The Burning God (The Poppy War #3)

Cover image for The Burning God by R. F. Kuangby R.F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662620

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Every day since the end of the Third Poppy War, Rin had learned that her victory on Speer mattered less and less. War hadn’t ended when Emperor Ryohai perished on the longbow island. War hadn’t ended when Vaisra’s army defeated the Imperial Navy at the Red Cliffs. She’d been so stupid to once think that if she ended the Federation then she’d end the hurting.  War didn’t end, not so cleanly–it just kept building up in little hurts that piled on each other until they exploded afresh into raw new wounds.”

Disillusioned with the Dragon Republic, Fang Runin has broken with Yin Vaisra and his Hesperian backers, and returned to the South, seeking new allies among the rag tag armies of the Southern Coalition. Nikan remains riven by civil war, and Rin finds to her dismay that the men who lead the Southern forces are no more willing to put a young woman in charge than their Northern counterparts, no matter if she is one of the last shaman in the Empire, able to call down the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance, onto the battle field. Unable to trust her supposed allies, Rin will be forced to reach high and low, turning the common people to her cause, while also making dangerous bargains with former enemies as the Hesperian threat looms larger, and Yin Nezha mounts a final clash between the Republican army, and Rin’s forces.

The final installment of R.F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series follows Rin as she makes the latest in a series of bad bargains with untrustworthy allies who both fear and covet her power. As the last Speerly, and one of only a scant handful of shaman, she is a wild card that can find no comfortable home, and like all of the god-touched, her grip on reality is tenuous at best. The Burning God is a visceral finale that forces Rin into reckoning with the carnage wrought by her rash decisions and shifting alliances, even as she attempts to mentally retreat and wall herself off from the catastrophes Nikan will have to overcome in order to ever have any hope of recovering from the cataclysmic power struggles that have poisoned rivers, flooded towns, laid waste to crops, and displaced large portions of the population. The series maintains a strong military focus, with a series of battles that take Rin and her allies across the empire and back again.

Displaced and defeated, former Empress Su Daji would seem to have no place here in The Burning God, with her empire in ruins and her crown lost. Indeed, I expected a deeper focus on Hesperia, and perhaps an increased role for General Tarcquet or the Grey Company. But in reckoning with the cycle of history, and intergenerational trauma, Kuang brings Daji back in a new capacity, with the deposed Empress as a tantalizing potential source of shamanic power and information for an increasingly desperate Rin. With the power struggle between Rin and Nezha reignited by her break from his father’s Republic, Rin finds herself increasingly interested in the power struggles of the Trifecta, and how the Vipress became the last shaman standing, ruling the Nikara Empire alone. But it remains to be seen if Rin can grasp the cautionary tale of their downfall, or if she will simply succumb and repeat their mistakes in her quest for power. While fundamentally different characters, there are fascinating echoes between Rin and Daji, and their approaches to ruling.

The relationship at the heart of this final volume is the one between Rin and Kitay, her best friend and her anchor, and the one person who has never betrayed her. As she wins victories and gains power, she comes into responsibilities for which she is wholly unprepared, and reliant upon his logistical and strategic talents. Kitay also represents her greatest weakness; without him near, she cannot call the fire, and if he dies, so does she. For an increasingly isolated and paranoid general, such a bond is both a touchstone and a secret to be guarded at all costs. Kitay is also her conscience embodied, her voice of reason, the measured response that counterbalances her impulsive nature and more violent tendencies. In many ways, he is the key that keeps us following Rin deeper into madness; what does he see in her that inspires such loyalty?

Kuang brings her first trilogy to a close as it began, in fire and blood, and with many questions for which there are no easy answers or neat solutions. If Rin and her fiery god win, is tyranny inevitable? If Nezha and Hesperia triumph, does colonization and erasure follow? These are uncomfortable questions that do not lend themselves to a tidy conclusion, and the scope of Nikara history stretches beyond the final page with possibilities that are both tantalizing and terrifying, shadowed by the real Chinese history on which Kuang has been masterfully drawing throughout her epic series.

The Poppy War

The Dragon Republic 

Know My Name

Cover image for Know My Name by Chanel Millerby Chanel Miller

ISBN 9780735223714

Content Warnings: Sexual assault, depression, suicide, mass shooting.

“The rules of court would not necessarily protect me; swearing under oath was just a made up promise. Honesty was for children. Brock would say and do what he needed, unabashedly, self-righteous. He had given himself permission to enter me again, this time stuffing words into my mouth. He made me his real-life ventriloquist doll, put his hands inside me and made me speak.”

When her victim impact statement was released to the world by Buzz Feed in June 2016, the young woman who had been sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus by Brock Turner was known to readers only as Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Chanel Miller reclaims her identity, shedding the scant protection of anonymity in order to more fully tell her story and advocate for systems that better serve and protect victims. In doing so, she reintegrates Emily Doe with Chanel Miller, breaking down the wall of separation she built between the two in order to protect herself as she tried to continue some semblance of her life while also navigating the court system in search of something like justice.

On the night she was assaulted, Miller was no longer a college student herself. Having graduated with a degree in literature form the University of California Santa Barbara, she was back home working her first job in a start-up when she attended the fateful party with her sister and her sister’s friend. Many memoirs begin with the inciting incident that is the book’s promotional hook, and then flash back to the subject’s childhood. However, Miller takes a more integrated approach, telling stories about her family, childhood, and education as they fit into the larger context of her experiences as a victim of sexual assault. As a result, they are more uniformly dispersed throughout the book and the early part of her narrative dives right into her memories of the night of her assault before her black out, and the aftermath as she wakes up in the hospital. The trial concludes near the middle of the book, and the latter half is given over to dealing with the sentencing and appeal, as well as the broader #MeToo movement, and the recall campaign to unseat the judge who sentenced Turner, as well as Miller’s fraught relationship with Stanford in the aftermath of what took place on their campus.

Know My Name is filled with visceral details that make it a difficult read. This includes not just Miller’s own assault, but several friends who were also victims of sexual violence, as well as accounts of a rash of student suicides at her high school, and the death of a friend’s roommate while she was at college in Isla Vista, in a mass shooting motivated by misogyny. However, sometimes the biggest impact is in the smallest details, such as Miller’s description of the moment that she realized her underwear was gone when she woke up in the hospital, or her heartbreaking account of the guilt she felt for taking a long shower to wash off the assault, because California was experiencing a drought. Miller articulates clearly that she is writing more for victims than for the general public in making these narrative choices: “As a survivor, I feel a duty to provide a realistic view of the complexity of recovery. I am not here to rebrand the mess he made on campus. It is not my responsibility to alchemize what he did into healing words society can digest.”

Nevertheless, there are a few small bright spots in Miller’s account, as she returns repeatedly to the two Swedish graduate students who were riding by on their bicycles when they witnessed her assault, interrupted her attacker, and chased him down when he tried to run away. Miller looked to both their actions and their testimony as evidence of the better side of human nature. She explicitly acknowledges Peter Jonsson and Carl Arndt, saying, “May the world be full of more Carls and Peters.” For months, she slept under a small drawing of two cyclists, guardians watching over her troubled rest. Miller’s relationship with her family, and her sister in particular, also stands out. In moments where she could hardly fend for herself, Miller nevertheless fought for her sister’s sake, fiercely protective of her since Tiffany’s identity, unlike Chanel’s, was not protected by the legal proceedings.

Although a very personal account, much of the book is about systemic effects and experiences, and the process that Miller did not fully understand she was undertaking when she told the police that she would agree to press charges. Miller rips back that curtain for the reader, taking us inside the grueling legal process, and the still more fraught mental and emotional recovery that followed. The court case is over, but the latter is clearly ongoing. Know My Name marks Miller’s effort to finally break out of that system, with all its failures and constraints, to tell her story on her own terms, as a fully fleshed-out person rather than a nameless victim.

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The Heroine’s Journey

Cover image for The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carrigerby Gail Carriger

ISBN 9781944751500

“I like it when things end happily, and most of the time that means, to me, together. I enjoy it when characters end up in solidarity, friends or family, lovers or platonic. That’s what I hunt for…connection.”

The Heroine’s Journey is a story structure book mapped to three goddess myths, including Demeter, Isis, and Ishtar.  Gail Carriger delineates three main stages, including The Descent, The Search, and The Ascent, and highlights key beats such as the breaking of the familial network in act one, the appeal to, or creation of, found family in act two, and the negotiation for reunification in act three. Each of these beats emphasizes the importance of relationships, casts asking for help as a strength, and points out that the heroine is weakest when she tries to go it alone. While the Heroine’s Journey can be turned tragic, the heroine is more likely to get a happy ending surrounded by friends and family. Carriger provides examples from a number of well-known pop culture works, relying particularly on Harry Potter and Twilight due to their common currency, and also talking about how she has employed the ideas in her own novels.

Carriger is the author of a variety of steampunk and urban fantasy fiction titles, including the young adult Finishing School series, and the Parasol Protectorate books. The Heroine’s Journey is her first non-fiction title, but her voice is still distinctly recognizable. She employs humour and short chapters with a chatty tone, but her insights are sharp if not always perfectly organized in her first foray into non-fiction. Her fiction books feature casts of cooperating characters building relationships and finding their place in the world, so it is no surprise that The Heroine’s Journey deals in precisely the types of stories Carriger likes to read and write. These are stories of connection, romantic, platonic, familial, and everything in between. Carriger was an anthropologist in a previous career, and describes The Heroine’s Journey as a social, anthropological approach to story with a grounding in the classics, and decidedly not a Jungian or psychoanalytic approach derivative of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

Although she emphasizes that the Heroine’s Journey is not derivative of the Hero’s Journey, Carriger does frequently cast the two in contrast to one another, using our familiarity with the Hero’s Journey to illuminate the key differences between these structures. She summarizes the Hero’s Journey in one pithy sentence as: “Increasingly isolated protagonist stomps around prodding evil with pointy bits, eventually fatally prods baddie, gains glory and honor.” By contrast, the Heroine’s Journey rendered in one pithy sentence is: “Increasingly networked protagonist strides around with good friends, prodding them and others to victory together.” The sections in which she examines what happens when a hero enters a Heroine’s Journey, or a heroine enters a Hero’s Journey are particularly interesting as a result of these conflicts and differences.

Carriger weaves an important caveat throughout the book, stating it explicitly up front, but then reiterating it throughout the text. Although it is called the Heroine’s Journey, it can be undertaken by a person of any gender, just as the Hero’s Journey can. She underscores this point by using the 2017 Wonder Woman movie as a prime example of the Hero’s Journey structure, and then arguing that Harry Potter is in fact a Heroine’s Journey, clearly hitting the beats of broken familial network, found family, and the importance of belong, love, and working together. This is key to her point that “biological sex characteristics are irrelevant to whether a main character is a hero or a heroine. In other words, women, female-identified, and non-binary characters can be heroes. Men, male-identified, and non-binary characters can be heroines.”

With National Novel Writing Novel upon us, I’d recommend this book for anyone writing a story that doesn’t map easily to something like the Hero’s Journey or other common plotting structures due to its emphasis on interpersonal relationships or emotional rather than action outcomes. Fans of mythology and those who enjoy looking for patterns and structures in their stories may also find The Heroine’s Journey to be an interesting exploration of story types and structures that are wildly popular with many readers but don’t fit well into other models.

How the Post Office Created America

Cover image for How the Post Office Created America by Winifred Gallagherby Winifred Gallagher

ISBN 9780399564031

“As radical an experiment as America itself, the post was the incubator of our uniquely lively disputatious culture of innovative ideas and uncensored opinions. With astonishing speed, it established the United States as the world’s information and communications super power.”

In 1774, an enterprising revolutionary called William Goddard established the Constitutional Post, a service that illegally competed with the Crown mail, and provided the movement for American independence with a secure means to transport mail that would have been considered seditious by the British government. In 1775, the Continental Congress officially adopted the service, with Benjamin Franklin appointed as the first postmaster general, and the post office was born. Author Winifred Gallagher argues that this first institution of the federal government, which predates the Declaration of Independence, was essential to connecting and unifying the disparate colonies, and developing a country with a shared identity, as well as an emphasis on literacy and freedom of information. Gallagher focuses on high level developments and broad social impacts, with occasional anecdotes about the experiences of a few individual postal workers of America’s oldest public service.

I picked up this book as a means to contextualize recent debates about the US postal service in light of increased use of mail in ballots for the 2020 Presidential election, and claims about the nature and duty of the post office under the American constitution. I quickly learned that the exact nature of postal service was contentious even under Crown rule, when there was debate about whether postage constituted a fee for service, or a form of taxation without representation. However, the theme of what exactly the post office should be and do arises throughout the book, faced again in each new era as the post continued to change and evolve. Based on Gallagher’s account, there is far from any historical consensus about whether the post office should support itself, or be able to run a deficit with additional support from tax payers and the Treasury. Both Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin, were restrictionists who believed the post should support itself or even turn a profit. Early postal advocate and founding father Benjamin Rush and President George Washington were anti-restrictionists who regarded the circulation of information as essential regardless of the cost. However, the question of funding has been revisited and revised repeatedly over the course of the country’s history, and has to be hashed out again every generation or two.

A theme that arises frequently throughout the first half of the book is the issue of States’ Rights, which is prominent in American history generally, but had a surprising amount of influence on the operation of something as mundane as the post. While most citizens wanted to be connected to the post, and would petition their congressional representatives for service, the establishment of a federal outpost in a community was not necessarily without controversy. Of particular contention were postal roads, which were essential to mail service. The post office was nominally responsible for establishing them, but lacked the authority to actually build roads, a matter which states did not want to cede to the federal government. The post therefore had to work creatively, subsidizing the nascent transportation industry, and encouraging local creation and maintenance of roads in order to have postal service established. This push-pull desire for both the benefits of confederation, and also the independence of statehood seems particularly illustrative of early America, and I learned as much about the country as the post from this book.

Another theme that weaves through Gallagher’s history of the post is the subsidization of the developing transportation industry as the United States grew, and expanded steadily westward, pushing out Native peoples, and swallowing up territories once claimed by other empires. Gallagher spends considerable time on stagecoaches and railroads, as well as the fledgling airline industry, all of which were underwritten by lucrative contracts to carry the mail in addition to their passengers and other freight. In 1857, the federal government offered $600,000 for any company that could carry the mail overland from Mississippi to San Francisco in twenty-five days or less. I was also fascinated to learn that mail was often sorted in transit aboard moving trains in a special post office car, by some of the service’s best clerks, who had to memorize extensive maps and timetables, reroute mail for missed connections on the fly, and sort with extreme precision and speed, all without succumbing to motion sickness.

The latter half of the book is less detailed than the first, and we get a much more cursory account of the post-World War II post office, which was beginning to buckle under the strain of austerity imposed by two wars and a recession. Here Gallagher accounts for how financial constraints and corporate lobbying combined to ensure the post office failed to modernize for the electronic age; whereas it had been on the cutting edge of steam power and aviation, it did not bring the same energy or attention to facsimile, internet, or email, which would have seemed like logical extensions to earlier postmasters general who argued for the involvement of the post in anything that helped connect Americans to information. Instead, the post office came to a point of crisis, and transitioned from being a fully-fledged federal department to being an “independent establishment of the executive branch,” or basically a non-profit business under Richard Nixon.

Although How the Post Office Created America was published in 2016 and could have come quite up to date, I finished with a more historical than current understanding of the USPS, as Gallagher does not get much into modern operations, though she does mention the legislation that financially burdened the post office by requiring it to prefund health benefits for its workers far into the future. I would also have been interested to learn more about the experiences and direct accounts of postal workers, as well as the history of government censorship of the mail, which is only briefly covered through the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Postal Obscenity Act of 1873, better known as the Comstock Law. However, these are perhaps stories for other books, as there is clearly too much rich history here to fit all into one volume. What is entirely clear is the historical importance of the post office in providing equitable access to information for all Americans, regardless of cost, a truly community enterprise that is no less necessary today.

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A Paradise Built in Hell

Cover image for A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnitby Rebecca Solnit

ISBN 9781101459010

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in doing so they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be.”

What happens when a disaster disrupts our communities? If you’ve watched any Hollywood depictions, or followed popular media accounts, the images are immediately of panicked crowds, followed by savage competition for scarce resources. But in the field of disaster studies, crowd panic is found to be far less common, and altruistic, prosocial responses much more the norm. In a large scale disaster, you’re more likely to be helped by your neighbour or your coworker than by an emergency responder or relief worker. So why is the popular conception of how people respond to catastrophic events so skewed? In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit uses six major disasters to examine how the public really responds in a large scale emergency, and how the responses—or lack thereof—by authorities can undermine the altruism, community-building and prosocial behaviour that naturally occur, as well as the role the media can play in perpetuating these misconceptions.

Solnit uses six major disasters, three historical, and three more recent, as her case studies. Working in chronological order, she begins with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, proceeds to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and then turns to the London Blitz. For more recent history, she examines the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 9/11 attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Throughout, she blends these historical accounts with information from the academic field of disaster studies, contrasting these studies and theories of behaviour with more popular conceptions and reports. The case studies are a mix of natural disasters and man-made events; the Halifax explosion was an accident, while the Blitz and 9/11 were deliberate acts of human violence. While earthquakes and hurricanes are natural occurrences, Solnit pays particular attention to how the response of authorities after a natural disaster can create second, man-made disaster, and by contrast, how public response and organizing following a disaster can lead to political change.

A key concept in the book is elite panic, a term coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers University. Both academics in the field of disaster studies, they noticed that while authorities planning for disaster response were preoccupied with how to control public reaction, in fact it was often the authorities themselves that panicked and over reacted. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the acting commander of the Presidio marched the army out in the streets, nominally to provide aid, but in fact essentially instituting martial law in the city without the required approval of Congress. Ordered to shut down saloons and prevent the sale of alcohol, troops went a step further and began breaking into businesses to destroy their stock. Ordered to prevent looting, they shot people who had been invited by business owners to take groceries and supplies before their businesses burned in the fires that followed the earthquake. In fact, the troops were so industrious in the prevention of any possibility of looting, that they also prevented residents from fighting the fires. In each disaster, Solnit demonstrates that the most brutal acts are often committed by those seeking to preserve or restore their authority, not by panicked members of the general public, who are often preoccupied with helping one another.

In several places throughout the book, Solnit takes particular aim at the popular myth of looting in the aftermath of disaster. In a number of the cases cited in the book, including the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, authorities directed police or the military to shoot anyone who tried to take any property, even with permission. Solnit argues that the term looting “conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing.” Taking a television in a flooded city without electricity is theft; taking food, medical supplies, or the means to build shelter or escape drowning is requisitioning. Myths about looting can be particularly harmful because they make people afraid of one another. After Hurricane Katrina, the rumours about looting and violence in New Orleans led authorities in the neighbouring community of Gretna on the other side the Mississippi River to blockade the bridge and refuse to accept any refugees. Solnit also worked with journalist A.C. Thompson on a major story about how white residents of Algiers Point, a suburb of New Orleans, formed vigilante bands to defend their property. Thompson found that this impromptu militia shot at least eleven African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the name of preventing looting. When the general public behaves badly in the aftermath of a disaster, it is often a more powerful group acting out against a minority. Some Germans were targeted in Halifax before it was determined the explosion was accident rather than an act of war by the enemy, and after a major earthquake in Japan in 1923, the minority Korean community was accused of committing arson or poisoning wells.

In contrast to the elite panic is the general behaviour of the public. Solnit argues that “the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave,” and she is able to back this up with ample evidence from academic disaster studies, and her various case studies. In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, the community set up camps and impromptu food kitchens in the city’s parks. After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat owners crowded into the city to rescue the stranded even while authorities argued that it was too dangerous to enter the city. In the Twin Towers, occupants began an orderly staircase evacuation, even when the Port Authority directed residents of the South Tower to stay inside after first plane struck. The accounts from that day include a disabled man who was carried down in a relay by his colleagues. The urge to help one another is powerful, and so many people felt the need to do something, anything, to be of use to the evacuation and rescue operation. Volunteer services available to the victims and rescue workers included everything from food to counselling to massage therapy. This is mutual aid, which means that “every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one way street of charity.”

In addition to altruism and community, Solnit examines the opportunities for political change that can be provided by the upheaval of disaster. She argues that “disasters open up societies to change, accelerate change that was under way, or break the hold of whatever was preventing change.” She is quick to note however that change and progress are not necessarily equivalent. Nevertheless, an opportunity arises. In her account of the Mexico City earthquake, Solnit follows the story of the city’s seamstresses, many of whom worked in sweatshops that were destroyed by the quake. Their employers prioritized saving equipment over saving people, and in many cases disappeared without paying outstanding wages or severance. This led to the unionization of the seamstresses. A housing rights movement also grew out of the disaster, because many homes were destroyed due to the shoddy construction that had been overlooked by corrupt government officials and inspectors. The contrasting cases of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are particularly interesting here, because they both happened under the Bush administration. Whereas the first was used to consolidate power and curtail freedoms in the name of patriotism and safety, the latter opened up the administration to unprecedented criticism and opposition.

I picked up A Paradise Built in Hell following reading Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz, which I reviewed last week. Nawaz cites the book in her acknowledgements as an important source that informed how she wrote her characters’ response to disaster, opting against the more usual depictions of panic. Solnit doesn’t use any pandemics as examples, and indeed a pandemic would seem, by the very nature of contagion, to prevent such altruism and community-building, but Nawaz’s book, despite being written before COVID-19, proved to be a very accurate description of what life has actually been like since the pandemic began. And certainly we now know that the disruption of our ability to gather as families and communities has been one of the most difficult consequences of the pandemic. While it can be uncomfortable to try to think about positive outcomes of horrifying disasters in which people lose their lives, it can also be uplifting to be offered a more positive portrait of human nature in the face of disaster, especially in the midst of one.

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Songs for the End of the World

Cover image for Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawazby Saleema Nawaz

ISBN 9780771072574

“He should have known better. How quickly he’d forgotten a fundamental truth: the closer you get to the heart of calamity, the more resilience there was to be found.”

In the summer of 2020, New York City police officer Elliot Howe finds himself in quarantine after he learns that he was exposed to a novel coronavirus brought to the United States by a visiting teacher at his martial arts gym. As Elliot watches from his window, New York is gripped by ARAMIS—Acute Respiratory and Muscular Inflammatory Syndrome—and the hunt for ARAMIS Girl, a young Asian woman falsely believed to be patient zero for the outbreak. Songs for the End of the World also follows Owen Grant, a writer who is reluctantly drawn into the spotlight because he wrote a novel that seemed to predict the ARAMIS outbreak, and Emma Aslet, a singer-songwriter who is planning an ARAMIS relief fundraiser while she is expecting her first child. Weaving back and forth in time, and following a cast of loosely connected characters, Songs for the End of the World explores family and human connection in pandemic times.

Canadian novelist Saleema Nawaz wrote and then revised this book, her second novel, between 2013 and 2019. Looking to the past, she based her research on SARS, MERS, Ebola, and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Originally scheduled for publication in August 2020—the same month the events of the novel begin—it was published digital-first in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the globe. The print edition was released as scheduled on August 25, 2020 in Canada by McClelland & Stewart. As of this writing, the novel does not have an American publisher or US publication date.

The novel is set mainly over a five month period from August to December 2020, but with flashbacks to periods between 1999 and 2016. Most of the flashbacks happen in the first half of the book, delaying the sense of settling into the pandemic with interludes of normalcy. In the flashbacks, we see Owen beginning to write his pandemic novel just as his marriage starts to fall apart, follow Stu Jenkins beginning his career as a musician, and accompany the Aslet family as they circumnavigate the globe on their sailboat while Y2K draws closer, and join Elliot’s sister Sarah as she reveals to their parents that she has chosen to have a baby by herself.

Songs for the End of the World is a pandemic novel, but not a post-apocalyptic one. Certain parallels can definitely be drawn to the work of fellow Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel; Station Eleven came out in 2014 and was a pandemic novel that also featured a large cast of characters and employed a complex timeline. However, Songs for the End of the World does not destroy our society before offering the hope of rebuilding, but instead considers resilience in place. In this novel, it is those who try the hardest to isolate and escape who pay the heaviest price, while those families that turn towards one another find the capacity to heal old wounds and build new bonds as they grapple with the strange new world they suddenly find themselves living in.

As omniscient as Songs for the End of the World seems, it does differ from our current circumstances in important ways. Family is a key theme of the novel, one that Nawaz strikes at by having children be extremely susceptible to ARAMIS, and at the greatest risk of dying from the new disease. Elliot’s sister Sarah is desperate to protect her young son Noah—so desperate that she agrees to join Owen on his recently purchased sailboat to ride out the pandemic in isolation. Emma gives birth to her first child in the midst of the pandemic, as does Elliot’s ex-wife’s new partner, Julia. Another character faces the fact that the child she chose to have by herself would be alone if something happened to her during the pandemic, and another discovers offspring he was previously unaware of. Each in their way faces the question of what it means to bring new life into this world, with all its flaws and dangers.

Although Nawaz wrote this novel in a world where COVID-19 was not a reality, none of us will ever be able to read the book from that perspective. For better or for worse, my reading of this story is inevitably coloured by the reality of living through a real pandemic while reading about a fictional one. Although I’ve read a number of non-fiction pandemic books this year, Songs for the End of the World marks my first foray into fictional pandemics since COVID-19 began. As such, I was struck by the accuracy of Nawaz’s research, and the myriad ways that her ARAMIS outbreak mirrors our current circumstances down to the very smallest details of social distancing and public reaction and controversy. At times the meta-ness of the book was almost too much to bear—a fault of the world, not the writer. Like Owen, Nawaz has unexpectedly found herself the author of a pandemic novel that has suddenly come true. But unlike Owen, Nawaz sees connection and hope. “We may need to isolate at home, but it is not a time for isolationism,” she warns in the interview included at the ended of the book; “we need to come together in solidarity.”

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Austen Years

Cover image for Austen Years by Rachel Cohenby Rachel Cohen

ISBN 9780374720827

“She is always, and still, reading Persuasion. She loves Persuasion. It is not the most brilliant or elegant or formally demanding, but it seems to know her, and all of them, so well. It has the depth of dreams, and like dreams it is incomplete, and she cannot really understand it.

In 2012, Rachel Cohen was pregnant with her first child, and her father was dying of cancer. As these two major changes fundamentally upended her life, she found herself reading almost nothing but Jane Austen, an author she had first gone through as a senior in high school, but then never returned to. Slowly, she also found herself warming to memoir, a genre she had previously avoided despite being a teacher of creative non-fiction. As a dying wish, her father had charged her with publishing a letter he had written to a colleague, which had begun to shape what might have been the next phase of his career as an organizational psychologist. While her children grow, and her memories of her father inevitably begin to fade, Cohen struggles to find a way to fulfill her promise, while also grappling with the ways in which she has used Austen to order and interpret this season of her life.

Austen Years is a book about grief and change, and many of the most touching and emotional parts of the book relate to Cohen’s memories of her father, the sadness of slowly losing him even while he was still alive, and her responsibility for his legacy and memory after he has passed. I kept wondering when we would get to read the letter which is often referenced, but it is not included in the main body of the text, but rather attached as an appendix. I’d recommend flipping to the back and reading it the first time it is mentioned, and then continuing from there, as Cohen repeatedly picks up on many of its themes, including the references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and works with them throughout the book.

You can only read a book for the first time once, though the impression it leaves may be hazy or crystal clear; Cohen has some of both in her memories of Austen. But reading a book about a book, or books, that you have read, is sometimes perhaps the closest thing to reading a book again for the first time. Seeing a familiar story through someone else’s eyes, through someone else’s life, defamiliarizes it just enough to render it fresh again. At the same time you hold it alongside your own impressions and memories, comparing and contrasting the two. It is also fascinating to see how different people can be as readers and rereaders. Like Cohen, I first read Austen in high school, and I revisit the novels often—most recently Emma—and often find comfort in them at times when I can focus on reading little else. But unlike the author, I always reread them in whole, beginning to end. Cohen in dips into parts, rereading only the final third of Sense and Sensibility for months at time, or lingering over the scene in which Darcy and Elizabeth walk together at the end of Pride and Prejudice and finally come to an understanding.

Cohen moves through five of Austen’s major works, beginning with Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice, graduating to Mansfield Park and Emma, and always circling back again and again to her favourite, Persuasion. She omits Northanger Abbey entirely, and briefly addresses the fragment known as Sanditon. She writes of Persuasion’s heroine as if she were a real acquaintance, beginning “when I first knew Anne Elliot,” and continuing from there. Having married late to a friend she had known for twenty years, Cohen relates deeply to Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s second chance romance, as well as the echoes of the loss of her mother that reverberate through Anne’s story. I admit I’ve also been secretly fond of steadfast Anne, Austen’s oldest heroine, who is no longer pretty, but gets her second chance at love anyway.

At turns touching and introspective, Austen Years is fragmentary, struggling after but never quite achieving cohesion. Cohen is trying to string almost too much together, and it shows even in her sentences, which are flighty and rife with commas trying and failing to do the work of more robust punctuation.  The author is grasping after some kind of sense in the wake of loss, but seems unable to get the disparate parts to coalesce. Life and death are not always neat and orderly in that way, and so we roam from memoir to biography to literary criticism, and back again, as Cohen ranges over her marriage, her father’s life and career, Austen’s life and career, family, mortality, legacy, community, theatre, history, literary biography and more in a quest to understand why these works consumed her for so many years.

You might also like My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

Vampires Never Get Old

Cpver image for Vampires Never Get Old edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C. ParkerEdited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker

ISBN 9781250230003

“There is no one way to write the vampire. After all, a being with the power to shape-shift should wear many faces and tell many tales.”

Vampires Never Get Old brings together a variety of stars from the world of young adult fiction to provide fresh takes on the vampire story, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. The collection consists of eleven short stories, each with their own spin on the vampire mythology. To each story the editors add a quick note on the aspects of the vampire tradition used, transformed, or subverted in that tale. The stories include a wide variety of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC protagonists, as well as a fat slayer and a vampire with a disability.

For unique form and dark and creepy vibes, I want to call out “Mirrors, Windows & Selfies” by Mark Oshiro. The story is written in the form of an online diary or blog, but the commenters perceive it as a work of ongoing fiction, which gains in popularity over time. The writer is a young vampire who was born, not made, and although I really hate this trope, I still enjoyed Oshiro’s execution. Cisco has been moved around the country his entire life by his vampire parents, but as he nears adulthood, he begins to question the secrecy and the rules, and wonders why exactly his parents have been keeping him hidden and isolated from vampire society.

Perhaps the most chilling tale is “In Kind” by Kayla Whaley, a dark revenge fantasy in which a disabled teenage girl is murdered by her father, an act which the press dubs a “mercy killing.” Grace then faces the choice about whether to use her new powers to punish her father for what he has done. The story is also notable in that while becoming a vampire makes Grace stronger and more powerful in many ways, it is not able to restore her ability to walk. Her vampirism is empowering, without being a miracle cure for her disability, which is a core part of her identity.

The funniest story belongs to Samira Ahmed, who contributes “A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire.” A brand new vampire wakes up alone in a dark warehouse, and has to undergo Vampire Orientation 101 by Vampersand, a newly minted vampire tech start up for young Indian vampires who have been unexpectedly turned by careless British vampire tourists. Filled with snark and anticolonial bite, this was the only story that made me laugh out loud.

Most of the stories stand alone well, but several had strong potential as novel starters. In particular, I would definitely read a f/f novel with a vampire and a slayer, something that Julie Murphy explores in “Senior Year Sucks,” and which Victoria Schwab also features in her tale, “First Kill.” However, the stand out in this regard was absolutely “The House of Black Sapphires” by Dhonielle Clayton, in which the Turner women return to New Orleans’ Eternal Ward after centuries away. Descended from vampires, but distinct, Eternals can only be killed by Shadow Barons, but none of the Turner girls have ever met one until they return to their mother’s home in New Orleans, and discover that their mother was once in love with a Shadow Baron herself. This story had atmosphere and world-building potential galore, and I would dearly love to read an entire novel set in this world.

Vampires Never Get Olds marks a delightful return to the mythology of vampires, filled with unique tales and fun little extra nuggets. Read through the author bios to find out each contributor’s favourite vampire, and check out the copyright page for a vampire-themed book curse! If like me you’ve been missing vampires, this collection might just quench your thirst, at least for a while.

For more vampires, you might also like:

Urban Fantasy Vampires

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Certain Dark Things