Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

the cover of Light from Uncommon Stars

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I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.

It follows three main characters. Shizuka is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.

The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).

While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.

Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)

This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.

An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.

Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.

This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.

Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]

Nat reviews Chef’s Kiss by Stephanie Shea

the cover of Chef's Kiss

Late last year I started really getting into reading sapphic romance after discovering that a guaranteed happy ending is nothing short of a potent drug. A shot of serotonin right into the veins! As I ventured down the queer romance rabbit hole, I realized that some books are certainly more of a balm than others, and reading Chef’s Kiss was a reminder of why I fell for the genre. While our main characters pull grueling shifts in a Michelin star kitchen, Stephanie Shea’s book provides a heaping serving of your favorite comfort food. 

It’s always fun to read a book set in a city or town you live in and let me tell you, a restaurant romance set in San Francisco was right up my alley. Valentina Rosas is a passionate chef and recent graduate of the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the organization that makes you disappear) who’s just landed a stage, a working interview, at her dream restaurant in the Mission. Through Val’s eyes, we get a glimpse of restaurant life starting from the very unglamourous bottom rung, and I think Shea did a great job of showing the not so shiny side of the industry. The shifts are grueling, the hours brutal and exhausting, even the lowest positions are ridiculously competitive, and some stage positions aren’t even paid.

Shifting perspectives, we get the view from the flip side with renowned Chef Jenn Coleman. A child of a Black mother and Italian father, Jenn knows that it’s hard enough to be a woman in this industry, but as a woman of color? She’s had to work hard to get to the top, and comes across to many as a no nonsense, career first, workaholic. While she has a reputation for being a hardass and a perfectionist, you can see that Coleman uses food as her love language. I really liked that she’s very protective over Val, whose character is Mexican American, and that Shea brings attention to the struggles of women of color in a very white and cis male dominated industry. (Which, to be fair, is like almost every single industry.) I also really enjoyed the inclusion of the Spanish dialogue between Val and her parents! 

While workplace romance is not an uncommon theme, and IRL restaurant hook-ups may be a dime a dozen, the potential for a problematic power dynamic here is something that Shea doesn’t shy away from discussing.  Don’t worry, there’s an HR department to make sure everything’s on the level. This is explored through Chef Coleman’s POV, and we get some mention of the #MeToo movement and the predatory behavior and toxic environment that exists in restaurant culture. 

While Val and Jenn may have their differences, their love of food and community unite them. And, speaking of food, Shea has some fun with her fictional restaurant Gia and its Mexican-Italian fusion menu: spicy enchilada raviolis! spaghetti tacos! taco lasagna! Shea’s romance had all the right ingredients for me: memorable characters, the perfect amount of tension, good pacing, and timely injections of comedic relief, making the title of Chef’s Kiss right on the nose. 

Danika reviews Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi cover

This was such an impressive book that I have been intimidated to write about it! It was longlisted for the Giller Prize, and it was on Canada Reads! (If you’re not Canadian: this is a big deal.)

Trigger warnings for suicide and suicide ideation, miscarriage and child death, as well as rape and child sexual abuse, both for the book and this review.

This is a book about three Nigerian women: Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Taiye and Kehinde. This is split into four books, which you may have guessed are titled Butter, Honey, Pig, and Bread. In the first book, we’re introduced to Kambirinachi. She is an obinje, which is an Ebo term for spirits who are said to plague a mother by repeatedly being born and dying early. She finds being alive boring; it makes her restless. She can hear her kin all around her, always calling her back, so dying is a simple thing. After she sees how much her mother is tortured by her miscarriages and early childhood deaths, though, Kambirinachi decides to stick with life, much to her Kin’s disapproval.

We then jump to Taiye and Kehinde visiting their mother as adults. It has been a long time since the sisters spoke to each other, and the three of them have drifted apart due to an unnamed Bad Thing that happened. We find out that this bad thing was the rape of Kehinde as a child while her sister stayed silent under the bed. They have never openly talked about this, and it’s driven a wedge between them. The whole story spirals around this point, and we see their lives before and after this point out of sequence.

Although this isn’t told chronologically, it flows smoothly and is easy to follow. I hardly noticed that it was jumping around in time, because it always seemed like a natural transition. We follow each of their perspectives, and they all feel realistic and deeply flawed, which I think is the strongest part of the novel.

Kambirinachi struggles with life. Her daughter describes her as “beautiful in an impossible way, a delicate thing. Too soft for this world.” She loves her children, but falls into a deep depression after her husband (their father) dies, unable to take care of them or herself.

Taiye and Kehinde define themselves in opposition to each other. Kehinde feels inferior, like Taiye is the perfect twin and she is made up of the castoffs, especially because Taiye is the thinner twin. Despite having a husband and being successful, she always feels as if she’s in her shadow. Taiye, on the other hand, constantly feels rejected by Kehinde. As a child, she relied on her sister to talk for her. Now she feels lost in the world, overcome by her voracious appetite both for food and sex. She is constantly thinking about the women that she’s been with, but none of them seem to last.

One of her exes mailed a box of Taiye’s letters to Kehinde–except that Taiye never meant to actually send them. When they meet again, she avoids talking about the letters or acknowledging how painful she’s found their separation. This is an exploration of these flawed people and their complicated, layered relationships with each other.

Although it deals with difficult subject matter, it feels hopeful. There are plenty of fractured relationships here, but there are also supportive, kind, gentle relationships with healthy communication that makes me swoon. There’s also, unsurprisingly, a food theme. Each of the foods in the title shows up repeatedly, with slightly different meanings: a bee hive is a life-altering outing, a secret indulgence, or a staple of the household. Characters cook for each other when they don’t have the words to explain themselves

I highly recommend Butter Honey Pig Bread for fans of literary fiction, queer books, food writing, and anyone who wants a good story. If you’re on the fence, here is a video with the author reading excerpts–I’m sure you’ll quickly be hooked.

Marthese reviews A Harvest of Ripe Figs by Shira Glassman

‘’Not everybody reads encyclopaedias for fun’’

A Harvest of Ripe Figs is the third book in the Mangoverse series. It takes place a bit after the epilogue in the second book. I loved this book so much I binge read it.

This book combines two genres which I love: fantasy and mystery. Shulamit and her family have settled with what happened at the end of  book two . Things are quiet, and indeed, the plot does not revolve much around Shula’s group drama! A violin/fiddle of importance gets stolen (I’m still confused about the difference between a violin and a fiddle!) and Shulamit uses her intellect and deduction skills along with some help from her family to discover what happened to it.

During the mystery, it comes out that Shula is a good interrogator (no torture involved–don’t worry) while Riv stops a lot of bullshit – which I loved. Isaac is smug but helpful and Aviva is supportive and introspective. There is a lot of gender talk and criticism of stereotypes.

I liked the down to business element. For example Riv may be attracted to Isaac but she focuses on her job first. There is no ‘but they couldn’t help themselves’ element.

The accepting diversity is what draws me to this series and in this book, there is very minor ace representation (like blink and you miss it; but I appreciated that it was there).

There is also young trans representation! Aviva sums it up perfectly ”That’s the boy who exists. Anything else is a story” and although Shula doesn’t get it at first, she is very protective of her people. Indeed, she’s a great leadership example (despite it being not a democracy). Shula has plans for giving more females more power in her city. She’s ok with sharing power.

Another thing that was super squee worthy for me was the mention of pests and tropical plants. At the moment, I’m working on a campaign for fair and sustainable tropical fruit (make fruit fair) so it’s something that I became familiar with. The pests are a real problem to our food security and farmers’ livelihoods and Shula really cares about her farmers – the backbone of Perach.

Shula is all about responsibility -whether her own of the wrongdoers responsibility. Wish the world was more like that.

The word ‘Feminism’ is actually used! Women supporting women is also another feature of the book. There was lots of body positivity – especially surrounding maternity and different sizes.

There’s also an example of a toxic relationship and an entitled ‘nice guy’ who wants to be the center of attention and expects things for his ‘sacrifices’. This is dealt with rather than ignored or condoned.

Apart from all the simply narrated but complex topics, it’s simply a fun read. There are some funny elements like the stories about Riv – which turn out pretty helpful in the end.

For me, a good mystery isn’t necessarily complex but it must be clean and rounded-up. Things that were mentioned throughout find their use in the conclusion to the mystery and so for me, while predictable it’s a good mystery.

There were many metaphors also about ripening and maturing – people developing and becoming more themselves. Of course, much food talk as well which I came to expect from this series.

What I wanted to see was Kaveh and his companion again (see I even forgot his name). They were mentioned but in passing. Would have been good if they visited or had visible correspondence at least; considering that they are family.

All in all, it’s a fun read. Fluffy-ish fantasy without too much drama. The pages just seemed to scroll by. I was already used to the world and the characters and it was an enjoyable and fun read. While it may seem an easy read, it still points critically to problems in our society and speaks about different issues.