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Book Review: The High House by Jessie Greengrass

January 18, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A heron stands in water. A topographical map is superimposed over him in yellow.

Summary:
Perched on a sloping hill, set away from a small town by the sea, the High House has a tide pool and a mill, a vegetable garden, and, most importantly, a barn full of supplies. Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy are safe, so far, from the rising water that threatens to destroy the town and that has, perhaps, already destroyed everything else. But for how long?

Review:
I haven’t really been in the mood for dystopian literature since March of 2020, preferring a bit more escapism in my reading. But the cover of this book featuring that gorgeous egret really drew me in when I was browsing NetGalley. And I thought that maybe a book about a dystopia brought on just by climate change would be different enough to still work for me. Plus I had my fingers crossed it would involve birds after featuring one so strongly on the cover. What I found was a book about trials different enough from our own that it gave me distance and yet with meaningful moments that took my breath away with their relevance. It was like eating a very delicious chocolate cake and then sometimes getting mouthfuls that are even more delicious because they have surprising ooey gooey pockets of liquid chocolate.

“All I can think is that what’s different now is that no one can claim this is progress.”

 (loc 1308)

The High House is a coastal summer home inherited by an environmental academic named Francesca. In spite of being coastal, it is, as the name implies, on high ground. She can see what’s coming, even though others won’t listen to her. So, while she keeps trying to bring about change to prevent it, she also secretly sets up the high house for her stepdaughter Caro and her son Pauly (who is 14 years younger than Caro). She also hires on the local elderly groundskeeper who is very wise in the old ways, Grandy, and by extension his university-aged granddaughter, Sally. I thought the book was going to be mostly set in the now of these folks living together after the flooding. But really it was largely these characters looking backward at the years just before the event, and through the event. How they came to be the way they are now. Sally, Caro, and Pauly all take turns narrating.

It’s difficult to explain how beautiful this book is without spoiling it. It’s no like the ending is a surprise or a twist but rather it takes reading the book in its entirely to get what the book is saying. And what it is saying is just simply gorgeous. In a sad way. I suppose what I can say is that this book depicts complex grief without ever really saying that’s what it’s doing. And it’s exquisite.

And the birds. Pauly loves birds, and it’s his knowledge and genuine love of them that lets everyone else know a bit of what they’re talking about when they talk about the birds. The heron on the cover is a bit of a flaw in cover design, because the birds that are actually important to the story are a pair of egrets. is They have a very important role that, again, was devastatingly exquisite. (We don’t see any harm come to the birds, and it’s a bit up in the air if any does).

This was a gorgeous book that I found comforting the way a sad movie can sometimes be. I stayed up far too late to finish it, because I just simply couldn’t look away. If you love nature and question what can remain for humans after large changes, pick this one up and let yourself get swept away.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Maid by Nita Prose

January 11, 2022 2 comments
A red digital book cover. There is a white frame with a keyhole showing a woman's foot and maid skirt departing.

Summary:
Twenty-five-year old Molly Gray struggles with social skills and misinterprets the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by. But since Gran died a few months ago, Molly has had to navigate life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is turned on its head the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself very dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

Review:
This book has a nice overall message. That we need to band together in kindness with those who are different. But the story itself left me feeling lukewarm.

Molly’s difference is never named although neurodivergence and Autism are certainly hinted at. To me, her voice and behavior simply didn’t read as authentic. Neurodivergence is of course a wide spectrum so it might read authentic to others. But it felt to me like someone guessing at neurodivergence. It just rang false.

The mystery itself wasn’t all that mysterious. I must admit I didn’t guess the killer but that was only because the narrator withheld information from the reader until the last chapter. Not my favorite method in a mystery book. I always feel duped and end up disliking the main character for withholding. So while I was motivated to find out who did it and to see Molly free, I was annoyed at the end. I can generally forgive this in a mystery, though, if my experience with the mystery itself was pleasurable up to that point.

The problem for me in this book wasn’t the set-up or the mystery. It was that every character in the book rubbed me the wrong way – including the ones I was supposed to like. Literally everyone. Even Molly’s “sweet old gran.” I just didn’t like anyone. Even if I mentally wanted everything to work out from a sense of common decency, I couldn’t root for anyone because I didn’t like anyone. The dialogue (everyone’s) especially rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not sure why; it just did.

So, I liked the idea of this. It was different. It just wasn’t for me. Maybe it will be for you.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 280 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

December 9, 2021 Leave a comment
Image of a book cover. A floating eye looks down a city. It notes there is an introduction by Margaret Atwood.

Summary:
In a glass-enclosed city of perfectly straight lines, ruled over by an all-powerful “Benefactor,” the citizens of the totalitarian society of OneState are regulated by spies and secret police; wear identical clothing; and are distinguished only by a number assigned to them at birth. That is, until D-503, a mathematician who dreams in numbers, makes a discovery: he has an individual soul. He can feel things. He can fall in love. And, in doing so, he begins to dangerously veer from the norms of his society, becoming embroiled in a plot to destroy OneState and liberate the city.

Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, We was the forerunner of canonical works from George Orwell and Alduous Huxley, among others. It was suppressed for more than sixty years in Russia and remains a resounding cry for individual freedom, as well as a powerful, exciting, and vivid work of science fiction that still feels relevant today. Bela Shayevich’s bold new translation breathes new life into Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal work and refreshes it for our current era. 

Review:
The history of this book is fascinating. Smuggled out of Soviet Russia and only ever published in translation in exile from Russia. Published before 1984 and Brave New World and said to have been at least some level of influence on both. So it’s absolutely an important read from the perspective of scifi history.

A what-if version of automation and industrialization. These successes have led to a society where humans no longer have mothers, fathers, or even real names. Instead they have numbers. D-503 is our narrator. He’s designing a rocket ship for the space program. He falls in with I-330, a woman working with a kind of back to nature resistance.

I’m not sure I liked either society depicted. It kind of reminded me of one of the societies depicted in The Time Machine that I didn’t like all that much either. But I was definitely moved and engaged and wanted to find out what happened. (The ending is bleak. I’m not sure why I hoped for anything else!)

One thing that made this a challenging read is that D-503 refers to I-330 as I. This made some sentences confusing since it’s also narrated in the first person from his point of view. It was not unusual for me to have to re-start a sentence after realizing it was actually about I-330 and not D-503 or vice versa. It’s unclear to me how much of this is a translation choice and how much of it is authentic to the book as originally written in Russian.

Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way is how the Black character is described. There’s a large, recurring focus on the size of his lips. On the one hand, the depiction of this character is very open-minded and equal. He and D-503 are both sort of married to the same woman, know it, and all consider themselves friends. But, on the other hand, the focus on his lips repeatedly was jarring. I’m again, not sure if this was in the original Russian or an awkward translation.

A creative world building element that I enjoyed is how this totalitarian regime keeps watch on its citizens. This was written before much technology, and so the citizens all live in glass homes. They have to get a special ticket to be able to pull the blinds. These are only issued for sanctioned sexual encounters. Thus to have private meetings, you must get tickets to have sexual relations with the person you want to meet with.

Recommended to those with an interest in the trajectory of scifi dystopias over time or with an interest in Russian literature.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Bear by Marian Engel

October 12, 2021 2 comments
Photo of a physical book cover. The word BEAR in neon green font is on top of the coat of a bear with a woman's hand running through the fur.

Summary:
A librarian named Lou is called to a remote Canadian island to inventory the estate of a secretive Colonel whose most surprising secret is a bear who keeps her company–shocking company.

Review:
I don’t recall anymore how I heard about this book, but this is what I heard about it:

There’s this book that’s considered a Canadian classic where a librarian has sex with a bear.

Ok. I was left with questions. First, this sounds like erotica – how is it a classic? Second, as a trained librarian I immediately wondered if the librarian part was essential to the story. Third, does she really have sex with a bear? Then I became even more intrigued when I discovered I couldn’t get this book digitally but only in print AND it’s out of print in the US so it’s far cheaper to purchase it abroad and have it sent here. So, now that I got this book from the UK and read it (in one weekend), let me answer these questions for you.

First, I wouldn’t call this erotica. The point, in spite of the murmurings about it, is absolutely not about sex with a bear, whereas in erotica, the point is the sex. I in all honesty would say this is a book about burnout. Lou is an archivist who is in a rut. When the nameless Institute she works for sends her to this estate that has been left to them to inventory their materials, her time in nature and her experiences with the locals (yes, including Bear), reveals her massive burnout to her.

She wondered by what right she was there, and why she did what she did for a living. And who she was.

(pg 93)

Second, I would definitely say the librarian part is essential to the story. Librarianship is a feminized profession. This book was first published in 1976. It is an exploration of what it means to be a working woman and how the world views working women, even when our work is performed outside of the public’s eye (perhaps especially when our work is performed outside of the public’s eye). I also thought this book does an excellent job of showing how even though librarianship is a feminized profession, those in the positions of greatest power within libraries and archives are men. Lou’s boss is a man, and this is relevant to her negative work experience.

Third, does she actually have sex with a bear? Ok, slight spoiler warning here. There is no penetration. She tricks the bear to go down on her. That’s it. I didn’t find it particularly shocking, but I’m a millennial from the internet generation that grew up with the internet urban legend about the woman with the dog and the peanut butter so. I viewed the transgressive act with Bear as serving two purposes. First, Lou has a tendency toward self-sabotage, self-loathing, and self-punishment. I think transgressing in this way makes her see how she’s transgressing against herself and her own soul in other ways and makes her refind her own sense of self. Second, I think it’s important to note that at the beginning of the book an Indigenous woman named Lucy kind of hands off the caretaking of Bear to Lou. At the end of the book, she hands the caretaking back to Lucy. I view this as an acknowledgement that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t mean it’s your life calling. There are other interesting takes on this as a commentary on colonialism, which I also think are valid.

So do I see why this is a Canadian classic? Yes, absolutely. The whole story oozes Canada from the juxtaposition of the wilderness with the city to the entwining of European and local history to the acknowledgment of the realness and relevance of local Indigenous peoples. (These peoples are not of the past but are of the present, something I think Canadian literature often does a better job with than US literature).

I thought I was going to read this book and laugh at it, kind of like how folks on book-tok are laughing about the ice planet barbarians right now. Instead, I found a unique story about a woman’s time in the semi-wilderness and how it makes her confront her burnout and how her career is a poor fit for her. How her life setup is causing her to transgress and how that needs to change. A shocking way to get the point across? Perhaps. But an important point nonetheless.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 167 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton

September 28, 2021 2 comments
Image of a digital book cover. A phot of a videocamera goes from grayed out to properly saturated to fully blacked out from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. the title fo the book and the author are in a reddish box in the center with pink and yellow font.

Summary:
Katherine Mortenhoe’s world looks very similar to our own, except that in this near future medical science has found the cure for death—or eliminated nearly every cause for it other than old age. So when Katherine is diagnosed with a terminal brain disease caused by an inability to process an ever-increasing volume of sensory input, she immediately becomes a celebrity to the “pain-starved public.” But Katherine will not agree to be the star of the reality TV show Human Destiny, her last days will not be recorded by any cameras. She doesn’t realize that from the moment of her diagnosis, she’s been watched, not only by television producers but by a new kind of reporter, one with no visible camera, who is always recording behind his never-blinking eye. 

Review:
This book was first published in 1973 under the title The Unsleeping Eye. It was then published in the UK in 1974 under this title. It was made as a film in 1980 under the title Death Watch with the books published after that under that title. Then in 2016 it was republished as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe along with a new introduction by Jeff Vandermeer. All of which is to say, although you may see it listed as published in 2016, this is actually a 1970s vision of the future. This makes its take on reality tv all the more impressive to me.

The story is told in two perspectives from Katherine’s and from the reporter’s. They both live in the near future UK. Katherine is in her 40s on her second husband, childfree (there is no discussion of fertility issues or a desire for children), and works for Computabook’s romance department. Computabook appears to be essentially an AI largely writing Harlequin style romance novels. The consensus seems to be that she could write a great novel and is wasting her time at Computabook. She goes to the doctor quite a bit, which is presented as odd for a time when most illnesses are cured. The gentle opinion seems to be that she has a mental problem skewing toward perhaps hypochondria. But then she gets a terminal diagnosis. The reality tv show Human Destiny is so sure that they will get her to sign on to live out her last days filmed that they secretly film her receiving the diagnosis news, figuring they will get her permission via contract later.

The reporter has just consented to have tv cameras implanted in his eyes, allowing them to film without the presence of any cameras, only him. He cannot be in full darkness for a period of time after the surgery and takes pills to stay awake. He has an ex-wife and son. The ex-wife very much dislikes his work for the producer who does Human Destiny. She does not like this producer.

There are a lot of ex-spouses in this society because they do 5 year handfastings, essentially, and at that point they decide whether or not to recommit for another 5 years. It’s supposed to not be a big deal if folks don’t recommit, but it’s clear from both the reporter’s relationships and Katherine’s that it actually is to the folks involved. While not a focus of the book, I found this interesting.

The book then ultimately explores the ethics of why Katherine might or might not sign on for the show, whether or not the reality tv show is in and of itself ethical, and what the limits of cameras in a person’s eyes are to truly telling the truth. I would also say it explores the impact of your job on your life and your sense of fulfillment. Another theme is how different people’s lives look depending on how much they have “bought in” to the way of life depicted to them as the main choice by the government. There’s also a question of what’s a good death and who gets to choose what that means.

I most enjoyed the exploration of the alternative societies outside of the mainstream. I also found the depiction of near future reality tv very well-imagined. I am happy to report that there is no rape or sexual violence in this 1970s scifi book. There is an instance where it seems a possibility, but it does not ultimately happen. There is medical trauma and some minor violence seen in robberies.

This book ultimately left me pondering if it was trying to say something larger about the male gaze or if that was coincidental. Regardless, it left me thinking about women and our lives and how others view them. A valuable issue to ponder. Plus it was fun to explore this imagined future society.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 264 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price, PhD

September 14, 2021 Leave a comment
A digital image of a book cover. Stripes of color in this order run from the top to the bottom: yellow orange, reddish-orange, red, purple.

Summary:
Explores the psychological underpinnings of the “laziness lie,” including its origins from the Puritans and how it has continued to proliferate as digital work tools have blurred the boundaries between work and life. Using in-depth research, Price explains that people today do far more work than nearly any other humans in history yet most of us often still feel we are not doing enough. Filled with practical and accessible advice for overcoming society’s pressure to do more, and featuring interviews with researchers, consultants, and experiences from real people drowning in too much work.

Review:
I was raised with a strict, Protestant work ethic. I mean, I grew up in New England. The epicenter of Puritanism. “Lazy” was one of the worst insults to hurl at someone else or to internally scream at myself to keep myself pulling all-nighters etc… So why did I pick up a book with such a title? I follow Devon on Instagram, and I found myself helped and relating so much to what they said about dealing with burnout in academic labor that I decided to see past the title and try out the book.

Devon starts the book by sharing their own burnout/overwork story. The thing that makes this so compelling is we know that Devon still accomplished things – just look at this book! – in spit of embracing what some might call “laziness.” So how did Devon go from burnt out and overworked to fighting back and successful? Devon intertwines their story with psycho-social explorations and stories from others encountering burnout and overwork.

A few things really stuck out to me when reading this book. The first is that there’s no science behind the length of the average workday or workweek as it stands in the US (8 hours a day, 40 hours a week). What science there is indicates it’s “still probably too long and demanding for most people” (loc 15%). A statistic to back this up that really blew my mind:

Researchers consistently find that in office jobs, people are capable of being productive for only about three hours per day, on average.

loc 24%

The point being that if you’re finding it hard to concentrate or get things done it’s not that you’re lazy, it’s that you’re being asked to think and work for longer periods of time than people are actually capable of naturally. Devon then goes into how more breaks and less time working actually leads to better quality of labor and greater satisfaction in workers. They also talk about the dangers of work performed by overtired people, and these aren’t just the obvious like falling asleep at the wheel. People also, for example, get more negative and judgmental when overtired.

Devon then goes into the perils of information overload. How access to so much information so easily can and does overwhelm us. How this has changed dramatically in the last decades.

The volume of unique information the average person encounters in a day is approximately five times what the average person encountered in 1986.

loc 39%

They also speak about how it’s not always possible to just “disconnect,” giving the example of how we might need to check the news to see if there’s currently a lockdown in place.

This all leads nicely into a part of the book that talks about the importance of downtime – not just from physical labor but from brain work and accessing information. This essentially boils down to a need for quiet contemplation that is often demonized as laziness. But this is essential for us to be able to engage with our world in a meaningful way.

In the interest of not going into information overload here, I will say the final thing that stuck out to me in this book. Devon calls on us to be kinder to both ourselves and others. To not jump to the accusation of lazy but rather to ask are we in service to the system asking too much of ourselves? Of others? How can we be kinder and ask less? Keeping in mind that with less the quality often improves as well. So instead of, for example, berating yourself for feeling tired mid-afternoon and struggling to finish your to do list, look at what you have done. How many hours have you worked? Is your to do list reasonable? Can you reduce it at all? Do you still have time for downtime? Maybe your body just needs rest. Maybe your mind does too. We’re all only human, and we’re asking an inhuman amount from people.

Recommended if you’re interested in a deeper dive into these concepts with more real world examples.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (Series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A path runs through a flowery nature with a 1950s style metal robot on one side and a monk sitting on the back stoop of a tiny house on the other. The title A Psalm for the Wild-Built runs across it.

Summary:
Dex is a tea monk on a planet that lives an eco-friendly lifestyle on a minimal share of the planet with a large portion left wild. The robots found sentience years ago and left for the wild themselves. When Dex diverges suddenly from their usual traveling path, a robot makes contact for the first time in generations.

Review:
This book just oozes coziness and relaxation. Things happen but reading it feels sort of like visiting a 1990s era fantasy/scifi tv show where nothing truly dangerous happens and everything gets wrapped up nicely within 60 minutes. If that tv show was progressive enough to have a non-binary main character that is.

Sibling Dex’s planet is a lot like Earth but definitely is not Earth. The most notable clear indicator that this is not Earth is the universal religion, which Dex is a monk in service of. That said, this religion seems like kind of a mash-up of Buddhism and Hinduism to me. It’s got a lot of Buddhist traditions but tied to a set of 6 gods/goddesses. Dex is in particular service to Allalae, who is tied to bears somehow. I enjoyed the tie to bears. It means there are cute carvings and things of bears everywhere.

The book follows Dex’s journey from an urban monk to a traveling tea monk who roams around the countryside on a bicycle/tiny house extravaganza. Tea monks basically show up, listen to people’s feelings, and then make the perfect cup of tea for whatever their current needs are. They eventually feel what struck me as a bit of a quarter-life (or mid-life?) crisis and veers off-course to visit an old monastery. It’s at this point that Mosscap the wild-build robot reaches out to make contact.

When the robots gained sentience, it was agreed that humans would not contact robots but robots could contact humans. Mosscap is on a mission to see how humans are doing, and of course Dex and Mosscap pair up and help each other on their quests. This is when the fun conversations take place between Dex, who is clearly a bit overly tied to his emotions, and Mosscap, an externally observant logical being. I enjoyed these conversations, even though I found them to be rather expected.

Here’s the thing. I would have loved this book if it had gone on longer. I felt like we were just really starting to get into the meat of things when the book ended. I get it this is the start to a series. But it’s quite short (almost novella length), and I was enjoying the world. I also, from a story structure perspective, feel that essentially things just got set up. I supposed one could chose to write a trilogy that splits the basic story structure out across three books but that will inevitably feel to some people like a bit of a let-down because we expect a complete story. I wish someone had said, “Hey! Just finish telling Dex and Mosscap’s story! No need to stop yet.” I’d probably be less annoyed by this if the next book was out already.

I didn’t find anything in this to be incredibly deep, although I suspect I may have if I had read it before I had studied a lot of philosophical and religious literature. I did however find it to be cozy and relaxing, and I loved the juxtaposition of a cottage core tiny house monk with a 1950s style robot with sentience. Yes. I was also pleased to see Dex as non-binary, and how smoothly their culture just clearly had it set up to say Sibling Dex instead of Brother or Sister. The representation worked and never felt forced.

Recommended to anyone looking for a short, cozy, scifi read and/or to those looking for non-binary representation in scifi.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 160 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov

August 24, 2021 3 comments
Image of a digital book cover with a steel man (robot) emerging from the ground.

Summary:
A collection of 8 of Isaac Asimov’s classic robot short stories, divided into three sections: The Coming of the Robots, The Laws of Robotics, and Susan Calvin.

Review:
I often struggle to read short stories. For me, they often are just a bit too short for me to get fully invested into the world they’re set in, so they oddly drag in spite of being short. But this collection really worked for me, and I think that’s because the world was already fully established in my mind. It was just then a matter of what would happen with this particular iteration of a robot and the humans around it.

The world that pre-existed in my mind already was Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (this explains them, if you’re not already familiar with them). Well, that combined with a world that had managed to make robots and engages in space exploration.

The book starts with an early generation robot who goes missing in a rural area and ends up at the behest of a rural man. This one made me laugh out loud, and not in a way that I think takes advantage of anyone. The second short story in this section looks at what happens when robots are sent in advance to a hostile alien planet. What I enjoyed about both of these is how the robots are so pure and so honest and how that throws everyone around them.

I thought the second section was the least engaging, but keep in mind I loved the collection so that’s barely a criticism. There’s a short story that’s very Cold War inspired about spies and robots. Then there’s also one that’s a human telling a tall tale about a robot breaking one of the laws. It’s left up to the reader to decide if it’s true.

The third section all feature the robopsychologist Susan Calvin. To me, it’s clear Susan is somewhere on the Autism spectrum, and I loved her. It did bother me a bit how everyone else in the stories describes Susan as cold and seems to question her femininity because they perceive her as lacking warmth and mothering qualities. But I also think this is a bit of a commentary – is Susan really like this or do others just perceive of her that way? I also really like how well she relates to the robots. She’s not a main character in each of the stories, but she does play a pivotal role in all of them. My favorite was “Galley Slave,” which is about a robot being brought into academia to do some ho-hum labor. Asimov was a professor of biochemistry, and the realness of the problems with academia are clear in the hilarious scifi and robot flavored commentary on that institution.

Overall, I really enjoyed these short stories. They’re a great example of how strong clear, rapid worldbuilding combined with characters formed quickly in broad strokes can make short stories work very well.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Gift

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Book Review: You’re As Good As Dead by E.A. Aymar (Series, #2)

Digital image of a book cover. A glowing green shows what appears to be a bridge. The book title and author name appear over it.

Summary:
Three years have passed since Tom Starks, a Baltimore community college professor and single father, tried to avenge his wife’s death by hiring a hit man. Tom is now hopeful that he has left the world of violence and murder behind. But he is drawn back into Baltimore’s criminal underground after he witnesses the assassination of an influential crime boss. To make matters worse, it appears the FBI has discovered Tom’s involvement, and they force him to work with them as an informer. Now Tom must navigate a deadly path between warring crime families and ruthless federal agents, even as he desperately tries to keep his involvement a secret from those closest to him. 

Review:
Tom Starks is definitely an example of what happens when you make one grave error in a moment of passion. This man just can’t seem to learn from his mistakes. The book opens with him dropping off money to the crime boss to keep quiet, and he witnesses the crime boss being taken out. The FBI then approaches him to infiltrate the battle between two different crime families. It’s help them or go to prison. Tom chooses helping of course.

The most interesting part of the story to me was when one crime family sends twin Black woman assassins to live with Tom. It’s a bit unclear even to Tom if they’re there to keep him quiet or keep him safe. I liked the characterization of the sisters. Yes, they’re involved in crime, but we find out the crime family’s boss essentially found them as teenagers and saved them from the streets. So they feel obligated to the crime family. They can be violent but also kind. I was particularly fond of how the sisters interact with the family’s pet bunny.

Tom clearly thinks of himself as the good guy but to the reader he’s really not one. He did, after all, hire a hit man. It seems easy to push his boundaries and to get him to do ever increasingly ethically wrong things. He also, in his spare time, sleeps with his dead wife’s sister – who is still married. He tries to protect his adopted daughter by pushing her away out of the house and never telling her anything about what’s really going on or doing a particularly great job of listening to her. This book is a story of a man’s continual descent.

It’s been a long time since I accepted this review copy, and I feel my reading tastes changed in the meantime. I used to be more interested in violent books than I am now. Now I need the violence to be making a statement about something, and I don’t think this one is making a statement. Plus, there is definitely a lot of violence – beatings, murders, and tortures. (No sexual assault though).

This is a book about violence and an ethically questionable man falling further and further into a descent of the loss of light. There is no hope at the end of the book. There seems to be no way out. Does this count as a cautionary tale about the ever-reaching effects of choosing retaliation over transformative justice? I think maybe. For someone like myself who already believes in choosing transformative justice over retaliation, it wasn’t illuminating, though, simply a tale with an expected sad trajectory.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 290 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Previous Book in Series:
I‘ll Sleep When You’re Dead, review

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Book Review: Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor by Anna Qu

August 10, 2021 5 comments
Image of a digital bookcover. A yellow background with scissor open to cut three threads over it. The title of the book is in black. The author's name is in blue.

Summary:
When Anna Qu was in high school, she had her guidance counselor call child protective services because her mother was making her work without pay in the family sweatshop. In her memoir, she explores how her life went from living with her grandparents in China while her widowed mother pursued success in America to the level of division and problems with her mother that led to calling CPS. An exploration of sweatshops, immigration, and difficult relationships with family of origin.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by this book because I thought – wow, what kind of mother brings her child to the US only to turn around and force her to work in a sweatshop? I could wrap my head around a mother owning and running a sweatshop. I could even imagine having your child work in a sweatshop in a different cultural context (due to need, due to cultural expectations, etc…). But the usual immigration story is a desire for your child to have a better life than your own. How does that compute if your own life is owning the sweatshop? I had to find out.

Anna deftly uses this moment in her teen years as the way into telling her life story that is also simultaneously the story of her family, of immigration, of sweatshops, and of what happens when a family member is seemingly randomly selected as the one to be ostracized. Anna felt loved and wanted by her grandparents, but that all changed when she came to the US to join her mother, new stepfather, and two new half-siblings. But this is real life, not a fairy tale, so the change wasn’t instantaneous. To me, one of the most painful scenes of the book is the party the family threw when she arrived from China. Being able to bring a loved one over from China you had to leave behind was a real status marker and cause to be celebrated. How that party went awry and how the relationship with her mother started to fall apart was painful but eloquently told.

Of course because this is a memoir we never truly get to know Anna’s mother’s motivations. But we do get some of her perspective revealed through the case worker, case documents, and what Anna’s grandmother has to say about it. Anna is willing to explore the impact of intergenerational trauma on her mother, without excusing her mother’s actions.

Anna also explores the importance of belonging, and how that being denied outside of the family is even more important when it’s being denied inside of the family. Anna describes her role in her family as:

I was a ghost haunting a family that wanted nothing to do with me, and the loneliness left a tightness in my chest.

location 392

Yet she also explores being othered outside of her family as well. At school she’s different because she spends some time away attending a different school. (Her mother briefly sends her to boarding school in China). She also experiences being different when she goes away to college without any familial support. The fact that she has to advocate for herself, get herself declared independent from her family, that she has to struggle to find a place to go on winter breaks and more, these all serve to show how she doesn’t fit in. I thought this was a great example of ways that society should strive to be more inclusive, as we never know what people’s home lives are like.

Beyond exploring her family trauma, Anna also examines the two-pronged issue of sweatshop labor and workaholism as seen in many immigrant families. From her perspective, this starts out as a necessity and then becomes a way of being even when it’s not a necessity anymore. With regards to sweatshop labor, Anna points out how interesting it is that she could get out because of laws about child labor but somehow this same labor was acceptable among adults. She also talks about how much worse it is for those with no legal recourse, such as those working under the table. What are the societal issues that lead to someone working under the table and how can those be addressed?

There are no easy answers to the difficult questions and problematic situations described in this book. I think a strength of this book is how Anna points out abuse has to be really bad to be resolved in our country – whether talking about home abuse or work abuse – but there’s lot of other abuses that are still abusive that still hurt people’s souls that just keep happening with very little to no intervention. What makes people, workplaces, and cultures abuse some and not others is a central exploration of this book with no easy answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Netgalley

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