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Book Review: House of Zeor by Jacqueline Lichtenberg (Series, #1)

Digital image of a paperback book cover. A man with tentacles coming out of his arms holds a woman from behind.

Summary:
In the distant future, humanity has split into two mutant forms: the life-energy producing Gen, and the vampiric, tentacled Sime. Most Simes treat Gens like animals to be consumed for food. Hugh Valleroy from the Gen Territories must infiltrate the Sime lands in order to locate his beloved Aisha. This means joining House Zeor, a Sime Householding led by Klyd, that believes in the necessary unification of the two peoples, and who have the ability to let the Sime feed without killing the Gen donors.

Review:
I do my best to read widely in scifi, which includes older scifi. I especially try to find older scifi by women authors. This book was first published in 1974, and, in addition to being older scifi by a woman, I heard it involved tentacles. I was intrigued, so I hunted down a copy. There are very few reviews online from modern reads. There are some nostalgic reviews about reading it many years ago. So, even though I didn’t like it, I thought it might be helpful to others to contribute a modern, non-nostalgic take.

The basic concept was interesting. There are predators who absolutely need something from the prey to function. It is made abundantly clear that eventually without consuming some Gen life force the Sime die. But the prey are sentient. What to do? Something else that was interesting was that the mutation doesn’t occur until puberty and, bizarrely, children in both Sime and Gen territory mutate into both forms. This means Gen parents turn on their Sime child (for fear of being eaten) and Sime parents….eat their Gen children. What a world! I wish this had been explored more deeply than it was.

A lot of the world building is touched on briefly but then not really explained or not explored deeply enough. Hugh has a “starred cross” he wears that his mother, who escaped Gen territory, gave him, telling him belief in it would protect him. But does it? It’s unclear. What is he believing in exactly? It’s never explored. Similarly, the “selyn” is mentioned a lot but never really defined. The Gens all speak English but the Simes speak “Simelan.” Is this true of the whole world? Just this area? What is Simelan anyway?

Let’s talk about the three things that made me bump this down from three stars to two. First, one of the heroes of the book, Klyd, displays clear homophobia. He and Hugh are an auction of Gens looking for Aisha. It’s established that most Simes view Klyd as a “pervert” because he doesn’t kill Gens but rather has a symbiotic companion relationship with them. Another Sime goes to bid and Klyd says that Sime is the true pervert because he sleeps with men as if they are women. He and all the other Simes show disgust at it, and our other hero doesn’t argue back against it. The existence of queer people is never touched upon again in the book, so this viewpoint remains unchallenged. I found this particularly upsetting as the companionship relationship has some really clear homoerotic undertones. In order to do a selyn exchange, the two people must hold each other’s forearms and then touch at a fifth touching point, the preferred one is lip to lip contact aka to kiss. It’s also common for companions to share a bed. But somehow this relationship isn’t a perversion but being queer is?

The second thing is how race and ethnicity are handled. At a couple of points, it’s established that at some point the races all mixed up together and we have many blended people now. That’s fine. But the main characters are all white coded. I mean, really white coded. In a way that wouldn’t make any sense if this was truly a future of completely mixed races. And when talking about it, Hugh, who is born in this “mixed race” world uses current terms to talk about what races he thinks various people are mixed with. Um, ok. If it’s all of them, why even wonder this? I also want to mention for my Asian diaspora readers that at one point a slur is used to describe someone of Asian descent.

The third thing is how the women in the book are handled. This frustrates me as this was written by a woman. You’ve already noticed the two main characters are men out to save a woman. There are really only three other female characters in the book. One is raped (off-screen). (Slight spoiler coming here). One dies in childbirth. I’d say Hugh’s mother is the only woman character who is well-rounded and interesting.

Overall, the initial world imagined is interesting, but how it is handled is not. Additionally, those looking for a thoughtful handling of the existence of queer people, race, and women won’t be getting it in this book.

2 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

Image of a digital book cover. A pond in a forest in the winter with the name of the book.

Summary:
In this book, Pema provides the tools to deal with the problems and difficulties that life throws our way, so that we may let our circumstances soften us and make us kinder, rather than making us increasingly resentful and afraid. This wisdom is always available to us, she teaches, but we usually block it with habitual patterns rooted in fear. Beyond that fear lies a state of openheartedness and tenderness. This book teaches us how to awaken our basic goodness and connect with others, to accept ourselves and others complete with faults and imperfections, and to stay in the present moment by seeing through the strategies of ego that cause us to resist life as it is. 

Review:
The majority of this book suggests that fearlessness can be accomplished via mindfulness and various types of meditation. This may be true. I’m certainly not an expert meditator. Although it is something I have been working at for many years. But it was disappointing to me how much of this book was essentially – meditate and be mindful, and you will become fearless. It’s not that it might not work; it’s that I wanted more.

Some of the more that I was wanting did come up a couple of places in the book. The first was in a story of a couple who live in a gated community. They eventually become so afraid of what is outside the gates, that they basically stop living. They get so caught up in the what if’s that they don’t live. I liked how this showed that walls can be of our own making, and being fearless is a daily practice. You don’t just suddenly wake up one day walled in, rather you build that wall gradually day by day. The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of one small step a day.

I also appreciated the introduction to the idea of training in the three difficulties. This was a new a concept to me. I’ll just post the quote, since I doubt I could explain it any clearer than it is in the book.

[It] gives us instruction on how to practice, how to interrupt our habitual reactions. The three difficulties are (1) acknowledging our neurosis as neurosis, (2) doing something different, and (3) aspiring to continue practicing this way.

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This reminded me of the wisdom of early sobriety. Becoming sober is largely about changing negative habits into good ones. We acknowledge what isn’t working, commit to do it differently, and practice doing that every day. I liked the idea of applying that to anything I wanted to be braver at. I also like that it has a name. The three difficulties.

If you are new to meditation, the instruction in the book is good. It’s largely focused on metta (loving-kindness) meditation and tonglen (taking and sending). Metta is one of the first types of meditation I learned, and it definitely helps me when I’m in a bad mood. I’m not personally sure that it makes me braver, though. Although, who knows, maybe I would have been much more fearful these last years without it.

Overall, this is an interesting book and a quick read. It was not what I was expecting, but also had its moments of value. Recommended more so to those who are new to meditation and mindfulness.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 187 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

April 12, 2022 4 comments

Summary:
Tully and Rachel Aston look upon their father’s fiancée, Heather, as nothing but an interloper. Heather is younger than both of them. Clearly, she’s after their heart surgeon father’s money. They understand why he might want to date, given that their mother is in a care home due to rapidly advancing early onset Alzheimer’s, but it feels disrespectful that he’s going to divorce her to marry another. Meanwhile, they’re each struggling with a secret. Plus, Heather has secrets of her own. Will getting to the truth unleash the most dangerous impulses in all of them?

Review:
I have a soft spot for Australian psychological thrillers. This is the fourth Sally Hepworth one I’ve read. It ranks near but not quite at the top among her works for me. (My favorite being The Mother-in-Law). It’s pretty obvious early on that Heather is not the big bad, so then the main mystery remains – who is? And of course, what is Rachel’s secret? And when will everyone find out Tully’s secret?

We find out almost immediately that Tully struggles with kleptomania and that Rachel used to date but suddenly abruptly stopped. So the main issues surrounding the two sisters is when will others find out about Tully’s uncontrollable shoplifting and what exactly made Rachel stop dating. I thought the former was handled better than the latter. Tully seeks out therapy and her problems don’t disappear overnight. Rachel meets a nice guy and with him is able to overcome her trauma. That frustrated me a bit. Especially since Rachel is set up as being so strong. One can be strong and also find help in therapy. Or even in a support group structure. It shouldn’t all be on the significant other to help someone heal. So it was a little bit hit and miss for me with the two sisters.

I thought the main mystery of what was actually going on in the weird triangle of the dad, Heather, and the mom was quite well done. I especially appreciated the handling of Alzheimer’s. I do think this book falls prey to the old idea of alcoholism – that one can only have an alcohol problem if one is at rock bottom. Beating a spouse or getting delirium tremens (the shakes) when going too long without it. There are definitely characters in this book who display problems with alcohol, but the narration brushes off the idea that they might have a problem.

The structure starts with a bang – at the wedding, someone is injured, and we don’t know who. The wedding is put on hold, the police are called. We then flash back to Heather meeting the daughters and build back up to the wedding. This is a multiple point of view book. Rachel, Tully, Heather, even the mother get a turn narrating.

This book confronts the problem looming for a lot of new contemporary fiction – do we or do we not acknowledge the pandemic? This strikes a gentle balance of what to do. The characters talk about not shaking hands anymore, one character had a big career setback due to lockdowns, and another character’s marriage is a bit impacted by the work-from-home situation. No major details are mentioned (for example, masks are never discussed, no deaths from the pandemic are mentioned). I envisioned it as happening in 2021 or early 2022. Post lockdowns but not far flung future. I thought it worked fairly well.

Overall, this was a fun read with a different enough plot to keep me engaged. It was a little bit of a mixed bag, which is what kept me from loving it. I put content warnings in for this book over on Storygraph if you’re interested in those. I did wish I’d had them myself.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 352 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair (Series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A Black teenage girl with a fro and a bright head band holds her hands around her mouth accentuating it. The title of the novel comes out of her mouth as a speech bubble.

Summary:
Set on Chicago’s Southside in the mid-to-late 60s, following Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, a young Black woman growing up through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Stevie longs to fit in with the cool crowd. Fighting her mother every step of the way, she begins to experiment with talkin’ trash, “kicking butt,” and boys. With the assassination of Dr. King she gains a new political awareness, which makes her decide to wear her hair in a ‘fro instead of straightened, to refuse to use skin bleach, and to confront prejudice. She also finds herself questioning her sexuality. As readers follow Stevie’s at times harrowing, at times hilarious story, they will learn what it was like to be Black before Black was beautiful.

Review:
After reading Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (review) and finding myself disappointed with how it handled race, I intentionally looked for older classics of LGBTQIA+ lit written by Black authors. (As a starting place. I intend to continue this searching with other BIPOC groups). In my search I found this book listed as an own voices depiction of a queer young Black woman in the South Side of Chicago. My library had a digital copy, so I was off.

First published in 1995, this is certainly an own voices book. The author grew up in Chicago in the same time period as Stevie, and that authenticity really shines through. The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 (spring 1965 to summer 1967), Part 2 (fall 1967 to fall 1968), and Part 3 (fall 1969 to spring 1970). Part 1 begins in Stevie’s last year of middle school. It establishes the systemic racism Stevie and her family live with that the Civil Rights movement that Stevie will later become involved in in high school. It also demonstrates Stevie’s difficult relationship with her mother. In Part 2, Stevie enters high school, Dr. King is assassinated, and Stevie starts to push back on racism and colorism. In Part 3, Stevie starts to question her sexuality and also the lack of interracial friendships and relationships she sees among her friends and family.

In some ways this was a tough book to read. It pulls no punches about what life was like for a young Black girl at this time. Although it always pains me to read about racism and colorism, there was an extra twinge in reading this because Stevie is just such an immediately likable little girl with a protective mother. The book opens with Stevie asking her mother what a virgin is (because a boy at school asked her if she was one), and her mother not wanting to tell her. This reminded me of all the conversations about Black girls being forced to grow up too fast and letting them stay the little girls they are. Although I advocate for frank talks about sexuality with questioning children, I also understood her mother’s impulse to keep Stevie little just a while longer.

Stevie’s sexuality is left open-ended in this book, in spite of my finding it on a list of lesbian fiction originally. Essentially the idea is posited that sometimes adolescents feel confused only to realize later they’re straight. I wondered if this is what happens with Stevie so peaked at the sequel. (spoiler warning!) Apparently in the sequel Stevie identifies as bisexual. This thrilled me, because there’s so little representation of bisexual folks in literature, but also because I felt a bit of a twinge of recognition when reading about Stevie’s confusion in the book. Part of why she’s so confused about if she’s straight or a lesbian is because the answer is neither. It was a great depiction.

I did feel the book ended kind of abruptly. It’s definitely a bit of a plot hanger that leaves you yearning for the sequel. Not in an uncomfortable way but more in a I want to see Stevie finish growing up way. Plus, it’s the start of the 1970s, and that’s such a fun time period to read about.

Overall, this own voices book gives a realistic yet fun depiction of growing up Black in the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. If you’re coming for the queer content, hang in there, it shows up in Part 3. A great way to diversify your reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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