Mini-Reviews of recent reads

by Sunita

I’ve read a couple of shorts, DNF’d a new release, and am still mulling over a novel I had many many feelings about. In other words I don’t have lots to say about any of them at the moment, so here’s a brief roundup.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho

Nominated for a Hugo in the novelette category this year. I have Cho’s new full-length novel sitting on my ereader but I’m not quite reader to dive into that yet. I hadn’t heard of this story until I saw the Hugo list, and it is free to read at the B&N blog site. It’s more of a short story in length, in my opinion (the Hugo people obviously disagree), but there’s plenty here to sink your teeth into.

This is a lovely little story about Byam, an imugi who cannot seem to become a dragon no matter how hard it tries. And it has been trying for hundreds of years. In order to ascent to heaven as a dragon, an imugi has to be recognized as a dragon by a human. Byam comes close but never makes it. It gives up and unexpectedly finds itself in a loving and rewarding relationship with Leslie, a human. But imugi live much, much longer than humans, so what happens after Leslie?

Cho writes little jewels of stories in which there is always a deeper theme but one that meshes beautifully with the characters and plot that are front and center. The voice that I love from her other short stories and novelettes permeates this story, and it is funny, wise, heartwarming, and sniffle-inducing all at once. Go read it.

The Bewitching Hour by Vivi Anna (Harlequin TBR #510)

A short in the Nocturne Bites series that delivers a bit of story and a bit of romance. Part of a longer series set in the same world. I picked this up to read because it met the “something different” requirement for Wendy’s TBR Challenge category for March, but 40 pages seemed like a bit of a copout. Still, I’m glad I read it.

This short is set at a wedding where our two main characters meet. Fiona has paranormal powers that she can’t control very well, so she’s your basic adorable, cute, but clumsy heroine. Hector is a human in this paranormal world and works in the paranormal CSI unit with other regulars from the series. Since it’s a novella (maybe even a novelette) and they haven’t met before, they have to have lust at first sight, which they do, but it’s nicely done and competently written. I enjoyed it.

I have a number of Vivi Anna’s books from this series in the TBR and this one makes me want to read more, so I count that as a win. The Nocturne series has been hit or miss for me, but I have a bunch of them in the TBR and I’m glad to find an author whose books are likely to be hits. And I got to knock one off the Harlequin TBR!

Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza

I saw a very positive review of this novel in the Guardian, and I’ve been reading a fair amount of autofiction and Spanish-language fiction, so this seemed like a good fit. Alas, it was not to be. Gainza is an art critic who lives in Buenos Aires, and the novel integrates observations about art and artists with vignettes from her life. I found the art sections engaging and interesting, but the autofiction parts felt much less fresh and insightful. Not that her life isn’t worth reading about, but I never really had a sense of why I was reading it, and the style wasn’t enough to sustain my interest on its own. I quit at about 40% once I realized I was moving through events and scenes but not necessarily going anywhere. I may go back to it, but not right away. There’s too much I already know I want to read.

Phantoms by Christian Kiefer

I saw this novel on a number of coming-soon lists and put myself on the hold list at the library and I was #1, so I got it the week it came out. Readers, I have so many thoughts and feelings about this book. It’s set in Placer County, CA, an area with which I have some familiarity. It involves two storylines, one set during World War II and focusing on the war, Japanese Americans and internment, and the effects of both on two families, and the other set in the 1960s-80s and focusing on the long-term consequences of decisions made during the earlier period. The narrator is a Vietnam vet who has come back with drug addictions and PTSD and is living with his grandmother, away from his parents in Southern California. He becomes drawn into the families’ stories through his connection to one of them: the white family’s mother is his grandmother’s cousin.

The first chapter felt clichéd but then the second chapter made me think that that was intentional because the register changed and became much more effective. The perspective of the narrator worked well for me because while the majority of the storyline(s) revolved around nonwhite and female characters (and the narrator is a white man), it was his perspective on what was happening rather than an attempt to directly represent theirs. But then, toward the end of the novel, I realized that the book was as much about him as about the women or the Japanese American men, which kind of pissed me off. I wanted him to remain an observer, but in the end he was the one who came out doing the best from everything that happened. I can’t be more specific without massive spoilers, which I won’t give away since the book just came out. But I found it really frustrating and it made me angry that in the end, the white male narrator (whom I mostly liked), wound up pretty much embracing his privilege despite his awareness of how it benefited him and how others didn’t have it.

It retrospectively made his telling of the story of internment and its consequences, which so was not his story, feel far more problematic than it did at first. I can’t explain why very well but it made me almost angry to have read the book. I think it’s the combination of self-awareness and introspection about what he gained (and at whose cost) with the fact that his life, despite the legacies of Vietnam, turned out pretty damn well, especially compared to everyone else’s. And he didn’t do a thing to ameliorate anyone else’s losses. Add to that the repeated textual invocations of Great White Male Writers just in case we didn’t get the allusions to Wolfe, Faulkner, Styron, et al. (he even namechecked *The Confessions of Nat Turner*). Acknowledging your privilege (I’m talking about the narrator here) is neither a necessary nor a sufficient substitute for actually doing something with it and about it. I don’t really care how being blessed makes you feel. I care about what you do with those blessings, especially when they are born from the theft of what belonged to others.

But then again, maybe that’s the point. Maybe the fact that, in the waning years of the 20thC, the narrator is able to be the beneficiary of an inheritance that he acquired through the injustice, unfairness, and violence visited upon the nonwhite Americans who were his neighbors and friends, maybe that is the message that is meant to be conveyed. That’s certainly the reality of the situation that ends the novel, and the narrator is well aware of it. So maybe I’m looking for certainty when ambiguity is the goal. I just don’t know. I’ll leave you with the single paragraph that addresses this question head-on:

And of course there are other shadows here as well and a good many of them are my own. This place has been handed to me utterly without warrant: the house, the old orchard trees, even the remains of the home in which the Takahashi family once lived. It is difficult not to feel that the whole of it represents the spoils of some war in which I was, wittingly and unwittingly, a participant. … That the family was not destroyed by what the Wilsons—by what my family—did to them, a series of actions built upon a legacy of sanctioned violence both subtle and overt, is but a testament to their strength. And perhaps it is, too, a comment on my own weakness that, despite everything, I choose to live here with my own family, to occupy this place, a place which I have, in no conceivable way, earned.

Hmm, not so brief on that last entry. But it’s helped me work out some things about it. If you have any thoughts about what I’m grappling with, I’d love to hear them.