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Book Review: Buffalo Is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel

September 13, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. Two people stand on either side of a mystical ravine. the shadow of a buffalo is in the ravine between them.

Summary:
Inspired by classic and contemporary speculative fiction, this collection of eight short stories explores science fiction tropes through a Metis lens: Nanites babble to babies in Cree, virtual reality teaches transformation, foxes take human form and wreak havoc on hearts, buffalo roam free, and beings grapple with the thorny problem of healing from colonialism.

Review:
This collection contains nine short stories by Indigenous (Métis) author Chelsea Vowel. The Métis are a recognized Indigenous people with a unique culture descended from the pairings of Indigenous with European fur traders (usually, but not always, First Nations women with French men). Most of the stories are set in the same region of Canada, and all of the stories are speculative, containing some fantastical element, whether they are set in the past, present, or future.

The author is queer, and queerness is clearly present in five of the nine stories. These include: a historical woman figure who identifies as a woman, is interested in women, and dresses in male clothing; a woman character who becomes interested in a fox presenting as a woman; a woman character who is in lockdown without her girlfriend who ended up trapped in another town after she went to visit her family; a queer poly family raising a child together in a collective; and a nonbinary femme-presenting character who uses Métis gender-neutral pronouns.

My favorite story of the collection is “Maggie-Sue.” This is the story where an Indigenous woman becomes interested in a beautiful Cree woman she sees but realizes is actually a fox disguised as a woman (this is revealed very early on, so not a spoiler). I loved everything about the fox woman, the mystical adventure the main character goes on, and the ending was a delight to imagine. I also really appreciated the play on words in the title (which I won’t reveal, because it’s more fun for you to realize it when you’re reading it yourself). I thought this story also offered solid critique on the difficulties of being a survivor of ongoing colonization on your ancestral lands, without that criticism ever feeling like telling instead of showing or like academic language sneaking in where a character wouldn’t use it.

The latter is my main complaint for the story I liked least – “Unsettled.” There is a scene where five characters, none of whom are established as academics, sit around having a highly academic conversation for many pages. The story felt more like an academic thought experiment than a story with unique characters and perspectives. I also struggled a little bit with the first story in the book, “Buffalo Bird.” its pacing was slow, which is a challenge for me. I think I would have liked it more further into the collection. I personally need to kind of “know” a writer to trust that a story will ultimately go into an interesting place if it has a slow start.

Something else interesting about this collection is that it has footnotes throughout, where the author explains things or gives historical context. I enjoyed these and felt they added to the stories. They’re not used all the time, sometimes you as the reader do need to figure things out from context for yourself if you’re not Métis (which I, to be clear, am not). But I thought the footnotes struck a nice balance.

The other thing is after each story there’s a short reflection from the author about the story. On the one hand, I liked these because I learned more from them. As an author myself, also, it was interesting to hear from the author on what her goals were and compare them to my actual experience as the reader. On the other hand, I could see some readers not enjoying this aspect of the book, wanting to be left with their own experience with the story and leave it at that. But you can always skip over these essays if you prefer not to have the inside story.

Related to the essays, I do also want to note one additional thing. I do think that an author’s beliefs and politics tend to make it into their writing, whether they intend that or not. I’m not saying every character reflects the author’s worldview, absolutely not, but the more you read an individual author’s work, the more you come to see how they likely see the world. This is even more clear in this collection where each story is paired with a nonfiction reflective essay by the author. The author is an academic Indigenous queer woman, and definitely leans very left. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing. But I do think it shows through more clearly in some stories than others, and is very present in the essays. Only you, the potential reader, can know if this would be a plus, negative, or neutral for you.

Overall, this is an interesting collection of speculative short stories from a queer Indigenous woman author. I’m glad I took the time to read them and see a different way of storytelling and views on the world within the speculative framework I personally enjoy.

Please note, I calculate a rating for a short story collection by individually rating each story then reporting out the average. This came out to 3.7, so I rounded up to 4.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Lucy Checks In by Dee Ernst

Image of a digital book cover. This is drawn in a cartoon style. The back of a woman with long brown hair. We can tell she's gazing ahead of her at two European style buildings, one is covered in vines.

Summary:
Lucia Giannetti needs a fresh start. Once the hotel manager of a glamorous NYC hotel and intimately involved with the hotel’s owner, Lucy had her entire future planned out. But when the owner disappears, taking millions of dollars with him, Lucy’s life as she knows it falls apart.

Two years later, forty-nine years old and unemployed, Lucy takes a job in Rennes, France to manage the Hotel Paradis. She pictures fur quilts and extravagant chandeliers, but what she finds is wildly different. Lucy is now in charge of turning the run-down, but charming hotel into a bustling tourist attraction. Between painting rooms, building a website, and getting to know Bing, the irritatingly attractive artist, Lucy finds an unexpected home. But can she succeed in bringing the Hotel Paradis to its former glory?

Review:
I have a real soft spot for romances whose main character is in a “needs a fresh start” spot in life. I was further intrigued by the age of a protagonist. I can’t remember the last time I saw a main character in a romance in her forties, let alone in her forties without kids.

Lucy has a delightful character arc. She starts off seeming a little high maintenance and self-critical, but then we get some reveals that show valid reasons for her being the way she is currently. Then we see her willingness to adapt and change. And honestly it’s easy to empathize with Lucy. She’s having to almost start over from scratch at 49 for reasons way beyond her control. I suppose one could judge her for dating the owner of the hotel but it’s realistic that a lot of people do date those they work with.

Then there’s the setting. I was at first surprised this wasn’t set in Paris (seems like all of these sorts of books are) but I enjoyed the setting of Rennes. I liked the old hotel, the apartments that were once stables. It was definitely a what a cool place to live vibe. I also think the author handled reminding us of the various languages the characters were speaking like it was a movie while still pretty much always writing in English. It was smoothly done yet necessary, and I appreciated that a big mark in Lucy’s favor for this job to begin with was her fluency in French. Because…not everyone speaks English, people.

Now, I didn’t really get hot and bothered for the romance. I didn’t dislike it either. It just was. It’s reasonably done and charming enough, I suppose, but to me the big sell of the book was the setting much more than the romance. I think I also worry a bit about Lucy’s work life and personal life becoming so entwined yet again. And not just in the romance. She’s got a close relationship with the older woman owner of the hotel too. Did the woman learn nothing from embezzlementgate?

Lucy has a brother with alcoholism. The book handles the relative with kindness, but also there’s constant wine drinking because it’s France. Lucy drinks with lunch and dinner on a seemingly daily basis. It seems like questionable behavior, but she never stops to consider it. Something that I would have hoped she’d have done at some point over the course of the book given her brother. Like even just a hm, maybe I should cut back to one glass of wine with dinner thought toward the end of the book would have been nice.

Overall, imagine this as Emily in Paris but with a 40-something main character who can actually speak French, set in Rennes, and with a focus on hotels/architecture instead of fashion. If that appeals to you, then I encourage you to pick it up.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 288 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith by Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer

Digital image of a graphic novel cover. A woman with chin-length hair stands in front of a window with a cat beside her. She wears a button-up shirt and pants with a belt. She's smoking a cigarette. A train is visible in the foreground. A city skyline is visible through the window.

Summary:
Flung Out of Space is both a love letter to the essential lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, and an examination of its notorious author, Patricia HighsmithVeteran comics creators Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer have teamed up to tell this story through Highsmith’s eyes—reimagining the events that inspired her to write the story that would become a foundational piece of queer literature.

This is not just the story behind a classic queer book, but of a queer artist who was deeply flawed. It’s a comic about what it was like to write comics in the 1950s, but also about what it means to be a writer at any time in history, struggling to find your voice.
    
Author Grace Ellis contextualizes Patricia Highsmith as both an unintentional queer icon and a figure whose problematic views and noted anti-Semitism have cemented her controversial legacy. Highsmith’s life imitated her art with results as devastating as the plot twists that brought her fame and fortune.

Review:
I found this thanks to the Bitches on Comics podcast and was pleasantly surprised that my library had a copy. I have not myself yet read The Price of Salt. Although I have watched Strangers on a Train and loved it. I was shocked to discover the same author who wrote that classic piece of noir also wrote the first published lesbian book with a happy ending.

I love the content note at the beginning of this graphic novel. It’s too long to post here, but the authors eloquently describe the difficult task of loving literature written by a deeply flawed person. They also warn about what to expect in the book. Most of what they depict is Highsmith’s well-known anti-Semitism (using no slurs).

The art in this book is gorgeous. I especially love the pages where Highsmith is writing at her typewriter and scenes of what she’s writing are depicted around her. I love noir, and these images are just…well they’re so beautiful, I would frame them and hang them up in my home.

Something that was interesting to me was how Highsmith got her start writing in comics but loathed them and didn’t want her name put on them. I was tickled by the fact this handling of her life was itself a comic.

As a writer myself, I found the scenes about her struggles to get her first book deal (Strangers on a Train) quite relatable. Not surprising given that authors wrote this too.

Two things held this back from five stars for me. The first is a scene where a ring is thrown into a pond, and a duck is gazing at it. I was so distressed at the idea of the cute duck eating it, I couldn’t enjoy the scene. The second, and what others might find more important, was that, from what I’ve read since about Highsmith, she preferred the company of men but was only sexually attracted to women. In my reading of the comic, she seemed to loathe men and like the company of women. This is extra odd because she’s even been called a misogynist. Maybe the authors of this graphic novel have a different interpretation of her after reading all the primary sources. I’d have liked a note about that from them, if so.

Overall, this is a quick read with gorgeous art that eloquently explores a flawed human being who impacted both mainstream and queer 20th century literature.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 208 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera

Image of a digital book cover. A neon purple palm tree against a dark purple background. The title is in white across the trunk of the palm tree.

Summary:
Lit by the neon glow of Miami, this heady, Spanglish debut novel follows a Colombian teenager’s coming-of-age and coming out as she plunges headfirst into lust and evangelism.

Uprooted from Bogotá into an ant-infested Miami townhouse, fifteen-year-old Francisca is miserable in her strange new city. Her alienation grows when her mother is swept up in an Evangelical church, replete with abstinent salsa dancers and baptisms for the dead. But there, Francisca meets the magnetic Carmen: head of the youth group and the pastor’s daughter. As her mother’s mental health deteriorates, Francisca is saved and falls for Carmen, even as their relationship hurtles toward a shattering conclusion.

Review:
I’ve been learning Spanish off-and-of since I was nine or so, only getting more serious in the last few years. I thought this delightful mix of queerness, Miami, and being an evangelical teenager would be the perfect match for my first dive into a Spanglish book. It absolutely held my interest with its unique and engaging storyline.

I was raised varying flavors of Evangelical, so the thing that struck me immediately when reading this was how easy it was for me to decipher certain bits of Spanish just from what my own churches said. (Out of curiosity, I double-checked with a dictionary, and I was indeed correct). The depiction of Evangelicalism is just so spot on. The only thing that seemed odd to me was the idea of baptizing a dead baby – major plot point of the beginning of the book. I’ve literally never heard of this being done in any Evangelical church. But an aspect of being Evangelical (non-denominational) is each church interprets the Bible in their own way, so I gave this a pass as being a quirk of this particular church that seems to be largely made up of converts from Catholicism.

What was most engaging to me about the book was Francisca’s slow sexual awakening. How she’s not sure if what she’s feeling when alone with Carmen is Jesucristo or perhaps the Espíritu Santo or perhaps something else? This all leads up to a scene between Carmen and Francisca that I found absolutely simultaneously erotic and moving and yet they don’t actually do anything sexual. What this book does a great job depicting, actually, is how emotional and spiritual intimacy can hold so much more realness than sexual touching.

There are also two chapters in the book dedicated to Francisca’s mother’s teen years (Mami) and Francisca’s grandmother’s teen years (Tata). I found myself with much more empathy for Mami than Tata after reading these. But I also appreciated how they demonstrated the spiritual and relationship struggles across generations.

One thing that did turn me off from the characters was how the whole family seems to have a dislike for animals (as in living animals, not as in they don’t eat them). This just…confuses me. How can you dislike all animals? For Tata, the dislike extends beyond mere preference in a way I couldn’t forgive. With Francisca, I tried to brush her dislike of the local ducks off as general teenage grumpiness, especially at being uprooted from home in Bogotá, but after seeing how Tata was as a teenager, I suspect it just is the way the family is. I’m a big lover of animals, so that made it harder for me to relate to the characters.

Some reviews dislike the unanswered questions in the book – like why did the family have to leave Bogotá? I forgave this because it’s narrated by a teenager. When there’s upheaval in the family life of teens, many of them won’t go into great details about it. They’ll just be like – this is happening and it’s terrible. So I found that to be quite authentic to the teenaged narrator’s voice. Someone else pointed out that they never go to school in Miami. I would say…school is never discussed. But the more I think about it, the more this makes sense to me. The church is all-encompassing to Francisca. Of course it’s all she talks about to us. It’s all that matters. Nothing important happened at school. In contrast in Bogotá her entire life was school because school was also the church for her, as she attended Catholic school. It makes sense to me.

My experience of this book as a Spanish language learner was that it was just the right mix of things I understood, things I could guess from context, and things I had to look up (many of which turned out to be Colombian slang). I can’t guess what your experience would be if you are bilingual or routinely speak Spanglish yourself. I’d be interested to hear your experience if that describes you. Did you find the Spanglish authentic? If you don’t know any Spanish, I’d say that you can still get the jist of the story without looking up every single word, but you’ll miss some of Francisca’s sense of humor and personality. It might be worth looking up at least some of the longer sentences or repeated words (which are usually swear words) to get some context.

Overall, this is a unique read with a fun setting and a well-rounded main character. I didn’t always like her but I found myself rooting for her nonetheless, and I enjoyed practicing my Spanish along the way.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 240 pages – average but on the shorter side 

Source: library

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Book Review: Hitler’s Forgotten Children by Ingrid von Oelhafen and Tim Tate

Image of a digital book cover. A black-and-white photo shows a woman in a nurse's outfit next to two bassinets. A colorized Nazi flag flies above them.

Summary:
Created by Heinrich Himmler, the Lebensborn program abducted as many as half a million children from across Europe. Through a process called Germanization, they were to become the next generation of the Aryan master race in the second phase of the Final Solution. 

Ingrid is shocked to discover in high school that her parents are actually her foster parents and struggles, like many in post-war Germany, to get official documentation of who she is. When the Red Cross contacts her, she slowly starts to realize her connection to the Lebensborn program. Though the Nazis destroyed many Lebensborn records, Ingrid unearths rare documents, including Nuremberg trial testimony about her own abduction.

Review:
There can sometimes be this misconception that society immediately dealt with all of the fall-out of WWII. Germany does do an admirable job of directly confronting genocide and fascism. But, as this book demonstrates, not everything was in fact dealt with right away. There were intentions to, but other things like the Cold War got in the way. One of the things that got swept under the rug until the early 2000s (!!) was the Lebensborn program.

Ingrid speaks eloquently about the rumors in the 90s especially about an SS “breeding program.” I actually remember hearing these rumors. Ingrid does a good job of describing how she felt realizing she might have a connection to Lebensborn in the face of these rumors. In fact, there was no “breeding program” aspect to Lebensborn. At least, not in the way the rumor mill said it. Women were not kept in breeding houses with SS members sent to them. But women were encouraged to sleep with SS members, regardless of their own coupled or marital state, to make more Aryan babies for Hitler. Where Lebensborn came in was that if a pregnant woman and the father of the baby fit the Aryan bill sufficiently, she could come to Lebensborn to be cared for until her baby was born. Then she might keep the baby or she might give it to “suitable” foster parents, usually high-ranking officials.

But the actual war crime part of Lebensborn was the other aspect. The SS abducted children from largely Eastern European occupied territories, sending them to Lebensborn to be Germanized and given to foster parents. They literally would put out a call ordering all families to report with their children to a center, check them for “racially desirable” qualities, and then take the children that “had potential” for Germanization, returning the rest. They also used this as a punishment against resistance fighters, only they would abduct all of their children, sending the “undesirable” ones to work camps and the rest to Lebensborn. It’s this latter aspect of Lebensborn that Ingrid discovers her connection to.

The book begins with a scene of a child abduction and then switches to Ingrid’s memories of her early life immediately post-war and her discovery that she was a foster child. Then many decades are skipped because in reality Ingrid discovered nothing new about her childhood until she was an older woman starting to think about retirement. The earliest part of the book is quite engaging because her foster mother escapes from East to West Germany right before the Iron Curtain closes. The rest is engaging because, of course, we are alongside with Ingrid as she discovers the truth of her early life.

Ingrid’s early investigations in the early 2000s are hampered by intentional resistance and red tape. Even though on paper it should have been easy for her to get assistance going through the voluminous archives (the Nazis kept meticulous records of everything), she actually met foot dragging and even downright lies from those who should have been helping her. Essentially, some people didn’t want the truth of Lebensborn to get out. But Ingrid finds help along the way from those who want to see the truth come out and justice, what little is available at this point in time, done.

Ingrid is quite honest about her difficult feelings during all of this. She ultimately decides she’s not defined by her origins. While I absolutely agree that “the choices we make throughout our life” (page 267) are essential in defining us, I also think where we come from does as well. The two go hand-in-hand. It saddens me that she seems to need to distance herself from that, although I understand why it helps her to do so.

Overall, this is an engaging book that is a quick read. The pairing of the historical facts with the memoirs of an innocent person who discovers her connection to this program works well for the delivery of these facts. It helps the reader remember that these were real events impacting real people who were just starting to discover the truth of their early childhood in the early 2000s.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 276 pages – average but on the shorter side 

Source: purchased

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Book Review: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Image of a digital book cover. A plant with green leaves and the red lips of a kiss on it is in the background of the book title.

Summary:
This bawdy book originally published in 1973 tells the story of Molly Bolt, the adoptive daughter of a dirt-poor Southern couple who boldly forges her own path in America. With her startling beauty and crackling wit, Molly finds that women are drawn to her wherever she goes – and she refuses to apologize for loving them back. 

Review:
I’ve been trying to read more queer classics and not solely limit myself to modern queer books. I stumbled upon this when looking for other books published around the same time as Tales of the City (review). While I absolutely appreciate how groundbreaking this was at the time, it didn’t work for me. I’ll have to give a couple of spoilers to be able to discuss why, so be forewarned!

Let’s start with what I did like. The prose calls out the racism of the north at a time when Jim Crow was still around in the south. Just because things may be better from a legal perspective doesn’t mean they actually are any less racist. This isn’t done in a preachy way. It comes about smoothly as Molly’s family moves from the hills of Pennsylvania to Florida. I really liked Molly’s dad, and the arc of her relationship with him. I loved how Molly’s first crush in middle school on another little girl named Leota is depicted. I appreciated how key moments in Molly’s life makes it clear she has to conform to succeed, and she refuses to do it. It hauntingly shows how minoritized people are kept down.

This is told in the first person, and Molly isn’t, to me, particularly likeable. I really wanted to like her. But I didn’t. She’s crass, abrasive, quite reactionary. She looks down on other people even while insisting she doesn’t. Ok, so for most of the book she’s a teenager or a young adult working her way through college. No one is perfect, and she has a lot stacked against her. But I would say she just becomes more full of herself as the novel progresses. I didn’t feel like she really learned anything. I suspect I’m supposed to think she did based on her final film school project, but it was hard for me to be moved by a film I didn’t see.

Something about Molly that particularly bothered me was an instance that really reminded me of some movies from the 70s I’ve seen, where a woman will say no to sex, but then the guy gets a little rough, gets her a little drunk, and later she basically says she’s grateful he took “advantage of her” because she really wanted it deep down (aka he raped her but she liked it). Well, Molly takes on the role of the aggressor in just such a situation in this book.I get it that this was a common trope at the time this book was written, and I’m imagining the goal was to show the same scene but with two women. But just because something was commonly shown in media at the time doesn’t make it right. I just can’t view Molly as a heroine when that’s how she engages with other women.

The other thing that’s problematic about Molly is that, since she’s adopted, she likes to say she doesn’t technically know her race. She bases this on having dark hair. At the end of the book she finds out she’s half…wait for it…French. She sees a photo of her father, and he’s French with dark hair. She never confronts herself about why she had this weird obsession with imagining herself as partially another minoritized race.

One more thing I feel I ought to mention is that Molly has a tendency to speak very negatively about butch presenting lesbians. It’s ok to not be into dating butches yourself. It’s even ok if you yourself find the butch/femme dynamic odd (although why you should care is beyond me). What bothers me, though, is how she describes butch women every single time she sees them. It’s downright insulting. You can be kind to other queer people you aren’t attracted to.

Again, I don’t expect characters to be perfect. Indeed, I think first person books with an imperfect main character are important for understanding other people’s perspective. But I do expect some growth and development over time. I felt throughout the book like Molly had no interest in self-improvement or reflection, and she never even has an epiphany that maybe she should.

Overall, why I understand why this book was groundbreaking, and it certainly had some memorable scenes, I felt the main character is unlikeable and doesn’t grow or change over time. I really liked her dad though. He was a morally flawed, complex character who I really felt could have held up his own fascinating book.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 221 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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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: 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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Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Series, #1)

A digital bookcover shows a door in the middle of the forest with forest on both sides. It is a door with no house around it.

Summary:
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care at her Home for Wayward Children understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things. No matter the cost.

Review:
This is the first book in the series but they all also can be read as stand-a-lone stories if you want. One of my siblings-in-law gave me the second book as a gift, and I decided I wanted to read the first book first to ensure I got the greatest enjoyment out of it possible. I felt confident with this decision, because I’ve really enjoyed everything else by Seanan McGuire I’ve read. As expected, this was a fun read.

The worldbuilding is gorgeous and creative. Not just the idea of the doors but also the map of how the other worlds are organized. Stephen King’s other worlds are organized around a tower. These are organized around a compass, similar to those political leaning compass tests, only this is organized on points such as Logic vs Nonsense and Wickedness vs Virtue. The worlds are varied, and so are the children who get drawn in then come back. Although come back is the wrong term for these children. They all want to “go home” to their other worlds. The children who don’t want to go back attend a different boarding school. (Now that’s also a series I’d read, just saying).

I found the plot to be less engaging than the world building. The mystery at the school was both bloodier than I would have preferred and also far too expected and easy to figure out. I viewed the plot as an excuse to continue sojourning in the world.

There is diversity present in the book. Although the main character and owner of the school are both white, Nancy’s roommate is Japanese-American. One of her new friends is Latino. I do wish the races and ethnicities of more of the secondary characters were more clearly stated. There is a trans girl character, who is a strong secondary character with a lot of realistic struggles. Nancy, the main character, is asexual (but romantic), and the word is used. Although I am myself queer and bisexual, I fully admit my understanding of the ace members of our community is less than it might be. I was uncertain about the representation in the book, so I found an ace person’s review. They loved the representation and felt Nancy to be very representative of them.

Some folks complain the book is too short, but largely because they wanted to linger longer. I thought it was just about the right length. I like reading a shorter read sometimes, and this means it’ll be much faster and easier to visit the worlds of the other characters featured in the other entries in the series more in-depth.

Recommended for readers looking for a quick read with a creative and engaging fantasy world. Especially recommended for those looking for asexual and trans representation in their fantasy.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 176 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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