Book Review: The Book of Etta

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Image: Goodreads

Rating: 5 out of 5

Last year I dubbed Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife as my favorite read of 2016, so it’s no surprise that I was super psyched to read its sequel. The second novel in The Road to Nowhere series takes place a century after the time of the original midwife, and it was a thrill to experience how this world has changed.

The book features Etta, who feels stifled by the glorification of women after the plague decimated most of the female population. In a dystopic world where women are scarce, the residents of the city called Nowhere have decided that the only roles worth valuing are mothers and midwives. After all, keeping the human race from going extinct is a top priority.

Etta prefers to contribute to society in a different way, by raiding nearby cities for much-needed supplies and saving women and children from sex slavery. This has always been a man’s job, but Etta has always felt more comfortable as Eddy, her identity on the road.

Initially, Etta considers Eddy as more of a means of survival, but as their journey merges, the gender binary fades away. Elison deftly portrays the struggle of a black trans man who has experienced sexual trauma and must balance his feminine and masculine natures within societies that define these natures differently.

It was so interesting to compare Eddy to the original midwife, because although their strengths are similar, they are derived from unique ideologies. Eddy has a great heart, but his rigid dichotomy of good vs. evil is often at odds in situations with plenty of grey area. These ethical dilemmas raise several thoughtful questions, like whether negotiating with sex slavers is a form of enablement or protection.

And if you’re like me who has little experience with trans literary characters (recommendations are welcome!), this novel is inclusive without being heavy-handed. In fact, it’s refreshing that Eddy himself does not have all the answers to gender identity and even has a poor knee-jerk reaction when a trans female love interest comes out to him. The reader’s mind widens as Eddy’s does, making him a wonderfully flawed, relatable protagonist.

I consider Meg Elison a good colleague and friend of mine, so I may be biased when I say that her novel has everything you could want in a post-apocalyptic tale: diverse, multi-dimensional characters, amazing world-building and a level of suspense that rises to an explosive climax.

When Eddy marches on Estiel (formerly St. Louis) to take on the Lion, the tyrannical leader of the sex slavers who keeps lions and tigers as pets, in order to save his loved ones, I couldn’t read fast enough. Those last 100 pages flew by, and I literally gasped at every twist and turn.

All in all, this is a phenomenal sequel that lives up to its predecessor, and I cannot wait for the next installment. I’m calling it now — get on this bandwagon immediately, because I imagine that The Road to Nowhere will lead to somewhere special.

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Book Review: Red Rising

15839976Rating: 2 out of 5

It saddens me when a close friend of mine recommends a book to me, and I can’t enjoy it no matter how hard I try. And believe me, I tried.

In this case, I was not only given Red Rising as a Christmas gift, but also the entire dystopian trilogy by Pierce Brown, and let’s just say that I’m not looking forward to the sequels.

As a fan of dystopia and science fiction, I was optimistic about this novel at first, but the longer I read, the more I realized that it was a cardboard cutout of The Hunger Games on Mars.

(Not that the setting even mattered. Other than a few references to gravity, this story was just another tired war tale.)

If eye-rolling was a sport, I’d win an Olympic medal reading this drivel. It’s difficult to tally all my complaints about Red Rising, so instead of trying to create full paragraphs around them, let me just list the reasons why I couldn’t stand this novel.

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  • A trite caste system based on colors, of all things. Golds are the best, Reds are angry, and Pinks are sex workers. Ho-hum, yawn.
  • Speaking of originality, all the Gold children are divided into houses based on Greco-Roman mythological figures. Because why bother with the hassles of world-building when you can just copy and paste?
  • The so-called protagonist, Darrow, is the best miner—sorry, Helldiver—there ever was. How do we know this? Don’t worry, he tells us five billion times.
  • Helldiver is just one of countless nonsense words that Brown invents to sound cool. The jargon isn’t describing anything new, so it’s yet another distraction.
  • The misogyny and homophobia in this book abound. The only way these outer space frat bros can ridicule each other is by using pejorative terms for women or gay men, because femininity is the worst of all sins apparently.
  • As for the actual female characters, they all fall into these categories: martyr, love interest, backstabber or whore. The only one who can be considered “strong” is called Mustang, because it’s better to be associated with horses than women.
  • Darrow is the absolute worst. Imagine if Ender from Ender’s Game wasn’t a bullied genius who just needed a few lessons in empathy, but rather a straight-up pompous asshole? I so wished that this book wasn’t in first-person present, because being in that narcissistic head of his made me want to blow my own brains out.

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Okay, I’m going to stop there, because although I could rant for pages, it would only make me grumpier. If I could put a positive spin on this, it’s that if a piece of utter crap like Red Rising can get published, then my writing certainly can too!

Has anyone else read Red Rising? For a bestseller with its own upcoming movie franchise, I’m curious to hear whether my opinion is unpopular or right on point among fellow book bloggers. Share your thoughts in the comments!

Book Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 5 out of 5

Happy Labor Day weekend everybody! I’m happy to announce that after eight whole months of nothing truly wowing me, 2016 has finally delivered an amazing, five-star read!

This book is extra special because I have the pleasure of knowing the author personally! By day, Meg Elison sits two desks down from me as our company’s social media guru/ninja/*insert nauseating Silicon Valley title here*, but off the clock, she managed to find the time to pen an award-winning novel…no big deal!

I’m super excited that I love this book too, since it would have been really awkward to face Meg at work if I thought her baby was ugly, so to speak. However, despite our close acquaintance, I promise to review her book as honestly as I would any other (it helps that she’s currently at Burning Man, so it’s not like she’s looking over my shoulder as I write this!)

First published in 2014, I received an ARC of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife from Meg for the re-release by publisher 47North on October 16. As the title suggests, this novel tells the story of an unnamed midwife living in San Francisco when a mysterious plague wipes out the vast majority of humanity. Even stranger, the disease affects women and children more so than men, creating a literal battle of the sexes as everyone tries to survive.

A word of warning: This book is unapologetically, heartbreakingly graphic. When the protagonist wakes from her bout of the sickness and discovers her husband missing in this post-apocalyptic world, she immediately realizes just how valuable she is when she’s forced to fight off and murder a rapist who breaks into her home.

As she travels northeast from the Bay Area, she must face the sick reality of predatory men enslaving, raping, and otherwise brutalizing what’s left of the female population. Disguising herself as a man, she uses her experience as a midwife and access to contraceptives to help other women navigate their horrific new normal.

Without giving too much away, which is so difficult since there are countless wonderful aspects to this story to discuss, I found The Book of the Unnamed Midwife so suspenseful and engaging that I gobbled it up in just a few days. From her standoff in the woods to her time spent in Utah with a Mormon sect, I had to know more about this character.

It helps that this book was clearly written for a reader like me. Although I can’t speak for her, it’s obvious that Meg’s feminist, pagan perspective permeates each page (sorry, the alliteration ran away from me!). Let’s just say that the story’s queer, secular protagonist leans far to the left, and if you can’t handle casual sex, cussing and frank conversation about abortion, then this book is definitely not for you.

But since Meg and I are on the same wavelength, I found the novel’s themes downright refreshing, especially in an America that seems to be reverting backward when it comes to women’s rights. Dare I say that The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is right up there with The Handmaid’s Tale as a game-changer in the feminist dystopia genre.

On a final note, the structure of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife as an epistolary works very well. The present day takes place a generation after the midwife, who has become a historical figure through her journaling of the plague’s aftermath. I’m looking forward to the sequel to learn how society rebuilds and whether a cause for the plague is ever revealed.

In the meantime, Meg has been gracious enough to allow me to interview her next week, so if you have any questions for a debut author, send them my way!

Top Ten Tuesday: Book-Related Facts About Me

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Image via The Broke and the Bookish

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, focuses on the book bloggers rather than the books themselves. But since talking about myself is not nearly as interesting as letting others do the honors for me, I’ve enlisted my friends to contribute!

Here are ten book-related facts about me, according to those who know me best! (All facts have been quoted via Facebook comments).

1. “You’re a bit of a grammar queen, who tends to correct people’s Facebook posts. Like mine, for example.”

2. “You love Greek mythology.”

3. “If there’s a sexist rich guy in a book, he automatically reminds you of Christian Grey.”

4. “You prefer the fresh smell of binding to the fluorescent glow from some lifeless e-book.”

5. “You hate when books end, and you’re left without any real closure.”

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6. “You’re frenemies with Elizabeth Gilbert.”

7. “Ideal book: Dystopian feminist-centric romance novel based in an alternative universe where dogs and cats have equal rights as humans.”

8. “Ideal male leads to fight for the heroine’s heart and affection are played by none other than Tom Hiddleston and Jared Leto in the movie adaptation in three parts.”

9. “You love fantasy with supernatural types and fireworks at the end.”

10. “I know you may not kick stray puppies when you’re bored, but you sure do have some built-up tension towards Nicholas Sparks.”

All I can say is that my friends have certainly described me in a nutshell! Do any of their facts resonate with you as well?

Book Review: The Heart Goes Last

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Image via Amazon

Rating: 4 out of 5

There are a LOT of book bloggers out there, and I think it’s fair to say that most tend to be female students and post-grads who prefer to read young-adult fiction. Or at least, the bloggers I personally follow lean toward that genre, and who can blame them? Oftentimes, YA delivers stories that are more developed and complex than adult genre fiction, and YA dystopia in particular exploded after the publications of The Hunger Games and Divergent.

I would argue, however, that all modern dystopia owes its success to authors, such as George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley–and more recently, to Margaret Atwood. Seriously, I have met this woman in person, and I have to say–if you have not read one of her novels yet, then what the hell are you doing with your life?

The Heart Goes Last is not my favorite Atwood novel (nothing will ever beat The Handmaid’s Tale, in my opinion), but it is an excellent dystopia with a premise that is becoming increasingly more likely, especially in the Bay Area where housing prices are skyrocketing.

The novel stars married couple Stan and Charmaine, who are unemployed and living out of their car after a major market crash left 40% of Americans without jobs. After fending off street gangs and facing the idea of an even bleaker future, it’s no surprise that they decide to join The Positron Project, in which they are provided free housing as long as every other month they live and work in a prison, alternating with another family that occupies the house while they’re doing time.

If you’re wondering why anyone would sign up for a project this strange, then I bet you’re not living in San Francisco, where the median 1-bedroom apartment rents for an astronomical $3,590/month and people are illegally living in trailers, storage containers, and even coffin-sized pods just to get by.

As with every dystopia, once starts off sweet eventually turns sour, and Stan and Charmaine are confronted with grave danger when they meet their Alternates. I won’t give too much away, but this book asks extremely difficult moral questions about how far you’d go to save your own skin.

What’s more interesting than the nefarious plot (which I felt could have had higher stakes) is that the core of this story is a lackluster marriage. It may take place in a “timeshare prison,” but the real issue is that both characters feel sexually frustrated after years and years of neglecting their relationship.

When my book club discussed The Heart Goes Last last week, we all agreed that we enjoyed putting ourselves in this couple’s shoes and determining what actions we would take if caught in the same predicament. Some felt that the plot was too slowly paced in the beginning, and others were disappointed by the ending, but overall we would definitely recommend the book. I’m proud that I’ve successfully persuaded more people to appreciate Atwood’s writing as much as I do!

Margaret Atwood: Stand-Up Comedian?

On Monday night, I carpooled with a friend to the book signing of Margaret Atwood at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, Calif., hosted by Peninsula Arts and Letters of Kepler’s Books. We got there just in time, or so I thought. By the time we arrived, the place was packed, and we were forced to find seats up in the balcony.

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Yes, that’s her on stage. Trust me.

All I kept thinking while we waited for her to walk across the stage was that most Americans never read and therefore have no idea who Margaret Atwood even is, but it was clear to this audience that we had a celebrity in our midst. And I’m still pinching myself that I had the opportunity to meet her!

Atwood is on a tour to promote her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, and we were the lucky ones who heard her read an excerpt of it for the very first time. This dystopian story features Charmaine and Stan, a married couple down on their luck and living in their car after a job loss, who sign up for the Positron Project, which Atwood described that evening as “a timeshare prison,” in which you alternate every month between a comfortable civilian home and incarceration.

Obviously, this alleged ‘win-win’ situation turns out not to be the answer to these characters’ prayers, and I can’t wait to read how Atwood tackles serious issues like unemployment and the prison-industrial complex with her famous wit.

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And now I’ve got her famous signature 🙂

I’m actually very disappointed that I did not live tweet this event, because Atwood was absolutely hilarious. She poked fun at the American presidential race, shared an amusing story about testing a virtual reality machine to fly like a bird, and discussed sex robots. She had so many one-liners, she could moonlight as a stand-up comedian.

At one point she was asked the question, “How does the development of your plots reflect the development of your themes?” and she replied sing-songingly, “I smell a term paper question!” At 75 years old, Atwood is at the IDGAF stage of her life, and I loved how down-to-earth she was.

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The queen in the flesh!

After the Q&A session, we waited in line to get our books signed, taking quick photos of the author on our smartphones. In the few seconds I had to talk to her, I mentioned that our book club just finished The Blind Assassin, and I enjoyed how she used the WWI reference “Remember the starving Armenians” in her story. Slightly confused because I forgot to mention that I’m Armenian myself, she replied, “They really used to say that back then!”

All in all, I had a wonderful time being in the presence of one of my literary heroes. And the cherry on top of this sundae? Going to bed with a huge smile on my face, because this happened:

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That’s right. Margaret Atwood retweeted me. My life officially has meaning now!

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1

Image via ComingSoon

Rating: 4 out of 5

Over Thanksgiving break I watched “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1” more out of obligation than anticipation. I’ve been vocal about how much I despised the ending of The Hunger Games trilogy, so this movie is just one step before the major letdown.

That being said, I enjoyed the film more than I thought that I would. Even though it stops short after Peeta’s rescue mission, it was engaging enough during the buildup to keep things interesting.

I also liked the casting of the new characters: Alma Coin, president of District 13 (played by Julianne Moore), and the district’s Roman-inspired squad consisting of Cressida, Messalla, Castor, and Pollux. I’ve always loved Natalie Dormer (of “Game of Thrones” and “The Tudors” fame), and I look forward to her role as Cressida growing in “Pt. 2.”

Similar to “Gone Girl,” this movie emphasizes how media can influence events by spreading certain messages via mass communication. The emerging rebellion on the Capitol is not nearly as important as the cat-and-mouse game that Katniss is forced to play with President Snow through her various propaganda videos and the district’s hacking into the Capitol’s telecom system.

As for Katniss herself, I much preferred her character on-screen than in the book, because readers of Mockingjay are limited to her point-of-view–which, let’s be honest, totally sucks because she’s a crazed, drugged-up trauma survivor suffering from PTSD. She’s still that same person, but fortunately she must share screen time with all the other characters who are actually getting things done.

And despite his infrequent appearances, I give major props to Josh Hutcherson for deftly expressing Peeta’s torturous mental and physical decline. Buzzfeed insightfully reported that “Mockingjay: Pt. 1” challenges Hollywood stereotypes by inverting the “damsel in distress” trope. Here, Peeta is the vulnerable victim and Katniss is the action hero who must save him.

In fact, I would argue that all the characters in this saga are more nuanced and multi-dimensional than the plot as a whole. I may hate the way that Suzanne Collins ends this chess game of hers, but damn do I love the pawns. I can only hope that these amazing actors can evolve in such a way that transcends the fate that awaits them in the final installment.