Meagan Kimberly reviews Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Some minor spoilers toward the end!

Nicole Dennis-Benn delivers a heart wrenching gut punch with Here Comes the Sun. The story follows two sisters as they contend with the effects of colonialism in Jamaica and the intergenerational trauma caused by that violence. Their relationships with each other, their love interests, their mother, and everyone in between are informed by the lasting influence of continued colonization.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin, which I absolutely recommend. She captured the melodic cadence of Benn’s prose with incredible precision, bringing each character to life with their own unique voices. That marriage of Benn’s narrative with Turpin’s voice acting created the perfect recipe for an immersive read.

Benn deftly intertwines various themes of colorism, trauma, sex work, sexual assault, and homophobia, all through the lens of the ramifications of patriarchal, white colonialism. By focusing on the main characters’ relationships with the supporting characters, she makes it clear that none of these issues exist in a vacuum. Everything is informed by the damage done by racism and colonization.

You can’t talk about one plot or character arc without talking about the others. That’s the brilliance of Here Comes the Sun. Margot regards her younger sister Thandi as an innocent girl to protect from the cruelties their mother put her, Margot, through. Thandi wrestles with a hatred of her skin color, as she’s been taught that her darkness is ugly and undesirable.

“No one gon’ love a black girl. Not even herself.”

Thandi and Margot’s mother’s words hit hard, reflecting the scars she’s endured from the violence of white men. It’s a moment that makes you understand Dolores’ hard exterior and lack of empathy for anyone, including her daughters. But it never excuses her behavior and actions.

At the same time, both sisters resent one another. Margot resents Thandi for having opportunities she didn’t have and throwing them away, in her opinion. Thandi resents Margot for putting the pressures of success and getting out of poverty on her at the expense of her dreams and personal desires.

All the while, Margot protects Thandi from their mother’s propensity for selling her daughter into sex work. Thandi doesn’t have a clue of their mother’s cruelty until the very end, where she finally understands why her sister Margot is the way she is. But this doesn’t let Margot off the hook for the damage she inflicts.

Dennis-Benn’s narrative shines a light on how a victim can also become a victimizer. The characters are messy and complex. It makes it hard to hate any of them, but you won’t necessarily love any of them either.

Readers looking for a happy ending to a lesbian relationship will not find anything of the sort here. Margot uses Verdeen as an escape from the lack of love from her mother. But she is also willing to sacrifice Verdeen for a sense of freedom from the prison the town’s atmosphere creates for her. While Verdeen endures ostracization and violence for being the town “aberration” to stay with Margot, Margot is willing to throw her under the bus.

The best way to summarize Here Comes the Sun is messy and complex. It’s tough content, but Dennis-Benn’s writing is so adept you cannot help but race through the story.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Advice I Ignored: Stories and Wisdom From a Formerly Depressed Teenager by Ruby Walker

Ruby Walker’s Advice I Ignored offers exactly that: good advice that so often gets ignored. It didn’t happen only to her. She recognizes it happens to all of us. I’m personally not much of a self-help book type of reader, so I entered this one with some hesitance. But I found I rather enjoyed Walker’s brand of sarcasm, wit, and heartwarming compassion.

There’s nothing revelatory about the advice Walker gives. It’s all practical. It’s all practicable. And it’s all been said before. What makes her approach different is how she makes it relatable and teaches you how to practice it. That latter part is often the missing piece of the formula when well-intentioned people dole out good advice.

She structures the book like this: advice, personal anecdote, tips to get started. The pattern never breaks throughout the chapters. This consistency is part of Walker’s strategy in offering her wisdom. No matter what the advice, a key component is to keep practicing it. Practice is repetition. Structuring her book like this makes it a brilliant example of how to take the advice and run with it.

Walker’s attention to detail stands out when she describes her relationship with her body and her body’s relationship to nature around her. She speaks a great deal about the physical difficulties that depression causes, and how she eventually gets herself out of those slumps. It doesn’t come without its strife, but she ensures the reader they are not alone, and that it’s possible to come out the other side.

Certain lines illustrate with spectacular accuracy the way the mind works, like this on about trying to listen to music while running:

“My mind just felt crowded when I tried playing some aloud.”

This description of the inability to focus on the sounds coming from one’s headphones or earbuds while engaging in exercise speaks to a greater issue: the inability to be alone with one’s thoughts. She addresses this issue in different ways throughout the book, and of course some solid advice on how to deal with it.

Walker delves into the danger of self-deprecating humor. She recognizes this “fatalistic streak” brand of humor is synonymous with certain generations. There’s a fine line between self-deprecating jokes and bullying one’s self. Walker takes the reader through that gray area, as some people often blur the two.

Throughout Advice I Ignored, Walker includes sketches and drawings to coincide with the topic. Sometimes they add a sense of levity and shine a light on her sardonic humor. Other times they illustrate what words alone cannot convey for the heaviest emotions. No matter what, they add another dimension to her voice that compliments the written content.

While as a whole the advice and wisdom in the book are nothing new, at certain points, Walker hits a note so right that it feels like a revelation, like when she talks about how people change:

“Lasting recovery means changing a little bit every moment you’re alive.”

This statement speaks to how change doesn’t happen like in the movies. There isn’t necessarily a dramatic, defining moment that becomes a turning point. Rather, it’s a winding path of quieter moments that turn into gradual change.

Some moments Walker could take the easy way out and write about mental health from a “general” point of view. But she doesn’t. She acknowledges a great deal of what influences mental health stems from systemic issues in society that cause harm to marginalized communities. Walker writes to her experiences as a lesbian woman, but she knows she doesn’t speak for all individuals that come from oppressed communities.

So many different aspects of the book spark a great deal of thought. The biggest message to take away is that change is possible, and it happens one step at a time. Most importantly, showing compassion and patience with yourself is key when you don’t get it right the first time.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Names We Take by Trace Kerr

The Names We Take by Trace Kerr

The Names We Take is a young adult dystopian novel set in Spokane, Washington after an epidemic called the One Mile Cough wipes out a huge chunk of the population. Pip, the protagonist, is an intersex trans girl just trying to survive.

But a group of bounty hunters has a different idea as they seek women and children to gather for a supposed safe haven called Thistle Hill Orchard. When Pip takes charge of a girl named Iris, she must keep the child safe and do what’s best for their newfound family.

The novel moves at a good pace as the action keeps its momentum going forward while the moments of peace allow the characters and reader to breathe. Kerr is adept at unraveling details about the characters throughout the narrative without falling into info dump traps. While the character development shines, the plot development fell a bit by the wayside.

The premise is that a plague hit Spokane’s population, but the One Mile Cough disease isn’t given much page time other than to say that’s how they got into this post-apocalypse world. Its origins or spread are never detailed, and the reader doesn’t know for sure how far it hit. It’s assumed the whole United States at least, as the citizens of Spokane have been left to fend for themselves. But the narration never confirms that guess.

As Pip goes through the new world after civilization has crumbled, she faces a great deal of the same prejudice and bigotry as she did before the world ended. She gets misgendered constantly and experiences violence at the hands of men. It’s a brutal pill to swallow as she continues to assert her existence as her true self, fighting narrow-minded bigots and righteous zealots who feel they know best for her.

But Pip finds reprieve in her relationships. Whistler, a survivor of One Mile Cough with PTSD, is her protector. Iris becomes the little sister she must guide and protect. Fly is the beautiful girl she falls for in the middle of the chaos around her. The dynamics between the protagonist and supporting cast are what make this book such a fascinating read. It’s the story of the family forged when people take a stand and fight for who they are.

The most interesting development in Pip’s character is her demeanor toward Iris. It’s clear that Pip doesn’t lack compassion, but she does lack patience. Running around with a twelve-year-old girl who is prone to pouting and eye-rolling, even in the apocalypse, teaches her a great deal of patience and love.

Another delightful aspect of the novel is its inclusion of periods. Post-apocalypse stories are notorious for staying away from the subject of menstruation, but it’s a problem that should be addressed, because it’s an unavoidable fact of life for people who menstruate. Kerr doesn’t shy away from the topic and details how Pip gathers pads and teaches Iris what to do when the young girl gets her first period.

The language around Pip’s gender and sexual orientation is careful and precise. It’s explained that she was born intersex and that her parents chose male for her at birth, but when she hits puberty and gets her first period, that’s when she finds out she was born intersex. As she grows, she becomes sure she wants to be a girl and takes steps to make her body appear as her true identity.

Throughout the novel, the audience sees her struggling when she’s called a boy or questioned about her gender. She clearly still holds insecurity and body dysmorphia over her masculine appearance in many ways. But Iris accepts Pip as a girl, even if the others in Thistle Hill don’t. Pip also reveals she is bisexual when she starts developing a crush on Fly. Her feelings fill her with fear, but Fly assures her it’s okay, as does another friend at the sanctuary.

The Names We Take is set to be published by Ooligan Press in May 2020 but is available for pre-order now from the author. Be on the lookout for it!