Review: I, Iago, Nicole Galland

Some years, my pal Jeanne from Necromancy Never Pays makes it down to Louisiana and stops by for a visit with my family. Last year, she so so kindly brought me a book as a gift: I, Iago, by Nicole Galland, which she said I would enjoy.

I Iago

(Spoiler: I did, indeed, enjoy it.)

Nearly an entire year later, when I recalled that Jeanne would possibly be visiting again soon (yay!), I gave myself a stern talking-to about putting off reading books that were gifts, and I pulled I, Iago down off my TBR shelf and read it. And the thing is, the thing is, the book was completely delightful. Why would I not have read it before? Why do I own books and not read them?

internal monologue

I, Iago was predictably delightful. It’s a retelling of the Othello story from Iago’s perspective, and it doesn’t so much try to rehabilitate Iago as it tries to explain how he got to a place where he was willing to do all the evil deeds that he does in the play. The first half of the book is dedicated to his life as a Venetian, a man of battles, and a husband. Galland fleshes out a wonderful backstory for Iago, and his relationship with Emilia is particularly enjoyable. (I can’t speak to her historical research as I know 0 things about old-time Venice. They had doges? I dunno. I, Iago makes it seem like they had hella parties.)

The second half, in my opinion, was less successful, falling prey to the same problem that many Shakespeare retellings faces, i.e., that it is very, very difficult to produce a faithful retelling of a Shakespeare play that doesn’t just annoy you for not actually being the Shakespeare play. In many places, Galland is reproducing dialogue from the play, but in a more casual idiom in line with the rest of her book. Since Shakespeare’s dialogue is a byword of genius, this is — maybe not the choice I’d have made. The fun of fanfiction (at least a major part of the fun of fanfiction) is its ability to flesh out stories that occur in the margins of the source text, and I, Iago is at its best when it does exactly that.

Tell me, friends, now that I’m in the mood for it: What’s the best Shakespeare retelling you’ve ever read?

Review: The Liminal People, Ayize Jama-Everett

The marvelous Bina reviewed The Liminal People some time ago and mentioned that it’s frequently compared to X-Men, which naturally was all the inducement I needed to buy it and its two sequels a few AWPs ago. “X-Men meets [literally anything]” = a sales pitch that will win me over 10/10 times.

The Liminal People

Taggert, our hero (ish), is a healer with the power to magically repair any ailments of the body, from wounds to asthma to cancer. He has wandered the world for most of his life, desperate to meet more people with powers like him, and his wanderings have washed him up on the metaphorical shores of a warlord in Morocco, who has helped1 him develop his powers, in exchange for Taggert’s help pursuing the warlord’s own ends. But when Taggert gets a desperate call from Yasmine, the only woman he’s ever loved, he rushes to London to help find her missing daughter — who may have powers of her own.

In so many ways, The Liminal People is the type of fantasy I’m excited to be reading. Jama-Everett takes a familiar trope — the minority population of superheroes — and puts it in global perspective, so that we see how differently Taggert’s powers have been received in the many places he’s lived. Whereas many iterations of this trope have used it as a stand-in for race, The Liminal People looks at how powers like Taggert’s interact with race (and other marginalizations).

It’s also just a good story. I’m never not going to be there for “tough loner teams up with angry youth,” even if we weren’t living through a calendar year that gave us the apparently-very-gruesome-so-I-haven’t-seen-it-yet-please-don’t-@-me Logan. There’s a plot element towards the middle that wasn’t a great look for Feminism, but since it was in clear service of the tough loner / angry youth team-up, I am prepared to overlook it. Jama-Everett is quite fantastic at fight scenes, even if you don’t think you care about fight scenes. His are excellent, weird, and inventive, and they make full use of Taggert’s powers and the powers of the people he’s fighting.

Okay. That’s the good stuff. Now for some things that are not so good in re: the portrayal of villains. One of the big villains of the piece is a hired thug called Rajesh whose powers run to blowing things up. Here’s how Tamara (a protagonist and fundamentally sympathetic character) describes him:

He’s Asian, Paki, I think. . . . He’s a bully. A big stupid Paki bastard bully. He pushes his parents around. I’ve heard he’s raped girls. . . . He’s a savage fucking brute.

I get that troubled youths say gross things and don’t appreciate the impact of their words, but the text doesn’t frame this description as problematic. There is no push-back against the use of the term Paki (which unless I’ve misunderstood England completely is a really racist thing to say), and we don’t see any acknowledgement that Tamara has been ugly here: Her rage and the expression of it appear justified by the text, because Rajesh is a rapist and a murderer.

Moreover, because there are no other significant South Asian characters in the book, the depiction of Rajesh and his family takes on an outsize importance. Unlike the other villains, whom Jama-Everett portrays with more nuance, Rajesh is exclusively, simplistically evil, and the reader is meant to feel viciously satisfied when Taggert tortures and kills him (in the Indian restaurant his parents own). I suspect Jama-Everett didn’t intend to link Rajesh’s nationality with his villainy, but it’s noticeable and really disappointing in a book that gives us a terrific array of superheroes of color.

MOREOVER. The Big Bad of this book is a club promoter called Alia, who uses her powers to conceal her true face. When Taggert and Tamara face off with her in the final battle, they force her to drop her illusions, and she is described in the following super-ableist way:

And she’s ugly. Not everyday ugly — she had major genetic problems: oversized cranium, malformed palette, cleft lip — mother-was-probably-her-sister type ugly. Her teeth are gray and look like they belong to an infant. Her arms are deformed, almost flippers.

It goes on from there but I got depressed typing it and decided to tap out. Like. Number one, can we retire the flippant tone when we’re talking about incest? Number two, the Evil Cripple trope is harmful to disabled people. Number three, the aligning of disability with ugliness is yuck, and both Taggert and Alia explicitly refer to her as ugly (repeatedly). In a book that I generally really loved and found inventive and brilliant, it was disappointing to see it lean on tedious cliches about disability at the end.

If you’ve got other feelings about the portrayal of Rajesh and Alia, and particularly if you want to let me know if there’s stuff I should watch out for in the subsequent two books, I’d love love love you to get at me in the comments.

  1. for some values of the word “helped”

Review: All the Real Indians Died Off, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

After reading An Indigenous People’s History of the United States a few years back, I was in the tank for p. much anything from Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz. All the Real Indians Died Off (and 20 Other MYths about Native Americans) is her latest book, cowritten with Colville author Dina Gilio-Whitaker, and it serves as an excellent 101 text for understanding Indian history in the US and ongoing legal, social, and economic issues.

All the Real Indians Died Off

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker (my stars they have a lot of name between them) tackle issues ranging from terminology (Indian? Native American? Indigenous?) to broken treaties (too many to count) to casino earnings to indigenous tax breaks. Each section (well, nearly each, but I’ll get into that) lays out the origins of the myth, cites some examples of its function in historical or contemporary discourse, and then explores the reality behind it.

While the structure of the book — each “myth” receives five to ten pages — precludes the authors from going into depth about any one issue, they pack a lot of information into this slim book. The notes section also provides plenty of avenues for further reading, both foundational works by scholars like Vine Deloria Jr. (who even I have heard of) and recent peer-reviewed research. For instance, in the chapter about tribes getting rich from casinos (they mostly don’t), the authors lay out the hard numbers of casino earnings and their impact on average tribe members (on and off reservations).

Occasionally there’s a disconnect between the “myth” as described in the the chapter heading, and the actual content of the chapter. The chapter “Indians Are Anti-Science” touches on indigenous knowledge and scientific racism but devotes the bulk of its time to technological advances made by Indian groups in history. Which is awesome! Yay for agricultural innovation and such! But like — doesn’t really address the question, particularly? I closed out the chapter not sure who was saying Indians were anti-science or on what basis or why it was wrong.

However, even in chapters where that’s the case, All the Real Indians Died Off has tons of good information for readers who are seeking a basic grounding in Indian history, discourse, and activism. Recommended!

Review: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice

There is nothing quite as cleansing as finally reading a book that’s been on your TBR list for untold ages. Ana of Things Mean a Lot reviewed it in 2012, which is on the outer edge of how long I’ll let a book linger on my TBR spreadsheet. If I’ve let it go for five years without reading it, I have to accept that I didn’t truly want to read it in the first place.1 Alice from Of Books reminded me more recently why I wanted to read it, so thanks to both of you, lovely blogging friends!

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

As Ana and Alice both mention in their posts, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets recalls almost irresistibly I Capture the Castle, a comparison of which I had absolutely no recollection when I started reading. And perhaps it’s best that I didn’t; comparing a new book to one of the twentieth century’s great works of fiction is hardly a recipe for success. Please forget I said that. Except don’t, because I want you to read this book. Except do, because I don’t want to get your expectations too high.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is about a girl called Penelope who lives in a ramshackle old manor house called Milton Magna in postwar England. She rattles around her old manor house with her younger brother Inigo, who dreams of being a pop star, and her beautiful, widowed mother, married at seventeen and widowed in the Second World War. As Penelope is waiting tidily at the train station, a total stranger swoops in and carries her off to have tea with her family, and Penelope’s life changes entirely. In a manner that is not entirely unlike, yet not so much like that it should raise your expectations in a significant way, the events of I Capture the Castle.

I can at least say that without specifically remembering the I Capture the Castle comparison,2 I was immediately charmed by The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Penelope spends a great deal of time thinking about romantic love; but the fundamental relationships in the book are between Penelope and Charlotte and, to a lesser extent, Penelope and her maddening, dramatic, married-too-young mother. The book was a frothy delight from the first page, and if it’s not exactly up to the standard set by I Capture the Castle, it’s at least along the lines of a lesser Dodie Smith book or an ungrim Maggie O’Farrell novel. If that’s something you need (in this grim dystopian hellscape), go forth and read it with my blessing.

(Note that I had to bust out the old “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts” category for this book. That is an exact description of how I felt about it.)

  1. The oldest book currently on there dates to December 2013.
  2. So you should forget it too! Forget it at once!

Review: Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar

Because I am perverse, the first Superman comic I ever read was Superman: Red Son, by famed Scottish comics creator Mark Millar, whose name I thought sounded vaguely familiar when I was scanning the comics shelf at my library. The premise here is that instead of being dropped in the middle of Kansas, Superman ends up in a Ukrainian collective farm. He fights for Stalin, socialism, and the neverending expansion of the Warsaw Pact; while American scientist Lex Luthor plots how to bring him down. Fun, right?

Superman: Red Son

Art is by Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Kilian Plunkett, and Walden Wong; colors by Paul Mounts; letters by Ken Lopez.

If you haven’t read any Superman, Red Son will still make sense, and it’s a good comic to read because it’s contained to the one volume. The introduction to the volume assured me that it was so, and indeed it was so. But I think it was also a little bit like reading Kurt Busiek’s Marvels without knowing, for instance, the classic Spiderman / Gwen Stacy story. It still works; the story explains what’s happening. The punch is just less punchy. As I was reading, there were (many) times when it was clear there was a callback being made, and I was missing it because I don’t know anything about Superman’s history.

That said, Red Son is a very cool story that takes away Superman’s heroism mostly without taking away what’s fundamental to his character. Lex Luthor fights against Superman not because he believes Superman is wrong — he explicitly doesn’t care — but because he doesn’t like to lose, which means that this is a book whose two primary characters are both fundamentally villains. The heroism of other characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman, or the team of fighters trying to oppose the spread of Russian autocracy1, are no less brave for being ancillary to the work that Superman and Luthor are trying to achieve. It also has a hugely satisfying (to me) ending.

Ready for your Angry Feminism Minute? You must have known it was coming! Lois Lane is around basically to mope over Lex Luthor (her husband in this universe) and, now and then, wonder what her life would have been like if she were with Superman.

Lois: Listen. Bring Norma Jean and Jack to dinner if you want. Lex, I’m not sure I even care anymore.
Lex: Oh of course you still care, Lois Luther. Why else would you have chosen to live alone all these years, eh?
Lois [with image of Superman in background]: I guess you’re right, Lex. Maybe I am just a one-man woman.

Framing one of the only women in the comic as fundamentally about her romantic life is tediously regressive. I’d say atavistic were it not for the fact that comics just have not come that far from the days of this shit in the first few issues of Iron Man.

Happy: Are ya brushin’ me off… Me, Happy Hogan, who has finally found the dame of his dreams?
Pepper: My dear Mr. Hogan, your dream would only be my nightmare! In short…you wouldn’t be my type even if you were my type!
Happy: Hm, I get the picture…it’s him…Stark…who makes yer ticker go thump thump. Right?
Pepper: Right! Only he doesn’t know I’m alive, but someday he will…and then he’ll give up all his actresses and debutantes…and I’ll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!

Again, this Iron Man comic is from 1963. Red Son was published four damn decades later, and it’s still coming at me with this same retro gender shit. I googled “Mark Millar gender” to see if I was being oversensitive, and it turns out that this is a thing he told the New Republic in an interview with (omg of course) Abraham Riesman.

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”

Ah.

Comics, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

  1. Jenny sobs into her tea

Review: Version Control, Dexter Palmer

What a weird, weird book. It reminded me a little of Nick Harkaway with the quills retracted (does that metaphor work? do porcupines retract their quills ever?). Version Control is a time travel novel with very little time travel, a story about humanity and loss from whose human characters I felt distant, a novel of ideas that sometimes made me think brand new thoughts and sometimes made me feel very tired of humanity (although not in the way the author maybe intended).

Version Control

Philip Wright has not built a time machine. It’s a causality violation device, and so far it has always had null results. His wife, Rebecca, works for a dating service called Lovability that is monumentally successful at reducing people down to data points and matching them up with the data-driven correct mates. They are recovering from a tragedy, and Rebecca can’t shake the feeling that the world isn’t quite what it was supposed to be. It’s nothing to do with the time machine. It’s a causality violation device, anyway.

Version Control takes a very, very long time to get to its premise. I was warned about this, so I bore with it to get to the pay-off, and in fact I think the pay-off was worth it: Dexter Palmer has a take on time travel and its paradoxes that I don’t think I’ve ever seen done before. When the characters finally unravel (ish) the central mystery of the book and attain (ish) a resolution, it felt eminently satisfying.

On a character note, eh, not so much. It wasn’t exactly that Rebecca and Philip and Alicia and Carson and Kate were paper dolls in service of a novel of ideas, but they didn’t feel like real people, either. Actually! They felt very similar to how Rebecca felt about the world in general: Similar in most respects to what people would be like, but somehow not quite there. Maybe this was intentional on the author’s part, but it’s not my preference — I like to read stories about people who have conversations, not people who perpetually exchange monologues, and I particularly like to read about people who admire and like each other, the way virtually nobody in this book seemed to. I was always very aware that the book wanted to get across ideas more than it wanted to write about humans.

A mixed bag, then, but a very worthwhile one.

Agree or disagree: Time travel is always more trouble than it’s worth and we should 100% stay when we’re at, even if someone we know has built a time travel machine.

Review: Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Would anyone here be interested in a compendium of books about mythic beasts by authors of color? Would that be a resource people would enjoy? Or does it already exist somewhere else and I should consult it myself to get All the Book Recs?

Any case, Certain Dark Things is a vampire story set in Mexico City by a Mexican-Canadian writer. In this world, there exist ten known species of vampires, of which we encounter three. The vampire girl Atl and her Doberman Cualli1 are on the run from the Necros vampires who killed her mother and sister. She doesn’t intend to enlist the aid of a street kid called Domingo, at least not for more than one drink, and she certainly doesn’t intend for him to get tangled up with the cops and gangsters and vampires who are chasing her.

Certain Dark Things

Okay, first up, Certain Dark Things is hella violent. There is a non-zero amount of tooth-ripping and face-shoot-offing. If you are a person who cannot handle tooth-ripping face-shoot-offing (which in retrospect I may be that kind of person but it’s too late to learn that lesson now), I may need to direct you to a less gory vampire story. The main vampire searched for Atl is a gross misogynist who fantasizes about doing violent sex things to Atl, which is also not the most fun to read. He does not, however, do any violent sex things to her in practice.

However, if faces getting shot off and silver shards being dug out of bloody human flesh by an unqualified veterinarian are not deal-breakers for you, there’s gold in these here hills. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s world-building is superb, a take on vampires and vampire rivalries that I’ve never seen before. Her Mexico City has long been a haven from vampires, which is why cop Ana Aguirre transferred there, and she’ll go so far as to ally herself with one of the city’s gangs if it means keeping Atl and other vampires from finding a place for themselves in the city. Meanwhile, Atl tells Domingo about her people’s descent from Aztecs and muses over the possibility of living in Brazil, where the native vampires glow in the dark. I was willing to live with some flesh-tearing in order to keep discovering new pockets of this fantasy world.

And now, a question: Which is scarier, vampires with wings who can fly, or vampires who glow in the dark? Or vampires who can shapeshift?

  1. I know that your immediate question is “Does the dog survive?” SPOILERS HERE: Yes, the dog survives. You will hit a certain point in the book where you think “That rat-fink Jenny, this dog is clearly dead!” but I promise you that no, the dog is not dead. The dog survives. END SPOILERS YOU ARE NOW FREE FROM SPOILERS.

Review: Enter Title Here, Rahul Kanakia

Hands up everyone who’s been on the hunt for a thoroughly Slytherin YA heroine! If that’s what you’re after, Rahul Kanaki’s Enter Title Here is the book for you.

Enter Title Here

Enter Title Here is about a girl called Reshma who is first in her class (due to a lawsuit her parents filed when the school tried to change the system by which GPA was calculated) and badly wants to get into Stanford. She’s cynical enough about the system — ever since her parents got cheated by a Silicon Valley cutthroat lady — that she believes she has to have a “hook” to overcome her mediocre SAT scores. And she decides that her hook will be an agented novel that she will write over the course of the school year, all about a studious Indian American girl like herself who gets a boyfriend, makes friends with the popular kids, and goes to parties.

White people like to think we’re all emotionless study machines. They tell themselves that their kids might not do as well in school, but at least they know how to enjoy life. Well, I’ll spend a month enjoying life and then, oh, I expect it’ll “transform” me. I learned in English class that stories often end with the character having a staggering realization: an epiphany. And I expect to have one sometime right around September 28.

By the end of the novel, I’ll turn into a whimsical girl who harvests all the possible joy from each moment and lives a carefree existence and lets the future take care of itself and all that other bullshit.

Spoilers: That’s not exactly what happens.

Enter Title Here tries less than maybe any other YA novel I’ve ever read to make its protagonist likeable. Even when Reshma gets caught screwing up, she’s mainly sorry that she got caught and will have that much more of an obstacle in the way of her success. She’s cynical about her relationships — romantic, platonic, and parental — and even more cynical about the world she lives in. She’s cynical, but she’s not wrong: The goalposts for success in high school are clear, and she’s got a keen eye on how to meet them.

Kanakia does something really sensible in this book, given what an unreliable narrator Reshma is. (She lies about a lot of stuff that we only find out about when other characters do — and then Reshma says, oh yeah, I didn’t mention that before because it wasn’t a big deal.) It can be hard to tell what Reshma’s like as a person — where she’s all talk and where she’s absolutely living the way she says she’s living — so Kanakia has sensibly included a few characters who’ve got Reshma’s number. In her interactions with Alex and George and even the slightly-pitiful Aakash (whom Reshma selects to be her temporary boyfriend), we’re able to see Reshma’s loneliness, her honesty, her intensity, and her spots of vulnerability, in ways that she’s slightly concealing from us otherwise. It’s a neat trick in what might otherwise have been a rather cold-hearted book.

Huzzah Slytherins! (I’m not a Slytherin tho, I am a Ravenclaw, but still, Slytherins get a bum rap, and I liked Reshma.)

Review: The Caretaker, A. X. Ahmad

Mm, at last, a thriller set in Martha’s Vineyard that takes into account the bloody conflict between India and Pakistan (and sometimes China) over who rightly owns Kashmir. I read about author A. X. Ahmad in NPR’s 2015 Book Concierge, and yes, I am embarrassed that it took me over a year to finally read The Caretaker. But such is the life of a reader.

The Caretaker

I was kind of joking before — I have not been specifically yearning for a mystery novel set in Martha’s Vineyard that also incorporates the Kashmir conflict. But it’s kind of great that one exists. A. X. Ahmad has written two books about ex-Indian army captain Ranjit Singh and the mysteries in which he finds himself enmeshed, and this is the first. When Ranjit takes a job as a caretaker for the rising star politician Senator Neals, who recently negotiated the return of a hostage from North Korea, he anticipates a quiet winter for himself and his family as the Martha’s Vineyard vacationers clear out for the season. Instead he ends up embroiled in international intrigue and deception, his family slated for deportation as he scrambles to figure out what is happening in time to restore their life of normalcy.

I don’t read many mysteries and am therefore not particularly qualified to speak to whether one is good, but The Caretaker was an immensely satisfying read for me. Ranjit takes the job as caretaking with the intent of using the extra cash to buy a nice winter coat for his beloved daughter Shanti. When the situation spins wildly out of control, he remains competent and careful, working through the information he possesses to try and get the situation back under control. It’s a fun and exciting story with characters I enjoyed, and I’d definitely read a second one.

In not-so-great elements, here is where I have to cop to being extremely my father’s daughter. One time I was talking to my dad about some romcom he’d checked out from the library, and I asked him how he liked it. “I didn’t like it at all,” he said, the most indignant that a human man has ever been. “The guy and girl are cheating on their boyfriend and girlfriend! This was supposed to be a comedy!”

LOOK. I would JUST HAVE PREFERRED IT if Ranjit hadn’t cheated on his wife. I just would have felt happier about him as a protagonist is all, if he hadn’t slept with the Senator’s wife — not once! SEVERAL TIMES, a bunch of them while his wife and daughter were meantime in a detention cell.

Apart from that, an excellent read. I understand that Ranjit and his wife are separated at the start of the second book in this series, The Last Taxi Ride, so if Ranjit sleeps with any ladies in that one, I won’t have to be so fussed about it.

Friends, am I being unreasonable? Is it fine for people in books to cheat on their spouses and I should just suck it up and accept it as part of the literary landscape? Also, does it seem to you that dude detectives in ongoing mystery serieses are particularly prone to cheating on their spouses?

Murder Bunheads, the YA Series

Mmmm, this was the YA duology I badly needed, you guys. Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton saw into my soul and recognized that I have had a slightly grim reading year this far and that I needed a ballet boarding school book, the soapier the better. Tiny Pretty Things and its sequel Shiny Broken Pieces were there in the clinch.

Tiny Pretty Things

What a perfect book (and sequel) for my mood. Tiny Pretty Things follows three narrators at the American Ballet Conservatory: Bette, the blonde legacy ballerina whose bullying hounded another girl out of school the year before; June, who struggles with an eating disorder and always finds herself in second place; and Gigi, a rising star in the conservatory with an eye on Bette’s boyfriend. The book acknowledges that the ballet school is very white, but our narrators are more diverse: June is Korean, and Gigi is black. In a world of not nearly enough books about cutthroat ballet academies, there are catastrophically not nearly enough books about cutthroat ballet academies with protagonists of color.

As you’ll have gleaned from the previous paragraph, while these books are a lot of fun if Murder Bunheads are your thing (they are absolutely my thing, I would read a thousand books about Murder Bunheads), they do deal with some difficult topics you may not be in the mood for. June has an eating disorder, Bette pops pills, there’s racism in the ballet (shocking, I know), and there’s an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the second book as well as a severe allergic reaction leading to hospitalization. Plus, I mean, obviously bullying. THE MOST bullying.

“HOW ARE THESE BOOKS FUN THEN JENNY?” you may be screaming, and look, I don’t have a good answer. I like reading about Murder Bunheads, and I have done since I was a wee tot and I picked up Battle of the Bunheads at a book sale in Maine. These books are fun because the characters keep thinking of absolutely awful things to do to each other. Nobody is above it. Everyone is terrible. I would hate it if they were in any other setting, but since they’re in a ballet school I ate it up with a spoon.