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Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (Plus Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide)

Digital cover of the book One Last STop. A white woman with a bigger body and red hair holds a cup of coffee outside of a train. The train is labeled Q. A medium skin-toned Chinese-American woman in torn jeans with a leather jacket and a backpack stands inside the train. The doors are open between them. Subtitle of the book is - Sometimes love stops you in your tracks.

Summary:
Twenty-four-year-old August has struggled to find her place in life. She’s now transferred to her third college, this time in Brooklyn, and she hopes it’ll stick. She finds a room in an apartment that comes with a delightful mix of found friends all also a part of the queer community, and they set her up with a job at the local diner. August thinks maybe it’s finally time to fit in and start to feel like she’s living a normal life, but then she meets a stunningly cute Chinese-American girl on the Q train. And meets here again. And again. Slowly she discovers that this girl might not be quite what she seems to be – in fact she’s a punk rock lesbian from the 1970s displaced out of time. Can August solve the case of how she got displaced and not lose her heart in the process?

Review:
I heard this described somewhere as a queer romance similar to the movie Kate & Leopold. That’s one of my favorite romantic comedies, so I was sold. I can definitely understand the comparison. They’re both set in New York and feature a love interest displaced out of their own time. While I love Kate & Leopold though, I have to admit I didn’t quite love this book.

Let’s start with what I liked. The main character, August, is bisexual and says it (more than once) with confidence. There is no biphobia expressed in this book by any of the characters she cares about. I also really appreciated seeing a bisexual main character who is a virgin and yet still declares this. An important moment of representation that one does not need to sleep with people to know one’s sexuality

August’s roommates and new friends are eclectic and fun while still feeling real. There is representation of gay and trans* folks especially. One of the roommates is Black (with Chinese adoptive parents), one is Greek-American, and one is Jewish. There’s a lot of diversity here. Part of what made them all feel real is that all of them had their own different families and issues. It wasn’t one queer story but many. I also really liked how real the local drag club felt, and I appreciated the representation of someone in recovery (the chef at the pancake restaurant).

I thought there was a lot of sizzle between August and the girl on the train – Biyu. Now at first she goes by Jane but over the course of the book she comes to ask to go by her birth name, Biyu, rather than her Americanized nickname. I want to be respectful of that. I also enjoyed the mystery of how she came to be on the train, and how August goes about solving it.

I felt pretty neutrally about the sex scenes. They were steamy without being explicit, but they weren’t anything particularly memorable for me. Some readers, I know, were turned off by the fact some of the sex happens on the train. That didn’t bother me because it makes sense for the characters. But be forewarned!

Now what I liked less. I don’t think the book handled racism and homophobia as directly or clearly as it should have. Biyu is from the 1970s and is a Chinese-American who is visibly lesbian. She literally had run-ins with the cops over wearing men’s clothes in her time period. But being jetted forward 40 years doesn’t solve the problems of homophobia and racism. I think the book acknowledges this by having Biyu have a run-in with someone who says something both racist and homophobic to her (the words are not said in the book and the incident appears off-screen). Yet August responds by saying, “most people aren’t like that anymore” (I can’t give an exact page number as this was a review copy but it occurs in Chapter 12). This does lead into a large fight between Biyu and August, which I think implies that August was wrong in what she said. However, I think August needed a bigger I was wrong moment, where she acknowledges that she did a very poor job of both being there for Biyu in that moment and of describing the complexity of how racism and homophobia are simultaneously different and yet not in modern times. I think readers also would have benefited from a nuanced discussion of how, for example, same-sex marriage is now legal and yet hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have increased dramatically in the last year, especially against Chinese-Americans (source). I think this book wanted to say something big and interesting about sexuality and queerness especially in the 1970s versus now, but in my opinion it falls short of accomplishing this.

Additionally, I know I was supposed to find the ending satisfying but it left me dissatisfied. I think for similar reasons – it’s a complex situation and the book doesn’t dig deep enough or hard enough into these complexities. Things are kept at the surface level. While it is a book in the spirit of a romcom, romcoms can say big and difficult things while not losing the romcom feel. Confessions of a Shopaholic springs to mind – it deals with the very serious issue of shopping addiction while still feeling like a very fun romcom.

Overall, this book is fun and lighthearted. It features a realistic bisexual lead and steamy, yet not explicit, f/f scenes. The queer found family is delightful. But it could have stood to have dug a bit deeper into the serious issues it brought up. They are important conversations to have that wouldn’t have messed up the lightheartedness of the romcom vibe.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 422 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (Series, #1)

Digital image of the cover of the book Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. A woman's body is in silhouette against the moon. She appears to have wings. Another body is superimposed over hers. A pull quote from Viola Davis is featured stating, "A book that shifted my life...epic, game changing, moving, and brilliant."

Summary:
Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who is immortal who has so far largely passed without notice. But when Doro, a being who maintains his immortality by stealing others’ bodies, discovers her, everything changes. He considers her to be wild seed for his project of gathering together all humans with special powers to breed them to try to create those who can match him. But is Anyanwu already a match for him? And can they ever produce children who are like them?

Review:
The simplest word to describe this book is unexpected. That’s something that’s difficult to achieve in fantasy about immortality, so I was pleasantly surprised.

This book immediately asks the reader to identify with and understand Anyanwu at least a little bit. Unlike in some other fantasies about immortality, she is already immortal when she meets Doro. So the challenge isn’t does she want to be immortal but rather what is it like to be truly seen by someone else? Doro is somehow more frightening than Anyanwu. The reader thus sides with Anyanwu, even though she is also a little bit scary. Anyanwu also says she goes with him to protect her children from him, an emotion it is easy to understand. Thus, the reader develops an ability to see Anyanwu’s viewpoint. When Anyanwu later does certain things that would have seemed shocking, this ability to see her perspective remains.

It is also interesting to see Doro and Anyanwu’s lives placed against a backdrop of slavery. Anyanwu is African. Doro can take the body of anyone he chooses, but he does state his original human body was in Africa. They are aware of slavery and even pull some seed away from being slaves to live in Doro’s villages instead. Doro breeds people regardless of their race. What he is interested in is their abilities. However, slowly the book comes to ask if this is in a way another form of slavery? Doro says the people view him as a god and that is their relationship, but Anyanwu feels differently. That sets up the reader to ask how free are these people in these villages really?

I was also pleasantly surprised by an appearance of queerness in the later half of the book. Anyanwu makes some interesting discoveries about her shapeshifting that leads to some pregnancies and relationships that are decidedly queer in nature. I was glad the book went there but surprised because so often books about shapeshifting and body inhabiting never do cross the line of gender.

Although this is the first book in a series, I felt it stood strongly on its own yet, simultaneously, propelled me to read more. The immortality angle is what makes it work this way. This is a solid chapter in the lives of Anyanwu and Doro. Yet clearly their story isn’t over, and there are new people who are going to encounter and challenge them. It was fantasy that felt possible and challenging simultaneously. Recommended to fantasy readers looking for a fresh take on immortality.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

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