Leia, Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) by Claudia Gray

Read: 26 May, 2018

This is a prequel to A New Hope, giving us a glimpse of Leia’s journey into the resistance.

I had a little trouble getting into this book, though I don’t think it’s necessarily the book’s fault. The tone was so very much like the Vorkosigan Saga, and I’d just finished reading Mirror Dance, that I found it very disappointing. But if I judged all science fiction/space operas on the Bujold scale, I’d just be condemning myself to a life of disappointment.

As it was, the book is fine. Absolutely fine. Doubly fine for YA. Once I was able to get over the fact that this wasn’t written by Bujold, I found myself enjoying it a lot more.

I liked the bracketing of the story – the whole plot happens in between the ceremony where Leia announces the challenges she will undertake to prove herself as heir to the throne, and the ceremony where her challenges have been completed. Integrating Leia’s coming of age into her actual coming of age ceremony was a nice little touch. It worked for me.

Leia in A New Hope was kickass. She was the regal princess, she was the composed diplomat who could stand up to Tarkin, and she was the fighter who could hold her own with a blaster and didn’t hesitate to jump into a garbage compacter. She was everything (#LifeGoals). This book did a pretty good job of getting her to that point. We see her working hard to become that badass, and her motivations always struck true to the character I got to know in the movies.

Holdo was a tantalising character in The Last Jedi. The movie made it clear that she was close with Leia, and that the two women trusted each other, yet we got so little else about her. So it was neat to see so much more of her here. I also found that her attitude toward danger and fighting for justice added some weight to her actions in the movie. I’m looking forward to it coming to Netflix so I can watch it again, this time knowing so much more about her character.

Reading this as a prequel added a great deal of subtext. There was a certain fatalism to reading the descriptions of Alderaan, knowing that the planet – and everyone on it – will soon be gone. In particular, I found it difficult to read about Leia’s relationship with Kier. I know he isn’t in the movies, so I was just waiting for him to either betray her or die (or both). And, of course, the eventual destruction of Alderaan added so much to weight to Leia’s disagreement with Kier about protecting the planet (and to Leia’s choice to sacrifice the planet in A New Hope).

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if I weren’t already invested in the characters. I’m glad for the insights, such as they were, into Leia and Holdo, as well as the Star Wars universe as a whole, though I would have liked a little more substance.

Winternight Trilogy #1: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Read: 3 March, 2018

When I started dating a young Russian gent, I started dating his culture, too. I got into Russian music, I started reading Russian fiction, I started collecting bits and bobs of Russian folkart. And my poor, dear, Russian beau, who fled the USSR and would really rather put the whole Russian thing behind them, tolerantly humours me.

All this is just to say that The Bear and the Nightingale is right up my alley.

The writings style has something of a fairy tale flavour to it, which tends to keep a bit of distance between reader and character. This took some getting used to, after the intensely intimate books I’ve been reading recently. But it fit the tone of the story perfectly.

I loved how rich the world feels – at once historical and magical, fantastical and plausible. I also loved Vasya, is was such a charmingly wild thing, without it coming off like it the narrative was trying to hard.

Learn from my fail: There is a glossary at the back for the Russian terms used in the book. You don’t actually have to keep bugging your spouse with questions. Though you certainly can, if you want to.

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A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Read: 24 February, 2018

My mother loaned me this book because my spouse, though not Jewish, also fled from Russia at around Golinkin’s age. Though he was an emigrant, rather than a refugee, the experiences were surprisingly familiar – particularly in the ways both families responded to the trauma of having lived in the USSR.

I love that this book paints a complex picture. Recipients of charity aren’t always grateful, threat and trauma can lead even the most sober people to make careless decisions, and acts of kindness are sometimes done for entirely selfish reasons.

I also enjoyed the humour of the book. A lot of it is a distinctively Russian humour, that fatalistic “everything is terrible, isn’t if funny?” brand of deadpan humour that I enjoy so much.

Mostly, though, I love the message of hope. In the course of its story, A Backpack presents thousands, millions, of small acts – a donation here, a smile there – that, together, build up to something so meaningful. As Canada discusses its obligations toward refugees, this was a powerful book to read.

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.

Vorkosigan Saga #5: The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 20 October, 2017

I’ve seen Miles before (not counting his time as a fetus and small child in Barrayar) in “The Mountains of Mourning”. As a short story set in a very fleshed-out universe, “Mountains” didn’t give me too much to go on about Miles, except for his odd relationship to his people – as a mutant, as a half-foreigner, as a lord…

Apprentice didn’t give me too much more to go on in understanding his relationships with his family members (Aral gets about as much page time here as he did in “Mountains”), but I did get to see a lot more of Miles himself. Much of the book is spent off-world, which was an interesting contrast to “Mountains” as it gave me a glimpse into how Miles is Barrayaran, as opposed to how he is not.

A big focus of the story is on his relationship with Bothari. In fact, Bothari’s been fairly central to all three of the books I’ve read so far, with Escobar as the linchpin to many of the central events in all three. Miles’s relationship with Bothari is, of course, very different from Aral’s or Cordelia’s, and that added an interesting dynamic.

Mostly, though, this book is funny. Bujold is great at this deadpan absurdism – in this case as Miles accidentally builds an army. Throughout the first 2/3rds of the book, Miles just goes from situation to situation, snowballing his successes well beyond what he’s able to handle. It’s like the Chosen One trope, but self-aware.

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Orange, The Complete Collection #2 by Ichigo Takano

Read: 10 September, 2017

Finally, the finale of the Orange story! Orange only takes up about 2/3rds of the book, with the remainder being a filler short story called Haruiro Astronaut (no, as far as I can tell, the name doesn’t make any sense).

First, for the ending of Orange: The story ends satisfyingly. It’s a little abrupt, but it works. It ends at the moment when Kakeru stops thinking about how much pain his death will spare others, and starts thinking of how much pain his death would cause others. He’s still depressed, he still has an awful lot to work through (and I really do hope that he changes his mind about seeking professional/medical help), but that one little change is a profound one.

We never do find out how the future is changed by Kakeru’s survival – will he and Naho end up together? What will happen to Suwa? Will the friends keep in touch? But, in a profound sense, none of that matters. The fact that Kakeru will be alive already changes everything. And the rest is just… life.

There are a few things that have bugged me about the series. The first is, of course, Naho’s naivete. I realize that it’s meant to be the character flaw that she needs to overcome, but it just boggles the mind sometimes. How can she keep being shocked that Kakeru likes her when the letters have already told her, multiple times, that he does? Maybe it’s just a translation issue, or maybe it’s some cultural shorthand that I’m not getting, but it’s frustrating.

Given that mental illness is such a key part of the story, I wish that it were more responsibly handled. Only one character (Kakeru’s grandmother) brings up the idea that Kakeru might seek professional help. He gets angry, the issue is dropped, it’s never brought up again. I wish that, just once, his illness could be identified (especially since he seems to share it with his deceased mother). And while I’m not sure how well it would have worked with the story the author wanted to tell, I wish that treatment had been brought up in a better way. I wish that the recommendation to seek professional help had been echoed by Kakeru’s friends as well. I wish that it hadn’t just been dismissed as if it were a humiliating thing to do.

Lastly, part of me is rather uncomfortable with the way the whole friend group tip-toes on egg shells around Kakeru. His feelings are front and centre. And while it’s not like it’s his fault, all his friends act like victims of abuse around him. Their lives are utterly focused on him – on making sure that he’s always happy, on making sure that they never say anything that might set him off. Sure, they are getting good life experiences too, but that’s incidental. Everything they do, they do for him. I’m not sure how responsible it is to present a love story and model of friendship like that.

Especially in light of Harairu Astronaut. That story is kinda terrible. There’s an interesting story in between the lines about how the two sisters view their relationship, and the one sister’s fear of hurting men’s feelings leading her to agree to date anyone who will ask (a habit that is clearly presented as destructive).

It’s just that all the men in the story are absolutely trash. Yui is abusive – he orders everyone around, tells them what to do, demands that the women feed him, etc. Tatsuaki is a stalker. Natsuki is okay, but even he is forceful in his own way (and his arc seems to be to learn to be more forceful, rather than it being Yui’s arc to be less).

But there’s some odd sexual dynamics in the story that I wish were explored a little more. I’m not sure whether Yui and Natsuki are meant to be more than friends, but they do seem like it at times. There also seem to be hints that the twins would be open to being in a poly relationship with Yui together. And the final scene has Chiki holding Tatsuaki’s hand while Tatsuaki holds Natsuki’s hand.

Mostly, I feel a bit out of my depth with Haruiro Astronaut. I can’t tell whether the subtext I’m reading into it is meant to be there or not, and I feel like there is more going on than what I’m able to perceive.

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Orange, The Complete Collection #1 by Ichigo Takano

Read: 29 August, 2017

I picked up this book without realising that it was only the first volume. This, combined with the fact that the story really does seem on track to wrap up by the end, resulted in a very frustrated reader. But the next book is at least out already, so I haven’t fallen for that trap again.

This is a story about choices. The main character receives a letter from her future self warning her that one of her friends will die, and providing her with instructions to prevent that from happening. But while Future-Naho may believe that she has an accurate grasp of all the causal chains, there’s much that she can’t know even from her vantage point. Especially once the story starts to unfold differently as Naho makes different choices, and Future-Naho’s experiences become less and less accurate.

It’s a concept that’s certainly been done before (I grew up on Quantum Leap, and other shows like Early Edition have covered similar ground), so the story swims or sinks on the strength of its characters.

And I have to say that it does a pretty good job. Naho’s self-conscious naivete can be a bit annoying at times (especially when she keeps misunderstanding Kakeru’s expressions of love despite already knowing that he likes her!), but she has enough going for her not to cross the line into being unlikable. And whatever her flaws, they’re overshadowed by the interactions between the six friends.

The last thing I want to touch on is the pacing. I often complain that graphic novels move too fast – they race through plot beats without giving me enough time to really absorb the implications, or to get a sense of the characters by letting me see them to react to events. But Orange is a slow burn. Each event in the story is savoured, and the narrative meanders through the story at a leisurely pace. Characters have a chance to show me who they are, and their relationships have a chance to grow. It’s really quite refreshing!

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Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

Read: 30 June, 2017

As the front cover puts it, this is “the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today.” Phew, talk about a rollercoaster!

There’s a lot in this book to offend. While Bornstein seems to have loved her time as a Scientologist, her criticisms of the Church are biting. She talks casually, even somewhat positively, of her eating disorder and her self-harm, of her smoking and binge drinking. She discusses seeing herself as a “transsexual” rather than a woman, and her disagreement with the idea that trans women belong in women-only spaces. She describes, in a fair bit of detail, her sexual conquests as a man, and her submission in an S&M relationship. There’s something in this book to offend nearly anyone.

But Bornstein’s writing style is so warm, so friendly… it’s hard to stay mad. Even when she’s at her hot messiest, she just seems so vulnerable and trusting that it’s difficult not “agree to disagree”.

Hers is a valuable and thoughtful voice, and I’m glad to have stumbled upon this book.

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Earthsea Cycle #2: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin

Read: 1 June, 2017

I remembered less of Tombs than I did of Wizard. I think I may have read Wizard more than once as a child, and maybe that’s why.

But while I remembered details, plot points, of Wizard, it’s feelings that I remembered from Tombs. The image of Tenar walking through a dark subterranean corridor, her fingers brushing along the walls to either side. That fear of the dark itself – as a living creature.

And I think it reflects the different kinds of stories these are. Wizard is your classic hero’s cycle – the mentorship, the call, the journey, the discovery, the return. It’s a beautifully imaginative story in many ways, but it’s skeleton is straight out of Joseph Campbell.

Whereas Tombs is slower, more meditative. It’s almost a sort of character study, focusing on a single individual faced with a single choice, and leading us through the process of her making it. It is a metaphorical dark maze as much as it is a literal one.

In many ways, it’s also a more complex story than Wizard. It has more going on under the surface.

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