition influences the world. Steampunk cities are often infused with so much personality that they become characters themselves, yet New Beijing is almost entirely flavourless. Sadly, this is probably Cinder's biggest missed opportunity.

Despite my complaints, Cinder is an incredibly solid story with some decent writing, great characterization, and decent political drama. While I found the book a little boring and Cinder's Alt Girl routine tiresome, the book never became a drag to read. It would likely be a hit for teen girls who are graduating from books like Anna and the French Kiss and moving towards Strange the Dreamer or A Court of Thorns and Roses. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A solid steampunk Cinderella retelling that errs on the side of predictable and anti-feminist. 

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire 

Goodreads Description: Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

My Review: Portal fantasies have a long history in children's fiction, but what happens when the portals close and we have to head on home? How do you go back to ordinary after experiencing the extraordinary? Seanan McGuire explores these questions by looking at the psychological effects of losing the one place we really belong. 

When teenagers return from their portal worlds, they’re often confused, lost, and desperate to return to their fantasy worlds, leading parents and friends to think they’ve gone mad. That’s where Eleanor West comes in. A left behind herself, Eleanor has opened a home for children who have walked between worlds to save them from mental institutions or abuse at the hands of their families. Funnily enough, the school Eleanor constructs functions much like a residential treatment facility. The kids live there, they go to school, but they also attend therapy-like sessions where they discuss the worlds they came from, process their experiences, and attempt to move on. While the story doesn't focus on this therapy aspect (as there's a murder mystery afoot), it was refreshing to see therapy represented in a positive light, especially with the fantasy elements layered in. Many writers vilify the therapy process for cheap drama (the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest effect), but Eleanor's home is represented as a safe space, possibly the only one available to them in our world. The teachers/counsellors are gentle and supportive, the environment facilitates healing, and characters are able to self-actualize by being true to themselves, rather than forcing themselves to fit a world that doesn't accept them. It would’ve been cool to see more of this, but there is a murder to solve, so I can’t fault the book from moving on. 

The book also focuses a lot on family – both the found families characters discover within the school, and the original families that may love but never truly understand or accept them. The way the story represents letting go of original and abusive families in order to find love and acceptance in a found family is quite queer. Of course, the book is very queer just based on representation – it has trans, asexual, and gender non-conforming characters – it pretty much covers the whole rainbow, but the approach to otherness and belonging takes on a very queer perspective that many will find comforting. The promise of a world that unconditionally accepts and loves you for who you are is a very tempting premise to queer kids growing up in a world that tells them they're inherently wrong, weird, and disgusting. 

The main character, Nancy, has some of the typical traits of plain or invisible YA protagonists. Some YA protags are Bella Swan clones, with little to no personality (aside from being 'nice') so they can be used as blank slates for readers to project themselves onto. While Nancy does fall into this category of boring, blank main characters, McGuire changes things up by creating relevant plot and character reasons for why Nancy is such a wall flower. Nancy's perfect portal world was the land of the dead, where she spent a lot of time impersonating a statue and aspiring to be unmoving and unfeeling. When she arrives back in the real world, she finds it difficult to reconnect to her body and emotions, triggering catatonic-like behaviours. McGuire's interpretation of the "bland wall flower" is a fascinating deconstruction of a writing trend, but ultimately I still found myself bored and annoyed with Nancy's lack of motivation or personality. I wish she had been a secondary character and allowed someone with more agency to take on the main role. 

All in all, this was a beautiful story with many fascinating aspects that I could probably blather on about for another few paragraphs. I'm not usually a fan of school stories anymore, since they often feel formulaic to me, but the heart at the center of this story -- that queer nonsense about belonging and otherness-- hits the nail so hard on the head that it's an instant win. This book has a way of seeing the unseen, acknowledging that deep desire for love and acceptance, and promising that it's out there, just waiting for you, if you're brave enough to go out and look for it.  

TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. A beautifully queer story that centers around a tense murder mystery.  

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Book Review: Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies

Book Review: Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson 

Goodreads Description: Mashkawaji (they/them) lies frozen in the ice, remembering a long-ago time of hopeless connection and now finding freedom and solace in isolated suspension. They introduce us to the seven main characters: Akiwenzii, the old man who represents the narrator’s will; Ninaatig, the maple tree who represents their lungs; Mindimooyenh, the old woman who represents their conscience; Sabe, the giant who represents their marrow; Adik, the caribou who represents their nervous system; Asin, the human who represents their eyes and ears; and Lucy, the human who represents their brain. Each attempts to commune with the unnatural urban-settler world, a world of SpongeBob Band-Aids, Ziploc baggies, Fjällräven Kånken backpacks, and coffee mugs emblazoned with institutional logos. And each searches out the natural world, only to discover those pockets that still exist are owned, contained, counted, and consumed. Cut off from nature, the characters are cut off from their natural selves.

My Review: If you're searching for something out of the box, then Simpson's novel may be just what you're looking for. Noopiming mashes together prose, poetry, and traditional Indigenous storytelling to create a text that defies colonial genre boundaries and narrative conventions. 

Noopiming doesn't follow a traditional plot structure, so giving a description of events is challenging. The text follows seven characters as they navigate their lives in a hyperconsumerist society cut off from nature. Each character is an aspect of Mashkawaji, a being frozen in ice and isolated from the rest of the world, though the text is vague about who or what Mashkawji actually is. The seven eventually unite to resurrect Mashkawaji from their place under the ice, a moment of metaphorical connection that bonds each character into something bigger than themselves. This is largely what the book is about -- isolation and relationships, alienation and connection -- and we see this through the way the characters struggle on their own before ultimately coming together into a community. The book relies heavily on symbolism and metaphor, using a poetic abstractionism to communicate the story through feeling rather than action. Poetry readers will almost certainly have an easier time connecting to the text because of its willingness to eschew narrative for expressionism. 

There’s a beautiful equality all across the text. Human, animal, and spirit characters are on a level playing field – there’s no hierarchy of gods and monsters here. Every character resists the effects of colonialism, from animals dealing with loss of land, to nature reeling from climate change, to Indigenous people themselves displaced and disconnected from nature. This equalization crosses into gender as well – while there is the old man, the old woman, and gendered figures, almost all characters use ‘they/them’ pronouns. Simpson downplays pronouns and gendered indicators for most characters to allow the space to focus on other aspects of their personhood. The text is by no means genderless - it simply places their gender secondary to who they are as people. 

Noopiming is a bit of a strange beast and it's certainly not for everyone. It's not really a novel, or a prose poem, not fantasy or contemporary. It asks some hard questions about capitalism, consumerism, commodification and climate change, but wraps it in poetic symbolism that asks you to feel more than analyze. Lovers of poetry, nature, and spirituality may really resonate with this text, but if you're a fan of traditional western storytelling, this one might be worth skipping. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. An intense intermeshing of prose, poetry, and Indigenous storytelling that takes a hard look at colonialism and consumerism. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Book Review: The Narrows

Book Review: The Narrows by Ann Petry 

Goodreads Description: Link Williams is a handsome and brilliant Dartmouth graduate who tends bar for a lack of better opportunities for an African American man in a staid mid-century Connecticut town. The routine of Link’s life is interrupted when he intervenes to save a woman from a late-night attack. When they enter a bar together after the incident, “Camilo” discovers that her rescuer is African American and he that she is a wealthy, married, white woman who’s crossed the town’s racial divide to relieve her life’s tedium. Thus brought together by chance, Link and Camilo draw each other into furtive encounters against the rigid and uncompromising social codes of their town and times.

My Review: I really wanted to like this book. Over her life, Ann Petry worked as a social worker and a journalist, taught courses and wrote for the NAACP, and conducted sociological studies on the influence of segregation on children. This work gave her a very sociological perspective on the world and ultimately influenced the creation of The Narrows, which breaks down systematic racism to illustrate how many moving pieces intersect to justify the vilification and murder of black people. In Petry’s own words: “My aim is to show how simply and easily the environment can change the course of a person’s life.” When I step back and consider the book in whole, it’s so beautiful I could cry, because Petry demonstrates a nuanced understanding of how sociology and psychology shape oppression. However, the experience of reading this book is painful. Beyond that, when taking any of the book’s parts on their own, there’s almost nothing to like about them. It’s like throwing a bunch of garbage at a canvas, yet it somehow makes the Mona Lisa. 

Petry wrote the book with a reflective perspective, using repetition and flashbacks to show how the past continuously interjects into the present and influences our behaviour. It doesn’t matter that Othello was written over 500 years ago, the story of a successful black man marrying a white woman to the displeasure of white men still influences the world around us, shaping perspectives and stereotypes. Petry also uses this reflective structure to demonstrate how childhood trauma shapes us long into adulthood. This reflective style is the crux of my problem with this book, because on the one hand, it is utterly brilliant. It artfully (and accurately) represents how the brain processes memory, how our social environment builds our identity from the ground up, and how we fall back onto sociological programming in times of stress. Yet on the other hand, this writing style is frustrating and boring to read. At times, the repetition becomes so overwhelming that it borders on obnoxious, which robs it of its power. Some scenes took forever to get through simply because the story had to continuously stop to repeat mantras or plot points that we've already seen a dozen times already. If not for this reflective perspective, the book could have easily been half or a third its size. While I think there's something meaningful to be found in this style, it certainly could have been cut down. 

On top of the irritating writing style, every character is terrible. Not even in a “they have flaws” kind of way, but in a "they're a freaking monster" way that left little for me to relate to, attach to, or root for. Link, the main character, beats his love interest (though this is played off as romantic "lovers' quarrels," which... certainly says something about the author and the time period). Bill Hod, a quasi-father figure, beats Link as a child, Camilla betrays her love interest in a sickeningly anti-feminist way, and Abbie cares more about being an upstanding citizen of “the Race” than being a good mother. Even characters who don’t do anything overtly wrong are presented with a kind of sleaziness – from Mamie Powther who is presented as sexually devious, to Jubine the photographer who exposes injustices perpetuated by the rich, but is described as little more than a "greedy voyeur." While this is largely influenced by the POV character and often reveals more about the speaker than the subject (Abbie perceives Mamie as disgustingly sexual, for example), every character's perspective is coloured by this pessimism towards other people, and by the end of the book, all that negativity begins to weigh on the narrative. While the book attempts to present every character with duality, it leans too far into their flaws, leaving little good behind to appreciate. There’s lots of fascinating psychological angles to this story, but likeability is hard to come by. 

As you can see, this book is a frustrating one for me. On the whole, I think it brilliantly explores how historical sociological scripts intersect with an individual's trauma and environment to shape oppression, but I can’t point to a single character or scene that I actually like. The reading experience is so dreadful that I can't in good faith recommend it to anyone, unless you're a literary scholar that's more interested in meaning than your own enjoyment. It's a real shame, too, because I do believe this book is something special, if only reading it wasn't such a drag. 

TL;DR: 2/5 stars. A painfully dreadful read that culminates in an insightful deconstruction of systematic racism. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Book Review: Romance in Marseille


Book Review: Romance in Marseille by Claude McKay 

Goodreads Description: Buried in the archive for almost ninety years, Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille traces the adventures of a rowdy troupe of dockworkers, prostitutes, and political organizers--collectively straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American. Set largely in the culture-blending Vieux Port of Marseille at the height of the Jazz Age, the novel takes flight along with Lafala, an acutely disabled but abruptly wealthy West African sailor. While stowing away on a transatlantic freighter, Lafala is discovered and locked in a frigid closet. Badly frostbitten by the time the boat docks, the once-nimble dancer loses both of his lower legs, emerging from life-saving surgery as what he terms "an amputated man." Thanks to an improbably successful lawsuit against the shipping line, however, Lafala scores big in the litigious United States. Feeling flush after his legal payout, Lafala doubles back to Marseille and resumes his trans-African affair with Aslima, a Moroccan courtesan. With its scenes of black bodies fighting for pleasure and liberty even when stolen, shipped, and sold for parts, McKay's novel explores the heritage of slavery amid an unforgiving modern economy. This first-ever edition of Romance in Marseille includes an introduction by McKay scholars Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell that places the novel within both the "stowaway era" of black cultural politics and McKay's challenging career as a star and skeptic of the Harlem Renaissance.

My Review: If I had to sum up Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille in three words, it’d be: queer, punny, and unsatisfying. There’s a lot of elements to like: disability rep, a black man’s success against white society, gender play and fluid openness to sexuality, but the ending undermined a lot of the positives and left a bad taste in my mouth. 

Lafala is a young sailor who travels the world guided by his wit and whimsy, but while stowed away on an American ship, he ends up with frostbite that requires him to amputate both feet. In a twist of fate, Lafala meets a white lawyer while lying in recovery who helps him sue the shipping company for damages. After winning his case, Lafala skips town before the lawyer is able to scam him out of his share and returns to the port town Marseille to reconnect with old friends. Now a rich man, the people of Marseille clamor for Lafala's attention-- and his money-- but Lafala manages to stay one step ahead of his potential scammers at every turn. In this way, the novel is great. It's the story of a black man who, despite his hardships, outsmarts scammers and white oppressors to escape to paradise. Unfortunately, this feels muddied at the end, as his found family are also the people attempting to scam him, confusing their motivations and allegiances. This is what makes the book interesting to some, as they can analyze the characters from multiple perspectives, but to me it reads like a tragedy wherein greed wins over love, loyalty or friendship. The found family that’s established is sacrificed so Lafala remains the smartest man in the room, and the payoff doesn’t feel worth the sacrifice. 

The representation in this book is wonderful. While there’s not a lot of outwardly queer characters, there is heavy implication that certain characters are gay. Characters also question and play with gender, whether through clothing, joking around, or debating the nature of gender roles. As well, Lafala spends the entire book without legs and is never defined by his disability. There’s a nice balance between how it affects his life/mental health and how it doesn't make him less of a person. McKay’s writing is also delightfully punny. He plays with metaphor and symbols, twists language to suit his needs, and utilizes sharp-witted wordplay that is both funny and thought provoking. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A sharp-witted queer tale with excellent disability rep and an unsatisfying finish. 

Monday, October 30, 2023

Book Review: Tilly and the Crazy Eights

Book Review: Tilly and the Crazy Eights by Monique Gray Smith 

Goodreads Description: When Tilly receives an invitation to help drive eight elders on their ultimate bucket list road trip to Albuquerque for the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, she impulsively says yes. Before she knows it, Tilly has said goodbye to her family and is behind the wheel--ready to embark on an adventure that will transform her in ways she could not predict. Just as it will for each and every one of the elders on the trip, who soon dub themselves "the Crazy Eights."

Tilly and the Crazy Eights each choose a stop to make along the way--somewhere they've always wanted to go or something they've wanted to experience. Their plan is to travel to Las Vegas, Sedona, and the Redwood Forests, with each destination the inspiration for secrets and stories to be revealed. The trip proves to be powerful medicine as they laugh, heal, argue, and reveal hopes and dreams along the way.

With friendships forged, love found, hearts broken and mended, Tilly and the Crazy Eights feel ready for anything by the time their bus rolls to a stop in New Mexico. But are they?

My Review: This character-driven story, filled with Indigenous humour and wisdom, takes readers on a journey of healing across the United States. When Tilly is dragged on the cross-country journey with eight eccentric elders, she leaves behind her unsatisfying marriage to think about her future - and whether divorce may be the answer. Though the journey challenges Tilly, through the wisdom of the elders around her, she finds clarity on her marriage and returns home to make the best choice for herself. 

While Tilly's story is heartwarming, nothing about it resonated with me enough to make me fall in love, leading to its mediocre rating. The book is a short journey story where each character undergoes a personal transformation that reflects back on Tilly's struggle with her marriage. Despite it being a bit predictable, the characters are presented with an authenticity to them that helps the story stick its landing. The characters appear a bit flat at the beginning, but as the journey unfolds, their bucket list experiences reveal more depth and open opportunities for reader identification. 

The book is comprised of short chapters (sometimes only 2 pages), which does jolt readers out of the story. Just as a scene gets going, it stops and the book moves to a completely different scene with other characters. While this is disjointing, it does create a snapshot atmosphere that reminds me of vacation photos. The story also doesn't focus on one character and spends equal time exploring each elder's personal journey, which can make the story feel scattered. Each elder's journey is largely separate from the rest and feels loosely connected to Tilly's struggle, which is supposed to serve as the emotional throughline. The writing is straight to the point and doesn't linger on poetic language, but does contain some solid metaphoric descriptions.

Tilly and the Crazy Eights is a cute journey story with some poignant wisdom, but it just failed to connect with me in a meaningful way. Because the characters deal with issues like empty nest syndrome and physical aging, older readers may have an easier time relating to the story if they've experienced similar life events. 

TL:DR: 3/5 stars. A cute story about healing that feels a little scattered. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Book Review: The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour

Book Review: The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour by Dawn Dumont

Goodreads Description: 'The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour' is loosely based - like, hospital-gown loose - on the true story of a group of Indigenous dancers who left Saskatchewan and toured through Europe in the 1970s. Dawn Dumont brings her signature razor-sharp wit and impeccable comedic timing to this hilarious, warm, and wildly entertaining novel.

My Review: When the usual dance troupe gets food poisoning. John Greyeyes is tasked with leading a replacement troupe through a series of powwows across Europe -- except the replacement dancers can't dance, and John only has a few days to whip them into shape. Along the tour, the crew stumbles into a series of wacky adventures, including a plane hijacking, an FBI smuggling investigation, identity theft, and a break and enter at the Vatican that lands one of the dancers in jail. Dawn Dumont has crafted a riot of a book that is both utterly ridiculous and grounds readers with solid, heartfelt moments. 

While Prairie Chicken is a wild ride shot through with humour, it does address topics like racism, residential schools, and homophobia with the seriousness that they deserve. It doesn't linger on these topics, but they surface as important aspects to character arcs. Due to trauma, several characters are closed off to love, but over the course of the novel, they begin to heal their trauma and open themselves up to love again (including self-love). Watching these silly little characters grow and learn to love themselves despite their flaws was truly endearing. It's hard not to fall in love these characters, even if we don't spend much time directly in their heads. 

The narrative has next to no introspection -- the prose is entirely focused on the action of the scene. And holy, there is a lot. The book features a large cast of main characters and they all take part in almost every scene, which makes things busy. The book also doesn't linger on moments and keeps the action moving as much as possible. While some might find the busyness overwhelming, the writing is balanced and scenes flow so the reader doesn't lose the thread of the narrative. Coupled with it's style of humour, the book feels like a Benny Hill sketch, in a good way. 

At the end of the day, The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour is pure, heartwarming fun. I laughed so much while reading it and it still brightens my day to think of this ridiculous story. Plus it's got a gay Indigenous cowboy who is Done With Everyone's Shit™, so it's got a special place in my heart. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. A hilarious and heartfelt story of a ragtag crew that crosses Europe to find themselves.