Star Wars The Last Jedi: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein

Read: 18 February, 2018

After watching The Last Jedi, I wanted to know more about Rose Tico. She’s an intriguing character who doesn’t get much exploration in the movie, but just enough to hint at a lot more depth.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much exploration here, either. The story is about Rose and her sister, Paige, trying to help a local rebellion on the planet Aterra Bravo. Set before the outbreak of war with the First Order, Rose and Paige have to operate in secrecy while the rebellion gathers evidence against the First Order.

So far so good. Except that the narrative is fairly superficial, and we don’t get a whole lot of character exposition or development. There’s a bit there about Rose’s relationship with Paige, and what development there is is about her learning to function independently of her sister (giving the last few chapters quite a bit of pathos, considering what happens in the first few minutes of The Last Jedi).

There’s certainly enough plot to fill a full length novel, but the author opts for repetition of the superficial, rather than depth. So over and over again, we hear about how Aterra Bravo reminds Rose of her homeworld, and over and over we hear about the difficulty of navigating the heavy bombers through the Aterran asteroid field. It’s so repetitive that even my six year old was getting annoyed! This book does not trust its readers at all.

Which is such a shame, because Rose is an interesting character, and because the plot is interesting on its own.

This isn’t a terrible book, but it is a disappointing one. The author seems to have confused writing for a younger audience with writing for a lazy, uninterested, and unengaged audience. She sacrificed depth for the assumption that her audience wouldn’t remember details from one chapter to the next.

Tensorate #1: The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang

Read: 13 February, 2018

I loved this story for all the things it does differently – for its setting, for its take on gender, for its take on homosexual relationships, etc.I just wish that the author had taken more time with it all.

This is a short enough story as it is, made even shorter as we are whisked along on a whirlwind tour of the first 35 years of Akeha and Mokoya’s lives. The scenes we are privy to are important, but so much of the character development happens off-screen.

This is a fantastic start, but the series needs a lot more exploration. I hope that there’ll be more details filled in by the sequels, because this story has a lot of potential.

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The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell

Read: 4 February, 2018

I happened on this book while searching for north African recipe books, and I’m still debating whether that’s a search algorithm win or a search algorithm fail. In any case, I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to read it, and promptly put it on hold at my library.

The book is a collection of memoir essays. They are a bit disconnected (although all come back, in some way, to themes of social justice), but I didn’t mind this time. It felt natural, like a conversation with a good friend that goes all over the place.

I really enjoyed the way Bell breaks down concepts – even when I still understood what he was getting at, I enjoyed the journey of the explanation. I never felt talked down to or excluded, even when he was explaining 101 concepts, even when he was clearly addressing readers who’ve shared his perspective and experiences.

This isn’t as hard-hitting as, for example, Between the World and Me or The New Jim Crow, while still expressing many of the same ideas. This would be a perfect starter book for that white friend who kinda gets it but doesn’t get it get it, but who wouldn’t want “all the negativity” of Michelle Alexander.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Read: 28 January, 2018

After a smash hit like The Fault In Our Stars, I can imagine how much pressure Green felt to follow it up without disappointing fans. Especially given how much more in the public eye he is than most authors. So it’s no wonder that, after publishing a book ever 1-2 years, we suddenly got a five year gap.

My favourite Green book is Looking for Alaska, because of the way he captured the effects of [redacted] on others – in particular, the mystery and the never knowing. But, at the same time, it was the beginning of the John Green Formula: awkward buy meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl, comes to amazed realisation that she is actually a full person, he is irrevocably changed. Which is exactly the sort of realisation that 99.5% of teenage boys need to have.

Then we had The Fault In Our Stars, which broke with tradition because, for the first time, Green wasn’t writing about himself. For that book, he put on the skin of Esther Earl – a teen fan who died of cancer. Not to psychoanalyse the author, but it was the first time he moved from realising that women are people, to actually taking on their thoughts and perspectives. It was an interesting transition, quite apart from all the other stuff that TFIOS was about.

Then there’s this book, which is still from the perspective of a woman, but is also much more personal. I don’t experience anxiety the way the main character does, but Green managed to capture something in her spiralling thought patterns. Enough so that, just reading the narrative, my own stomach (never the smartest part of my body) started reacting as if her thoughts were my thoughts. Which made this a bit of a difficult – not to mention physically painful – read.

I liked the way Green avoids easy resolutions – which is something he’s always done well. I also liked the centring of friendship, and the ultimate lesson of the story. I liked the authenticity of the way the man character felt.

If you don’t like YA or you don’t like Green, you probably won’t like this. But, personally, I might be changing my favourite Green novel.

Sky Burial by Xinran

Read: 25 January, 2018

A fascinating story about a Chinese woman who heads into the Tibetan wilderness to find her lost husband.

While the book claims to be a true story (told by the main character to the author in the course of two days), this reads like fiction. True or not, or mix of both, I’m not sure it matters. It’s still a beautiful story, regardless.

The books main strength is in the way it conveys a sense of place – not just of the Tibetan plateau (though these were certainly the best bits), but also of the Chinese towns. With surprising economy of description, the author had me feeling transported.

There seem to be some political undertones, or at least a message. But while it does fudge over a lot of the truly horrific political events, I don’t think it’s nearly as pro-Chinese as some reviewers seem to have read it. There’s a sense of intrusion in the military presence in Tibet. And, while Shu Wen definitely seems to buy the party line at first about bringing civilisation to a backward land, she seems to learn a great respect for the traditional ways. So while there is, of course, some politics in a book about the ongoing Chinese/Tibetan conflict, I didn’t get the sense that the author was taking a strong side either way. As with most things, it’s complicated. And the picture we’re given in Sky Burial is nothing if not complicated.

I really enjoyed the friendship between Shu Wen and Zhuoma, brought together by their shared goal of finding their men. And the writing style was both poetic and vivid.

This is a very quick read, but a beautiful one.

Vorkosigan Saga #9: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 22 January, 2018

Like Falling Free, this book is set within the Vorkosigan universe, but isn’t about either Miles or his mother, Cordelia.

I really enjoyed this one. Feminist science fiction tends break with genre conventions in interesting ways, but Ethan of Athos managed even to break with those breaks – first by centring the story on a man, then by using one patriarchal society as the backdrop for exploring an entirely different patriarchy. And, while there are only two important female characters in the book (a minority by a fairly wide margin), and while those women break rather significantly from what North American culture would see as “women’s” roles, the book manages to have a lot to say about how women (and women’s labour) get valued.

One of the most ding-ding moments in the book is when Ethan is talking about the tremendous labour cost of raising an army, and is surprised to find out that – in the outside universe – all that labour is simply unaccounted for. It belongs primarily to women, and is therefore not “productive” labour. On his own world, where there are no women and therefore where parenting is handled exclusively by men, that labour is recognised as such. This fit in beautifully with what feminist economists like Nancy Folbre argue.

I loved Bujold’s vision of human adaptability. While North American culture still disproportionately offloads the labour of parenting onto women, and while so many will straight-facedly argue that it is simply a matter of biology, Bujold presents us with an all-male society where men – absent any other choices – simply step up and become parents. Some, like the main character, Ethan, go well beyond that to be downright nurturing. From the very beginning, Ethan is preoccupied with babies. His whole career is devoted to their creation, his long term goal throughout the novel is to have children of his own, and it is the threat to babies that incites his actions again and again.

The same is the case for Bujold’s concept of sexuality. Absent choices, many people will content themselves with homosexuality regardless of what they would choose if choices were available – as we see in gender-segregated environments like prisons and the military. History has many examples of societies with different conceptions of sexuality – Ancient Greece being the most well-known example. And, of course, Bujold allows for those individuals whose sexuality is less flexible, which on Athos would mean the celibate orders. It’s a vision of sexual fluidity that doesn’t get mentioned much in a culture where homosexuality is always on the defensive.

I’ve been hoping for a glimpse of the Quaddies ever since Falling Free. Now, I guess I’ll be hoping to see what the future holds for Athos.

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Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam [Neither Eve Nor Adam] by Amélie Nothomb

Read: 18 January, 2018

I really enjoyed the author’s Stupeur et tremblement, which is set in the same time period of her life. While that explores her time working in Japan, this book is about her time off, when she is dating a Japanese man named Rinri.

Typical for the author, the book is quite funny and insightful. It was especially amusing to read about a woman’s adventures trying to relearn her childhood language (in this case Japanese) while I, myself, was doing the same (in this case French).

And language plays a huge part in the story. Several pivotal plot moments involve linguistic misunderstandings between Amélie and Rinri, and a lot of the humour has to do with bilingual puns (not to mention the cultural differences).

As with all of Nothomb’s books that I’ve read so far, I really enjoyed this!

The Djinn Falls In Love & Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Read: 12 January, 2018

Overall, I found this to be a really solid anthology! There were a few stories that I didn’t like, and more that I think I just didn’t really get, but the proportion of great to not great is excellent.

“The Djinn Falls in Love” by Hermes

The anthology starts with a poem. Poems tend to be a little more ambiguous or open to interpretation, but I think it’s comparing the force of nature that is the djinn to the force of nature that is love. Whatever it’s about, it has quite a bit of powerful imagery packed into a rather short piece.

“The Congregation” by Kamila Shamsie

Starting off with a bang, this is one of my favourite stories in the collection. It starts as this beautiful, dreamlike queer love story between a human and a djinn. Then, unfortunately, the story keeps going and the love between the two young men is revealed to be that of two brothers. It’s disappointing that the story went so far, then shied away from what it could have been. It’s still a good story, though, with a strong fairy tale flavour.

“How We Remember You” by Kuzhali Manichavel

I feel like I don’t quite get this story. From what I could tell, it’s about a djinn living among people, but then he gets ill so the children kill him. I suppose it’s a commentary on something, or perhaps it alludes to other stories that I’m not familiar with? It’s well written, but I just don’t feel like I grasped what the author was trying to convey.

“Hurrem and the Djinn” by Claire North

This is one of those stories that’s frustrating because I wanted so much more – more exploration of the characters, more exploration of the world, more. Hurrem – a sultana believed to be using her control of djinn to manipulate the sultan – isn’t physically present in much of the story, yet she is present on every page. She is loved, and the ending reveals her to have remarkable strength and intrigue-savvy. I would happily read a whole book about her and the narrator, and the courtly forces trying to bring her down.

“Glass Lights” by J.Y. Yang

This story reminded me of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” – what if the djinn walked among us, leading ordinary lives, putting in their time at the office, having unrequited crushes? This one emphasised more the wish-granting aspect of the djinn, which turned it into an interesting commentary on pleaser personalities (people who spend their energies pleasing others at the expense of themselves). I mostly liked the story, though I do wish that it had gone a bit further with the concept. I also feel that the whole character backstory about the djinn grandmother was unnecessary, and the story would have been stronger with that trimmed off.

“Authenticity” by Monica Byrne

This was another one that I don’t feel like I really grasped. The idea of authenticity tourism is interesting and worth exploring, but I’m not sure how the story actually connects with that theme (other than the main character’s frequent repetition of the word). As for the plot itself, I don’t think I understood what the author was trying to say – especially in light of the “reveal” at the end. I feel like the film-making theme, and the direct experience versus in-person voyeurism versus on-screen voyeurism dichotomy are probably important, but the execution didn’t capture me enough to want to follow that thread.

“Majnun” by Helene Wecker

This was an interesting one that worked well as a short story. I usually either don’t like short stories, or they read like test runs for longer pieces, but this one was perfectly self-contained. A djinn converts to Islam and is faced with a former lover who is possessing a young man the djinn is trying to exorcise. What a great set up! The story has a solid narrative, an interesting conflict, and a satisfying ending.

“Black Powder” by Maria Dahvana Headley

This is a very dreamlike story that bounces back and forth in time, imagining that a djinn lived inside of a gun rather than a lamp. The dreaminess and the looseness of the narrative made it a little hard to follow, but I loved the imagery. The circle of skeletons with the broken tea cups, the bodies in a reactor meltdown turning into red and opalescent rock… just haunting.

“A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” by Amal El-Mohtar

This is another of those poetical-type stories that’s rather tricky to nail down. The literal story is about a second person “you” who transforms into several different birds, each time hunted by the “wizard-nation.” The impression I got was of the immigrant experience – each bird representing the types of immigrants and immigrant communities, and the wizard-nation being the consuming force of their new home. I have no idea if I’m on the right track, but I recognised a lot of those immigrant dynamics in the way the birds were described and the ways in which they were attacked by the wizard-nation. And if that’s the case, then the ending is rather uplifting.

“The Sand in the Glass is Right” by James Smythe

Interestingly, this is the first “be careful what you wish for” story in the bunch! And while the idea sounds painfully cliched, the execution is actually fairly descent. It’s told by the side characters, so the consequences of the wish are explored at a bit of a distance. It’s not my favourite story in the collection by far, but it’s a solid entry.

“Reap” by Sami Shah

This one is very powerful. The action of the story takes place in a small Pakistani village, and is told from the perspective of a narrator sitting in a military base in New Mexico. He’s observing the village from a drone, interpreting the heat signatures of its inhabitants, getting drawn into their lives in a removed, voyeuristic way. The whole set up is so interesting, and the story itself – though somewhat ambiguous due to events that happen outside of the drone’s visual range – is very compelling. The ending was a little weak, but I forgive it on the strength of the rest. And this is another one that works really well with the short story format!

“Queen of Sheba” by Catherine Faris King

This is an interesting origin story – showing us a young girl coming into her powers, then realising that she comes from a magical family. The problem is the format. This would have worked so much better drawn out, so we could explore more of the main character’s reaction to her newfound knowledge and powers. This could easily have been a whole novel, or maybe even a series.

“The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice” by E.J. Swift

I liked the worldbuilding in this one. I mean, putting the djinn in space? That is just awesome! The mystery plot worked really well for me, too, though the twist at the end needed something a little more. There’s a difference between an ambiguous ending and a story that wasn’t ended in the right place. This story was full of great ideas, but is another one that would have worked better in novel format.

“Message in a Bottle” by K.J. Parker

Like many of the stories in the collection, this one had some fabulous worldbuilding – the science, the plagues, the monastic orders, the bureaucratic limits to magic… all fantastic! And I really enjoyed the most of the story. The problem is with the ending, which takes an ethical non-question and tries to pass it off as an actual question. If the plagues are destroying humanity anyway, there’s absolutely no downside to releasing something that *might* be more plague, and all the benefit to releasing something that could be the cure. So the main character comes off less like someone paralysed by fear and more like whine and irrational jerk.

The djinn connection is a bit tenuous. There’s the bottle with its morally ambiguous contents, and there’s the face in the mirror. There’s also a rumour mentioned early on that someone gained knowledge from a demon. But there’s nothing concrete to relate this story to the theme of the collection.

“Bring Your Own Spoon” by Saad Z. Hossain

Again, we get some fun worldbuilding – this time it’s post-apocalyptic. I liked the idea of the djinn’s chaotic nature being used to help those on the margins of society.

“Somewhere in America” by Neil Gaiman

I saw this one on-screen in the TV adaption of American Gods (which I enjoyed quite a bit, by the way). Knowing everything that would happen didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the excerpt at all, even though I did have images from the show in my mind while reading. The excerpt works pretty well as a short story, albeit with an unnecessarily ambiguous ending. We still get the conflict, the pivotal moment, and the change – a full arc in a handful of pages.

“Duende 2077” by Jamal Mahjoub

Yet another story with fantastic worldbuilding. The story itself is pretty good too, but again, we have that issue where it’s setting up something so much bigger than the short story format allows. This one isn’t post-apocalyptic, per se. More like post-western civilisation. There’s plenty of humanity left, but the dominant culture is Arab. I really want to see this explored in greater detail!

“The Righteous Guide of Arabsat” by Sophia Al-Maria

A horror story about a religious young man in an arranged married totally failing to see the humanity of the – frankly, awesome – wife he suddenly finds himself with. It’s a cautionary tale about failing to prepare young people for their future relationships. It’s also rather horrifying, so major content notes for domestic abuse and violence against women.

“The Spite House” by Kirsty Logan

Something of a meditation on the concept of spite, using a djinn as a vehicle. The spite house is a house built to spite someone, a house that isn’t functional for its inhabitant, a house that is only suitable for a djinn who is used to living in cramped spaces. It’s a pretty good story – not one of my favourites, but a solid addition.

“Emperors of Jinn” by Usman T. Malik

This is another one that made me feel like I’m missing something. A group of children play around with a book about jinn. One of the kids has a sister who has been locked away because she’s been possessed. The whole thing felt like it had a deeper message to it, but it escaped me.

“History” by Nnedi Okorafor

I really liked this one. It’s like a superhero origin story, but told from the perspective of the ratioactive spider. This is one that would have worked as a longer novel, but also ties up neatly as a short story – a rare phenomenon.

A Gameknight999 Adventure: Terrors of the Forest by Mark Cheverton

Read: 9 January, 2018

This book apparently follows from the Herobrine novels, but doesn’t require that they be read. My son wanted to jump straight to Entity303 and, while past events are frequently mentioned and impact the current book’s plot, they are explained enough to get a feel for what’s happening.

I went into this not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised. Considering that it’s a novelisation for a game without either plot or in-game lore, it seems like the kind of thing that would be banged out for a quick buck. And, it’s true, the came wasn’t exactly revolutionary – the plot is fairly simple, the character arcs lack subtlety, and there’s quite a bit of repetition. But at the same time, it was just fun. I enjoyed reading it, my son enjoyed listening to it, and since we’re playing the twilight forest mod on our family server at the moment, it was really cool to go find places and mobs we’d just been reading about.

My edition could have used some better editing. There were quite a few typos and even an instance or two where characters were addressed by the wrong name. But, overall, I was actually fairly impressed. This book is candy, but it’s healthier candy than a lot of what’s available.

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We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler

Read: 6 January, 2018

At a time when feminism sells, We Were Feminists Once examines just why that is, and what kind of feminism is being sold. It’s a well-researched and, as far as I am concerned, necessary look at what happens when feminism and capitalism team up.

It is a dense little book. There’s very little repetition, or meandering, or fluff. Zeisler hits the gas right from the first page, and it’s up to the reader to pause for processing when needed.

I appreciated that this book put down concretely into words, with facts and statistics to back it up, elements of the mainstream feminism (“Girl Power”, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, and more) that have made me feel uncomfortable – though I couldn’t always articulate why.