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Monday, September 26, 2016

Everfair--The "Utopia" of the " Practical Dreamers"

A frequent objection to utopian literature is that it's boring.  Fiction relies on conflict.  There is no conflict within a perfect society. One way of dealing with this problem is to develop external threats which the utopians must combat.  Yet the big question that undermines the very existence of utopia remains. Is it possible for a society that intends to be utopian to be perfect for all those within its borders? 

Everfair by Nisi Shawl is an alternate history that approaches utopia honestly by attempting to address that big question.  I received a free copy from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this review.


Nisi Shawl's alternate historical concept is that in the late 19th century part of the Congo that had been colonized by Belgium was purchased from the King of Belgium by an organization of British socialists called the Fabian Society.  The Fabians intended to establish a democratic, cooperative and peaceful society in which individuals of all races could live in harmony, and they intended to do this in the Congo.  Anyone who knows the horrific history of the Congo during this period would be certain that these alternate Fabians who were blithely wandering into a genocidal nightmare must be quixotic lunatics who were bound to be slaughtered.  Yet one of their leaders in this novel refers to the Fabians as "practical dreamers".

In order to get an idea of the Fabian perspective, I read It's fab to be Fabian  , an article that was reprinted in the UK Guardian by 21st century Fabian, Paul Richards.  He discusses their history, and why he thinks that Fabian socialism can work in contemporary Britain.

One thing that I noticed about the Fabians in Everfair is that they were continually assuming that allies or settlers in Everfair with very different cultural backgrounds shared the same attitudes and goals as they did. Without a certain Chinese inventor who evidently wasn't a pacifist like the Fabians, Everfair wouldn't have survived for very long.  So these dreamers weren't  as practical as they thought they were.  I think that the Fabians were a catalyst for change in the Congo, but they weren't the actual changemakers.

My favorite changemakers in Everfair were women.  Bi-racial Lisette Toutournier was able to navigate between African and European factions. Queen Josina's gifts of the spirit built bridges, and kept her royal husband on track toward their mutual goals.  Fwendi's extraordinary  paranormal ability facilitated her talent for espionage.  None of these three women considered Everfair a utopia. 

It was unconscious racism that made Lisette feel like an outsider.   In fact, I believe that the establishment of Everfair was based on the racist concept of "The White Man's Burden".  This is the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling that promulgated the idea that it's the obligation of Europeans to bring "civilization" AKA European values to Africa.   That's the philosophy that justifies colonialism in a nutshell.  I'm sure that as the rulers who had been displaced by King Leopold of Belgium, Josina and her husband Mwenda, never lost sight of the fact that Everfair was really a colonialist presence.   Fwendi was a beneficiary of Everfair technology, but as an African woman she struggled to be accepted on equal terms.

The Fabians seemed to have perceived their purpose in Africa as benevolent.  Obviously, they weren't conscienceless killers like King Leopold, but they were still European occupiers of African territory.  So what was a utopia to the Fabians, very definitely wasn't one to the characters who were persons of color.

 I value Everfair for its originality, its insight and  the moving stories that it told about a number of well-developed characters.   I consider it a strong candidate for the finest novel that I read in 2016.




Saturday, September 24, 2016

This Above All-- A Girl Portraying Shakespeare's Romeo

This is a review that I wrote for Flying High Reviews. I decided to copy it to this blog, so I could add an additional paragraph about Shakespeare in the context of the novel which I thought my readers would appreciate.

This Above All by Lindsey Roth Culli is a  contemporary YA novel which is a potent stew of Shakespeare, gender, sexuality, religion and growing up in the American Midwest.   I received a free copy from the indie publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for this honest review.

I have previously reviewed two other Curiosity Quills releases Alice Takes Back Wonderland, a rather wonderful fairy tale mashup and The Heartless City , an alternate history dystopia based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which I found compelling and enjoyable.  I expected This Above All to be more conventional compared to those previous outings.  In some ways, it was very much like a standard YA novel, but in others it very definitely wasn't.


The conventional aspect was high school.   I tend to avoid YA novels that take place in high school.   Most of these have predictable character types, dynamics and plots.   This Above All contained those elements.  There were false rumors, bullying and relationships plagued by miscommunication.  Juliet was played by a stereotypical popular mean girl.  It seems that the director of this Romeo and Juliet didn't prioritize chemistry between the leads.

Sexuality was a theme, but This Above All didn't really focus on sexual relationships as is appropriate in a YA novel. While the specter of lesbianism fueled controversy, there was no actual lesbianism. Heterosexual romance played a role in the plot of this novel, but it wasn't predominant.   There was a gay character named Tony, but his life wasn't front and center either.  I read a review on Goodreads that was disappointed that we didn't find out more about Tony's family interactions.   Tony played Mercutio.  If it's true that Shakespeare needed to kill off Mercutio to prevent him from taking over the play, as is stated in this book, it's probably also true that Culli wanted to make certain that Tony didn't upstage Piper, her protagonist.

I felt that the way Piper deals with her real female identity while portraying a male role is the most interesting aspect of this book.  She initially had her doubts whether she could or should be Romeo.  Yet once she became accustomed to the idea, she threw herself into her fictive male identity.   I wouldn't say that Piper is a transgender character.   It seemed to me that Culli wanted to show that it's possible for a girl to play with masculine gender traits in a theatrical context while still retaining a core self-concept of being female.  Piper has more in common with historical women who dressed as men to achieve career goals than with individuals who seek to transition to another gender.

Women becoming fictive men is a concern of Shakespeare--particularly in Twelfth Night and As You Like It.  These plays aren't mentioned in This Above All, but I believe that Piper was definitely following in the footsteps of Viola and Rosalind.   Culli displays knowledge and affection for Shakespeare's work throughout her book without overwhelming us with scholarship. The title itself is taken from a speech made by Polonius in Hamlet.   As someone who loves Shakespeare, I appreciated how the author wove the Bard of Avon into the book.

Piper's fundamentalist Christian family brings religion into the mix of themes.  It is they who stir the cauldron of outrage over Piper playing a male role.  Her pastor father is shown as being sincerely concerned about Piper's spiritual well being.   As I am not a Christian myself, I wouldn't presume to make statements about the true nature of Christianity.   Over the course of the narrative, Piper changes her own views about religion.  She ponders how she can maintain a relationship with God, and comes to her own independent conclusions.   It seems to me that for Piper developing a personal approach to religion is part of the process of becoming an adult.

This Above All is a book that will cause readers to reflect on a number of topics, but I think they will also be moved by the courage of Piper and Tony, and the  chosen family they found in the cast of Romeo and Juliet.   As we have seen in the TV series Glee, communities of performers can be powerful support systems for teens who feel like outsiders in a hostile world.  Anyone who has felt at odds with their families, or with society in general will be able to relate to Piper.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Cover of This Thriller Would Offend The Protagonist

I decided to purchase Unassimilated by Michael Ben Zehabe from Amazon and agreed to review it for Bookplex because I was interested in the description, but I shook my head over the cover.  This is the first review that I am posting to this blog without a cover because the cover doesn't reflect the content of the book.

Imagine a central character who is a Middle Eastern refugee dealing with PTSD and culture shock.  Then think about how she’ll deal with being thrown into an undercover assignment for the FBI.  Will she sink or will she swim?  I certainly found this scenario intriguing. 

Protagonist Zoe Mousa is a wonderful character. Yet many readers will never find out about her because the cover of this book is so misleading. Perhaps the author thought it might increase sales.  Ben Zehabe may not realize that his cover amounts to deceptive advertising.   It is an appropriate cover for erotica, but there are no sex scenes in this thriller.  Not only this, but it’s a poor representation of the central character’s values.  Zoe prefers to dress modestly in accordance with her upbringing.   Another marketing problem posed by this cover, is that no one will want a post about this book to be going out to their friends’ feeds on social media. I can't even add the book to a shelf on Goodreads without the cover going out on my feed. It could cause problems for my Goodreads friends at work, or in their homes if they contain children.  This is why I won't be reviewing this book on Goodreads.

I wish that Unassimilated had a cover that better represented its content because this novel deals with some important themes.  In addition to the challenges facing immigrants, there is also the issue of technology’s increasing role.  The TV show Mr. Robot has brought the power of hackers to cause disruption to the fore.   The hacking element in Unassimilated caused me to reflect even more on how vulnerable our technology makes us.

Although I found only one typographical error, I need to point out an inconsistency in this novel.   Ben Zehabe doesn’t seem to be aware that the United States has an agency that deals with overseas espionage called the CIA. The FBI is limited to domestic operations.  This is the second time that I’ve seen this error in a thriller.

Zoe makes some serious mistakes in judgement, but I felt that they are very much in character considering her background.    My affection for Zoe deepened over the course of the narrative as I learned her entire story.    I recommend this book to anyone who likes character complexity with their thrill rides.