Category: Challenges

Homegoing

Cover image for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi by Yaa Gyasi

ISBN 97811019947142

“You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia and Esi are half-sisters who have never met. First divided by their mother’s secrets, they will soon be divided by an ocean when Esi is sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic. Effia remains in Ghana, sold in marriage by her step-mother to the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, where slaves are held in cramped dungeons before being loaded onto ships bound for America. In present day America, Marjorie wrestles with her identity as a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States, while Marcus struggles to complete his PhD knowing that many young black men of his generation are dead or in jail, and that only chance has kept him from the same fate. In a sweeping family saga, Yaa Gyasi follows the sisters’ bloodlines over hundreds of years, one child from each generation, tracing the impact of colonialism and slavery across the centuries, between Ghana and America.

Homegoing opens in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s, and concludes in America in the present day. Extremely ambitious in scope, it employs an unusual structure that alternates between the two bloodlines, with a new narrator for each generation, meaning that Homegoing has a total of fourteen point of view characters. This requires the reader to settle into a new perspective every twenty or thirty minutes. However, two factors keep this structure working. First is seeking the connection back to the previous story, to find out what has become of the mother or father since we left them behind. And next is looking ahead for the new character’s romantic interest, a necessity in order for the family tree structure of the novel to function, making every chapter a love story in its own way. The chapters are not quite short stories, though each has a distinct narrative arc. But the full function of the novel comes in the layering and juxtaposition of each subsequent piece, until they are all taken together.

I was personally most drawn into the chapters set in Africa, perhaps because the story was less familiar. The American side of the story traces the family from plantations to convict leasing to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era, and through the modern day, history that I have at least a decent grasp on. I knew much less about tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante, and how the British exploited it to fuel the slave trade. Another fascinating chapter, featuring Effia’s great-granddaughter, Abena, recounts the introduction of cocoa farming in Ghana. It remains one of Ghana’s chief agricultural exports to this day. However, the chapter that gave me the biggest emotional punch in the gut was about Kojo—Esi’s grandson—and his wife, Anna, who are living free in Baltimore when the Fugitive Slave Act is introduced in 1850.

Homegoing is a multigenerational epic that walks the fine line between hope, anger, and despair as the tales of Esi and Effia’s descendants unspool. Each chapter is a slice of life set against the background of a particular historical era, be it the Great Migration or the War of the Golden Stool. The full effect of the novel is such that in the end, the reader knows more about Marcus and Marjorie’s families than they do, the fall out of slavery and colonialism depriving them of their history and culture. The book is a potent reminder that the history is always there, just beneath the surface, and that the story has always been waiting to be told, though the voice of the victors has long drowned it out.

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The Lost History of Stars

Cover image for The Lost History of Starsby Dave Boling

ISBN 978-1-61620-417-4

“Living on the veldt taught nothing about the real value of space, creating the illusion that it was limitless. The great open distances of our land, which had once felt like a warm invitation, now stretched out on the other side of the camp’s fence like a cruel taunt.”

Fourteen-year-old Lettie and her Dutch Afrikaner family have a farm deep in the South African veldt when the Boer War comes to their doorstep. The British Army has instituted a scorched earth policy to root out the guerilla fighters who have resisted British attempts to lay claim to the Dutch South African republics, and the valuable natural resources that have been discovered there. With her father, grandfather, and brother still out on commando, Lettie, her mother, and her younger siblings are rounded up and marched to a concentration camp, while their farm is looted and burned. Inside the barbed wire of the camp, Lettie continues trying to fight the war with her own small acts of defiance, while also finding a way to survive the horrifying conditions with her hope for the future intact.

The Lost History of Stars is a story about a forgotten tragedy. Dave Boling was tracing his family roots, when he discovered that his grandfather was a soldier in the Boer War (1899-1902). However as he learned more about the conflict, the idea of telling a story about his family history was quickly abandoned in favour of bringing the story of what happened to the Boer women and children back into the historical memory. Although there may not have been genocidal intent, the British concentration camps in South Africa were the forerunners of the Nazi concentration camps that now define that term in our collective consciousness. More than twenty-thousand Boer women and children died of disease and malnutrition in the camps, in addition to the many uncounted black Africans, who were interned separately.

Speaking about his novel in public appearances, Dave Boling has revealed that The Lost History of Stars went through many drafts before emerging in its current form. The first was a sprawling narrative of war in the line of his first novel, Guernica. The next focused in on Lettie, her mother Susannah, her aunt Hannah, and Bina, the native woman who worked for them. All four characters remain in the final draft, but Lettie is the only point of view character. The decision to make Lettie the sole narrator, while focusing the scope of the story, also removes most of Bina’s point of view, as native Africans were held in separate camps. Bina’s main role in the final version of the story is as a source of wisdom for Lettie, but we learn little about her own ordeal.

One of my worries going into this story was that it would feature an ill-conceived romance between Lettie and Tommy Maples, one of the British soldiers assigned to guard the camp. Fortunately, the relationship between Lettie and Maples is not overly romanticized. She has complicated feelings about him that evolve and change over the course of the book, but Boling does not depict it as anything other than an unequal relationship. Maples is not generally a villainous figure, and he can even sometimes be sympathetic, but it is clear that he and Lettie can never really be friends given the circumstances under which they meet, and a romance could not come to any good end.

Lettie is a heart-felt narrator, who depicts both realistic trauma, and the ability to hold onto hope in trying circumstances. Her voice forms the heart of the The Lost History of Stars. In addition to shedding light on a forgotten tragedy, the central conflict, based on far-flung wars for natural resources, has a continued contemporary relevance.

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Six of Crows

Cover image for Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugoby Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 978-1-62779-212-7

“Geels looked at Kaz as if he was finally seeing him for the first time. The boy he’d been talking to had been cocky, reckless, easily amused, but not frightening—not really. Now the monster was here, dead-eyed and unafraid. Kaz Brekker was gone, and Dirtyhands had come to see the rough work done.”

Kerch is a land that worships gold and industry, and in this the slum rats of the Barrel are no different from the more supposedly more upstanding merchers of Ketterdam. Kaz Brekker has spent years building up the Dregs gang from nothing, creating the Crow Club, and laying a territorial claim to Fifth Harbour. With such a ruthless reputation, it is no surprise that a mercher might approach him with an unusual job, one that cannot be entrusted to just anyone. A Shu scientist has been captured by the Fjerdans, and is being held in the impregnable Ice Court. He holds the knowledge of a new drug, jurda parem, which can take Grisha power from miraculous to unimaginable, with terrible consequences, both for the Grisha, and for the world market. Kaz assembles a crew of his best pickpockets and thieves to travel to Fjerda during the Hringkalla festival, and attempt the impossible—breach the Ice Court, and extract Bo Yul-Bayur, before anyone else gets to him.

Kaz’s crew consists of six players, including himself. Inej, a Suli girl whose indenture to the Menagerie brothel was bought out by the Dregs thanks to her skills as an acrobat. Nina, a Grisha Heartrender stranded in Ketterdam by the Ravkan Civil War. Matthias, a disgraced Fjerdan druskelle—witch hunter—serving time in a Kerch prison thanks to Nina. Jesper, a Zemeni gunman with a dangerous fondness for gambling. And Wylan, a runaway mercher’s son with a talent for blowing things up.  Together, they might just have the right combination of talent and desperation to get the job done. All of the characters are teens, though they mainly read as much older, even accounting for their rough lives. However, this doesn’t particularly detract from the story.

Six of Crows is an extremely well-paced story, balanced between the past and the present, as well as action and character development. The present focuses on the heist, and how the group will extract Bo Yul-Bayur from Fjerda’s Ice Court. But Bardugo also carefully measures out backstory, slowly revealing how the boy Kaz Reitveld became the Barrel lieutenant Kaz “Dirtyhands” Brekker. Character development is married to plot development, as Nina and Matthias’ history plays a critical role, and leads to an unlikely alliance. We find out why Matthias was in Hellgate Prison, and how he got there. Before the crew can even head to Fjerda, they must break Matthias out of Hellgate, and convince him to betray his country and help them with the heist. Which might be somewhat difficult since he vowed to kill Nina Zenik if he ever escaped.

Six of Crows also represents an excellent continued development of the Grishaverse. Bardugo uses and expands the world she already built in her Grisha Trilogy, but this adventure takes an entirely different direction; it is a heist story in contrast to Alina’s epic. While most of the characters in the original trilogy were Grisha, here the cast represents a wider range of more diverse folk. Nina is decidedly not skinny, Kaz walks with a limp and uses a cane, Jesper and Wylan are queer, and Inej and Jesper are people of colour. They come from different countries and upbringings, and have very different dreams for what they will do with their share of the 30 million kruge haul.

Six of Crows also contains ample romance. Nina and Matthias have a fiery chemistry belied by their mortal enemy status. Inej secretly hopes that Kaz might one day return her feelings, while also doubting whether forming a relationship with him would be a good idea, or if he is even capable of such a thing. The cutest flirtation belongs to Jesper and Wylan, who only finally come around to directly acknowledging their interest in the heat of the heist, when plans have gone off the rails, and everyone is improvising. Wylan is the only one of the main six who is not a point of view character, and we do not get flashbacks for him or Jesper, but I hope their story will be further developed in Crooked Kingdom, which I cannot wait to read.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koulby Scaachi Koul

ISBN 978-1-250-12102-8

Mom talks about moving to Canada as though my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. Why not try it? she thought, instead of This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism.”

The daughter of Kashmiri Indian immigrants, Scaachi Koul was born in Canada, and grew up in Calgary, Alberta before moving to Toronto for university. There she became a writer and editor for BuzzFeed Canada, and started dating a white man more than a decade her senior who she kept secret from her parents for many years. She sparked on a storm on Twitter in 2016 when she put out a call for more diverse submissions. Her debut collection of essays addressing growing up at the intersection of two cultures, fighting for a place in either one, while constantly defending choices her parents do not understand or approve of. Koul approaches this subject with a biting humour that belies the seriousness of the subject matter.

Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The intergenerational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. Her niece, nicknamed Raisin, also plays a prominent role, as Koul often reflects on her experiences through the lens of what she hopes or fears Raisin will face growing up as a young half-Indian woman.

Koul shares her complicated relationship with race in general, and skin colour in particular, a relationship that shifts depending whether she is in Canada or India. In Canada she is brown, yet just light enough to be ethnically vague, and constantly questioned about her identity. Racists casually toss the n-word at her, because “racism doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be acute.” In India, her family is pleased with, and occasionally jealous of, her pallor. There, her relatives casually touch her skin, as if hoping the colour will rub off. Koul worries over the value her family places on this lightness, and particularly what this emphasis on whiteness will mean for her half-white niece. This push-pull is constantly at play as Koul tries to parse out her place between the two worlds.

The pieces in this collection range in tone, but even the essays that are pure humour have an undertow of cultural commentary. As she recounts getting stuck in a skirt in the fitting room of a clothing store where she used to work—and having to be cut out of it—Koul manages to perfectly capture the tendency to pin our hopes on the perfect wardrobe. Even as she is getting stuck, she thinks this is “The item, the big item that changes the way I dress and thereby changes the way I am as a person. It’s not just a skirt; it’s the entry fee for a better existence. I would exude a new confidence, it would smooth out the wrinkles in my body, it would hide all the ways I have disappointed and failed people in the past.” Body image is never far beneath the surface of these reflections, with race and gender only serving to further complicate matters. And this piece fits into the collection right alongside more serous pieces, such as the dissection surveillance as an aspect of rape culture, showcasing Koul’s diverse range and deft hand with a variety of subject matter.

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Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3)

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han by Jenny Han

ISBN 978-1-4814-3048-7

“We’re all just counting down, passing time. Everyone knows where they’re going, and the right now already feels like it’s in the rearview. Suddenly life feels fast and slow at the same time. It’s like being in two places at once.”

It’s senior year, and Lara Jean Song Covey is anxiously awaiting her college acceptance letters, and looking forward to participating in traditions like the senior class trip, prom, and Beach Week. Her boyfriend Peter has already accepted a scholarship to play lacrosse for the University of Virginia, but Lara Jean is worried her grades aren’t good enough to into UVA. She’s keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding to their next door neighbour, Ms. Rothschild, but sooner or later, the letters will come, and Lara Jean will have to make some big choices about her future.

As in previous installments, the Covey family dynamic is one of the standout aspects of Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Kitty and Lara Jean have both adjusted to the presence of their father’s new girlfriend in their lives. But Margot has missed that adjustment, and so when she comes home to visit, Trina’s presence in their house suddenly feels tense in a way it never did before. For Kitty and Lara Jean, everything has changed slowly, but from Margot’s outside perspective, her family is changing at the speed of light. Each in their own way, the Song girls have to face what this means for their mother’s memory, and their family going forward.

Back at the beginning of the series, the action began with Margot breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Josh, before heading off to college in Scotland. Before she died, their mother advised Margot, “don’t be the girl who goes to college with a boyfriend.” Now Lara Jean finds herself in Margot’s shoes, facing down her last year of high school, and her dead mother’s advice. Will she follow in Margot’s footsteps, or carve her own path?  Big decisions about her future lie ahead, and Jenny Han has placed this dilemma at the heart of the plot.

Unlike the previous two installments in the series, Always and Forever, Lara Jean has no embarrassing plot catalyst, which was a relief to me as someone who suffers from vicarious embarrassment. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean was forced to face up to her past crushes—including her sister’s ex-boyfriend—when a box of her old love letters got mailed out. In P.S. I Still Love You, her tentative new relationship with Peter was tested when a video of them making out in a hot tub on a school trip was posted to an anonymous Instagram account. Always and Forever, Lara Jean doesn’t rely on any such device, and the book does not suffer for it. Jenny Han really captures the essence of senior year, and strikes the perfect balance in her conclusion to this series.

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Waking Gods (Themis Files #2)

Cover image for Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvelby Sylvain Neuvel

ISBN 978-1-101-88672-4

“I’m grateful for Themis, to be in her company every day. I feel drawn to her. She isn’t of this world either. She doesn’t belong here any more than I do. We’re both out of place and out of time, and the more I learn about her, the closer I feel to understanding what really happened to me.”

Almost a decade has passed since the events of Sleeping Giants, when Rose Franklin and her team hunted down and assembled the pieces of the giant alien robot known as Themis. Rose has dedicated her time to studying Themis, and Kara and Vincent have continued to try to master operating her. Then another robot materializes in the middle of London, and the government’s response inevitably leads to a deadly confrontation. The appearance of Hyperion also drives home how little the Earth Defense Corps really knows about Themis’ combat capabilities. And that knowledge will be more necessary than ever when more robots begin to materialize around the globe, in the world’s most populous cities. The aliens know that humanity has found Themis, and they are not happy about it.

The structure of Waking Gods continues in the interview format Sylvain Neuvel used with great success in Sleeping Giants, with the unnamed character who I always think of as the Interrogator resuming his contact with the Earth Defense Corp after a long silence. Neuvel continues to work this technique, for example by having General Govender practice his speech to the UN General Assembly for the Interrogator before he delivers it. This in fact makes for a more interesting scene than simply witnessing the speech directly, as we gain insight into the Interrogator through the changes he suggests. However, as the situation on Earth descends into chaos, the narrative structure devolves in parallel, taking on more of a transcript style than an interview format. Everything is falling apart, and the style mimics that. We do, however, find out more about the mysterious Interrogator, and his even more mysterious friend Mr. Burns.

It has been nine years since Rose Franklin returned from the dead, mysteriously missing three years of her life and memories. For all that time she has struggled with what this rebirth means, whether she is really Rose Franklin, or merely a copy with some of her memories and knowledge. That doubt has been eating away at her stability for nearly a decade, but when the robots begin to appear, and Themis is called into action, it is the world that has become unstable, and Rose who must hold steady in the face of the unknown. Her development is one of the most interesting aspects of this series.

One of the more disturbing plotlines picks up a dangling thread from Sleeping Giants. Before being ousted from the Earth Defense Corps, geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou harvested ova from Captain Kara Resnick without her knowledge or consent. Kara has never been informed about this violation, because those who knew about it decided that the situation had been taken care of with Alyssa’s removal. When it turns out that Alyssa may have had time to act on her plans before her ouster, they continue to delay telling Kara what was done to her as they try to confirm whether or not Alyssa succeeded. If I can get a little bit spoilery here for the remainder of this paragraph… I absolutely loathe plotlines where women who are childless by choice are forced into motherhood. And I especially hate the implication that their choice was just due to some sort of damage, and really they would be great mothers. In short, I really did not enjoy how Kara’s character was developed in this volume.

In Waking Gods, the genre elements of Sleeping Giants are intensified, and the plot becomes more fast-paced. There is now no question that Themis has alien origins, or that aliens visited earth long ago, and that some of them stayed behind. Waking Gods explores the fallout of these conclusions, but also the more dramatic effects of the aliens becoming aware of how humanity has developed since their last contact. At the same time, the aliens are not significant characters, since this is really an exploration of what it means to be human. Although the duology stands well together, the epilogue hints at the possibility of further adventures.

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March: Book Three

Cover image for March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell by John Lewis and Andrew Ayden

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-402-3

“For so many months I’d kept my emotions bottled up to be strong for those counting on me to lead, but there I was alone in the dark with it all.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the third and final volume in the trilogy. Catch up with March: Book One and March: Book Two here.

March: Book Three opens where March: Book Two left off, with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. The third volume is by far the longest in the trilogy, and has the most ground to cover, not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of significant events in the civil rights movement, when participation and media attention gained critical mass. This installment includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcom X, the Freedom Summer voter registration project, the Selma march, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act. The frame narrative that anchored the first volume has mostly slipped away, with only occasional references back to the inauguration of Barack Obama. It concludes on a meta note, with Lewis and Aydin discussing the idea of turning Lewis’ memoirs into a comic book.

Book three continues to chronicle the violence faced by peaceful protestors, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama as the civil rights movement gained steam. Scene after scene shows demonstrators beaten by police, or police standing by while they are attacked by white supremacists. Volunteers knew they might face violence when they signed up to register black voters in the South, but no one expected three volunteers to be intercepted and murdered before the Freedom Summer even began. Nate Powell’s black and white art chillingly depicts dredging the Mississippi swamps in search of the bodies of the three missing young men. Over and over, it shows the terrible price paid to bring in the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to teaching the history of the civil rights movement, Lewis also provides a behind the scenes perspective on the growing pains of a swelling movement, and the ideological differences that arose. He highlights disagreements about the role of white people in the movement, and the role of gender equality as more women began participating. Different organizations often had profoundly different ideas about how to approach their advocacy, which Lewis presents in a diplomatic fashion. We also see Lewis beginning to move in powerful circles, not just the leadership of the student movement, but also among other civil rights organizations, and even meeting the president. This might be a little inside baseball for some readers, but it does drive home the amount of behind the scenes work and debate involved in bringing about change.

Throughout March, Lewis emphasizes action over legislation, highlight the fact that while laws are important, they mean nothing without practical enforcement or compliance. Even as it concludes at a triumphal moment, with the inauguration of the United States’ first black president, there is a note of sadness and caution. One of the last scenes depicts Lewis listening to his voicemail. “I was thinking about the years of work, the bloodshed…the people who didn’t live to see this day,” Ted Kennedy says as Lewis listens in the dark, head in his hands. March is dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement.” And the next day, Congressman Lewis is back at his office, planning to educate those future children about what was lost, what was gained, and the work yet to be done.

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The Prey of the Gods

Cover image for The Prey of the Gods by Nicky Drayden by Nicky Drayden

ISBN 9780062493033

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher through the Harper Voyager Super Reader Program.

If there’s one rule in planning for world domination, it’s to make sure you look good doing so.

South Africa, 2064. Sydney, a debased demi-goddess with dwindling powers, schemes to find enough fear, blood, and belief to feed on to return to her heyday. A new designer drug is hitting the market, and unleashing the divine potential of seemingly ordinary humans, and in it Sydney sees the possibility of chaos such as the world has not experienced for a long time. Meanwhile, her old mentor Mr. Tau is preparing to release a new demi-goddess into the world, one who may help her or undermine her, depending on how Sydney plays her cards. Can a pop star, two gay teens, a little girl, a politician, and a robot foil her plans?

To be honest, it is hard to give a concise, non-spoilery plot summary of The Prey of the Gods. There are at least eight point of view characters, and a lot of seemingly disparate elements that have to come together in this unusual novel. The book has elements of both fantasy and science fiction, as well as a distinct sense of humour. Sydney is a demigoddess, and mythology forms the underpinning of the story, but it is science that unleashes the action. The new drug hitting the market seems like a hallucinogen, but is really tapping into the divine potential of humans, including powers such as mind reading and manipulation that will create unprecedented chaos as they spread through the population. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous personal robots belonging to the human cast are gaining sentience, and questioning their role in society.

Perhaps the book’s strongest feature is its diverse and interesting cast of characters. I was particularly drawn to Nomvula, the young Zulu girl, and Councilman Stoker, the cross-dressing politician with a secret life as a drag performer who is starting to realize that he just might be trans. Drayden has also created an interesting character in Riya Natrajan, a fairly unlikeable pop diva who has been faking a drug problem to hide a more serious chronic medical condition from the public. Additional points of view come from Muzi, who is struggling with a crush on his best friend, Elkin, and This Instance, later named Clever 4-1, Muzi’s newly sentient personal robot. The mix of characters is exactly as odd and intriguing as you would expect, but works well once the reader gets everyone straight, and especially after the narratives begin to overlap.

Part of what gives nuance to the large cast is the theme of family, which is important for each character in different ways. When the book opens, Muzi is about to be circumcised not because he wants to, but because he knows that going through this traditional rite of passage will please his grandfather, whose approval he craves. Much of Riya’s backstory is defined by her mother’s death, and the complications that ensued in her relationship with her father, who she has not spoken to in years. Nomvula has grown up before her time caring for her sickly mother, with no father or siblings. When Mr. Tau and Sydney come along, her desire for family connections will change everything. Councilman Wallace Stoker is less interested in politics than music, but pressure to continue the familial political legacy keeps him from pursuing his dreams, or realizing his true identity. His domineering mother has her eye on the premier’s office, and will let nothing get in the way of her son achieving that landmark.

The Prey of the Gods is a humourous, genre bending romp through the near future, fearlessly mixing and matching demi-goddesses and robots, pop stars and politicians. Although it takes a while to settle in and get a handle on all the moving pieces of this narrative, the result is fresh and unexpected.

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