To Be Taught, If Fortunate (CBR11 #48)

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I knew what to expect from a Becky Chambers book after reading two of her previous novels in the Wayfarers series (which apparently this novella is not part of… but I swear its in the same universe). To Be Taught, If Fortunate would have some vivid writing, exceptional world-building (seriously, what Chambers can do in a matter of sentences to build an entirely new environment is insane), and diverse characters. I knew nothing else when picking it up, and I’m glad. I didn’t need to.

Like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, this novella is at its heart a road trip story treated in an episodic way, but it’s also so much more. At its core this is a speculative fiction work about where we as a species could be headed in the near future. Our narrator, Ariadne O’Neill is the engineer on OCA spacecraft Merian (crowdsourced space exploration following the defunding of national endeavors) is writing a message sent back to Earth recounting their mission so far. Ariadne is one of four who must balance their mission for exploration of four previously unexplored planets outside our solar system with the domestic dramas of a functional family unit in a small space. Because Chambers is a pro, we do not get caught up in stereotypical space opera style events, even though there is plenty of drama possible.

There is much that I enjoyed about this, including its exploration of somaforming (altering physiology) instead of terraforming to facilitate exploration of far flung planets. Communication is also at the heart of this – how we do it, when we need to, when it can feel like a burden, and what we do when it stops. The ending is one of the most heartbreakingly human things I have read in a long time and presented to me something I hadn’t expected (and also gave me a new fear, which thankfully won’t be something I ever personally have to deal with).

Even if you don’t think solarpunk or speculative fiction are for you, I bet this one is.

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

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Couldn’t Keep it to Myself (CBR11 #41)

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The task list for one of my challenges strikes again. Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge includes a book written in prison. I was struggling to decide what to read for this one, I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a book by the type of criminal who would be the type to get a book deal in the first place. Then a bit of internet research led me to this collection edited by Wally Lamb of the work the women of the writing group he co-facilitates at York Correctional Institute in Connecticut, the state’s only high security prison for women.

The collection features the work of the women of York as they describe in their own words how their true imprisonment started before their entrance to the penitentiary, whether it be by abuse, rejection, or their own self-destructive impulses. These aren’t victimhood tales, instead they are reflections on lives lived, choices made, and consequences endured. I found that Lamb’s introduction did a fantastic job laying out exactly what to expect in the reading, but also all that went into the writing process and how this project found its way to the printing press. Lamb described the journey the women took to authentic expression through their writing. Perhaps most endearing to me from Lamb was when he shared how he ended up working with the program in the first place and how working in this challenging environment as gown him as a teacher and as a fellow author. With his loving and respectful intro I was prepared, or so I thought, to read the women’s work.

Some stories fall into the type of work you might expect, some focus on life before their time at York and while you can see the interstitial tissue connecting their work to their time behind bars it is busy telling a different narrative. (It is important to note that in respect to Connecticut’s Son of Sam law the authors did not write with any specificity about their crimes and profits were shared with Interval House of Hartford who work to end Domestic Violence.) Couldn’t Keep It to Myself becomes a testament to finding oneself and reckoning with what comes next.

Lamb has continued working with the writing program at York Correctional Institute, publishing two more collections with the participants; I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison and You Don’t Know Me: The Incarcerated Women of York Prison Voice Their Truths whose publication date is Tuesday September 3, 2019 – a bit of good timing on my part.

The Wedding Party (CBR11 #40)

Sometimes I just don’t want to write a review, but I feel the need to do it anyway, just to purge the book from my system and make room for the next. It usually happens with the mediocre books, the ones where you think “well, that was fine I suppose”. That is exactly how I feel about Jasmine Guillory’s third book The Wedding Party. It was decidedly fine.

When I read The Wedding Date last year I noted that her debut showed the possibilities of her handle on craft – that the writing was there, but that there were some hiccups, specifically an over-reliance on certain phrases. I had hoped it was something that she would grow out of as she continued but The Wedding Party was unfortunately weighed down both with repeated phrasing, but repeated situations and character reactions. Like in The Proposal (and The Wedding Date before it) Guillory built herself some very believable and nuanced characters here as she has before, each has their strengths, each has their weaknesses, and they don’t magically solve the other persons weaknesses, which makes for good reading. What made for just fine reading was that these characters have very shallow growth arcs.

Maddie and Theo start the book despising each other, barely keeping it civil as they share a best friend in Alexa. Because this is Romancelandia the characters fall into bed together after Theo’s birthday party and decide to keep up this physical relationship until Alexa’s wedding, which they are both in. Over the course of the engagement the characters fall in love as you might expect, but each – and particularly Maddie – have the same bout of mental anguish over and over and over again. By two-thirds of the way through I was getting a bit desperate for the big dramatic moment to arrive so the plot could start heading downhill.

There were some reveals I thought were handled poorly and I really don’t like that this title is so like the first in the series, but on the whole, it was a fine addition to the world of more diverse romances. I just wish these interesting characters had a more interesting story, or more dynamic inner lives.

Emergency Contact (CBR11 #39)

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When Rainbow Rowell says a book is her favorite of the year, I am going to add it to my to-read list and am likely to track it down relatively quickly. In the case of Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact it fitting into a CBR11 Bingo Square category (Youths!) made it all the better.

Let’s get the big verdict out of the way early: this debut is very good and Choi does the thing that I like best about Rowell’s work, she builds imperfect and entirely understandable and relatable characters who feel real and whose world feels lived in. If Rowell is your jam, or you are in the mood for a college age YA (several of our main characters are 18, one is 21) then this one should be on your list.

Now to the less fun portion of the review. It would be poor form on my part to ignore the rabble being roused on the internet (and specifically on Goodreads) about this book. There is the debate about between flawed and unlikeable, as well as the notion that a book that contains problematic characteristics for its main characters is, in and of itself, problematic. To the first, I believe that’s a matter of taste – whether a character is too “unlikeable” for you to read the book is something only you will know for yourself, but I find it to be a method of judgement that I have simply moved passed. Penny’s as a character is judgmental and a tough cookie, someone difficult to get to know. She is also at times quite immature and has internalized some trauma – in other words she is 18.

As to the problem of problematic contents… a lot of the criticism I’ve seen elsewhere leave out authorial intent. Or, if they are discussing it, they are undervaluing the craft. Choi’s book contains shaming, assumptions, stereotyping, sexism, and racist comments because the realistic characters she is writing exist in a world that also has these things. This is YA, not a morality tale.

Is it perfect? No, of course not. Choi doesn’t nail the vernacular of young adults today, instead her characters sound more like the young adults we were (Choi and I are of a similar age). Choi’s next book Permanent Record will be released September 3rd, 2019.

The Bride Test (CBR11 #28)

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Earlier this year I read and fell hard for Helen Hoang’ debut The Kiss Quotient. I was taken with her non-traditional protagonists and immediately added her next book The Bride Test to my library request list for when it was released (May 2019). I’m glad that I did, I enjoyed this sophomore outing more than its predecessor.

The Bride Test expands the world Hoang created in The Kiss Quotient. Khai Diep is one of Michael’s cousins we met in The Kiss Quotient (his brother Quan also features and will be the focus of the third book in the series out next year) and the book open with his mother traveling to Vietnam and interviewing possible brides for him. Khai’s autism means that he processes emotions differently and following another cousin’s death in his teens he’s convinced that he is defective, doesn’t have the capacity to love and for that reason he steadfastly avoids relationships.

Khai’s mother finds Esme (the name she takes when she comes to the United States) working as a cleaner in the bathrooms of a swanky hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. A mixed-race woman from an incredibly poor background Esme thinks this is an opportunity she can’t pass up – it would be life changing for her grandmother, mother, and daughter (and herself although she doesn’t put much value in her own needs in the beginning). She decides to try to get Khai to fall for her, without fulling knowing what she is getting herself into. Khai is as honest with her as he can be, and she quickly falls for him, although each of their particular issues keep it from being easy. In fact, it all goes off the rails before it rights itself.

I’m not doing a great job of capturing the spirit of the book. Hoang does a much better job in her author’s note when she explains how these two characters ended up on the page in the first place. Initially, Esme was not the romantic heroine Hoang meant to write, she was supposed to be the also ran. Then, Esme took center stage in Hoang’s writing and she realized she had exactly the right person to talk to about both the character of Esme, but also what it is like to fall in love with and marry a man with autism. This and Hoang’s unpacking of how a neuroatypical brain in Khai (his reaction to solving his misunderstanding with Esme after their first night together was particularly well handled) made this book very, very good. Both characters are just the type off people you root for, a very loveable pair on the whole.

When Dimple Met Rishi (CBR11 #27)

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Well, that was adorably sweet. YA that falls into New Adult Romance isn’t normally my thing, the characters are just so young (but I don’t mind them in movie format? To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was very enjoyable on Netflix but I still don’t care to pick up the book). I know most authors land their endings on HFN for just that reason, but while I’ve enjoyed books like Anna and the French Kiss I generally tend to stay away. But the description of When Dimple Met Rishi (and its adorable coffee-based cover art) pulled me in.

Dimple Shah has a plan: now that graduation is behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from her Mamma’s obsession with finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Dimple has her heart set on attending a summer program for aspiring web developers in San Francisco and convinces her parents to let her go and pay the fee, relieved that they seem to be more fully buying into her plans for her life starting with Stanford in the fall. Rishi Patel is headed to the same program, so when his parents tell him that his future wife will be there and he’ll have the chance to woo her, he is completely on board.  So much so that his hopeless romantic heart nearly ruins everything at his and Dimple’s meet cute. You see, Dimple has no idea who he is or that their parents have set them up.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but they seized an opportunity when they saw it. Rishi wants to be arranged, and knows that many people don’t understand his choice, and Dimple is one of them – running hard from what she feels are the heavy expectations of her family that don’t align with her goals for herself. But this is a romance book, so initial confusion and distrust turn to grudging friendship and then something much more all while they are competing hard to get Dimple’s app idea off the ground and in front of her idol by winning the contest.

I loved how this book dealt head on with its issues – classism, race relations, religion, familial expectation, social customs, women in STEM fields, and the dichotomy between pursuing your dreams or what you perceive to be the safe choice – while also being a very straightforward story about love and finding yourself at 18 once you are able to be on your own for the first time. Menon shows through her solid craft that it is possible to seamlessly do both. Her characters actually talk to each other (and not just her leads!) and get to know each other, and care deeply for who they discover themselves and the other to truly be. Dimple and Rishi have problems and lives that feel real.  The world and life that Menon creates for her characters is rich, detailed, and engrossing. You are with them at school, and in love, and in heartbreak. I was sad to see my time with them end.   

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

Sylvia & Aki (CBR11 #16)

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Sometimes you read a book because you should. This is one of those books. I truly enjoy YA on the whole, but I have a tough time with Children’s or Middle Grades books. I can absolutely see their good qualities and how their intended audience would likely sink into them, but maybe I don’t enjoy them now because I didn’t read many of them when I was that age (I was a late reader and then I flew up to reading adult books in a few years).

But, there was a task on the Read Harder challenge and here we are.

I chose Sylvia & Aki because of its subjects – Japanese internment during WWII and the battle for educational equality. The book chronicles a true story, that of Aki’s family being forced to leave their home for the internment camps and Sylvia’s family who leases it. Conkling keeps the narrative accessible and her characters relatable, exactly as you would hope. It reads to my adult eyes as a bit preachy but maybe it wouldn’t sound that way to the 10-year-olds it is meant for. The book wraps up with an historically accurate happy ending and an afterword that explains the historical ramifications of the court case that Sylvia’s father filed to get her and her siblings into the local school instead of the barrio school and how it paved the way for Brown v Board of Education. It is a good book, but it is not unfortunately a book for me.

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