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.

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.

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

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Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”

A Closed and Common Orbit (CBR11 #18)

In early April I made the choice to put my limited free time (so, so limited in late March and early April) into a complete rewatch of Game of Thrones before the series came back for its final series. I also picked up and put down two different books earlier this month, just not feeling any of them. When it was time to travel for Easter, with a total of four flights, I reached for a sure-fire winner: A Closed and Common Orbit.

I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last summer and was excited to see what else Becky Chambers had waiting in her universe. I wasn’t disappointed, but I did have a bit of a struggle settling in to this new story. The first book was set within one ship with one small but diverse crew. A Closed and Common Orbit is an even smaller story, structurally. We are primarily with just two characters, and they hand the narrative back and forth. I had a tough time sinking into one character’s half of the story for the first third or so.

From Goodreads:

“Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.”

As Lovelace learns to navigate the body she is in following the events of the previous book (which you do not have to have read to read this one, but I suggest it anyway) she forms a new identity to go with it, and renames herself Sidra with Pepper’s blessing. I struggled with early story Sidra because she is struggling so much with the limitations of her body. As the story continues and we get more of Pepper’s background and personal history, and the story of Jane 23 unravels I found my footing in the overall story – Chambers is using hard sci-fi to have a discussion about identity, sure, but also personhood writ large.

Emmalita sold this series to me (and everyone else) as “cozy sci-fi” and that is such an accurate description. There is plot happening, and the world of Port Coriol is explored, but we are really digging into Sidra, Pepper, Blue, Owl, and Tak. Once it got going it did the thing that all really great books can do, it made me cry on public transport (I startled my seatmate on the plane).

I’m so looking forward to the next book in the series.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

We Are Okay (CBR11 #15)

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I struggled with this book for quite a while. For reasons I now don’t remember I believed this book to be a graphic novel and had filed it as such as a different task for Read Harder challenge than I eventually recorded it under. Then, once I began reading it for what it truly was, I found myself struggling through the chapters. Marin the protagonist is in such a low place, and Nina LaCour writes it so well that I felt myself being pulled under as I was already feeling a bit out of sorts. There were a few times I thought I might DNF the book, but the writing itself kept pulling me back in.

The story in We Are Okay is one of immense grief. We join events in progress, Marin is waiting for Mabel to come visit her at college over winter break. Marin hasn’t spoken to Mabel in nearly five months and is living a sort of half-life. There was something terrible that happened, or perhaps several terrible somethings and we are reading to find out what they were. The novel works back and forth between the previous summer and this Christmas and we slowly piece together Marin’s truth as she becomes more and more ready to say the words, even to herself.

This novel unpacks what it means to discover someone has kept an enormous secret from you, and how life’s transitions can both change us drastically while also reaffirming exactly who we are.  Nina LaCour created astonishing characters and a deep story that absolutely earned its Printz Award. As long as you are in the headspace for it, I suggest this one mightily for those of us who read YA.

Beyond Magenta (CBR8 #66)

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Over the past few years I have begun to pay attention to reading books by or about members of the LGBTQ community. In general, I’ve tried to be more aware of my reading habits and expand them generally. It was a boon to me then that one of the tasks for Read Harder challenge was read a book by or about a person who identifies as transgender. I shortlisted three, but decided to go with Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin as it is also on the ALA’s top ten most challenged books of 2015 list.

When scanning the list of frequently challenged books several themes present themselves, and boil down to several ideas for me. One of them is that people are afraid of exposing children to values that they deem to be sinful or wrong, so of course many of the books that are challenged are focused around offensive language, sexuality, homosexuality, and the like. The list of reasons submitted for Beyond Magenta’s challenges include: being anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”). I wish I could say I was surprised.

If I may pull out my soap box for just a minute, by refusing to consider conversations about any of the items above you are only going to Other the group, and that never ends well. I digress.

On its merits Beyond Magenta is a three-star book for me. Kuklin made the choice when working with the teens featured in this book to record conversations and then working with each teen to craft them into essays told from their point of view, with some insights from Kuklin presented in a different text within each essay. While I applaud the decision to place the story into the hands of its owners, and not try to translate it through her own cisgender and heterosexual view of the world it unfortunately left the book a little unpolished. It also hurt the book to pretend that these responses weren’t crafted from interview questions when the author tells us as much in the afterword.

But the biggest problem I had with the book was simply this: it was a book written for other cisgendered readers which focuses heavily on the bodies, hormones, and battles for acceptance (which is a teenage obstacle no matter the gender identity). It does not however focus on the emotional growth of coming to terms with their trans identity, or any of the many other facets of the lives of the interviewees. Perhaps Kuklin’s scope, focusing on teens (although at least a few of her interviewees were by the end in their early 20s) hampered her in this regard, but unfortunately there were many times when I felt that the soap opera people assume transgender teens are having was spotlighted a bit too much.

Still, there are also positives: perhaps most importantly this book shows a diversity of transgender teens. Of the six There is an equal representation of two transgender women, two transgender men, and two gender non-conforming teens. Likewise, at least half of the interviewees are people of color, and all six come from a variety of socioeconomic and familial backgrounds.

I would suggest this book perhaps as a very introductory book, but I think Transparent which I read and reviewed last year is a better place to start.

Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (CBR7 #52!)

In conversation with some friends a couple months ago it occurred to me that I don’t know anyone who is transgender. Or, I might, but I don’t know for sure. I also realized that I know very little about the issues facing the Transgender community outside of the coverage of said issues in the media over the past few years. In was fortuitous then that as part of the Read Harder Challenge task number five is reading a book either about or by someone who identifies as LBGTQ. Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers fulfills both sides of that challenge.

Cris Beam writes about her experiences with the transgender community in Los Angeles between 1997 and 2005, but more specifically about a handful of transgirls she developed relationships with. Transparent is both a general information text about what being transgendered means, an account of the various social injustices that befalls these women – especially the under aged ones who are kicked out by their families, or choose to run. It is also a very personal story of Beam’s fostering of one of the girls and what that experience gave her.

While this book talks about an important topic, and generally handles it with grace it is not a perfect book. The front half of the book dragged, and was at times confusing. As many of these girls (which is the predominant group Beam interacted with) begin living full and even part time as women they often change their names several times, which means one person in the book is often referred to by 3 or 4 different names in the course of the beginning of the book which is purely confusing. I wish Beam had just chosen to refer to each woman by the name she used last, and of course making references to their birth names when appropriate.

The other criticism that can be laid against this book is that it at times can read as a white woman rescuing a person of color. There are lots of a book that fit that description, but in Transparent Beam is also working through her own issues of abandonment by a parent because she is a lesbian, which gives her a place to make correlations. I never felt a sense of a personal crusade, I saw someone chronicling how one choice to volunteer their time led to several years of decisions that made someone unexpected a part of their family. This is an experience that I can relate to.

This book is my cannonball book, and I’m happy that it was this one – a book you should read if the topic is of interest to you.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.