The Bone People (CBR11 #35)

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I don’t know if I knew what to expect when I decided to read The Bone People. I knew it had won the Booker Prize, which isn’t always a great indicator if I’m going to enjoy a book or not, and that it was an Own Voices book by a New Zealand author. Keri Hulme spent over a decade crafting a story of people of Maori heritage in the part of the country she still lives in, and she was steadfast in writing the novel in the way that made sense to her – notoriously refusing to let any publishing house edit the work and finally publishing by Spiral, a small feminist collective press in New Zealand, and eventually by the Louisiana State University Press in the States.

The Bone People is an ambitious work that uses the clash between Maori and European cultures to paint the background of its world and the inner lives of its mixed heritage characters. The book focuses on the complicated relationships that develop among its three protagonists: Kerewin, a painter, who leads a hermetic, solitary life, convinced that art is sufficient to sustain her and that relationships with anyone can only lead to pain; Simon, a mute 6 year old, who has suffered a terrible wound in the past, and his adoptive father, Joe, a laborer with a nasty temper.

In its attempts to mythicize the lives of its three peculiar heroes, The Bone People never quite lives up to the introduction. Hulme’s storytelling is vivid, backed up by some poetic and evocative descriptions of the New Zealand coastline and Maori myth and legend, which allows her to explore ideas about ownership, stewardship and cultural survival that add real heft to the book. The book is also, at its core, an all-too realistic story of abuse and trauma. The craftmanship Hulme shows in the interior monologues, and even in the seemingly disjointed narratives is very obviously building to something. Then we reach the end of the first section and the reader is left adrift.

The Bone People won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Mobil Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature and with some judicious pruning, the book might well have been the unmistakably powerful visionary fable Hulme was after and that the judges clearly saw, but in some ways escapes me. As it is, and reading it a generation later when I cannot reconcile the extreme violence against a child with the actions of the middle of the book, it is still a very good book about love, redemption, and renewal. But it is unevenly written and considerably overlong.

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Gender Queer: a Memoir (CBR11 #34)

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In March Emmalita read and reviewed Gender Queer: a Memoir by Maia Kobabe and it put this book onto my radar where it previously hadn’t been. I had been quietly on the lookout for Cannonballer reviews of books by or about non-binary people to help fulfill a Read Harder challenge, and while I have only read a few books by transgender authors (that I’m aware of) I had likely read none by non-binary authors (I may have, I’ve not been great about tracking that in the past).

I took my library copy with me on vacation, I was so excited to get my hands on it. I found Kobabe’s deeply introspective journey through reckoning with eir own sense of eir gender to be very relatable and also illuminating. It shouldn’t be the job of our marginalized siblings to explain to those of us who aren’t marginalized in the same way what their lives are like, but without the brave work of someone like Maia who shares what it has been like to experience life in eir shoes the literary landscape would be much more bland.  

Visually I found the work to be beautifully vibrant without being overwhelming. Honestly, its my Goldilocks’ porridge of graphic novels – it was just right for me. I wish I was more conversant in the artistic terminology so I could more accurately describe it to you, but Kobabe achieves such balance in eir work that I was able to slip into the work and devour it in one sitting, which is a rarity for me. Hunt this one down, it is incredibly worth your time and dollars.

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.”

Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 2 (CBR11 #32)

Since this is only the second manga I’ve read, ever, I thought it would count nicely for the CBR11 Bingo square Not My Wheelhouse. When I read Part 1 last month I was taken with Chi and her family and since my library had Part 2 available, I requested it. Why not spend a little more time with this precocious kitten?

On the whole I’m glad I picked up the next phase in the story, we follow the family as they move into their new pet-friendly apartment and Chi is learning her way around her new home. But this one lacked something the previous installation had – there wasn’t any tension to the storylines. It was 400+ pages of what its like to live with a cat, and Chi’s personality is rendered perfectly, but other than checking in episodically to see what was next for her to explore (stairs, getting her nails clipped, handling  relationship with the dog next door) there wasn’t much in the way of forward momentum.

For those reasons I found my focus wandering. For chapter at a time I was focused far more on the art than the words, sort of passively absorbing the story. It is an old habit that has held over from the days I struggled with comics or graphic novels – I would skim and go back – process the visuals, then process the narrative. That division of attention might be why I often find visually driven books lackluster, my processing is slowed and the story doesn’t always come together organically. Am I turned off manga? No, but its still not my wheelhouse.

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

Her Body and Other Parties (CBR11 #31)

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Her Body and Other Parties is all about expectations – both the ones on the page for the characters Machado created and for the reader as they come to the much hyped but little described work. I knew going in that the book was pushing boundaries, igniting conversations (the husband stitch, for example), and refused to stick to one genre at any given time, let alone for the entire collection.

Having completed the book I understand why reviewers have, one the whole, been relatively mute on details. There isn’t an easy way to try to capture what Machado is working towards. Her Body and Other Parties is simultaneously gothic and speculative, bending the lines of realistic fiction and fantasy. Most reviews cover “The Husband Stitch” and the novella-within-a-short-story-collection reinterpretation of Law & Order: SVU, “Especially Heinous”, which are admittedly very dramatic and easy to focus on, but my favorite in the collection is a much quieter look at the end of the world, “Inventory”. Machado takes one woman’s coping mechanism (list making) to recount a component of one’s life not often so honestly and quietly spoken of (bisexual sexual history) that in turn tells the story of the collapse of civilization due to a pandemic. It reminded me of Station Eleven in all the best ways while taking the appropriate sized bite of a narrative.

Because, that is my complaint about this collection, and it pains me to have a complaint at all with such a well-written, mechanically beautiful collection. Machado swings big in this, and sometimes it feels that she overshoots what is currently within her powers. “The Husband Stitch” plays with its origin points and makes a larger point, right up until it doesn’t – the landing is missed. Once I noticed that in the first story, I noticed it again in several other places. It is such a tough line in novellas, finding the right amount of story to tell. I’m hopefully Machado continues to refine her technique, because she is one of the few people working in this medium that I know I want to read again.

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

Saga, Volume 9 (CBR11 #30)

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I’ve been putting off reading the latest volume of Saga since I had heard it was devastating and that there would be at least a year hiatus until Vaughan and Staples picked back up working on this. Why sit with whatever terrible, soul crushing experience was waiting for me for over a year when I could just live with not knowing for the same amount of time?

Well, I abandoned that perfectly solid plan and gave in to temptation. It was just sitting there in my living room waiting for me and I’m not entirely made of stone.  I read it, it broke my heart, but it also felt strangely thin to what I’ve come to expect from Saga. It also made me think deeply about how invested I am in characters that are de facto villains in this world (as their goals are directly in conflict with the goals of our heroes) and how that is going to play out moving forward. Vaughan and Staples are making us to consider all the variables, all the competing motives, all the possible endgames. We know some things for sure, but not how we get to them. The sense remains that each storyline is part of this grand whole that is only slowly being revealed to the reader, that we’ve still only barely scratched the surface.

I’m still in love with this series. It remains the rare book to have humor, sorrow, wit, action, adventure, and beautiful drawings married in one text. It is sophisticated and unafraid to be crass when the story calls for it. The larger themes of family, love, and violence begetting nothing but more violence are firmly settled. But, I find myself wishing that this volume was more while simultaneously less at the same time. There connective tissue didn’t hold up to the major events contained within.

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

Normal People (CBR11 #20)

It has been a long time since I absolutely demolished a novel in less than 24 hours. I had waited months for my turn to come up on the library hold list for Normal People so a soon as I officially finished Good Omens I ignored the other books sitting on my kitchen table and settled in to see what jeverett15 and dAvid experienced that led them both to rating it so highly. I very quickly understood and am myself rating it five stars, rounding up.

This book has a seemingly simple premise: rich disaffected girl and popular working-class boy date, break up, and orbit each other through their college years. It sounds simplistic broken down to that level, because if it only existed on that level it would be a very simple novel that I would have maybe read but likely would have walked away from. Rooney instead imbues real, honest, and accurate depth into her characters and uses their on again, off again relationship to poke at larger truths.

Normal People looks at the ways we hurt ourselves and other people, and both at the same time. The plot often hinges on miscommunications and misunderstandings, but Rooney stays away from my least favorite trope – she has her characters talk to each other, and want to communicate, and often try and fail. We experience with the characters the gulf between what is meant and what is understood and how that small difference can color years of our lives. There is betrayal, love, and how sometimes love isn’t enough to overcome our hurts and the walls we build between ourselves and the world around us, and even around the person we love most in the world.

When Marianne and Connell are close, they’re seemingly entirely in sync, but when things go wrong and they go their separate ways they are often destroying parts of themselves and their lives, and they seem incapable of seeing it. They can’t seem to stay away from each other either, needing some relationship with the other to serve as a touchstone to who they each are at the core of their beings, only feeling truly themselves when in relation to the other.

Rooney zeroes in on outwardly insignificant moments that are truly some of the most significant times in our lives and examines them, both from an incredibly close angle but also from a sometimes sterile distance. Mechanically she is choosing her phrasing, her language, her pacing, and her settings to do the heavy lifting but also leaves room for her narrative to breath, for the reader to bring themselves to the novel. As jeverett15 said in their review, she can break your heart in record time, and she does it with crisp, sparse language and emotional honesty. She writes with such precision and clarity that the shared territory becomes what matters and you are able to extrapolate the rest and find the empathy within for characters you don’t always think of in a very positive light.

The novel leaves the reader with a vague sense of what happens next, or what could happen next and I can see in that detail and so many other ones where dAvid felt that this is a harsher, more adult version of Eleanor & Park. Both books explore abuse, complex familial dynamics, fear of success, of feeling othered and both Rowell and Rooney write dynamic characters with finesse. It’s a very different feeling book to me, much more sorrowful and darker, but Normal People does feel like the continuation of a conversation Eleanor & Park was having with its audience.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines) and raise money for the American Cancer Society.