I Hope You Get This Message (CBR12 #34)

I Hope You Get This Message

My Cannonball Bingo tradition is to sit down with the square descriptions and plan out options for what books to read for each category. I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi could qualify for several squares (this is her debut published October 2019, we read it for CBR The Future is Queer Book Club) but I’m using it for UnCannon. The ‘Canon’ is often made up of books written by old, white men and the goal of this square is to read as far from the stereotypical version as possible and this book does just that. Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani-American Muslim writer who is writing specifically for the YA audience – one that is often overlooked by the arbiters of taste. I Hope You Get This Message is also focused on queer relationships, mental health struggles, and income inequalities told from the all too real voices of its young cast, UnCannon indeed.

What is the book about? Oh, nothing too important, just what happens when you’re trying to survive your teenage years and the Earth might end in seven days. Earth has been contacted by a planet named Alma, the world is abuzz with rumors that the alien entity is giving mankind only few days to live before they hit the kill switch on civilization. For Jesse Hewitt nothing has ever felt permanent: not the guys he hooks up with, not the jobs his mom works so hard to hold down, so what does it matter if it all ends now? But what can he do if it doesn’t all end? Cate Collins is desperate to use this time to do one more thing for her schizophrenic mother, to find the father she’s never met. Adeem Khan has always found coding and computer programming easy, but not forgiveness. He can’t seem to forgive his sister for leaving, even though it’s his last chance, but he wants more than anything for her to forgive him for his silence when she dared to speak her truth. With only seven days to face their truths and right their wrongs, Jesse, Cate, and Adeem’s paths collide even as their worlds are pulled apart.

In all honesty the world of I Hope You Get This Message is not a very hopeful future, before Alma accidentally sends its death message, and in fact it is in most ways the future that we are living in now. The book however is about carving out a little piece of hope when everything feels hopeless. Rishi is playing around with survival and redemption, with love and feeling like you can accept it when you don’t feel like you deserve it.  As the POV shifts between the three leads: Jesse, Cate, and Adeem we are deeply entrench in the character-driven as opposed to the plot-driven (although it has some forward movement too), we are here for the interior journeys of these characters as they work towards their own goals in the lead up to the possible end of the world. And as the reader, we want them to discover more beyond their initial goals, because that’s what we want for ourselves.

Upright Women Wanted (CBR#33)

Upright Women Wanted

Upright Women Wanted was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020. This is my first Sarah Gailey, I know them from Twitter and I’ve clocked reviews of their books. But the description of Upright Women Wanted caught my attention and plunked itself on my to read list. Alas, I wanted to love this book but instead I just really liked it. Its good, its comfortably three stars good but the idea and themes deserve four. Unfortunately the beginning confused me more than set the stage (although it does that too) and I spent most of my reading time playing catch-up.

Set in a near future American Southwest where extended wars have led to a general collapse in society and a return to a west familiar to Western movie enthusiasts (down to the vernacular), the book is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing. The book follows Esther who is a stowaway in the Librarians’ wagon. Esther is running from her father, an arranged marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend whom she was in love with, and that same friend’s execution for possession of resistance propaganda at the hands of her father.  

But the most important part of this book – the part that makes me wish I could comfortably rate it four stars – is the way in which Esther is coming to terms with her queerness, without even having the words to describe it. She has been taught her very being is wrong, damnable, and that she is alone. Through the course of the book she starts to come to understand that the world is populated with people of every stripe, and the Librarians that she has run away with are much less State approved than she initially thought. By the end, Esther has found a home, and a purpose, and I was glad to have read it.

Damnation Island (CBR12 #32)

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York

Damnation Island was a book I pulled off my shelves when quarantining and social distancing began back in March. I had read Ten Days a Madwoman in February and I decided an adult non-fiction trip to Blackwell Island was needed to balance and expand the accounting in Noyes’s book. I was right, there is much important history here – particularly pertinent to our times as we reexamine and revisit the functioning of corrections, and how we as a society care for those around us. Often as I read I was shaking my head – both at how far we’ve come and how much farther there is to go before we can be said to be treating our fellows humanely, and with care.  

From Goodreads: “On a two-mile stretch of land in New York’s East River, a 19th-century horror story was unfolding. Today we call it Roosevelt Island. Then, it was Blackwell’s, site of a lunatic asylum, two prisons, an almshouse, and a number of hospitals. Conceived as the most modern, humane incarceration facility the world ever seen, Blackwell’s Island quickly became, in the words of a visiting Charles Dickens, ‘a lounging, listless madhouse.’ In the first contemporary investigative account of Blackwell’s, Stacy Horn tells this chilling narrative through the gripping voices of the island’s inhabitants, as well as the period’s officials, reformers, and journalists, including the celebrated Nellie Bly. Digging through city records, newspaper articles, and archival reports, Horn brings this forgotten history alive: there was terrible overcrowding; prisoners were enlisted to care for the insane; punishment was harsh and unfair; and treatment was nonexistent. Throughout the book, we return to the extraordinary Reverend William Glenney French as he ministers to Blackwell’s residents, battles the bureaucratic mazes of the Department of Correction and a corrupt City Hall, testifies at salacious trials, and in his diary wonders about man’s inhumanity to man.” 

On the whole, this is a good book. Horn does an impeccable job researching her topic – the Source Notes at the back of the book could make a course curriculum all their own. Damnation Island tells its story through the people who lived and worked and suffered on Blackwell’s in the 19th century and Horn is a talented writer in bringing these real people to life on the page. Unfortunately, the book was also slow. Horn is telling us so much in the narrative that it takes awhile to process, to completely follow what is on the page. Structurally all her decisions work, following a few main characters throughout and introducing specific ones to tell specific tales, breaking the history of the Island up by the different facilities, but it still remains a bit flat, at times a bit clinical.

But, this is still a good important book, but be prepared to have to work at it a bit.

Building an Emergency Plan (CBR12 #31)

This is a book I read specifically because of our current pandemic. In my job I am responsible for much of the physical care of our historic collections and buildings and the response to COVID-19 is just as much an emergency/disaster response as any of the other things that make their ways into our plans. As I make updates to our Emergency Procedures and our Collections Care Policy and Procedures to reflect long term closures as well as reviewing our Disaster Plans, I began reading as many white papers and other scholarship as I could, as well as watching nearly two dozen webinars on this and surrounding subjects (there’s a reason I haven’t gotten much other reading done).

It should also be noted right off the top that this is *not* a book for the vast, vast majority of people. As it is, Building an Emergency Plan: A Guide for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions by Valerie Dorge isn’t even meant to be read in its entirety by most people who read it. It is, really, a collection of instructional chapters for different people in a response team – each person in charge of a section of the plan has their own chapter and are instructed to skip most of the others.

And, mostly that works. The beginning section has the “for everyone” information, the basic components of what makes up emergency planning and response. This is a foundational text in the field, and that means that it is twenty years old this year, and a lot of the examples and research are older, but the core concepts remain the same even if some of our tools have changed. In a book like this I think the important question is did I get what I needed? Do I feel more informed? I am able to answer yes to both questions and that is enough.  

The Disasters (CBR12 #30)

The Disasters by M.K. England

My reading intake has dropped off considerably since May, but book club kept me with my hand in the game so to speak, because I really enjoyed my first choice, The Disasters by M.K. England. This book ended up on our selection list because I saw an interesting write-up about it and thought hey, I want to read that book. Sometimes it pays to be the Book Club Maven. (I also read I Hope You Get This Message, I had previously read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I loved, and while I’m glad so many chose to read An Unkindness of Ghosts I actually put it on the list because I didn’t want to read it – not everyone likes what I like.)

The Disasters is a road trip story – a favorite trope. Our narrator, hotshot pilot Nax Hall, has a history of making poor life choices and getting into trouble with authority figures so it is not exactly a surprise when he’s kicked out of Ellis Station Academy in less than twenty-four hours. He’s dejected that his life’s goal of getting out to the space colonies as a pilot is gone, but he’s not surprised per se. Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth (what happens to washouts) is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy before Nax and three others leave. They manage to escape, but they are also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. They are now on the run and framed for atrocities they didn’t commit, and Nax and his fellow failures execute a dangerous heist to spread the truth about what happened at the Academy – and stop an even larger disaster from happening. In order to do that they will spend four days traveling between worlds on the run and in hiding and picking up some help along the way.

We’re with Nax through the entirety of this quick 350 page work, and the story isn’t the same in the hands of another lead. England draws her characters so well that any of the others could have been their lead, but there’s something about Nax, how he implicitly exists as the cross-points of defining characteristics, that adds some needed depth to the themes England is poking at. Speculative fiction is built on tales of exploration, survival, ingenuity, exceptionality, and redemption, and this book is not without those things. The crew of The Kick are each exceptional in their own arena and ingenious to boot, they are out to redeem themselves from their failure at the Academy, but also to ensure the survival of many, many people. The world they live in is the product of continued exploration, and the exploration continues in the background of the book.

I also unabashedly love a found family story, and this book also explores that trope. It’s probably because I grew up in a loving, mostly stable home and my parents were and are the kind of people who accept all comers. If you needed some family in your life, they were going to see that you got it. That is in fact how in his early 20s my oldest brother ended up in my family in the first place, but that’s not my story to tell. But the story of a the family of friends created under stress and duress in The Disasters hit all those notes for me, and I’m hoping it speaks to the warmth of both kinds of family (since our narrator Nax’s birth family are pretty great too) that are in the author’s life.

As to the future setting, the universe of The Disasters is a realistic, but hopeful, place. Progress has been made in the 150+ years between now and then, but its uneven and not quite what we might hope. Its also a future with bureaucracy and corruption, but in most places the structures of the new colonies focus on the things that people love, not the things that drive us crazy. All in all, I’m glad to have read this one, and hope you were too if you read it.

DisneyWar (CBR12 #29)

A few weeks ago I went bouncing through Disney+ looking for a documentary to watch (as I’ve mentioned before, my brain is really happy with non-fiction right now) and came across The Imagineering Story which is six episodes telling the (slightly biased*) story of the creatives behind the physical creation of the theme parks, and its link to the animation and other departments throughout Disney. I have a special place in my heart for all things Disney, but the Imagineers might be my favorite group – the thing I would have liked to do if my skills were more aligned with the artistic.

*it is a story about a Disney group on a Disney service produced by the granddaughter of one of Walt Disney’s most trusted inner circle, Ub Iwerks, so there’s an expected amount of bias. But it handles much of the contentious relationships accurately and steers away from being company propaganda. Do recommend.

By the back half of the documentary series the Imagineer story becomes linked with the Michael Eisner story, including his ouster in 2005. It was fascinating to se from the inside perspective, but it still was only from one section of the company – but I was reminded that I have a book on my shelf all about the Eisner years (1984-2005) at Disney which I figured would have a much broader look at the troubled years 1994-2004, which lead my to picking up the nearly 600 page DisneyWar by James B. Stewart.

Stewart was an author in the right place at the right time. He had an agreement to work on a book about Eisner and Disney before the main events that bring about the end of Eisner’s time with Disney take place – putting his in a position of having access to the people and events from a near insider perspective. He is also a journalist with a law and financial background, which is the perfect set of knowledge banks to take on the layers of this story. Stewart gets to the bottom of mysteries that enveloped Disney for years: What really caused the rupture with studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg leading to his departure from Disney and creation of DreamWorks? What caused the break between Eisner and Pixar chairman Steve Jobs that caused Jobs to announce Pixar would not work with Disney again until Eisner was gone? Why did Eisner so mistrust Roy Disney that he assigned Disney company executives to spy on him? How did Eisner control the Disney board for so long? How did Bob Iger become the heir apparent?

This book is incredibly dense – it took me over a week to get through because there are so many people doing so many things and eventually there are so many components of the company that it all becomes too much to track. But it is also all very interesting to a certain set of people – me. The book has weaknesses, an overreliance on the reader’s memory of the literally hundreds of people involved, some sloppy copyediting that allowed references to the wrong year or occasionally the wrong person to sneak through. Also, it was published in 2005 when Miramax belonged under the Disney corporate umbrella and the Weinstein brothers were still employed there, so it was very jarring to see Harvey Weinstein presented in a mostly positive light given what we know now about his personal behavior in those years.

Would I recommend this one? Only if you are extremely interested in this era of Disney history or the politics of an enormous corporation. Otherwise, you can find the gist of the story elsewhere.

Lady Killers (CBR12 #28)

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History

Here in the time of Covid Quarantine I find myself struggling to focus on reading most books. I need something that I can bounce in and out of and apparently books about serial killers are my jam right now. Hot on the heels I picked up Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer which I received as a Christmas gift (I am also officially out of dead tree format library books). I had been excited to read it when I received it and had pulled it into my “possible things to read during quarantine” pile that I’ve got going next to my reading chair.

When I reviewed my last book, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, I mentioned that it was not pop history even though it tried to hide out amongst its likes, probably to find a wider audience. This book definitely is pop history – and I’m not complaining. There have been women serial killers all along, and while the vast, vast majority covered in Lady Killers use the expected poison to get the job done, it’s important to look at how these stories are told, in much the same way the myth of all the women killed by Jack the Ripper were prostitutes. This book is well-researched and has end notes tracking the sources used, as well as copious thanks in the author’s note about the researchers who helped her gather the information presented in the book. Its in the tone that this one shines in the pop history department – Telfer isn’t afraid of a little gallows humor in her discussion, but it doesn’t cheapen the content.

Telfer attempted to tell a wide range of stories, from the 13th century to the 1950s and across several cultures. She also points out the places where she was limited in trying to discuss two additional female serial killers of color – this is more than just a quick trip through 19th and 20th century Europe. Telfer is much more interested in telling the stories of shared humanity, of how the instincts and behaviors on display in the various serial killers and those they interact with – victims and not – are shared by all of us although the particular mix needed to push each of these women to murder is thankfully missing from the vast majority of lives.

The Five (CBR12 #27)

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

When I think back to my experiences as an undergrad history major I was often one of very few, if not the only, women in the room. Each course was the same; walk in, pick a position near the front of the room, but off to the side so as to not be considered aggressive but not be lost in the sea of testosterone, and hunker down to have to talk over those who would talk over you. I eventually got to a place of confidence to push back against the mansplainers, the re-staters, and all the other blowhards I ran across. I also had the benefit as a night student of having the same professors multiple times who got to know me and would give me the opportunity to smack down the worst offenders and defend my intellectual territory.

This walk down memory lane of the early 2000s is not navel-gazing, its to show you how I found a kindred spirit on the pages of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper in its author Hallie Rubenhold. Rubenhold spends three hundred pages absolutely thrashing the established, predominantly male, scholarship on Jack the Ripper and his victims and it is a wonder to behold.

“Today there is only one reason why we would continue to embrace the belief that Jack the Ripper was a killer of prostitutes: because it supports an industry that has grown, in part, out of this mythology.”

(Rubenhold, 292)

In this exquisitely researched work (its for sure an academic history monograph trying to hide as pop-history) Rubenhold takes the reader through the lives of the five women from birth to death. In the stories of these five women we find the social history of London in the second half of the nineteenth century – there were several forces at work that placed these women in Whitechapel in the fall of 1888 and in the path of a murderer. Rubenhold slowly and deliberately unpacks the various strands that weave the stories, one woman at a time, all the while lacing in the larger subtext of the time and how it effected their lives, but also the investigating and reporting after their deaths.

“Before they had even spoken their first words or taken their first steps, the were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts. Their worth was compromised before they even attempted to prove it.”

(ibid, 288)

This was a slightly tough work to read right now – economic insecurity is the main cause of these women’s deaths, the shared thread that puts them in the path of a serial killer. As millions in the United States file for unemployment each week of the COVID-19 pandemic, as I wait to see if my industry survives the inevitable restructuring that will come in how we work as a society, I am all to aware of how the loss of my paycheck, the loss of the support I have in my life, would upend my existence, again, just as it did time after time for the five.

“If a husband, father, or partner left or died, a working-class woman with dependents would find it almost impossible to survive. The structure of society ensured that a woman without a man was superfluous.”

(ibid, 288)

I can easily recommend this one to anyone with interest in the Ripper murders in 1888, or just the general history of the time and area through a different lens than they may have seen it before. Rubenhold unpacks education, poor reform, prostitution laws, the Workhouse system, and the growth and death of industries while telling the very personal stories of five women who lived lives that have been mostly erased by the story of the man who murdered them. In telling their story, Rubenhold also tells the story of the women who lived their lives around them.

“When a woman steps out of line and contravenes accepted norms of feminine behavior, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place. Labelling the victims as ‘just prostitutes’ permits those writing about Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane even today to continue to disparage, sexualize, and dehumanize them; to continue to reinforce the values of madonna/whore.”

(ibid, 294)

The Ruin of a Rake (CBR12 #26)

The Ruin of a Rake (The Turner Series, #3)

I should have read this one much closer to the previous two in the series, The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Lawrence Brown Affair because so many of our previous characters reappear here and are woven into the plot. As a reader you can tell that Sebastian was getting more comfortable in her writing, overall, this book is stronger than the previous two, even if Sebastian shortchanges the plot a smidge in the final third. I continue to really like how Cat Sebastian builds her stories: they are steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the characters help heal or fill in the weaknesses in their partners, or in this case how the world around them sees them.

Cat Sebastian’s Turner Series are queer historical romances – her books feature complex and exceedingly lovable gay, bisexual, nonbinary, and otherwise diverse characters. The Ruin of a Rake is the story of Julian Medlock and Lord Courtenay. Lord Courtenay is the titular rake and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel which looks to be based on his exploits, he finds himself unable to see his nephew, and is willing to do anything to improve his reputation. Enter Julian Medlock, possibly the most proper man in al of London who has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes, and lusts after, most. With time spent in each other’s company their mutual interest grows and eventually Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve; and Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety.

There are several back and forths between the pair and the associated characters in each of their backstories as the figure out what life could look like if they can sort out what kind of life it is that they want. I’ll leave you with an answer that Sebastian gave in an interview said about writing to reflect identity “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better! When I’m writing outside my identity, I either hire a sensitivity reader or ask someone who shares the character’s identity to do a sensitivity read. Every time […], the reader has found things I never in a million years would have considered problematic.”

#NotYourPrincess (CBR12 #25)

#Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women

I keep doing reading challenges for a couple reasons, but one of them is that it tends to point out areas that my reading habits need to expand. This year the Read Harder Challenge includes tasks for both YA Non-fiction read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author. I’ve already read one YA Non-fiction this year, but while I was hunting up titles I came across #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. It also didn’t hurt that the Reading Women Challenge has a task for reading an anthology by multiple authors.

And this is a really great choice for all those tasks. #NotYourPrincess is a feminist nonfiction collection of poetry, artwork, and personal essays, all revolving around the identity of Native American women aimed at young people. The book contains stories of abuse, humiliation, and stereotyping but it never felt oppressive – there was an underlying hope and pride and reclaiming their self-value, highlighting their struggles. Every single contributor is a woman, and they speak to their own experiences, which are as diverse as they are. The book is split up into four sections: The Ties That Bind Us, It Could Have Been Me, I am Not Your Princess and Pathfinders. While I appreciated the breaks between sections, and some of them held together very tightly, they didn’t all.

The part of the book I liked the most was how the artwork was linked to all the written components. But, the overall format of the book is the only downside. The book is just over 100 pages but it’s the size of what I typically makes me think of a picture book. But more than that, it’s a little tough to maneuver and to hold onto while reading. The physical reading experience wasn’t comfortable, but the art in the book is worth the size.