Review: The Walled City

Details: Graudin, Ryan. The Walled City. New York, NY: Little Brown.Walled City

Keywords: China, Kowloon, young adult, thriller, prostitution, drugs, Triads

The Walled City is a young adult novel inspired by Kowloon’s Walled City. Written by Ryan Graudin, this novel focuses on three characters who are either trapped, or have chosen to stay, within the infamous, dangerous, and anarchic shanty town outside of Kowloon City, Hong Kong. The Walled City is governed by triads, with little influence over affairs by external police or governmental forces.

The three characters — Jin Ling, Mei Yee, and Dai — come together to complete a dangerous task that, should they fail, will likely result in their painful deaths. In addition to having to survive the treacherous environs of the City, each character quests for a resolution to their own burdens and moral quandaries:

  • Jin Ling, who disguises her female identity by dressing as a boy, must rely upon a stranger for assistance in finding her sister, who was sold into prostitution by their father. But first she must learn to trust the stranger with her burdens.
  • Mei Yee, as the sister sold into prostitution, must decide whether the risks of angering the Triad leaders at her brothel are worth the possibility of freedom. But first she must find bravery within herself to do so.
  • Dai, with a mysterious past that involves considerable personal wealth and no known reason for living in the Walled City, attempts to bring down the Triad leaders at Mei Yee’s brothel. The reader then discovers that he is seeking redemption for his role in his brother’s premature death.

If you have ever seen the film Run, Lola, Run with Franka Potente, then you already have a sense of the pacing within this novel. The breakneck velocity of this story superbly underscores just how dire the situation is for Jin Ling, Mei Yee, and Dai. Furthermore, Graudin spends a great deal of effort on the nuanced depictions of both internal and external conflicts for all of the characters, and this attention to character development really pays off.

Excitement Level: Four Stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: A Criminal Magic

a criminal magicDetails: Kelly, Lee. (2016) A Criminal Magic. New York: Saga Press

Keywords: Sorcery, Magic, 1920’s, Mob. Fantasy

Review:

I have to admit this book left me feeling a little bit stumped. The concept is amazing: prohibition era, but instead of alcohol being illegal, magic is what has been forbidden. I mean, come on. That is genius right there. And it was a really fun read for sure, but after finishing I felt like it wasn’t as memorable as it could have been.

The story follows two characters: Joan, a young woman with a dark past who finally embraces her magical powers in order to help her poor family; and Alex, whose father was arrested for a magic racket in which Alex was the key sorcerer. He has since joined the Federal Prohibition Unit, the force dedicated to taking down magic. Both end up working for the mob (Alex as an undercover agent), and the stakes get increasingly high as Joan’s dark past comes back to haunt her.

Again, I loved the concept of this book. And I think that Lee Kelly did a great job of building her own unique style of magic. It was both something that could be beautiful and really scary, which lead to some fascinating great scenes. The use of magic as a drug, the so-called “shine,” was also a brilliant plot point. The draw to using magic and the danger that it posed was a perfect juxtaposition, mirrored especially in Joan’s character. She was both naive and worldly and this comes through in the choices she makes surrounding her magic.

I can understand that Joan might be a frustrating character for some people. She makes some pretty poor choices and continues to justify them to herself throughout the novel. But I found that her choices, though bad, made sense in the context of how broken she was in some ways, so I thought it lent credence to the character that she wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. Besides, there wouldn’t be much of a story without those decisions.

Alex was also an interesting study in juxtapositions. In some cases he could be quite self-destructive, but his drive to do well by his family and escape his past put him in positions where he had to be more careful. When Joan and Alex finally meet, it makes sense that they would be drawn to each other based not only on their pasts, but also on this inherent tension in what they want and need versus the actual reality of their lives at the moment.

So this book has a lot going for it, and the story and characters were definitely intriguing. I’m not sure what it is that is missing that made me want more from the story. Another review I read mentioned that they thought Kelly did not use the setting of the 1920’s enough, which I can see. To add to that, I also think it could have been a little grittier, what with the mob playing a pretty big role in the story. Sometimes it just felt too clean.

But I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. The danger felt real and I was invested in the characters and their relationships. Based on the writing, I am curious to read Kelly’s other novel City of Savages.

Excitement Level: Four “Shine” induced stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: The Dark Days Club

TDDC
Nearly 500 pages of awesome.

Title: Goodman, Alison. The Dark Days Club. New York, NY: Viking Books.

Keywords: demons, magical abilities, orphans, young adult, Regency England

Caution: Some plot points ahead.

The Dark Days Club is written by Australian novelist Alison Goodman. Goodman wrote the acclaimed Eon / Eona fantasy duology (which I have not yet read but plan to), and teaches creative fiction courses to graduate students at the university level. The novel depicts a young English woman on the eve of her Court Presentation during the Regency Era of Britain (roughly from 1811 to 1820, depending on the historian you cite). Events become complicated when the young woman discovers that a maid has gone missing, and that a dear friend has been ruined in the eyes of Society.

Readers learn early on that Lady Helen Wrexhall comes with a tainted past, having been born to the notorious Countess Catherine Wrexhall, a noblewoman with a mysterious (and possibly treasonous) past prior to her death by drowning. Thus, Lady Helen is warned against being too similar to her mother; too unfeminine, for she is tall; and really, too anything. She lives with a proper aunt and a horrendous, abusive uncle, and wrestles with excess energy and boredom. Until she meets the infamous Lord Carlston and discovers that she is a Reclaimer, an individual with inherent abilities that allow her to remove the various types of Deceivers — essentially, demons — from human vessels and in doing so, reclaims human souls. The Reclaimers, and along with several allies, belong to The Dark Days Club — a group of determined demon hunters based in England.

I was not surprised to discover that Lady Catherine had also been Reclaimer, and that Lady Helen’s direct inheritance of these magical talents is a key plot point in the novel. Here are a few more details:

  • Pacing: The novel’s pace / timeline is superb. The story seems to unfold at a pace that is exactly right for this particular novel and these particular characters. Goodman allowed sufficient time for true character development throughout the novel, and then would juxtapose the story or character exposition with exciting action. As a result, an otherwise fantastical story has a unique ring of authenticity and a distinct sense of reality.
  • Prose: You can tell that Goodman is a creative writing professor by her prose. She practices what she preaches: Nary an adverb in sight, and each paragraph on every page feels like it had individual attention.
  • Research: The Dark Days Club is very well researched. Abundant historical references from the Regency Era were introduced to add pertinent details to the story, around which then Goodman centered important plot points. This resulted in an enhanced story, one that did not hit the reader over the head with the lengthy bits of research-laden exposition.
  • Magic, Religion & Cosmology: While demon hunter stories abound on today’s bookshelves, this novel’s take on demon hunters (set against a Regency backdrop) is fresh enough to warrant a second look. Furthermore, Goodman smartly ensures that Lady Helen has enough religion (an accurate and authentic experience of the young noblewomen of that time) to warrant sufficient inner turmoil about the existence of immortal souls and Deceivers and Reclaimers and alchemy.

I enjoyed The Dark Days Club. With so much to love about this novel, I felt that I had an embarrassment of riches to discuss in this review. The book was crafted through such deliberate, masterful decisions that I could relax and enjoy both the story and the craft without ever being jarred out of my suspension of disbelief. Escapism at its finest.

Excitement Level: #Awyiss

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Bad Feminist

Title: Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Bad Feminist
Let’s all be bad feminists.

Keywords: Essays, feminism, intersectionality, non-fiction

Note: I wrestled with whether to categorize this as ‘Required Reading’ or as a ‘Review.’ I will stick with ‘Review’ for now but know that it was a difficult decision…

I finished Bad Feminist last week, and since then, I cannot stop thinking of this powerful, hilarious, and moving collection of essays. Gay is an astute cultural and literary analyst, and a professor at an unnamed college in a Midwest state in the United States. Her prose is especially well written: concise, unpretentious, and every word is there for a specific purpose. Her essays read as an effortless exercise in the art of analysis.

First things first: Gay writes that feminism is a movement created by people, and people are fallible, irrational, and can be assholes (my emphasis). This is true. So when she goes on to explore, dissect, and otherwise ruminate over myriad topics such as reality television programming or Scrabble championships or Daniel Tosh’s infamous rape joke, Gay proceeds to examine each subject in nuanced and careful ways. It’s not enough to simply analyze a topic. Instead, she also strives to identify how associated variables impact the topic at hand. I’m terribly impressed by this approach; this kind of analysis yields incredible rewards for the reader. As I read the text, I often had the sensation of luxuriating in these careful details.

As I read through her essays, two main themes resonated with me:

  • Feminism is not a catch-all movement. What I mean is that the movement doesn’t promise you that you can have it all, and the Kate Spade purse, too. What I found most memorable is Gay’s assertion that people, as a whole, should adjust their improbably high expectations of the feminist movement to something more… realistic. Feminism = Equal opportunity for all genders to have choices in matters economic / financial, digital, social, and cultural.
  • Feminism is contextual. Unfortunately, equality does not mean equity. Throughout several of her essays, Gay examines how the mainstream feminist movement does not equitably address the needs of any person who is not white, able-bodied, cisgender, and heterosexual. Historically, the feminist movement in the United States has barely acknowledged — let alone addressed — how the combined cultural legacies of racism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity, and rigid gender roles (and identities) impact people; how these cultural and systemic factors prevent equal access to the very opportunities ostensibly provided by the feminist movement. It is crucial to recognize such facts.

Gay is a champion at identifying each piece of the intersectionality puzzle in her essays. Incredibly (in my opinion), she makes the exercise look simple. Gay is rightfully discomforted that she exists in a system that fails to meet so many people’s needs, and she captures very well the persistent and disquieting despair that bleeds into a person once they realize this fact.

I enjoyed Gay’s work with a profound appreciation. So few writers can be thoughtful and authentic about such difficult topics, and I feel grateful that I get to read these essays. If you’re interested in learning more about Gay but cannot commit to Bad Feminist right now, I highly Gay’s delightful TED Talk (available here). Her last line is as close to perfect as I can imagine on this topic: “I am a bad feminist. But I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Excitement Level: All the stars in this galaxy.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Haruki Murakami

A while back, I was reading Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of short stories. I have read a few other Murakami books (including his non-fiction Underground, about the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, which I highly recommend. I think sometimes American’s forget that terrorism exists in other countries—what? Other countries?—and this book is a testament to global violence). I would consider myself a fan of his work. But about halfway through the book, I realized something: I didn’t understand about 60% of what I was reading. And that is probably being generous.

For those of you that don’t know, Haruki Murakami is probably the best known Japanese author outside of Japan. He studied at Waseda University, and I only mention that because I made a little pilgrimage, and their literature department has its own library. A library only devoted to works of fiction to be used by writers for reference purposes. I may have peed my pants a little. Got to hand it to the Japanese, they appreciate their art. Here, have some of my pictures, because everyone loves to look at other people’s travel photos.

Anyway, Murakami has won a million awards, including the Franz Kafka Prize, which Wikipedia tells me that to win, your work has to exhibit “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times.” Haha, no problem! I bust crap like that out every day! I’m just filled with human validity. Now, excuse me while I partake of some ugly sobbing.

Murakami’s writing is filled with all of those themes, all beautifully crafted in a gloss of post-modern melancholy that I find both appealing and so damned frustrating, because sometimes YOU JUST WANT A HAPPY ENDING! STOP WHINING YOU OVER EDUCATED, OVERSEXED PROTAGONIST! His themes include violence, loss, and the subconscious. He is ridiculously well versed in Western culture, especially music, and interweaves this knowledge without you ever thinking he’s name dropping just cause he can. He plays around with reality and fantasy in ways that will blow your mind. So basically, Haruki Murakami wins. At life. And is better than you could ever hope to be.

Going back to my original point:

I could not make sense of a lot of what was going on in The Elephant Vanishes. But I still enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed what I did understand. I enjoyed the language. I enjoyed the different world view of reading a non-Western author. Murakami is a highly celebrated author, and my permanent “what?” face while reading should have made me feel like my AP English tests should be revoked. But I ended up not caring, and just reading.

What I am trying to say is I think that we are trained from an early age that everything must have some kind of deeper meaning. And if we don’t understand that meaning, we must be uncultured idiots. Even if you didn’t go to college, this idea was hammered in by high school. I still have my 12th grade English teacher’s horrible voice screeching in my brain when I approach a difficult book: “What’s the undergirding, overarching theme?” To which now, in the safe anonymity of the internet, I can finally reply you can take your undergirding and shove it up your overarching. And I say good day, Madame. I said good day!

So we get scared to explore challenging material, because of the fear that we won’t be able to identify and analyze the one sentence that that one character said on page 360, that other people have told us is important. And it probably is. But guess what? It’s not so important to be able to comprehend every microcosm of Heart of Darkness. What is important is whatever you end up getting out of it. Whatever speaks to you personally, as well as going out and finding stuff you may never have read because you thought it would go over your head.

Basically, go read. Read all the things. Try long books and poetry. Try philosophy and science. Hell, try a Murakami. Find what meaning you can and just enjoy the thrill of reading beyond your comprehension. I am someone who believes deeply in the power of books as a medium of learning and growing. So read. And grow. And learn. And don’t ever apologize for what you chose to take away from a book.