Monday, 30 May 2016

Review: Cursed Love by Catherine Mede

1 star

EDIT: I originally gave this 2 stars because I was trying not to be overly harsh, but bad representation is bad representation, and it was wrong of me to sugarcoat that to make myself more comfortable.

Going in, I wasn't sure where Cursed Love sat on scale from contemporary-with-mystic-elements to full-blown paranormal, given that there was only the vaguest mention of the paranormal in the blurb, but it's subtitled Aotearoa Paranormal Romance. To be honest, I still don't know how to characterise it, except to say that I wasn't a fan

The book opens in colonial New Zealand with the heroine's Pakeha ancestress, Esther, getting cursed by a Maori tohunga wahine for 'stealing' her man, so that henceforth her line will only breed females, and will never be able to hold onto love. When Esther asks her Maori husband what the hell just happened, he avoids answering by having sex with her. So, within the first few pages, we have the stereotype of the morally deficient and sexually dangerous 'Native' man, not the mention the exoticised spiritualism of the curse (which only gets worse as the book goes one, and gets weirdly mixed with Christian theology somewhere down the line). 

Anyway, forward to the present day. Jinny Richards has spent the last 18 years mourning her partner and unborn son as she built herself up from abandoned narcotic addict to successful insurance assessor. Now her company has parachuted Ethan Montgomery into town and they're meant to work together on a case of goods stolen from a company, run by her dead partner's brother. There's more there than meets the eye, and Jinny's growing feelings for Ethan has the potential to bring the curse down on them both. 

For the first third of the book, Ethan is a bit of a dick, and fully takes over the case that Jinny's meant to be leading. Then, the insta-love happens and his dickishness abates, leaving...nothing. Jinny's characterisation is slightly stronger. I liked her back story and her strength in the first half, but she too deteriorates, becoming weak and idiotic in the service of a overblown and convoluted plot. 

Jinny is one-sixteenth Maori, by my calculations, thanks to the Maori great-great-grandfather who brought about the curse. At one point, out of nowhere and vis-a-vis nothing, she proclaims:
"...yes, I can claim certain Maori rights, but I leave that for those less fortunate than myself."
Ethan praises her for her generosity, but the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. As much as it's extremely problematic to start making calls on who is or isn't part of a particular ethnic group, Jinny is never shown to have any connection to Maoritanga (Maori culture and tradition), to an iwi (tribe), hapu (subtribe) or whanau (extended family), although I suppose, if her ancestors also from modern-day Nelson, then her iwi would be Ngai Tahu. All she has is a pounamu necklace that holds that stupid curse. Nor is she subject to any of the discrimination or racism that comes with being identifiably Maori. Basically, her statement is the Kiwi version of "my great-great grandmother was a Cherokee princess". Many fifth or sixth generation Pakeha New Zealanders have at least one Maori ancestor, usually a foremother, since there were not many Pakeha women in the days of the early colony. (It's odd - but I suppose not beyond belief - that Jinny's Pakeha great-great grandmother married a Maori man, given that there would have been many Pakeha men looking for wives, and - as always seems to be the way - intermarriage between white women and men of other races is far more frowned on than the reverse). 

Overall, I don't have much else positive to say about this book. I did like the New Zealand setting, but feel that this cannot be separated from the problematic representation. If it hadn't been for the setting, I might have given up, but, in the end, I'm just too greedy for Antipodean romances. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

Review: Earth Bound by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

5 stars

I read Star Dust, the first book in the Fly Me To The Moon series, and gave it 4 stars. I also enjoyed the A Midnight Clear novella, but Earth Bound is in a league of its own, exquisitely crafted and with some serious meat on its bones. 

When we were introduced to Eugene Parsons in Star Dust, he was the almost-bad guy, a grumpy engineer with ridiculously high standards, who is constantly butting heads with the astronauts. He's much the same as the hero of Earth Bound, but we're given far more insight into his character and its nuances. 

Parsons hires Dr. Charlie Eason, a computing expert, to work at the American Space Department. She's used to being a woman in a man's world, but Parsons doesn't fit any of Charlie's categories of men: the avuncular patroniser, the fresh groper, the blatant ignorer. Yes, he's grumpy, but he's good at what he does, and he respects Charlie like no one else does. 

Charlie and Parson's affair is introduced in a prologue that takes place several months into the book. I liked that their relationship was established early on, and that the story takes place over a longer-than-usual period, skipping forward here and there. These elements gave Earth Bound an atypical romance plot arc, which made me very keen to see how Charlie and Parson's relationship turned out. 

I was also a sucker for most of the plot points and context: science-y stuff, the transition from manual to 'computer' computing, and the eternal drive to outsource to the private sector. As with the preceding two in the series, Earth Bound also continued to explore the joys of being a woman before second-wave feminism. Charlie had to have great strength of character and the determination to succeed, despite - and because of - her treatment by her parents and colleagues. The other female characters were also meticulously fleshed out and a particular highlight. I am beyond excited for the next one in the series, which appears to be a F/F between a female astronaut - reluctantly brought on board because the Russians have female cosmonauts - and an African-American computer (as in person who computes, not a machine). 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Review: The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho

4.5 stars

The Terracotta Bride is a short story set in the Chinese Underworld. Siew Tsin was just a young woman when she got hit by a motor car and wound up in the tenth court of hell. There she finds a great uncle, who promptly sells her into marriage. Her husband Jungshen is a rich man, with pious descendents who burn money and goods so that he can live well in the Underworld. One day, Jungshen brings home another wife, a terracotta woman whom he names Yonghua, and she changes everything for Siew Tsin. 

This isn't a romance, though it does have some f/f romantic aspects. The writing is lyrical, Siew Tsin's characterisation was lovely and those two things make The Terracotta Bride poignant as hell (pun not intended). The worldbuilding is also amazing, and I would auto-buy any more stories Cho wrote in the same universe. It's a short story, so this is a short review, but, basically, I loved it.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Review: Revolutionary Hearts by Pema Donyo

1 star

The plot and writing of Revolutionary Hearts were both a bit lacklustre, but I probably would have given it a 2.5 if it hadn't perpetrated some really intense symbolic violence and erasure. 

Revolutionary Hearts is set in India in 1924. Somehow, although don't ask me how, the Americans have an operative named Warren masquerading as a British general, so that they can investigate whether this guy named Raj Singh is an anarchist who might be a threat to the U.S.. I don't know, maybe that's legit, I didn't check it out. Anyhow, Warren meets Raj's Anglo-Indian sister Parineeta, who Raj sends to find out exactly how much this general suspects about his activities. Then Warren gets exposed by an actual British general (or possibly someone of another lower rank, I can't remember), so then he and Parineeta take off across the country. Parineeta is supposed to be leading Warren to Lucknow where he can meet up with his fellow operative, but then they magically meet up with Raj and his fellow freedom fighters and shit goes down. (More on that later.)

For the first half of this book, I was cruising along. Well, it was reasonably unmemorable and I had some pretty big gripes - the use of racial slurs, and things that seemed stereotypical or just plain wrong, such as a reference to butter chicken when surely it would have been dahl or similar - but I was hanging in there.

We're not given much information about the organisation Parineeta's brother is part of, the Hindustan Republican Association, except that the Americans are worried they might be anarchists. Thanks to that and my rusty Indian history it was only halfway through that the light-bulb went off over my head: the Hindustan Republican Association was what would later become the HSRA, and the train robbery that Parineeta's brother is organising is the Kakori Revolution. Once I had that realisation, I got really mad, and I just kept getting madder.

The story of the HRSA, and Bhagat Singh as its face, is one of the most quintessential and dearly held stories of Indian Independence Movement, and here it was sanitised until it was devoid of all context or sense of place, except for random info-dumps on the Rowlatt Act or the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre or some other barbaric act of imperialism, used only to give the characters motivation. It's been co-opted so that it has a three-quarters white hero and half-white heroine at its centre, displacing the full-blood Indians who rightfully belong there. Men who - by the way - were later hanged for the murder of a passenger on that train, though there's no mention of this, not even in an Author's Note at the end. In this fictionalised version, the passenger was killed by the heroine. So, what, I'm just supposed to watch our heroine and her hero ride off into the sunset, and separate this from the knowledge that, IRL, five men were sentenced to death and another 14 jailed for their role in the robbery, for the murder that the author had the heroine commit? Because the level of cognitive dissonance inherent in that is INSANE, let alone the statement that makes on what's important and what isn't.

If it's meant to be a fictionalised version where people don't get punished and murdered, then fictionalise it. Don't use the names of the men who were hanged for the names of your characters - so far as I can see, all of the revolutionary characters bear the names of the real revolutionaries, including Raj Singh (who got ten years imprisonment, by the way, so the heroine lives her HEA while her brother rots away? Nice!). Change the name of the town from Kakori. I don't know, just do something so that this isn't as horrible. Because, as it stands, the author's strategy is simply to assume that nobody with any knowledge of Indian history (or opposable thumbs to type things into Google) will read this book and put two and two together.

I went back and forth about whether to post this, and what form it should take, for a long time, because this isn't my history, my country, or people. Ultimately, I have written as much and as strongly as I did because I was upset, although I have little right to be, and even less to centralise my feelings. Basically, this is a frustrated rant, and there are considered critques out there that Indian and South Asian writers (and POC in general) make all the time, talking about the hurt done by bad representation. Romance author Suleikha Snyder wrote a post just the other day, when a prominent romance author called for recommendations set in India, and none that came back were by South Asians. A lot of that deals with the erasure inflicted by making characters half-white.

I don't really know how to finish this post up, because everything potential ending I've written sounds either really didactic, like a platitude, or more ME ME ME, and I don't want to go down any of those paths. So, over and out, I guess.
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