Dec 02 2020

Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan

Happy December, everyone! Let’s start the month with a chilling read!

I have a bad habit of not remembering why I picked up certain volumes, not helped by the often considerable lag time between me deciding I want to read a book and me actually getting the opportunity to read it. So I vaguely recall placing a library hold on Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan because I was told it was a collection of horror stories set in contemporary South Korea. And it’s not. It’s actually better.

I mean, if your idea of horror is anything psychologically thrilling a/o supernaturally tinged, then sure, BFW is going to be the spooky read you’re looking for. Of the 11 stories included here, only two have an overtly supernatural component to them, and even fewer verge into territory so violent or grotesque that the horror genre may take over from mere crime. But each and every one of these tales is disquieting and sad, with survival being perhaps the happiest ending available to the heroes, who are also often the victims, of these stories. In some ways, this book reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s Little Tales Of Misogyny: where Ms Highsmith wrote with a barely concealed contempt of her characters however, Ms Ha treats hers only with empathy, even when they’re being foolish or just plain wrong.

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Nov 30 2020

Ghost River: The Fall And Rise Of The Conestoga by Lee Francis IV, Weshoyot Alvitre & Will Fenton

With Native American Heritage Month coming to a close, I’m so glad I could finally get to this graphic novel!

The history and, frankly, present-day reality of America’s indigenous peoples is too often overlooked, particularly in relation to the settlers and policies that continue to drive them to the margins of our nation, if not to outright extermination. So it’s important for books like this one, and especially in the reader-accessible format of graphic novels, to keep telling the stories of Native Americans past and present, to amplify their voices and remind readers, “We are here. We matter. We will not fade away.”

Created as part of the Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives On Colonial America project supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, this volume examines the massacre of the Conestoga in today’s Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, from their own perspective, both then and now. An entire settlement was razed by selfish white men trying to justify their own greed, who then went on to murder the survivors held in (a somewhat condescending before becoming entirely failed) protective custody. It’s a harrowing tale that deserves greater publicity, and I’m glad Lee Francis IV and Weshoyot Alvitre collaborated to tell it, and especially that they chose to center the Conestoga as the vital, beating heart of their story.

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Nov 27 2020

Record Of A Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3) by Becky Chambers

Every book of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series has centered on a slightly different, but extremely relevant, facet of life that is common to the modern millennial and Gen Zer, perhaps even more so than to prior generations. Her knock-out debut, The Long Road To A Small Angry Planet, discussed the found families that have become integral parts of (particularly young adult) society, while its follow-up, A Closed And Common Orbit, focused on personhood, adult autonomy and, in a more overt nod to its science fiction setting, sentience. This third installment of the series edges from the social to the political after a fashion, tackling the topic of migration at a complete remove from any real-world policies, tho it’s pretty clear that Ms Chambers, like myself, is an open borders advocate, if her narrative choices are anything to go by.

Record Of A Spaceborn Few follows the lives of five human descendants of the Exodan Fleet, as the survivors who fled a dying Earth for the stars (as opposed to Mars or the Outer Ring planets) call themselves, interspersed with the sociological observations of a Harmagian anthropologist, Ghuh’loloan. The Harmagian has come to visit one of these ships now that the fleet has lived for several generations as part of the Galactic Commons uniting most of the known universe’s sentient species, and Isabel, one of our viewpoint characters, serves as her guide. As one of her ship’s resident archivists, Isabel is in an excellent position not only to show Ghuh’loloan around, but also to answer her many questions.

The other four descendants are Tess, the sister of the pilot from TLRtaSAP, a middle-aged technician struggling to raise her two young children and look after her increasingly irascible dad while her husband is off mining asteroids; Kip, a disgruntled 16 year-old who wants more than what he thinks the Fleet has to offer; Eyas, a caretaker for the dead whose lofty position in society can’t make up for how lonely she often feels, and Sawyer, a young man who’s lived his entire life on the Harmagian planet of Mushtullo and is looking for something new. The way their narratives intersect makes for a really comprehensive overview of why people uproot their entire lives for territory foreign to them, and sometimes why they don’t, and sometimes why they return, and what our responsibilities are to those who choose to brave new places in search of safety or belonging. It is one of the most powerful, intensely empathetic looks at the immigrant experience that I’ve ever read. This quietly devastating novel had me ugly crying my way through entire passages that could have easily described the inner turmoil of my teens and 20s, even as I recognized and grieved the differences that had me far removed from some of the decisions made.

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Nov 25 2020

Raybearer (Raybearer #1) by Jordan Ifueko

This book is fucking flawless and possibly the first time in recent years that a YA debut has deserved all the praise it receives. FLAWLESS, my friends, and easily one of the best fantasy/YA novels ever written.

Raybearer opens on a young, love-starved girl named Tarisai who is brought up by servants in a secluded manor. Her mother, known only as The Lady, visits from time to time, and is one of the few people unafraid to touch her. Tarisai, you see, is psychometric, able to read memories of people and objects by touch, and is being raised by The Lady with a single purpose: to kill a particular boy once she loves him the most.

The boy, it turns out, is Crown Prince Dayo, and Tarisai must be accepted as one of the members of his council in order to further her mother’s plan. Thing is, Dayo is extremely lovable, and Tarisai, having been sent to live at the Children’s Palace as a candidate for said council, finds herself both drawn to him and struggling to resist her mother’s will. And that’s pretty much all I can tell you without ruining the rest of the book, but there’s a convincing found family and love stories; excellent Afro-centric world-building and magic system, and really deep moral and philosophical/political struggles, far more than I’ve come to expect from recent YA. The relationships are complex and nothing is predictable, with all manner of betrayal and violence and empathy and love, explored with sensitivity, depth and authenticity by the truly gifted Jordan Ifueko. She knows how to write sympathetic, realistic characters who are both good and evil, who feel entirely fleshed out and speak and behave so naturally as to feel like Ms Ifueko is scribing a story instead of creating one. The complex relationship between Tarisai and her mother, especially, is beautifully depicted, capturing perfectly the push-pull of feelings in a young girl who wants to please a toxic and not entirely unsympathetic parent.

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Nov 24 2020

Gillbert #3: The Flaming Carats Evolution by Art Baltazar

I got my 9 year-old to do a buddy read on this one with me, and he definitely liked it a little more than I did, story-wise, at least. We both greatly enjoyed Art Baltazar’s delightfully rounded, pastel-hued art, which blends alien action with underwater adventure in a kid-friendly and -accessible way. This is the creative genius behind Young Justice and Tiny Titans, after all, so his art is going to have lots of wide-ranging appeal.

Where Jms’ and my opinions diverged was on the story, which is basically this: Gillbert is the heir to the kingdom of Atlanticus, and with assorted family and friends must deal with a new threat brought about by the ongoing evolution of the evil alien Pyrockians. Gillbert’s circle of friends is vastly enlarged when Anne Phibian takes him home to meet her family, who want to inspect this boy she’s been spending so much time with. It’ll take all our heroes’ connections — underwater, on land and in space — to foil the Pyrockians’ evil plans.

Personally, I thought the story quite slight for the number of pages, especially since a good part of it was spent recapping the cast and how they’d been introduced in the past two books. That was actually Jms’ favorite part of the volume tho, getting to know all the characters. We did both appreciate the not too heavy-handed message about love saving the day in the end.

Tonally, everything reminded me very much of a Hellboy-lite, unsurprising given Mr Baltazar’s previous experience on Itty Bitty Hellboy. The banter between the characters was nice, but I still don’t understand how the Phibians knew the Pyrockians were behind the initial sign of underwater disturbance. Jms seemed satisfied with the story, tho, and since he’s part of the book’s target demographic of middle-grade readers, I suppose that’s more important than my own satisfaction.

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Nov 23 2020

From Page To Screen: The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski

I’m not deeply knowledgeable regarding The Witcher property, having only started with the third game (brilliant) and going on to enjoy The Last Wish, the first of Andrzej Sapkowski’s phenomenally successful fantasy series. While Blood Of Elves and The Time Of Contempt languish still on my TBR pile, I did manage to find time to watch the Netflix miniseries starring the mind-erasingly hunkiest man on the planet, Henry Cavill. I’d heard good things, so was wildly disappointed to discover that this show sucks. It’s so bad, it’s actually made Henry Cavill less attractive to me, a feat not even his myriad scandals could manage.

The main problem here is that the scripts are terrible and the directing choices atrocious. I don’t fault any of the actors, all of whose talent manages to shine through despite some truly execrable material. What I don’t understand is how you take the thoughtful, morally nuanced writing of both books and video game and turn them into this absolute dreck. I can’t get over how even the video game, a medium that often lags behind its more established cousins in terms of depth, is better written than this dreadful show.

It starts from the very first episode, where Geralt of Rivia must choose “the lesser of two evils” all while spouting philosophical purity nonsense that should shame anyone past the age of 21. Unlike in the books and game, the concept of damned if you do, damned if you don’t is presented as an ideological quandary instead of the compromise that loners like Geralt must constantly make in order to survive. The bizarre estrangement of lived-in feeling from genuine moral struggle is also apparent when Geralt tells the elf king to let the past go and focus on the future survival of his people instead: in the books it’s given as hard-won advice, but on the show it comes across as an arrogant command for the elf king to just get over it and move on already. The show strips Geralt of his hard-won insight and instead turns him into a bro-it-all who could fix all the world’s problems if the world would just listen to him. It’s… tacky and sophomoric and a bizarre translation of Eastern European attitudes to the most supercilious of transatlantic sensibilities.

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Nov 20 2020

An Interview with T. C. Farren, author of The Book Of Malachi

Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did The Book of Malachi evolve?

A. I was living at a remove from society, feeling outrage at human cruelty and a dark, desperate humor at the time of writing TboM. Our suburb was close to the sea but chopped off by concrete buildings and pavilions. Like Malachi I couldn’t see the sea but could sense it nearby and, like Malachi, felt trapped inside manmade anxiety, fretting about my children who were seriously sick from GM grains. We had paramedics rushing to the house every three weeks to help my baby to breathe while my daughter’s eczema was so severe she had to be wrapped in bandages like a mummy in hospital. Then there was the country. South Africa’s enormous, cruel split between the privileged and the poor make it place of high drama and homicide. In the year I started writing Malachi I was trying these amazing daily meditations where you gradually dis-identify with the ego and connect with your inner light. I think my dabbling might have kicked up a hugely brave, sage character who was big enough to take on love, genocide, and the neocolonial rape of the Africa.

Q. I loved how The Book of Malachi was almost entirely peopled by characters with strong ties to Africa. Did you make a conscious decision to showcase the diversity of the peoples of your continent in your book, or did that come about as a sort of natural evolution while writing?

A. I think it was a natural evolution for me. The cast is large and unconsciously reflects some of the people I have met or been stunned by in my lifetime. Malachi is a bit of a Mister Mandela figure but carries more wrath than Madiba did. I guess the book is a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Malachi presiding over it. South Africa is filled with gifted, often highly educated refugees like Malachi who arrive with their unbearable memories of trauma and loss. Many are illegal, many unwanted due to competition for jobs and despite their muteness, find ways stay dignified while taking shelter inside enemy territory. The unscrupulous bosses on the rig are mostly from China and the US, no different to the 17th century explorers who arrived with their ships and guns, stole cattle, annexed land and chained up Khoi Khoi kings to be their slaves. Then there are the killers. The prisoners all lived in Africa but hail from everywhere, representing people who’ve been unjustly accused, those crying out for forgiveness and those who are too dangerous to rehabilitate.

Q. One thing that really struck me with this novel is the very clear moral that we shouldn’t lose sight of each other’s humanity to the point where we treat one another like goods or animals, particularly in the carceral system. How did your thoughts on the current state of the prison system and reform influence your writing of this novel?

A. To me recidivism is a frightening thing. People commit dreadful acts, go in for 10 to 20 years, get raped and beaten in jail and come out even more twisted. As distasteful as it may seem to people who want pure revenge, forms of therapy that lets perpetrators encounter the goodness in them saves society endless suffering at the hands of these people. Although some criminals are irredeemably dangerous and should stay locked up until they die, I think programs that let inmates excavate through their shadows towards some form of light is the very first step towards making amends. I’m being serious when I say I’d love this book to go to prisons.

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Nov 19 2020

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar

From the very first pages, I was completely blown away by how lovely the prose of this novel is! In all honesty, pretty phrasing isn’t high on my list when it comes to what makes a novel entertaining, but Shveta Thakrar’s beautiful descriptive writing, coupled with her gift for presenting absolutely natural dialog and emotion, had me lapping up every single word of her gorgeous debut novel.

Star Daughter is the story of Sheetal Mistry from Edison, New Jersey, the daughter of an astrophysicist and an actual star. Not like Hollywood/ Instagram stuff, but a star from the firmament who took human form and fell in love with Gautam Mistry, then an obscure young academic. Charumati of House Pushya hid her divinity for nearly a decade before the Song of Stars pulled her back into the heavens, leaving behind her husband and young, grieving Sheetal. Adding to the trauma of being abandoned by her mother is the constant fear of discovery: the Mistrys know that exposing Sheetal as being half-human would invite curiosity, questions and worse. The only people besides Sheetal and her father who know the truth are Radhika, Gautam’s overprotective sister, and Minal, Sheetal’s exuberant best friend.

Sheetal is sixteen when she meets and falls in love with Dev, a talented, handsome young musician. Were she fully human, this wouldn’t be a big deal, even to their conservative Hindu families; being half-star, however, adds a distinct layer of complication. Sheetal is torn between opening up to Dev and trying to keep her secret, a task made harder by the insistence with which the Song of Stars has recently been calling to her. When Sheetal finds out a shocking secret about Dev’s heritage, her overwhelmed reactions will set into motion a journey that will see her travelling to the heavens themselves to seek aid from her mother, a journey that could have dire consequences for not only herself but for the rest of humanity as well.

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Nov 17 2020

These Violent Delights (These Violent Delights #1) by Chloe Gong

So there are some really good bits in Chloe Gong’s retelling of Romeo And Juliet, set in 1920s Shanghai and featuring the scions of two rival gang families needing to team up to defeat a supernatural threat to the city. First and foremost is the lived-in character of Juliette Cai, heir to the Scarlet Gang, whose position is threatened by her brash and, more importantly to some, male cousin Tyler. Repeatedly sent away to America for her education, Juliette adopts a Westernized persona as her signature pose, even as she bitterly resents the Western European interests that seek always to undermine local rule.

Her nemesis/true love is Roma Montagov (which is a totally nonsense name,) heir to the White Flowers, a gang descended of Russian refugees who fled the Bolsheviks and assimilated to Chinese life. I honestly loved how the White Flowers were considered native Shanghainese compared to the British and French, primarily because they weren’t there to colonize but to survive, and understand that that means respecting and absorbing local traditions and mores. Unfortunately, Roma is wildly underbaked as a character compared to Juliette, or even to her maternal cousin Kathleen Lang. Honestly, if this book had been about Juliette and Kathleen running around having adventures and defeating bad guys, as well as grappling with what it means to be a cis woman and a trans woman respectively in a patriarchal society, I’d have loved it a lot more, but I guess you can’t have an R&J retelling without Romeo. So there Roma is, and he’s… fine. He’s a pacifist, a cinnamon roll who has to be tough in order to preserve his place as heir to the White Flower leadership. I just found it silly towards the end that he didn’t quit when faced with the quandary that originally divided him from Juliette, but teenagers are a lot more tied to their parents than they want to admit.

And that’s honestly the main trouble with this book, that it’s about teenagers, none of whom are too bright, running around being violent. Whereas the original play was teenagers being melodramatic and self-destructive, These Violent Delights has them dial down the drama — it honestly is far more sensible about the romance than its inspiration — but turns the violence outward and amps it up. Which is fine, if you’re into having protagonists that aren’t particularly clever, in a plot that doesn’t particularly make sense, with, barring Kathleen, awkwardly written supporting characters who often serve more as plot devices than actual people, running around killing others with little to no consequence. The occasional paraphrasing of Shakespeare is neat, but doesn’t make up for the atrocious grammar that I’m hoping gets edited more stringently in the finalized version of the book (I read an ARC, natch.) While I can forgive the overuse of the verb surge, I’m pretty sure Ms Gong has never broiled anything in her life, given the way she constantly uses the word as a cross between “boil” and “roil” when it is like neither of those things. I get wanting to expand the limits of language, but words have meanings. Don’t even get me started on the use of exhale and inhale as nouns, in just another egregious example that seems to be endemic to the YA genre recently. Ffs, editors, do your jobs.

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Nov 16 2020

X-Venture Xplorers: The Kingdom Of Animals #1 Rage Of The Kings by Slaium, Meng & the Black Ink Team

Somehow, I overlooked this book in all the shuffle of recent months, but was so very pleased to finally be able to crack it open and discover that it was written by a Malaysian team! Reading the book made me feel like a kid again, sneaking my comics away from my mother’s disapproving eye, much like countless other young Malaysians whose parents thought comics were lowbrow entertainment. In fact, I’m pretty sure that attitude was behind this comics team’s emphasis on how educational X-Venture Xplorers: The Kingdom Of Animals is meant to be, complete with a preface on the subject, numerous factual interludes on the various feline species, as well as a quiz at the end. “See, parents,” it seems to claim, “Comics aren’t just mindless fun! You learn important facts and figures too!” Rigid parents will hopefully be fobbed off with same while avid readers are allowed to enjoy both the educational aspects as well as the just plain fun story being told in these pages. And don’t get me started on all the things readers learn that aren’t just “scientific.” God, I hate when people are snobs about comics. For the record, while my mom was sniffy about them, my dad encouraged me, recognizing my voracious appetite for reading as the hallmark of a mind hungry for a broader range of knowledge that what the received wisdom deemed suitable. My dad rocks.

Anyhoo, Jake and Louis are long-time rivals in the Xplorers teams, a group of children mentored by Dr Darwin, a renowned zoologist and biologist who isn’t above getting even louder than the kids in order to end their ridiculous fighting. Sherry is the lone girl, the peacemaker between Jake and Louis. Bean is the small, shy genius of the group, and Kwame is the one with the most actual experience out in the wild. When Dr Darwin sets the kids the task of completing an Encyclopedia Animalia, they must split into two groups to not only track and chart their first animal family, Felidae, but also settle the argument that Jake and Louis have been having: whether the lion or tiger is the more powerful animal king.

It’s basically Pokemon but with real animal stats and super cool holographic composites showing what a virtual fight would look like. It reminds me a lot of the Who Would Win series of books pitting similar creatures against one another that my eldest child loved in first grade. The kids are cute and obnoxious and silly and sympathetic: no one’s actually a bad guy, everyone’s just a person with strengths and flaws. It’s very much an Asian manga (from 2012!) translated into English for the American market. There are panels that could raise Western eyebrows, when the languages of minority characters in communicating with animals are depicted as gibberish. It’s hard to explain how that isn’t as offensive to continental Asians as it is to those who’ve grown up in colonizer cultures, who have a history of belittling the foreign as part of their methods of conquest. Asians don’t see making weird noises when doing supernatural things as a value judgment: it doesn’t make the (minority) caster seem savage or dirty or unsophisticated when it’s everyone else who can’t understand what the caster is saying.

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