Rage as Absolution in “The Book of Phoenix”

*Note: this post contains major spoilers.

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The Book of Phoenix follows the story of Phoenix – an accelerated “specimen”, created from the experiments of the secretive Tower Seven. Though she has the body of a forty year old woman she has only been alive for three years. She has never questioned the reasons for her existence, nor the intentions of her carers in Tower Seven.

When her friend and lover disappears under mysterious circumstances Phoenix begins to question her surroundings and doubt the only world that she has ever known. For the first time in her life she feels the sting of betrayal. For the first time she feels anger. Her anger burns within her, quite literally. Her skin starts to overheat, and as her emotions become too much for Phoenix to handle, she catches fire, like the mythical bird she is named after.

Much of the book’s progression involves Phoenix running from her creators, all the while learning more about how and why she was created. She comes into contact with various people who help her on her journey. The book touches on many issues – exploitation, racism, scientific ethics, but through it all injustice is the main player. Phoenix constantly mulls over the terrible going on in her world. She sees the suffering of those closest to her, and she feels the pain of it deeply. Perhaps because her introduction to the cruel aspect of life is so sudden, she is acutely sensitive to the pain inflicted on her and her loved ones. She is a deeply emotional being.

Being named and created for the bird that burns itself for new life seems to seal her fate. At the apex of each significant struggle, Phoenix burns. She rages, overheats, and wipes out anything and anyone that happen to be close to her. As a reader, I couldn’t help being attuned to Phoenix’s pain and anger at the many injustices she experiences. In fact, being inside her head reminded me of when I was younger. I also raged at the world’s injustices. I wondered how there could be so much suffering, and that a lot of it went unnoticed, uncared for. There are times, even now, when I do feel like the  world needs to be wiped out in order to rid it of the bad within it. But I know, of course, that this means erasing the good that is in the world, too.

You can see where I’m going with this. In the end, Phoenix’s burning is absolute. It is complete in its destruction. She bathes the world in her flames, a fiery baptism that allows it to be born anew, apparently rid of the evils that Phoenix had witnessed. I could understand her rage, I could understand her pain. But I couldn’t understand her decision in the end. It felt hollow. As if she was giving up, as if she was refusing to see that, despite the horrible things happening to her, there had been good moments, too. There had been kindness, and love, and there could have been hope.

I know this novel is meant to be a prequel to Who Fears Death, so it may very well be the case that Phoenix’s story had to end this way. For me, however, the ending left something to be desired. Phoenix’s story was beautiful, yes, and tragic, also yes. But I didn’t expect that it would be hollow.

(P.S. Also, what was up with that commentary on women being overly emotional? I know it’s framed within the perspective of the character who reads Phoenix’s book but considering everything that had come before, it seemed considerably out of place. It seemed to render the entirety of Phoenix’s journey redundant, and invalidate her final decision.)

Almost Everything, Everything Was On Point

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Maddy is sick. Really sick. Like can’t-leave-the-house-or-her-body-will-shut-down kind of sick. As far as she can remember of her eighteen years, she has been confined to her home with her mother and her nurse, Carla, for company. She has been home-schooled, and her only visitor is her architect teacher. Maddy is happy. She is happy reading all the books she can, building mini architecture models, and having game nights with her mom.

But when the new boy next door, Olly, walks into her life everything changes. Suddenly Maddy wants more. She wants to see the world and experience everything it has to offer.

I have to admire the dexterous balance that Nicola Yoon strikes with her simple, easy to gobble up writing style that simultaneously manages to be quite beautiful at the same time. She really does make it seem effortless. Reading the novel feels like slipping into a sundae.

Maddy is a likeable character. She is intelligent, mature, with a sense of humour, and good nature that’s allowed her to face her unique life without wallowing deeply in bitterness.Olly is equally well-characterized. He comes with his own set of problems. His home life is tainted by his dad’s violent outbursts. Maddy and Olly’s easy interaction was enjoyable to read.

Despite these good points, however, this novel did leave me feeling a bit non-plussed. First off, as enjoyable as the banter between Maddy and Olly was, their immediate adoration for each other was not. It was easy to see that they were going to fall in love, and I was all for them falling in love but the journey to the destination was far too short to be believable. Or at least for me to believe that their love had weight. I think the initial stages of their relationship could have been fleshed out a whole lot more.

Secondly, there is a twist at the end of the novel which renders the entire preceding character development that Maddy undergoes completely irrelevant. It was far too easy a solution and it was actually quite disappointing to read. I was eager to see how Yoon might portray the harder choices in life, and the consequences of sticking to them, and while she does to an extent, she doesn’t fully deliver on her message. The relationship between Maddy and her mother could also have been fleshed out, especially near the end. When the novel ends, it does not feel satisfying at all. Yoon tries to tie everything up with a neat little bow, and considering what she was trying to offer the payoff felt very insufficient.

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

I’m not quite sure how to begin this review. This book is not an overly large one, but I feel as if I experienced a lot as I was reading it. It was both a draining and inspiring read.

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Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea, a country she describes as “unimaginable” and “indescribable” in interviews. From the moment she’s born, she’s imprisoned under North Korea’s oppressive government rule. Yeonmi’s childhood is basically a study in hunger; she describes how food, or rather the painful lack of it, was a constant theme in her young life. Acute hunger numbs little Yeonmi to the daily horrors that she has been born into: seeing children her own age or younger begging and dying on the streets; seeing friends and neighbours executed for such transgressions as watching a Hollywood film.

Despite these daily nightmares, Yeonmi and her people are told that they live in the best country in the world, led by a benevolent and wise leader who only has their best interests at heart. They see the suffering and pain around them, but have to believe – or least pretend to believe – that they are in the best situation they can be in. As far as the children of Yeonmi’s generation can tell, this is the truth: despite the lack of resources, technology, and inequality in education, North Koreans are being well taken care of. Yeonmi’s parents, and their contemporaries, however, are more aware of their country’s decline in resources, and are slowly coming to realize its manipulative propaganda and dangerous totalitarian rule.

I know it’s trite, but having read 1984, it was chilling to read Yeonmi’s autobiography, and see how many similarities there were between an imagined dystopia, and what is very much a reality for an entire nation of people today. Yeonmi also remarks how much the novel Animal Farm spoke to her own experience.

Even when Yeonmi escapes to China, the horrors don’t subside. She and her mother become entangled in human trafficking, and Yeonmi has to continue to draw on the strength of her spirit to look after the two of them. China’s harsh policy on North Korean refugees means that Yeonmi, and others like her, are unable to reach out to the authorities for help. Instead, they are forced to be exploited, and exchange one life of oppression for another.

Once Yeonmi and her mother are resettled in South Korea, Yeonmi works hard to achieve her dreams of fitting in with a new people. She takes advantage of the education and resources that become available to her. Yeonmi has now become a strong activist voice for the suffering of the North Korean people. Her speeches and interviews have been viewed online numerous times. Her burning desire to live, to do more than just survive, is evident in her story. In one of her interviews, she remarks that if she were to die now she’d be happy, as she had finally tasted freedom. It’s a powerful, and weighty remark. Yeonmi’s story is a heart-breaking and revealing one. Not only does it shed light on North Korea’s harsh regime; it also urges us to take up our duty as free humans. At the One Young World conference, Yeonmi asks the guests to educate themselves and others as much as they can about North Korea. I think anyone who reads this book will benefit from it; besides being an incredible tale about survival and a resilient spirit, it’s also a story that urges us to be more empathetic towards our fellow human beings.

Breathing Life into Drawings

Sierra Santiago loves art. She has a knack for creating images, and is currently working on a giant community mural. Strangely though she suddenly notices that the images  around her are starting to move. Images are fading, facial expressions are changing. Strangers and strange creatures alike are suddenly chasing her. Sierra soon discovers that her family heritage is not as straightforward, or as ordinary, as she once thought, and she becomes embroiled in her most difficult project yet.

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Isn’t the cover beautiful?

There is a lot to like in Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper. Sierra, a young Afro-Latina highschooler is a strong and intelligent heroine, with  insecurities and self-doubts that make her a multi-dimensional character. Her relationships with friends and family are warm and entertaining to read about, though interspersed with the inevitable difficulties. Her newfound ability – being powerful enough to render illustrations and infuse them with a magic that brings them to life – were, to be nerdy about it, totally cool. I think the young child in me was especially gleeful about that because one of my daydreams used to be having the power to do exactly that  – imagine drawing the exact thing you wanted or needed and simply willing it into life. (You’d never want for anything! Of course you’d have to be a pretty good artist for it work…) Shadowshaping, however, can also singing and telling stories. The power itself seems an ode to the act of creation, and it’s an inspired touch.

Older creates a world that is very vivid and imaginative. The paranormal aspect is smoothly woven into the narrative. It’s thrilling to see the fantasy dimension buzzing behind the facade of Sierra’s urban life. The characters within it are numerous and beautifully diverse. High-school me would probably have cried tears of joy at this novel. The novel did, however,  feel like it was lacking in character development when it came to some of the secondary characters. They weren’t as fleshed out as Sierra herself, and also made for some confusion in some of the scenes as I couldn’t immediately place who was who. I hope we get to see more of the other characters in the coming books.

Sierra’s coming into her own is beautiful to watch, especially as she discovers her own family’s deep involvement in this supernatural community. Her bravery when it comes to embracing a part of her family that her own mother shunned was touching.  My favourite scene involves a very important conversation with a female family relative that quite suddenly and unexpectedly moved me to tears. It was perhaps the most inspiring and heartening scene in the book for me. It seemed to encapsulate everything the book was about.

There is a strong theme running throughout it of oneness of community. The shadowshapers’ power stems from the strength of their relationship with their ancestors. Their entire system of power is structured around togetherness and community, and I loved that.It ties in with Sierra’s insecurities regarding her own skin colour, her African heritage, and watching her overcome her doubts, and even the doubts and jibes of those close to her made my heart swell. The novel is quite slim, so these scenes felt like they could have used a little more development as well. It was great to see Sierra take that first step but I wanted a something more surrounding that first step to make it more substantial. In any case Older has kicked off an entertaining series and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

This novel follows Sunny Nwazue, an albino American born Nigerian girl. With her family having moved back to Nigeria, Sunny is finding it hard to fit in. Her looks and smarts are both fodder for the school bullies. Add to that her outsider status of being “akata”, an African American, life for Sunny is not exactly sunshine and rainbows.

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As if these daily pressures aren’t enough, Sunny also has special powers. The kind that are also a curse, as she is now privy to how the end of the world will unfold.

Thankfully, with the help of newly acquired friends Sunny learns she is actually part of a larger magical community.

Sunny’s is a very engaging character to read about. I think young readers will take to her – she’s an intelligent and resourceful child. She is curious and extraordinarily brave, yet at the same she feels very familiar, as if she could be any child you meet. I think this aspect will really endear her to young readers. She is just like any kid trying their best to fit in, worrying about balancing friends and family, while trying to establish her individuality.

The new world Sunny discovers is riotous with magic. There’s something new at every turn. There is a lot to take in, in that regard, but one of the positive side effects is that the story is never put on pause in order to make way for excessive word building. The reader is swept along into this magical terrain with Sunny. I can see how that could be a bit of a downside, as it’s a lot to take in, but then, you don’t get bogged down in overwhelming details about setting and foliage etc., either.

If there was one thing I wanted more of, it was to see more interaction between Sunny and her parents. Her mother obviously knows a lot more about this new world Sunny’s discovering than she’s letting on. Plus, Sunny’s relationship with her father is very rocky and fragile. I would love to see more positivity in that relationship in future novels but I can appreciate that Okorafor might be trying to convey that some relationship in life just don’t evolve past a certain point in life.

I think young readers have a hero to discover in Sunny. She is a newbie, thrown into deep waters, but she’s a conscientious kid who ultimately tries to do the right thing. I’m eager to see where this series will go.

English Magic Has Never Been More Fun

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Confession: I hugged this book close once I’d finished reading the last page. I wanted to absorb into my being, take it everywhere with me, show it off to everyone. Unfortunately, I sort of finished it on the day it was due so I had to give it back. But it’s one of those books that has earned my eternal love that I now have to buy my own copy. (Cos that’s the only reason to buy a book, duh).

Sorcerer to the Crown took the book blogging world by storm last year, and that’s when it caught my eye. Once I saw the words “Regency England”, “magic”, and “diverse characters” in a blog or review I had to hastily look away, because I knew that this book and I were going to become very well acquainted and I did not want to spoil a single thing for myself.

In case you couldn’t tell, the experience totally lived up to my expectations.

English magic is having a hard time of it. Magicians are struggling to perform spells, the Crown is at war with France, and is sneakingly requesting magical help, though this is technically  forbidden. Zacharias Wythe, the Sorcerer himself, isn’t exactly enjoying himself at the moment. Not only is he struggling to find the reason for the depletion of England’s magic, he has to also struggle with the Society’s (the community of English magicians) censure about his right to hold the Sorcerer’s staff, as the death of the previous Sorcerer (who also happened to be his adopted father) was under very mysterious circumstances.

There’s also the fact that Zacharias  is a black man. You add that into the mix, and suddenly Zacharias’s problems are two-fold. Zacharias’s position as Sorcerer is even more under threat with the Society questioning his eligibility to hold the staff, and latent racism rising rapidly to the surface.

Not only that, but since Zacharias agreed to speak at a girls’ school about magic, he’s suddenly and unexpectedly burdened with an orphan runaway by the name of Prunella Gentleman. Prunella, however, is no apathetic leech. Armed with the unhatched eggs of seven familiars (a treasure, indeed, in magically barren England) and the flimsiest of clues about her past, she concocts a plan to enlist the help of the Sorcerer Royal. Being half English and half Indian, Prunella knows the only way to secure a position in society is to marry well.

This story is described as a combination of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Georgette Heyer’s regency world. I would probably also add Diana Wynne Jones into the mix. I absolutely love the way that Cho describes the magic, and the way it’s used. It makes it seem very real and very practical, and not some unknown, inexplicable thing.

What’s more, Cho depicts the way magic is used to symbolize the complexities and inequalities of race, class and gender. Though Zacharias has the Sorcerer’s staff, his lack of a familiar sparks acidic conjecture within the Society, spurred very much by the darkness of his skin. Now that his father has passed away, he no longer has his protection against the vicious tongues of Regency society. English magic is also forbidden to women and the lower class. This, of course, makes Prunella’s position especially intriguing. Not only does she possess the magical familiars, her grasp on magic is very advanced, indeed, more so than a lot of the upperclass, male magicians. Oh, and the fact that menstruation actually strengthens her magic? Where has this book been all my life?

But it’s not all social commentary and no play. The story interweaves humour and wit beautifully. There were several instances where I found myself having a chuckle. In fact, I was pretty much grinning for the majority of this book. Seeing the various characters interact was a joy.

Prunella, though at times annoyingly impulsiveness, has resourcefulness and quick-thinking on her side to back up that impulsiveness. She’s whip smart, and I really loved that she was also allowed to take centre stage during the action. She has a lot of cunning on her side, and for an orphan, that’s always a handy characteristic to have.

Zacharias is a man after my own heart. After everything he goes through – being rescued from slavery by Sir Stephen, being grateful for this, while also resenting the fact that he never knew his own family; taking up the position of Sorcerer Royal though it is at the risk of his own happiness, well-being and peace of mind – it’s amazing that despite all of it he still manages to be composed, compassionate and kind. He has all the requisites for  being a Brooding Hero(TM) and, yet, that never stops him from being a genuinely good person. It’s just nice to see that authors are not afraid to write romantic heroes in this way.

The book is fairly brimming with memorable secondary characters. What I loved most about this novel was that Cho really exercised the extent of the “fantasy” element – it’s a world with magic, and as such, magic has the power to connect people from all over the globe. And hallelujah! FINALLY an author who makes use of that. Honourable mentions go to Prunella’s mentor, Mak Genggang, a Malaysian enchantress, whose power and withering wit will make her an immediate favourite.

Just read it. You’ll thank yourself you did.

The Caged Bird Sings of Freedom

A small introduction: this is one of the autobiographical works of Maya Angelou, an African American poet. It chronicles her childhood, her experience of growing up in the segregated South, falling in love with literature and words, and the insulated, complicated world of being young and a girl and black.

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I think I knew going in that this book would be an emotional experience, and this review is going to be no less objective. Angelou’s writing is very engaging – she pulls you in by degrees, spooling out threads of superficial information that then wind into anecdotes of depth and poignancy and you’re left feeling a bit breathless. There were times when I had to pause and look  up, get my bearings, or let her words soak in, or wait for the sudden pressure in my chest to ease a little.

I fell most in love with the little girl that Angelou was. Reading her words, I could conjure up the image of the solemn, somber little girl, given to bursts of imagination and whimsy, who adored her older brother fiercely. Angelou manages to capture that suffocated childhood state of feeling like adults (and others) will never quite understand what you mean, and that you don’t exactly know how to make them understand.

This book is famous for making many banned book lists, mainly due to its straightforward approach to the young Maya’s experience of being raped. It was one of the worst parts to read, not solely because of the horrible act, but because of the young Maya’s confusion and bewilderment, and guilt radiates out from the pages. I could feel my insides shaking at the fact that guilt was involved, but at the same time felt the confusion this child had to undergo through an experience she couldn’t quite understand, or quell her guilt at the storm that the situation caused. Again, it was the child’s viewpoint that was at the forefront – here were all these angered, outraged adults flying into a frenzy to get justice, but no one seemed to be pausing to understand the emotions of the child at the center.

Worse is the aftermath as little Maya retreats into a shell, unable to engage in the bustling world around her with her usual wonder and curiosity. Angelou describes a literal dulling of her world and you feel your heart grow heavy for her. And my favorite part comes, in Chapter 15,  when this subdued child finally finds that magical thread to pull her back into the world again: poetry.

“Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single world.”

I felt gratitude for this woman who seemed to revitalize the young Maya that I had come to love. Of course you learn that it is also due to Maya’s grandmother’s planning that the lady does reach out to Maya. Momma Johnson, as Maya refers to her grandmother, is a towering image of pride and grace at the center of Maya’s life. As with little Maya, I fell in love with her, too, but more so in awe of her. She deals with the injustices that come her way with an iron-rod spine, taking her grandchildren under her wing and leading by example. A heartbreaking moment is when you see this pillar of a woman be treated with cavalier disrespect by the white children of the village, as she stands there with quiet resilience. The tragedy of it cuts like a knife, and I have to admit I found myself weeping at that point.

It’s a beautifully written autobiography. Angelou writes in such a way that you can feel her sitting there, explaining it all to you. It makes me miss her even more.

Some lines that left an impression on me:

“People whose history and future were each day threatened by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all.” 

“I lay on a moment of green grass and telescoped the children’s game to my vision.”

“I don’t think she understood half of what she was saying herself, but, after all, girls have to giggle, and after being a woman for three years, I was about to become a girl.”

“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.