Noteworthy – Riley Redgate

Noteworthy CoverFirst Published: 2nd May, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jordan Sun has failed to get any parts in school musicals because of her deep voice. When she sees an advert for all-male a cappella group the Sharpshooters, she disguises herself as a boy and auditions as a tenor.

I’m generally not a big fan of books where someone pretends to be a different gender. It’s not uncommon for such books to use trans themes in ways that are comfortable for cis readers, but not so great for trans readers. Which might raise the question of why I wanted to read this one. The answer is Jordan’s deep voice. I wondered if she might be intersex, and therefore, if the book might tackles issues of binary sex. I was also interested because the musical world is very strict on the idea of sex binaries when it comes to voices, so it seemed like a good setting for such a story. The book didn’t really do what I was hoping, but those were my thoughts behind why I wanted to read it.

The plot revolves around training for an a cappella competition, with the hopes of winning a place on a tour. I wouldn’t say it’s the primary focus though, as it has more of a character focus with Jordan getting to know the other members of the group. It’s generally paced well, noting that it is the sort of story with a slow pace. Where it falls down is the pacing after the competition. It feels as though the book was intended to be longer, but ended up with just a few scenes trying to cover everything.

The two characters with the most development are Nihal and Isaac. Jordan becomes close friends with both. Nihal is a kind person who has a few similarities to Jordan, such as studying outside of the music school. He’s a Sikh, Indian American, and gay. Isaac says things without thinking regardless of who it hurts, which I was supposed to find funny and endearing, but just found obnoxious. He’s Japanese American. In both cases, Jordan discovers things about their lives and families. She describes what they look like clearly. I left feeling I had a good grasp of these characters.

Erik, Jon, Theodore (nicknamed Mama) and Marcus had a defining character trait but not a lot else. Erik’s main feature is he’s short and looks very young, whilst having a deep bass voice. Jon is very rich and turns out to be dyslexic, which is mainly noticed because he was held back a few years when he was younger. Jordan notes he’s a slow reader, but it’s not portrayed as meaning he can’t read, which makes a change. Theodore is initially introduced as carrying wet wipes around and liking clean surfaces, but he didn’t get enough development to judge if that connected to any non-neurotypicality or not. He’s fat and the book mainly avoids shaming him for that, outside of someone outside the group being nasty. Marcus likes political stuff and I have no real image of what he looks like. In general, characters in this category were light on description, so I ended up trying to piece it together from odd comments. I’m unsure about things like race.

Trav is the musical director of the group and sits somewhere between the two in terms of development. Jordan doesn’t get to know him that well, but I did remember him as a distinct character, whereas I was forever getting the vague characters mixed up. Trav has anxiety. He’s described as having dark skin at one point. That’s often used as a way to say a character is black without saying they’re black, which I think may be the case here.

It’s odd how the book has some characters who are described very clearly and some who are so very vague. Isaac and Nihal get described repeatedly, but I was left searching through for descriptions of the others. I may have missed something, as the references were spread out and infrequent.

I did like that the characters aren’t perfect and there’s pushback to imperfect things they say. For example, when one has this thing about women loving alpha men, it isn’t just Jordan who thinks that’s nonsense. Theodore is given a nickname he hates, which Jordan takes for granted, until realising Nihal won’t use the nickname because he was asked not to use it. However, something that didn’t get any pushback was using moron, which sticks out particularly when there’s a dyslexic character who has a reasonably chance of having been on the receiving end of slurs like that.

The strongest area for me was the class representation. Jordan is from a poor family, who were made poorer after her dad was in an accident. It talks about some of the issues with being poor, such as benefit schemes not allowing people to save money, thus ensuring they stay poor. There’s the intersection of her family being Chinese immigrants and the system being designed to make sure they never entirely manage to get things together. She also feels out of place in a wealthy school environment where most people come from middle to upper class backgrounds. It’s something I can relate to, as going to university was a big struggle for me, because no one else in the family had ever done it. Things people took for granted about university culture were very alien to me.

Jordan is clear that she’s cisgender from the start. She does question her gender and presentation, though decides she’s a cis girl. Questioning gender isn’t something restricted to trans people, so I liked the general idea of this. Though I’d note it’s not necessary to do the whole girl-disguised-as-a-boy thing to do so.

There is an attempt to address potential appropriation of trans experiences in the text, but the way it’s handled didn’t work for me. Jordan considers how trans people might feel about what she’s doing, and whether there might be unintended consequences for trans people if she is found out. It could mean increased attempts to police people’s gender, for example. That passage showed some thought about it, but the trans people she mentions as knowing (one trans girl and one genderqueer person) are minor references. Acknowledging that something might be erasing or appropriating trans experiences does fall rather flat in a story that doesn’t have prominent trans characters. Acknowledging it is really only the start. It also felt that outside of that genderqueer reference, gender was mainly handled as a binary. Jordan has her real girl self and her fake boy self, with nothing between, so the mention of a non-binary person is a blink-and-miss-it moment.

I’d note this binary gender vibe also got into the book presentation. The pre-release version I was given had male and female symbols on the cover. These were mixed with notes that came out of two different singing mouths. I wasn’t fond of the use of the binary symbols, but they were in all different colours, which suggested a spectrum. They were also mixed together, as each mouth had both symbols. The official release cover turned all the male symbols blue and the female symbols pink. It made one mouth have all the male symbols and one all the female. It also added extra copies of these symbols to the chapter headings. It’s like between pre-release and final release, someone decided to up the binary to the max. Authors with large publishers don’t control their cover or book design, but it doesn’t stop these decisions potentially impacting people who pick up the book. It also makes it very clear how the publisher views the story.

Jordan is bisexual and had a long-term relationship that fell apart. I liked that it challenges the idea of a first partner being the one forever and touches on the problems of getting too focused on a romantic relationship. Her whole world revolved around her ex-partner, which meant when things fell apart, she didn’t have any close friends and was left struggling alone. It was a more realistic portrayal of love than the idea that everyone meets their one true love as a teenager and friends are no longer required.

The new potential love interests weren’t so great. They changed their level of interest depending on whether they thought she was a boy or not. In other words, the most important thing wasn’t who she was as a person, but what they assumed about her body. I didn’t relate to any of this. I’m sure this does match some people’s experiences, but I just found it a bit freaky that someone would stop/start loving you because you’re not the gender or sex they assumed. I couldn’t really get behind a relationship that formed on that basis.

I wasn’t fond of the way gay characters were handled, because it does veer into the unhappy gay thing. Given the references to how many queer people the school was supposed to have, I’m sure one of them could have had a happy ending.

On to what I was hoping to find, Jordan does have traits that could mean she’s intersex. Her voice is deep enough that she puts on a higher voice at school, she’s tall (and taller than other women in her family), has a small breast size, has facial features like her father, and started puberty early, which all together can be pointers to being intersex. But this isn’t discussed. Not even at a level of considering that she doesn’t fit in the sex binary very well or that such a binary exists.

The book does touch briefly on musical attitudes to vocalists, but this isn’t taken all the way. It’s not acknowledged that she wouldn’t have felt the need to do something like that if she’d been recognised as a tenor in the first place. Rather than simply not casting her in anything, her teachers could have suggested she auditioned for the male roles. The focus is strongly on judging Jordan’s reaction to the system, rather than the system. Even when someone makes a positive judgement, it’s still missing why she ended up in that position. She still gets reclassified to a contralto, because women are contraltos and men are tenors. Which makes no sense as a position as she had been singing as a tenor with no one considering she was anything else for months, so it can’t be argued she had a different tonal quality to a tenor. But even Jordan doesn’t comment against this.

This book is a tricky one when it comes to recommending it or not, as it does some things well, and others not so well. The cast is diverse, including multiply marginalised characters, but there are odd holes. Like having a character who appears to tick off all the boxes for being intersex, but never mentioning it. Or mentioning a trans girl and a genderqueer person when there are themes about gender identity, but not actually having those characters appear. Or being vague about the black character being black when the Asian characters have their races clearly stated. It’s one of the better books I’ve read dealing with the trope of a girl disguising herself as a boy, but I didn’t feel it really rose above the common issues of that trope.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Keeper of the Dawn – Dianna Gunn

Novella CoverFirst Published: 18th April, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Lai has trained all her life to become a priestess, like her mother and grandmother before her. When she fails the test, she runs away and finds her people aren’t the only ones with that religion.

This is a novella of unfortunate implications. That’s going to take some explaining, so I’ll start with the simpler stuff. I’m also not talking about much which isn’t in the book description, but I’d note the official description covers most of the plot.

One thing I did like is the two cultures with the same religion are both shown as being equally religious. Often in these situations, there will be one group who are the true believers and one group with a corrupted version. Here, the goddesses are watching over them both. There isn’t one true version of the religion and they both have holes in their history knowledge.

The writing flowed along well enough. Though the story was predictable, that’s not always a bad thing for a light read. It has some adventure and some romance, which is what it promised. It did tend to jump huge chunks of time, which left gaps in the relationships and worldbuilding. None of that would have been that bad, if it wasn’t for the rest.

There’s a black/white means bad/good thing going on from the start, though it’s more subtle at the beginning. Lai is attacked by someone with black hair, when Lai has white-blond hair (described as silver and as blond at various points). The community is mostly lighter people, so the darker-haired antagonist is noticeable. Given a choice of horses, Lai chooses the white one as superior to the brown and black ones. On their own, these things might not register, but then Lai is off visiting the lands to the north, and the unfortunate implications really get going.

To understand my reservations, there needs to be some understanding of a group of connected stereotypes. They’re connected by superficial similarities in appearance, rather than the groups involved having much else in common. Often tanned, curly dark hair, hooked nose, sometimes with other features like large ears, thick lips, or tiny eyes. Things that set a person apart as different compared to lighter Northern Europeans. They can’t be trusted, they’re greedy, the men will lust after women, the women are temptresses, and they’re probably all doing some dark magic on the side. There are some variations on the theme, but it’s often difficult to separate exactly which group is being targeted, because it’s a combination of all of them. Commonly included are Jewish people, Romani people, and pagans / witches. The last of those makes more sense knowing that the early inhabitants of the British Isles had darker complexions, with pale blonds moving in later. So, with some vague handwaving to justify it, obviously all people with darker complexions are doing evil witchcraft. At a minimum, they’re very bad people.

When Lai crosses the border, she ends up working for a man called Calvin. He is a travelling merchant and is shifty from the start. I was thinking Romani stereotypes at this point. He also makes suggestive comments to Lai, despite him being married and her being a teen. This could be falling into the Romani men lusting after pure white women thing (and it happens again later, with a travelling bard, because you can’t trust travellers). But the lust thing can also be applied to Jewish men. Which brings me to how he’s really rich and hoarding wealth, which is a common Jewish stereotype. This is reinforced by northerners being monotheists. To finish off, the magic in the north has shady stuff like blood oaths going on, which comes back to the paganism and witchcraft connections.

This is all tied up with the physical side. There aren’t any hooked noses here, but there are beady eyes and northerners are overall darker (especially compared to white-blond Lai). Calvin is also fat, and described as a disgusting and gluttonous eater. An anti-fatness stereotype in itself, but one that is frequently associated with the greedy Jewish stereotypes.

I’d also note the trainee in Lai’s new home who is violently against her also happens to be the one with curly black hair. Everyone described as having black hair is antagonistic to Lai in some way.

These things are so common they’re often not noticed. Or when they are, people argue that they’re too general to pin down to one specific group as the target, so they’re not really targeting anyone. I agree the former can be tricky, as it often covers a mashup of different stereotypes. I’m sure people can pick out some I missed. But it doesn’t make the latter true. It just means the targets are widespread.

More obvious as an eyebrow-raiser is she’s a desert nomad from a culture that made amazing Ancient Near East / Rome inspired structures, and her favourite weapon appears to be Chinese butterfly knives under another name, but people from those cultures aren’t in the story. The cultural aspects are there, but not the people.

The reason I picked up the book is Lai is asexual, which is what I thought I’d be talking about. Instead, you got a long ramble about the ways stereotypes interact. But this is partly because being asexual didn’t come into it much until later. I’d have liked more tell than show here, because showing meant creepy sexual situations. Men tried to get Lai to have sex with them. The new community happens to have a fertility festival where people are supposed to have sex. It’s sort of optional, but not really, as Lai has to go to impress people and she’s coerced into dancing. The positive side is she isn’t coerced into sex and her romantic partner is okay with it once explained, though it does come with the statement that normal couples have sex. Not wanting sex was okay, but also abnormal. This was a mixed bag for me as a result. I’d have liked it a whole lot more without the creepy stuff and normality statements.

I didn’t note any disabled characters, but it’d be a bad world to be disabled, as health and fitness are assumed to be because of the gods. Priestesses have to be able to win battles to prove they’re favoured. Disease is assumed to be a divine punishment.

The worldbuilding is very binary, as men do this, and women do that, and it’s innate rather than simply being culturally enforced. In short, I don’t have a place in this world, except perhaps as the beady-eyed villain. But it does have two women in a relationship and one’s asexual, and for some readers, that might be enough.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Rainbow Bakes – Mima Sinclair

Rainbow Bakes CoverFull Title: Rainbow Bakes: 40 Show-Stopping Sweet Treats
First Published: 6th October, 2016
Genre: Cookery Non-Fiction
Contributors: Mima Sinclair (writer); Danielle Wood (photographer); Sarah Leuzzi (illustrator)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a baking book full of rainbows and unicorns. The presentation is nice, with clear photographs and extra unicorn pictures adorning the pages. Recipes are split into four sections: whole cakes, small bakes, biscuits and cookies, and sweets and desserts.

Making things rainbowy means food colouring, which the book does discuss. The notes match my experiences. Liquid ones tend to flavour things when enough is used for dark colours, as well as often making mixtures too runny. The book doesn’t say it, but liquid red is a big culprit for taste, as it’s often beetroot. I used gel colourings, as these are easily available and go bright without making things taste odd.

The recipes have clear lists of things needed. Quantities are written out in full, so it says tablespoon rather than abbreviating it. This makes recipes a lot more accessible. There’s a wide range of things available, from fudge to bagels. Though the first impressions were good, the next step was to make things and see how the instructions held up.

My biggest project was the anti-gravity cake. This is a full-sized cake decorated to look as though rainbow sprinkles are pouring out of a floating jar above it, plus an optional unicorn. I chose this as a birthday cake. It isn’t noted in the recipe, but the unicorn used is from a toy range, rather than being sold as a cake topper. It makes it a good choice for children and adults like me, as it means the birthday person gets to keep the toy. I got the exact same unicorn as the book for my attempt at the cake. The only thing I switched out was the sprinkles: I used strands instead of confetti.

The instructions were clear and easy to follow. However, it suggests cutting the cake layers to make more layers. This would be fiddly to do and I couldn’t see a point in it, so I didn’t do that. The cake is already three layers deep and tall. Other than that, everything worked out. I made the dribble icing a bit too runny, so I didn’t get quite such a good effect. My blue was also different and turned teal when added to yellow buttercream. None of that was the fault of the instructions, and the differences were things someone wouldn’t notice unless they compared it to the book picture. I’d note this one does take a long time to do, as it has a lot of little bits to sort out. The final effect is good though.

Anti-Gravity Cake

Image Caption: A large colourful cake resting on a silver cake board. The cake is covered in teal buttercream. Purple and yellow icing dribbles down the edges. Pink buttercream is piped around the top edge. On the top, rainbow sprinkles fall down onto the cake from an apparently floating jar (spoiler: the falling sprinkles and jar are stuck to a stick). A white unicorn toy with rainbow mane stands near where the sprinkles fall on the cake. The background is a blue cloth with a silver dragonflies design.

An easier project was the rainbow fudge. It’s a quick fudge recipe, so it doesn’t need boiling. An oddity here is it needs melted white chocolate, but doesn’t suggest the common method of floating a plastic bowl in a saucepan of water. Though a heavy-bottomed saucepan can work for this, the bowl method is much less likely to burn, so I used the bowl. I also swapped the orange extract for vanilla, as it suits family taste preferences better.

This is a really quick recipe in some ways, but slow in others. It’s quick to melt everything down and make the basic fudge mixture. There’s not a lot to go wrong at this stage. What’s slower is the rainbow part, as the mixture needs to be separated and coloured. Then each layer needs a quick freeze before adding the next layer. It’s not difficult, but if cooking with children, this stage might be boring for them.

Cutting the fudge the next day was a bit challenging. I tried various knives, but ended up with the bread saw (a large serrated knife). It helped to freeze it for a few minutes between cuts. At this point, the fudge was very sticky, and would be difficult to transport. We ate it over several days, storing it in the fridge on plates covered in cling film. On the second day, it was firmer and much less sticky. If I was making this to take somewhere, I think I’d factor in that extra day of hardening.

The family really enjoyed the fudge. It mainly tastes of the white chocolate, so it’s worth getting good quality chocolate for it. This is one I can see making again.

Rainbow Fudge

Image Caption: Rectangles of fudge on a white plate. Each piece of fudge has rainbow stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. They’re arranged in three semi-circles, as though they’re rainbows. A blue merunicorn toy also sits on the plate. The merunicorn has a boat symbol and is wearing an anchor hair ribbon, all modelled in plastic. The plate rests on a silky purple cloth with shiny spots.

My final choice was another of the sweet recipes, but one that’s more advanced. The fruit jellies are made in a similar way to jam, so it has more potential to go wrong if it isn’t boiled at the right temperature (it won’t set if it isn’t). This one also didn’t need artificial food colouring, so is a good choice for a sweet with nothing artificial. The main issue getting ready for this was the liquid pectin. For all the rest of the recipes, I got the ingredients from local supermarkets. This one had to be ordered, as I don’t have a baking shop locally.

I hit an obvious issue when I got started with this. The recipe recommends using a sugar thermometer, to make sure the boiling temperature is high enough. It’s a good idea in theory, but the average sugar thermometer is designed for people making big pots of jam. The quantities for the jellies were too small to cover the end of the thermometer. Usually, I’d simply have not bothered with the thermometer, but I figured a new cook would likely try to follow the instructions anyway. It’s a really bad idea. The thermometer can’t read the right temperature, and it can’t be attached to a small saucepan, so it’s a dangerous juggle to attempt to stir and test the temperature at the same time. The first batch did end up burning slightly due to this, though not in a way that couldn’t be salvaged (it just burnt a bit to the bottom, it didn’t flavour the whole mix). I never managed to read the required temperature on the thermometer.

For batch two and three, I went by my own experiences. That means I brought them to the boil, added the lemon juice and pectin as instructed, and then boiled rapidly for three to five minutes before testing. The recipe does explain how to test if it’s ready, by dropping some into cold water, which is all you really need. If it hasn’t hit the right temperature yet, it won’t pass the test.

The final jellies worked out fine. I made strawberry, blackberry and pineapple. The family were divided on which they liked best. I thought strawberry tasted a bit too much like solid jam, but that might be a plus for someone else. Pineapple was my favourite.

Fruit Jellies

Image Caption: Fruit jelly sweets on a tray. The sweets are roughly square and covered in granulated sugar. From left to right, they’re strawberry (dark red), pineapple (yellow) and blackberry (reddish purple). The tray is oval and silver. It’s placed on a dark blue cloth covered with a silver bees design.

This is a book where it feels like someone had tested the instructions, as generally they were clear and tried to give advice on the best way to approach things. The photographs also looked like the actual items. What I expect happened with the jellies is the tester didn’t need to use a thermometer, so hadn’t hit that issue.

Something that isn’t mentioned is the unicorns in the photographs. Some look like cake toppers, but others are toys, such as the one for the cake I made. It might not be obvious to check toy shops, rather than baking shops, for these items. I used the same toy as the book for the anti-gravity cake, which is a Schleich Bayala rainbow unicorn foal. These are easily available in Europe (available at Amazon UK). It may be harder/more expensive to get this exact one elsewhere, but there are other designs from the Schleich Bayala range in the US (available at Amazon.com). These are nicely detailed toys and the range covers a whole bunch of fantasy animals and people.

The toy in the fudge photograph is one the book doesn’t use, but also came from the toy shop. It’s a Tokidoki Mermicorno (available at Amazon.com and Amazon UK). Note for these, you get a random one in each box. This is a pretty solid toy, but I felt it was expensive for what it was and not being able to choose the colour. On the other hand, the toy stands up firmly, which is good for a cake topper. It might also be just the look you’re after.

Unicorns could obviously be swapped out for other toys, to match the interests of the person receiving the cake. The main thing is to use plastic toys without any hair strands or the like, so the toy doesn’t leave bits in the cake, and the cake can be washed off the toy.

Rainbow Unicorn Toy

Image Caption: A close view of the unicorn on the cake. They’re a plastic model with a white coat, golden horn and hooves, and rainbow mane and tail. They have a horseshoe of rainbow gems on their back end. They have a front hoof raised as though about to walk. There’s glitter on the hooves, mane and tail.

Another possible use for these recipes is pride events and the like. There are a number of cakes with striped rainbow layers, which look a lot like pride flags. The piñata cake looks like a gender reveal cake with rainbow sweets, so could work for an adult having a non-binary gender reveal party.

Some recipes are more challenging than others. This means I wouldn’t advise anyone inexperienced to pick recipes to try at random. Start with easier ones like the fudge, and move on to the bigger projects later. Most recipes do use colourings, so it could be an issue if colouring is a problem. But some are coloured with fruit, such as the jellies, and natural colourings could be used for other recipes (these are usually paler, but would still be colourful). It would also be possible to do recipes without the rainbow part.

I thought this was a strong book that did what it set out to do. It’s whimsical and makes it clear how to handle layering all the colours. There’s a good balance between basic recipes and advice on how to make things look decorative. The rainbow fudge was particularly popular with the family, and I’m sure I’ll be asked to make it again.

Super Sikh #1 – Eileen Kaur Alden, Supreet Singh Manchanda, Amit Tayal

Super Sikh CoverFull Title: Super Sikh #1 Takeoff and Landing
First Published: 26th April, 2017
Genre: Spy / Comic
Contributors: Eileen Kaur Alden (creator, adaptation); Supreet Singh Manchanda (creator); Amit Tayal (artist), Pradeep Sherawat (colourist), Adrian Reynolds (adaptation)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Deep Singh is a U.N. Special Agent, but all the work is tiring him out, so he tries to take a holiday.

The first issue is an introduction to the character and central plot, where Deep goes on holiday to the USA and it doesn’t entirely work out. I saw this discussed as a superhero title, but it has more of an action spy vibe. Deep doesn’t have superhuman abilities and I didn’t get a feel that anyone else did either. He does have exceptional combat skills and some of the gadgets are more speculative.

My favourite thing about it was the family relationships. His family arrange for him to go away, and their concerns for him are clear. He has a cousin, Preeti, who works for the U.N. in research. When it comes to showing Sikhs, there’s a clear understanding of people approaching things in different ways. Deep’s older relatives wear traditional clothing. Deep’s clothing is more modern, but he has a turban and kara. Preeti has uncovered hair and no kara, outside of wearing one for a demonstration. I liked the attention to detail in how different characters expressed themselves and their faith.

Deep rarely has thoughts written out and he mainly speaks to tell jokes. This makes it difficult to really know who he is and what he thinks about what’s going on. There’s a lot of James Bond inspiration in the story, and it’d be fair to say that doesn’t focus on character much either, but that was something I didn’t like much in James Bond. I do like to get to know characters, and I don’t feel I knew much more about Deep than I did when I started reading.

The art is generally solid. It’s a realistic comic style and Deep’s facial expressions are good. I did feel some of the background characters weren’t as well rendered, particularly the black ones. I guess the artist has less experience of drawing people of some races, which may explain why there are so few background black characters. There are also some disability issues, as the art fell into using facial scarring and an eyepatch to denote someone as being evil.

There are issues when it comes to characters who aren’t Sikhs. Muslims are either terrorists or victims to be saved (when they’re women or girls). Mexicans are terrorists. Fat people are jokes. People who do bad things are crazy. There’s an attempt to subvert stereotypes when it comes to the Sikh characters, but stereotypes of anyone else are treated as the truth.

I can understand how it might have ended up here, as anyone who covers their hair or is non-white can be mistaken for being a Muslim. This means getting targeted by anti-Islamic discrimination. I get stopped by customs for a lot of random searches because they assume I’m Middle Eastern (and therefore, that I must be a Muslim). But it’s important to realise the primary issue isn’t that I’m being mistaken for a Muslim. It’s that there is prejudice against Muslims, and by extension, anyone assumed to be one. Stating that I can’t be a terrorist because I’m not a Muslim is suggesting the prejudice is grounded in fact, and that it would have been fair if they hadn’t been wrong about my identity. Like I say, I can understand why people have this reaction, but that doesn’t make it a good response. It shifts around who gets hurt rather than acknowledging the core problem. The comic very much has this type of reaction. It doesn’t tackle the assumptions that certain groups of people are terrorists and criminals. It simply distances Deep from being part of those groups.

Some of my comments could be worked out as the series continues, such as getting to know Deep a bit more. I’m rather more hesitant on the other stuff. It looks like crazy Islamic terrorist is going to be the flavour of main villain and I don’t think that’s going to be handled in a subversive way.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Light of the World – Ellen Simpson

Light of the World CoverFirst Published: December, 2015
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eva is coping with the loss of her grandmother, Mary. When she finds Mary’s teenaged diaries, she has a mystery to unravel about a girl called Wren and the light of the world.

This wasn’t quite the novel I expected. It sounded like it’d be more epistolary, but the diary entries and other documents are scattered through occasionally. It’s mainly a standard narrative in structure. What I did expect were the two contrasting love stories. One is in the past, as Wren and Mary fall in love at a time when such things weren’t very public. The other is Eva meeting Liv, who works at a local bookstore. Along with Liv, the other bookstore workers are Theo (the owner) and Al (his son), who help Eva uncover more information about her grandmother.

Eva is depressed and has previously attempted suicide. The early part of the book is the hardest to read from this perspective, as her family did not react well. They fell into labelling her as selfish and cowardly. As it begins at Mary’s funeral, and then sorting Mary’s apartment with Eva’s parents, there’s no rest from this atmosphere. It makes Eva think about her suicide attempt, and also means Eva isn’t exactly the best version of herself. She’s very judgemental and quick to anger at the people who attend the funeral. Once her parents disappear off, things do calm down. Eva has her own space and isn’t constantly being forced to push back against her family’s reactions.

There are things I liked about the handling of depression. Medication is shown as something positive, rather than something to be avoided. Eva isn’t a different person when she takes it. She’s just a person who is better able to cope with daily tasks. There’s also discussion of generational differences in handling depression. Her older relatives don’t like to talk about such things and certainly wouldn’t want to admit they needed help.

There are some relationship hierarchy terms used with Mary and Wren, such as debating whether they are more than friends. Overall though, the narrative doesn’t devalue friendship. It’s not all about Eva falling in love with Liv. It’s important that Liv and Al are Eva’s friends. Eva’s time at the bookstore is about finding a support network, and overcoming her past issues making friends, rather than being a story about romantic love conquering all. This is a refreshing change from books that jettison all other relationships once the romance starts. Also, none of the relationships mean she suddenly doesn’t have depression anymore.

The identity of people in relationships is left open in some cases. Eva is bi (stated directly) and Liv appears to be a lesbian. But Eva is hesitant to assume an identity for Mary or Wren. At first, I wondered if this was going to be about not liking labels, but it was more that Eva acknowledged it was hard to know how people in the past would identify, and easy to erase by assuming. An example would be bi erasure by assuming Mary must be a lesbian based on one relationship.

There are a couple of Jewish supporting characters. The first, Elsie, is from Mary’s diaries. There’s very little about her, other than she seems something of a social rebel who doesn’t feel like she fits in the Jewish community. The other is Al from the bookstore.

Al has a grandmother from Ethiopia, who moved to Israel, then to the USA. She married an Ashkenazi Jewish man. The other side of the family are white. He’s described as someone who is clearly non-white, though in an ambiguous way. He’s Jewish in a casual does-the-major-holidays way. A more complex mixed race identity is a realistic thing that doesn’t get touched on much in fiction. However, it does come with a few microaggressions, like Eva assuming his family aren’t from the US (the “where are you from” discussion gets old really fast), and making special note of how his skin looks in the dark whenever the lights go out.

Religion and belief are mentioned, though the narrative doesn’t confirm or deny any particular religion. It’s more that the light of the world has been mentioned in many cultures, sometimes with religious connections. Eva’s family is agnostic from a Catholic background. She’s generally open to believing stuff and not hostile to people from other religious backgrounds.

The pacing didn’t entirely work. The beginning moves slowly, only really getting going once Eva’s parents leave her alone. The end moves very quickly, skipping over scenes that would have explained a lot. An example is Eva is apparently told something of the origin of the light of the world in a conversation, but this conversation is not shown. Instead, she offers the reader a few words to sum it up. I’d have liked to read that conservation, as it sounded important.

A few things didn’t work for me. The light of the world is repeated a lot, to the point of it being distracting. Using gross to describe women in relationships wasn’t something I liked, though I acknowledge there may be cultural differences in this being used as a cute saying between friends. Gross really only ever means bad things to me. The pressure to drink alcohol from Liv also stood out. She doesn’t consider reasons why Eva wouldn’t, other than age, and presses Eva about why she hasn’t been to such places. In Eva’s case, the main reason was social isolation, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might not drink or want to be in places where alcohol is served. There wasn’t much pushback about this in the narrative.

I enjoyed this more by the end than I thought I would. I didn’t like Eva’s early interactions with her parents, but there are fewer of those as it gets going. I did like her finding support with the bookstore crew. It’s a quieter take on urban fantasy, with a focus on personal stories and how the supernatural elements impact them. Note that it does describe suicide and that the historical love story is tragic. However, the book’s present is a lot more hopeful.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]