Stolen Words by Melanie Florence (illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard)

For Orange Shirt Day this year, I told my kid about residential schools. To help him understand the impact of cultural genocide, we read Stolen Words together.

This book is a fantastic help. I also really liked that it wasn’t just a story about a wise grandfather teaching something to the granddaughter. Rather, it’s the granddaughter who finds a Cree dictionary so that she and her grandfather could relearn their language together.

This is a powerful book that serves to both teach our history, and to offer hope for the future. The lost language can be recovered, and it’s recovered through community and family. Given the darkness of the subject matter, it was good to be able to present the story of residential schools with a positive ending, without sugar-coating it.

    Old Man’s War #3: The Last Colony by John Scalzi

    Read: 10 October, 2018

    This book promised to be a smaller story than Old Man’s War and Ghost Brigades, focusing on Perry’s retirement as the leader of a new colony. But, even retired, Perry can’t seem to keep himself out of interstellar politics.

    There’s so much that I enjoyed about this. Scalzi has a knack with future-tech, making it cool, but not so cool as to create plot holes. The politics themselves were all hidden agendas and complex plans that hinge on the most random sequence of events, and I don’t even care because it was all just so much fun!

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      Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

      Read: 9 October, 2018

      Karen Memory has all the fixings for an amazing story – Wild West steampunk featuring lesbians and Bass Reeves and a mecha-sewing machine? Bring it on!

      Unfortunately, while I liked just about every individual component of this book, the whole didn’t work for me. Whatever it was, something about it didn’t click, and it took me forever to read.

      Part of it is that I struggled to imagine a lot of what was being described. I understand that the built up roadways are based on the way Seattle was built up, but I just couldn’t picture it. Similarly, I have no idea what the sewing machine is supposed to look like. I know what sewing machines look like, and I know what mechabots look like, but the two combined? Whatever tinkering the characters were doing, I just don’t understand how the proper use of a sewing machine could involve getting into it, nor why it would have been equipped with arms and legs.

      The book still gets four stars because, as I said, there was so much awesome there, even if it didn’t work for me.

        Brave Chef Brianna by Sam Sykes (illustrated by Selina Espiritu)

        Read: 9 October, 2018

        I really don’t know how to feel about this one. I absolutely love the artwork, first of all. It’s colourful and expressive, and all the characters felt recognisably unique (granted, this is a little easier when so many of the characters are monsters…).

        I also liked the representation of anxiety. It’s shown graphically as a little black cloud that appears when Brianna is feeling overwhelmed. As her anxiety attack ramps up, the little cloud grows until it eventually obscures everything around Brianna.

        Lastly, I just liked the representation of food service work and restaurant ownership. As hopping as the restaurant is, it still ends up at a slight loss (which is celebrated as a victory). The specificity of that environment added a nice touch to the story.

        Unfortunately, a lot of the story just didn’t sit well for me. For one thing, a central plot point is that Brianna is adding illegal ingredients to her food and then serving it to customers without letting them know. She does this knowing that it is against monster tradition to eat flour or sugar. This is on par with serving pork to Muslims while letting them assume that it’s chicken. Not cool.

        The other issue is that the big baddie of the story, Madame Cron, is coded as a WoC. She serves traditional, functional monster food, which loses out to Brianna’s imported human food. I’m not reading this SJW stuff into it, by the way – Cron is explicitly shown as having had a history of being oppressed by humans, and having been an activist in her past. And now, the message of the story is that she needs to let go of all that resentment because monster racism is over, and she needs to just let her neighbourhood get gentrified by the nice blonde woman with her non-ethnic cooking that everyone loves.

        It would have been one thing if Brianna learned a valuable lesson about respecting Monster traditions, but the lesson is all Madame Cron’s (who is seen taking down a “no humans allowed” sign from her restaurant in her last panel). I just don’t know what to make of all that, but it doesn’t sit well with me.

          Lantern City, vol.1 by Trevor Crafts, Matthew Daley, Bruce Boxleitner, & Mairghread Scott (illustrated by Carlos Magno)

          Read: 8 October, 2018

          I liked this story exactly as much as I like steampunk, because that’s all there really is going on. The protagonist is Blanky McBlankface married to Longsuffering McBlankface. They have one child together, named Pathos Manpain McBlankface.

          The authoritarian state that they live in is every authoritarian state you’ve ever seen, complete with the autocrat isolated in his literal tower. It even goes full Star Wars and suddenly brings out “the Empire” about 2/3rds of the way through, after having referred to the power structure as “the Greys” up until that point. What Empire, you may ask? Who knows. All we have is a single city with some unknown danger outside its walls.

          The artwork is tone perfect – being competent but without much character. Facial expressions are “realistic”, which makes them look wooden and dead-eyed.

          I did like the plot idea of becoming an accidental undercover spy, though. It gives McBlankface quite a shock to realize that the guards don’t live all that much better than he does. I also liked that there are resistance allies on the inside who seek him out and make his subterfuge possible, which in terms traps him in their plotting. There’s a lot of potential there for a reluctant hero to get sucked in way deeper than he ever wanted. And maybe the series will explore that further and redeem itself.

          As it is, though, I appreciate the aesthetic, but this story just lacks substance.

            Of Echoes Born by ‘Nathan Burgoine

            Read: 7 October, 2018

            This collection absolutely blew me away. I tend to struggle a lot with short stories – by the time I’ve found my footing with the characters and the setting, it’s already all over. Things happen to characters and I just don’t really feel what I know I’m supposed to be feeling because they are still strangers.

            But Of Echoes Born was more like Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. The characters were so strong that I got an immediate sense of them. Burgoine will give me a whole love story in a handful of pages and I will feel it – I will feel that attraction the characters have for each other, I will understand their little inside jokes, I will totally buy into the love that they share.

            Which, of course, just made my heart so much easier to break – which Burgoine did, again and again throughout the book. It never felt gratuitous or manipulative, though. Burgoine breaks, but he also heals, and nearly every story feels redemptive.

            I really love that characters and locations come back through the stories, giving the collection a feeling of community. I’m pretty sure I also recognised at least one character from Triad Blood, though it’s been a while.

            I  also love the way that art is used in these stories – and not just one type of art, but everything from painting to clothing design.

            There & Then

            I’m not a terribly huge fan of rape being used as a plot point, and I do think that this story could have worked without it. That said, I did really enjoy the story. I loved the magic system, and the way that the story taught me to feel for characters just based on what colours were named. I also enjoyed the origin story aspect of having the character discover what his powers mean and what he can choose to do with them.

            Time and Tide

            There’s a romance trope where a character comes home and is forced to confront a love from the past. I didn’t like this story as much as others in the collection, mostly because the magic and the art didn’t blend into the story the way they do in the other stories.

            Pentimento

            This isn’t a story where the characters happen to be gay, but a story where the homosexuality is the story. There’s the enforced closet, all the relationships that were never given a chance out of fear, and the complicated relationship between generations. But instead of being a sad, dark story – which it got very close to being – this is a story about magic art that heals history. I felt so uplifted when I got to the end, which was a wonderful feeling after a story that had, up until then, been so dark.

            A Little Village Magic

            Pentimento moved me, Village Magic outright had me blubbering. There’s the surface story about budding magical powers and a romantic relationship, but the backdrop is the restoration of a defaced LGBTQ+ monument. I love the message of found family.

            The Psychometry of Snow

            A twist on the ‘going home’ romance story, but again with the addition of magic. I liked this one a lot more than “Time and Tide”, if only because the magic system worked a bit better for me. I felt like “Time and Tide” needed too much exposition, which bogged the story down a bit, whereas the magic in “Psychometry” was pretty easy to grasp and then we had time to get on with things.

            The Finish

            This one was intense. Right from the beginning, we know that something will go terribly wrong, and that anticipation just gets ramped up with the time skipping and the frantic sex. The payoff was upsetting, of course, but it worked.

            Here Be Dragons

            Another one that had me crying. This might be a book written by a young(-ish?) author, but the sensitivity and feeling of what mental loss does to a couple is all there.

            Struck

            This one is a kinda funny story with a creepily laughable character, but then it sneaks in this delightfully heartfelt story about finding love and I really enjoyed it.

            Heart

            Burgoine is fantastic at evoking deep emotions in the limited format of a short story. I really fell for Miah and Aiden, and I bought them as a couple. Within a handful of pages, I cared enough for them to be really struck by their loss.

            Negative Space

            This could have been just another urban fantasy story about solving crime through magic. But Burgoine focuses all the attention on the main character, André, instead. So what we get instead is a story about suffering turned outward to help others.

            Elsewhen

            The main “character” in this one is Ottawa, as the protagonist helps spirits “cross over”. It was neat to see some of the city’s history. Mostly, though, this is another story about the queer community, and all those relationships that were stifled by bigotry. Like “Pentimento”, Burgoine doesn’t just wallow in the sadness of it, but rather redeems his lovers. It’s beautiful, and sweet, and sad, and it’s healing in a way.

            Here & Now

            A book end story, we come back to Christian (now Ian) and Dawn from “There & Then”. There’s enough here for the story to stand on its own, but it works beautifully as a sequel – answering questions that had been raised in “There & Then”, and finishing off the arcs for each character. I particularly loved that, while Ian was healing for Christian in “There & Then”, that very same interaction is shown to be healing for Ian, too. Both versions of himself needed help, and they were there for each other. Which is just such a wonderful metaphor.

              Murder in the High Himalaya by Jonathan Green

              Read: 4 October, 2018

              Survival, human rights abuses, friendship… this really is a story that could practically tell itself. Or, at least, it could if the truth weren’t so obfuscated. There are so many little stories of heroism, starting right at the bravery it takes to escape from Tibet.

              I appreciated how much time Green spent on Kelsang and Dolma’s lives with their families in Tibet. The juxtaposition to Benitez’s story highlighted the risks Kelsang and Dolma were taking.

              Not a whole lot makes it out of China (and its controlled territories) that doesn’t fit with its benevolent super power narrative. But every so often, proof of the totalitarian brutality seeps out, and it’s important for the world to take real notice.

                So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

                Read: 23 September, 2018

                I wish that this had been available when I was a teenager. I had a feeling that something was wrong when I got caught up in all the post-Columbine and 9/11 “Zero Tolerance” theatre. Everyone I met, from school officials to probation officers to social workers to casual bystanders who heard about my situation, would repeat the same line: “You don’t belong here.”

                Of course I didn’t. That’s the whole point of Zero Tolerance – you take kids who haven’t done anything violent, who haven’t endangered people, who are at most guilty of minor disciplinary issues, and you whack at them as hard as you can. But why was I singled out as the one who “didn’t belong” and not all the other kids in the same boat?

                Even then, in the infancy of my awareness, I knew what set me apart. I was white, female, middle class, and spoke like the child of an academic. The other kids who went to the same mandated group therapy meetings? They were black and/or lower class. They “belong”.

                Eager to get out of that mess, I played up what set me apart. I dyed my hair back to a natural colour, I changed my wardrobe to brighter colours, I smiled a lot and pitched my voice a little higher. I did my year, then I got to finish high school and go to college and, still, every time someone finds out about my past, it’s a big surprise. “You were expelled?!” I could perform people’s expectations of the “good kid” because my skin and my upbringing didn’t betray me. And, because of that, I had strangers fighting for me, fighting to get my record expunged so it wouldn’t affect my future. Because of the way I looked, I was deemed to have a future worth saving.

                I highly recommend this book. Each chapter is a different issue, phrased as a question, that Oluo responds to in a perfect combination of personal experience and “high level” trends. She shows the big picture, but her examples are grounded and realistic, and bridge that difficult gap between understanding a concept and understanding it.

                I love that Oluo takes intersectionality seriously. She devotes an entire chapter to the “model minority” myth that affects Asian Americans, and brings up multiple examples throughout the book of ableism, sexism, homophobia, etc. She examines, with depth and frankness, her own baggage and her own hard-won lessons. This is a book for everyone. On any given issue, there will be either a lesson or a validation no matter what your identity.

                  I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

                  Read: 13 September, 2018

                  Romance isn’t my normal genre, but a book about a Christian Palestinian woman from Lebanon falling in love with a Muslim British Indian woman? I mean, how could I pass something like that up?

                  I was a little disappointed that, for a romance book, this had almost no romance in it. Tala and Leyla are ostensibly in love, but they spend no time together. They get into a “debate” when they first meet, which consists entirely of Tala being a prat and needling at Leyla about her beliefs. They go on a date that we barely get to see, spending more time on a summary after the fact than in the moment. Then they go on a weekend trip where they have sex for the first time and everything else that happens is off-stage. For the rest of the book, Tala and Leyla are separated (mostly in entirely different countries) and not interacting at all.

                  We are told that they are in love, but we don’t get to see them in love. If they aren’t fighting, Tala is stalking Leyla while Leyla tries to avoid her. They have very little chemistry, at least as far as I could tell.

                  Then again, it would be hard for them to have chemistry when they barely have personalities. Both seem to act, feel, and say whatever the plot needs them to, and, when we do get personal details about them, those details are frustratingly superficial. Leyla is a writer, but a writer of what? Tala loves her two published stories, but what are they about? What does she like about them? What do they tell Tala about who Leyla is as a person?

                  Tala, for her part, is starting a business to sell candles and things manufactured in Lebanon. She talks about how much of a difference this could make to the lives of the people making her products, but then it’s dropped and she never really seems to care about the poor after that. She never seems to have any particular interest in the things she sells, either. She never shows some of her wares off to Leyla, never tells her about the sweet old widow who can afford to care for her grandson now that she’s picked up candle-making, never brings Leyla to meet a family making her products.

                  The story is more about Tala and Leyla’s families. They are mostly one-dimensional, but they are interestingly so. There’s a good story to be had in how each individual family member reacts to Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Some of it has made it onto the page, but the story ends quickly after the women come out, so we don’t get to spend too much time in each family member’s head.

                  My last complaint is that the book really could have used an extra round of editing. There are some questionable word choices, as well as some muddled timelines (the example the pops immediately to mind is in chapter 5: Ali calls Leyla on Sunday night, then Leyla and Tala go on a date the next evening, and then Leyla goes shopping with her mom the day after that, a Monday). These are silly issues that shouldn’t have made it into final print.

                  All that said, the book is competently written. This was in no danger of going into my Did Not Finish pile! I was interested from start to finish, and I wanted to see where it was going. I liked most of the characters, I just felt that Leyla and Tala were short-changed. Ideally, this book would have been 100 pages longer, with a nice big section near the beginning where Leyla and Tala see each other and talk, and where we get a chance to understand why they love each other.

                    Vorkosigan Saga #16: Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

                    Read: 11 September, 2018

                    In Mirror Dance, we got to know Mark. It was the first time since Cordelia’s books that we spent a good deal of time in another character’s head. And it made sense that we’d be given Mark – so similar to Miles, and yet so notably different.

                    In Komarr, the narrative is again shared, this time by Ekatrin. This is her book, giving her time to come into herself as she is freed from an unhappy marriage. There’s also a political mystery in there somewhere for Miles the Imperial Auditor to solve, but that almost feels like an afterthought.

                    I love Ekatrin. Right from her first moment on her balcony, tending to her ugly little plants, bristling at her husband’s presence. She’s the historical woman – smart, strong, and competent, but kept uneducated and off-balance. I love that Miles saw right through her conditioning to her potential, and I loved that she didn’t just run to him as a rescuer. He may have seen her potential, but her character arc happens when she sees her own potential, and it’s not hearing it from Miles that makes her do so.

                    I enjoyed meeting Ekatrin, and I look forward to seeing how her relationship with Miles develops. Mostly, though, I look forward to seeing how she develops.

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