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Flora 717 is a lowly sanitation bee, but instead of being mute like the other members of her caste, she can talk and apparently make Flow to feed the larvae in the nursery. The sisters of the Sage clan (the priestess caste) take note and let her work in the nursery for a bit, since the hive is going through rough times and there aren't enough workers. Soon, Flora is experiencing things far outside the lives of the other sanitation bees, and she eventually realizes she is even more different than she realized, for she can lay eggs when it is a crime to challenge the Queen's fertility.

I keep seeing this described as "Watership Down with bees," which mostly seems accurate? Although I find it curious that Watership Down tends to be classified as fantasy while this is slotted under "science fiction" in Amazon, possibly due to the rural setting of the former and the more urban-esque landscape of the hive for this book. I'm also not sure I find it as political as the reviews comparing it to The Handmaid's Tale, possibly because the point of view is so alien in some ways. It's something I'd rather tease apart at a Wiscon panel or in discussion, because while some reviews have been classifying it as dystopic, I don't quite agree. There is too much actual bee biology for it to feel completely dystopic to me, particularly since the book is framed by a prologue and epilogue from the point of view of the humans who own the orchard the beehive is in; it didn't feel so much like it was comparing the human condition to the bee world and more as though Paull were focused primarily on fleshing out the bee world properly. I have to noodle a bit more on this, because I haven't thought it out enough.

She does a great job detailing her particular bee society and making it feel like a complete world, from the way the bees communicate via scent and chemicals to their worship of the queen to the foppishness of the drones. From the bit of browsing I did, it seems like most of the information is fairly accurate, except a spoilery bit in the end and the fact that bee roles are not nearly so harshly delineated irl. (Also, one beekeeper wrote a review in which they felt very put out about the negative depiction of beekeepers as the theives of the bees' carefully made honey. I have to say, I laughed.) I particularly loved the way religion and government are mixed up in the hive, and the look at the various castes and clans.

I did have some nitpicks, because it wasn't always as alien as I wanted it to be; Paull refers to things like bees bleeding or having their intestines torn out, which made me wonder if it were just a figure of speech or...?? Ditto mentions of things like goblets of nectar or plates of pollen. I also thought the prologue and epilogue should have been cut, because I am not here for human context and thoughts! I want weird alien life forms that are actually from this planet!

Anyway, this was a really fast, immersive read, and I still feel like there might be creepy-crawlies on me randomly throughout the day. (For insect-phobic people: I am pretty grossed out by bugs in real life and in pictures, but I'm mostly fine reading about them in books, from fictionalized bees to real-life parasites, so YMMV? I wasn't creeped out while reading, but my skin does start to itch when thinking about it afterward.)

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Many things are happening for the Thakurs of Hailey Road: Justice LN Thakur's brother is having troubles with his wife, said wife has moved in with Justice Thakur and family, three of the five Thakur daughters may or may not be having romantic problems, and the Justice isn't on speaking terms with the third daughter and close to doing to the same with daughter #2.

The main plot of the book mostly focuses on Debjani (the fourth oldest daughter), who has just begun as an anchor at DD, the primary news channel in India at the time. This puts her in conflict with her father's card buddy's son Dylan Shekhawat, an investigative journalist trying to implicate high-up politicians for their role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and rather looks down on Debjani for spouting government propaganda.

This is my favorite out of all of Anuja Chauhan's books and feels very much like what I've been waiting for. I love that this is in third person POV, compared to the first person of her past two books; I felt I got a much better sense of Debjani's community and the various family dynamics (in two families! that was nice). I did like the romance a lot, especially Dylan, but like her other books, I also really like the non-romance relationships. And my favorite bits were actually the investigative journalism. Another plus was that the Debjani/Dylan relationship got much further before undergoing the usual relationship crisis: families met! And the crisis was in part based on a big misunderstanding, but at least with more of a twist than the usual.

Spoilers )

Other random bits: I REALLY want to know about sister #3. I was kind of confused about Eshwari's maybe romance; at times I thought Chauhan was telegraphing that no, you don't always have to return someone's crush on you, but I wasn't completely sure that was what the book ended on. Also saw that there is a sequel about Dabbu's nephew (by marriage) and niece, which I really want to read. I'm also not talking about various little moments, like Dylan's parents' romantic anniversary or Debjani always being overshadowed by her oldest sister or how the rocky bits of Debjani and Dylan's relationship really affects their families, especially their fathers.

And I very much liked the look at 1980s India, the sense of things changing and bringing with it more access to foreign goods, the changing role of the press and the gradual loss of government control over said press. It feels very real, how the characters all react to some of that without the book just being about social change, which is something that many authors have a difficult time balancing... either it feels like the characters are a bit out of place in the supposed historical setting, or that there is too much "look how much I researched xyz!" Also, some of it is a bit nostalgic for me, particularly things like finding local versions of foreign imported junk food in corner stores or trying to emulate clothes. I don't really remember a lot of the details of political change going on in Taiwan because I was a kid at the time, but a lot of the KMT stronghold on Taiwan was lessening right around me being in high school. And ditto the flood of imported goods and whatnot.

Anyway! I very much enjoyed the Anuja Chauhan book club, and thanks to [personal profile] deepad for organizing the entire thing. And I hope I can get my hands on an ebook, or a US publisher decides to bring her over here or something, because I really want to see grown-up Thakur kids.

(Also, apparently Chauhan wrote a short story prequel to Zoya Factor for Valentine's Day!)

Reading Wednesday

Wed, Jan. 8th, 2014 12:51 pm
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What I've read: Haven't done this for a while, so I actually have read things! I got CB the Pusheen the Cat book and volume 1 of Chi's Sweet Home for Christmas, so I read those and was suitably bowled over by the cute. Pusheen is great, but I really love Chi's Sweet Home, which is just so cat. Possibly people might get annoyed by Chi's baby talk, but given that she is a kitten, I am okay with this. Also, CAT!! (Also also, I love the fact that Konami Kanata's entire career is basically cat manga.)

I also read Allie Brosh's book, which I think I laughed at less than a lot of people? It's not that it isn't hilarious, because it is, it's just that after reading her depression posts, some of the ones on procrastination and self sabotage and etc. make me wince more than laugh in that painful, looking-in-the-mirror way. All the entries about her dogs totally crack me up, the entire thing is very worth reading (even if I do wish the one about her dead fish made it to the book), and I would have paid the same price just to get her two posts on depression in print. I'm also really impressed by how spot-on the expressions she draws are.

What I'm reading: I started Anuja Chauhan's Those Pricey Thakur Girls and have been enjoying the third-person narrative voices... I like the first-person narrators of her first two books as well, but they did sound a bit similar at certain points. Really looking forward to an expanded cast of characters, because I love Chauhan most for her various character dynamics, especially of people in small communities and large families, and read her more for that than the romance. I also started Jessica Snyder Sachs' Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death as my own brand of pick-me-up reading, and I should get back to it because it's gruesomely fascinating.

Random book-shaped space: This cover alone makes me want to read Max Gladstone. Also hoping that adding "reading" to my Dailies for HabitRPG helps me get back into it.

Next: Chi's Sweet Home, vol. 2!
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Another entry for the Anuja Chauhan reading club!

Jinni (formally "Sarojini") Pande is mostly happily working as an animator, though she wishes she could animate something other than bacteria and bugs. And then her formidable grandmother Pushpa Pande sweeps in to announce her return to politics, and before she knows it, Jinni is running for MP in her home region. Complicating things is sexy childhood friend Zain, who is also running, but for the opposing party, as well as scandals, empty campaign promises, bribery, turncoats, electioneering, and all those other good things that come with politics.

I was completely unsurprised to read the author's note in the back and discover that her in-laws are a big family in politics, much as I was unsurprised to find that the author used to be in advertising for The Zoya Factor. They aren't fields I know very much about overall, especially how they work in India, but all the details felt so real, especially the ones that are almost too much to believe in and therefore probably are the bits taken right from real life. I am guessing these are the kinds of books that are even funnier if you actually know the topic, as opposed to the ones that make you roll your eyes because all the details are off? Yes? No?

Anyway, it reminded me most of Taiwan election season, albeit with less acrimony, and I love how Chauhan is totally making fun of the ridiculous things going on while also taking Jinni's idealism and desire to change things seriously, as well as the various issues that Jinni will have to tackle if she's elected.

As pretty much everyone else who has read this has said, the key relationship isn't the Jinni-Zain romance, but rather Jinni's relationship with her larger-than-life grandmother, who is bigoted, wily, unscrupulous, completely unmoveable, and absolutely awesome.

I also loved the overall look at growing up in a political family. At first, I didn't quite buy Jinni just taking off from work to help with a political campaign at the beginning of the book, but after reading about her memories of various campaigns, her grandfather's political legacy, all of her grandmother's work, and her own idealism, it made so much more sense. That said, I did want to see more of Jinni shifting from running just for her grandmother to running for her own sake and for the desire to have the power to make the changes she thought should be made. It's definitely there in the book, from her daring midnight rescue to her observation of how so many politicians made people promises and still the schools weren't fixed, the roads sucked, and the wells got co-opted, but I would have liked that more in the forefront. I also wanted more of Bauji, Jinni's freedom fighter politician grandfather, and her memories of him, as well as the complicated relationship he and her grandmother had, and I especially loved the bits we see of her mother.

I feel like there's an entire novel there as well, being the daughter who abandons the family legacy and takes off only to have your own daughter return to the fold. And it was really refreshing to have Jinni's mother be the NRI living happily in Canada and Jinni herself being the one to return to India, at least when compared to the prevalence of "conflicted identity hyphenated USian teens battling their immigrant parents' expectations" books I've read. (Don't get me wrong, I love it too, especially since that is a big part of my own experience, but it's always nice to have different narratives.)

If you can't already tell, I liked this a lot better than Chauhan's first book, which didn't deviate enough from chick lit tropes for me. Unsurprisingly, the Jinni-Zain romance is actually my least favorite part of the book; I like the childhood memories well enough, and the whole "can I trust him? Is he just messing with me?" back and forth makes a LOT more sense when it comes to your election rival, but Zain kind of loses my interest in comparison to the Pande family dynamics.

Spoilers )

Anyway, definitely recommended, and in case I made it sound serious and unfun, it is hilarious and includes a scene with Jinni putting a condom on a large wooden penis. For politics, of course.

(And I want a book about Munni.)

Reading Wednesday

Wed, Sep. 11th, 2013 12:29 pm
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Whoo, I have stuff to post on!

(I have been greatly enjoying everyone's resolve to post every day for a month, and then I feel like I should as well to hopefully clear up book backlog, but the daily happiness posts (opt in here) are already kind of hard and I feel so spammy despite knowing people actually signed up for the filter and knowing that I enjoy seeing other people's posts!)

What I've read: I did more reading for the awards jury I am on, yay.

Aside from that, I went on a completely unexpected detour into the land of reading nostalgia: Terry Brooks. His Shannara books (back then only the original trilogy and Heritage of Shannara) were my introduction to fantasy as a genre; I had read a lot of middle grade stuff of course, but I wanted something just like Tolkien after my headlong fall into Middle Earth, and Shannara was right there. Anyway, I reread The Elfstones of Shannara and The Elf Queen of Shannara, and then did a mostly-skipping-Par's-POV reread of The Scions of Shannara.

They held up better than expected? But I also wasn't expecting much. There's the argh of the Rovers, which fit all the Roma stereotypes, way too many bland young men wandering about, and the world building is pretty sparse in terms of cultures and extremely high fantasy derivative. On the other hand, I remember so much more of them than I had expected, even specific chapters and lines I had liked. I am amused that even back in sixth or seventh grade, I was completely bored by the typical young white male savior figure (Par, Shea, Wil, Jair) and very much into the women or the older, more cynical men who weren't such blank slates. Alas for the lack of older, cynical women. And that the Frodo-and-Sam journey parts of the narrative never interested me nearly as much as the epic battle and war strategy bits. The women aren't the best—too many love interests inexplicably interested in the boring main characters, too many "too good for this world" women—but I remember liking things like Eretria helping out Amberle and especially Wren's relationship with her grandmother in Elf Queen. (Also, Eowen Cerise/Ellenroh, slashy like whoa.)

Anyway, definitely not something I'd rec, but it was an enjoyable dalliance! (Also, I totally wanted to be a Druid.)

What I'm reading: I tried starting a novel for awards reading (mostly I have been doing short stories, since they are so fast); hopefully I will stick with it. I also started Anuja Chauhan's The Zoya Factor per [personal profile] deepad's impromptu Anuja Chauhan book club. Not very far into it yet, but the voice is very breezy and enjoyable. Also, Shah Rukh Khan's abs have already made an appearance, which is never a bad thing imo.

What I'm reading next: More of The Zoya Factor and more awards reading, hopefully! Though I will probably end up doing the no-Par-POV reread of Heritage of Shannara....
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This is a retelling of the Mahabharata from Panchaali's point of view (in this text, she prefers "Panchaali" to "Draupadi"). It starts from her youth in Drupad's palace, where she's largely dissatisfied by the traditional feminine trappings of her upbringing and longs to break out of gender roles to fulfill the prophecy that she will change the course of history. Then it continues through her marriage to the Pandava brothers and, of course, the great battle of Kurukshetra.

Generally, I like to know a reader's context while I'm reading their reactions to a book, and moreso when the book is a retelling of a familiar story. So: I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Sneha Mathan. I've read Ramesh Menon's retelling of the Mahabharata, but I'm not as familiar with it in the way someone who grew up hearing the stories would be, and furthermore, it's not a story from my own religious or cultural backgrounds. It was also interesting "reading" a book for the first time as an audiobook; I tend to like something familiar with audiobooks, so almost everything I've listened to before this has been a reread. Also, I read fan fiction.

I didn't feel very lost in the book, despite not being entirely familiar with the source; I'd forgotten about Drupad and Drona's rivalry, as well as Panchaali's brother Dhrishtadyumna's role in it, but Divakaruni
drops in backstory and things outside of Panchaali's knowledge fairly nicely.

Anyway, back to the book! I liked the early parts about Panchaali's childhood the most; in a way, it feels like the story stops after her swayamvara because Divakaruni stops adding as much to the text. It's almost as though the first part is Divakaruni writing fic of Panchaali's backstory, but once Panchaali meets the Pandavas, Divakaruni's narrative becomes more a straight retelling from Panchaali's point of view.

I wasn't particularly fond of Panchaali's desires for a less traditionally feminine life, largely because the way it was expressed felt very modern and Western and out of place. Also, Divakaruni sometimes follows up on it, but not always, so my impression was more that it was something younger Panchaali felt but older Panchaali did not think as much about, without a narrative of how that change took place. That said, I do like the first part for fleshing out Panchaali and Dhrishtadyumna's sibling relationship.

My main issue, though, is how Divakaruni portrays Panchaali's relationship with the Pandavas. Here, she is bound to them by duty, not love, and though Panchaali is fond enough of the brothers, her passion is reserved for Karna. Except... she only talks to Karna maybe twice in the book, whereas the entire second half is spent with the Pandavas. So there's a lot of longing in her thoughts about Karna, but no actual action, and when she's with the Pandavas, the narration largely consists of how she feels obligated to them but no real emotional attachment. This did not make for the most scintillating reading. She does rage at the Pandavas at times, particularly Yudhisthir post-dice-game, but the narration always feels a bit removed emotionally. Panchaali will think about how angry she is, or how betrayed she feels, but then she will immediately counter herself by saying that the Pandavas are not bad husbands, that Yudhisthir has his good points, etc., so that there's not much emotional progression. She begins marriage to the Pandavas with very similar feelings that she ends the book with, and while there are a few highs and lows, the Panchaali-Pandava relationship largely remains the same.

That said, my favorite bits are probably the ones that flesh out Bheem and Panchaali's relationship a bit, since I'm fond of them.

I was also a bit irritated to read Divakaruni's piece linked below, in which she talks about how none of the women in the epics she grew up on get to interact with each other that much. Panchaali does interact with a few women in the book, particularly with her mother-in-law Kunti, but there's very little about her and the other Pandava wives. I was somewhat disappointed to find that her relationship with Kunti was very antagonistic, the both of them fighting over the Pandava brothers' affections. I think if Divakaruni had wanted to portray the relationship differently, she could have, and interpreting it as the antagonistic mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law wasn't particularly interesting to me. The other main female relationship Panchaali has is with Dhai Ma, her childhood nurse, but here too, Divakaruni doesn't really step out of the stereotype. Dhai Ma is lower class, earthy, more blunt, and somewhat gender policing, and though Divakaruni keeps telling us that Panchaali is very fond of Dhai Ma, we don't see that much of it in her actions.

Much as I understand Panchaali's attraction to Karna's story, I'm not sure how well it worked for the novel. There's too much of Panchaali thinking about Karna without interaction between the two, and the little interaction there is wasn't fleshed out enough for me. I felt the same way about Panchaali's love for her palace in Indraprastha; Divakaruni writes a lot on how much Panchaali loves it and feels at home there, but the ten years spent there are glossed over in a few pages, so there's never that much depth to it.

The book reads as though Divakaruni was caught between wanting to do a reimagining of the Mahabharata and a straight retelling, and I'm not sure it quite succeeds at either. I think my reaction is very colored by what I expect from fanfic, though, and I'm not sure how fair that is. I especially wish she had spent more time on Panchaali's relationships with the five Pandavas, since that takes up so much of the book and because so much of the book rests on the Karna vs. Pandavas comparisons that Panchaali keeps making. And, strangely enough for a book that ends with Kurukshetra, the book read as too introspective to me, without enough of Panchaali interacting with other people in dialogue vs. thinking about them.

Audiobook-wise, I liked the reader and especially being able to hear the pronunciations of names more accurately than the pronunciation in my head. Mathan has somewhat of a British or more Western-sounding accent in her narration (I think... not great at identifying accents), but the lower-class characters, especially Dhai Ma, are voiced with a much stronger Indian accent. The nobler characters, like Krishna, Arjun, Kunti, and etc., have less of the Indian accent, and I think Panchaali's spoken accent is the same as Mathan's accent in narration; i.e. it reads more as "invisible." I particularly didn't like how this marks Dhai Ma even more, though the novel itself definitely supports the somewhat stereotyped lower-class nurse take. Also, in audio, Divakaruni's textual quirk of having Panchaali ask several rhetorical questions in a row gets very, very old, very, very quickly.

Links:
- "What Women Share," by Divakaruni (published before she wrote Palace of Illusions)
- [personal profile] rachelmanija's review
- [personal profile] oncejadedtwicesnarked's critique
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This is a murder mystery set in an alternate future in which the Indian Territories have reverted to Indian control via an environmental act of Congress—Congress wanted to preserve the flora and the fauna of the Territories, but they realized without Indians there, it was going to be pretty damn hard. And hey, Indians were still classified as fauna...

It's also extremely snarky, dives into other narratives written by the characters in the book, and, unlike most sfnal works, leaves most of the worldbuilding in the glossary instead of the text. I was lured into reading the book when [personal profile] sanguinity posted snippets from the glossary, which are fascinating.

I keep debating about writing this up or not. Against: I read this when I didn't really have enough brain to appreciate it and I still feel like 80% of it flew right over my head. Against: I currently don't feel like I have enough brain to write about it, particularly since I had to return the book to the library a month or so ago. For: More people should read this and talk about it in smart ways so I can eavesdrop!

Jones uses the set up to talk about the fishbowl effect of having paparazzi/anthropologists surround the border of the Territories, wanting to get their hands and microphones on a Real Live Indian, only of course, there are no Real Live Indians real enough for them. I especially love all the bits about identity and authenticity, how it's complicated and tangled enough inside a group, and even more so when you add on the spectators. I suspect a huge percentage of this went over my head, which I'm fine with, since it's not really a book that should be talking to me or for me.

It feels more like literary fiction than SF to me, largely because of the present-tense voice in the present-day chapters and the way Jones skips from omniscient POV to first-person to a variety of other things in the manifesto snippets. I was going to say it also felt a lot like literary fiction because I feel the worldbuilding isn't as tied into the plot as I'd usually expect with something SF/fantasy. I mean, it is, because obviously the plot would not exist without it, but it also isn't in that the big plot revelations aren't really about the worldbuilding, like they would be in most SF/fantasy that isn't cross genre—I get the same impression from paranormal romances FWIW.

In conclusion: really interesting, and I feel I need to read it about eighteen more times just to figure out the plot.

Links:
- [personal profile] sanguinity's review
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(Possibly a lot of book spam to come in the futile attempt to get my 2010 write ups out of the way.)

Skinny Dipping (2008)

Mimi Olson is forty, and she's never had a responsibility in her life, and she'd like to keep it that way. Joe Tierney is at the opposite end of the responsibility spectrum. There is a meet cute, but ultimately, this is less a romance and more fiction about Mimi coming to terms with the family retreat she's always loved, her responsibilities or lack thereof, and other stuff.

This is Brockway's second contemporary, and I'm glad she's returned to historicals. Points for Mimi's age, older women being sexually active, and the book being centered around Mimi instead of Joe. That said, it's a contemporary! Brockway I think left historicals for a while because she was writing heroines who were pushing the boundaries, and I wish she had pushed even more in her contemporaries. Alas, this one reads as fairly standard chick lit, with funny animals, an all-White cast (or nearly), and brief glimpses of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Not terrible, but nothing memorable. Read Jennifer Crusie instead.

The Golden Season (2010)

Lady Lydia Eastlake is popular, bright, and famous for her extravagance, but her wealth is quickly running out. Captain Ned Lockton's erstwhile relatives have spent the Lockton wealth, and he's looking for a wealthy bride. Unfortunately for the both of them, they each decide to hide their financial status, and so they start courting, thinking that the other will save them from financial disaster.

The characters remind me a great deal of Brockway's The Bridal Season, which is still one of my favorites of hers. Lydia is flighty and Ned is that rarest of things: a romance hero who isn't possessive, rakish, or an asshat, but is polite and reserved and nice. Alas, they don't come to life as well as Letty and Elliot did for me, although I did like the similar relationship tension of Lydia wanting to overcome Ned's reticence and break his control. Unfortunately, the set up is such that I wanted the two to sit down and stop lying, and although I don't quite remember what happened with the secondary characters, I do remember that I didn't like it.
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The Cinderella Deal (1996) - Linc Blaise is trying get a position at a local college, but for reasons that make sense nowhere but in romance-novel land, the people hiring expect him to be engaged. So he makes an offer to his disorganized, down-on-cash neighbor Daisy. Naturally, despite being complete opposites, attraction, lust, etc. I will say upfront that normally I hate the free-spirited, somewhat hippie women so prevalent in contemporary romance novels. I always feel like shaking them and saying, "Sometimes predictability is not a bad thing! As is not having mold on your dishes!"

This is, of course, utterly hypocritical, since I'm pretty sure I am that person to a lot of other people. (Okay, no mold. But no matter how neat I am, there are always piles of things, and I will never be Linc Blaise or anything remotely like him.)

Still, Crusie always manages to make me like her people, and this is no exception. I especially like watching Linc and Daisy compromise, and despite the romantic-comedy-ness of the set up, the two wanting each other and being convinced it's a terrible idea was very convincing.

Maybe not one of Crusie's best, but definitely one I enjoyed a lot.

Maybe This Time (2010) - When Andie Miller goes in to ask her ex-husband North Archer to stop sending alimony checks (she wants closure and they're a reminder), he says yes, but asks her to watch over his two wards, who are living in what may or may not be a haunted house.

This is the first Crusie I've read that I've not classified as a romance (I've never read her collaborations with Bob Mayer). The story is really more a mystery: is the house haunted? Why? What to do? And how to get the kids out of there?

Although I liked Andie with the two kids, who amazingly do not make me want to vomit with their overbearing cuteness, the ghost story wasn't great, particularly as more and more characters start to come in. I felt like, as in, Tell Me Lies, Crusie was sometimes tackling a subject too dark for her trademark humor, especially since everything ends up happily ever after. I was particularly unhappy with the characterization of the female reporter. Overall, I felt it suffered a bit from not being a romance, because I found the end conclusion with North coming in and the two falling back in love to be a bit too rushed.

Still funny, but it felt very unbalanced to me.
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In the world of Blonde Roots, the people of Aphrika have enslaved people of Europa, which lies in the Southern Hemisphere. The Middle Passage runs from the Cabbage Coast of Europa to New Ambossa and Little Londolo in the West Japanese Islands, and then back to Aphrika, particularly the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa.

Doris Scagglethorpe was kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery; she has since borne several children, all whom have been torn away from her, and is currently trying to escape. While Doris is the main character, the focus is Evaristo's worldbuilding. Europa is the Gray Continent; whytes try to flatten their noses and perm their hair to emulate blak standards of beauty; skience says the prominent jaw of blaks indicates their forward nature while the flatter skulls of whytes indicate smaller brains and less capacity for emotion. "Beating the hide of a Caucasoi is more akin to beating the hide of a camel to make it go faster."

It's a great concept, and sometimes the way Evaristo turns about tropes is brilliant. I particularly love the way Europa is exoticized and made Other, from cabbages to clothing to religious rituals to superstitious beliefs. The book is set in the past, I think, although there are the occasional mention of skateboards and trains, but it reminds me more of the deliberate anachronisms in The Emperor's Babe. But because it's set in the past, I feel the point might not get through to some readers, that they too will look at things like witch-burning and drawing-and-quartering and corset-wearing to be foreign and Other, and it will be all too easy to miss how those views and cultures shaped the views and cultures we have now.

On the other hand, I really don't know what Evaristo could have done about that, given that when Doris is at home in Europa, there's also a sense of familiarity instead of Otherness for me, probably just because of what I grew up reading. And there are some pitch-perfect moments, like when the whyte slaves sing old songs from their homeland such as "Happy Birthday" (a song once sung to celebrate a child's entrance into the world) and "Auld Lang Syne."

The narrative itself is brutal in parts, but not surprisingly so, given the subject matter, and the ending was actually happier than I thought it would be. I also love Evaristo's voice, which slips between historical and modern (more frequently modern), and is both tongue in cheek and dead serious at the same time. I wish I knew how she did it.

I don't think the concept entirely succeeds, but honestly, this is the best version of the black/white flip that I've seen, and I say that as someone who is not sure the concept will ever entirely succeed (not because of authorial skill, but just because of how difficult it is to Other the familiar and the multiple levels and complications that have to be addressed to not simplify things or to make it so "Oh, anyone can be racist!"). It's a very impressive reconstruction of the institutions of slavery, not just story of one slave.
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*looks at date*

Er. Better late than never?

Once again, I read fewer books this year. On the other hand, only two books less than last year, so I think that is not bad, considering that I started grad school and all! And I managed to blog every book I read, with the exception of rereads.

The biggest change for me in 2008 was starting the [livejournal.com profile] 50books_poc challenge; namely, to read 50 books by POC in a year. I had originally done it from IBARW to IBARW (August 2007 to August 2008), but it's nice to know that I met it for the calendar year of 2008 as well. If anyone's interested about why, I wrote up why I count and how the challenge affected me during IBARW 3. Next year, my goal is to increase the percentage of books by POC so that it's over 50% of all the books I read, total. I'm still trying to make it enough of a habit that I won't have to count, and it's rather embarrassing to see the huge jump in numbers once I started making an effort. The gap between 13 books by POC versus 64 is enormous and indicative of my own aversive racism; it didn't actually take that much effort to find those 51 additional books (although a large part of that is thanks to my local libraries, and aversive racism plays its own role in book selection in libraries as well).

It is nice to see that I do not have to worry much about the percentage of women I'm reading.

As always, feel free to ask about anything here.



Also recommended )

Total read: 129 (6 rereads)
51 by women of color, 64 by POC, 104 by women

Complete list of books read in 2008 )
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A girl falls down in the Toronto subway; no one is sure if it's the result of chemical terrorism, hysterics, or just random. But as more and more people begin falling down, tension in the city rises and people start getting hurt in retaliation. Meanwhile, Alex is trying to hold his life together even as his old flame Susie-Paul has returned.

I loved Helwig's Where She Was Standing, and I like this, although not quite as much. Part of it was because I'm not sure if I grasped how everything tied together in the end, from Alex's uncertainty about his failing eyesight to Susie-Paul's worries about her twin brother to the general uncertainty of the city as a whole. The language is beautiful, and the imagery is gorgeous, but possibly because the story is centered on uncertainty, sometimes it felt a little static.

On the other hand, Where She Was Standing is also about uncertainty, particularly about the uncertainty of information coming out of East Timor, but that had an overall narrative drive that I felt this book didn't. Possibly it's because Alex and Susie-Paul's search for her brother is less tightly connected to the girls falling down plot, or just because I am generally less interested in the plight of a medical photographer and his new chance at love than I am in the plight of human-rights workers.

Still, I did like it, and there's a quiet beauty to it. Also, it may be something I warm up to on a reread.

Links:
- [livejournal.com profile] rachelmanija's review
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Tita and Pedro are in love, but because Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena, tradition dictates that she can never wed so she can take care of her mother forever. Instead, Mama Elena arranges a marriage for her eldest daughter, Rosaura, and Pedro.

I'm guessing pretty much everyone knows that this is a book with foodie magical realism. When Tita cries into the batter, the guests who eat the finished dish are so affected by her grief that they vomit; when she uses the rose petals from the roses Pedro gave her, her sister Gerturdis is so inflamed by desire that she runs out naked to have sex with the first man she finds.

I really liked the foodie bits and the language. Unfortunately, I hated the characters and the general story, which is just the sort of love triangle that I absolutely detest. It was good that there were some older female characters that Tita likes to counteract Mama Elena, but I hate hate hated the way Tita and Rosaura are pitted against each other. It was even worse because though Tita is angry at Pedro for marrying her sister (seriously, WTF?), the main enemies are Rosaura and Mama Elena, and Rosaura is constantly jealous of Tita and engages in petty acts to hurt her. In my head, Rosaura and Tita team up and beat up on Pedro, because seriously! What was he thinking? Marrying one sister to be able to be close to another is such a phenomenally bad idea that I have no words!

Well, I have another of Esquivel's book, so we'll see how that one goes...
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I tend to do fairly poorly with short stories and with literary fiction, so please take my post with a grain of salt, or many!

The main story in this book, "White Snake," is about a ballet dancer who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution for practicing decadent, Western, and bourgeois art. The others all concern the Cultural Revolution in some way or the other, which may account for another percentage of my reaction. I am rather sick of stories about the Cultural Revolution, thanks to having to watch many movies by Fifth Generation Directors back in high school. They were very good! They were just incredibly depressing, and they were accompanied by horror stories of the Cultural Revolution from my Chinese teachers.

I say this and note that of course, my Chinese teachers were very biased, given that this was in Taiwan, which was where the Nationalists fled to after losing the civil war to the Communists.

I also bounced off the translation. I'm not sure if it's the prose of the translation or the actual Chinese, but I can almost tell how the translation is attempting to stick to the original, and it didn't work for me. It feels like there is a lack of style and stylistic choices. Maybe some day I will attempt to read the original to see how much is the translation and how much is the prose.

All together, it felt too familiar for some reason, and not interesting enough.
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I found this in the YA section of my library, and I have to say, I am very confused by this classification. Even though the heroine is Celaya, who grows from child to teenager in the book, the book itself is a giant, sprawling family saga of the Reyes, encompassing about three generations and at least ten side stories.

The beginning and the middle are about Celaya, including a family trip to Mexico to visit the Awful Grandmother and the Little Grandfather, her father's upholstery business, and her becoming a teenager and engaging in some teenage rebellion. I wasn't as caught up by them, as I had a very difficult time tracking the many time skips. Also, while the prose is gorgeous, the story of a young girl growing up and getting into trouble is not a particularly new one, though Cisneros does add great details.

But the middle! The middle is Celaya telling the Awful Grandmother's story, frequently embellished, often with digressions, and very often with the Awful Grandmother's interjections and protests over how Celaya is changing the story. I love it to pieces. I love the way it is deliberately pieced together to make a better story (the Awful Grandmother: "How can it be winter again? We met in the summer!" Celaya: "But there needs to be dramatic wind here, trust me."); I love the tidbits of Mexican history; I love how the lives of the Reyes intersect with celebrities (including Josephine Baker); I love the love Cisneros holds for Mexico and Mexican history; and I really love the way political history and personal history weave in and out of each other.

Though my interest was petering out a little in the end, when we're back with Celaya-the-teenager, Cisneros managed to save it for me by tying together the mid-section of the book with Celaya's portions. Also, it is a story about storytelling, which hits many of my buttons.
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I really disliked the first half of the book and was wondering why [livejournal.com profile] rachelmanija had recced it.

Gita Das is an Indian grad student at Berkeley, where she's overwhelmed by culture shock and her Aunty Saroj's astrologer's prediction that she will find her true love that March. My general impression of the first half of the book was an overwhelming sense of distance. Gita is perpetually at a loss as to the proper behavior, since all her scripts for India don't work in the US. It also doesn't help that she's shy, timid, and not inclined to stand up for herself; it was particularly painful watching her make up answers or pretend to laugh at jokes she didn't understand because she was too embarrassed to say she didn't know something.

Much of this isn't sparked by the dislike of Gita herself, but rather at my own discomfort as to how closely Gita resembles teen and college me. It's the embarrassment squick x1000. She has much of the same adolescent ideas about romance that I did, and the combination of culture shock, the desire for romance, and the complete lack of tools to deal with either is so painful to read about. It's even worse when everything combined leads Gita to make several bad decisions when it comes to romance.

On the other hand, I found the second half of the book charming, sweet, and uplifting. I'm not sure if there's a way to get to the second half without having gone through the first half, because much of the impact relies on the reader seeing Gita, five years later, older and more confident and grown into herself.

The pompous academics from the first half have largely gotten over themselves, or they're recognized as being stuck up; the foreign scariness of Berkeley gives way to great descriptions of Bombay and Delhi (I very much sympathized with how mold and humidity takes over everything); and Gita's loneliness has turned into a small circle of friends and relatives. I want to say something about Americanization and Westernization and immigration and living between two countries, except I'm not sure what, save that it was good reading about other people who also felt that divide.
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I first read this as an assignment in tenth grade, which was not optimal in many ways, one of the foremost being how tenth-grade boys will giggle at the mention of the word "fuck," particularly when it has to do with cows. The other is that Morrison's prose is very dense, so much so that I had a difficult time following it even now. Technically, it's not actually the prose that's dense, but the way Morrison will slip from one timeframe to another in a sentence, go on for a few pages, and then return.

I think I would have done much better had there been manga-esque black borders marking each flashback.

Sethe is an escaped slave with a past more horrifying than most, and when her old friend Paul D shows up, the ghostly presence haunting her house begins to get a little less ghostly and a little more physical. This is a story about how the past haunts us, figuratively and literally, how it can steal into the present and poison it, how something like slavery just keeps echoing and echoing and echoing.

I admired the way Morrison slipped from past to present; even though it was confusing, it felt very appropriate for the book, since Sethe and Paul D can't keep themselves in the present all the time as well. I also liked the feeling of love so thick it suffocates, both Beloved's and Sethe's. Denver was always my favorite when I read it for class, and she remains so on rereading. I like that she's the one to not just avoid the past (Paul D) or succumb to it (Sethe), but goes out to do something about it, balancing between remembering the past without being consumed by it.

I wish I had more to say about this book -- I felt like I missed tons while reading it, as it is not a good book to read when one's brain is not working, like mine.
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Rachel, a harried human-rights worker in London, learns that a Canadian student may have been killed in a protest in East Timor. What follows is the story of how she died and how the information about the protest is uncovered and disseminated. (As Helwig notes, the events are loosely based on the Santa Cruz massacre but definitely not a historical retelling.)

While Rachel (white) is the main POV, we also get snippets from the student herself, her mother, her boyfriend, Rachel's sort-of love interest Edward the doctor, and Clementino and Hasan, both members of the East Timorese resistance. We do get some of Clementino and Hasan's stories, but not nearly as much as we get of everyone else's, particularly Rachel's -- their narratives are fragmented and short, unlike the long, lyrical passages for Rachel that deftly establish not only who she is and what she does, but also where she works and lives and a sense of history to her life. I'd normally protest the lack of that for Clementino and Hasan (we get a few looks, but not nearly as many), but there's a very interesting thing Helwig does in the book.

I'm not quite sure how to describe it, but much like how the book's title is about a formerly occupied space, much like how the book is about disappearances and people disappearing, but it feels like there are giant holes in the book. And not in the sense of gaping logic or missing pieces, but rather, very deliberate holes that call attention to precisely what we don't know. It very much echoes how information is passed from inside East Timor to the western world, how the human-rights workers in London simply cannot know exactly what it is like to live in Dili. Empty spaces have significance -- empty graves with headstones that lie, people outside of the camera's frame, faces in videos blurred over.

Helwig is also very good at building a picture of how many forces are implicated in the massacre and in the Indonesia takeover, from the Indonesian government, military and people to the western world, particularly the US and the UK. She doesn't look away from the role white privilege and western privilege play. I also like how Edward's plot line about a bomb threat to his clinic made by anti-abortionists contributed to the themes of disappearances and violence.

I know this now sounds like the kind of Problem Novel no one wants to read, but it's also a very effective thriller -- I read it in two days because I couldn't put it down. I didn't anticipate any of the reveals or twists in the book, even though they made perfect sense (one in particular).

Spoilers )

Highly recommended.

Links:
- [livejournal.com profile] rachelmanija's review
- [livejournal.com profile] coffeeandink's review
- [livejournal.com profile] cofax7's review
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Lauren has Dave, the perfect boyfriend. She's not the most popular girl at school, but she's Dave's Girlfriend, and that counts for something. Furthermore, Dave himself is nice, loves his family, doesn't push her, isn't afraid of commitment, and wants to go to college with her. But Lauren just doesn't have the same passion for him that her best friend Katie does for her boyfriend Marcus. Even more, Lauren doesn't even really talk about this stuff with Katie, or with anyone really, including her lonely family life, in which her dad ignores her.

Enter Evan, and everything changes.

[livejournal.com profile] coffeeandink said this was Scott's first book; in some ways, it shows. The pacing's a bit off, and (I never thought I would say this) the book was a little too interior for me. As in, I wanted a little less of Lauren's thoughts and a little more action -- definitely not big action, as this is a book about moments and details, but at least something to move Lauren's development further. As it was, I felt like much of the book was about Lauren going over many of the same things (should she break up with Dave? What was this thing with Evan? How long could she avoid Katie?).

On the other hand, Scott does a nice take on YA tropes. Lauren thinks that if she were in a YA novel, she'd be ugly and quirky and smart (but not too ugly), battling against the pretty, rich girls. As it is, she's not really. She's just ordinary. And I like that the decision between Evan and Dave isn't the decision between being popular and not, although that of course is a part of it. It's much subtler than that, which I very much appreciated. I also liked that Dave wasn't bashed, no matter how stifling Lauren found him, nor was his devout Christianity.

Scott is also extremely good at portraying that headlong rush into attraction, how looks and smiles and just a few touches can mean so much, and she's also very good at writing about those small, important moments that look like nothing to outsiders.

The ending of the book really saved it for me; I was getting a little impatient with Lauren and waiting for her to break up with Dave. But I loved how her walls just broke, and I particularly loved Katie and her role in it. I think the book would have been even better had the first two-thirds gone with a little more action, and if there had been a few chapters after the climax, largely because I really wanted to see what Lauren would do afterward, how she would deal, if things would change, no matter how slowly.

Still, recommended, and I'm looking forward to what Scott writes next.

Links:
- [livejournal.com profile] gwyneira's review
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I randomly stumbled across this in the library while I was looking for more Pearl Cleage. I figure I should try and read more non-white, non-American focused books, so here we go!

This is a collection of interconnected short stories focusing on the lives, loves and tribulations (there are lots of tribulations) of members of around three families and their friends, all of whom are Chinese or Chinese-American. Most of the characters have connections with Hong Kong, and the short stories take place shortly before and after the 1997 Hong Kong handover.

I have historically had some issues with Amy Tan, which pretty much is all the Chinese-American literature I've read. I've read quite a bit of classical Chinese literature, often under great duress in preparation for a test or memorization, but I haven't read much contemporary Chinese literature at all.

I think much of this is because I was operating under the assumption that contemporary Chinese-American literature needed to somehow echo my own experiences or speak to them, but I think that's placing an unfair burden on the authors. The only reason I look to them for representation and for a voice is because there is still relatively little Chinese-American (or Chinese-other-nationality or third-culture-kid) literature out there, and so, there isn't that much in general fiction in America that speaks specifically to me.

I append this by saying that I do not think that people of other sexes, genders, races, ethnicities, ages, nationalities, etc. cannot identify with people unlike them. I frequently find myself identifying with white males. My issue is that there should be more options, not less, and for underrepresented people of any sort (be it sex-based, race-based, age-based, etc.), representation is emotionally important.

Anyway, back to the book. I'm not saying that the book isn't representative of the Chinese-American experience, because that is unfair to the book, and the only reason I ask it of the book is because I have so little exposure to a) the Chinese-American experience (am third-culture kid, so I sort of have a half-Chinese-American experience, if that makes any sort of sense) and b) Chinese-American or half-Chinese-American literature.

That said, I kept hoping to find myself represented somehow, but I kept being put off for the same reasons I kept being put off Amy Tan's books in the past. I knew that it wasn't fair to ask the book to represent me, but I kept looking for representation all the same, and that's how I was disappointed. Chiu is writing about people with problems, people that I sort of know, but people who aren't necessarily me.

Much of this is because the book is so firmly grounded in its characters, which is a good thing. It's just that the characters are connected to New York and Hong Kong, and I am not (Taiwan and California for me!).

To put all my personal issues to the side, I really admired the craft of the stories, particularly in how they intertwined. One character mentioned briefly in one story would show up as a supporting character in another and end up as the POV character in yet another. I also loved being able to see all the family dynamics from different POVs; Chiu balanced out everything by giving everyone a starring role and a supporting one, all at the same time.

I think this book would particularly reward re-reading; alas, I had to return it to the library before I could reread.

That said, it was a little too depressing for me. Chiu's characters deal with alienation, anorexia, problems with their sexuality, interpersonal relationship problems, and etc. Also, I wanted to slap some of the characters (particularly Jonathan). On the other hand, I can't tell if I feel this way because I don't want this to be seen as representative of the Chinese-American experience, because I am scared that people will read it and come away thinking that Chinese reserve hides all sorts of dysfunctions.

In the end, I can't manage to separate my personal thoughts on race and representation from the book itself, which is again unfair to the book and to the author. Ergo, (and this is my conclusion to pretty much everything) must read more! Also, wish there was more published like this.

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