Book Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

victorianThat Inevitable Victorian Thing
by E. K. Johnston
Fiction/Alternate History
327 pages
Published 2017

Representation, bitches! This book features a bisexual, intersex young woman. (I say woman, because she is female-presenting and uses female pronouns.) It also features a not-quite-love-triangle that turns into something more like polyamory. (Sorry, that’s a bit of a spoiler, but you can see it coming from a mile away, and the cover description heavily implies the same.)

It’s not realistic in the least – everything falls together nicely and it’s a bit of a “princess saves the day by virtue of being a princess” kind of plot. But the twist on the history is a very pleasant one – and making the British Empire an Empire that values diversity and the melding of cultures and not looking down on anyone because they’re different is a really nice change of pace. It’s a WONDERFUL bit of escapist fantasy given today’s world, I have to say.

I’d actually really like to see the darker side of this same world explored. One of the main plot points in the book is that there is a computer database of genetics. Everyone in the British Empire, when they turn 18, is encouraged to have their DNA sequenced and entered into the computer to find good genetic matches. They then have the opportunity to chat with those matches and eventually meet them. It’s accepted custom, and you’re definitely viewed as odd if you choose NOT to do it, though Helena’s parents were a love match and never had their DNA matched through the computer. Helena’s love interest is a boy she grew up with, she really only ran her DNA through the computer for kicks. So it’s not mandatory – except for royals. But that this computer and database exists leaves room for a darker side. What about genetic modification? Forced marriages for certain genetic outcomes? That has to be happening somewhere. That Inevitable Victorian Thing really only looked at the fun, light-hearted, good uses of this technology. I’d love to see the other side.

Oh – while the book definitely has a Victorian flavor, it’s definitely set in modern day, or perhaps a little past. It’s not Victorian era.

Fun little book. A good escape from a racist, homophobic world to a more diverse, accepting one. But a little TOO fluffy bunny for my personal tastes.

The book is set entirely in Ontario, making it part of my Read Canadian Challenge. You can find the rest of my Read Canadian books here:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure

From the cover of That Inevitable Victorian Thing:

Set in a near-future world where the British Empire never fell – a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that change people and the world.

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the Empire, a descendant of Queen Victoria I. The traditions of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage and a life of duty. But first she’ll have one summer of freedom in a far corner of the Empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the Empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and raucous country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the course of history in the process.

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Book Review: Next Year, For Sure

nextyearNext Year, For Sure
Zoey Leigh Peterson
Fiction
241 pages
Published 2017

(WARNING: SPOILERS AT THE END OF THE REVIEW)

I’ve been procrastinating on this review because I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this book. I liked it – but I didn’t. It was not at ALL my normal style of book, but it is about a topic near and dear to my heart. It was very realistic but also relied heavily on a stereotype.

So first off, Next Year, For Sure is about a couple opening up their relationship. Not just to casual sex, but to actual other relationships. (It’s called polyamory, though the word is never mentioned in the book.) Kathryn and Chris have been together for 9 years and have what everyone would call the perfect relationship. And they really do. But then Chris gets a crush, and Kathryn encourages him to follow up on it. The rest of the book is the year following this event, and how it affects their relationship.

I’ve mentioned previously that I am polyamorous – coincidentally, we opened up our relationship almost nine years in, but not because he had a crush. It was mostly because my husband is bisexual, and I wanted him to have the freedom to explore that. We’d been introduced to the concept by some friends of ours, and had discussed it for almost three years before officially opening up. So we had a lot more communication and preparation than the couple in the book did. However, the emotions that Kathryn goes through as Chris explores his new relationship are very, very accurate. We did not have the same end result as the couple in the book do (Spoiler: that’s a good thing!) but the feelings and thoughts that Kathryn has for a large part of the book I am intimately familiar with. Even down to the time she spends very, very sick when her husband is out of town with the other woman. That actually happened to me. I could have called him home (he was a three hour drive away) and on later reflection, all parties concerned agreed that I SHOULD have. (He did not realize how sick I was until he got home a few days later.) So it was really interesting watching all this play out in the book when so much of it felt so familiar.

I was, however, extremely disappointed with how the book ended. I feel a bit like I’m missing the last third of the book. I don’t feel like there was any closure, more like the author simply got tired of writing and just – stopped.

Quick digression before getting to the spoilers: the author is Canadian, so this book is part of my Read Canadian Challenge. You can find the rest here:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War

(SPOILERS FOLLOWING)

Another thing I was extremely disappointed by is Peterson falls back on the stereotype that opening up doesn’t work – that the first relationship doesn’t last in poly. Chris and Kathryn break up, though they remain friends. That bothers me. Some of the most solid relationships I know of are poly couples – one is actually a triad, and has been for several years. At least two others are LONGtime couples, where each partner has other partners. My husband has been with his other partner for almost four years now. We’ve had a couple of rough spots, ironing out how this works for us, but we’ve never come close to breaking up. So it’s frustrating to see a novel that treats poly in an otherwise positive light relying on an old stereotype of breaking up the founding couple. It just feeds into “obviously something is wrong in the relationship if they’re looking elsewhere.” So while the portrayals of emotions involved in opening up are SO. SPOT. ON. I find it really hard to recommend this book because of how it ultimately misrepresents something that has so little representation in media to begin with. I kind of wanted to throw the book across the room, to be honest.

Final verdict – it’s good. It’s probably worth reading, especially if you’re poly. But the ending SUCKS.

In typing the jacket description up, I was reminded of a few other things. One: the book alternates between Kathryn’s perspective and Chris’s perspective, but never gives us Emily’s perspective, and that’s a problem. There are three people in this relationship, not two. Also I’m a bit peeved at the last line of the description – it implies that true openness and transformation require the breakup at the end of the book, and that is not at ALL true. Again with the bad stereotypes!

From the cover of Next Year, For Sure:

After nine years together, Kathryn and Chris have the sort of relationship most would envy – warm and loving and deeply intertwined. But, as content as they are together, an enduring loneliness continues to haunt the dark corners of their relationship. When Chris tells Kathryn about his attraction to Emily, a vivacious young woman he sees often at the laundromat, Kathryn encourages him to ask her out on a date – certain that her bond with Chris is strong enough to weather whatever may come.

Next Year, For Sure tracks the tumultuous, revelatory, and often very funny year that follows. When Chris’s romance with Emily evolves beyond what anyone anticipated, both Chris and Kathryn are invited into Emily’s communal home, where Kathryn will discover new possibilities of her own. In the confusions, passions, and upheavals of their new lives, Kathryn and Chris are forced to reconsider their past and what they thought they knew about love.

Offering a luminous portrait of a relationship from two perspectives, Zoey Leigh Peterson has written an empathic, beautiful, and tremendously honest novel about a great love pushed to the edge. Deeply poignant and hugely entertaining, Next Year, For Sure shows us what true openness and transformation require.

 

Book Review: American War

americanwarAmerican War
by Omar El Akkad
Alternate Future Dystopia
333 pages
Published 2017

By now you probably know there are a few things I tend to enjoy in novels. Dystopias, Fantasies, Debut Novels, and Diversity tend to peak my interest, and American War is a dystopian debut novel by an Egyptian-Canadian author.

And it’s FANTASTIC.

El Akkad did an absolutely amazing job of weaving together the North/South rivalry of the US, climate change, the changing nature of energy generation, and US wars in the middle east to write an all-too-plausible novel about the US, seventy years from now.

Alternating between narrative chapters following his protagonist, and “historical documents” about the time period, he masterfully tells the story of how a terrorist is made. Because that’s what Sarat, his protagonist, is. Let’s make no bones about that. She is a terrorist. But she is a terrorist whose reasoning makes sense to us. Perhaps because the territories and the peoples are familiar to us, perhaps because we see how she grew up and what drove her to it – but the end result is a terrorist act on an unheard-of scale.

I’d like to think this book would make people look at refugees and terrorists in a new light – with more understanding and compassion and maybe with ideas to help actually combat the attitudes and circumstances that lead to terrorist acts. But I doubt it. I doubt this will change any minds that don’t already understand the underlying reasons.

My only quibble with this book is while he manages to weave together so many other issues facing our country right now, he doesn’t really wrap in racism. And I have a hard time believing our country is past racism 70 years from now.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find the protagonist is a bisexual, gender non-conforming woman of color. How awesome is that? And her bisexuality isn’t mentioned, it’s shown, her one on-screen sex scene (and it’s only barely on-screen) being with a woman. (She’s also attracted to a man in the book.)

The author was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, and lived in Canada, earning at least one award for his investigative reporting while working at The Globe and Mail. He’s one of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s 17 writers to watch this year, and I see why. American War is definitely one of my favorite books of 2017.

My other Read Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal

From the cover of American War:

In this fiercely audacious debut novel, Omar El Akkad takes us into a near future in which a politically polarized America descends into a second Civil War – and amid warfare, a family fights to survive.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the war breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, her home state is half underwater, and the unmanned drones that fill the sky are not there to protect her. A stubborn, undaunted, and thick-skinned tomboy, she is soon pulled into the heart of secessionist country when the war reaches Louisiana and her family is forced into Camp Patience, a sprawling tent city for refugees. There she is befriended by a mysterious man who opens her eyes to the injustices around her and under whose tutelage she is transformed into a deadly instrument of revenge.

Narrated by the one person privy to Sarat’s secret life, American War is a hauntingly told story of the immeasurable ruin of war – in a nation, a community, a family, an individual. It’s a novel that considers what might happen if the United States were to turn its most devastating policies and weapons upon itself.

Book Review: The Last Neanderthal

neanderthalThe Last Neanderthal
Claire Cameron
Historical/Literary Fiction
272 pages
Published 2017

Maybe I need to stop trying to read the more literary types of fiction. I’m always left with this vague mixture of “what the hell did I just read?” and “why did I just read that?” Like – I don’t know what I’m supposed to have gotten out of this book. It’s another Canadian author, it’s apparently an International Bestseller and one of the most highly anticipated Canadian books of 2017 – but it just wasn’t that good.

The book covers two parallel storylines – the last neanderthal girl struggling to survive, and the archaeologist, 40,000 years later, uncovering her bones in a cave with those of a modern human. The first storyline, of the neanderthal girl, requires a complete suspension of disbelief. We just don’t know enough about neanderthals or how they lived to make a story of it. It’s complete fabrication, presented as a plausible reconstruction. And the second set of bones is never remotely explained. I agree with several other reviewers – the book feels like it’s missing its second half!

I’m really disappointed in this book. All the lists made it seem like this book was spectacular, from a proven author, and that it would explore the “ultimate question of what it means to be truly ‘human.'” But I’m just left wondering what point was supposed to be made. The book did NOT live up to its description. The Neanderthals had more character depth than the modern day people did, and I find the assumption that this was the last Neanderthal to be weird. Almost nothing of the Neanderthal’s story is verified by the modern-day dig. Maybe if they’d mentioned some weirdness like “these bones were dated later than any other bones we’ve found” or SOMETHING.

Don’t bother with this book. I kind of wish I’d spent my time on something better.

From the cover of The Last Neanderthal:

Forty thousand years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard season, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate. Before long, though, the unforgiving landscape takes its toll and Girl is left alone to care for Runt, a foundling, even as she sets out to discover what remains of her kind. With the dangers of winter quickly approaching, Girl realizes she has one chance to save her people, even if it means sacrificing part of herself. 

In the modern day, archaeologist Rosamund Gale works well into her pregnancy, racing to excavate newly found Neanderthal artifacts before her baby comes. Linked across the ages by the shared experience of birth and early motherhood, both stories examine the often taboo corners of women’s lives.

Drawing on the latest science to explore a misunderstood people, acclaimed author Claire Cameron has penned a haunting, suspenseful, and profoundly moving novel that asks us to consider what it means to be human.

 

This is Book #5 for my Read Canadian Challenge.

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter Trilogy
#3 – Station Eleven
#4 – The Courier

Book Review: The Courier

courierThe Courier
Gerald Brandt
Dystopia/Sci-fi
297 pages
Published 2016

Oh this was good. This was rocketing sci-fi action reminiscient of Shadowrun – the corporations control everything, and everything is taped, tracked, and monitored. Cities have merged into giant, sprawling, multi-level megaliths, where only the top level is open to the sky, and the lower you get, the more squalor people live in. (And the lower the ceiling gets, too. Level one is a somewhat claustrophobic 5 stories high, and then a ceiling.)

Trigger warning for the book:

The main character has flashbacks of being sexually abused as a young teen, and they are fairly detailed. Perhaps too detailed – but they do give good motivation for why she fights so hard to avoid becoming a victim again. (There’s also a constant threat of injury, death, and torture, if she gets caught.) The sexual abuse wasn’t even hinted at by anything else I’ve read, so I wanted to make sure I pointed it out.

That aside, and even that is handled fairly well, it just took me by surprise – The Courier is pretty great writing. It’s the first of three books, currently – I don’t know if it’s a trilogy, or if there are more planned. The author is also Canadian and lives in Winnipeg, making this the fourth book for my Read Canadian Challenge! The Courier was actually on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s list of the 10 Canadian Science Fiction Books You Should Read.

I like that the main character evolved through the book – from a gruff courier who thought she was doing pretty well, but not really thinking beyond the end of the day and a shower, back slightly to running and licking her wounds while wondering why the world hates her, to “No, fuck this, and fuck these people, I WILL FIGHT YOU.” It was all a very believable reaction to some extraordinary events. There’s an excerpt in the back of the book for the second book, and the third book comes out in November. I will definitely be trying to get my hands on those. Unfortunately, my library only has the second book as an audio book. I’ll have to check the Enoch Pratt catalog.

From the cover of The Courier:

Kris Ballard is a motorcycle courier. A nobody. Level 2 trash in a multileve city that stretches from San Francisco to the Mexican border – a land where corporations make all the rules. A runaway since the age of fourteen, Kris struggles to make a life for herself, barely scraping by, working hard to survive without anyone’s help.

But a late day delivery changes everything when she walks in on the murder of one of her clients. Now she’s stuck with a mysterious package that everyone wants. It looks like the corporations want Kris gone, and are willing to go to almost any length to make it happen.

Hunted, scared, and alone, she retreats to the only place she knows she can hide: the Level 1 streets. Fleeing from people who seem to know her every move, Kris is almost out of options when she’s rescued by Miller – a member of an underground resistance group – only to be pulled deeper into a world she doesn’t understand.

Together Kris and Miller barely manage to stay one step ahead of the corporate killers, but it’s only a matter of time until Miller’s resources and their luck run out…

 

This is #4 for my Read Canadian Challenge!

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter Trilogy
#3 – Station Eleven

Book Review: Station Eleven

St11

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Dystopia/Post Apocalypse
333 pages
Published 2014

This was marketed as a dystopia, but it’s really more post-Apocalypse fiction. There’s a fine line between the two – and sometimes things can straddle it – but I wouldn’t call this a dystopia. So I’m a little disappointed there. Otherwise, it was good. I’m left not really sure how I should feel about it, though. I prefer books that make me feel a certain way – romances make me happy, non-fiction usually makes me feel smarter, like I’ve learned something, graphic novels make me nostalgic. I’m even okay with books like The Fault in Our Stars, or The Crown’s Game, that left me a weeping mess. Station Eleven just left me with an “…o-kay?” Like, what am I supposed to do with this? Unlike most dystopias, I don’t feel like it was a social commentary because it’s post-apocalyptic. (In this case, a virus swept through and killed about 99% of Earth’s population.) But at the same time, because it details events both before and after the apocalypse, I feel like it was trying to be?

The book focuses on how Arthur Leander, a famous actor, touches lives both before and after the apocalypse. It’s a little ironic that it focuses so much on him since he died before it happened. Well. As it started to happen, really, but of a heart attack, not the virus. It rotates between a few different perspectives, but the one used most often is that of Kirsten, who was a child actor in Arthur’s last performance. She survives the apocalypse and ends up traveling with “The Traveling Symphony,” a band of actors and musicians who travel between far-flung settlements around the Great Lakes. The name refers to a comic book drawn by Arthur’s first wife. There’s a dozen little coincidences in the book, leading to people who knew Arthur meeting or almost meeting, but affecting each others’ lives. There are also flashbacks showing Arthur’s life before the apocalypse, and how those people knew him.

I don’t know. It didn’t jump around as much as Oryx and Crake did, it was much easier to follow, but it just left me – meh? It wasn’t a bad book, but I don’t think I’d recommend it. I know other people have given it glowing reviews, so I might just be the odd person out.

A large part of the book takes place in Toronto and British Columbia, and the author is Canadian, so this book is my #3 for the Read Canadian Challenge!

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter trilogy

From the cover of Station Eleven:

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded, and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. 

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm, is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.