Christmas Special: Ming's Christmas Wishes

Monday, November 30, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

Ming's Christmas Wishes
Susan L. Gong, 2020

New Release! A copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review. 

I had to read through this children's book twice to understand it, but it definitely grew on me. 

This short, beautifully illustrated children's book follows a few days in the life of a young Chinese-American girl in the 1930s. Ming wants a Christmas tree (this is related to a larger desire to fit in at school), but her mother won't hear of it. 

The next day, Ming's father takes her to visit some family friends and some places his father took him when he was young. The trip connects her with her heritage, and they even come back with a tree to decorate - not a fir tree to cut down and discard, but a Chinese pine to keep in a pot. 

That all sounds simple enough, but there's something distinctive about the way this book is written, and it's somewhat unsettling if you're expecting a standard children's story. For one thing, the book is full of unanswered questions. On the first page, Ming is told that she can't sing in the Christmas choir at school. This barely comes up again, and it isn't resolved at the end. Ming's father tells her at one point that her mother's story is a "hard" one, but we never find out what that means. There are lots of aspects of Chinese culture that are alluded to without being completely spelled out.

I can't decide whether this feels more like a flaw in the writing, or like a choice to leave space. Parents could encourage kids to speculate and guess at the details, and it does allow the story to be more open-ended. Ming can't be all "American" and she can't be all Chinese, and stories like hers don't have pat, resolved-in-the-third act endings.

It's still a happy ending, but it's more complicated than I expected. 

I mentioned that the art (by Masahiro Tateishi) is lovely, and the writing is often lovely as well. It's full of poetic little turns of phrase that evoke Chinese or Japanese poetry.

Overall a unique little book, but not for everyone. 

No Rating


A Local Habitation and An Artificial Night (October Daye, Books 2 and 3)

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Local Habitation and An Artificial Night (October Daye, Books 2 and 3)
Seanan McGuire, 2010 (both)

Premise: Follows Rosemary and Rue. Toby handles a dangerous case involving diplomacy and technology, then a more dangerous situation dealing with a children's bogeyman who is all too real. 

Being constantly home and also constantly busy is continuing to affect my reading habits. I want series content (repetitive characters, etc.) in a way I haven't in a long while, so I decided to finally dip back into this one. I really liked the first book, after all, but I just wasn't in the mood for more urban fantasy until recently.

I liked these two books fine, but they didn't strike me as interesting or inventive as the first. For better or worse, there isn't much recap in terms of characters and relationships, so I struggled at first to remember how the vaguely feudal faerie world works and how it interacts with the mortal world.

A Local Habitation is structured more like other urban fantasy. There's a mystery (no communication from her liege's niece, then murders) and Toby is sent to deal with it. There are interesting characters and we learn more about various faerie races and powers. I found it good but not great, though: I didn't connect strongly with anything that was going on. The solution to the mystery wasn't surprising, and I was frustrated with how long it took the characters to recognize that they were being bespelled by another character. To be fair, that meant it was obvious to the reader without being obvious to the first-person narrator.

An Artificial Night has a much more inventive premise. An incredibly powerful and ancient fae has stolen a bunch of children, and Toby risks everything to rescue them before they are turned into his monstrous servants. 

I liked all the individual elements of this - all the spells and descriptions, the characters, the individual scenes are exciting and emotional. However, the plot as a whole felt a bit meandering and redundant. She had to keep returning to this same place via different methods with different goals, and even though the repetition made internal logical sense, even mythical sense, it started to feel tedious to me. Even though the end was good, individual scenes were amazing, and the length of the adventure made sense with the weight of the ending... I just got tired because it felt like the plot had several endings, and then kept going.

I still liked both books, but they didn't make as positive an impression on me as the first did. 

2 and 3 Stars respectively. 

Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant (Discworld)

Monday, November 9, 2020

Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant (Discworld)
Terry Pratchett, 1996, 1999

When I started rereading the Watch books, I honestly forgot how many there were. I had kind of blocked out everything between the first two and Night Watch. (And now I'm realizing I skipped one, which is what I get for trusting the list on the library app.) 

Feet of Clay is overall fine. The mysterious deaths and poisonings lead to more misleading clues and false villains than most Discworld books. The book is really about self-determination, in terms of gender, class, and, most significantly, personhood and free will in the case of the golems that the plot hinges on. I wish I had found the writing as compelling as the ideas. 

It's also notable for the introduction of series regular Cheery. Her growing friendship with Angua is both realistic and super awkward - Cheery is desperate for female friendship as she is starting to experiment with her own gender presentation, but she also has a high level of fantastic racism toward werewolves. The reader, knowing Angua is a werewolf, cringes for Cheery's obliviousness. 

The Fifth Elephant has a more exciting plot, as Vimes is tapped to play diplomat in Uberwald, homeland of all gothic fantasy creatures. There's politics, culture clash, a locked-room mystery and an extended near-death experience. Being Discworld, that last one is humorously literal. 

The subplot going on back in Ankh-Morpork is much less interesting, although I suppose it highlights the theme by being so frustrating. This book is about change - political change, cultural change, how traditions evolve or are used as ugly excuses for terrible acts. How people fight change and (in the case of the Watch without Vimes or Carrot) how groups backslide into old habits or worse in reaction to change. 

One overall note - I was amused how over the early books, Vimes sheds most of the prejudices he starts out with through sheer spite. In other words, he sees people being biogted and awful and says: well, we'll show those jerks. 

I like both these books more on reflection than I did when I started reading them. It's one of the benefits of writing down my impressions - it makes me think harder about what I read. 

Both are fun reads with hidden depths. 3 and 4 stars, respectively.