Category: Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2021: Jonny Appleseed

by Joshua Whitehead

ISBN 9781551527253

“My home is full of hope and ghosts.”

Since leaving the Peguis reservation, Jonny has been doing cybersex work to pay the rent in Winnipeg, rarely traveling back home especially after his grandmother’s death. But when his step-father dies, his mother calls him home for the funeral and Jonny has only a few days to get together the money he needs for the trip back to the rez. As he works to scrape together the rent plus funds for the drive up north, Jonny reflects on his childhood, his relationship with his mother and grandmother, and the fraught intersection between his indigenous heritage and his queer identity. Homecoming is a complex reckoning with the self, and the family that made him.

The relationships with the women in his family are at the heart of the story, as Jonny was raised by his mother, who had him young, and his grandmother. His father left when he was a toddler and then died tragically, and his step-father was never a positive force in his life, even if his mother loved him. In fact, for self-identified glitter princess Jonny, masculinity has always been fraught, especially where it intersects with his indigeneity. He has had to play “straight on the rez in order to be NDN” and in the city he has played “white in order to be queer.” Part of this tension is embodied by the symbol of a bear. Jonny’s family is bear clan, but within the queer community, he cannot claim this title due to an entirely separate meaning. It is only one small way in which he feels he has been forced to divide his identities against himself. Part of his journey of self-reclamation is laying claim to titles like Two Spirit and indigiqueer that try to forge the two halves of himself back into a single whole.

Running through the story is Jonny’s poignant relationship with Tias. They have been friends since childhood, and have long been lovers, but Tias is not fully reconciled with what his love for Jonny means about his own sexual identity. Tias also has a long-time girlfriend, and the three are caught in a complex relationship, where Jordan and Jonny know that they share Tias, but do not openly acknowledge it to one another. Yet Jonny finds himself unable to hate her because she reminds him in many ways of his grandmother; “they were both little women with the ferocious power of a behemoth inside them.” The relationship Joshua Whitehead has created here is simultaneously tender and tragic; in order for Jonny to have love, it is not enough for him to be reconciled with himself, he also needs for Tias to do the same.

Bodies and physicality are an important part of Jonny’s story, the site of both injuries and pleasure, the one often morphing into the other. He also literally makes his living by his body, mostly selling cam shows and the occasional live meeting with a client, because his mother taught him that if he likes something and he is good at it, he should never do it for free. As a child, Jonny’s long hair is simultaneously a symbol of his indigeneity and part of the perception of his queerness, the two pulling against one another. We he finally cuts it off for a fauxhawk, it is his grandmother, in her admiration for whiteness, who allows the change. Yet she is also the person who first sees Jonny for what he is, and gives him the term Two Spirit to describe it. Straight bodies also tell stories, if in less fraught ways. Jonny’s stepfather’s body “was like a graveyard of injuries and ailments, so alive with experiences, while mine was riddled with shame.” As Jonny puts it, “our bodies are a library, and our stories are written like braille on the skin.” Jonny Appleseed braids together past and present, the mundane and the spiritual, the crass and the poetic into a visceral exploration of family, identity, and sexuality that will make you feel like you have walked a mile in Jonny’s shoes.

Jonny Appleseed was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs. As a queer Mohawk woman herself, Jacobs spoke passionately to the importance of this narrative, highlighting the fact that it is the first book by a Two Spirit indigenous author that has been represented at the table in the twenty year history of Canada Reads. Her defence repeatedly touched on themes such as resilience, healing, and the power to transmute pain into humour in order to survive and thrive. Describing it as a full body reading experience, Jacobs leaned into the physicality of the narrative, including the sexuality, arguing that it was a book she needed herself as a teen.

Jonny Appleseed went into the finale against Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi, defended by Roger Mooking, another title also published by the small, independent Arsenal Pulp Press. Both books touched on themes of family, trauma, healing, resilience, and forgiveness, making the final day of debates particularly interesting. Host Ali Hassan posed a series of questions that asked the panelists to consider which book most effectively depicted complicated relationships, the multidimensional theme of home, and fresh perspectives on love. However, most of the panelists spoke to how both books effectively achieved these ends. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee noted the relationship between Tias and Jonny, while Rosey Edeh was moved by Jonny’s relationship with his mother and grandmother.

The arguments for Jonny Appleseed throughout the week clearly made a particularly strong impression on panelist Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who spoke about how hard he found the book to read. However, he credited the influence of the debates in causing him to re-examine why he wasn’t initially able to see the healing and perseverance in the novel. He also cited Jonny Appleseed as the book that brought him a fresh and compelling perspective that he had never considered or been privy to before.

In the final vote of the week, Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making Jonny Appleseed the first book by an indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

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When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reed

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Canada Reads Along: Butter Honey Pig Bread

by Francesca Ekwuyasi

ISBN 9781551528236

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart. Feed it well.”

Content Warning: Childhood sexual abuse

Twins Taiye and Kehinde used to be one zygote. These days, they barely speak to one another after being a torn apart by a terrible thing they never speak about. Leaving their mother Kambirinachi behind in Nigeria, they venture out into the world separately, to France, England, Canada and beyond. Sometimes they are on opposite sides of the world, other times they live only hours apart without ever seeing one another. But now they are both back home in Lagos, Kehinde bringing her husband Farouq, and Taiye trailing a long series of failed relationships with women who have changed her life for better and for worse. Back in their childhood home, the two sisters and their eccentric mother must reckon with the event that drove Taiye and Kehinde apart.

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a story of family with just a touch of the supernatural. Kambirinachi believes herself to be ogbanje or abiku, a non-human spirit that plagues a family with misfortune by repeatedly being born and then dying in childhood to cause a human mother misery. On her third birth, she chose to stay in this world for a time, but she still hears the voices of her disembodied Kin call to her, tempting her towards the doorways back to the space between. For much of their lives, her daughters seem quite normal, but as an adult, Taiye sees the manifestation of Our Lady—a spirit that looks like her sister—in whom she confides and seeks advice, even when she is not speaking to the real Kehinde.

It is revealed relatively early in the story that, while their mother was still grieving their father’s death, one of the sisters was sexually assaulted by a relative. Previously so alike, this difference divides them, festering unspoken in their relationship for decades. Because they cannot talk about this biggest hurt, they cannot speak of almost anything, a long silence stretching between them. In the years since, Taiye wrote to Kehinde, but never mailed the letters, until one day her girlfriend found them and posted them to her sister. Kehinde has been reading the letters, while Taiye continues to pretend they were never sent. The letters add an additional layer of narration between them as they struggle towards a new relationship.

Taiye has spent her adult life working in kitchens and studying culinary arts around the world. Cooking can serve as both a method of bonding, of creating something together, and also as a way for the three women to avoid talking to one another, making busy with the work of the kitchen. Many of the recipes in Butter Honey Pig Bread are so closely described, including measurements, that it might be possible to recreate them straight from the cooking passages. The book’s very title is derived from the food that permeates the narrative, providing a connection to family and home.

Francesca Ekwuyasi makes varying narrative choices for the different sections, which range from Kambirinachi to Taiye to Kehinde in a non-linear fashion. At first, Kehinde is the only first person narrator, drawing the reader a little closer to her character while her mother and her sister’s stories are told in the third person. The occasional passage will address the reader directly, such as when Ekwuyasi writes that “perhaps in your life you’ve come across a force that’s matched and moved you. Maybe it changed you so profoundly that when you look back at the landscape of your life, you are struck by the indelible mark it left.” Late in the book, Kambirinachi breaks from third into the first person, demanding agency and the right to finally tell her own story. These shifts draw attention to the power of narrative and point of view, and how it shapes the reader’s perception of the story being told. The novel explores grief, humanity, loss, family, identity and more, taking the reader across the world and back again in a sweeping family saga.

Butter Honey Pig Bread was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by chef and television host Roger Mooking. Throughout the week, Mooking was a passionate and eloquent defender of his book, though he often struggled against the time limits imposed by the debate format, with unrehearsed arguments that did not fit into the time allotted for opening and closing statements. However, his energy was enough to bring Butter Honey Pig Bread to the finale, highlighting both the craft and the themes of the book in his defense. He spoke to the relationships, the mythology, the food, and the sense of community that bind this story together into a tapestry that can be viewed at a distance, or examined up close without diminishing its beauty.

The questions focused on the depiction of complicated relationships, the concept of home, and the portrayal of love in the last two books standing. In their answers to most of the questions, the panelists were able to draw out aspects of both titles that effectively touched on these themes, or helped them experience a new perspective. Scott Helman returned to the idea of finding more hope in Jonny Appleseed compared to Butter Honey Pig Bread, but in general it was difficult to tell which way the panelists were leaning. In some ways, the efforts of the host to tease the two books apart through these questions only served to illustrate that the two books shared many themes. Rosey Edeh praised the warmth and strength of the story, and how that was able to carry her through confronting the trauma that the characters have experienced in their lives. The final round of debate asked each panelist to speak to how the remaining books had changed them, and almost all of them had good things to say about both of the remaining titles. Scott Helman particularly cited the concept of the ogbanje as a new idea that stayed with him long after he closed the book, despite his other criticisms of this title.

On the final day, the votes come down to the free agents whose books have already been eliminated earlier in the week. Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making it the final book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Check back tomorrow for a review of the winning book, and a look back on the week’s debates!

You might also like Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Canada Reads Along 2021: Hench

Cover image for Hench by Natalie Zina Walschotsby Natalie Zina Walschots

ISBN 9780062978578

“Doc Proton told me, ‘You make your own nemesis.’ I didn’t understand it then. I thought it was one of those things a rambling old hero said to sound wise. But it’s been absolutely true. Every evil, every great power that has ever risen to challenge me, every arch villain who’s ever been an actual threat, was someone whose path I altered. I set our enmity in motion every time. A tiny action can cause an avalanche.”

Anna Tromedlov is a hench. She does data entry and analysis for supervillains to pay the bills, and keep food on the table, making the trek down to the Agency for her next gig whenever the money runs out. She prefers to work from home, office work if she must, but never, ever field work. When she gets a new gig with a villain known as the Electric Eel, she thinks her temping days are done. Instead she finds herself pulled into the field, where a catastrophic encounter with a superhero known as Supercollider shatters her body. During her long recovery, Anna begins to wonder how many others like her have been harmed or disabled by the devastating overresponse of heroes. Using her talent for data analysis, she runs the numbers and starts the Injury Report, a blog where she calculates the cost of life and money caused by heroes. The math does not come out in their favour; they do more harm than good. When her work catches the eye of Leviathan—the biggest supervillain of them all and the arch nemesis of the hero who hurt her—Anna finds herself with a new gig using data to take down heroes in unexpected ways.

If you’ve ever watched a superhero movie and marveled at the collateral damage wreaked by a battle in the middle of downtown Manhattan, to both bystanders and property, you will probably be fascinated by Hench. When we meet Anna, she is just a temp, taking any data entry job that she can get her hands on. Positions that play to her strengths, pay her bills, and keep her out of the field, where things can get really dangerous. After all Anna doesn’t have any superpowers, let alone invulnerability. Her talent lies in data analysis, and the power of a good spreadsheet to bring the world into focus. During her one trip into the field, she suffers both physical trauma and long-term anxiety as a result of her injury at the hands of Supercollider, and becomes hyper-fixated on calculating the cost of the damages superheroes cause to society.

Hench paints the world in shades of grey, arguing that the main difference between superheroes and supervillains is good marketing, and their perceived alignment with the institutions of society. Much of the book is about the mundanity of evil, in addition to the fallibility of heroes. Anna lives a surprisingly normal looking life for much of the book, going on dates, hanging out with her best friend, dealing with coworkers and office politics. She hires and trains new employees, fights and makes up with her best friend, loses out on a date because of the nature of her job. Sometimes she grits her teeth and does things that make her feel squeamish, and other times she acts with the righteous fury of an avenger who knows that the math supports her actions. What she never asks is whether she, or anyone else, should have the right to make those decisions at all.

In most respects, the world of Hench is entirely recognizable and mundane outside of the superhero system. Much of this world building happens very peripherally, and over the course of the book we learn that children are tested at the beginning and end of puberty for signs of superpowers, and those who are identified must join the Draft, becoming a superhero, or face being labelled a villain. Walschots has left the ending of this book open enough that there is definitely room for a sequel, and my hope for a follow up would be that it delves more into this system and the institutions that make superheroes and villains in the first place.

Hench was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and was one of two genre fiction novels brought to the table this year along with The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk which was defended by Rosey Edeh and eliminated on Day Two. Throughout the week, Lee repeatedly urged readers and his fellow panelists to look beneath the surface, and not dismiss Hench simply because it was a book about superheroes and villains. He praised the book for being subversive and inclusive, but also fun to read, arguing that this would make it accessible to audiences while also asking them to think about issues of power, accountability and collateral damage, and who gets a free pass in our society.

Scott Helman was one of the earliest panelists to critique Hench back on Day One of the debates, citing its moral relativism and nihilism as reasons that he struggled to connect with the book. It was clear that a sense of hope, uplift, or reconciliation was something he was looking for in order to be transported. Lee’s counterargument was that Hench leaves it to the reader to mull over the complexities of good and evil rather than offering easy answers. Roger Mooking also pointed out that Hench is a book that rejects easy binaries.

Day Three of the debates focused around questions about resilience, trauma, and accessibility of the texts, as well as which book most effectively expanded the panelists’ understanding of an experience different from their own. Olympian Rosey Edeh admired the way Hench took readers inside the experience of a person who had both an agile mind and a physical disability, illustrating the resilience of Anna’s character. The panelists also got into a bit of a sidetrack about the nicheness of superheroes, and whether that premise would be alienating for some readers, or if the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would actually signal that this concept has broad appeal and accessibility to audiences.

When the ballots were counted, Roger Mooking cast the sole vote against Jonny Appleseed, while Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread. Rosey Edeh and Scott Helman voted against Hench. The vote came to a tie for the second day in a row, with the tie breaking vote going to the panelist who did not vote for either of the books that were part of the tie. As the defender of Butter Honey Pig Bread, Roger Mooking naturally voted against Hench, making it the third book eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2021? Start here!

Canada Reads Along 2021: The Midnight Bargain

Cover image for The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polkby C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781645660071

“Beatrice didn’t want to hear what she would have if she were a man. She didn’t want to be a man. She wanted to be a magician.”

In Chasland, magic is the realm of men. Among women, only widows and crones can pursue the arcane arts. Married women are locked into warding collars that shield them from magic in order to prevent spirits from possessing their unborn children. Problematic daughters may be collared even before their weddings. Young women with magical talent are valued only as the mothers of the next generation of male magicians. Each year brings bargaining season, when the ingénues descend on Bendleton for a series of balls, parties, and marriage negotiations. Beatrice Clayborn is about to make her debut in desperate bid to save her family from desperate financial straits, but in her heart she would prefer to pursue life as a magician, even if it means being called a thornback. At the beginning of bargaining season, Beatrice finds a grimoire in a bookshop that may hold the key to making the greater bargain with a spirit and staving off marriage forever. But the book is taken from under her by the wealthy heiress Ysbeta Lavan and her brother Ianthe, who have traveled from Llanandras for bargaining season. Ysbeta is as desperate as Beatrice for a solution to the marriage problem, but she will need Beatrice’s help to decode the grimoire.

Ysbeta and Ianthe come from Llanandras, a country with a more liberal policy towards women and magic; women are only shielded during their pregnancies. Nevertheless, their mother has brought Ysbeta to the Chasland marriage mart in hopes of brokering an advantageous alliance for their trading company, regardless of the cost to her daughter personally. Ysbeta would prefer to remain unwed, and as she and Beatrice get to know one another, it becomes clear that her plans for the future involve neither marriage nor children. Beatrice, by contrast, dreams of a world where she can have it all, while her younger sister Harriet has made her magic small in order to focus on her own future bargaining season. I appreciated that the book showed women with a variety of dreams for the future, and centered their right to make that choice for themselves rather than positioning a single outcome as the ideal. Although the book is currently a standalone, I would absolutely read a follow up from Ysbeta’s perspective.

In addition to marriage, The Midnight Bargain also explores the conflicts between women created by the patriarchal system they live under. Beatrice’s own sister betrays some of her secrets to their parents when she believes something bad may have happened to her, only to unleash a worse punishment. When Beatrice and Ysbeta seek help from a network of women magicians, the power wielded by their families and the potential backlash of aiding the escape of two ingénues is deemed too risky for the rest of the network. Both girls are facing potential betrayal by their own mothers, who are shepherding their daughters towards a terrible future. I was particularly curious to know more about Beatrice’s mother, who makes some difficult choices in the course of the narrative that show she is not entirely at peace with her situation despite outward appearances. I particularly liked that Beatrice and Ysbeta became allies rather than rivals, even though their alliance is often an uneasy one since their aims are sometimes at odds.

Ianthe is Beatrice’s love interest, and a more tolerant and liberal-minded young man that she is used to meeting with. For the first time, marriage doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable; Ianthe listens to her ideas and would clearly allow her more freedom than her mother has ever enjoyed. In some ways, however, this complicates the narrative. Beatrice would be free to hate a husband she took only to save her family. If she managed to make the greater bargain with a spirit and become a fully-fledged magician, she would never regret passing up the chance to wed any of the local men. Ianthe represents a compromise she must decide if she can make without coming to hate him, or herself. C.L. Polk adds depth to their relationship by acknowledging the sacrifice Beatrice would still be making in marrying Ianthe; though he might seem the obvious choice, it would still represent a loss of Beatrice’s freedom and self-determination to place the key to her collar in his hands.

The Midnight Bargain was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by Olympian and broadcaster Rosey Edeh. She touted her selection as an immersive narrative appropriate for a wide range of readers, and also highlighted the fast pacing and linear narrative as benefits in a time when many of us are stressed and distracted. However, she also urged readers to look to the complexity beneath the surface, for a story about race, magic, complex friendships, and self-determination. The book has a subversive undercurrent that might initially be missed beneath the romance, magic, and world building, creating a richly layered story.

Day Two of the debates opened a round table format that allowed each defender a one minute opening statement, followed by a discussion of their books by the other panelists. Each defender was then given a thirty second closing before the votes were cast. The Midnight Bargain first came under fire from Devery Jacobs, who also spoke against the book on Day One. She argued that the book had some problems with repetition that made her feel like the author was spoon feeding her. Edeh’s rebuttal focused on the importance of repetition and reinforcement in a journey of the mind where the character is setting herself against society in order to achieve what everyone says is an impossible goal.

Roger Mooking’s criticism of the book focused more on the believability of the fact that Beatrice would give up the grimoire to Ysbeta in the bookshop, the inciting incident for the entire narrative. He felt that this was implausible, while Edeh argued that this moment, in addition to setting up the conflict, is a powerful illustration of Beatrice’s social training, the very thing that she needs to overcome in order to reach her goal. She is keenly aware of the problems her actions may cause her family, and also of the power imbalance between the Clayborns and the Lavans in terms of both their wealth and their station in society. That she concedes in this moment both kicks off the story, and provides an important act of world-building while helping us understand her character.

When the time came to cast the ballots, Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against The Midnight Bargain, with Lee citing the fact that he felt it was the type of story he had read many times before. Devery Jacobs had also voted against the book on Day One. Both Rosey Edeh and Roger Mooking cast their votes against Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, creating a tie between two books. Scott Helman, who initially voted against Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, was called in to be the tie breaker. Helman was a free agent today after the elimination of his pick, Two Trees Make a Forest, on Day One. Citing the fact that he became a little bit tired with the Regency aspect, and the wealth of the characters, he elected to eliminate The Midnight Bargain, making it the second book voted off of Canada Reads 2021.

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K-Pop Confidential

Cover image for K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Leeby Stephan Lee

ISBN 9781338639988

“I’m starting to feel as if life inside S.A.Y. is the only real life—everything’s so intense and new and dangerous and exciting in there—and everything outside it, this vast, bustling country where my mom and grandfather are, where my ancestors are from, is just a distraction.”

Candace Park loves to sing, but for most of her life she’s been wasting her talent learning the viola to please her parents and help round out her college applications. Secretly she is a big K-Pop fan, an enthusiasm she shares with her best friends, Ethan and Imani. When Imani learns about an open call for talent from S.A.Y. Entertainment, Korea’s biggest K-Pop label, her friends encourage Candace to try out. To her surprise, she is offered a spot in Seoul, and a chance to compete for one of five slots in the girl group S.A.Y. plans to launch at the end of the summer. All she has to do is convince her parents that diving into their homeland’s most cut-throat industry is an opportunity too good to pass up.

The world Stephan Lee has crafted in K-Pop Confidential represents a strange mixture of truth and fiction. Lee invents S.A.Y. Entertainment for the site of his story, replacing one of the largest real companies in the industry with this fictional analogue. However, other bands mentioned in the book are real, and you could craft a fairly substantial playlist of K-pop girl bands just from the songs mentioned in the course of the book. For example, Lee mentions Girls Generation, the band that Jessica Jung—author of Shine—was a member of. In Seoul, Candace is surrounded by young women who have given up large chunks of their childhood for a chance to debut. One her group mates, Binna, has been training for a decade. If you’ve enjoyed books set in other competitive, high pressure environments like ballet school, or the film industry, idol training makes for an analogous setting.

We get a little bit of development of Candance’s relationship with her grandfather, since she is able to see him in person on her days off, but her family is largely out of the picture when she is ensconced at S.A.Y. Her relationships are focused around those she makes with the other girls in her training group, and her feelings for two boys, one of whom is already an idol in the company’s biggest boy band, and the other who is a fellow Korean-American trainee. Neither of the boys are particularly well-developed characters, and Candace’s relationships with her fellow female trainees are significantly more interesting. However, because romantic scandals and gender disparity play such a key part in the downfall of many female idols, the boys remain an important part of the story.

It’s a difficult line for Lee to balance making Candace resistant to the norms inside the idol school, while also having it seem at all realistic that her rebellion would not get her kicked out of the program. The manager who plucked her from the audition in New Jersey is invested in showing the company she made the right choice, which provides a little bit of cover to her behaviour. However, she also simply accepts the grueling hours and restrictive diet, hiding these facts from her mother when she is allowed to visit on weekends, so that she won’t be pulled out of training. Candace develops close friendships with some of her fellow trainees, but her interactions with even the people she likes can be fraught by the competition. Particularly interesting is her antagonism with Helena Cho, a fellow Korean American who believes the company will not select more than one American to be part of the girl group. Interestingly, it is Helena’s fate that ultimately shapes Candace’s biggest choices about her future.

The book reads well as a stand-alone, but according to the author, a second volume tentatively titled K-Pop Revolution will follow the girl group formed in K-Pop Confidential, due out in 2022.

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Shine by Jessica Jung

Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Brown and Sona Charaipotra

Howl’s Moving Castle

Cover image for Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jonesby Diana Wynne Jones

ISBN 9780062244512

“What an outspoken old woman you are! I’ve reached that stage in my career when I need to impress everyone with my power and wickedness. I can’t have the King thinking well of me. And last year I offended someone very powerful and I need to keep out of their way.”

All the residents of Market Chipping have heard of the terrible Wizard Howl, whose moving castle lurks over the hills and moors surrounding the town. The Wizard Howl is a terrible fiend known for stealing and eating the hearts of young girls. Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and everyone knows that in fairy tales the eldest is doomed to meet the worst fate, while the youngest has all the adventures and marries the prince. Sophie tries to tell herself she is resigned to her fate, sewing hats in her father’s shop. But when she accidentally runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie leaves home to seek her fate, despite being the eldest daughter. Cursed to look like an old woman, Sophie seeks out the moving castle, and strikes a bargain with Howl’s fire demon that will have far reaching consequences.

Howl’s Moving Castle is perhaps my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, so it is a bit surprising that it took me this long to get around to reading the book it was based on, which was originally published in 1986. Part of the appeal of this narrative is Sophie, a strong-willed character, but one who has been hiding her opinions and forcefulness behind the polite, timid façade expected of a young woman and dutiful eldest daughter. The witch’s curse, which transforms Sophie into an old woman, frees her from much of that expectation, allowing her character to come through more strongly. Diana Wynne Jones writes that “as a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief.” She is well-matched against the tumultuous and mercurial Howl in temperament, and her new life also frees her to discover her own magic.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the emphasis on the portal fantasy, including Howl’s connection to our world. As in the film, the castle has four entrances, each in a different physical location. In the book, but not the movie, the black door leads to our world, specifically to Wales, where Howl—aka Howell Jenkins—has left behind his sister, niece, and nephew. The addition of Howl’s family adds an important dimension to his character, and provides an angle of attack for the Witch of the Waste that is missing from the film. This eventually leads to a confrontation with the witch’s fire demon, the source of her power, and possibly also the cause of her wickedness. Overall, the witch’s storyline is more satisfying and coherent in the book as a result of these developments.

The book has room to flesh out characters and subplots that were cut from the film, including Sophie’s family as well as Howl’s. In the book, Sophie has two sisters, one apprenticed to a baker, the other to a sorceress, while Sophie stays at home to inherit the hat shop. Their father dies early in the story, leaving Sophie, her sisters, and stepmother to pick up the pieces. The book also develops a variety of connections between the characters, such a romance between Howl’s apprentice Michael—who is a teenager rather than a young boy as in the film—and Sophie youngest sister, Martha. Miyazaki’s film did excellent work with the source material, but the extra layers of detail and character development allowed for in the book add something to this whimsical and endearing story that is now hailed as a forerunner to modern British fantasy.

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Wasted Words

Cover image for Wasted Words by Staci Hartby Staci Hart

“The rules you made? The shelves people belong on? You’ve created them yourself. You’ve built your own prison out of something imaginary, and you ended up hurt anyway.”   

Since moving from Iowa to New York City, Cam has had a series of nerdy jobs from comic book retailer to her current gig as the co-manager of Wasted Words, a bar meets book store where she hosts singles nights in addition to selling books and comics. She’s also had a series of roommates, the most recent of whom is Tyler, sent by her last roommate to take her place when she moved out. Recently dumped, Tyler had nowhere else to go, but in the year they’ve lived together Tyler and Cam have become fast friends. Cam is a book nerd while Tyler is a former football player turned sports agent, so it seems like they should have nothing in common. Cam is firm believer in sorting like with like, but Tyler will force her to challenge her assumptions about what makes a good match.

Wasted Words is fairly loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma. Cam fancies herself a matchmaker, although she’s a bit better at it than Emma ever was. However, much like the original, she lets herself get carried away by her imagination, sometimes causing her friends to get hurt in the process. However, it misses out on some of my other favourite aspects of Austen’s original, particularly Emma’s relationship with her father. Cam’s family doesn’t feature at all in the story. The matchmaking aspect of Emma works well in a modern setting, but the familial dynamics and social relationships can be harder to translate.

One thing that surprised me about the book is that it wasn’t a slow burn towards getting together at the end, like you might expect if it was closely following Emma. Rather, Cam and Tyler realize their feelings for one another less than halfway through, and the second part of the book is more about reconciling their differences and facing up to their past traumas in order to be able to move forward. Tyler was dumped by his girlfriend after the injury that ended his football career, and Cam is hiding an old hurt that dates back to high school that she refuses to talk about, much less process.

Cam’s anxiety isn’t immediately evident before she and Tyler get together, though we have a few hints about a traumatizing incident from her past. So it’s a bit jarring when Cam, who seems mostly level-headed if occasionally a bit controlling, starts to spin out in the second half. Her anxiety ramps up, and before she knows it she is jinxing the best thing that has ever happened to her, all because she has certain ideas about herself and what she does or doesn’t deserve in a relationship.

In terms of romance tropes, Wasted Words solidly hits mutual pining, roommates, and friends to lovers. Throw in the Austen connection, and there is a lot to love here. The ending was a bit over the top for my tastes, but fans of the romantic comedy grand gesture will probably find it satisfying.

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Rent a Boyfriend

Cover image for Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chaoby Gloria Chao

ISBN 9781534462472

“I hated myself in this house. I hated what my priorities became, what I worried about, the things I said and, more so, didn’t say.”

Chloe Wang is bringing her boyfriend home for Thanksgiving in a desperate bid to convince her parents to turn down a proposal from the Kuo family to marry their son. The only problem is that Chloe doesn’t have any boyfriend, let alone one impressive enough to convince her parents she shouldn’t marry the son and heir of the most prominent family in their church community. So she turns to Rent for Your ‘Rents, a company that specializes in providing fake boyfriends guaranteed to impress traditional Asian parents at family events. Drew Chan is a starving artist side-hustling as a professional fake boyfriend after he was disowned by his family for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams. Drew has a natural sympathy for the pressure his clients are under from their families, and a talent for impressing even the most exacting parents. But when Chloe starts falling for the real Drew, not Andrew Huang the fake boyfriend, they’ll have to face the fact that his real resume is nothing like the bill of goods they’ve sold her parents.

If you like a fake dating trope, in Rent a Boyfriend Gloria Chau takes it to the next level, with Chloe actually hiring a fake boyfriend from a company that specializes in training young men specifically to impress uptight Asian parents who have a very particular standard of acceptable for their daughters. Andrew the Rent for your ‘Rents operative has been trained in everything from mah-jong to dancing, and can fake any major from art history to computer science on demand. Through alternating points of view, Chau explores the consequences of this idea for both Chloe, who hires the fake boyfriend, and Drew, who plays the role and has to compartmentalize his job from his real life. The resulting story is a mixture of funny, sappy, earnest and cute, as Chloe and Drew try to figure out whether their similarities are enough to overcome their differences, and the bizarre circumstances of their meeting.

Both Chloe and Drew have two names, and two separate selves. At home, Chloe is Jing-Jing, the pure and innocent daughter of her immigrant parents, who are deeply enmeshed in their small church community, and place a lot of value on her making a marriage with an upstanding member of their inner circle. At school she is Chloe, an economics major who focuses on her studies and doesn’t have many friends. When he’s at work, Drew is Andrew, a one syllable difference that serves as a constant reminder of the role he is playing on any given day, made to order for the parents of whatever girl he is helping this week. The rest of the time, he makes his art, and tries to find the courage to show it to anyone. Rejected by his family, he can’t quite believe his work is actually worth anything if they would abandon him over it.

Between Drew and Chloe we get two very different views on incorporating their parents’ cultures into their lives as Chinese Americans. Drew is estranged from his family, but his heritage is very much a part of his daily life and his art. By contrast, Chloe is still trying to have a relationship with her parents, but when she is away at college, she feels like an entirely separate person, one who flinches away from references to her heritage or the language her parents speak at home. Drew comes from a more working class community, while Chloe’s parents are dentists in Palo Alto, surrounded by tech money and venture capitalists.

I was a little bit worried about how the story would handle Drew’s job after he and Chloe get together, but I think Chao did a good job with resolving that question. His job isn’t treated as something to be jettisoned the moment he gets the girl, but an important part of his life and financial stability while he figures out how to make a living as an artist. Rent a Boyfriend combines a light romantic romp with earnest questions about reconciling your heritage, relating to your parents as an adult, making hard choices between what you want and what you’re willing to give up in order to have it.

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