Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, Somini Sengupta

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

The End of Karma is an extraordinary look at India, written by someone who has known India from both inside and outside its borders. Somini Sengupta reports for the New York Times. Born in India, she grew up in California but returned yearly with her parents to visit family. As an adult she became the NY Times bureau chief for New Delhi, living there for several years. She is a daughter of India, the mother to a daughter of India, and yet also brings an American perspective to her stories. She is, in her words, N.R.I.–Non Resident Indian. This is a term used by Indians themselves for the vast diaspora from their country, people who now make their homes in lands far away and yet find the pull of this ancient culture still tugging at their hearts.

 

Sengupta tells the stories of several young Indians raised during a time when India stepped out onto the world stage unlike any previous time. In many ways, the last (roughly) three decades have been a time of incredible advancement in the country. Poverty is down. The economy has boomed. Construction has exploded. Life expectancies have nearly doubled. Education is widespread. Childhood vaccination has become widespread, and disease is commensurately lower. Hunger is much rarer. India soon will be the most populous country on earth, and with this enormous population and dynamic economy has come new stature in international politics.

 

The stories of young adults coming of age during this time tell of the hopes and aspirations of this generation. They are better educated, richer, and have higher expectations from life than their parents. But the old India has not fully released its grip on their lives. Marriages are still largely arranged. Female feticide, though illegal, is not uncommon, leading to a huge disparity in the male/female ratio. Girls are on average less educated than boys and have fewer prospects. Infant mortality is down, poverty and hunger are reduced, vaccinations are up, but India still has more people living on less than $2/day than any other country in the world. The caste system has been legally abolished, but it still plays a significant role in daily life. Indians can see a day coming when the caste system is a memory, when arranged marriages are historical oddities, but that day is not here yet and there are many who do not want to see that day arrive.

 

The women in Sengupta’s stories fascinate me. One of them, Mani, aspired to escape her impoverished rural village. She set herself a goal to move up in the world, and she achieved that goal. What is hard for this western reader to appreciate is that her “moving up” was not a rags to riches story–it’s a rags to better rags story. She worked for years as a nanny/housekeeper for a middle class family, cleaning their apartment, doing their laundry, cooking their meals, watching their children. This family was more inclusive than most–they did not always insist that she eat separately, use her own dishes, never sit on their furniture, and otherwise maintain the physical separation between themselves and their unclean lower-caste servant. They even gave Mani a day off each week so she could attend church. Mani made enough money to send home and give her siblings a chance at better lives, enough money to help her mother build a better house, enough money to make a real difference in the lives of her family. And the family she worked for helped her in other ways: when Mani’s cousin was kidnapped and sent into forced labor as a housekeeper in another city, Mani’s employer actually helped find her and paid some of the bribes to free her. Mani’s situation is not a story where she was manipulated by an evil employer. On the contrary, she was extraordinarily fortunate to be hired by the people she worked for.

 

But the entire situation spoke to me about both the similarities and the differences between us. Mani had a dream and she pursued it. Her dream came true! She found employment in the city, away from the desperate situation at home. She made enough money to change the future for her entire family. She was even able to rescue a cousin who had been kidnapped! What could be more American than that?  Yet, that dream had her living in a small room of a small apartment, with little or no property of her own, working all day six days a week, in a position with no prospects for advancement and no expectations of that. And Mani knew that she was one of the more fortunate people in her position!

 

Sengupta, though, is careful to show that in many ways India is not so different from America. Few Americans have live-in servants. But many of us hire maids or gardeners whom we do not allow to live with us and we show no concern about their personal living conditions. Many of us hire people to cook and deliver our food, with no thought as to their medical benefits. And how many Americans would personally step in to help the kidnapped niece of our Lyft driver? Americans rely heavily on low-paid workers to take care of a multitude of tasks. We’ve just separated ourselves from their lives.

 

India is a huge country, with a huge population. It has made incredible progress, and there is every reason to believe that progress will continue. But it continues to face huge challenges. Mani’s story, along with the others in the book, powerfully shows how far they have come in such a short time. But the stories also show what challenges remain. Whether those challenges come from an increasingly restive Facebook generation insistent on having their free speech respected, from an impoverished rural region which can now see online how the “other half” lives, from women who will no longer stand for being objects of abuse, or from religious minorities or from long disrespected castes, how the country reacts to those challenges will shape how the next set of stories are told.

 

Somini Sengupta did not set out to write the definitive story of modern India. With over 1 billion people, there are far too many stories to tell than any book could hold. But the stories she tells show us an India in transition, an India finding its way in a changing world, an India that is held in tension between a very modern high-tech society that they are helping to shape and a very ancient culture they are fighting to preserve. The resolutions they find will not only shape their future. The future of India is in many ways the future of the world.

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

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Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

 

He’s ba-a-ack!

 

Considering the cover of the book says this is a “4MK Thriller,” I’m not giving too much away by saying that The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker’s sequel to The Fourth Monkey, features the return of Detective Sam Porter and his white whale, Anson Bishop, also known as the Fourth Monkey Killer or 4MK. Detective Porter and his team have been pulled off the hunt for 4MK when a body is found in a frozen lake. The body is that of a young girl who has been missing for a couple of weeks…but she is found under the ice, dressed in the clothes of a girl who disappeared just that morning. Chicago immediately fears that 4MK is back to his old tricks, but Porter believes this to be the work of someone else. Serial killers tend to have a unique style, and this murder does not fit the pattern of 4MK. As the body count climbs and the mystery deepens, the question persists: does this have anything to do with 4MK?

 

The hunt for the killer (or killers) expands beyond Chicago, reaching first to New Orleans and then to North Carolina. Bishop is back, but what if anything does he have to do with these new deaths? Why has he sent a picture of a mystery woman to Detective Porter, a woman being held in jail in New Orleans? What clues remain in his diary? And can they catch him in time to prevent whatever plans he has made from coming to fruition?

 

Barker has taken the loose threads remaining from The Fourth Monkey and woven them together to create a new and even more involved story. Tension mounts throughout the book. As the view shifts from detective to victim to killer, we learn more about the mysterious Anson Bishop. But each new revelation brings more questions. By the end of the book we see some mysteries solved. Many more, though, remain tantalizingly unresolved. Bishop remains free to wreak more mayhem. Porter has lost him again. His team is in desperate straits. And the reader, at least this reader, is left with nightmares about an elusive killer and a very satisfying thriller.

 

In just two books, J.D. Barker has become one of my favorite thriller writers. The Fifth to Die could be read by itself. Enough backstory is given that it stands on its own. But it will be more satisfying to read the two books in order. Just, don’t start them if you need to get some sleep. You will have trouble putting either of them down.

 

Again, a warning to more sensitive readers. There are violent scenes depicted in The Fifth to Die. If that sort of thing bothers you, this is not the book for you. And it is not a book I would recommend to children or tweens. The victims in the book include teenagers, which may make the violence even more disturbing to some. For the genre it is not particularly violent, but the thriller genre can be violent and Barker does not shy away from the grittier aspects of his subject.

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Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J. D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth Monkey: J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

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Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fourth Monkey, J.D. Barker

Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil. Most of us are familiar with the three monkeys and their advice, often depicted with actual images of monkeys covering eyes, ears, and mouth. J.D. Barker’s book tells us about The Fourth Monkey: do no evil. But the monkey in his book does all kinds of evil. He is a serial killer, nicknamed the Fourth Monkey Killer, and time is running out for his latest victim. WARNING: if you have a weak stomach or tender constitution, stop reading and find a different book. The book (and consequently this review) do have descriptions that might upset some readers.

 

Detective Sam Porter has been hunting 4MK for over five years. It looks like they have finally caught a break when a pedestrian killed by a bus is found to be carrying a box wrapped in the distinctive style of the killer. Every previous victim was preceded by the delivery of three carefully wrapped boxes. The first contained the victim’s ear. The second, the victim’s eyes. The third, her tongue. Finally, some days later, the victim herself, always a young woman, would be found. This box contained a young woman’s ear. The man himself also had a diary in his pocket, one that told a grisly tale about a young man growing up in a house of horrors.

 

As Porter and his fellow detectives follow the clues, they start with several unanswered questions. Was the dead man really 4MK? Whose ear was in the box? And, most importantly, where was she? If indeed her kidnapper is dead, she only has a couple of days before dying of thirst. This urgency presses the team to follow every lead, even when those leads come dangerously close to the wealthy and politically connected elite of Chicago.

 

The Fourth Monkey shifts perspective often, usually between Detective Porter and the diary of 4MK. As the stories unfold, we realize that Detective Porter is carrying a great burden, one that inevitably affects his ability to follow the killer’s trail. And we realize that the diary is being told from the perspective of the serial killer–how much of its narrative is reliable? Meanwhile, a girl’s life hangs in the balance.

 

The Fourth Monkey is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. The police procedural rings true. The officers are dedicated, not perfect but not corrupt, frustrated at times with red tape but concerned about following procedure so that the result is a clean arrest and conviction, not to mention rescuing the missing girl. The diary never brought this reader to the point of sympathizing with the serial killer, but it made it easier to imagine how someone might lose his grip on appropriate choices when confronted with a distorted childhood. Of course, it is possible the diary was entirely a fiction within the fictional book–that is a possible interpretation that the author leaves for his readers to consider. All in all, a very well told story that leaves room for many of the characters to return again.

 

Barker tells a story that is both compelling and chilling. He does a superb job of leaving small clues in the story which later bloom into full reveals. There were several times when I realized that “something” was about to happen, only to realize that Barker had left enough clues for my subconscious to go into overdrive but not enough for me to fully figure it out ahead of time. And Barker leaves just enough in the cupboard that even on the final page there is a surprise for the reader. It makes this reader quite eager to see what else this writer has in store for his audience. Despite the occasional gore and graphic detail, The Fourth Monkey is a book I highly recommend to any fans of the thriller or police procedural genres.

 

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Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

Book Review: The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Fiction: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Considering that The Mars Room is on the short list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and that author Rachel Kushner has twice previously been nominated for the National Book Award, there may not be much left to say in praise of either the book or the writer. The Mars Room is extraordinary. The plot is straightforward enough, but the characters are rich, deep, compelling, and the voice telling their story (sometimes first person, sometimes an omniscient narrator) is honest and unsparing.

 

Romy Hall is in prison for murder. She murdered a man who had followed her from her home in San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she had fled with her young son to escape his attentions. Despite the stalking, the jury only heard about a young woman beating a physically challenged man to death with a child nearby. Romy was sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars, her mother was given custody of her son, and the story begins with Romy on the bus heading to prison.

 

The Mars Room is the name of the strip club in San Francisco where Romy danced and where she met Kurt Kennedy, the man she would eventually kill. The book shifts perspective often, from Romy’s flashbacks to her present situation to other inmates to acquaintances and victims and accomplices of those other inmates and even to Kurt Kennedy in the days prior to his death. Throughout, Kushner is neither judgmental nor particularly sympathetic. Her characters are who they are, they did what they did, and whether the reasons behind the crimes matter is up to the reader to decide. The result is a haunting book that reminds me in weird ways of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Mars Room has nothing directly in common with The Grapes of Wrath (apart from being set in California), but the unforgiving yet nonjudgmental voice telling the stories of people with no legitimate reasons to hope has antecedents in literature. Kushner just does it much better than most other writers.

 

Romy tells about her broken family. Her troubled, immigrant mother. The father she never knew. The child she had to leave behind. The men she spent time with, including the one who sent her fleeing to Los Angeles and whom she later killed. She does want some measure of understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, but has learned not to hope. After her mother dies and her son is made a ward of the state, Romy does hatch some desperate plans to try to “save” him. She recognizes the plans are foolish and hopeless, but does not let that stop her from trying to implement them. Despite her situation, she is a mother who feels compelled to save her son. Yet as her situation may indicate, her judgment and decision-making are not always the best. Kushner lets Romy make her choices, lets those choices play out, and the reader sees how the consequences affect the characters. It is sometimes harsh and there is no “and they lived happily ever after” but the result is a powerful and moving novel that speaks to the heart.

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Book Review: Odds Against Tomorrow, Nathaniel Rich

Book Review: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

Dystopian Fiction: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

Mitchell Zukor lives in a phobopolis. A city of fear. Not an actual city; he has a Manhattan apartment and works in the Empire State Building for a company named FutureWorld. But his job mirrors his interior life. Zukor is a mathematician, focused on the probabilities that a disaster might happen. He has long believed that some kind of disaster was coming: plague or earthquake or war or something. Now, his job requires him to predict the coming of disaster and help companies indemnify themselves against those disasters.

 

Somehow, though, despite the startling accuracy of his predictions, he did not see what that disaster would mean to him.

 

Nathaniel Rich’s ecological dystopia Odds Against Tomorrow tells of the destruction of New York City through the story of Mitchell Zukor. He is making a fortune predicting that there will be a disaster. Companies (in this scenario) cannot be sued if they have tried to prepare for the future, say by hiring a company that presents disaster scenarios. If they prepare for one disaster but another one actually occurs, they can hide behind their partial efforts–and the company that predicted multiple disasters gets paid nicely for their efforts. Zukor has long feared that a disaster was indeed coming. His mathematical models predicted the odds of mega volcanoes, pandemics, war, even another asteroid crashing to earth (those odds were–drumroll, please–astronomically small). But after a summer-long drought that parched the US East Coast, making the ground too dry to absorb water, Mitchell begins calculating the effects a major hurricane might have if it were to make a direct hit on New York City. He predicts it would be catastrophic. And, sure enough, Hurricane Tammy forms and makes landfall just as he predicted.

 

Rich uses language very evocatively throughout the book. The word “phobopolis” is his (at least, I’ve never seen it before). He compares the color of the sky immediately pre-hurricane to the colors of a dying salmon, and with more than a little foreshadowing reminds the reader how salmon end life with their bodies rotting away near the very pools where they spawn. The FutureWorld business model is described as being built on the fact that “Frightened people didn’t want bromides, expressions of hope, happy predictions. They craved dread, worst-case scenarios, end times. What would the future cost them? They wanted to hear that the price would be exorbitant.”

 

The next paragraph concludes: “This was excellent news for FutureWorld. FutureWorld would provide. FutureWorld would take their money. Oh God yes, we would.”

 

After the hurricane hits, the descriptions of a flooded NYC are horrifying. Mitchell escapes with a coworker, but the scenes painted by Rich are of a hellscape that is both hard to picture and yet realistic after the images from Hurricane Katrina and this year’s hurricanes Florence and Michael. Rich never loses sight of the sad reality, though, that regardless of the destruction nature can bring, humanity can bring further destruction in desperation. Zukor finds that his worst predictions failed to account for the human element…but also finds that there is a resilience in people, a resistance to succumbing to the mercies of a cruel climate. And he finds that there is more to his own nature than merely a scared mathematician afraid of the probability of disaster.

 

Odds Against Tomorrow is in some ways a bleak look at a possible future. But it is also a delightfully written, imaginative, and potentially hopeful look at what humanity can endure and survive.

Book Review: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

Book Review: The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty

Book Review: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty

Fantasy: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass is as lush a story as you will find in modern fantasy. S.A. Chakraborty has somehow managed to create a world that is as magical as Arabian Nights with characters that relate to a very modern mindset. The result is beautiful, rich, and promises much more to come.

 

This debut novel was nominated for both a Locus Award and a World Fantasy Award, and has been recognized by several journals as one of the best books of the year. Filled with characters that are both heroic and flawed, the story follows the lives of two characters who live very different lives. Nahri is a thief and con artist who does not believe in magic. She lives by her wits in Cairo, convincing people that she can heal them in exchange for money. Oddly enough, though she does not believe in magic, she actually can heal people. She can also understand any language she hears. Those two talents come together unexpectedly and horribly when she tries to heal a girl possessed by an ifrit, and finds that she can understand the demon inside the child. This leads to a harrowing confrontation, where she is unexpectedly saved by the appearance of a djinn. He takes her on a long and dangerous journey to the city of Daevebad, where they hope to find answers to the questions raised by her extraordinary talents and her lack of memory.

 

Ali is a prince in Daevebad, torn between his love for his family–especially his older brother, who will someday become king–and his pity for the oppressed in his city. When he tries to help the people of his city, he is unwittingly betraying his father, the king. But when he fulfills his duties to the crown, it often comes at the expense of the most vulnerable within the city. These tensions are not eased by the arrival of the mysterious Nahri and her ancient companion, a historic enemy to the throne returning at perhaps the worst possible time.

 

Chakraborty does a masterful job of creating a world that is filled with terror and wonder, danger and delight. Her descriptions of the desert are compelling and real. The heat and dryness, the contrast with places of oasis, the vast distances (even by air carpet) that separate city from city, all carry echoes of other stories set in the desert yet are uniquely her own. The confrontations with the ifrit are terrifying, truly the stuff of nightmares. You can almost taste the dust of Cairo, feel the heat of the desert, and hear the bazaar of Daevebad. I almost felt like wiping the blood off the desk after reading a fight scene between two of the characters. Love and betrayal and kindness and cruelty are the coin of this realm, and Chakraborty’s characters spend all they have and more to reach their goals.

 

Chakraborty also rejects the temptation to answer every question, leaving much to address in the sequels to come. She lets her characters face temptation and fail. Nahri is human–or is she? Ali is loyal to the crown–or is he? Is Nahri’s rescuer a hero or a monster–or could he be both? These are among the questions that are asked, then answered, then have the answers revealed as inadequate. Without revealing too much, I will say that the characters we meet and think we know at the beginning of the book are very different by the time we reach the end of this story–and I cannot wait until the next book comes out in January. (I have already requested it from our local library, so hopefully I am first on their list when it arrives!)

 

Despite occasional scenes of violence, this is a beautiful adult fantasy that would capture the imagination of younger readers as well. Nahri is as well-crafted a heroine as you are likely to find. Ali is the warrior/scholar that many young men might dream of being. Though neither character is as good–or bad–as they may seem at any given point of the story, both are intriguing and unique and delightful and infuriating and so well written. If you like great stories, if you like beautiful settings, if you like fascinating characters, and if you like really good novels, The City of Brass deserves a place on your shelf.

Book Review: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty

Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove Saga, J.D. Barker

Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker

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Fiction Horror: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker

 

Indie published in 2014, J.D. Barker’s debut novel Forsaken exploded onto the literary stage. Nominated for the Bram Stoker award for best new novelist, Barker was invited by Stoker’s family to cowrite a prequel to Dracula using Stoker’s own notes! Stephen King gave Barker permission to use one of his own characters (from Needful Things) in the novel. Barker has continued writing, moving from his initial foray in the horror genre to less supernatural but equally creepy thrillers in his 4MK series of books, two of which have been published as of 2018.

 

Forsaken does not read like a debut novel. It is crisp, with well-defined characters and a compelling story line. Thad McAlister lives with his wife Rachael and their daughter Ashley in a home purchased from the proceeds of his best selling novels and the movies they generated. He has just finished his latest book, one which he believes will be his best work yet. His agent has not even seen the book yet, but already the movie rights are in demand and Thad is summoned to New York to meet with his agent and a studio representative to tie things up.

 

Unknown to Thad, though, dark events are happening within his own home. Rachael is awakened by a mysterious old woman who lays claim to her soon-to-be-born child. Ashley carries on disturbing conversations with her invisible friend Zeke–a friend who has uncanny knowledge of coming events. Just before Thad leaves, they discover that their lawn and trees have died, suddenly, overnight. And along with the mysterious events facing his wife and daughter is a strange thing Thad has not dared to tell anyone: this latest novel of his almost seemed to write itself.

 

Barker moves the plot along by shifting perspective between Thad, Rachael, and Ashley, occasionally bringing in other characters as well. He also weaves in chapters from Thad’s unpublished novel, revealing the source of the darkness that is connecting his family to events of long ago and an evil that was thought vanquished a quarter of a millennium before. Like his later crime-novels, the technique of moving from character to character and including “written” work from one of the characters is done skillfully and keeps the reader on edge and guessing. Even as the basic core of the plot is revealed, Barker saves some surprises for the end. This is not a horror novel where the good guys clearly win and evil is conquered until next time. Neither, though, is there a clear victory for the forces of darkness. Rather, both sides come away damaged and plenty of room is left for further creepiness to come.

 

I do not often choose to read horror novels, but I made an exception because the author is visiting my hometown of State College, PA, soon. (November 13th, at Schlow Library.) I have plenty of respect for the genre. Maybe too much respect: they tend to creep me out. If you enjoy horror, you will love Forsaken. It is well-written, full of twists and turns and darkness, and the ending will leave you breathless. Witches and monsters and things that go bump in the night fill this novel. I only hope they don’t fill my dreams tonight!

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Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker

Book Review: Orleans, Sherri L. Smith

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Science Fiction: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were only the beginning. Sea levels rose, hurricanes came with increasing force and frequency, and by the mid-2020s New Orleans and most of the south had been abandoned. Then came the plague, Delta Fever, which forced the remainder of the United States to build a wall enforcing the quarantine of the south. Within a generation New Orleans was gone, and what was left, Orleans, was violent, disease-ridden, and divided by gangs of angry, desperate, often bloodthirsty survivors. Into this lost world, a baby is born.

 

Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans tells the story of Fen de la Guerre, a teenaged survivor who is part of the O-positive tribe. Delta Fever follows different disease arcs based on a person’s blood-type. Type Os are the most resistant to the disease and suffer the least from its ravages. Fen was not born in the tribe but her blood-type has made her welcome, and she repays that generosity by serving as the protector and guard for the tribe’s leader. Lydia is very pregnant, but is still determined to lead her people into a peaceful alliance with the other type O tribe, the O-negatives. When their parlay is interrupted by a violent attack, though, Lydia goes into labor and dies giving birth. Fen is entrusted with guarding Lydia’s baby, and hopefully finding a better place for her to live.

 

Daniel Weaver is a scientist working on a cure for Delta Fever. He is close, but the engineered virus he has created not only kills the fever but also the host–the person–carrying it. Needing samples and data from affected areas which are still quarantined and off limits to everyone, Daniel dons protective gear (which he can wear for days on end) and sneaks into Orleans.

 

Fen and Daniel meet and soon develop an uneasy alliance with each other. Daniel realizes that he needs help to get the information and samples he needs, and Fen recognizes that Daniel gives the best hope for the baby to have a life outside of Orleans. Dangers mount as their journey progresses. It may no longer be part of a country, it may no longer have as many people as it did, but Orleans has no shortage of ways to kill you.

 

Orleans is very well written. Fen and Daniel are both compelling characters, and their journey together is revealing. Fen is the daughter of scientists committed to finding a cure for Delta Fever, scientists who gave their lives while seeking that goal. As such, she is a bit cynical of Daniel’s ambitions: seeking the cure killed her own parents, after all. Daniel is sincere in looking for a cure to the disease that killed his little brother, but he has no idea about the conditions in Orleans. Without Fen, he would have been killed soon after crossing the wall.

 

The world built by Sherri L. Smith is ugly, deadly, and brutal. This is a compliment to her writing. Flood waters have transformed New Orleans to a landscape where people can walk across grassy areas that can collapse under your feet because the grass is actually growing on the rotting roofs of abandoned houses. If you know the pattern, you can walk on water to a statue of Jesus–a statue standing in the middle of a lake where cars have been parked to form a walkway that is still invisible but safe to use during low tide. Orleans has been abandoned to tribalism and violence by the rest of the country, and the pressures of plague, climate, and anarchy make for a dangerous and imaginative world.

 

Smith is African American, writing about African American characters living in a landscape that is barely recognizable. Her Orleans reflects the impacts of a series of hurricanes, rising ocean levels, and a plague. The good news is that it is speculative fiction. The post-Katrina/Rita hurricanes listed in the book have not happened. Given the recent news from the UN climate report, though, perhaps that good news should be tempered by saying that it has not happened, yet.

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Book Review: Heroine Worship, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Fantasy: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Superheroines of color must represent. And Aveda Jupiter does. Having realized that she was more than a bit of a diva in Heroine Complex, she is determined to be new. Different. She is, after all, super. She can do this! She can be the superheroine that San Francisco needs. She can be the friend that her buddy and superheroine bff Evie Tanaka needs. She can move beyond her diva ways and be the person she wants to be. All she needs is for some demonic attack to come so that the new Aveda Jupiter can display her new character. That, and for her mother to leave her alone!

 

Sarah Kuhn has written a delightful sequel to her book Heroine Complex. Heroine Worship changes the narrator from Evie Tanaka to her best friend Aveda Jupiter, aka Annie Chang. Annie and Evie became inseparable in kindergarten, where they were the only two Asians in the class. Now superpowered adults, they are trying to figure out their new relationship where they are equals and partners in the business of saving the world. Annie/Aveda had been the center of the superheroine world with Evie as her faithful assistant. When Evie’s powers blossomed, a new relationship was needed–and Aveda needed to chill out. But she can do this. She’s super. She’s Asian. She’s in control.

 

I am not Asian American, but I married into that culture more than 30 years ago. Kuhn somehow manages to find every single stereotype of Asian Americans and weave them into her books while skewering them, mocking them, and deflating them. Annie/Aveda is a success–but the wrong kind of success. She is not a doctor, like her cousin Sophie, so she is a disappointment to her parents, especially her mother. (Or is she?) She is not quiet or demure or shy or retiring. She is flashy and flamboyant and likes clothes and enjoys the spotlight. I have been told by other white people that Asians were a lot of things–things that I knew from my own experience as the husband of an Asian American were ridiculous. Now, in print, an Asian American author is taking those same stereotypes and demonstrating how hilarious they are.

 

Good for her!!!!!!

 

Fortunately for Aveda, if not for San Francisco, there is need for superpowered assistance. And, fortunately for the mission of becoming the best friend possible, Evie gets engaged and asks Aveda to be her maid of honor. How Aveda handles the responsibilities of friendship, leadership, and kicking demonic ass makes for a delightful novel and makes this reviewer eager to see how his new favorite Asian superheroines continue to represent in the third of the series. Heroine Worship is a terrific, funny story that does not take itself too seriously, but for the reader is seriously fun!

Book Review: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Fiction: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Ava wants a child. Desperately. Achingly. Approaching her late 30s, married for many years to Henry, all she can think about is how much she wants to become a mother. Sylvia, Ava’s mother, misses her son Devon. Desperately, Achingly. In her 60s, separated from her children’s father, Don, all she can think about is how much she wants to connect with her absent son. These two women, both focused so intently on the children who are absent from their lives, are the central figures in Stephanie Powell Watts’s novel No One Is Coming to Save Us. And their stories, mother and daughter, inseparably woven together, make for a compelling and beautiful work filled with heartache and longing and compassion and love.

 

Ava should be happy. At least, that’s what her mother thinks. Married to a beautiful (looking) man, with an excellent job, living in the house where she grew up, she has everything she needs to be happy. But what she wants most is a child. Sylvia should mind her own business. At least, that’s what her daughter thinks. But Sylvia insists on interfering in the lives of other people, still coming to Ava’s house to clean (and meddle) and talking on the phone to Marcus, a young inmate who reminds Sylvia just how much she misses her son Devon. Sylvia manages to see Ava’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain–and Ava manages to see Sylvia’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain. Then, JJ returns.

 

JJ Ferguson. The boy who made it. JJ had been the orphaned foster child who lived nearby. He knew Devon, befriended (and loved) Ava, and adored Sylvia. He had been gone for years, made some money, and was now coming home. He built a large house on the top of the hill, bigger than the houses of the white folks, nicer than the houses of the white folks, the local boy who did well. And in coming home he is bringing the echoes of a lost past, the mists shrouding paths not taken, and the dreams of a future that may never come.

 

Watts tells the story of these women and the men in their lives: the beautiful but dissolute Henry, the cad Don, the absent Devon, the once absent and now present JJ. She reveals their sharp edges and their lost dreams, their failures and their ambitions, their longings and their realities. She neither judges nor exonerates. They are who they are, warts and flaws and lusts and longings and fears and joys. And as they rub against each other, often rubbing raw and leaving each other bruised and bloodied, they reveal the painful humanity that unites us all. These characters may be African Americans struggling to make financial ends meet, but their desires and depths are common to people of all ages and races and strata. Watts’s characters are both black and universal, both poor and universal, both coastal Carolinian and reflective of people from any place and any time.

 

And her language sings! Even in her descriptions of incidental characters, she uses words to paint frescoes. On a single page, two little girls are said to be taking “small bites that might register under a microscope. It was clear to anyone who had ever been a child that they hated everything on their plates.” Weren’t we all those little girls, once? I remember plates like that, and I’m a middle aged man! Later in that same paragraph, those girls’ father and grandmother are described. Their grandmother “spit out” their father “identical to her and slapped a big porn star-approved mustache on. Never have you seen two separate people more alike. Both happiness killers. If they came close to a flicker, a spark of happiness, they’d stamp it out quick before it spread.” I know I’ve met those same people. Most of us have. We just didn’t know the right words to describe them, until Stephanie Powell Watts did it for us.

 

No One Is Coming to Save Us is beautiful, with memorable characters who are as universal as they are unique, and with language that appeals to all the senses. Read it–and keep a tissue box handy.

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts