Book Review: Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler
First published in November 2001

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Parable of the Talents is the second and final book in Butler’s Earthseed Trilogy, published eight years after Parable of the Sower. The story picks up five years after Sower, in the year 2032. Here, the protagonist Lauren has successfully founded a small community called Acorn, loosely organized around the religion of Earthseed. While their community is by no means a wealthy one, it’s still something of a micro-utopia: Each person and family has just enough to meet their basic needs; every individual is treated with respect and dignity, regardless of age, gender or race; and there is no crime or violence amongst the members. The community also makes time for creating and enjoying art, music, and religious rituals, despite the hard labor they do to ensure their survival.

But Lauren, being cautious and pragmatic, still keeps an eye on events happening outside of Acorn. She is particularly concerned about the rising popularity of Sen. Andrew Steele Jarrett, a white Christian presidential candidate who wants to “make America great again”. While he intends to do this by upholding Christianity and persecuting other religious groups, his resemblance to modern populist leaders is uncanny:

Andrew Steele Jarrett was able to scare, divide, and bully people, first into electing him as President, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers.

True enough, Lauren’s fears materialize when an extremist group of his followers forcibly break into their community, separate the adults from the children, and make slaves of the adults, all in the name of “re-educating” their “cult”. For the rest of the book, we follow the Earthseed community as they struggle to break free from their captors, find their children, and establish new Earthseed communities.

I found Parable of the Talents much more difficult to read than Parable of the Sower. For one, Butler’s descriptions of the violence, rape, and humiliation that came with slavery was brutal to read about, and for another, the resemblance of their political situation to the present is so close it’s downright scary, so if you’ve been reading to take your mind off the mess of 2020, then this definitely isn’t the book to read!

On the other hand, the critique of religion that Butler hinted in Sower is becomes much more pointed in Talents. She makes it clear through the hypocritical actions of Jarrett’s fanatic followers that in its extremist form, Christianity can breed hatred and oppression. Interestingly, Butler also attempts to critique Lauren and Earthseed through the perspective of Lauren’s daughter, Asha, whose commentary prefaces a number of her mother’s journal entries. In the Prologue, Asha writes:

They’ll make a God of her.

I think that would please her, if she could know about it. In spite of all her protests and denials, she’s always needed devoted, obedient followers—disciples—who would listen to her and believe everything she told them. And she needed large events to manipulate. All gods seemed to need these things.

Unfortunately, this line of critique against all religion in general is never fully fleshed out in the novel. Plus, with her searing critique of religion in Talents, Butler seems to imply that religion is the only breeding ground for oppression, such as patriarchy and racism. While this is true in some cases, I also think that these systems of oppression have a way of taking root outside of religious contexts, which is not something that Talents addresses.

Overall, while I found Butler’s Parable of the Talents an engaging read, I felt like it fell short of its promise. I did find myself intrigued by Butler’s thought experiment, though (“What if we can create a more inclusive religion with an impersonal God?”), and I’d still be interested in reading more of her works in the future. I’ve been hearing great things about Kindred, so I might pick that one up next.

Once again, this was also a buddy read with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. I enjoyed discussing this with you, Melanie! You can read her review of Talents here.

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from August 9-15, 2020

Book Review: Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the SowerPARABLE OF THE SOWER (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler
First published in October 1993
This edition published on November 8, 2016 by Seven Stories Press

My Rating: ★★★★☆

TW: Graphic depictions of violence, rape, slavery, mentions of cannibalism, romance with a large age gap

I’ve been hearing about Butler’s works for awhile, so I was finally glad to be able to buddy-read her Earthseed duology with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. (Melanie’s reviews will also out this week, so head over to her blog to check them out!) One thing that struck us both about the Earthseed series was how 2020 it feels despite being published nearly two to three decades ago. While there’s no pandemic in the series, there is a general sense of anarchy, chaos, and suspicion that pervades the atmosphere of these two works, so that reading it feels eerily similar to watching the news headlines today.

The first book in the series, Parable of the Sower (1993), is set between the years 2024-2027. We follow the perspective of the 15-year-old protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina as she tells us her story in the form of journal entries. In the first half of the book, we watch Lauren and her family struggle to survive within their small walled community in L.A. In her world, basic necessities like water and food have become scarce; technology and education are luxuries that only the very rich can afford; crime is rampant; and the police cannot be trusted to enforce law and order. Every family is left to fend for themselves.

Perhaps a result of her environment, Lauren is practical and tough-skinned from a young age. While she does have a special condition called hyperempathy, which allows her to feel the pain and pleasure of other people, her condition ironically makes her more suspicious and wary rather than empathetic and trusting of others. She explains this is because sharers (those with hyperempathy) are typically looked down upon and exploited, so she does her best to hide her condition.

Just when things seem terrible enough, the story takes a turn for the worse towards the second half of the book: Drug addicts who get a sexual high from watching fire (yes, really) storm into Lauren’s community and raze it to the ground. During the panicked flight from the fire, Lauren is separated from her stepmother and her brothers, and she is forced to fend for herself. However, she journeys to find a safer community, she meets people along the way that she comes to trust and befriend. They eventually form their own community around Earthseed, the religion that Lauren creates (more on this later).

I’ll be honest here: I badly wanted to love this duology, especially since I admire and respect Butler’s work as a writer and activist. However, after finishing this book, I realized that I appreciated what Butler tried to attempt with this novel more than its execution.

I’ll start with what I liked about it. First, I appreciated Butler’s natural incorporation of BIPOC characters in the story without anyone feeling like the “token” minority. This was a rather eye-opening experience for me, since it revealed to me that I’m used to assuming a character is white unless otherwise stated. It was refreshing to finally be able to assume otherwise.

I also agreed with how Butler explored the themes of community, inclusivity, and human resilience. Butler’s imagined future is very much like our present in that misogyny and racism still exist, but in the community that Lauren creates, she clearly condemns those. Instead, she urges everyone to live as equals and to help each other according to their capacities. Butler’s vision of what an inclusive community can look like is also a vision I share.

However, Butler also imagines religion as necessary to hold such a community together, and this is where I diverge with her. As I’ve mentioned, Lauren creates the religion of Earthseed from scratch, initially done as a reaction to her father’s Baptist teachings, but eventually to capture what she thinks is “the truth” about the divine. Here are verses that form the backbone of Earthseed:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Earthseed views God as neither male nor female—in fact, God is not human. To Lauren, God is the impersonal force of change that shapes circumstances and that can also be wielded to shape circumstances.

I can appreciate this as a critique of monotheistic religions, but I don’t believe that inclusive and supportive communities require a religion as a foundation. Once you accept something as irrevocably true, as Lauren does with her idea of “God is Change”, this can easily ossify into dogma, at which point it risks becoming just like the religions it was founded to critique in the first place.

Aside from that, I also had some minor issues with the world-building. For one, the mechanics of Lauren’s hyperempathy is never fully explained. Lauren can only feel physical pain and sexual pleasure, but not emotions like sadness, fear, or confusion. While we were talking, Melanie mentioned how much more interesting the story would have been had Butler explored this hyperempathy more fully, but as it is in Sower, it just felt like something tacked onto an otherwise near-invulnerable protagonist.

Finally, the plotting also seemed haphazard to me. Since the story is told through a series of journal entries, Lauren often prefaces each entry by explaining the main event before letting us know the lead-up to it, which really killed the suspense for me. There were also a number of coincidences in the novel that seemed like easy solutions to the characters’ problems, but this actually didn’t bother me much—they were all struggling so much already that it was nice to see something good happen to them for once.

In the end, while Parable of the Sower wasn’t as emotionally gut-wrenching as I thought it might be, I still cared deeply for the characters and was content to ‘follow along’ with them on their journey, coincidences and all. And while I wasn’t convinced of the “truth” of Earthseed, I truly admired Butler’s attempt to criticise extremist monotheistic religions and to envision an entirely new belief system that would be more compassionate and inclusive to people from all walks of life. Overall, Parable of the Sower is a gritty, thought-provoking, and ultimately hopeful work about the power of community and human resilience. I recommend it if you’re interested in dystopian fiction, particularly in dystopian fiction that can help us re-envision social justice.


Have you read any of Butler’s works? What did you think of them?

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from June 26 - August 8, 2020

Mini-Reviews: An American Marriage & The Mothers

For this post, I decided to review together two novels by Black women who wrote about the lives of Black, middle-class individuals: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and The Mothers by Brit Bennett. Incidentally, both these novels also follow three main characters who happen to be involved in a love triangle. I’m not a fan of love triangles, but while these two novels did veer melodramatic, I also ended up enjoying them anyway. I’ll get right to it.


An American MarriageAN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones
First published by Algonquin Books on January 29, 2018
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

An American Marriage is a thought-provoking novel about what loyalty and fidelity mean in a marriage, especially after the unimaginable happens and all one’s plans for the future are destroyed. We follow three narrative voices: Roy and Celestial, the newleyweds, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood best friend. Roy and Celestial have been married for only a little over a year when Roy is falsely convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Initially, the couple is hopeful that the decision will be reversed, but the layers of bureaucracy and the deep-seated prejudice against black men in the criminal justice system makes this a long and drawn-out process. As a result, Roy and Celestial then find themselves reluctantly settling into their strange, new, and separate lives.

Continue reading “Mini-Reviews: An American Marriage & The Mothers”

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark VanessaMY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by William Morrow on March 10, 2020

My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)

I’ve read My Dark Vanessa way back in May, and back then, I’d given this book only four stars because of some issues I had with the plotting. But as I was writing this review, I realized that I was barely even looking at my old notes while writing it—which hardly ever happens—meaning the story really stayed with me. So I’m bumping up my rating to 4.5 stars.

My Dark Vanessa is about the ‘relationship’ of Vanessa, the protagonist, and Strane, a teacher thrice her age. The narrative alternates between the past and the present, with the past exploring the 15-year-old Vanessa’s perspective during the height and drawn-out aftermath of their relationship, and the present depicting a 32-year-old Vanessa as she is forced to confront the nature of her relationship with Strane, especially after one of his other victims comes forward and reaches out to her for solidarity and support.

Based on its synopsis alone, it’s clear that My Dark Vanessa goes into detail into some heavy and uncomfortable material—for example, there are graphic depictions of grooming and rape in the novel—but what makes reading these even more uncomfortable is how Vanessa romanticises their relationship, and how she continues to defend him from his accusers. However, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clearer that defending Strane was Vanessa’s way of defending herself, and that the heart of the novel is Vanessa’s struggle to reframe their relationship from one of a ‘love story’ to one marked by manipulation and abuse.

Continue reading “Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell”

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal PeopleNORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney
First published by Hogarth on August 28, 2018 

My Rating: ★★★★★

Argh! This is already my third attempt at this review and I still can’t find the right words to express what I felt about Normal People. I always find it harder to write about books I really love, because I either shamelessly gush about them or analyze them to death, and I can’t seem to find a proper middle ground. In this case, my first draft of this was rather fangirl-y and embarrassing, and my second sounded too cold and critical for a five-star review, so… here’s to hoping that third time’s the charm.

Continue reading “Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney”

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The Heart's Invisible FuriesTHE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
First Published by Hogarth Press on February 9, 2017

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

I started reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies back in January, put it away for awhile, and then finally picked it up again in a buddy read with Emily @ Literary Elephant. (Thanks for agreeing to read it with me, Emily!) This novel is a huge favourite among readers of both commercial and literary fiction (it has a rating of 4.47 on Goodreads), and based on its synopsis it sounds like the kind of book I’d enjoy. Plus, it has a fantastic opening line:

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.

Unfortunately, despite the strong first chapter, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. Emily commented that this would have been called “women’s fiction” if Boyne had been a woman, and that made a lot of sense to me. The Heart’s Invisible Furies felt formulaic and melodramatic, with many scenes designed to “pull on a reader’s heartstrings”. This is not meant to belittle women’s fiction—I actually enjoy women’s fiction, and you all know I read all sorts of excellent ‘trash’ books—but I was led to believe that The Heart’s Invisible Furies was more… well, literary, and it just wasn’t.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows Cyril as he takes us through the events of his life, starting from his birth in 1945 to a few days before his death in 2015. Throughout the first half of his life, Cyril struggles with coming to terms with his being gay, especially being gay in a deeply conservative and repressed Ireland in the mid-1900s. Once he has made peace with who his queer identity in the second half of his life, he then struggles with finding a home for himself.

I’ll start with what I liked about this novel. Boyne is skilled at depicting the sociocultural milieu of Ireland during Cyril’s formative years, including how the rigid, moralistic attitudes of the Church towards sexuality. Because of this, people like Cyril’s mother, who bore him out of wedlock, and Cyril himself were subjected to both physical and social forms of punishment, like being beaten up in bars by other patrons, or being refused for a job. Of his boyhood years, Cyril says wryly:

It was 1959, after all. I knew almost nothing of homosexuality, except for the fact that to act on such urges was a criminal act in Ireland that could result in a jail sentence, unless of course you were a priest, in which case it was just a perk of the job. I had a crush [on Julian], but . . . I thought I was just a slow developer; the notion that I could have what was then considered a mental disorder was one that would have horrified me.

Boyne also illustrates this attitude at work years later, when Cyril is in New York in the 1980s during the first wave of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Since I’m reading this during the time of COVID, I was struck by the similarities between the deaths of the early waves of AIDS patients and the COVID patients now—these patients often died alone, in isolation. However, in the case of the HIV/AIDS patients, Boyne depicted how much more painful this isolation was, because once the patients’ loved ones found out they had the “gay disease”, they completely cut off ties with them. It wasn’t only a medical illness, it was also considered a moral one, and it was the stigma often made it unbearable to its sufferers.

However, aside from its historical accuracy and the injustices committed towards the queer community, I found the rest of the novel sloppy in execution. The first thing that tipped me off was the highly unrealistic dialogue between the children in the novel. This is a conversation between Cyril and Julian, his childhood crush, when they were just seven years old:

“Do you have any dirty magazines?” he asked me then.

“No,” I said, shaking my head.

“I have. I found one in my father’s study. It was full of naked girls. It was an American magazine, of course, because naked girls are still illegal in Ireland.”

“Are they?” I asked, wondering how they bathed if that was the case.

“Yes, the Church doesn’t let girls be naked until they’re married. But the Americans do and they take off their clothes all the time and let their pictures go into magazines and then men go into shops and buy them with copies of History Today or Stamps Monthly so they don’t look like perverts.”

While I’m not a parent and I don’t work with children, I don’t think this is something seven-year-old boys talk about. Plus, the syntax and the vocabulary are too adult-sounding to me. I have a ten-year-old nephew and even he doesn’t sound this sophisticated yet.

Aside from the unrealistic dialogue, I had difficulty suspending disbelief for most of the plot. By the end of the first half, Emily and I were joking that Boyne probably wouldn’t end each part without getting one of his characters jailed, killed, or maimed, and we weren’t so far off the mark. As a reader, this made me feel like Boyne was manipulating me into caring for the characters because of the tragic situations he puts them in.

There were also too many coincidences that happen in the characters’ lives, and they were so heavy-handed that I couldn’t take their ‘chance’ meetings seriously. At one point I wondered if The Heart’s Invisible Furies could have been a sitcom instead, because of how comically absurd the dialogue, the coincidences, and melodramatic tragedies are.

The biggest disappointment for me, though, was the characters. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is often touted as a character-driven novel, but I found most of the characters one-dimensional. For example, the only thing that Julian seems to be is blatantly heterosexual. His adoptive parents repeatedly insist to a seven-year-old Cyril that he’s just adopted, and that he’s not “a real Avery”. What sort of parent does that? Plus, Cyril himself was a passive figure in his life. He just allows things to happen to him, and when he finally does take action for something, he’s reluctant to take responsibility for his mistakes. For a first-person narrator, I also found nothing memorable about his voice—he sounded just like everyone else in the novel.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about The Heart’s Invisible Furies. On one hand, it was entertaining to read in a soap-opera way, and there were parts that were genuinely moving. But on the other hand, I wasn’t sold on the plot or dialogue, and the arbitrary seven-year gaps made it difficult for me to become fully invested in any of the characters. So… three stars it is. I’m very much the minority here, though, so I’d still recommend this to fans of historical fiction. Maybe if you went into it not expecting something poignant or too literary, you’d like it better than I did.

Have you read this book, or any book by Boyne’s? What do you think of his works? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from May 11-22, 2020

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press on June 4, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

Everyone who’s read this book always remarks on the language first, and now I know why. Vuong’s command of language is simply astounding; I’ve never read anything like it before. Written in the form of a letter to his mother who can’t read, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous follows its narrator, known only as Little Dog, over three significant developmental periods in his life: his childhood, where he grapples with the aftermath of the Vietnam War on his family and his fraught relationship with his mother; his late teenage years, where he explores his sexuality with Trevor, the “redneck” son of the tobacco plantation owner; and his young adulthood, during which he comes into his own as a writer.

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Mysteries/Thrillers | Darling Rose Gold, The Keeper, & Force of Nature

Aside from romance, I also find myself reaching for the occasional crime novel or fast-paced thriller as my comfort reads. It sounds strange if I put it that way, but what I consider to be ‘comfort reads’ are books that can quickly transport or distract me, and thrillers can be very absorbing.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been very lucky with the genre lately. Here are my reviews of Stephanie Wrobel’s Darling Rose Gold (2020) and Jessica Moor’s The Keeper (2020), two of my most anticipated thrillers this year which turned out to be disappointments. Thankfully, I just finished Jane Harper’s Force of Nature (2017) this week, which turned out to be very satisfying.

Continue reading “Mysteries/Thrillers | Darling Rose Gold, The Keeper, & Force of Nature”

Enemies-to-Lovers Romances | The Worst Best Man & The Unhoneymooners

I just adore a good enemies-to-lovers romance. Everything about this trope gives me life—from the completely ridiculous reasons the characters hate each other, to the petty pranks, the wicked banter, the bristling sexual tension, and finally to the ANGST of surrendering to their “”worst enemy””… I could go on and on. I just love it. I love all of it. I lap all that up to fill the void in my soul.

But as much as I love the trope, I can also get very nitpicky about it in a way that I don’t get with other tropes, mainly because I want the elements to be done a certain way—i.e., The Hating Game (2016) way. I like a lot of banter, competitiveness, and sexual tension, plus a lot of steamy scenes and maybe a couple of pranks tossed in on the side.

While the books below aren’t quite The Hating Game, Mia Sosa’s The Worst Best Man is probably closer to how I like my enemies-to-lovers done. The Unhoneymooners was cute, but it wasn’t steamy enough for me. (My rule for a hate-to-love romance is that the strength of hatred should be proportional to the steaminess of the sex. While I have no way to quantify this, the proportion just felt off-kilter for this book.) Also, weirdly enough, I only started liking The Unhoneymooners during the “lovers” part, and was bored out of my mind during the “enemies” part.

Still, both were fun, breezy reads, a great way to pass the time during this quarantine.

Continue reading “Enemies-to-Lovers Romances | The Worst Best Man & The Unhoneymooners”

Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

How We Disappeared v2

HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
Published by Hanover Square Press on May 7, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

How We Disappeared tells the story of a young Singaporean girl’s experience as a ‘comfort woman’, a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers during World War II. I was initially cautious about this book because stories about sexual violence (and especially sexual violence during wartime) can slide into the realm of trauma porn, but thankfully this book doesn’t fall into that trap. While Lee does zoom in on her protagonist’s traumatic experiences, she also situates them in the larger context of healing from the trauma, which makes the novel ultimately hopeful in tone rather than oppressively bleak.

Continue reading “Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee”