Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Science Fiction: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente

If Doug Adams and Keith Laumer and David Bowie and James Joyce somehow shared a night of passion with a word processor that produced a science fiction cum Eurovision tribute novel featuring the absurdity and satire and fun and glam and extraordinaryrunonsentencesandportmanteaus of those fathers but was actually written by a woman who makes it her own and amazing and wonderful and absolutely delightful then you would have Space Opera and you would have the talented Catherynne M. Valente and you would have a book that reminds you of some terrific things while being unlike anything else. (This rather intentionally long sentence is in tribute to the authors mentioned above.)

 

A recurring theme through the book is that “Life is beautiful…and Life is stupid.” Proof of concept: Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros is a three-person band which had an unexpected hit, did a few tours, made a brief splash, then disappeared into what was undoubtedly well-deserved anonymity and obscurity. Until the day when everyone on earth simultaneously meets a representative from the galaxy, shaped rather incongruously like the plastic flamingos filled with liquid that bob up and down as the liquid flows from head to…other side.

 

Using a technology that allows it to appear to everyone on earth simultaneously (which saves so much time compared to trying to explain it over and over again), the representative gives Earth the good news: the other sentient races in the universe have recognized humans as being potentially sentient and are willing to give them a chance to prove themselves. The bad news: if Earth fails to prove itself, humanity will be destroyed. However, the rest of the universe will check in every 50,000 years or so to see whether another species has arisen to accept the challenge, so although it may be bad news for humans the planet as a whole might see this as simply a practice run.

 

To prove sentience, a species must participate in an interspecies singing contest and not finish last. They don’t have to win it. That would be an unfair amount of pressure for a new species, after all! But if they finish last, well, Simon Cowell will be the least of their worries. Or maybe the last of their worries. The other good news, though, is that the representative has helpfully identified several musicians and bands that would likely do well in the competition. The other bad news, though, is that the only one of them still living is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. And perhaps the worst news is that although their lead singer and their chief instrumentalist are both still alive (though no longer speaking to one another), the heart of the band was killed in a car accident. Her death marked the end of the band, the end of their careers, the end of their friendship, the end of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros.

 

Like the heroes they are, however, the two remaining band members step up and…oh, who are we kidding? Earth doesn’t want them to be the representatives. They don’t particularly want to go, nor think they can get the job done. But you can tell from the set up, those concerns are irrelevant to the plot. Off they go to save the world. And all they, and Earth, and we the gentle readers can do is hang on and enjoy every white-knuckled farcical moment of this hilarious novel.

 

Although the author acknowledges her debt to Douglas Adams, Space Opera reminded me more of the adventures of Jame Retief by author Keith Laumer. (That may be more do to my being American and to my age–Laumer was one of the first sci-fi authors I read as a child and certainly one of the first satirical authors I read.) Regardless, Valente’s book deserves a place of honor on that same shelf. She is witty, brilliant, outrageous, and piercing. She completely sells the possibility that a Eurovision-style competition between races is the appropriate way to determine sentience. Should that indeed prove true, we are probably doomed. But it will be a great show.

 

If you are looking for a realistic-sounding serious look at future earth, this may not be the right novel for you. If you are looking for a whimsical, farcical, sarcastic, satirical joy ride filled with pop culture references and some of the most creative writing you will see in a long time, the Space Opera is just the ticket. What it may lack in hard science it more than makes up for with hard rock and sheer fun.

Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente

 

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Rachel Chu & Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Rachel Chu & Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

 

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Book Series Review: Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy:

Crazy Rich Asians

China Rich Girlfriend

Rich People Problems

August 2018 welcomed the first major Hollywood film set in modern times staring a predominately Asian cast since Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club in 1993. Crazy Rich Asians, like Joy Luck Club, was a book before it was a movie.

Rachel Chu, overworked NYU economics professor, needs a restful vacation. What she gets, when she agrees to accompany her boyfriend to the wedding of a family friend in Singapore, is an out of control cultural explosion the size of the Ring of Fire.

While the movie focuses mainly on the love story between Rachel Chu and her boyfriend Nick Young, Crazy Rich Asians, the book digs deeply into the broader cast of characters that Rachel meets when she encounters all three branches of Nick’s extended family. There is family tree included as part of the opening pages in each of the trilogy’s books to help readers keep track of the complicated relationship ties. Besides dealing with the ins and outs of flamboyant and dramatic family connections, Crazy Rich Asians is a satire. A sharp, cutting, hilarious satire.

The humor of Kevin Kwan cuts like a sword through every stereotype — economic, racial, social class, immigrant status, nationality, religion, and educational level.  Sometimes Kwan’s strikes are bold and sweeping, as shown in the opening scene, when the crazy rich wealth of the family in a surprise move slaps down the prejudice of an upscale hotel official. Other times, the satire is a pin prick poke so subtle you can miss it, such as a single descriptive sentence differentiating between Filipino and mainland Chinese servants embedded in a personal reflection.  No personal paradigm is left untouched; no stereotype is left unquestioned.

In the Crazy Rich Asians series, character growth or stagnation occurs when a character is faced with a plot point that challenges her or his point of view. The satire is strong, yet the humor is the draw to pushes the reader to face each event with Rachel. The barbs, banter, and dialog are wickedly witty. The over the top scenes are filled with exuberance and luxury that makes you want to alternate between hugging or slapping characters. Crazy Rich Asians is a fun read.

Recipes

With all of the Crazy Rich Asians that Rachel needs to deal with when she visits the home of Nick Young, she needs some alone time just roaming the streets of Singapore’s markets enjoying some bubble tea and a sweet rice treat. For Rachel, here’s an indulgent iced tea drink and a snack to ground her before the next confrontation with Nick’s family.

Bubble Tea

Bubble tea is a fun fancy ice tea with dozens of variations.

In its simplest form add approximately 1/4 cup of large tapioca balls to your favorite ice tea with a splash of milk and sip through an extra wide straw. For a first time experiment try a green tea with crushed ice mixed with sweetened condensed milk; other tasty options are iced chai tea with coconut milk or thai tea with half & half.

Tapioca balls – for every 1/4 cup tapioca balls boil with 2 cups of water for 15 minutes, then let stand for an additional 15 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold running water; then use immediately or store in the refrigerator in a sealed container covered with a simple syrup (1 cup sugar boiled with 1 cup water till dissolved)

Sticky Sweet Rice — Binko, a Filipino version

This tasty rice cake snack has the consistency of a chewy gelatin block or gummy candy.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prep a 8 x 8 inch glass baking dish with pan release spray or oil

Rice cake

  • 2 cups sticky sweet rice or gelatinous rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 3/4 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups canned coconut milk

Topping

  • 1/2 cup canned coconut milk
  • 2 TBS brown sugar

Mix the ingredients together in a medium sized pot (the rice will more than double in volume). Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for approximately 20-25 minutes. (Will be the consistency of a thick risotto or porridge). Spread rice in to the baking dish and pour topping over rice. Bake for approximately 60 minutes till topping has caramelized. Cool to room temperature before cutting into squares.

 

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Recipe & Review: Teatime with Rachel Chu & Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

Book Review: The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Book Review: The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Fiction: The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Will Kendall loved God so much that he traveled to Beijing as a high schooler to hand out flyers inviting the Chinese to Jesus. He then went to Bible college. Something happened to his faith, though, and he left Bible college to attend a secular university on the east coast. There he meets and falls in love with Phoebe Lin, a Korean-American girl who is the life of every party but carries with her a dark secret. She was driving when her car went out of its lane and was crushed by a truck. Her mother, the only passenger in the car, was killed in the accident. This darkness within Phoebe has her searching for answers, for God, and she finds comfort and meaning in the embrace of Jejah, a small church/cult led by charismatic leader John Leal. Leal, himself half-Korean, claimed to have spent time as a missionary in China and as a prisoner for his faith in North Korea. As her need for redemption and meaning grows, her ties to Leal and to Jejah also grow–and her relationship to Will becomes both complicated and toxic to both. Without giving too much away, that is the plot direction of The Incendiaries, a 2018 novel by R.O. Kwon.

 

Kwon is herself a Korean-American, and like Will she also had a passionate relationship with faith when she was a young adult. Like Will, she lost her faith after a few intense years. It seems likely that this part of her life informs the vivid and powerful descriptions she gives of faith and life committed to the church. Her descriptions of the inner life, the struggles and the surrender and the excitement and the angst, all ring true. Particularly haunting are the descriptions of the inner life after faith has left, the “God-shaped hole” and the longing to rekindle a flame that no longer can access the fuel that once seemed inexhaustible.

 

Much of the book reflects Will’s perspective, though the perspective shifts throughout from Will to Phoebe to John Leal. Each of these narrators is flawed and damaged, and each has a story to tell that rings true to him/herself but not necessarily to each other or to the reader. John tells of the time in the gulag when he tried to save a pregnant woman who had been beaten and was losing both her baby and her life–or did he try to help a pregnant woman abort her baby and the failure resulted in both of their deaths–or was it something else entirely? Or was he even in the gulag? Not every question is answered or answerable, and just because one character believes it to be true or even “proves” that it is true does not mean that we as the readers should accept their word as, well, gospel.

 

Readers should be aware that there are potential triggers for sexual assault and rape. At least two scenes within the book are quite disturbing, though not particularly detailed or graphic. Still, readers, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, should proceed with caution. There are also strong passages dealing with religion and religious experience, abortion, torture, and terrorism. This book packs a lot into its relatively few pages for a novel.

 

Kwon’s characters are brilliant and the plot is tight. The Incendiaries is a powerful book that delves deeply into a number of sensitive subjects. For those who struggle to understand people of profound and sincere faith, and for those who cannot see the appeal of faith, Kwon does a masterful job of exploring some reasons why faith is so powerful and why people cling to it so desperately. She also does a masterful job of exploring how bereft one is when that faith becomes unsustainable. The Incendiaries absolutely does not show the ultimate outcome of passionate faith–but it does show some possible outcomes that we see far too often in our world, and neither condones nor entirely condemns any of her characters for their choices.

The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Book Review: The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Thriller: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

An Atlee Pine Thriller

 

Atlee Pine is an FBI agent. Resident Agent in the Shattered Rock office, serving a large swath of territory in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, she is actually the sole FBI agent in the region that includes part of the Grand Canyon. She is also a former competitive weight lifter having just missed the Athens Olympics, and the survivor of a childhood encounter with a killer, an encounter that her twin sister, Mercy, did not survive. Long Road to Mercy is a multilayered story about an agent whose past has shaped her present, and taught her some lessons she will need to use if she is to see her future.

 

Being the sole FBI agent means you get called in for a number of different things. Nothing could have prepared her for the crime that takes her to the Grand Canyon. There she is shown the body of…a mule. Not the drug smuggling kind, but the actual horse-donkey hybrid used as pack and transport animals in the canyon. Someone has killed a mule and carved the letters “J” and “K” into its side. A hiker is missing also, which is bad and may be related, but much less unusual.

 

Still, it would not be a Baldacci thriller if the action stopped with a dead animal. Even a dead mule.

 

Pine’s search for the missing hiker, the reason for the mule’s death, and the reason why upper echelons within her own agency and other federal agencies want this case to go away lead her across the country to Washington, D.C., and back again. Accompanied by her no-nonsense secretary, a grandmother who carries a gun and an attitude, Atlee pursues the truth despite the increasing danger to herself and the increasing awareness that some members of the government will stop at nothing to hush this up.

 

Baldacci has created a badass heroine in this novel. Pine knows how to use a gun, knows how to use her fists and her feet, and is as strong as most men. One thing I liked, though, is that her toughness is consistent with her character. There are times when she needs to be rescued–not because she is a woman, but because anyone in the situation would need a hand. Most of the time, though, she is the one charging in to save the day.

 

I enjoy the thriller genre, and Baldacci is one of my favorite authors. His stories have the action, the high level of intrigue from power players working behind the scenes, the unlikely hero (or in this case heroine) working against all odds to save the world, and just enough mystery to keep it interesting through the end. Baldacci knows we are in a time (2018) when the FBI is being publicly challenged and its agents under greater scrutiny than is usually the case, and much of that scrutiny is politically motivated. He uses these current realities in the plot, but also uses them to show that although FBI agents are human, they are also dedicated professionals whose love for country and love for the law has led them to take an often dangerous and thankless job.

 

Long Road to Mercy introduces a new protagonist to the Baldacci canon, and she is up to the task. Atlee Pine is a great character, the other characters in the book make a great team, and I hope she has many more adventures to come in pages of future books.

Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Book Review: Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Short Story Collection: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

I’m not sure I have ever used the word “luscious” to describe a book before. I probably would not use it often. I will use it here. Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City is luscious. Beautifully illustrated, rich, poetic and surreal, it is a visual and lyrical journey into a series of imaginary realms exploring imagined relationships between humans and animals, relationships that don’t actually exist. Some of them we can be grateful are entirely imaginary. Others, it might be nice if they were real. Either way, the paintings Tan pairs with each story or poem are gorgeous and give a visual dimension to the words that makes them even more vivid.

 

It will be impossible in this review to do justice to the Tales from the Inner City. It is worth buying just for the pictures. Tan is known for his graphic novels and children’s books, and won an Oscar for his short film The Lost Thing. Clearly he is comfortable with visual communication, but don’t think for a moment that the visuals detract from the words. If this were just a collection of short stories and poems it would be worth getting. The fact that Tales from the Inner City has both gorgeous and (again) luscious paintings illustrating creative, poetic, and surreal stories is almost unfair to other books.

 

Tales from the Inner City starts with a story about crocodiles living in a skyscraper. On the eighty-seventh floor. Most people do not know they are there, and the crocodiles themselves do not seem to know (or care) that they are in a skyscraper as opposed to a more traditional crocodilian location. Many of the stories follow this kind of strange, absurd premise. One of my favorite stories is of a family that goes fishing in the sky…and catches a moon fish. The painting illustrating this story is also on the dust jacket of the hardcover, a silhouette of a man holding a large silvery, glistening, light-filled fish with orange fins. Horses, unseen by adults but obvious to children, gallop across the skyline of a city. Pigeons live and raise their young in nests built in a flying bank. Owls wait with patients in hospital, assuring them of their constant care. These stories, some whimsical, some poignant, some eerie, some all of those together, tell of a world with magic and wilder than we usually imagine.

 

Most of the stories have just one painting illustrating them. An exception is his metaphor of wolves becoming dogs. More of a poem than a story, Tan writes,

One day I threw my stick at you.

You brought it back.

My hand touched your ear.

Your nose touched the back of my knee.

Then we were walking side by side

as if it had always been this way.

The poem follows the two, human and wolf/dog, together until they are separated by death. Death, though, is imagined as a road or path or river to cross…and the wolf/dog waits on the other side for their human to join them so they can walk together into the next adventure. Illustrating this is a series of paintings of different people and different dogs/wolves separated by different paths. The poses are the same, but everything else is different from one painting to the next. Then, finally, paintings reflect the reunion of the two as they walk together away from that place of separation. I know a lot of dog-lovers who would cry at this story.

 

Tales from the Inner City is a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book. Some will love the pictures, some will love the stories, but most will love the way the words give depth to the pictures and the way the pictures give life to the words. Shaun Tan has created something absolutely luscious.

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of SightMike Maden

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mark Maden

Fiction Series: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

Fans of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series know that the world Clancy created continues in a series of novels about Jack Ryan, Jr. Using his cover as a financial analyst, Jack and his colleagues at the Campus serve as an off-the-books intelligence agency for his father, President Jack Ryan. In this latest offering, Line of Sight, from a new author to the series, Jack is sent on a mission of a different sort. His mother, eye-surgeon Cathy Ryan, hears he is heading to central Europe. She asks her son to look up an old patient of hers, Aida Curic. Dr. Ryan had operated on the little girl twenty years earlier and wanted to know how she was doing.

 

Jack’s trip starts in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he has a financial consultation–and where he faces an attempt on his life by a beautiful hit woman. After successfully turning the tables on her, he flies to Sarajevo to look for Aida Curic. After several days unsuccessfully searching, Curic shows up on his doorstep, and the two of them quickly connect.

 

I do not believe in doing negative reviews, but I do have a couple of criticisms of this book. I am a red-blooded cis straight male, but wow! One character is described as a busty blond girl-next-door. Jack’s would-be assassin, or more accurately his first would-be assassin, is a beautiful woman who attempts seduction as her prelude to murder. When Aida Curic shows up on his doorstep, her curves are described in vivid detail–and in very short order Jack and she begin an affair. Given that both her Muslim faith and his Catholic faith are supposed to be central parts of their characters, and furthermore that Ryan is supposed to be a highly trained and disciplined operative who (we would think) is already on his guard after an attempt on his life, this seems more James Bond than Jack Ryan, Jr.

 

The other is probably more of a general criticism of the entire series, but it does specifically apply to this book. Recent novels in this series have been less overtly political–maybe because they were written during an era when Democrats were in the real White House. This book feels at times like a Republican campaign commercial. Granted, you don’t go into a Tom Clancy novel expecting subtlety or nuance in its politics, but the tone is much stronger in this offering, and I found it occasionally distracting.

 

Those criticisms aside, Maden checks the boxes for a Tom Clancy thriller. Multiple intractable foes, bringing both personal danger and global destabilization. The hero needing to use his spycraft, his brilliance, and his physicality to resolve the situation. Familiar names from the Campus bringing their skills to the party. (Though this book does spend much less time with other characters than other authors in the series have.) President Ryan and his cabinet being on-top-of-everything-in-amazing-fashion. These are expectations that fans of the series have, and Maden delivers.

 

Something else that Clancy fans have come to expect is detailed exploration of challenging subjects, whether that is the specs of a Russian sub or the destructive capability of a jumbo jet crashing into a government building. Maden writes with impressive sensitivity and detail about the aftermath and political consequences of the Balkan wars. NATO, America, and Western Europe may not have had any good options during those wars, but the failure to act and the refusal to protect civilians led to the worst atrocities and genocide seen on the continent since World War II, and the scars are still fresh in the region.

 

Tom Clancy Line of Sight is not a perfect novel, but it is a worthy continuation of a series that has entertained generations of readers since the 1980s. I look forward to seeing how the Ryans and the Campus next save the world–though Jack may want to ask a relative to set him up with dates in future books!

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mark Maden

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Consuming FireJohn Scalzi

The Interdependency, Book 2

Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Fiction: Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Emperox Grayland II is in deep. Most believe she is in over her head. She is the unexpected, unprepared ruler of the Interdependency, a series of worlds held together by their mutual need for each other and their connection through the “flow,” a poorly understood current outside the bounds of normal space which allows travel between select points in normal space. Humans cannot control the flow. They can access it in certain areas, then exit back out from it in other areas, but they are utterly dependent on the direction and current of the flow itself to get from one system to another.

 

But the flow is changing. Places that were connected to each other are losing that connection. Few know this, fewer accept that it’s happening, and fewer still believe the Emperox’s latest pronouncement: she has had a vision of the flow ending. Beset by enemies, facing inevitable environmental catastrophe, ill-prepared for the throne (she became Emperox because of the untimely death of her older brother who was the heir), and now of questionable sanity, it seems only a matter of time before her accidental ascendancy comes to an abrupt and likely terminal end. The question is whether humanity itself will be snuffed out in the consuming fire.

 

In The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi continues the story begun in The Collapsing Empire. We pick up the threads of Emperox Grayland II; of Lord Marce Claremont, the scientist who brought predictions of the flow’s end to the Emperox; of Lady Kiva Lagos, unlikely ally to the Emperox who loves money and sex with near equal fervor; and of Lady Nadashe Nohamapetan, in jail for a failed assassination attempt but still with cards to play in the game for power and control of the Interdependency. Scalzi weaves these threads together against a backdrop of impending environmental doom. Only one planet in the entire empire is self sustaining. All of the others were settled because of their locations near access points to the flow. None of them are naturally inhabitable. They all rely on each other for something: food, air, water. When the flow is no longer there, they will continue for awhile. But the end will come, sooner rather than later, and everyone will die.

 

Scalzi wrote The Consuming Fire in a two-week burst in June, 2018. (He does NOT recommend this as a model for writing a novel!) Given the timing, during a US election year and in the middle of political battles over climate change, it is easy to see parallels between real life and this book. But don’t think this is simply a parable for modern readers. The characters in Scalzi’s works are involved and complex. The universe he has created for them may face environmental challenges, but these are also people who forced hostile planets and empty space to make room for them. The Interdependency has involved and interconnected political, social, economic, and religious systems, and their differences from any current situation are as significant as any similarities we may see.

 

It may be a couple of years before the next book in this series is published. Considering that the author has multiple active series going at this time, he should be able to keep himself busy until then. I look forward to returning to the Interdependency, though. The Consuming Fire is full of the typical Scalzi wit and irreverence, and is a page-turning space opera that hurtles toward an exciting and climactic finish. If the next installment is as enjoyable as the first two have been, it will be worth the wait.

 

Even if it takes him three weeks to write it!

Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Consuming FireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Book 3 of the Heroine Complex series

 

Bea Tanaka is not just the little sister of superheroine Evie Tanaka. She has super powers of her own: the ability to project emotions onto others and the ability to channel intense anger into a “sonic scream” (or “canary cry,” depending on your taste in comics) which can totally destroy most demon-possessed objects that are attacking. So it’s way past time for Aveda Jupiter and Evie to promote her to full-fledged superheroine and stop treating her like a child. In fact, she has put together a posterboard presentation to convince them of this very thing. To make the point even more compelling, she has used glitter. Lots. Of. Glitter. She even has her own superheroine costume, complete with cape. They totally have to promote her!

 

Heroine’s Journey is the third book of the Heroine Complex series. Like the first two, it is smart, breezy, and snarky. Told in the first person, this time by the aforementioned Bea Tanaka, it follows the ongoing story of our Asian-American superheroines as they protect San Francisco from the threats posed by demons crossing over through portals from another dimension. Bea is now 22, working part-time at a bookstore and hanging out with best friends Leah and Sam. She still lives at the house which serves as HQ for the superheroines Aveda and Evie, but tensions are high between the sisters. Bea knows she is ready to step up. Evie is not so sure. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Demons attack, and Bea is able to step in and make a difference.

 

And, Evie and Bea’s dad returns after 10 years away with virtually no contact.

 

Kuhn really does an amazing job of balancing humor and pathos. Bea’s feelings for her father and her late mother are powerful. Her longing and sorrow drive the character to make some questionable decisions, including hurting people who love her. But Kuhn also shows Bea is usually self-aware, knowing that she is making poor decisions and (usually) able to pull herself back from the brink. She is passionate and proud and simultaneously vulnerable and scared.

 

The characters are the reason to read these books. The plots are cute and funny: demonically possessed rocks and spider-rides from carnivals and killer pens attacking and porcelain unicorns coming to life. (Can anything really surpass the killer demon-possessed cupcakes from the first book in the series? That may be unbeatable.) But Kuhn’s magic is in her characters. I literally cried during one scene near the end when Bea and Evie are having a heart-to-heart. Kuhn writes characters that are truly super. Not just in their fantastic abilities: telekinesis, fire, hair-tentacles, empathic projection, etc. They are super in their feelings, their relationships, their passion, their sexuality, their friendships.

 

Balancing feelings for sisters and lovers and friends and mothers and fathers and enemies is hard in real life. It is seldom done effectively in literature. Kuhn’s characters are transcendent in the power of their emotions. Kuhn is not afraid of conflict or lust or even confusion. Emotions don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to follow a logical progression. Humans, especially those in their early 20s, are allowed to have strong and confusing and sometimes paradoxical reactions to other people. They can and do make mistakes and hurt people and manage to apologize and change and heal those wounds. Seeing it happen on the page makes you really care about these characters.

 

If the Heroine Complex stories are finished, then Heroine’s Journey is an outstanding conclusion. It did not feel like a conclusion, though, and I hope it is not. I feel like there are more stories from these characters, and Sarah Kuhn is the perfect storyteller for them. Read them for the fun, read them for the feels, but read them knowing that in the end you will care more than you thought you would going in.

 

See our reviews of the other stories in this trilogy, Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Book Review: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Fiction: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng

I went into Little Fires Everywhere blind. I had read no reviews. I had seen no summaries. I knew it was highly regarded: book of the year according to several sources, NY Times bestseller. Nothing, though, could have prepared me for just how good this story is.

 

The Richardsons are a model suburban family living in an idyllic community, Shaker Heights, OH, an actual suburb of Cleveland. They have four children who are active in high school sports, drama, and music. And as the book opens, they are coming to grips with the fact that their house is burning down, and the likely arsonist is youngest daughter, Izzy.

 

Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, rent their house from the Richardsons. Mia is an artist, selling enough just to get by with help from part-time jobs, but not likely to become famous. She and Pearl have lived all over the country, moving as Mia’s artistic muse calls. Pearl is a student in high school with the Richardson children, and they are hoping to stay put for a few years so Pearl can have a normal high school life.

 

It’s easy enough to summarize the main plot threads. The families become more and more interconnected, as all of the Richardsons are drawn to one or both of the Warrens. Moody and Pearl become best friends. Trip and Pearl start sleeping together. Mrs. Richardson hires Mia to do some housekeeping. Lexie befriends Pearl and calls on her during a time of personal crisis. Izzy finds in Mia the love and support she cannot get from her own mother. As these ties grow stronger, Mrs. Richardson’s lifelong friend tries to adopt a Chinese-American baby who had been abandoned at a fire station. The baby’s birth mother wants to get her back. And this drama, played out in the courts, drives a wedge through the relationships.

 

There’s more. So much more. But frankly, any summary of the plot leaves so much out that it is unfair to the book and to the author. Celeste Ng has written a story about motherhood, about adolescence, about decisions that you carry with you for your entire life, and has written it beautifully and memorably. Her descriptions of Shaker Heights make it part of the book, another character that plays its own role in the drama. Ng grew up in the real Shaker Heights, OH, and you can tell from the details in this book that it was both a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to leave.

 

The mothers in the book are all very, very different. Elena Richardson plays by the rules. She grew up in Shaker Heights. She has some liberal views on things, but cannot abide by chaos or entropy. So when her friend runs into trouble with her adoption, that is unfair. Her friend played by the rules. Mia Warren makes up her own rules. Itinerant for most of her adult life, she raised her daughter as a free spirit. When her friend, Bebe Chow, pulls her life together and wants to reclaim the baby she gave up in a moment of desperation, Mia helps. Pearl is drawn to the stability and predictability of the Richardson household, and sees aspects in Elena that she has never seen in her own mother. Izzy is drawn to the freedom and acceptance of Mia, so different from the judgment she feels by being a less-than-perfect Richardson.

 

Little Fires Everywhere describes the destruction of the Richardson’s home. Gasoline poured on each bed, lit, came together in a conflagration. It also describes the process of starting over from scratch. No one thing destroys a relationship or leads to a life-altering change. It is a bunch of small things, seemingly insignificant on their own, that add up to a prairie fire. Celeste Ng. has written a fantastic book that shows these fires being set in the lives of two suburban families. Like most fires, this one is dangerous and beautiful to watch.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Book Review: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng

 

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Fiction: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has won many literary awards, including the Newberry, Carnegie, Hugo, and Nebula. He is known for his comics, his novels, his screenplays, and his short fiction. When it comes to putting pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard), he does it all well. Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories, with a few poems thrown in as well, that demonstrates the breadth and power of a master at work.

 

Gaiman warns in the introduction that “There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.” His work is often strange and disturbing, and these short stories contain several that are both. Like the author himself says, “I wondered…whether, one day, people would put a trigger warning on my fiction. I wondered whether or not they would be justified in doing it. And then I decided to do it first.”

 

Fans of other works by Gaiman will find familiar characters and settings in some of the stories. Black Dog features Baldur “Shadow” Moon, a character from his novel American Gods. Gaiman won a Hugo for his Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife;” in Nothing O’Clock, Gaiman returns to the Doctor, the TARDIS, and Amy Pond. Although not traditionally associated with Gaiman, The Case of Death and Honey tells of an elderly Sherlock Holmes nearing the end of his life…or is he?

 

Gaiman’s stories travel the lines between fantasy and horror, science fiction and possibly some other genre uniquely his own. They are dark and sometimes macabre, not in an overtly bloody or gruesome way but in the psychological way where the road to your own fears is marked and your imagination takes you down the paths that make you shudder. Gaiman warns us in the title that he is going for triggers. Believe him.

 

An example. Click-Clack the Rattlebag starts so gently. A man visiting his girlfriend meets her younger brother. The younger brother wants him to tuck him in and tell him a story. I read this over Thanksgiving, spending time with my wonderful granddaughters. They like grandpa to read them stories. I like to read them stories. I did not read this one to them–I know that Neil Gaiman is not the go-to source for bedtime stories for toddlers. This story started so gently, so sweetly. A young man, bonding with his girlfriend’s family. Except, that is not what the story is about. The hints are there, near the beginning. Even if I did not know about Neil Gaiman’s work, even if it were not in the middle of a collection called Trigger Warning, the indicators could almost have been in all-caps: THIS STORY IS GOING TO GO SIDEWAYS AND CREEP YOU OUT! I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say that later in the evening when my older granddaughter wanted me to read a story to her, I thought twice about it!

 

(Of course, then I went ahead and read the story–Gaiman will not stand between me and my granddaughters!)

 

This may not be the right book for every reader. For those who love fantasy, horror, and great writing, it is an excellent choice. One thing I love about short story collections is they can be read in small pieces. One story now, another tonight, pick it up later in the week. Skip around, come back to it later. It’s worth the time, and the goosebumps.

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman