Review | Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, Ann Y. K. Choi

29218113Korean-Canadian teenager Mary is tired of having to manage her family’s convenience store. Part of her wants nothing more than to be modern and Canadian, but another part of her is unable to fully leave behind the expectations of her traditional Korean family. This dilemma plays out in different ways: she uses the name Mary but can’t help that her parents sometimes call her by her Korean birth name Yu-Rhee. She is in love with her English teacher, but her parents want her to set her up with a Korean boy named Joon-Ho. There’s also the unspoken family secret about her mother’s estranged sister, and how that may tie in to Mary’s own struggle.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety had its weaknesses — in particular, a scene of sexual assault felt tacked on, a tired coming of age trope that was added unnecessarily and then not fully explored. Mary’s crush on her older English teacher also felt cliche, and its outcome inevitable. That being said, I think these two things bugged me mostly because the rest of the book was so strong that any weakness really stood out.

I love how Choi writes about the immigrant experience. I love the sharp observations about feeling the need to represent an entire culture, simply because you are still a minority within the community. One character says of a fellow Korean: “He makes the rest of us look bad. Like we’re all a bunch of idiots who can’t make it here. Don’t you get it? People like him make them suspicious of all of us.” (page 198) Joon-Ho and his family do some really questionable, sometimes villainous things, but their struggle is also a really smart depiction of the pressure around immigration. I love how Choi portrayed Joon-Ho’s need to be as close to perfect as possible in order to achieve residency in Canada, and the additional stress of having your family’s hopes of immigrating lie on your shoulders.

I also love how Choi highlights the rarity of Asian representation in Canadian literature. When Mary’s mother asks her why she never reads books about Korean or Chinese characters, Mary responds that there aren’t any, or at least none that she’s aware of. This story was set in the 1980s, and thankfully today, there are a lot more options available for CanLit books featuring Asian characters. Still, Mary’s mother’s response resonated with me: “You want to know about feeling invisible? It’s always black and white in Canada. The Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, anyone from Asia are the true invisibles. Do you think anyone really sees us when they throw pennies at us for a newspaper?”

Overall, I really like how Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety portrayed the experiences of Mary, her mother and their family. I especially love how Mary realizes she can be Korean even without ascribing to traditions that don’t quite fit her: “I could claim my name myself. I could have everyone call me Yu-Rhee.” It’s a fantastic owning of identity, and realizing that one has the power to claim both sides of a dual identity for themselves, even with something as simple as a name.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Keeper of the Flame (A Crang Mystery), Jack Batten

25866583Crang is a criminal lawyer who is hired by popular hip hop artist Flame to shut down a blackmail scheme. Some offensive lyrics written when Flame was a teen have been discovered, and could destroy the clean-cut, Cary Grant type image Flame’s handlers are trying to cultivate, unless the performer ponies up eight million dollars. Crang’s investigation leads to an organized gang, murder and a subplot involving a porn video.

Keeper of the Flame is first I’ve read in the Crang series. Crang is a fairly old school wisecracking private eye, whose exploits usually lead him in hotter water than he’d originally planned. I like how he structures his fees according to his clients’ ability to pay — a retail worker gets charged a minimal fee for a fairly complex case, whereas a multimillionaire like Flame gets charged accordingly. I also like how Crang uses Flame’s fame to get things done; in one scene, a detective agrees to do Crang a favour only if Crang could get Flame to write personal messages on the Facebook walls of the detective’s daughters.

 

This is a fun read; it didn’t quite keep me flipping the pages madly, but I like the lighthearted tone and somewhat snappy dialogue. Toronto-philes may also delight in finding Toronto featured so prominently in the story.

Random aside – do any of the other readers keep thinking of Krang from the Ninja Turtles, or is it just me?

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Thanks to Dundurn for an advance reading copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote

18406194Gender Failure is a beautiful, candid, moving account of Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote’s “failure” to fit into the traditional gender binary. Its roots as a stage production are evident — the tone is conversational, even intimate, and you can almost imagine the authors telling you these stories in person. Photos from the show are interspersed throughout, and I wish I’d seen the production live, as it must have been an even more powerful experience than reading it on the page.

The casual tone of the narration belies the depths of emotion that Spoon and Coyote express. Spoon recounts the experience of a man approaching them after a show and laughing because he’d originally thought Spoon was “a dude,” until they started singing and he then “knew you were a chick.” The man appeared to expect Spoon to share in this hilarity, even grabbing them by the arm in a show of comradeship. Spoon’s response struck me: they walked away, and only then corrected the man that he’d been mistaken both times. The need to walk away before correcting the misconception speaks to Spoon’s awareness of their vulnerability. Not only do they experience “a feeling that I have failed to be seen” every time they are misgendered, they are also all too aware of the dangers in revealing themselves as trans.

Both Spoon and Coyote share their fear of public washrooms. Coyote writes about developing the skill to hold their pee for hours, in the hopes that they may not need to use the wheelchair-accessible gender-neutral stall and potentially inconvenience someone with mobility issues. “[Women] are afraid of men in a women’s washroom, because of what may happen,” Spoon says. “I am afraid of women in a women’s washroom because of what happens to be all the time.” Experiences include being assaulted with a handbag and being dragged out from a stall by security guards, not to mention the less physical but no less violent experience of being glared at in disgust. Spoon’s frustration is evident when they say that they can’t even react in anger, “because if I get angry, then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it’s all my fault, isn’t it? Because then there is a man in the ladies’ room, and for some reason, he’s angry.”

Coyote writes about their difficulty in trying to get medical approval to have their top surgery funded. Ironically, their difficulty lay in finding a psychologist who could provide an unbiased assessment on whether Coyote was “trans enough” for the procedure, because most of the psychologists had studied Coyote’s work when training to make such assessments. They also speak about the intrusive questions people feel entitled to ask. In one interview, for example, the reporter tried to be coy around the question of sex assignment surgery, and when Coyote told her to just come right out and ask the question, they realized that the reporter didn’t even know what sex Coyote had been assigned at birth. “She couldn’t even be sure what I might want removed or added on to me,” Coyote says. “But still. She had to know. She just had to ask.”

The section about the Trans Day of Remembrance is especially moving. The event honours those who have died by reading their names aloud, but as Coyote notes,

What will be missing are these women’s stories… What will also be missing is a discussion about the difference between excluding someone and actively including them, and intentionally making space. And the day after we are suppose to remember, most of this will be forgotten.

In particular, Coyote remembers their friend Rosie, a trans woman who left town and is presumed dead, and whom Coyote memorializes in this book. “I refuse to reduce her life to nothing more than a name on a list of the deceased,” they say. “I will remember so much more about Rosie than just her absence from my life.”

Gender Failure is such a powerful, beautiful book. Spoon and Coyote have moved me, and I can only imagine the impact their stories can have on transgendered readers, particularly those who are young and still trying to figure things out. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I’ll just end this here, with Coyote’s words:

I realize that the English language is sadly devoid of names for people like me. I try to cut the world some slack for this every day. All day. And the day after that, too. But the truth is that every time I am misgendered, a tiny little sliver of me disappears, A tiny little sliver of me is reminded that I do not fit … I remember that the truth of me is invisible, and a tiny little sliver of me disappears. Just a sliver, razored from the surface of my very thick skin most days, but other times right from my soul, sometimes felt so deep and other days simply shrugged off, but still. All those slivers add up to something much harder to pretend around.

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Thank you to Arsenal Pulp Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.