Sunday, June 12, 2022

Book Review: The Tiger Flu


Book Review: The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai 

Goodreads Description: Kirilow is a doctor apprentice whose lover Peristrophe is a "starfish," a woman who can regenerate her own limbs and organs, which she uses to help her clone sisters whose organs are failing. When a denizen from Salt Water City suffering from a mysterious flu comes into their midst, Peristrophe becomes infected and dies, prompting Kirilow to travel to Salt Water City, where the flu is now a pandemic, to find a new starfish who will help save her sisters. There, Kirilow meets Kora, a girl-woman desperate to save her family from the epidemic. Kora has everything Kirilow is looking for, except the will to abandon her own family. But before Kirilow can convince her, both are kidnapped by a group of powerful men to serve as test subjects for a new technology that can cure the mind of the body.

My Review: This book was probably the biggest disappointment in my recent reading history. There's so much to like about the world and characters, but unfortunately the writing style, coupled with the plot's handling, made for a huge let down within the last one hundred pages. 

And there's so much to like about this book! Sci-fi concepts ooze from these pages and fill the world with vibrant life: a village of parthenogenetic women, regrowing body parts, memory/knowledge in chips that can be plugged into the brain, cloning, uploading consciousness to a mainframe, etc, etc. It's set in a future ravaged by climate change, in the midst of a man-made pandemic, where patriarchy and greed poisons the land as well as the people. Our two protagonists, Kirilow and Kora, are both well-crafted characters that carry the story and its themes. The initial set up of the book is excellent: tension builds steadily, our characters push further into risky territory, until finally society springs closed around them. 

Something I found incredibly captivating about this book was the way Kora and Kiri's stories appeared to be individualistic in nature -- the hero's quest story, where a protagonist's agency and action shapes the world and plot around them. The Tiger Flu lulls you into believing that it will follow this same trajectory, and it's only when Kiri and Kora really assert themselves that they realize they are merely cogs in a giant machine. Much of the time, society, characters around them, villains, or even government figures have made choices that have pushed Kiri and Kora into the circumstance they're in. At first, Kiri's desire to go to Saltwater City appears to drive the plot, until it's revealed that the (seemingly innocuous) players around her have actually manipulated the her into thinking and behaving in ways that benefit them. In the end, the story reveals a more collectivist perspective. Yes, the plot is still driven by character agency and action, but it's revealed that individuals have less say over their success than they realize. Your successes are just as much determined by your allies and environment as your own actions. This book struck an interesting balance between individualist and collectivist perspectives, which raised some fascinating questions on how much control we have over our own lives. 

I also adored the contrast between Kora and Kiri's characters. Kora is younger by a few years, and filled with a compassion and gentleness for others that colours her every action. Even at the beginning of the book when a boy attempts to grope her, she fights him off and then chooses to help him when he nearly falls off a building. She's also much slower to aggression, which is contrasted by Kiri, who is so angry from the trauma she experienced that it threatens to destroy her. At one point, she becomes so consumed by the need for revenge that she's willing to abandon her goals and die like an animal. Kiri and Kora both learn to balance each other, as Kora's kindness can sometimes lead her into danger, while Kiri's anger blinds her to actionable solutions. I also just loved Kiri's journey to give up her quest for revenge and learn to quiet the hatred within her, and only wished that could have been expanded on further. 

All of this delicious build up led to an incredibly unsatisfying final 100 pages. As I mentioned earlier, I believe Lai's writing style heavily influenced this. Larissa Lai primarily writes poetry which is reflected in her beautiful use of diction, but it also shows when she's trying to get across plot concepts. When she introduces an idea to the reader (even something as simple as a worldbuilding piece or plot element), she starts out by describing it in very vague terms, or few words, which doesn't help the reader understand the role this object plays in the story, i.e., introducing the flu with "they've got it," which builds mystery and tension (got what?). This is often not enough information for the reader to figure out on their own, which drives them to keep reading. Not long after this, Lai will "explain" through an overuse of telling, often spelling things out to leave no room for misunderstanding. This jump from one extreme (too little info to solve on your own, but encourages you to puzzle over the info) to the other (too much blunt telling, taking away the promise of figuring out the mystery) leads to frustration and dissatisfaction. While the vagueness made it difficult for readers to figure it out on their own, I really enjoyed the mystery and tension that it built, only to have this excitement cut off at the knees when Lai overexplained what was happening. The climax concludes with over a page of As You Know, Bob infodumping that only seeks to explain what already happened, which made the scene drier than an overdone turkey with no gravy. Lai compounded all these incredible ideas and then couldn't explain their intersections without bouncing between vague poetic notions and infodumps. I almost wish Lai had left out the explanations all together and let readers piece together the fever dream on their own. 

Even with the low rating, I would suggest that others give this book a shot. Having such a solid start and then failing to deliver made this book a sore spot for me, but I know others may feel differently. If you aren't as put off by Lai's writing style, then you may enjoy the ending much more than I did, and honestly I hope you do. There are so many great elements to this book that I hope someone else can enjoy.

TL;DR: 2/5 stars. A captivating launch that fizzled into a disappointing ending. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Identity Policing, Forced Outings, and my Thoughts on Coming Out in Publishing

Growing up as a queer kid in the 90s/00s in Canadian conservative country was, at the best of times, an incredibly isolating experience. There were no Gay Straight Alliances in my schools, many of my peers stayed in the closet longer for fear of rejection, and the bigoted jokes that played on loop across mainstream TV left the impression that I was a queer island in a sea of heteronormativity - separated from kin by thousands of miles. The only thing that helped bridge the seemingly endless distance was fiction - the few published books I could find featuring LGBTQ+ characters, as well as the budding online communities where queer folks could freely gather and share their stories.

I lived in those online queer spaces, but I kept going back to the bookstore, seeking out titles that maybe, just maybe, featured someone who felt like me. Whether the book was excellent or terrible, I found myself flipping to the author bios, searching for some evidence that the author was queer. I was always skeptical, and a little disappointed, when the author appeared to be straight and cis, or there was no indication as to their orientation. It felt like a sort of appropriation, and I was desperate to find the raw authenticity of queer stories told through an author's queer perspective. 

So I get it. I get the queer fans calling for writers to come out. I get the editors and agents who are seeking the security of marginalized authors who write in their lanes. With a limited number of books that can be published in a year, everyone with stock in the game wants to ensure the author they’re betting on is a safe gamble. Everyone wants authenticity. They wants to know: who are you to write this story? 

But do they have a right to know? 

When I entered the world of publishing in the late 2000s, young, bright-eyed and bushy-quilled, the

concept of author brands was gaining traction. As social media took hold, many in the industry quickly recognized the value in an author's "personal brand” and began pushing authors to develop loyal fanbases that would follow them from book to book. Today, this expectation is thrust on authors more than ever. Even when it’s not written directly in contracts, there’s an expectation that authors do a fair amount of their own promotion through social media, turning them into quasi-influencers. 

Over the last ten years, there's also been a growing cultural acceptance of and expectation for LGBTQ+ representation in media. As more queer kids grow up seeking queer stories, publishers quickly realized there was more money to be made appealing to the interests of queerdos than burying any mention of LGBTQ+ characters or themes under vague back jacket blurbs. All of this, in turn, changed how editors and agents evaluated potential clients and acquisitions. Industry professionals began looking for writers whose potential (or already constructed) author brand would align with the target audience's value system, reinforcing a parasocial relationship that would boost sales. #OwnVoices launched with the intention of supporting marginalized creators and connecting fans to the authenticity they were seeking, but was quickly co-opted by industry professionals into a catch-all branding term that identified more "marketable" clients. Fan and writer communities also weaponized the hashtag against marginalized creators to scrutinize their identities, histories, as well as gatekeep communities. (If you want to read more, BitchMedia wrote articles on the pressures on queer authors and authors being forcefully outed by the industry. R29 also wrote on the effects of #OwnVoices on books.)

Despite the retirement of #OwnVoices, this pattern of identity policing shows no signs of slowing down. On the one hand, readers aren't wrong to ask what an author's relationship is to the community they choose to write about. Young readers may do this as they attempt to find the same safety and solidarity from within the book in the real world, so it makes sense they would start with the author of the escapist fantasy that has already comforted them. On the other, the expectation that some of the most sensitive parts of our identity must be integrated into an author brand so we may be "allowed" to publish stories about marginalized communities feels ridiculously authoritarian. Not only does #OwnVoices not guarantee authenticity or credibility (as two people with the same identity may have vastly different experiences and perspectives), but the enforcement of authenticity above all harms and chases away marginalized creators, while limiting an author's career. An author’s consent in disclosing their identity should be prioritized above all, and silence should not be assumed to mean they don’t belong. I do hope more authors reveal more of who they are for the sake of representation, especially for YA and MG authors whose audience are likely looking up to them as role models, but no one should be pressured to build their entire brand—or identity—around a single diversity trait. Maybe by policing author brands, we'll catch the occasional con artist who seeks to insert themselves into marginalized communities to profit off them, but we'll harm a far greater numbers of allies, closeted people, and marginalized creators in the process. 

Cat Tax

As much as the idea of turning yourself into a 'product' still makes me uncomfy as all hell, I've seen a lot of value from building a brand that centers on you. I tend to be a bit of an oxymoron when it comes to self-disclosure. I don't like to talk about myself, but I wear everything on my sleeve, no secrets here. When considering my own brand, both as an author and a freelancer in the industry, I had to seriously consider how much of myself I wanted to place on the internet for public consideration. How to balance privacy and minority representation. How much I wanted to build a community centered around my LGBTQ+ identity vs other aspects of my personhood. How much of my career history I wanted to sacrifice to preserve my privacy. 

Some identities are easy to hide. Some aren't. Some minorities can walk into a room and blend, while others have it literally written on their skin. Being trans lets me exist in a strange reality where I'm both. At a certain point, I will pass enough that most people won't be able to tell that I'm from a minority group. Other times, it is painfully impossible to hide, and I have to put my safety in the hands of strangers in public spaces, hoping my identity doesn't upset those around me. But my personal brand grants me an opportunity: I could delete my blog, let go of my contacts and twitter, and essentially start my brand and business from scratch. It would completely disconnect me from my old name, gender, etc., yet I'd also sacrifice over ten years of work just to keep this part of myself hidden, while also surrendering a chance to provide representation for other transgender individuals. 

When put like that, the answer felt simple. At least for me.

So, hi. I'm Kyle, a transman. Nice to meet you. Come in, take a seat. I’ve got cookies around here


I've been coming out slowly, tactically, in each new environment, like a solider behind enemy lines, and finally I've come to storm the online trenches. For me, being open about who I am and the changes I’m going through grants me the space to be a more authentic writer, which is why I’m choosing to publicize this change and my thoughts with this blog post, instead of quietly changing over my name and hoping no one notices. During my rebranding, I seriously considered whether I wanted a trans pride flag in my new banner, an easy way for other trans people to recognize the solidarity and connect, if they wanted to. Yet I hesitated, and ultimately chose not to include any identifiers in banners or bios, other than the vague title of "queerdo.” I know I’ll talk about it quite freely, so it will by no means be a secret, but I don’t want to advertise myself based on that feature and build an expectation with my audience that LGBTQ+ rights are a main focus of my art. Cause they are and they aren’t, and I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself artistically or have to publish under multiple pen-names, each with their own authorial branding. 

While coming out in this way works for me, the expectations of author transparency need to change. That disclosure of identity should be treated with respect – as the gift that it is, instead of something we’re entitled to. To help let go of this entitlement, the reigns need to be loosened on who "owns" what stories, and we need to let go of this desperate grab for an imaginary supreme authenticity. I believe very strongly in research, authenticity readers, and seeking to elevate representation of minority groups, but that can be achieved through criticizing the work, not the person. Somehow, in our push for more diversity, we expect marginalized individuals to act more alike than ever: conforming to single narratives about what it means to be gay, lesbian, Indigenous, an immigrant, etc. and labelling others as "bad rep" for not assimilating their own experiences into the dominant narrative. Author consent and autonomy needs to be central if we want to reverse the assimilation trajectory and get back to, you know, actually supporting and celebrating diversity. 

As Alanis Morissette would say, "Isn't it ironic..." 

Friday, March 11, 2022

Book Review: Indian Horse


Book Review: Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese 

Goodreads Description: Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows.

My Review: There are some minor spoilers in this review. No details are given away, but I do name Saul's trauma experience. 

To summarize this novel in a single word: trauma. From its opening pages, Indian Horse makes it clear this story is about collective trauma and how it manifests in individuals. The novel attempts to illuminate the history of so many Indigenous people who have been chewed up and spit out by the Canadian state. 

Saul's story details his entire life, beginning in the 1960s when he lived with his family in the bush -- an attempt to stay hidden from the Indian Agents that hunted down Indigenous children and their families in order to put them into residential schools. Despite their best attempts, Saul's family is unable to survive during winter in the wild and he is shipped off to a residential school, where he's introduced to both horrific systematic abuse, as well as hockey as a coping response. Hockey becomes Saul's entire world and he does anything to be a part of the game, whether that's volunteering to care for the rink in the early morning or getting close with Father Leboutilier, the priest at the school that coaches the team. Eventually, Saul's hockey skills are recognized and he begins a career that brings him right up to the NHL -- until his trauma catches up to him. In order to heal, Saul has to stop hiding behind hockey and alcohol, and face the abuses that haunt him to this day. 

Wagamese drew on his own experiences when writing this novel, which feels obvious when reading. Much of the book is written with first hand experiential details that bring the story to life in a quiet but real way. The more upsetting subjects, such as physical and sexual abuse, were handled with care and weren't milked for drama or tension. Wagamese depicts the trauma and abuses with incredible compassion and care, and demonstrates how powerful forgiveness can be in shifting one's perspective. Saul doesn't hold any resentment towards his parents for their neglect, as he recognizes it's a result of their own trauma. This compassion towards his abusers continues all throughout the book and builds on themes of forgiveness and healing as a source of strength. 

Indian Horse expertly mirrors the experience of abuse survivors coming to terms with childhood trauma in their adult years. Throughout most of the novel, Saul doesn't directly address the worst abuses he faced, though some readers might pick up on the 'elephant in the room,' a subject not addressed but the presence of which can be felt in every scene. Trauma survivors have a tendency to downplay their experiences in an effort to cope, which is reflected in how Saul focuses on the pain of others while quietly downplaying his own experiences through vague language. This vagueness is stripped away at the end of the novel and direct words like 'rape' are finally attached to Saul's experience, forcing both the character and the reader to come to terms with what he's experienced. This flip from vague avoidance to direct language is reminiscent of how victims of childhood abuse come to understand what has happened to them -- a slow denial that ends with hard, unavoidable realizations. In order to survive, victims may identify with their abuser, or they may be too young to comprehend why a caregiver would harm them, and create justifications to explain it. During healing, these layers of repression are stripped away and the victim faces the truth of what happened to them in order to overcome it. Wagamese recreates this experience within the text and allows the reader to go through this realization alongside Saul to fully empathize with this experience. 

Indian Horse exists as one of those books that allows readers to empathize with a perspective they never would otherwise. This book sets itself against the multitude of stereotypes that divide Indigenous Canadians from other communities in Canada, tackling issues like identity, race, racism, systematic oppression, and intergenerational trauma. All this builds a picture for why some Indigenous people present and behave the way they do from a place of understanding and compassion. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A beautifully empathetic character study of an Indigenous man living in a racist society. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Book Review: Empire of Wild

Book Review: Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline 

Goodreads Description: Broken-hearted Joan has been searching for her husband, Victor, for almost a year--ever since he went missing on the night they had their first serious argument. One terrible, hungover morning in a Walmart parking lot in a little town near Georgian Bay, she is drawn to a revival tent where the local M├ętis have been flocking to hear a charismatic preacher named Eugene Wolff. By the time she staggers into the tent, the service is over. But as she is about to leave, she hears an unmistakable voice.

She turns, and there Victor is. The same face, the same eyes, the same hands. But his hair is short and he's wearing a suit and he doesn't recognize her at all. No, he insists, she's the one suffering a delusion: he's the Reverend Wolff and his only mission is to bring his people to Jesus. Except that, as Joan soon discovers, that's not all the enigmatic Wolff is doing.

With only the help of Ajean, a foul-mouthed euchre shark with a knowledge of the old ways, and her odd, Johnny-Cash-loving, 12-year-old nephew Zeus, Joan has to find a way to remind the Reverend Wolff of who he really is. If he really is Victor. Her life, and the life of everyone she loves, depends upon it.

My Review: For a genre with a capacity for incredible flexibility, urban fantasy often finds itself stalling over the same set of overused tropes that inhibit innovation or creativity. Compared to some other genres, urban fantasy isn't wrapped up in as many restricting 'hallmarks,' yet it constantly pulls from the same pool of myths and interprets them through near-identical white and western perspectives. Fantasy often likes to sand off the cultural markers of mythology to make the narratives more accessible to wider audiences, but this generalization often robs these myths of their more interesting aspects. Watering down mythology has had successes, but it's pervasiveness has also left authors in a creative slump where they don't know how to present this mythology in fresh ways, leading to a stagnation in the genre. 

Enter Cherie Dimaline. 

As a Metis author, Dimaline tackles urban fantasy through her own cultural lens to provide a fresh perspective on werewolf mythology. In many different ways, this book is about blending old and new, familiar and foreign, whether that's through her use of fantasy and mythology, Indigenous and settler cultures, or traditional and modern ideas. Metis people themselves are a culture somewhere between two others, and this is reflected in the entirety of the book -- the narrative doesn't imply that Indigenous old ways are better, settler ways are better, Indigenous spirituality or Catholicism is better-- it implies that truth can be found more in the middle. Empire of Wild follows many of the traditional narrative beats expected of the urban fantasy genre, but Dimaline contrasts this familiarity with her werewolf -- or rogarou-- which draws from Indigenous legends. Dimaline's cultural perspective also informs character motivations, priorities, power and family dynamics, making the book more than just a different way to present werewolves. Dimaline interweaves aspects of Indigenous and settler culture to create a world and characters that are both incredibly familiar and yet refreshingly new. The novel doesn't shy away from clashes of cultural differences either, and even addresses different forms of the 'wolf' that appear around the world. This bit of worldbuilding reflects the mythological diversity of the real world and creates an impression of a pantheon of living myths, as opposed to presenting one definitive image of this world's 'werewolf.' 

Prior to this novel, Dimaline wrote and published YA fiction, the influence of which can be felt through Empire of Wild's pacing and action. Empire of Wild is a fast-paced, action-over-introspection, almost cinematic experience, and while Dimaline does explore narrative tangents that are more common in adult literature, this mostly took place at the beginning of the novel during exposition. While Empire utilizes many YA elements, the content, particularly its tackling of sexuality, especially as a weapon, places it firmly in an adult market. Blending features of both adult and YA fiction makes this novel quite accessible for young adults who want to move out of YA, but find themselves turned off by slower paced, introspective literature.

And finally, the characters. Oh, this band of squishy, lovable idiots. The characters were fleshed out and crafted with their own set of flaws to make them feel like dynamic individuals, yet a personality trait from each was also exaggerated just enough to give them a cartoonish, larger than life feel. While it did break some of the realism, it also allowed the reader to quickly attach to them and gave these guys a chance to really pop off the page through archetypes -- the Sassy Grandma, the Optimistic Kid, the Badass Heroine. Joan carries the story with her no fucks taken attitude, but is also balanced out with a deeply emotional, sensitive side that makes her quite endearing. Ajean is both a source of comedy and wisdom, while Zeus captures a kid who is very mature for their age but still so innocent and vulnerable -- a kid that 'knows' but doesn't fully 'understand.' Even Victor, who spends much of the book as a damsel in distress, managed to capture my heart and hook me deeper into the stakes. Dimaline feels like one of those authors who just gets people, because all her characters come across as both effortlessly real and charming. 

All in all, this book is a fun, fantastic read. From cover to cover, the story felt smart and new while still folding itself into familiar genre beats. If you enjoy urban fantasy, I can't recommend this romp with the rogarou enough. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Fresh, familiar, fun. A must-read for urban fantasy lovers. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Book Review: Parable of the Sower

Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler 

Goodreads Description: In 2025, with the world descending into madness and anarchy, one woman begins a fateful journey toward a better future.

Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.

When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.

My Review: The world as we know it is ending. In Lauren's version of America, society has all but collapsed, with only its skeletal remains in place. Democracy is only available to the privileged few, public services like police and firefighters work on a libertarian fee-for-service model that leaves their help woefully out of reach, and rising food and gas costs have left people using bikes and growing their own food. A gated community is all that keeps Lauren and her family safe from the gang violence that ravages the streets at night, but soon even the walls won't be enough to keep out the hungry. Lauren knows it's only a matter of time before the gate comes down and all hell breaks loose. She knows she can't risk her survival on chance, or the kindness of strangers, and so she prepares. Amaasses books, supplies, practices her shooting, refines her scripture. The end of days are coming, but Lauren will be ready. Out of the ashes, her new world will grow. 

Written in the 1990s, Parable of the Sower's depiction of 2020s California is haunting, to say the least. Like most dystopian novels written decades prior, it's fascinating to compare what Butler thought the world would become with what we actually got. There are a lot of ways in which the apocalyptic nightmare of Butler's America is very true to reality -- the depiction of police feels figuratively accurate, while they may not take direct payment from citizens (outright), they certainty do harm/cause legal trouble for the people who called them, do not solve/stop crimes, and utilize unchecked brutality. Butler's depiction of police reminded me of what so many black people in America today face when dealing with police, highlighting how little has probably changed in the 30 years since the book was written. Despite the apocalyptic description of life in California, Butler specifically leaves elements of our own society intact to highlight how this societal degradation can take place under our very noses. Much of our apocalypse narratives involve the dissolution of government systems as a signifier that the Thing (climate change, asteroid, virus, zombies, etc.) has succeeded in apocalypting the world, but Butler puts the breaks on that thinking and poses the question, "But what if we didn't have the usual signifiers of societal collapse? What if the frame was still there, but everything within had rotted away?" The result is both fascinating and refreshing. 

At its core, Parable of the Sower is a story about survival and patient resistance, especially for marginalized people, and how one can carve out space and a future for themselves in a hostile environment. Lauren knows the world she's living in is unsustainable and ultimately fatalistic, and from a young age begins preparing to leave her environment to build a new world, complete with a religious ideology to influence the culture of her new settlement. She spends years amassing supplies, knowledge, skills, and resources to actually succeed in her endeavours. Lauren's entire personhood is constructed around surviving and creating her community, and while some readers (and characters) find this part of her personality overwhelming, the narrative stresses that it is the entire reason why she (and thus her companions) survive and succeed. Some vulnerable moments reveal that this obsession strains Lauren, but she feels it's a necessary sacrifice in order to quite literally save the world. Like many marginalized people fighting against inequalities and injustices, the task ahead of Lauren is daunting, and she needs to prepare to fight for a long time in order to see success, so she finds ways to cope and build resilience so she can endure, such as building a community and falling in love. In this way, the novel presents an interesting perspective on what it means to resist for long periods, and not only how to survive that period, but thrive in it.

Personally, I struggled to connect with the story, hence the lowered rating. While it's obvious that Butler is a talented writer and deserves her place among acclaimed SFF authors, I didn't connect with the plot or its characters, despite the wide cast. This is just my personal opinion, which I feel I have to honor, even though objectively I realize there's a lot to love about this book. Butler's observations on human behaviour and society alone, as well as the gritty realism when it came to wilderness survival, built the narrative up into a satisfying and insightful read. So, despite the lowered star rating for this classic, I still highly recommend this novel for dystopian lovers far and wide. 

TL;DR: All in all, 3/5 stars. Badass black girl magic meets a defamiliarized apocalypse. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Book Review: Brother


Book Review: Brother by David Chariandy 

Goodreads Description: With shimmering prose and mesmerizing precision, David Chariandy takes us inside the lives of Michael and Francis. They are the sons of Trinidadian immigrants, their father has disappeared and their mother works double, sometimes triple shifts so her boys might fulfill the elusive promise of their adopted home.

Coming of age in The Park, a cluster of town houses and leaning concrete towers in the disparaged outskirts of a sprawling city, Michael and Francis battle against the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them as young men of black and brown ancestry -- teachers stream them into general classes; shopkeepers see them only as thieves; and strangers quicken their pace when the brothers are behind them. Always Michael and Francis escape into the cool air of the Rouge Valley, a scar of green wilderness that cuts through their neighbourhood, where they are free to imagine better lives for themselves.

Propelled by the pulsing beats and styles of hip hop, Francis, the older of the two brothers, dreams of a future in music. Michael's dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their high school whose own eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere. But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic shooting, and the police crackdown and suffocating suspicion that follow.

My Review: "One morning, I peered with Francis into a newspaper box to read a headline about the latest terror and caught in the glass the reflection of our own faces." 

Just picking up Brother and flipping through it to write this review, my heart sank into my stomach. It's one of those amazing books that leaves you speechless, but the senseless tragedy of what takes place guts me just thinking about it. It is honestly the first book in a long time to make me full on sob by the end. Not just a few tears, but a full on, heaving, sobbing mess. You have been warned. Prepare your heartstrings. 

If this book could be summed up in a word, it would be grief. From it's opening pages, the feeling hangs oppressively between the characters as they dance around an unspoken hole in their lives. Brother tells the story of a police shooting that stole a brother and son, and left a family reeling with PTSD. Naturally, the book touches on some very heavy topics, but counters it with gentle, loving characters that unfortunately also amp up the tragedy of the loss. 

Though told through Michael's point of view, the story focuses on his older brother, Francis, and the events that lead up to his death. Most of the book takes place in the past, contrasted with the 'present,' ten years after. Through this recollection, Chariandy exposes the systems that failed Francis long before his death: the school system that abandoned him, the systematic racism, cycles of poverty, toxic masculinity, etc. All of these build on one another until the night of his murder, when he's already too beaten down to play his part any longer. In this way, Chariandy makes the reader fully empathize with the experience of many people of colour in Canada who face these same systematic failures.

Chariandy's writing is also exceptionally beautiful. He takes time to highlight the beauty in a gritty, urban setting. He utilizes a lot of showing language that does not push 'politics,' but merely reflects the reality of the character's experience, such as the number of times the police drive past their house. There were so many lines, such as the one quoted above, that imparted so much weight through metaphor that they communicated much more than they seemed. Chariandy also manages to cram all of this into a measly 177 pages, while most other books I've seen on the topic need twice as many pages to cover half as many topics. 

All in all, wow. Suffering through the tragedy is worth being witness to the poetry of this story. I'd highly recommend this book for anyone interested in an intense empathetic experience, or anyone seeking understanding on how the intersection of oppressions take root in a person's life. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. A devastating tale of grief and healing. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Book Review: Terminal Alliance

Book Review: Terminal Alliance by Jim C Hines 

Goodreads Description: The Krakau came to Earth to invite humanity into a growing alliance of sentient species. However, they happened to arrive after a mutated plague wiped out half the planet, turned the rest into shambling, near-unstoppable animals, and basically destroyed human civilization. You know—your standard apocalypse.

The Krakau’s first impulse was to turn around and go home. (After all, it’s hard to have diplomatic relations with mindless savages who eat your diplomats.) Their second impulse was to try to fix us. Now, a century later, human beings might not be what they once were, but at least they’re no longer trying to eat everyone. Mostly.

Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos is surprisingly bright (for a human). As a Lieutenant on the Earth Mercenary Corps Ship Pufferfish, she’s in charge of the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team. When a bioweapon attack wipes out the Krakau command crew and reverts the rest of the humans to their feral state, only Mops and her team are left with their minds intact.

Escaping the attacking aliens—not to mention her shambling crewmates—is only the beginning. Sure, Mops and her team of space janitors and plumbers can clean the ship as well as anyone, but flying the damn thing is another matter.

As they struggle to keep the Pufferfish functioning and find a cure for their crew, they stumble onto a conspiracy that could threaten the entire alliance… a conspiracy born from the truth of what happened on Earth all those years ago.

My Review: Terminal Alliance is a rip-roaring adventure through space from the first page to its very last. Hines uses humour to hook the reader and keep them invested in the foreign environment filled with different alien races, relying mostly on dramatic irony as characters fumble about with human history. The story focuses on Mops and her janitor crew who happen to be the only ones unaffected by an attack that kills their alien captains and leaves their human crewmates feral. From the first page, the book launches into plot-heavy action interjected with humor that doesn't waste time trying to catch the reader up to speed on the intricacies of this galactic society. Despite that, Hines is very skilled at layering important information throughout the action, so the reader isn't bogged down by information while also never feeling lost in the action. 

My biggest issue with the book came down to its characters. I'm a character-driven reader, and this story was very plot-driven, with little depth given to its characters. Hines kept his characters solid and consistent, and even managed to buck a few tropes, but the book isn't interested in who they are beyond the surface level or diving into their inner worlds. They are merely the players that help the plot move forward, which just isn't my style. Aside from the interesting mystery behind what happened to the human crew, I struggled to keep myself invested in the story. For readers who prefer more action heavy, "less talky, more blowing shit up," kind of reads, these characters are probably perfect. They're fun, funny, and each distinct without feeling like something I've seen before, but they don't grow or change much throughout the story. They encounter a problem and they solve it, while having sassy space battles along the way. 

The writing is solid, accessible, and cleverly utilized. This is clearly not Hines' first book, as he uses his words wisely to save 'space' and increase the flow. Instead of showing something and then having a character react to it, Hines will have a character react, and in that reaction, show us what's happening. This is a great tool for keeping the reader moving forward. The mystery was also written in such a way that I felt really smart? Which sounds like a funny thing to say. I don't usually play detective while reading, but if the clues line up just right, then it's hard to ignore an obvious solution. That's definitely how it felt in TA, and I can't tell if that's because Hines made the mystery too easy to solve, or if he just laid all the clues out in a way that felt obvious to me. While I didn't feel the mystery was stupid or 'too easy,' I did find myself getting frustrated with Mops by the end when the enemies all but told her the truth, and she still struggled to put together what I had pages ago. If you're someone who likes to solve puzzles, this one may be too frustratingly easy for you, but if you're just along for the ride, you may get the added benefit of feeling like Sherlock. 

Aside from my struggles to connect with the story, I really enjoyed the ride. TA was like that crazy sci-fi action flick you turn on, enjoy it for its popcorn simplicity, and then never watch again, though you remember it fondly. The world in TA was delightful and layered in a way I could see myself being drawn into, lore-wise, and I really enjoyed the worldbuilding scenes at the beginning of each chapter, with excerpts from military manuals, alien cookbooks, scenes from alien POVs, etc., that all helped to flush out the expansive starsystem. And again, Hines adds a touch of humor that keeps things from feeling like a dry alien textbook.

TL;DR: All in all, 3.5/5 stars. An all around fun, sassy space-opera driven by its exciting plot and inter-species mystery.