Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lost in Time

I had made myself a resolution that I'm going to review more books while I'm reading them, because my opinions are much clearer and I have a much easier time keeping my thoughts straight.  But with this one, I don't think I had a choice but to wait for the end; I couldn't figure out if the book was about the journey or the destination.  Having now finished it: journey, I think?

Displaced Persons, by Derek McCulloch and Anthony Peruzzo, is a graphic novel with a timeline running through it--and you need the timeline, and refer to it often, and maybe still can't keep track of what's going on.  Really, it's several stories--a detective hired track down a missing woman in the 1930s; a hippie who's made the wrong enemies and his twin brother the undercover cop in the 1960s; a woman's troubled marriage in the 1990s.  They're told in succession, in different two-tone shades (blue, gray, sepia), and each story is interesting and a neat little episode.  The twins are the detective's grandsons; the wife is the hippie's daughter, so maybe it's a family saga.

But what promises to tie it together is the notion of missing people and found people--people vanish, and people appear.  There's a place in the park, and if you wander through at the right moment, you find yourself in a different time, with no memory of yourself.  At the beginning of the story, a small boy is brought to an orphanage; the detective's mother vanished when he was a boy; etc.  I don't want to give them all away--the disappearances fit together and make their own little parallel story that no one in any of the main narratives knows anything about.

If all this makes it sound confusing--well, I'm sorry to say it kind of was.  I had a bit of trouble telling some of the characters apart, and I couldn't help but wonder if all these stories, these impossibly complicated timelines (there is a timeline that runs between chapters, so you can follow how everyone is related and what happens to them between the events), were going to come together in the end.  I mean, they fit together quite pleasingly, but at the bottom of it, you are reading three different stories, and they're not very closely related.  I kind of expected a generational family saga, but it's only with effort that I'm putting together possible themes and connections, and even these seem tenuous.

I don't want to spoil, but here's an example: you could see a theme in the notion that if you choose a violent, narcissistic man for a mate, maybe it's somewhere buried deep in your family, because way back when that other guy was a pompous narcissist.  But a) none of the intervening generations really lend themselves to that argument, and b) I can't actually remember if you're related to the pompous guy at the beginning, because the relationships are so complicated.

So what we have here are three interesting, well-told stories that did not come together to me in a way that made me understand what the author had to say about what he was showing us.  Which is a shame, because each story had a lot of potential.

Thanks to Netgalley for the free review copy of this book.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Diversiverse: Let's End with a List

We're wrapping A More Diverse Universe! It's been a great run, and I've found so many cool new books AND new blogs to read. 

It's been so interesting to deliberately look around at my reading world and focus my attention on these authors and this issue.  I've read things I might not have otherwise, gone on a real novella kick (novellas--a low-commitment way to check out a new author!), and thought a lot about the insularity of the book world, and how easy it is to settle down with a self-perpetuating stack of stories and really read the same thing again and again.

So in addition to the books I've already reviewed, there are a few I've started but not had time to finish, and a few more I'm excited about, both ones I just couldn't squeeze in this month and ones that I learned about through this event.  And I love a good list!

Pointe, by Brandy Colbert.  I'm largely drawn to the gorgeous cover, and to ballet books in general after reading Meg Howrey's fabulous The Cranes Dance.  I'd never heard of it, but this review at The Englishist caught my eye, and my library had the ebook just waiting for me!  More than just a ballet story, it's about a girl and a community dealing with the aftermath of trauma, which I always find very interesting.

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, was a recommendation from Ana at Things Mean a Lot.   This one's been on my list for a while, but as a middle grades book, it never made it very high up the list.  But Ana's glowing recommendation (including this joint review of the sequel, P.S. Be Eleven at Ladybusiness) has me sold on this story of three sisters spending the summer in California in the 1960s. 

The Story Hour, by Thrity Umrigar, as reviewed by Literary Lindsey. This one had been catching my eye on the library site for a while, though I wasn't sure why.  I read this review and found out it was about the friendship between a depressed woman in an arranged marriage and her therapist, and I'm sold.  I love dramatic depictions of therapy; no idea why.  Yay!

My god, there are so many.  Books I was already going to read: Intisar Khanani's Thorn, Stephanie Kuehn's Charm and Strange, Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds, Sherri L. Smith's Flygirl.  Books that were just a blip on my radar before this even got me focused: Jacqueline Koyanagi's Ascension, Pam Munoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising, Benjanun Sriduangkaew's Scale-Bright.

What I'm saying is, I'm really excited about the books I read and the ones I learned about, and I'm excited about focusing my reading more to expand my horizons and bring more diverse authors to my shelves.  Thanks so much, Aarti, for such a great event!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Embrace Your Awkward

Welcome to A More Diverse Universe! Check out the link for a description of the event and tons of reviews from other bloggers.  Thanks again, Aarti!

I love it when reading serendipity happens, like when I'm doing an event like this and Netgalley offers me a copy of Issa Rae's new memoir, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. It's the like the stars are aligned.  And it's double awesome because then it gave me the opportunity to fall down the Issa Rae rabbit hole with episodes of her Awkward Black Girl web series, which is just so on the nose uncomfortable.  Brenda, you have to watch the episode in season one called The Hallway.

This is a memoir of growing up awkward and black, and like a lot of the memoirs that I enjoy, it hinges way more on her ability to tell a good anecdote than on her out-of-the-ordinary life.  Issa Rae moved around a lot growing up, and spent a good deal of time in her father's home country of Senegal, but other than that, her life is a fairly typical American life of her time.

Issa presents this wonderful combination of being very awkward and yet very comfortable with herself.  Or maybe it just seems that way because I'm even more awkward than she is, which is entirely possible.  She went to Stanford, got involved in theater, took some time off to study filmmaking.  She had boyfriends and lots of friends in college.  In high school, her awkward was of a more typical variety--she was the only girl who couldn't dance, and then goofed up by bragging about her dancing skills.  Things like that, the stories we all have, but just told in a way that's hilarious.

There are some interesting things to think about in here; she was on AOL as a preteen, getting into chat rooms way over her head.  She grew up in a golden age of black television, when you could watch The Cosby Show or Family Matters and see a family like yours, and she has a lot to say about the decline in the media presence of the black middle class.  Having then gone out and found her web series, I think I'm going to be watching some more web series--after I finish mainlining all of the Awkward Black Girl content that's out there.  ABG forever!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Diverse Shorts

Welcome to A More Diverse Universe! Check out the link for a description of the event and tons of reviews from other bloggers.  Thanks again, Aarti!

Today in the Diversiverse, a round up of short pieces.  Not all these authors are brand new to me, but many are, and they're all stories that I specifically came across thanks to the More Diverse Universe blogging event.

The Song of the Body Cartographer is by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who is participating in a round table at The Book Smugglers this week. (The link is to the story, free on the blog Philippine Genre Stories, which is seriously worth checking out.) A girl who is supposed to be able to fly--who should have been born compatible with a symbiotic windbeast--is inexplicably earthbound, and it's the job of Siren, the body cartographer, to figure out why.  The story is very short, and there is a very sweet sadness to it.

Creaciondelas Aves, Remedios Varo

It was a bit more worldbuilding than I think such a short piece could manage, though, and I walked away after two readings still a bit confused about how Inyanna's disability could be a political liability, and about what a Timor'an might be, in relation to a Qa'ta.  The second time through, when I knew enough to know what I could gloss over and what I should understand, the emotional center of the story packed more of a punch, because I knew what information I was looking for; I understood that Siren and Inyanna were lovers.

What I really want, though, is a bigger bite of this world.  I want to know what the Matriarchy is up against in the political wranglings with the Patriarchy, and I really want to know the results of Siren's research.  I hope and assume that Loenen-Ruiz is working on that for me.

I read my first Tananarive Due novel, My Soul to Keep, for Diversiverse two years ago, and when another blogger, Chrisbookarama, posted about her story "The Lake," I was excited to get a chance to squeeze another dose of her in this week.

A short story is so different from a novel, and when you don't read many of them, it can be surprising how efficiently a good author can present their story.  This one takes full advantage of a viewpoint character who might be just a bit unreliable. She's a teacher who's left her life in Boston for a new job and home and life on a swampy lake in northern Florida. 

At first, some of Abbie's offhand comments might be a little sketchy--high school boys will help her out around the house.  Then we get some hint that perhaps there is something more sinister in her past.  But I think my favorite part is how she reacts when things start getting weird; the character and the setting blend together to form a perfect weird storm.  A quick read; definitely worth it.

Finally, I read "The Sultana's Dream," by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein (again, the link goes to the free online story, this time at UPenn Digital Library), another story I found through a Diversiverse post, this one from Based on a True Story.  "The Sultana's Dream" was written in 1905 and was originally published in The Indian Ladies' Magazine, which I think tells you a lot about its intended audience. 

The story reminded me of nothing so much as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, a novel that is all about demonstrating how well an all-female society would run without men.  The Sultana falls asleep and tells how she was taken by a friend to a country where men are cloistered and women conduct all the trade; there are scientific advancements and no poverty or crime.  It's not a particularly profound story--the idea that all society's ills are caused by men is quite simplistic.  But if you think of it from the point of view of a woman reading it from within the hidden women's part of the house in 1905, you can imagine how strange and promising and freeing even the idea would be.  It's a fascinating historical document.

That's the round up for today!  We're coming to the end of A More Diverse Universe, and my to-read pile has grown faster than I can keep up with it (as usual).  I could use another week to review all the things I've started since this began! 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Prouder and More Prejudiced

Welcome to A More Diverse Universe! Check out the link for a description of the event and tons of reviews from other bloggers.  Thanks again, Aarti!

 As I wound my way through Aliette de Bodard's On a Red Station, Drifting, and thought about writing a post about it, one of my first thoughts was that it's a shame the title Pride and Prejudice was already taken, because how incredibly perfect would that be for this book.  Of course, then I realized that it was maybe a little too on the nose--or, as one of the characters in this book would have said, the reference is too heavy handed.  I think working the word "Lizzie" into the review would be the correct type of allusion.

Wonderful things have been said about this book by better bloggers than myself, so let me just point out two things that were done better than most books.  This is the story of a space station in the Dai Viet empire during a delicate time--there is a war on, Prosperity Station is packed with refugees, and many of its most prominent citizens/family members have been called away. 

The story is told from two viewpoint characters, which is not that uncommon.  Neither of them is first person, which I think is a strength, but we get very close to both of them and get to know them very well.  The part of this that is remarkable is that these two women are completely at odds with each other, both finding the other to be arrogant and undeservedly proud.

Quyen has been left to manage things, along with the station's AI consciousness, the Honored Ancestress.  She knows that she's not up to the job--not educated enough, not experienced enough, and just barely holding things together, but she's the only one to do the job since all the greater family members have been called away to the war.  Then Linh arrives on the station, a powerful magistrate who left her planet seeking help against the rebels, only to learn that they destroyed everything after she departed.  She has no resources and has lost everything, and is essentially reduced to taking shelter among the distant relatives on Prosper, whom she does not know.

They dislike each other immediately; Linh thinks Quyen is controlling and drunk on her own power, and Quyen thinks Linh is arrogant and used to having  her own way.  The thing is, they're both right, and they're both wrong, and throughout the book, we walk both sides of this line, see both sides of this argument, and come to care about both women as they both suffer and watch helplessly while everything they've worked toward crumbles.

How often, really, are you not on anyone's side in a book?  How often do you like two characters who hate each other where it doesn't turn out to be a misunderstanding, and they finally clear it up by talking it out and then end up allies--or, more commonly, in love?  Not here.  Quyen and Linh are not actually at odds through most of the book, but they never become besties, and I kind of love that.

The other thing I loved was the culture, and how perfectly Bodard built the Dai Viet empire, full of rich cultural nuance, without ever once doing an info dump.  We know that this is an interstellar empire with roots in China, and that there are mindships and stations with minds.  We know that the environments of these spaces are maintained through complicated software.  All standard worldbuilding types of things.

We also understand--not just know, but understand--how the honor of the family is everything, to the point where we feel fear when it's in danger.  We understand the importance of education, the lengths to which people will go to pass rigorous testing, and what is at stake for them. The value of ancestors, whose memories are implanted in their most honored offspring so that they may continue to influence the family.  What it means to be a lesser spouse in a great marriage, and to find your family in theirs.  Education, as demonstrated through poetry and allusions, and the constant dance of honor and status that must be managed perfectly.

That's a lot to load into even a long novella.  Add onto this the feeling of having another presence in your mind--the Honored Ancestress, with whom you can communicate and who is servant, guardian, companion.  The risk of losing that connection, the emotional weight of that.  The stifling pressure of this complicated, familial game, and the risk of trying to leave it.  The absolute horror of knowing that you made what seemed like a reasonable choice, but was the wrong one, and that people you loved have suffered for it. 

I hate how vague I'm being, but I don't want to tell you the story; I want to make you read it.  And the part that I found absolutely amazing here is how much I was made to truly understand in such a short space, and how I was able to really get a glimpse of what it meant to be each of these women--these different, struggling women, who live in a future I can hardly imagine, in a society so different from mind, and who are not only different from each other, but both different from me.  And I get them now.  Aliette de Bodard did that, and I'm in awe. 

Great book; definitely read it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Superheroes vs. Gene Luen Yang

Welcome to A More Diverse Universe! Check out the link for a description of the event and tons of reviews from other bloggers.  Thanks again, Aarti!

I say "versus" because it takes Gene Luen Yang to make me read a superhero comic.  And then you get the first 30 pages in and come on, it's barely a superhero comic--this book is entirely about a browbeaten father/son pair and the overbearing, discontented Chinese wife/mother who keeps them oppressed.

I went into The Shadow Hero knowing what the blurb says--in the Golden Age of comics, there was briefly an Asian American superhero called The Green Turtle, and this book is based loosely on him--it's an origin story, of sorts.  That's about it.  But I went in without any doubts, because come on, Gene Luen Yang!  American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints, The Eternal Smile. Somewhere in the neighborhood where genius meets charming!

But the beginning didn't have the dramatic drive you expect from a superhero origin story--it's not the perfunctory "Peter Parker's Uncle Henry was a great father figure UNTIL....and Spiderman was born."  It's truly this family's small story.

Then.  Then, the mother discovers superheroes (real ones, who fly and rescue people and catch bad guys and exist in this world), and decides that THIS is the man of action she wants her son to be.  She begins to shape him into it--makes him a costume, pushes him into combat lessons, drives him to the site of his good-deed-doing.  And he does his best for her, but it doesn't work out very well.

Then, stuff gets real.  His dabbling in heroism starts a chain of events that ends in tragedy, and all of a sudden it isn't a game anymore.  Peter Parker lets the bad guy get away and Uncle Henry gets killed and Peter has to make up for that, because there's no such thing as making it right.  And I found that the more superheroey it got, the more I liked it.  The second half is much more of an adventure story, and all the personal, emotional real life that went on in the first half pays off.

I loved how Hank gets his powers, and how there are real limitations there, which makes him both very fragile and mortal, and also very special.  I loved the police officer who's trying to do the right thing, in spite of the odds stacked against him.  I loved the gorgeous daughter of the Big Boss bad guy who is attractive and attracted to Hank, but who is not nearly as flat as the bad guy's daughter who loves the hero might be expected to be.

I think my favorite line--I hope I can remember it; wish I'd written it down--is something the detective says after saying something insulting about Chinese people, then realizing that the masked hero he's talking to is Chinese.  He says, "I'm sorry about what I said before.  That's not..."  Hank replies, "That's not who you are," and the detective pauses and then says, "No, that's not true.  But it's not who I want to be."

I loved that.  I loved it so much, because becoming a better person is a process, and it's always a process. Being a hero is the process of acting like one every day--you don't wake up one day with "heroic" as your default setting.  You have to do the hard, right thing, over and over again, every time. Not being racist in a racist world is a process; you have to relearn things you don't even know you learned.  We are all, every day, trying to be the people we want to be.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Not Your Momma's Teenaged Vampire

Welcome to A More Diverse Universe! Check out the link for a description of the event and tons of reviews from other bloggers.  Thanks again, Aarti!

One of my goals for Diversiverse this year was to discover new-to-me authors.  Zen Cho's name came up when she was on a panel with somebody that I saw in someone's blog post--I'm sorry, I don't even remember who, I just saw a photo of the author doing something silly and knew she wrote speculative fiction and thought, "hey, I should check her out."

So I found her novella, The House of Aunts. (That link, by the way, is NOT to Amazon, but to a site called GigaNotoSaurus, where you can download the story for free.  The site publishes novellas, and it's an exciting discovery in and of itself!)  After a little bewilderment wading in, I was absolutely charmed by the story of Ah Lee and her crush on Ridzual, a boy in her class.  Her feelings hit her suddenly, and she's overwhelmed by a shy kind of fascination.  But she lives with her many aunts, who insist that she must concentrate on school, get a good education, and maybe someday later she can think about boys.  The aunts' haranguing, the stories you learn of their lives, and Ah Lee's growing friendship with Ridzual are the three components that make up this mostly domestic, family/romance story.

Except the aunts are vampires, and so is Ah Lee. Nothing so melodramatic as your nocturnal bloodsuckers, they are both more prosaic and, we learn in hints, more frightening than that.  They eat human entrails, though the aunts insist on cooking them, because we are not animals.

But mostly, the aunts pester Ah Lee about her education, and about not getting involved with a boy, and about not getting involved with this boy, and about anything they can pester her about.  And Ah Lee gets to know Ridzual, becomes friends with him, and maintains her poise in spite of herself.

Finally, though, her feelings and her undead state get tangled together, confusing, and everything comes to a head, and I won't tell you how it turns out because spoilers!  But it's good reading, I'll tell you that.

There were things about this novella that confused me; I think the main one was the dialogue.  I'm pretty sure this takes place in Malaysia, but on and off, some of the characters would speak as though there was a language barrier.  I finally realized this pretty much only happens at school and never at home, so it's either a slang thing, or else there is an actual language barrier, and the language Ah Lee speaks at school is different from the one she speaks at home.  I found it quite distracting at first, though, because it reads like pidgin English, which distracts you from the fact that they're not actually speaking English at all.

Another thing that I wasn't sure of at first was the aunts. At the beginning, they are somewhat tedious--there are so many of them!  And they nag so much!  As you go further, though, and you begin to tell them apart, you see snippets of their previous lives; you begin to tell them apart and see their distinct personalities; you see Ah Lee's personal relationship with them as people, and their fierce love for each other.  And you begin to realize that it's a fairly typical adolescent thing, isn't it?  The adults are sometimes a faceless mass telling you what to do, and sometimes individual people who offer you amazing love and patience and whom you love fiercely.

It just came together, is how I would describe this.  And the vampire part added a lot more personal drama than it did horror--though the glimpses of horror, seen kind of around the edges of the story, make me think there's another, much scarier tale you could tell.  I'd be interested to read that, too--in addition to other stories by Zen Cho.