Review: Bannerless Doesn’t Live Up to its Premise

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

BannerlessFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 11 July 2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Post-apocalypse/Mystery
Rating:
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.  Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?  In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

I went into this book hoping for some clever literary fiction exploring questions of population management, bodily autonomy, and maybe some critiquing of environmental and economic policies. I hoped the murder mystery would take a back seat, functioning as frame for those questions. Unfortunately, Bannerless falls short in all those areas. Bannerless instead tells a simple coming of age tale and murder mystery, neither of which are particularly compelling.

The first thing about this book that stood out to me was the repetitive and self-explanatory prose. One aspect that particularly grated on me was the hammering on about how investigators are feared, terrible, powerful. Their brown uniforms symbolize of something awful, but who knows what. We’re told numerous times that the average person disdains investigators, yet the narration never shows why. I don’t like being told something over and over with no evidence. Perhaps its because investigators enforce rules that people don’t like? But we’re never shown effects of that – the system that most people live by functions well and we don’t see or hear about an investigator ruining someone’s life. (One person has an outburst about a household that was split up because an investigator discovered they were doing something illegal, but that has no connection to this story.)

Another related issue I had with the prose is that many sentences felt unnecessary, in that they told me something I could have inferred from the dialogue. It was an odd case of telling instead of showing – at times, the telling happened in addition to the showing. One chapter contains five instances of glaring, by the same two characters. In general, the prose reads amateurish and undeveloped.

This critique about the investigators ties into my main issue with the novel. Where is the dystopia? How does the investigation “reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for”? Enid doesn’t seem to question her role as the blurb hints. The story doesn’t convincingly portray birth/population control as a negative thing, which, given the book’s dystopic tropes, I would assume is the goal. There’s talk of how children born bannerless (i.e. their parents didn’t have a banner and thus shouldn’t have had a child) are discriminated against. Enid encounters people living outside the households and banners structure, but they live desperate lives which enforces Enid’s belief in the banner system (not that she ever questioned the system). Based on what happens in the novel, I support the banner system, which ensures  if you can support a child, then you can have one. Wouldn’t that be the case in an ideal world? That everyone who has a child can support that child? Of course, that’s a simplistic view that should open the door for a more complex exploration of bodily autonomy and other concepts, but Bannerless makes no room for such an exploration.

It occurs to me now perhaps the story is more complex than I’m giving it credit for. Maybe it really is advocating this method of population control, or just trying to start that discussion by showing a positive side of population control. Yet I still feel that the story would have been improved by a more nuanced exploration of the various sides of that discussion. Plus, the book is being marketed as a dystopia so I’m not sure what what Enid was supposed to discover as she investigated the murder.

The story follows two threads – Enid as a teen travelling with musician Dak and Enid as a twenty-something investigating a murder. The murder mystery itself is simple and predictable, and thus pretty boring. The investigation is blah. Enid tries to talk to people, they don’t want to talk to her. She eventually figures it out. Hooray. I did like teen Enid, despite her slow story. She follows her own path. She makes the decision to travel with Dak and she makes the decision to leave him.

The Bottom Line:

Bannerless has the premise of a fascinating story, but the weak plot and dull storytelling make Bannerless one you can skip.

Further Reading:

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Returning to Cambodia in Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts

Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the GhostsFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fiction/historical
Rating: ★★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Leaving the safety of America, Teera returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She carries a letter from a man who mysteriously signs himself as “the Old Musician” and claims to have known her father in the Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared twenty-five years ago.

In Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of unfathomable violence live side by side, striving to mend their still beloved country. She meets a young doctor who begins to open her heart, immerses herself in long-buried memories and prepares to learn her father’s fate.

Meanwhile, the Old Musician, who earns his modest keep playing ceremonial music at a temple, awaits Teera’s visit with great trepidation. He will have to confess the bonds he shared with her parents, the passion with which they all embraced the Khmer Rouge’s illusory promise of a democratic society, and the truth about her father’s end.

Vaddey Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime of 1970s Cambodia, has penned an extraordinary tale in Music of the Ghosts. She writes with grace about “questions of responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and justice in the more everyday settings in which survivors find themselves(from the afterword). In exploring such questions, Teera, the Old Musician, and young doctor Narunn reflect on personal identity in the face of immeasurable loss. They have been shaped by survival, when so many of those whom they loved did not survive. Music of the Ghosts is a moving tale of resilience and reconciliation.

I have not read Ratner’s first book, In the Shade of the Banyan Tree, but I am certain this book must be a worthy successor. The first aspect of this book that struck me was the vivid prose. Ratner writes with a particular cadence that soothed me from the beginning, despite the subject matter. She does an excellent job at setting a scene. One small scene in particular stood out to me. She described two young monks practicing English at a temple, with a storm approaching. I could hear the sounds she described – rarely do I find prose that successfully reaches beyond the visual to the auditory for me.

The characters are what really gives life to the prose. I found Music of the Ghosts to be a deeply powerful and moving tale. Teera in particular tugged at my heartstrings and brought a few tears to my eyes. She felt like a real woman to me, not a stone cold caricature of a ‘strong’ one. I adored Narunn, a sincere man trying to do the best with what he has. These characters will draw out your compassion. Teera’s dealing with the complexities of survivor’s guilt moved me. In one scene, she wants to stop her car and give money to numerous beggars on the street, in a location so far from anything she can’t imagine how they’re surviving out there. I felt as Teera did in this moment – how can I have so much when others have so little?

The character’s past connections to the Khmer Rouge (as either perpetrators or victims) demonstrate how good and evil cannot be simplified to black and white. The lines between victim and perpetrator can blur. A person can easily shift from being one to the other. Partway through chapter three, I already found the story to be very intense in this manner. Later on in the book, I had a moment of, “Imagine if everyone listened.” What if we listened to voices other than our own? If everyone heard the voices that are too often silenced or ignored? Reading a good story, like this one, can so easily teach empathy to an open mind. Through reading, we can learn about what we didn’t know we didn’t know. This concept, I think, is part of the reason why reading own voices is so important.

I have one mild criticism of the book. The story feels a bit dry at times. I wondered when Teera’s story would pick up again. I set the book aside for a few days, not feeling any rush to finish. But the haunting tale pulled me back as I wondered what the Old Musician would reveal to Teera.

The Bottom Line:

On her website, Ratner notes that Music of the Ghosts address universally significant questions such as, “How do we account for the crimes we have committed knowingly, and for the suffering we contribute to perhaps without knowing? What does it take to atone? What is possible to forgive?” Music of the Ghosts clear and emotional take on these questions make it a read worth your time.

Further Reading:

Read Diverse 2017

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Gutenberg’s Fingerprint – “Papers, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books”

Gutenberg's Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Format/Source: Hardcover/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir
Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Four seismic shifts have rocked human communication: the invention of writing, the alphabet, mechanical type and the printing press, and digitization. Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, and evolving future of the book in search of an answer. Part memoir and part philosophical and historical exploration, the book finds its muse in Hugh Barclay, who produces gorgeous books on a hand-operated antique letterpress. As Simonds works alongside this born-again Gutenberg, and with her son to develop a digital edition of the same book, her assumptions about reading, writing, the nature of creativity, and the value of imperfection are toppled.

In 2011, author Merilyn Simonds partnered with Hugh Barclay, the one-man wonder behind Thee Hellbox Press, to produce a limited run of The Paradise Project. Simonds agreed to the printing at Barclay’s urging. He wanted to print a collection of her short stories. Barclay introduces Simonds to the finer details of book printing, which she explores in Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. In following the development and creation of The Paradise Project, Simonds describes the history of book making. She also reflects on what has (and hasn’t) changed with the shift to digital books, as she and her son work on creating an ebook of the Paradise Project.

Four sections of the book focus on stages of a book’s creation – paper, type, ink, and press. Barclay is the star of these pages. His enthusiastic and creative personality bring the task to life. He is a tinkerer full of ideas, with the intelligence and ambition to bring those ideas to fruition. In Barclay’s small printing workshop, each stage is given careful consideration. What colour should the ink of be? What impression will the endpapers give? How will the type be set? How can images be incorporated?

Simonds explains the complexities that inventors throughout history had to be overcome to make each element work together and produce a legible book. Most of her exploration focuses on the print run of The Paradise Project. Simonds also includes comments to contrast the development of the ebook, a format which has both pros and cons over a printed book.  The Paradise Project sounds like a lovely work of art. I would to get my hands on a copy, to see and feel all the care that went into making it. Gutenberg’s Fingerprint includes a few black and white photographs, but they don’t do the work justice. You can view full colour images of the completed work at Thee Hellbox Press website.

Simonds delves further into reflection in the final two sections, “Book” and “Lasting Impressions”. I found her balanced view of ebooks refreshing. Simonds loves her physical books, as many of us book lovers do, but she does not deny the advantages of ebooks. She goes beyond acknowledging the practicalities of digital reading (such as being able to carry numerous books or customize the formatting for reading comfort). For example, she notes that more voices in publishing (via digital self-publishing) cannot be a negative thing. She discusses the potential of ebooks to make a wider variety of stories available to a wider variety of people. Simonds quotes Kamila Shamsie:

Are we hearing all the complex, nuanced human voices we need to help us understand our own times, our fellow citizens, the world in which we live? No. But we could. And we must. And that should be publishing’s bottom line. (341)

Yet physical books (for Simonds, at least) easily win in the debate about superiority. I have never heard someone put it so clearly or simply than when she writes, “We are more than brains: we have ears, noses, fingertips, all of which engage with a physical book” (351). What sparks that particular feeling of joy we may find when we gaze happily at our bookshelves?

My books are my brain and my heart made visible. (366)

The Bottom Line:

Simonds chronicles the exquisite print run and ebook development of her short story collection The Paradise ProjectGutenberg’s Fingerprints gives book lovers food for thought as to what it is we love about physical books and what digital books have to offer us. Simonds leaves no doubt that print books will likely endure, but does leave room to ponder – what may come next?

Further Reading:

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Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro

Sputnik's Children by Terri Favro
I think this is an improvement over my last book snap? Look at those pretty iridescent stars…

Author: Terri Favro
Title: Sputnik’s Children
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 348 pages
Genre: Science fiction in literary clothes
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads | Indigo | IndieBound Wordery

I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.

Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners — a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” — she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved — as well as her own past — in the process.

Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best.

Alternate timelines + cult comic books = say no more. (Though I am generally not a fan of unreliable narrators, that turned out to be less of a transgression against my personal preferences than I braced myself for.) Sputnik’s Children combines alternate history and literary character building to tell a creative and entertaining story.

I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the above summary, particularly this statement: “Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time”. Is Debbie imagining this alternate timeline or did she actually believe she lived it? The latter turns out to be true. To clarify, Debbie currently lives in ‘the real world’ of 2011. She’s considering writing the origin story of her cult comic book hero, Sputnik Chick. Debbie believes she (herself, Debbie) grew up in Atomic Mean Time (AMT), an alternate universe similar to ours, but that’s stuck in Cold War time with a constant threat of nuclear bombings and World War III. Debbie’s youth in this other timeline inspires her Sputnik Chick stories. The bulk of the book is Debbie’s first person narration of her time in AMT, with occasional chapters of third person narration in the ‘real world’ leading up to the present. The question is, did Debbie actually live through AMT or is this just a concocted story?

At its core, Sputnik’s Children may be described as a coming of age novel. The majority of the story takes place during Debbie’s teen years, beginning when she’s 12 and continuing to mid-twenties. Debbie has to deal with a maturing body, unwanted sexual attention, and her first romantic relationship. This relationship is a significant component of Debbie’s life in AMT. Debbie is White and her boyfriend John Kendall is Black. This relationship creates tension from societal expectations in their small town of the 1970s.

What sets Sputnik’s Children aside from other small town stories is the science fiction setting of AMT. Debbie has to contend with the fact that her community expects to be destroyed at any moment by an atomic bomb. Favro establishes the AMT world in the first few pages, laying out the core differences between Atomic Mean Time and Earth Standard Time (the ‘real world’). This gives the reader a chance to focus on character and plot right away, without having to spend too much effort on becoming oriented with the setting. AMT differs in slight ways from the real world, resulting in an alternate universe where the Cold War only intensified in the seventies and corporations manufacturing weapons rule the day. (I do love a shadowy overseer organization.)

The plot of the story comes in the form of a time-travelling man from the future, who wants to prevent World III. He believes Debbie is the key to doing that. Debbie herself only time travels once, with seemingly little impact on the plot (aside from the personal changes she notices, having skipped a few years into puberty).

The Bottom Line:

Sputnik’s Children is a character-based take on science fiction that blends comics, the Atomic Age, the seventies, and interracial romance into one compelling tale. The question of whether Debbie has made everything up or actually lived it is almost irrelevant – you’ll enjoy the story either way.

Further Reading:

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Mad Richard by Lesley Krueger

Mad Richard
My first attempt at book photography…

Author: Lesley Krueger
Title: Mad Richard
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 14 March 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Called the most promising artist of his generation, handsome, modest, and affectionate, Richard Dadd rubbed shoulders with the great luminaries of the Victorian Age. He grew up along the Medway with Charles Dickens and studied at the Royal Academy Schools under the brilliant and eccentric J.M.W. Turner.

Based on Dadd’s tragic true story, Mad Richard follows the young artist as he develops his craft, contemplates the nature of art and fame — as he watches Dickens navigate those tricky waters — and ultimately finds himself imprisoned in Bedlam for murder, committed as criminally insane.

In 1853, Charlotte Brontë — about to publish her third novel, suffering from unrequited love, and herself wrestling with questions about art and artists, class, obsession and romance — visits Richard at Bedlam and finds an unexpected kinship in his feverish mind and his haunting work.

Masterfully slipping through time and memory, Mad Richard maps the artistic temperaments of Charlotte and Richard, weaving their divergent lives together with their shared fears and follies, dreams, and crushing illusions.

ECW Press, an independent Canadian publisher, has become my go-to for finding new fiction that expands my reading horizons. The linking of two historical figures not popularly known to have interacted and the “questions about art and artists, class, obsession and romance” drew me to Mad Richard. Written by Richard’s “first cousin-in-law five times removed”, the book apparently draws on the author’s knowledge of “family information unknown to biographers” (author bio in book).

Mad Richard shares two protagonists, painter Richard Dadd and author Charlotte Bronte. I found Richard to be a likable character – well-rounded, considerate, and yet somehow not dull, haha. I specifically noted my fondness for Richard on page 113, where he awakens from a fainting spell, has a small epiphany about his art, then states “I’m famished. Don’t imagine I could have a chop?” I knew just a smidgen more about Charlotte than I did about Richard going into this book. Mad Richard brings her to life in a way I’ve not experienced Victorian writers before. They have always felt so distant from writers I know of today or even from the 20th century. Krueger portrays Charlotte’s hopes and fears in a relatable manner.

Krueger’s prose often impressed me, particularly in the ways she chose to detail her characters. I find myself asking – “How can see people like that? How could I be so observant, to write something like this?” (as I often find myself asking when I read good literary fiction). This bit about Elizabeth Gaskell particularly struck me:

Mrs. Gaskell’s famous charm lay in her unaffected interest in people; her entire absence of self-regard. She didn’t know why she should speak about herself. She knew all about herself. She would rather hear other people’s stories. A beautiful, tall, solid woman, a tree trunk, she would fold herself into whatever chair was empty, and her “How are you?” to whomever she found beside her was so obviously sincere, her silences so attentive, her wit so fertile, she could draw even a pedant into the liveliest of conversations. Even Charlotte. (184)

My primary qualm with Mad Richard is that the story moves very slowly. The book begins with Charlotte’s visit to Richard in Bedlam. They interact only once. The remainder of the book tells Charlotte’s story from that moment onward, while telling Richard’s story from his teen years to the time he commits a murder. Charlotte and Richard’s stories were less interconnected than I expected. The connection is more in the parallels in their situations.

I found the passages about Richard often stretched on for longer than necessary. I wasn’t bored, per se…The Victorian setting and ruminations about the process of creating art kept me interested, but there was only so much of the style I could manage at a time, resulting in me taking three weeks to read the 330 page book. The story dragged at times, bogged down in details and minor happenings. I did not feel that Charlotte’s passages dragged on, though her story line was arguably no more riveting than Richard’s. (I imagine one familiar with Charlotte’s life might have found it more dull, knowing how her romances played out?)

The Bottom Line:

An enlightening work of historical fiction, although dry at times. Recommended for those interested in people creating art during the Victorian age.

Further Reading:

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