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Review – A Dream for Three

A Dream for Three, Bildungsroman Graphic Novel written by Jérôme Hamon and drawn by Lena Sayaphoum

Series: Emma and Violette #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Given that I don’t usually read simple slice of life fiction, it takes something special to even draw me to check one out. In this case, although the pastel softness of Sayaphoum’s art style initially caught my attention, what really cinched my interest was the story. Two sisters who both dream of getting into the Paris Opera Ballet School, but only one of them passes the audition. This upsets both of them, although I was surprised to find that it didn’t quite create the kind of rift I’d expected.

Despite the series title of “Emma and Violette” this is infinitely more Emma’s story–perhaps that will change as more volumes are released. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. Not only is Emma the one who fails the audition, a narrative position that carries considerably more weight and potential, but she is also the elder sister. Her life is further along, and a major theme of the story is moving on, as well as growing up and making choices. On the other hand, Violette comes off as nothing more than a background character, which isn’t very compelling to a reader looking for sibling drama and reconciliation.

The writing is a bit fast and loose as the saying goes, with a great deal of emphasis on “loose.” The main plot, Emma struggling with her perceived failure, is very strong, if a bit After-School Special in execution. Her mother once dreamed of becoming a professional violinist. She seems to be trying to succeed vicariously through being “supportive enough” to help her daughters achieve their ballet dream. However, she isn’t a crazy pageant mom, and I believed that enough of her drive was that she wanted the girls to be happy. The girls’ father is much more relaxed, as he keeps in touch with everyone’s feelings as a mediator. In my favourite scene, he takes Emma to a theatre, where she tries on costumes and he talks to her about all of the different things she can do with her life.

The subplots are where things sag in the middle. Emma and Violette have a fight, but it is not resolved. There are a couple of Mean Girl moments that amount to nothing–first because the character is not properly established and then chastised and removed without ceremony, and the was second immediately addressed before Violette can have any plot to herself. Emma has a love interest story that simply peters out. I won’t say it isn’t believable, but the way it plays out means yet another of the characters is inadequately utilised and worse, implies that he didn’t have to have a reason for his actions and it’s okay. It isn’t okay.

Still, the message of the story is eminently positive and unflinchingly clear. The art is fluid and lovely, with a soft prettiness that I adored. I don’t have daughters, and my children are much much younger than this, but I found the mother relatable. Not an easy thing for the writer to have accomplished. I’m sure the issues with Violette having less spotlight will be addressed in the very next volume, too. This is a sweet comic, and I highly recommend it.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – The Magic Misfits

The Magic Misfits, Middle Grade Bildungsroman/Coming of Age by Neil Patrick Harris

Series: The Magic Misfits #1

I wanted to adore this book and while I can’t say I was disappointed, I must confess that adoration was not attained. More than anything, it reminded me of The Mysterious Benedict Society, but for a different kind of kid. TMBS is for geniuses and The Magic Misfits is for performers.

This particular coming of age story is what I like to call The Nice One. A kid with no family or friends has an adventure and ends with both. Carter Locke is an orphan  taken in by his Uncle Sly, a thief and con artist. The two live hand to mouth until Carter makes the mature life decision that he will never steal. He runs away with Uncle Sly on his heels, managing to escape by jumping onto a moving train.

This takes Carter to a new town, Mineral Wells. His first impression comes from B. B. Bosso’s Carnival. Rigged games and picked pockets feed Carter’s cynical view that magic is only something people use to trick and take advantage of others.

This starts to change when he meets Mr Vernon, and later Leila, Mr Vernon’s adopted daughter. Leila’s friends take Carter as one of their own, and together they discover and foil a plot using their favoured magical talents.

It’s a simple, predictable plot, which is not to its detriment. The stakes don’t need to be the fate of humanity. One possible flaw brought on by simplicity is that with a couple of exceptions, the characters are either archetypes, or simply a collection of traits that most readers will have seen before. However, anyone who likes the surly wheelchair-bound Smart One will probably still love Ridley. I did. One need not be surprised to enjoy oneself.

The illustrations are wonderful, by the way.

It was lovely to read a book for children with adults who were kind and capable. The children drive the action without the adults having to be idiots or inexplicably missing. The writing style is companionable and charming. The narrator is a storyteller type that addresses the reader directly. I’ve seen this cause comparison with Lemony Snicket, and I disagree. This is a different beast—the narrator is not implied to be a character. It seems far more likely to me that it was written that way as a (not uncommon) style choice and to make the non-story chapters with jokes and magic tricks fit better. Of course, I also read Choose Your Own Autobiography, so I would believe it if that was just NPH’s preferred writing voice.

I would definitely recommend this to someone who likes cartoons and movies. The action scenes are fun and highly visual. Both sides of performance (audience and performer) are wonderfully depicted, and it’s fun to see the characters enjoying a show and trading secrets.

In the realm of books written by actors, this is closer to Hollow Earth than Among the Ghosts. Most of my reason for the lower than expected rating is that I’m not really the audience for this book. I was a misfit as a kid, but not the performer type. I also had some misconceived expectations. Just from looking at the cover, I anticipated a more profound and mysterious villain rather than a straightforward carnie bad guy. However, there are two more planned books, and there is a hint of questions unanswered.

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Review – Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, a Mystery by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It seems funny to say that there’s a lot going on in this book, since it isn’t particularly fast-paced. When pressed, I would call it a Mystery, but that’s an oversimplification. It also works as Women’s Fiction and Indian Fiction, and possibly even Literary Fiction. There’s even a romance, although it’s more of a subplot than a contribution to the multiple genres. The mystery itself takes a backseat most of the time, as the characters’ relationships and emotions are prioritised. I loved it all, from every side. This was the first of the books I managed to read in Recovery, and I’m sure it’s part of the reason I recovered so quickly.

Nikki is a modern sort of woman who struggles with her Sikh heritage. She carries a lot of guilt over her perceived failure to live up to the life her parents wanted her to have, which was made worse by the death of her father. Her life decisions show her desire to break away from tradition and embrace a more western philosophy of living–she left the family home to live in a flat above the pub she works in, lost her virginity long ago, and finds the idea of arranged marriage to be antiquated and undesirable.

When her sister asks Nikki to post a notice on the marriage board in the temple at Southall, Nikki soothes her own opposing views (“It’s against my principles,” she says) by finding the most obscure, covered part of the board. This is a great character establishing moment for Nikki. She isn’t so much lacking in conviction or particularly infused with it. More like opinionated and pigheaded about it, but not confident or secure enough in herself to make a clear stand. She talks a big game, and yet can be cowed by women she considers to be authority figures.

After accomplishing her unwanted task, Nikki comes across a flyer that appears to be requesting a creative writing teacher for a women only class. It appeals to her sense of feminism and drive to be a good person who does good works, and also promises supplementing income. She jumps right on it.

There are many other women whose story this is, particularly Kulwinder Kaur, and they are all strongly informed by past tragedy.  Most have managed to overcome it with a mix of humour and pragmatism. They join the class with the understanding that they’ll be learning basic literacy, and in an effort to escape the dull preschool-like curriculum that Nikki comes up with, the ladies start telling stories about sexual escapades. At first one of them transcribes while the others talk, but over time Nikki provides more streamlined and higher tech aides, such as a tape recorder.

It’s hard to talk about the mystery without getting into spoiler territory. It was one of the things I wasn’t completely aware would be a Thing before reading, although it somehow became one of the things I looked forward to the most. There’s a kind of rhythm to how everything comes up, which meant (for me) that some of the pacing could get a bit too slow while reading through a different subplot and wishing for more information about whatever I was more invested in at the time. While this could be almost frustrating, it did not result in any dropped plot threads.

There’s also a mystery element in getting to know all of the women. More and more come to the class, drawn by the rebellious fun of sharing dirty stories. Sometimes they tell more about the storyteller than a long conversation might ever have done. Everything from the prose to the pacing shines brightest when the narrative is focused on the characters.

The multiple crossing genres in this book make it an engaging read no matter what you’re looking for coming into it. The emotions are genuine and beautifully expressed. The characters are impactful. This is a book that stays with you.

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Thinking about Genre

If you go to TV Tropes (and I won’t link you, as that might be hazardous to your spare time), one of the first things you learn, after “TV Tropes will ruin your life,” is that “tropes are tools.” Genre is a collection of tropes that has been codified through repeated use. Some stories are half-genres (like vampire, werewolf, or zombie fiction), and some are… Westerns,

Genres, as tools, help to convey information to the reader in ways that aren’t necessarily explicit. When you write a Historical Romance, simply knowing that the story takes place in year 18XX in Country Y will tell you a lot about the story before you’ve even introduced the characters. When it’s done well, that is. Not naming any names.

Like the different shades of monster fiction, genres come in micro- and macro- versions, not to mention delicate little slices of subgenre representing mere collections of storytelling devices. Superheroes have seen a surge in recent years, but remember right after The Incredibles and the first X-Men films came out and everyone was taking potshots at capes and spandex? That didn’t get old effing immediately.

I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. In their original context, capes and spandex were part of a very specific collection of tropes (to be precise, circus strong-man tropes), and it’s important to remember and respect that original context. Maybe things have changed since then, but there was a reason for them. It isn’t random, and it certainly isn’t stupid.

Tropes and genres as a topic of discussion may seem modern, even post-modern, but it’s important to note that discussion of storytelling elements goes back to Ancient Greek theatre, and many storytelling elements we take for granted–such as the three- and four-act structure and the happy ending–are very, very old ideas.

Every so often though, you get a movie or a comic or a book or a game that breaks down what we call “genre conventions.”

Sometimes these works launch entire new genres of their own, or they’re the first (or last) nail in the coffin of a particular genre. Don Quixote is a famous work of parody-pastiche that deconstructs the chivalric romance, which was cliched even by the time Quixote was written. Harry Potter wasn’t the first boarding school fantasy, but it’s one of the most notable now.

When the elements of a particular genre become so well-known that you can create a shorthand for the collection of elements themselves, it becomes possible to write in multiple genres within one. Going back to superheroes, you might not consider it this way, but Jekyll & Hyde is about the same sort of questions. Identity, duality of same, the purpose of morality as a social construct, and what drives a pleasant person with a seemingly enviable life to discard it for a shadowy path.

Jekyll was even created by a fantastic serum that turned him into a monster. Obviously no one is ever surprised to learn that story was part of the inspiration for The Incredible Hulk. A less abstract narrative, certainly, which has grown to include elements of acceptance and tolerance, perhaps taken from Beauty and the Beast.

The language of storytelling is a living thing, constantly growing and changing. Storytellers who see success in one area, be it video games, books, or comics–will try to tell a similar (or the same) story in their own medium of choice. And through recombination, sometimes we see the progeny of these adaptations return to their original medium.

Interestingly, genres seem elastic. Though specific tropes may mature in the translation from one medium to the next, a Western is a Western is a Western, and everyone knows that when it comes to zombies–you always aim for the head.

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Review – Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Tash Hearts Tolstoy, Contemporary YA by Kathryn Ormsbee

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Give me more main characters who love a dead Russian author to the degree of counting him as a boyfriend! That was what initially intrigued me (by design, one might safely assume) and it mostly held up. I loved the way it informed Tash’s romantic asexuality. She’s so easy to identify/empathise with, that I still don’t know if that even reflects on me or if she’s just a well-written teen who is basically cool and decent. Flawed, obviously, but that’s part of the point of the story–she grows up and improves as a person by the end.

For the sake of context, I read this book in the long hours of pre labour. Breathing through increasingly painful contractions isn’t exactly a picnic, so I was glad to have this to ameliorate the stress.

Tash is a fairly sheltered young woman who takes a lot for granted. Her friends are always there for her (including her online crush), she knows where she’s going to school after graduation and what she’ll be studying, and her family is a strong support system. She and one of her best friends produce a Youtube serial adaptation of Anna Karenina called Unhappy Families, which gains an insane boost in popularity when an established Youtuber gives them some positive press.

Her negative reactions to sudden fame are a bit predictable, but they’re also understandable and realistic. I struggled a bit as her bad behaviour clashed with her perception of herself. For someone who professed to be so close to her friends and grateful for the closeness of her relationship with both friends and family, Tash does an awful lot of lying by omission, and generally withholds information to her detriment. While this is certainly part of her character arc and addressed in the text, I couldn’t help thinking that she must have been a pretty shitty friend for a long time if she was so unaware of how to communicate.

Also, for clearly personal reasons, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with her treatment of her mother after the announcement of an unexpected pregnancy. Despite repeated mentions that the pregnancy was unplanned, Tash and her sister both questioned their mother’s reasons for having a baby. How does one have reasons for something completely unplanned? Is this an implication that they think she’s making a choice by not having an abortion? She also gets maligned for “keeping it secret” which is stupid, because especially with a pregnancy at that age, one does not announce it until about the second trimester because of the chance of miscarriage in the first. I get that Tash felt displaced, but I didn’t sympathise.

Although I have to admit that I don’t think I would like Tash’s web series if it were a real thing, the portrayal of the work involved in the production, especially the rough bits like stuff that can ruin a day’s shooting, was wonderful. The young actors run the gamut from Casual and always late to Overly “Professional” and insufferable but suffered because of Talent. The latter character actually surprised me in the end, which was awesome.

There’s some great representation for marginalised teens in this book. Not only is Tash herself asexual, but one of the actors in Unhappy Families is gay, and another is bisexual. It’s all very easygoing and natural, without too much underlining.

Although she is the main character, Tash still manages to take up more narrative real estate than necessary, which has the effect of leaving all of the other characters feeling underdeveloped and some go sidelined overlong because Tash is too wrapped up in herself. It’s brilliantly meta, as it ties directly in to her character arc.

The romance is about as predictable as the Youtube Stardom main plot, but once again, it’s done well enough that I wouldn’t really count that as a mark against the book. Tash’s relationship with her online crush develops slowly, and she gets to enjoy it as one of the things going well for her, but it’s also a major point of stress thanks to her not being out and not having a clue how to come out to basically anyone.

This is a great read overall, but particularly effective if you’re looking for something satisfying and not too twisty or demanding.

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Review – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Standalone by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Series: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

At first, I thought I was less than impressed because it was super reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, particularly Dandelion Wine. I need to be in a very specific and rare mood to enjoy Dandelion Wine type books. However, as I kept going (and skimming through the first third), I realised that Aristotle’s uneven narration isn’t actually worthy of the comparison. There are lines here and there that shine, but it’s mostly the writing equivalent of stage tricks that one finds in lazy literary fiction. Repetition masquerading as strengthening an observation or impact, over-simplification (at its worst when “depicting” a romantic kiss between any couple), and my favourite: general wheel-spinning.

Like many a disappointing LGBTQ romance with only one character’s perspective, the romance is less romantic than it is distressing. For most of the book, Ari not only denies so much as being attracted to Dante, but genuinely seems to be telling the truth. The 180 turn at the end was simultaneously a relief and a betrayal. It felt like watching someone do a crappy magic trick and hating the entire performance because I knew how it was done.

There’s also a smattering of boring rehashes of things from other similarly plotless gay romance, like sexless female friends, physical assault (no conclusion, because that would look too much like plot and too little like tastelessly trading on the existence of hate crimes), and too-easy acceptance because there’s only a few pages left before the end.

What had the most positive effect on me was when the titular characters talked about being “Mexican enough.” As a mixed race Mexican American, I worry about being perceived as too white. Dante’s worries that he wasn’t Mexican enough made me cry, and Ari’s joy over having a properly Mexican pick-up truck felt super familiar. It wasn’t a major part of the book, and it didn’t always resonate with me, but it was still nice to read it.

This kind of slice of life narrative is not usually my thing. When it’s done badly, it suffers from nothing much going on. Anything that does happen runs the risk of never concluding, underlining the nonexistent plot, or being superfluous. I never liked Ari as a character, even when I sympathised with him, and Dante felt like a good character who was often literally shuffled out of the way. Not very romantic. Even their friendship seemed tenuous and its lifespan can only be explained by the words “author mandate.” I feel like I know what this book wanted to do, and yet I can’t deny that it was executed poorly.

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Bad Day (freewriting)

In a competition for shittiest day, Ludy knew she wouldn’t win. She watched the news. Read books. People survived bombs, spousal abuse, and hurricanes. Her day had merely been a personal black cloud. Cartoonish. Still enough to soak her through and dampen her smile.

A literal rain storm brewed overhead, threatening to reward her imagery. She had an umbrella, but it was busted. Barely good enough to beat off a mugger, which had busted it even more. At least it still added to her outfit. Cheery pink and dotted with tiny white flowers. The perfect addition to her light blue sundress and grey jacket. Scarf with a duck pattern.

The scarf was the only thing that had survived her day. The jacket had lost a sleeve, and a rakish tear in the dress’s neckline prompted her to walk with her arms up. As if she were a boxer about to begin a match.

The skies opened up, weeping with a thousand unseeing eyes. Ludy stared into the rain with wide open eyes, baring her teeth like a wild animal.

And got a mouthful of dirty water.

Choking and cursing, she lashed out. She spat. Her arms swung, fast and hard. Her tantrum cut off suddenly as she realised that she had struck something. The way her day had gone, she should have expected a wall, but it was too soft. Something living. Not a stray dog with rabies, which she also should have expected.

A human man wearing a crisp business suit and a shocked frown. He held a cell phone to his ear, hovering as if it were more important than a crazy woman hauling off and smacking him in the street while she swore like a hobo.

She scowled at his umbrella. The source of the waterfall that had gushed over her face. “You should watch where you’re going,” she snapped.

“You hit me.”

“You nearly drowned me!”

He stared at her, clearly uncomprehending. “We’re on the sidewalk.” He looked around, as if he honestly had no idea where they were. “In front of a Chinese restaurant. How could I drown you?”

Words did not come. She spluttered for a few seconds. While her day had not been car-bomb bad, it had certainly been spread-the-misery bad. She snatched his obviously expensive black umbrella out of his manicured fingers and held it at just the right angle to show him exactly what he had done to her.

To his credit, he did not flail about and strike her. He coughed and spat water onto the sidewalk.

“Like that, you bitch.”

It would have been a good exit line, but he was still bent double. She didn’t want to just drop his umbrella and run away like a criminal. Her patience was rewarded when his coughing turned to laughter. An apology lurked in there, even as his suit went shiny, ruined in the strengthening downpour. “I’m sorry.” He held out his hand. “My name is Ivo.”

“Ludivine. Ludy.”

As she shook his hand, his eyes widened. “Are you okay?”

She laughed. It didn’t sound as good as his laughter. Her voice, always high and reedy, had become raspy in the freezing damp. “If I were any less okay, I would have to start screaming.”

“Do you need a doctor? Your dress…”

“You should see the other guy.” She held her hands up to her chest again. Jumped when Ivo covered her shoulders with his jacket. “Hang on, I don’t–”

“It’s the least I can do after I almost drowned you.”

He had already done the least. He’d apologised. It had been the first time she’d heard the word ‘sorry’ since she’d caught her ex in bed with two other women. It sounded better coming from Ivo. “I guess it is.”

“Are you hungry? We’re still standing in front of a restaurant. We could go inside it.”

Even wet, the jacket was warm. Her ducky scarf tickled her nose, pressed sticky against her skin. “Why not? I like Chinese food.”