Review | Crosshairs, by Catherine Hernandez

CrosshairsCoverCrosshairs is a powerful, highly relevant, gut-punch of a book. It’s technically a “dystopian”, but a lot of the subjects it tackles feel uncomfortably contemporary. Crosshairs is particularly powerful because it explores how social injustices disproportionately impact marginalized communities, in this case BIPOC LGBTQ2S+ folks.

The main character is Kay Nopuente, a Jamaican-Filipino drag queen who is forced to run when the Canadian government rounds up persons they consider “Others” to work in forced labour camps. In this world, the Canadian PM is basically a Trump twin, and the US and Canada are united in a singular philosophy that dehumanizes Others, and reduces them to means of production.

Race, sexuality, wealth, and disability are all factors in how one is classified as an Other in Crosshairs’ world, and Hernandez is very much on point in showing how much intersectionality plays a role in these determinations. Black and Brown LBTQ2S+ characters talk about how they cannot simply “pass”, because of their skin colour, whereas a chapter mentions how white gay men are back to walking along Church Street, albeit with somewhat adapted movements.

Hernandez also explores the varying degrees of Other-ness across BIPOC folks. A Black restaurant worker is immediately dismissed as an Other (we have no indication about whether or not his sexuality played a role), and some wealthy Others (we have no indication about specific identities that rendered them Other) have tried to assimilate but failed. In contrast, within the forced labour camps, some Asian women (we have no indication of particular ethnicities beyond “Asian”) are helping the military maintain control over the Others, in exchange for their children’s safety. With all three examples, perhaps most troubling is that while Hernandez didn’t go into too much specifics on these characters’ intersecting identities, many of us likely have ideas on how to fill in the blanks. Which in itself is an indication of how real and how contemporary these subjects are, despite the fictional nature of the story playing out.

Beyond Kay, we also have a full cast of characters of colour — Bahadur Talebi, a non-binary person who just wants to lay low so they can survive; Firuzeh Pasdar, a social worker who tries to help as many Others as she can until she herself is captured; Emma Singh, a Deaf woman who befriends Firuzeh; and so many more. The government’s targeted attacks on Others affects each of them in different ways, and while some don’t survive, all their stories are shown to matter. Hernandez also presents us with white allies: Liv, a woman who goes undercover in spaces of power by marrying a powerful man; and Beck, a white gay man who provides Kay and Bahadur with shelter and combat training.

This book is a compelling read, but by no means an easy one. Hernandez pulls no punches in talking about racism, homophobia, violence and all sorts of things. She does so in a respectful manner — offensive slurs are x’d out, and when describing the aftermath of a violent death driven by racism, the narration focuses on the victim’s humanity rather than the gory details — but it’s all very disquieting. There’s a fury within the narration that demands our attention, and beyond that, our action. While the details of the world in Crosshairs are fictional, it’s a reality that’s far too easy to imagine events playing out as Hernandez has outlined. In the event of a natural disaster (in this book, a flood), we know that wealth, skin colour, and so on, all play a factor in how well each of us will fare. We only need to look at how the COVID-19 situation is playing out in Toronto to see that the communities most affected by the pandemic are also the communities most likely to be labelled Others in Crosshairs.

A couple minor snags for me with this book: first is that the narrative moves between timelines, from present-day to flashbacks, often told as stories between characters sharing their experiences. I found some of the shifts confusing, and particularly with such a large cast of characters, I sometimes found myself having to think hard to remember who a character was and what their role was in the story.

Another snag for me was the cringeworthy exercises Beck, Liv, and other white allies did to embody allyship. Their reasoning was sound: their needed to unlearn an entire lifetime of white supremacy, and particularly of accepting their culpability in propagating this, despite being, by most markers, woke. But then they do this by doing movement exercises at dawn, while chanting mantras about how the world should not be all about them. Possibly, Hernandez intended this to be cringey — certainly, Kay and Bahadur are both as skeptical at first as I am.

But then this part of the story takes an earnest turn. Beck’s mom decides to try the exercises, and we see her entire, painful process of unlearning: from acting super awkward to Kay and Bahadur, to arguing that she’s a “good person” and “not at all racist”, to eventually responding with genuine empathy to a story Kay tells. And in the big march scene at the end, all the white allies perform a gesture that is basically designed to show their support without taking the spotlight away from Black and Brown folks.

As I write this, I’ve come to believe that Hernandez did intend this plot thread to be uncomfortable. As a woman of colour, the whole morning exercise routine struck me as being very performative. And even the allyship gesture at the end, while certainly done in earnest by the white characters, still felt not-enough. I give characters like Liv, Beck, and to a lesser extent, even Beck’s mom a pass, because I see how they have actually risked themselves to support Others, but the fact that they have to do a literal daily dance to make this support genuine added a sheen of performativity to their support. To me, at least.

Crosshairs invites multiple readings. It’ll likely cause some kind of discomfort for every reader, and deliberately so. And it invites us to sit with this discomfort, and reflect further on what we read.

The novel ends on a note of hope, of collection action finally being taken, of triumph laced with dread. We know enough of how the world really works to believe that the story will end happily for all the characters we’ve come to love. Yet we at least have this scene, where they are fighting back and making themselves heard. And while that can never be enough, it’s something, and it will spark something more.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | You Can’t Catch Me, by Catherine McKenzie

YouCantCatchMeCoverDo you know how common the name Jessica is, particularly for women born in the 1990s? How about the surname Williams? In You Can’t Catch Me, Catherine McKenzie poses the question: what if a con artist takes advantage of the commonness of these names?

The novel begins with Jessica Williams at an airport bar. A journalist caught at plagiarism, Jessica is on her way to a week-long vacation to escape the mess her life has become. A waiter calling out her name leads to the discovery of a second Jessica Williams in the same bar. Jessica Two, as journalist Jessica calls her, is fascinated by the coincidence of both of them being at the bar at the same time. She invites journalist Jessica to a game of Twenty Questions, to discover what else, apart from their names, they could have in common. (For one thing, they both share the exact same birthday.) Fast forward a week, and journalist Jessica realizes that Jessica Two has stolen all her money, using the information from their Twenty Question game (what’s your mother’s maiden name? who was your best friend in elementary school?) to impersonate her.

It turns out that journalist Jessica grew up in a cult, and the man who got her out, Liam, has major investigative skills. With Liam’s help, Jessica tracks down two other victims of Jessica Two: Jessie (Jessica Three), a quiet schoolteacher who lost her lottery winnings, and JJ (Jessica Four), a retired soldier turned celebrity YouTuber. Both new Jessicas have the same name and the same birthday as the first two. Together, the three Jessicas continue the investigation into Jessica Two, and plan how to take her down.

The premise of You Can’t Catch Me is, admittedly, a bit silly. As someone on Goodreads asks, why can’t a con artist just use fake names and fake birthdays on their intended victims instead of targeting women all with the same name and the same birthday? There’s also a lot of focus on Jessica One’s history with the cult, and apart from being an interesting bit of character history, why on earth is it relevant to the story of the Jessica Williamses? I did wonder about both questions at the start, then eventually just made the decision to sit back and enjoy the ride. And enjoy it I did. The good news is that both questions are indeed answered by the end of the book; the even better news is that it’s a fun and entertaining ride throughout.

You Can’t Catch Me is, plain and simple, a fun thriller. It’s twisty and captivating, and basically the book equivalent of a summer blockbuster. My favourite part has to be shortly after Jessica One and Jessie the school teacher set off on a road trip to meet up with JJ. Jessica One teaches Jessie the art of grifting (at a basic card game scam, and at a bar with a married man), which Jessica One learned from her years at the cult. The threat of Jessica Two still looms large of course, but somewhat overshadowing it is the thrill of the chase. Even though Jessica One, Jessie, and later JJ, are the victims of a crime, the narration is light and breezy, highlighting the exciting challenge of outwitting a master con artist.

The last 25% of the book is just dizzyingly full of twists and revelations, and suddenly, all the seemingly disparate pieces fit together. It’s a satisfying finale to an entertaining thriller.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an egalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Murder at Hotel 1911: An Ivy Nichols Mystery, by Audrey Keown

MurderAtHotel1911CoverIn Murder at Hotel 1911, the death of a hotel guest from anaphylactic shock causes suspicion to fall on hotel chef George. His friend Ivy Nichols, the hotel’s receptionist, knows the damage that this accusation could do to George’s career, and so launches an investigation. As Ivy digs deeper into the lives of the different hotel guests, she discovers connections between them, and many potential motives for murder.

Murder at Hotel 1911 is a solid cozy mystery. I like that Ivy has panic attacks — it’s a form of representation I don’t often see in cozy mysteries, and it’s also a condition that could present a challenge for an amateur detective. I like the way Keown handles this aspect of Ivy. The book talks a bit about Ivy’s experiences with therapy and medication, so that you can see her mental health situation is very much a part of her everyday life, but doesn’t take over her story completely. Ivy’s panic attacks also come into play at key moments, and I thought the author did a good job of putting us in Ivy’s shoes without overdramatizing the experience.

I also like the concept of the 1911-themed hotel. I found that charming, and of course, it provided lots of potential for the plot, with secret passages and other such cool architectural features. The big reveal was also a surprise — I didn’t see it coming at all.

My main downside for this book is that I found it too slow. It took me almost a month to finish reading it, and in the second half, I found myself skimming a bit. The investigation meandered, and while I appreciated the representation of Ivy’s mental health situation, I also felt that the novel focused too much on her personal life rather than on the mystery. In particular, Ivy’s history with the police detective, and Ivy’s realization about her mother were interesting, but a bit too drawn out. And while I found Ivy’s family connection to the house an interesting character feature, I sometimes felt like the book was more interested in diving into that mystery than in the actual murder. All these details make the book work as the first in a series, to really introduce us to the main character, but they work less well as a standalone.

Cozy mysteries also depend a lot on its characters to draw you into their lives, but while the hotel guests and Ivy’s co-workers certainly started out colourful and interesting, their personalities flattened as the story went on. Even the crux of the mystery, which is Ivy’s relationship with George, didn’t feel strong enough. We know she cares deeply for him, because she goes to great lengths to prove his innocence, and later on, there are hints of a romance developing between them, but I never really felt the heat, of either the romantic tension type of the BFF type. 

Overall, the book isn’t bad, it just didn’t hook me as I’d hoped it would.

+

Thank you to the publisher for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.