Review: Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau>>Published: March 2015

“Bored women join clubs and volunteer. Sad women have affairs.”

That’s the statement of a reductionist, Anna thought, but didn’t feel like arguing the point. “You think I’m sad?”

“Knew it the moment I saw you.” Anna asked how that was possible. “A man can smell a woman’s sadness.”

“And you smelled mine.” Anna was offended by the word “smell.” As if sadness could be covered up with roses. As if despair might be washed off with soap.

“Yes.”

“And took advantage of it.” Anna was perturbed and fascinated and something else, though she couldn’t pin it down. Guilty? Found out? Caught in the red-handed act? Something like that.

Archie corrected her. “And responded to it.”

“There’s a difference?”

“You’re not sad?”

This time it was Anna’s turn. “Irrelevant,” she lied. She shifted in bed. Neither spoke for a minute or two. “What do you like about me?”

Archie laughed. “So it’s that kind of talk we’re having, eh?” Anna shook her head and Archie softened. “You’re complicated. You can’t be cracked.”

Like a safe. Except I’m not. “Thanks, I guess.”

“You’re welcome.” They settled onto their backs, each looking up at the ceiling. “Why’d you say yes?”

Now it was Anna’s turn to laugh. “What else would I have said?”

***

Anna Benz is a thirty-seven-year-old American housewife and mother of three (sons Charles and Victor, ten-month-old daughter Polly Jean). She lives in Switzerland with her husband Bruno, a banker with Credit Suisse, and leads a fairly uneventful life: she takes German language classes, has regular appointments with a therapist—oh, and she’s having an affair. We mustn’t forget that.

Told over three months, and spanning several years via flashbacks, Jill Alexander Essbaun’s Hausfrau is first and foremost a tale of disaffection and dissatisfaction. Anna is very much a fish out of water, despite having lived in Switzerland since 1998—in Dietlikon, Bruno’s hometown, near Zürich. From the beginning it’s obvious Anna isn’t content with her life. She is comfortable in the sense that she has a family and her husband is gainfully employed, but her comfort ends there. She has never quite acclimated to her environment, and thus is forced to rely on Bruno more than she’d like in order to navigate Swiss life. And though she loves her children, she never imagined herself as a mother, nor can she say with certainty that she truly loves her husband. She has a “version” of love for him, as she states several times throughout, but not true love—not the genuine article.

This is the crux of the novel: the search for love—the real thing—amidst so many different versions of it. For Anna, this quest entails stepping out on her husband and engaging in affairs with other men—three, to be precise. When we first meet her she’s already involved with her second, Archie Sutherland, a Scottish man she meets in her German language class. Archie and Anna connect more or less immediately, and soon she’s risking everything by going off with him whenever possible to… well, not make love, as love has nothing to do with it, but to fuck (a fact driven home by Archie’s overtly vulgar language—he talks dirty like someone who thinks they’re being erotic when really they’re just gross and indelicate). Because for Anna, there was only one true-blue love: her first affair, with scientist and academic Stephen Nicodemus. It’s her short relationship with Stephen that implanted her mind with a false narrative of what true love looks like—if it even exists at all. And as Anna’s relationship with Archie, and later Karl, continues to pull her away from her family, in sometimes life-altering ways, she is also pulled further toward reflection—on what was, and what might still be were she to decide to walk away from the equally disaffected and controlling Bruno once and for all.

Hausfrau’s structure is a bit intimidating at first. Essbaum jumps around somewhat erratically between several points in time: the present is constantly interrupted by quick sojourns into the past, or to her therapist Doktor Messerli’s office. These rapid-fire jumps in time accomplish several things: beyond simply revealing more of Anna’s personality and indiscretions, they also offer insight into her detached emotional state, compounded by the narrative’s apparent inability to stay in one place for too long. Physically, the somewhat nonlinear structure, broken into such short chunks, helps move the narrative along with a pace akin to that of a thriller or a mystery novel.

While Hausfrau remains an engaging read from beginning to end, Anna herself is a frustrating character, though deliberately so. Despite being apparently well-versed in actually conducting an affair, she’s sloppy and not all that adept at sneaking around. For much of the narrative I assumed that, on some level, this was because she wanted to be caught—to be confronted by her infidelities, as if doing so would provide her with the spark necessary to finally abandon Bruno and find whatever it is she’s searching for. However, when one of her sons accidentally discovers Anna and Archie kissing, Anna goes to great lengths not in concocting some elaborate reason as to why they were together but instead to threaten her offspring, to the point of tears, into keeping his mouth shut about the whole thing. It’s in this late-in-the-novel interaction that Anna’s selfishness (and borderline sociopathy) was fully revealed to me, and any lingering sympathy I had for her went out the window.

Fortunately, sympathy is not a requisite for enjoying a novel, and Anna’s actions were not without a horrible karmic backlash on multiple fronts of which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, the novel did not go where I expected it to, with Charles, the son who saw Anna and Archie together, being used as a will-he-or-won’t-he-spill-the-beans plot device. Without wanting to give too much away, the novel’s final month, November, is brutal, raw, and expertly pays off what has been previously established.

I also appreciated the emotional power struggle that takes place to all sides of Anna throughout. While she herself came across as self-centred and at times quite morally vacant, the characters of Mary, Edith, and Doktor Messerli play pivotal roles as, respectively, the angel and devil on Anna’s shoulders, and the unemotional ethical compass positioned between the two. Their presence offers a set of much-needed emotional counterweights to the men in Anna’s life, all of who seem frequently reticent and one-dimensional.

Hausfrau isn’t a comforting read. The novel is laced with tragedy to varying degrees, and by the time the final chapter is reached, it’s obvious just how much of the narrative has been a slow, inevitable spiral down a drain of Anna’s own making. It is in the realization, near the end, that she was never as alone as she thought, that all her decisions and the cost of her actions, having destroyed whatever equilibrium she’d achieved, were based on something categorically untrue, that the narrative’s tragic underpinnings are painfully laid bare.

When speaking about pain, Doktor Messerli explains early on, “It’s instructive. It warns of impending events. Pain precedes change. It is a tool.” In many ways, this is the thesis for the entire novel. It rings true throughout, echoing through the details of Anna’s first versions of love through to the haunting, absolutely fucking perfect final line, when everything becomes clear to the reader: Anna sacrificed her entire life and the lives of those around her in the pursuit of a version of something she only ever imagined but never actually had.

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Review: Crystal Eaters, by Shane Jones

18220681>>Published: July 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

“You wanted to see.”

Remy’s shoulders fold inward and her stomach absorbs a hammer. Sharp pieces of crystal trickle down inside her. She’s never seen a body get this far.

Mom’s face has lost meat the skull once held. And Dad was right, something is wrong with her mouth, as if she chewed bricks. Her eyes are glazed and rust-colored. Soon, her left eye will drip crystals (Chapter 5, Death Movement, Book 8). Her nose is hardened ash that Remy imagines if she touched would crumble. Gray hair gunked with shit fans her pillow. Dad repeats Can you hear us? Can you? Are you okay? and Remy thinks Don’t leave me. Smell of dead dogs. Smell of burning. She peels the blanket from Mom’s feet and sees the skin is a darker red compared to her face and neck, and even her veins, once strong and blue, have disappeared beneath this new red shell. A lack of circulation results in the color red drying everything up, erasing the last crystals in the body (Chapter 9, Death Movement, Book 8). The red is moving toward her chest and aiming to stop her heart.

“You don’t have to be here,” says Dad, in a softer tone now that he’s seen Remy’s reaction. “I know you’ve heard this before, from me, from books, and maybe you don’t believe it, but it’s never been disproved. Parents go and their children step into their place. There’s nothing wrong with just letting that happen.”

***

And then there are the books you desperately want to like, though they just never seem to work, no matter how interesting the central conceit first appears.

Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is more of an attempt at crafting a modern-day fable than it is a novel. The story focuses on Remy, a young girl living in a nameless village that believes in the crystal count—that everyone, when they are born, has one hundred crystals inside of them, and that through illness, disease, accidents, etc., their count gradually plummets toward zero—toward death. The count never increases; life moves in only one direction. In many ways, the imagined system is similar in concept to the lives in a video game, though considerably less structured.

Early on, we discover that Remy’s mother is dying—her count is almost down to nothing (reflected physically by the book’s unconventional structure—beginning at chapter 40 and page 183, and counting down to the end). Her brother Pants is in prison, and her father is distant. Therefore, it is up to Remy to do what no one else has ever done and find a way to increase her mother’s dwindling crystal count. Meanwhile, the city—the world outside—is encroaching on the village with abject disregard (and confusion) toward the crystal mine and the village’s seemingly absurd beliefs.

As implied at the start of this review, I had a great many problems with Crystal Eaters. The story offers a unique idea at its core, but it doesn’t manage to grow beyond the gestation stage—the concept just never takes hold. Much of the issue rests with the fact that Jones never seems to fully commit to the strangeness of the crystal count culture. The people in the village, as it is described, see and interact with the crystals, though to the outside world it is a baffling, illogical conceit. And even among the outside world there seems to be different levels of acknowledgement—from the guard who tells Pants that the village’s problem is that it believes in rocks and not God (thereby acknowledging the village’s belief in the crystal count) to the people at the hospital at the end, caring for Remy’s mother in her final moments, who appear to be utterly confused by even the mention of crystals.

To take this a step further, the comment made about believing in God versus believing in rocks illustrates an even deeper problem with this book. Jones presents the city at one point as a godless device—evidence of secular humanistic progress threatening to overwhelm an old-world belief structure (development crushing religion beneath its thumb)—but then introduces the concept of God in the aforementioned conversation with Pants, revealing that the crystals are not, as initially assumed, an analogue for faith versus science/technology/progress, but are their own isolated offshoot akin to a splinter group of a larger faith, one nearing the end of its existence. And then, later, when it’s revealed that while the crystals are the very essence of life to those in the village, they also market them to the outside world for use in jewellery or New Age yoga practices. This again shatters the analogue by stripping the metaphor—the crystals—of any semblance of otherworldly impact or effect, turning them into little more than a trinket.

Short of the outside world feeling confusion at the village dwellers, there’s also little to no indication that they are even grounded within the same reality, and that all that is different between them are their beliefs. The village in this story seems to exist in a bubble, which I found frustrating and negatively affected any hope of narrative cohesion. It’s as if the city (the outside world) isn’t so much a threat to the village as it is a character in a different story altogether. What this all means is that Crystal Eaters never successfully marries its metaphor to the story being told. It never goes far enough with the conceit, preferring to leave it as a surface-level idea unwilling to throw enough of its weight in any one direction. It’s like a designer setting an image deliberately off-centre in an attempt to unsettle its viewers, but not going far enough that it doesn’t appear to be a mistake.

It’s stated somewhere near the start of the book that “The village survives on myth, but myths generally have a root to them, a set of rules, and the village in Crystal Eaters doesn’t ever establish its own rule set, rather it seems to exist both in its mythology, but also attempts to have a place in the real world. Jones attempts to blur the lines with things like the black crystal, which is analogous to both addiction and faith-based reliance (providing the illusory effect of one’s crystal count increasing—like someone getting high and believing they are invincible). But the black crystal is a myth within an already loose mythology, and never seems like anything more than a red herring to distract Remy from the reality of her mother’s approaching death.

I feel as though I could have forgiven many of the book’s storytelling faults had I found more to love with its moment-to-moment writing. Here, too, Crystal Eaters falls unfortunately short. I found little to love in Jones’ often staccato writing. Ordinarily I am drawn to writing that breaks with convention, but in Jones’ case what was left out seemed essential. The conversations feel broken and fragmented, as if critical strands of dialogue have been unnecessarily excised in favour of abstraction. As a consequence of this, not one character voice seems different from another—everyone bleeds together in forced, truncated tones stripped of all colour (which is somewhat ironic given the attempt to flood the world with colour via use of the crystals). I also found much of the sentence structure to be distractingly passive and just not engaging.

When all is said and done, Crystal Eaters feels less like a novel, or even a fable, and more like a short story blown out but not filled out. It reads like the first pass of an idea that might have proven interesting had it been more thoroughly/tonally developed (the imagery is too one-dimensional—throw in the word “crystal” and suddenly everything’s weird and metaphorical!). I do appreciate what I think Jones was going for on a conceptual level, but it just never arrived at its destination for me. The book felt, sadly, like an idea executed but not ever realized.

Review: Rapture, by Kameron Hurley

RAPTURE-COVER-FINAL>>Published: October 2012

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

Fatima scrambled up. She grabbed the paper, shoved it toward her. “Just bleed on it and you’re a bel dame again, Nyx.”

“And you can control me.”

“Nyx, if you knew who we were after—”

“Fuck you. And fuck the Queen.”

“The bel dames made you, Nyx. They can unmake you.”

Nyx started to the door, only half expecting to get a knife in her back.

“It’s Raine al Alharazad,” Fatima said. “Your old boss.”

Nyx stopped in the doorway.

“He’s head of the broederbond now. He went missing three weeks ago. Rain’s always been a disgruntled activist. You knew that. But he showed up here five years ago calling himself Hamza Habib and growing a far larger following than ever before. We think he’ll be elected to the ruling council after the Queen forms the new government, if the boys have their way.”

Nyx let out a long breath, like she’d been punched in the gut. “Raine is dead. I put a sword through him and left him to die in a ditch in Chenja. A long time ago.”

“People don’t stay dead in Nasheen,” Fatima said. “You know that better than most of us.”

***

Seven years have passed since the end of Infidel, the second book in author Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha. At the start of Rapture, the third and final entry in the series, Nyxnissa So Dasheem—Nyx—the former bel dame assassin/mercenary, is living in exile with former teammate Anneke and her lover Radeyah. It’s a quiet-ish existence, for the most part—following the events at the end of the previous book, Nyx’s team has scattered, each following new (and most importantly separate) paths. But when Mercia, the young ambassador’s daughter who Nyx was hired to protect at the start of Infidel, reappears in Nyx’s life with an offer she can’t refuse, Nyx releases whatever tenuous hold she had over the life she was attempting to build and re-enters the fray.

Nyx is promised a return to the bel dames if she completes a task for Fatima. The job? To retrieve a kidnapped politician and avert all-out civil war. And to bring him in alive—something Nyx hasn’t had all that much experience with.

Rapture sees the world of Umayma at a crossroads. The centuries-long war between Nasheen and Chenja has come to an end, resulting in an incredible number of boys being sent back from the front and deposited on the streets. Simultaneously, the shifters, led to some extent by Inaya, are making a push for safety and equality, demanding that the world see them for what they are. But while this powder keg of civil rights issues festers and percolates, spinning around the disappearance of the aforementioned politician, another threat rises in the form of the First Families who seek to take control of the world they helped to manufacture in the first place. They are ancient, they are legion, and they have the power to remake—and unmake—the world.

Rapture, like Infidel before it, takes a unique approach in telling a single, overarching narrative. Building on the culture introduced in God’s War, the first book in the series, Hurley takes the long road by setting each book years apart from the last (six years between the first two; seven years between books two and three). As a result of this, and Hurley’s exceptional waste-no-time-and-suffer-no-fools approach to world building, Umayma exists and develops off the page. The culture shifts and evolves while we’re not present, forcing us to catch up quick with each window offered into this world.

The same can be said for Hurley’s characters. Most of the cast from books one and two have returned, though their circumstances have changed rather dramatically: Eshe and Inaya are working together fighting for the rights of shifters; Khos, Inaya’s husband, has been abandoned for his wife’s cause; Anneke is briefly seen hosting Nyx in exile. It’s Rhys, however, who is seemingly having the hardest go of things following the tragedy his family faced in Infidel, when his children were murdered and his hands were cut off. Though he and his wife Elahyiah have started a new family, Rhys is unable to move on and let go of his past.

The new cast—Nyx’s new team—is a mixed bag of instabilities and shady pasts. There are Kage and Ahmed, both on the run from those who would hunt them; Eshe, the only returning team member, and Isabet, who is unable—or unwilling—to leave his side; and the bel dame Khatijah and her possibly mad sister (and shit magician) Eskander. Together, the strange and untested group is en route to the wall—a two kilometre high living wall at the end of the world that they must find a way over if they are to retrieve their target. Between their starting point and the wall, however, is a brutal journey that will test—and threaten—each and every one of them.

Rapture, from the very beginning, feels different than the two books that came before. Make no mistake: it’s an excellent book and I damn well loved it. But there’s a noticeable change in tone. It’s an end-of-life book—it very much marks, and feels as though it does, the end of Nyx’s storied, deadly career. The new team never quite gels, but it’s not necessarily supposed to, for the reader or for Nyx. The gathering of personalities she accumulates for this final mission is a combustible assortment of lost souls searching for, or running from, a fight. They aren’t Nyx’s family—they’re barely even her allies. They’re there because they need to be, because she needs them, and because she simply has no fucks left to give. When she stops serving a purpose, so do they.

At the same time, Inaya has abandoned her family for her own fight, and Rhys’s inability to let go of the violence in his past has effectively driven his family away. Across the board, personalities in Rapture have been torn asunder; even in peacetime, those living in Nyx’s shadow are unable to escape the dark.

Which makes the fact that Nyx is tasked with bringing Raine in alive all that much more ironic. Because Nyx is a killer—it’s all she knows. And as if to drive home her lack of purpose in a world moving toward peace, Raine’s kidnapping is proof of one essential thing: that nothing stays dead in Umayma, and that Nyx will never, ever be free from her past—not while she still has breath in her lungs.

As an end-of-life tale, much of what occurs over the course of the book serves as the slow dismantling of everything Nyx was as a person. Every action, every look of revulsion she receives for how she pushes forward, is another chunk taken out of her wall (not-so-subtly personified by the fact that it’s a giant living wall that provides the group with their most visible obstacle).

As with the previous two books in the series, it’s the will-they-or-won’t-they between Nyx and Rhys that offers the story’s most tangible emotional anchor. The two have always been on opposite ends of any and all ethical debates—and that’s to say nothing of the racial and religious divides that have come between them, or the fact that it was bel dames who shattered whatever chance Rhys and his family had once had for happiness. But regardless of their differences, there has always been a connection between them—almost like love without real affection, if that makes any sense. Post-armistice, both Nyx and Rhys are forced to re-evaluate their worth in the world. It’s only through being forced into each other’s paths again after so long apart that the depths of what they feel for one another is ever addressed, as is the impossibility of any future between them. This is beautifully rendered when, near the end, Rhys rushes toward Nyx, embraces her, and says, “I have always been happier without you.” It’s just fucking perfect and says everything necessary about their relationship—that they will always be drawn to one another, for some inexplicable reason, though both know that to act on that would destroy either’s chance at peace.

In Hurley’s kill-or-be-killed world, this is an absolute perfect exclamation of love. And just how gloriously fucked up is that.

There’s so much more I want to say about Rapture, from Inaya’s prison escape that would make Hannibal Lecter proud; to the glorious gore of the blood-thirsty sand that devours people, leaving only empty husks behind; to its Sopranos-ass ending, which manages to be both ambiguous and final—and most importantly, earned, a perfect summation of Nyx’s life, times, and crimes. Rare is the trilogy that succeeds and grows in confidence and quality all the way through to the end. There is little, if anything, to be disappointed about regarding Hurley’s Apocrypha. This is an exquisite series, not to be missed under any circumstances.

Review: My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel

17737025>>Published: January 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

In short, I have since the age of about two been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses. And I have, since the age of ten, when I was first taken to a mental hospital for evaluation and then referred to a psychiatrist for treatment, tried in various ways to overcome my anxiety.

Here’s what I’ve tried: individual psychotherapy (three decades of it), family therapy, group therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), rational emotive therapy (RET), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), hypnosis, meditation, role-playing, interoceptive exposure therapy, in vivo exposure therapy, supportive-expressive therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes I ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.

And medication. Lots of medication. Thorazine. Imipramine. Desipramine. Chlorpheniramine. Nardil. BuSpar. Prozac. Zoloft. Paxil. Wellbutrin. Effexor. Celexa. Lexapro. Cymbalta. Luvox. Trazodone. Levoxyl. Propranolol. Tranxene. Serax. Centrax. St. John’s wort. Zolpidem. Valium. Librium. Ativan. Xanax. Klonopin.

Also: beer, wine, gin, bourbon, vodka, and scotch.

Here’s what’s worked: nothing.

***

A funny thing happened to me while reading Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety: I started feeling panicked. Not all the time, but in spots, such as when the author offered up an especially humiliating anecdote involving himself, Martha’s Vineyard, and a plumbing situation extracted directly from the deepest, darkest corners of my nightmares.

As a socially anxious person who suffers a great deal from the tension resulting from incidents of second-hand embarrassment, many of Stossel’s stories had me squirming as I read them. At the same time, however, while reading I realized that as much as anxiety in various forms has impacted my life, what I’ve dealt with so far is child’s play compared to the ordeals faced by some. Which I suppose is one of the strength’s of Stossel’s book—it both illuminates and to some degree quantifies the many different experiences and forms of anxiety, and a life led beneath its umbrella.

My Age of Anxiety is part academic analysis, part historical text, and part memoir/tell-all regarding the many up and downs and idiosyncrasies of a life built up and around a multi-headed core of anxieties. Stossel holds nothing back—he disarms the reader with total honesty, diving into his and his family’s histories dealing with neuroses of all shades, with special attention given to his mother’s overprotective, often smothering nature.

From a very young age, Stossel was routinely assaulted by his anxieties (one of the most prominent being emetophobia—a pathological fear of vomit and throwing up). These anxieties and fears, and their impact on his life, are the through-line around which he discusses the very nature of anxiety and its historical development in the psychoanalytical community; the evolution of pharmacological care and treatment; and the philosophy surrounding anxiety and whether it is a result of nature, nurture, or some impossible to pin-down combination thereof. Indeed he states that anxiety “is a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture,” with no single villain to target or wound to cauterize in order to quell the noise.

The academic aspects of the book are strong. Stossel goes into great depth with respect to the evolution of anxiety—from Freud’s belief that anxiety is a riddle, the solving of which would “throw a flood light on our whole mental existence,” to detractors claiming that anxiety is nothing more than shyness given gravitas, to its eventual inclusion in the DSM—and the cultures and industries that have developed around it. However, it’s the personal accounts that I was most interested in, specifically the well-tread-but-still-interesting details regarding famous creatives who’ve suffered with anxiety and thrived either as a result of or in spite of their condition. The supposed ties between anxiety and creative genius are nothing new, but Stossel grounds them in modern society, referencing the uptick in evidence of extreme anxiety (social or otherwise) in creative types as being related to the work of another author, Barry Schwartz, who discusses in his book The Paradox of Choice (an excellent read) how the possibilities now open to us, as individuals, create a certain amount of anxiety due to the difficulty inherent in deciding our fates for ourselves, and in the increased public image that is so often associated with creative success of any kind.

Overall I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading My Age of Anxiety so much as I found it illuminating. Stossel’s bare-all approach is both the book’s greatest asset and its most obvious weakness. But I can only cite it as such through my personal experience with the book, which involved being unexpectedly affected by the honesty with which the author relays his history. On a purely informational level, it’s a fantastic read—thoroughly researched and well organized. Definitely recommended, but be warned: it might trigger more than you expect.

 

Review: Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

7507944>>Published: April 2011

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

“We Leopard folk need to be extra vigilant these days, but sometimes we need to act. Sunny, an Oha coven bears the responsibility of the world on its shoulders at a specific point in time. Coven members are people of action and authority, but they are also people of selflessness. I trust you all have heard of Black Hat.”

They all nodded. Then Chichi gasped. Sasha grabbed her shoulder and they both just stared at each other.

That’s why!” Chichi said to Sasha.

“Goddamn!” Sasha said. Then they both looked at Taiwo, who was laughing.

“Both of you, so quick,” Taiwo said. She looked at Orlu and Sunny. “They’ve both just realized that Black Hat is a Leopard Person.”

Orlu nodded. “I considered it but wasn’t sure. Didn’t want to say anything.”

“How do you know?” Sunny asked. “Just because he’s a ritual killer? All ritual killers can’t be Leopard People, can they?”

“No, most ritual killers are misguided or crazy Lamb folk. But we know about Black Hat. He was a scholar. Years before you all were born, Otokoto Ginny passed the last level. He was thirty-four years old, a year older than I was. He shouldn’t have been allowed to even take the test.” Taiwo sucked her teeth in annoyance. “He passed, but he was never fit to be a scholar. His hunger for wealth and power were as strong as his hunger for chittim. Otokoto had the biggest appetite for those things. I don’t know what was wrong with him. He has to be stopped, not just for the sake of the children he is drawing from but for the world. This is the job we are giving to you four.”

***

Sunny is a unique mix of identities: “Nigerian by blood, American by birth, and Nigerian again because I live here.” She is also the one and only member of her family born an albino, needing to take extra care when out in the sun unprotected. In her daily life she’s forced to endure the taunts and insults of other school children who see her as inferior, as well as the disrespectful attitudes of her brothers and father, all of who have specific, archaic ideas as to what women can and cannot (or should not) do.

It isn’t long after befriending a classmate named Orlu, and Orlu’s friend Chichi, that it is revealed to Sunny that the world she knows is only a thin layer of surface texture. What lies beneath is a life for which she never knew she was destined.

Like Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is a Leopard Person—an individual possessing strength and abilities far beyond that of mere mortals. The trio is soon joined by Sasha, an American Leopard Person sent to Nigeria by his family as a reality check—to keep him from getting into any more trouble with the Mug—I mean the Lambs (ie: the rank and file population). Together the four of them learn from Anatov, who teaches them in the ways of the world to which they have been inducted.

But there is danger in their lives, danger that crosses the gulf between the surface world and the world of the Leopard People: Black Hat Otokoto. Black Hat is a ritual killer targeting young children. With more than a dozen victims to his name, all under the age of sixteen, he is a virus infecting the lives of everyone in the area, especially parents fearful for the lives of their young. And as Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha learn to harness their abilities, they also come to learn they will at some point have to confront that which threatens them all.

Along the way, as the foursome come to understand their positions in the world now opened to them, author Nnedi Okorafor uses Sunny’s newcomer status to reveal the finer details of Leopard People culture: their individual powers (Sasha and Chichi have photographic memories; Orlu can undo all types of things, from juju to even death; and Sunny can make herself invisible and has premonitions); their currency (chittim, acquired through learning); and other elements critical to understanding their nature, such as how being a Leopard person is a spiritual occurrence, and not a genetic one.

When you get right down to it, Akata Witch is a spectacularly vibrant YA fantasy that feels as if it should be the first entry into a much larger world or series. Okorafor doesn’t hold back with the details—from the aforementioned odds and ends about life as a Leopard Person to the events and happenings within Leopard Knocks, the West African headquarters of the Leopard People. Additionally, Sunny must keep her new status to herself, as her family would be unable—or unwilling—to accept whom she really is, adding even more layers to the already thick, confident narrative.

Granted there are a number of similarities with other YA properties—namely with the Harry Potter series (the world-within-the-world, the ways in which they are taught, being reprimanded by an authoritative ministry of sorts for using juju (magic) in view of the Lambs (Muggles), the protagonist literally marked for destiny—through albinism instead of a lightning bolt scar, but still). However, none of those similarities in any way detract from the simple joy inherent to this world and these characters.

In fact, my only real issues with the book are toward the relationships at the heart of things, and to the overarching threat—or lack thereof. While the group dynamic between the core four is strong, the sort-of romantic relationships that develop feel rushed into place and could have used quite a bit more time and space to breathe—to fumble around and figure out each other.

More frustrating, though, is Black Hat’s apparent toothlessness. With respect to the villain, I found myself thinking strangely of Robert Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment. In that book, scientists discover the existence of the human soul. Now, this is a world-altering discovery with far-reaching ramifications, as one would expect should science, of all things, prove the existence of one of the core concepts in all of religion/spirituality. And, as would be the case, the protagonist’s life is changed as a result. Or, at least we’re told it is—just like we’re told his discovery causes ripples felt throughout the world. Such is the problem with The Terminal Experiment (and really everything I’ve read of Sawyer’s): that we’re told of the far-reaching ramifications of such things, and not shown them. The world isn’t changed, not really, not for the characters in question. They exist in a bubble where they learn of the outside world through antiseptic means. I ran into this same problem with the character of Black Hat—we’re told of his horrific actions, but for the most part he exists as a newspaper headline and thus off the page (out of sight, out of fright). It’s only at the very end, when the fab foursome go off to confront him, that the threat finally seems real. Sadly, it’s a too-little-too-late scenario, and Black Hat’s inevitable defeat doesn’t feel as hard won as it might have had he been a more credible threat throughout. The urgency just isn’t there.

All that being said, I still adored Akata Witch. My complaints more or less come down to me wishing there was simply more to this—hardly a bad thing in the end. I think I would still recommend Okorafor’s Who Fears Death for those coming to her work for the first time, but this novel is a wonderfully imaginative, and quite lovingly crafted work all the same.

Review: Nothing Looks Familiar, by Shawn Syms

NLF-Cover>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: February 2015

He heard footsteps and recognized a pair of unwelcome voices. One of them was high and sounded like a whiny girl.

“Ya think he’s gonna do it?” said Eddie.

Roddy heard the sound of flies unzipping, followed by noisy streams of urine. He quietly shifted his feet so his shoes wouldn’t be visible in the gap under the stall door.

“He better.” Mike’s reply was low and gruff. He added, “If I don’t bring them home tonight, my dad’s gonna give me a lot more than a fat lip.”

Roddy held his breath.

“We’ll scare him. Then he’ll do whatever we say. If he was here right now, I’d flush his head down the toilet.” One of the boys let out an ugly hyena laugh.

“Why bother? We’ll just tell him that’s what we’re going to do. That should be enough. Besides, he could just hold his breath while the toilet flushed. Getting your head flushed really isn’t that scary.”

Neither boy washed his hands. Roddy listened to the slow squeak of the door closing.

***

As opined by the narrator in “Family Circus,” “If you live here, you’re either a struggling student, a whacked-out head case, a deadbeat on welfare, or some kind of crook.” Such is the case for most of the residents of Shawn Syms’s debut short fiction collection Nothing Looks Familiar. In the eleven stories contained within, Syms takes readers on a bit of a cross-country tour of seedy environments and equally seedy minds, some whittled down by their surroundings, while others seek to explore what change is available to them, either discovered organically or taken by force.

The first three tales in the collection are a tonal opening salvo. In “On the Line,” a young woman named Wanda is working at a meat processing plant in Alberta. In her spare time she drinks to forget and sleeps around to the same end. The plant where she works is full of abusive, brutal men and employers who care more about not slowing down the line than they do one’s health and well-being. It’s a place of death by a thousand cuts, where if one doesn’t escape early enough, they will wake up one day to find thirty years have passed. “Four Pills” introduces us to Adam, who recently lost his warehouse job, lives off welfare, and enjoys smoking crack while out with his even more deplorable friend Shaggy. And “Family Circus” is told from the point of view of a meth-addicted, cheque-washing mother in Winnipeg desperate to get her children to a safer existence.

A few of the stories offer strange twists on established themes, such as in “Man, Woman, and Child,” in which the wife in a deteriorating marriage finds purpose in giving herself over to a child—not an actual child, mind you, but an adult baby named Les. In “Get Brenda Foxworthy,” what begins as a seemingly sinister plot by a group of idiot high schoolers to take murderous revenge on a mutually despised classmate a la the Larry Clark film Bully is quickly revealed as an immature and poorly planned attempt at juvenile humiliation.

While a couple of the stories were revealed as having unique or unexpected twists to their narratives (the ending of “Four Pills” is especially dark), only “The Exchange” stood out to me as being especially sympathetic to its protagonist. The story perfectly captures the terror inherent to the grade-schooler protagonist’s problem—knowing how wrong it is to ask young Bettina for her underwear, but also being fully aware that if he does not follow through with the mission, the bully Mike will beat the ever-loving crap out of him. The strongest aspect of this story, however, is not the interaction between the children, but in the subtle way Syms hints at Mike’s father’s violent, paedophilic nature. It’s disturbing and well executed.

That “The Exchange” is the only story in the collection to jump out at me as being even remotely sympathetic points to the underlying problem I had with this entire collection: that in how these characters are written, one gets the sense that the author himself was unable to find things about them to care about, or to want to draw to the surface in order to elicit compassion from the reader.

So many character decisions and actions throughout seem perfunctory to the detriment of the stories being told: Jake’s wife leaving him at the end of “Snap”; Shaggy’s decision to drug and rape Adam in “Four Pills”; the mother in “East on 132” choosing to cheat on her husband with a biker met at a rest-stop resort. None of these decisions felt grounded in what little we’d learned about the characters in question. More to the point, they, and other similar decisions throughout, felt arbitrary, existing for the purpose of moving a narrative in a specific planned direction, but not because they were true to the characters or what had been previously established.

I was disappointed in many ways by the stories contained in Nothing Looks Familiar. Syms’s characters are like skins stretched over air, wearing the marks of their histories without being crafted by them. The writing is similarly problematic—the gritty details are present, but what’s absent is any sense of personality or emotional grounding. Overall, I found this to be a mediocre collection—interesting ideas all dressed up with nowhere to go.