Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng
There’s a scene about a third of the way into Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You that just about sums up, for me, the experience of reading it. The family members around whom the narrative revolves are still reeling from the death of the middle daughter, Lydia—I’m not giving anything away here; you find out about Lydia’s death in literally the first sentence of the book—and two police officers have arrived at their home to ask a few more questions. Marilyn Lee, the mother, begins shouting at the police, becoming angry and accusatory. James Lee, her husband, tries to calm her down and apologizes to the officers.
Now, this is a dynamic in family dramas that is familiar almost to the point of cliche—the hysterical mother, the conciliatory father—but reading it in this book was electrifying to me because of one detail that colors every interaction in the story, and which made it all so perfectly tangible for me: James is an Asian-American man, Marilyn is a white woman.
Suddenly the whole thing takes on a whole new dimension. Here’s a man who has spent his entire life being ridiculed and excluded, who wants so desperately to fit in and be “normal” that he’s dedicated his life to teaching college students about cowboy imagery. And here’s a woman who, dreaming of being a doctor in her youth, has spent years sublimating her rage at the condescension of men. I wondered as I read this, would a mainstream audience—and by that I meant a white audience—understand this? Is this something that is only obvious to someone like me?
After the officers leave, though, Marilyn accuses James of kowtowing and all of the subtext becomes text. No one is going to miss that. At least, I hope not.
And so it goes for the book as a whole, as well. In so many ways it is a familiar story. Literary fiction on the whole is thick with themes of family tragedy, of longing, of failed communication, and in that way Everything I Never Told You is perfectly representative of the genre. But by putting that story in the context of interracial marriage, and particularly with this racial mix, it becomes something new, something I can’t recall ever seeing before.
I almost feel a little guilty at how thrilling it was for me to read this book. Almost. But it’s not as though I haven’t also gushed over books where none of the characters looked like me. I recognize bits of myself all the time in other stories, but here it felt like a little whisper, the author saying, “I know you. That thing you felt—I felt it, too.” It’s not something I’m used to. Not this thing.
And there was so much I felt as I read this book. The intimacy of the narrative, the way each member of the Lee family is shaped by each other, by their histories, and by the way the rest of the world treats them, it all had me desperately pulling for them, which made each missed opportunity all the more heartbreaking. And if I saw echoes of myself in James Lee’s longing for inclusion, and then in each of his children’s lives as well, how much more infuriating did that make it when they were small to each other, when they hurt each other, when they were self-absorbed or oblivious? How much did it sting to reckon with the ways I must have failed to be the man I ought to be for my own family, good intentions or not?
It’s only February yet, but if Everything I Never Told You is not my favorite book this year, it will have wound up being an amazing year for me as a reader, because topping this experience is going to take some doing.
Started: 2/18/2016 | Finished: 2/25/2016
City of Blades
By Robert Jackson Bennett
One of the things I love about science fiction and fantasy—not the only thing, but one of them—is that they are really the genres most suited to exploring big ideas. You want to see what a world would look like where gods walked among us, where religion was not a matter of faith but of unassailable fact? Boom, you can do it. You want to see what would happen when such a world has its gods taken away? No problem. You want to see how people survive and adapt and get stuck and move on in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war? Not only can you do this, but you can make it as broad or as specific as you want. There are no boundaries beyond what you can imagine.
I’d say that Robert Jackson Bennett had a lot to live up to in writing a sequel to his 2014 book City of Stairs. It’s a book whose style and premise were unlike just about anything I’ve read before; a book with ideas that, though big, never overshadowed its wonderful characters; a book that was insightful and imaginitive and also a lot of fun to read. For all that, City of Blades may be even better.
Picking up about five years after the events of City of Stairs, City of Blades leaves the previous book’s protagonist, Shara, and instead follows one of the supporting characters, General Turyin Mulaghesh. Pulled out of retirement, Mulaghesh is sent to find a missing agent, who herself had been sent to investigate some strange occurrences in a city that was once the seat of the deity of war and death. As her mission unfolds, Mulaghesh finds that many things are not as dead as they seem, including her own past.
As before, the detective-story structure of Bennett’s book gives a strong feeling of exploration and discovery, and the world he has imagined lets him grapple with some pretty big concepts. What kind of world is left behind in the wake of huge, earth-shattering change? Where is the line between atrocity and necessity? Can we atone for the sins of our pasts? How much will we sacrifice in order to do what’s right, or what needs to be done, and are those the same things? Do old wounds ever really heal? Yet the book is anything but didactic. Like the best examples of the genre, it manages to be high-concept and fun, alien and familiar, plot-driven and well-characterized all at the same time. I haven’t had a chance to read his older works yet, but with this series Bennett has managed to cement a place as one of my favorite contemporary fantasy writers.
The third book is scheduled to come out next year, and I’m quite looking forward to picking it up. Until then, I’m happy to give this book (and its predecessor) my full-throated recommendation.
Started: 2/10/2016 | Finished: 2/17/2016
February Book Reviews
Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson: I have to admit that I had never heard of Jacqueline Woodson before the 2014 National Book Awards and what happened before her acceptance speech. This is to my own detriment, because, damn, what a writer. Feathers is a great example of how, done well, YA is a genre that is every bit as resonant and powerful as any other. The story is set in the early 1970’s, the main character, Frannie, is a sixth-grader in an urban middle school who is dealing with a lot of the same issues that we all recognize from that time in our lives: changing relationships with friends; the beginnings of awareness of adult life and concerns, especially with respect to one’s parents; the academic and social challenges of school. These are pretty universal themes, but the story is specific, and this is, I think, the source of its power. Because I obviously have no idea what it would be like to be a young black girl growing up in the 1970’s, attending an all-black middle school in a depressed part of the city. But I do know what it was like to be a young Asian boy growing up in the 1980’s, living in an affluent, mostly white town and being neither affluent nor white. And there are a lot of points of contact between the life I had at that age and Frannie’s life in this book, which helps make the parts where our experiences differed more accessible to me. (And this is to say nothing of the simple power of seeing one’s own experience represented, for those readers whose lives were like Frannie’s.) I’ve got a shelf of books set aside for when my kids are ready for them; this one is on that shelf, and I can’t wait to be able to talk with them about it. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell: It was an interesting experience reading The Bone Clocks relatively soon after Cloud Atlas; I often have trouble retaining details after I’ve finished a book, so if more time had passed I’m not sure if I would have noticed the callbacks and references in the newer book. As it is, I’m sure I missed some. Mitchell has referred to the shared universe of his novels as an “uber-novel,” and I hear that his latest book, Slade House, continues adding chapters to that story. For myself, I’m sort of stuck in between with this book. When I finished Cloud Atlas I was impressed by the ambition of the work but left unsure about whether it actually did anything for me, what it was saying or doing. Now that I’ve read The Bone Clocks and gotten a little more context, I’m starting to get a sense of Mitchell’s concerns, but I still don’t know whether the experience is one that I value a lot. Taken as a high-brow fantasy novel, there’s certainly a lot I could credit here: he builds an interesting world, and I think he does a good job of exploring the consequences of that world for his character, what immortality looks like, how the temptation to evil works, and so on. And the way he gives us such a close perspective on his characters—who are, I think, very well realized—is immersive enough to make me feel that connection with them that is necessary for a good book. Still, there’s something unsatisfying in it, for me at least. Taken together with Cloud Atlas, this book seems to show a certain obsession with mortality, with decay, with dystopia. I can’t say I blame Mitchell there, since my own obsessive nature focuses in that direction, too, but something about the way this book ends makes me wonder what the point of it all is. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie: One of the things about genre fiction that often gets overlooked by a certain type of literary snob is that, in many ways, genre allows a more effective medium for engaging in social commentary than so-called literary fiction. That’s not to say that all genre fiction is great at this—certainly there are many examples of ham-fisted diatribes dressed up in SF or fantasy clothes—but when done right, genre tropes and conventions provide a space for the commentary to operate within without drawing too much explicit attention to itself. That is, socially minded science fiction and fantasy can be more subversive. That’s mostly what I’m thinking about with Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series; here we have what is ostensibly a far-future space opera, but it’s really a very contemporary piece. It’s about a particular political moment that is happening right now, and in telling us a story about sentient starships and incomprehensible aliens and a space emperor whose consciousness is spread across multiple bodies, what Leckie delivers is a cogent and powerful examination of privilege and power dynamics and personhood. This series explores bias and struggle along multiple axes: race, class, gender, culture, and more. And it packages it all up in a story about war and diplomacy in the distant future. This gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while: that the greatest impediment to social justice is the inability for any person to ever live another person’s experience, to really know how someone else feels. And that the true power of art is that it allows us these points of connection, of being able to see things from another perspective. In this series, Leckie will challenge you, challenge the way you think and the things you take for granted, and she will do it in a way that is nonetheless remarkably entertaining. This is vital reading. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Updraft, by Fran Wilde: Speaking of Ann Leckie, I heard about Fran Wilde’s book Updraft via a recommendation on Leckie’s blog. So if you don’t trust my judgment, you can at least trust hers. I can say for sure that I wasn’t let down. One of the things that reading this book got me thinking about was the ways in which the human experience can be translated to so many different forms, different places and cultures, and still be recognizable and relatable. In this story, all of humanity (as far as we know) live on towers of living bone, which constantly grow and force people to ascend in order to survive. Below the towers, dense and deadly fogs swirl. Between them lurk invisible monsters that prey on the unwary. Trade and communication and travel between the towers is accomplished by flight using manmade wings. Now, that’s pretty far from the life you and I live, but you take that setting and add in a harsh coming-of-age story, and even though I can’t relate to flying tests or echolocation lessons or glider knife fights, there’s still something in there that I can recognize. I have no idea where this series is going to go from here (this is a self-contained story but the author is planning more in the same setting) but it’ll certainly be interesting to find out. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro: OK, so I have to admit: I have a bit of a crush on Kazuo Ishiguro. I mean, it makes sense, right? Here’s a guy who was born in Japan, raised in England by Japanese parents, who writes stories that are as British as anything Forster or Waugh or McEwan ever wrote. According to his Wikipedia page, in an interview he once said, “If I wrote under a pseudonym and got somebody else to pose for my jacket photographs, I’m sure nobody would think of saying, ‘This guy reminds me of that Japanese writer.’” You can see why this would resonate with me, right? And I love that he’s willing to write stories that blur the lines between lit-fic and genre. With Never Let Me Go he turns what seems to be a story about a boarding school into something science fictional and much darker. Here he writes a fable about a post-Arthurian Britain that reads a bit like Malory but also functions as an allegory for how societies forget the atrocities in their pasts. There’s a pretty powerful message in that allegory, but what I found worked best for me were the little character moments, particularly between the main protagonists, an elderly couple who are traveling to visit their son. Stylistically, The Buried Giant is rather broad, as you’d expect reading the sort of medieval legend this is, but the way Ishiguro manages to show the small intimacies between wife and husband, two people who’ve known each other a lifetime, it’s pretty wonderful. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown has been getting a lot of talk in SFF crowds since it came out last fall, and rightly so. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been comparing it to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or to Jane Austen or Patrick O’Brian, and certainly all of these comparisons are apt. I’d also throw in Stephanie Burgis’s Kat, Incorrigble books, which not only shares the Regency-era English setting, but also the frustrating way that no one ever listens to the protagonist. (In both Burgis’s books and this one there’s a narrative reason for this—in the former case it’s to highlight the unfairness of adolescence and in this one it’s because of racism toward the book’s black main character—but it’s still frustrating.) In any event, I am apparently a total sucker for anything set in this time period, fantasy or not. Those of you who don’t find the idea of English manners and magic spells terribly amusing may not find this up to their tastes, but I had a lot of fun reading Sorcerer to the Crown. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace: It’s a little difficult for me to describe this book in a way that makes sense, what with the way it blends genres and never fully explains itself. It’s part post-apocalyptic dystopian SF, part ghost story, and (sort of) part Greek myth. And it opens with a knife fight. I mentioned to the people who recommended it to me that I’ve been getting a little exhausted by bleak, brutal fiction lately, and certainly this had some of that same effect on me. The title character, Wasp, is an eighteen-year-old girl who hunts ghosts, a job she was raised for since infancy, which she received by killing her predecessor, and which she only keeps by killing the “upstarts” who would take her place. Bargaining for a way to escape her situation, she agrees to help a ghost enter the underworld and find the ghost of his friend, lost to him for hundreds of years. A lot of stuff is never really explained—why are there ghosts? What exactly happened in the war that destroyed civilization? Why are ghosts attracted to salt, and how does the Archivist’s magic work? Or is it magic?—but even though I was curious about these things, they’re not really the point. What you really have here is a story about struggle, about loyalty, about overcoming, about agency. And, telling that story, it comes to a really beautiful and moving conclusion. It’s an odd story, but it’s worth a look. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
As some of you may know, I've been working on a small edition of handmade artists books for my series "Sheets: A Love Letter." I'm still finishing work on that set of books, and I'm very pleased with how they're turning out. The one problem with handmade books, though, is that due to production costs and the amount of labor involved in making each one, I can't make them as affordable as I'd like. So, following up on a suggestion I got from Aline Smithson at a portfolio review last fall, I've decided to self-publish a softcover version of the book.
The new softcover book was designed by me and printed by Edition One Books, who were very easy to work with; I would definitely recommend them for anyone looking to for a short-run printer. The edition is 100 books, and each will be signed and numbered.
If you'd like to buy one, you can pop over to my online store, where they're available for $25 each. Patreon subscribers at any level also get 20% off, so don't forget to use your discount code when checking out if you're a subscriber.
A few more detail shots will follow at the end of the post. Thanks so much to all of you who have supported me over the years. It really means a lot to me.