Book Reviews, books

Checking out the Book: Feminist Edition

This edition of recent library reads is brought to you by strong lady protagonists and characters of color who are not messing around. Pediatricians, mothers, folk healers, mathematicians, and police officers–none of these ladies, real or fictional, are going to take your shit. Here are a few books by and about women I’ve enjoyed lately.

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Title

The Tenth Muse

Author

Catherine Chung

Format

Book

Review

As an Asian-American growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Katherine is an ambitious young woman torn between performing the role expected of her and one that allows her to pursue her passion for math (which I cannot directly relate to). When Katherine enrolls in Master’s and Doctoral programs, she is the only woman in her graduating classes and struggles to find acceptance.

Complicating matters is the revelation that Katherine’s parents have been keeping secrets about her identity, which has a surprising connection to WWII Germany. Accepting a role as a visiting researcher in Germany gives Katherine the opportunity to explore this relationship–though she will certainly learn some dark truths about her family and the mathematicians she idolizes. While the ending feels a bit rushed, Chung tells a unique story that seamlessly blends together themes of family, identity, and the weight of women’s decisions in a world very much tied to patriarchal values.

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Title

What the Eyes Don’t See

Author

Mona Hanna-Attisha

Format

eAudioboook

Review

The true story of a whistle blower in the Flint water crisis, Hanna-Attisha’s memoir is compelling in the way all tragedies are. A local pediatrician (who narrates her own book), Hanna-Attisha’s compassion for the children in her care is the force motivating everything she’s done. When she notices high levels of lead in the blood test results of many patients, she refuses to let it go until she’s done absolutely everything she can. But what can a pediatrician do to address crumbling infrastructure, intentional cost-cutting to the detriment of well-being, and governmental commitment to ignore or even cover up the crisis? Quite a lot, actually.

Connecting the story of the Flint water crisis to her experiences growing up as the child of Iraqi immigrants, Hanna-Attisha doesn’t shy away from bringing her personal life into the memoir. As a narrator, her passion for the subject and commitment to serving the families of Flint come through effectively. Though this book haunts my dreams and makes me hesitate whenever I turn on the faucet, it tells an important story and tells it well.

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Title

Sabrina & Corina

Author

Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Format

Book

Review

Not going to lie, I picked this one up for the cover, which gave me Frida Kahlo vibes in all of the best ways.

Fajardo-Anstine’s short stories are interested in themes surrounding family relationships: those between siblings, parents and children, large extended families. She explores the role of tradition, Latinx and Native American identities, and the roles of women in community and as individuals.

“Sisters” stands out as an especially heartbreaking tale, as Fajardo-Anstine sets up the events leading to a young woman losing her eyesight. Protagonist Doty lives with her sister in 1950s Colorado, but the two won’t be able to afford this arrangement forever. As the sisters go on a series of double dates, Doty feels the pressure for marriage even as she feels absolutely no attraction to her boyfriend. What options does a single Latinx woman have when she barely makes a living wage?

I also enjoyed the story “Remedies,” which details the brief but significant relationship between the narrator Clarisa and her half-brother. The titular remedies are those Clarisa’s great-grandmother uses to cure everything from a headache to the flu. However, these remedies cannot be used for the persistent head lice that afflict Clarisa and her half-brother Harrison, whom Great-Grandma despises. Clarisa’s unconventional mother works hard to maintain the relationship between the half-siblings, efforts that Clarisa most definitely does not appreciate.

To be honest, though, I can’t think of a single story that wasn’t well-crafted and interested in compelling themes and characters.

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Title

Girl Waits with Gun

Author

Amy Stewart

Format

eAudiobook

Review

Constance Kopp, eldest of three sisters who live on a farm in 1910s New Jersey, just wants one thing: for the factory owner who ran into their buggy with his car to pay the money he owes for repairs. Unfortunately, Henry Kaufman, the factory owner in question, is an entitled tool who is disinclined to entertaining the demands of women. Facing threats against her youngest sister, broken windows, and attempted arson (all to avoid a $50 fine), Constance remains steadfast in her commitment to seeing justice done.

Based on a true story, Stewart creates a fun adventure that is meticulously researched; not only are the initial events true, but many of the happenings in the novel are pulled straight from the headlines of the day. Constance went on to become one of the first female deputy sheriffs, and by all accounts was as tough as nails as she is in this telling. The narrator of the audiobook does an admirable job of giving each sister a distinct voice that reflects her character, as well as some memorable scruffy man voices.

What are you reading (or listening to)?

Header photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

Book Reviews, books

Checking out the Book: Done with You, Reality

As a librarian and bibliophile, I fully endorse supporting authors by purchasing their work. However, as an overly cautious and quite stingy person, I also wholly believe in checking out the book from the library first. Otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you will unconsciously put a LOT of pressure on a $20 or $30 book to be the next great novel rather than simply enjoying it (unless it was on the $2 bargain shelves). And you may or may not just let that book sit on the shelf anywhere from a year until the rest of your life.

As such, most of my recent reads are library books. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed lately–mostly because they offer an escape from our reality in some way.

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Title

The Downstairs Girl

Author

Stacey Lee

Format

Book

Review

I would have absolutely devoured this as a teen since it’s the stuff of which my dreams were made. Set in 1890s Atlanta, Lee tells the story of Jo Kuan, a Chinese-American teen with a talent for styling the hair and hats of many a Southern belle. When she loses her job without cause (aka racism), Jo is forced to work as a lady’s maid once again for , a particularly ill-tempered belle. However, Jo pursues her passions by secretly writing an advice column for a local paper, while seeking the truth about the identity of her parents, who left her in the care of the elderly (and aptly named) Old Gin.

I love Jo’s snarky humor in her advice column, as well as the many characters and stories intersecting here. There are certainly unlikeable characters aplenty, but Lee is reluctant to dismiss them or their concerns, peeling back their identities to reveal barriers created by race, nationality, poverty, gender, and sexual orientation (yes, even you, white Southern dudes of the 1800s).  I especially enjoy the relationships Jo shares with friends Robby and Noemi, whose experiences depict the lives of African-American workers in the Reconstruction South.

Recommended for…

My period drama lovers who enjoy social critique (so, like, all period drama lovers).

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Title

The Memoirs of Lady Trent

Author

Marie Brennan

Format

Book

Review

What’s your vision of the year 5658? Robots? Flying cars? A landscape devastated by climate change? Marie Brennan’s version of the future looks a lot more like the past than present, as reflected by the Victorian-inspired memoirs of naturalist and adventurer Isabella Camhurst. Fascinated by dragons at an early age, Isabella is off exploring the species in distant lands as soon as she can ditch the high society of a thinly veiled England (aka Scirland).

If this sounds cringey and insensitive re: colonialism, Brennan is very aware of England’s sordid past, and the misdeeds (i.e. genocide) of its explorers. She vividly brings to life the cultures represented here–West Africa, Polynesia, Eastern Europe–while her self-aware heroine recognizes her limits as a cultural observer.

Recommended for…

My period drama lovers who appreciate an escapist fantasy. And for my fellow readers reluctant to commit to a five book series, the lack of major cliffhangers makes this one easy to pick up for a book or two (or complete the series, as I’m planning to do).

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Title

Herakles

Author

Edouard Cour

Format

Graphic novel

Review

Just in case your only experience with the legend of Herakles is the Disney film, prepare to be disillusioned. Rather than a lesson in perseverance, the life of Herakles is yet another tale underscoring the degree to which mortals are merely the playthings of the gods. Through trial after trial, Herakles works to prove himself worthy of god status, but all he seems capable of is embroiling himself more deeply into trouble and invoking the wrath of the gods. I guess he gets a nice lion pelt out of all this, at least.

Herakles is often blindly vengeful and stupid, but it’s nevertheless difficult not to feel for him.  He seems to be so little in control of his life that you can’t really blame him for pursuing an endless series of trials in vain. That’s life, eh? No wonder the Abrahamic faiths took over from here…the legend of Herakles is too bleak even to come from the mind of Nietzsche.

Recommended for…

People sick to death of toxic masculinity. Also kids who have to take a course in the Classics and want to skip to the interesting bits.

What are you reading, library book or no?

Header photo by Devon Divine on Unsplash

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak

Louisa Hall

336 pages

cover art for the book Speak

Speak is a science-fiction novel featuring artificial intelligence, totalitarian responses to uncannily lifelike AI, and computer prodigies, but its focus (like all sci-fi that I can think of, frankly) is on humans and humanity.  Hall explores humanity by weaving several different storylines together.  I admit I’m a sucker for novels in which seemingly separate stories come together, and much of the force driving this novel forward comes from piecing together where the connections are.  Refreshingly, I found all of the stories compelling and never felt the urge to skip through any of the sections.

We follow the history of the human search for meaning through time, beginning with Mary, a young Puritan dreading the life she will have with a new husband in the New World.  Mary’s narration is possibly my favorite as it’s full of energy, intelligence, and overconfidence in her understanding of the world.

A close second is the fictionalized letters of Alan Turing, which reveal his brilliance and isolation.  Hall perfectly balances the tragic elements of his life with his energy and wit.

Hall smoothly transitions us into the sci-fi elements of the story, beginning with a scientist hoping to reconnect with his wife.  His wife, on the other hand, is much more interested in speaking with the AI he helped develop than saving their marriage.

We jump farther forward in time to hear from a scientist and inventor imprisoned for life for his role in creating extremely lifelike AI that served as companions for children, which have since been banned.  However, after this type of AI is banned, an entire generation is left with physical and emotional illnesses, unable to form meaningful connections with humans.

Like virtually every other work tackling AI, Speak considers what it means to be human if we can create machines that can replace the appearance, interaction, and emotional work that humans perform.  Does AI make us more or less human?  And can we consider AI itself human?

There is a certain amount of sadness to the stories told here, but this novel is more of an exploration than a tragedy.  All of the consequences the characters suffer, no matter how terrible, ultimately arise from curiosity and the need for understanding.  If anything the tragedy lies in the number of characters who inevitably make themselves unknowable and unknowing in their search for a connection.

I’d call this sci-fi with an emphasis on language and a haunting/hopeful tone.  For fans of Margaret Atwood and weirdly Colum McCann?  Beautiful prose, you guys.

The Rating:

5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of the Gods

Unlike 75% of series I’ve started reading, I actually finished this one!  Thoughts on books 2 and 3 of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy follow.  Warning:  there are some spoilers.

The Broken Kingdoms

N.K. Jemisin

Total pages:  432

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When we left Yeine in book 1 of the series, there had been some major challenges to the structures of power in both the god and mortal realms.

One of the mortals making sense of the events of book 1 is Oree, a blind artist who sells her goods in the literal lower level of the capital (in a brilliant move, Jemisin has the Arameri section of the capital literally float above everyone else).

This story is more of a mystery as Oree attempts to figure out why, as a mortal, she is in possession of some god-like abilities as well as who is responsible for a series of godling murders in the city.

Oree is cool, but not anywhere near as cool as Yeine.  Additionally, the god who gets the most attention in this volume is Itempas, that unyielding asshole who killed his sister and enslaved his brother.  You might think that after being stripped of his powers, banished, and forced to prove his worthiness as of the end of book 1, that Itempas might be a more sympathetic character.  But nooooooooooooooooooooo, he’s still a dick and does nothing to earn the kindness Oree shows him.  There’s also a rather heartbreaking murder that might make you uncharitably think Itempas should have died instead, even though that’s not how murders work.

Overall, this one feels like a bit of a repeat of book 1 but with less interesting characters, and a mystery that is solved too early.  Add to this a surprise baby plus the fact that I just cannot stand Itempas, and I really didn’t enjoy this one.

The Kingdom of Gods

Total pages:  613

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Shifting perspective yet again, we get our first book in the series narrated entirely by a godling, Sieh.  If you pick up this series, you will immediately recognize Sieh as the trickster figure of the gods.  He frequently adopts the form of a child and maintains a playful innocence, though he has certainly caused as much death and destruction as any of his other godling siblings.  Unfortunately, Sieh’s appearance means a lot of really disturbing things happened to him while he and the other godlings were enslaved.  So, rather interestingly, Sieh is perhaps the only god in fiction who is a survivor of sexual abuse.

As book 3 opens, Sieh has bonded with Arameri siblings and sworn enemies Shahar and Deka.  Remember how the Arameri are the ruling class who enslaved the gods in book 1?  Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah.  I think what’s most annoying about this book is how unclear the timeline is; it’s definitely been some time since the events of book 1, but I could never figure out how much time has passed.

Anyway, as Sieh makes a vow to be to be Shahar and Deka’s bff, he suddenly loses control over his own actions and his status as a godling.  As a mortal, Sieh now must contend with aging and the possibility of his own death.  He also gets betrayed by every.  Single.  Mortal.  In this book.  Yet is still completely blindsided every time it happens.

The biggest takeaway for me here is that you can be a centuries-old god and still not understand people.  I feel you, Sieh.

Will Sieh regain his immortality?  What’s up with someone murdering Arameri?  Could this be connected to Sieh’s mortality?  And, of course, will he sleep with one sibling, two, or none of the above?  Will you care or will it take all of your willpower not to cross out all of the parts with Shahar and Deka?

As a whole, I found the plot of this one more confusing than the first 2 and just didn’t care about Shahar or Deka at all.  The character who I found most intriguing was Oree’s daughter, Glee, who unfortunately is a somewhat minor character.  It makes me upset she wasn’t the focus of book 2 instead of Oree, or had her own book at some point in this series.  I can dream.

Assorted Thoughts:

Yeine isn’t nearly as present in volumes 2 and 3 of this trilogy, which is one of the biggest reasons I didn’t enjoy the other 2 books nearly as much.  Same goes for Nahadoth.  And though there isn’t a character without flaws in this series (which is a strength for sure), it was still disappointing to see them make bad and even cruel decisions, especially in book 2.  Additionally, there are really no good alternatives to get attached to—none of the other mortals are that interesting, and don’t even get me started on Itempas.

Perhaps what pissed me off most is that Itempas never really seems to earn his redemption.  His essential nature doesn’t change because he’s a god…but I feel even gods shouldn’t be allowed to be such giant assholes.  How does he still have followers???

However, I will say this series is truly original and completely subverts expectations.  One of the big themes is the cyclical nature of everything, which is reflected in Jemisin leaving a lot unresolved.  You will either appreciate that or it will drive you slowly insane.  Or both.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I LOVE the first book and definitely recommend.  I think it stands up well on its own, though you will probably be left wanting more Yeine/Nahadoth.  Sorry, but you won’t find it in the sequels.

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: Queen of the Tearling/Invasion of the Tearling

I’m combining my review for the first 2 books in Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling series mostly because I can’t distinguish what happened in each one anymore (spoilers for both follow).

Queen of the Tearling (434 pages)

Basic plot follows Kelsea Raleigh, who has just turned 19, which obv means she is old enough to be in charge of a country.  She will be Queen of (you guessed it) the Tearling, one of several kingdoms founded after the Crossing.  Btw, the Crossing (don’t worry—you’ll hear about it A LOT) was William Tear’s big plan to form a utopian society after the present world order collapsed.  Not too much of a stretch, I suppose.

Major complications  to the coronation = everyone wants to kill Kelsea.  List of enemies includes:  her uncle, who wants the throne for himself; the Fetch, a thief/anarchist who happens to be incredibly good-looking; and the seemingly immortal Red Queen, ruler of neighboring Mortmesne.

Luckily, Kelsea has an extremely loyal and competent Queen’s Guard, led by Lazarus, aka the Mace.  What is incredibly irritating is that Lazarus is set up as a sort of father figure to Kelsea even though he’s really the only character I want her to hook up with.  Her “real” love interest is the Fetch, who is annoyingly self-righteous and quite possibly a sociopath.

Kelsea is living with her mother’s legacy, which is pretty awful.  After losing a war with Mortmesne, Kelsea’s mother saved the Tearling by regularly sending a shipment of slaves (made up of citizens of the Tearling) to the Red Queen.  Kelsea honorably does away with this policy, breaking all hell loose.

I read the first book really quickly—characters were interesting, plot was fast-paced, Red Queen was suitably terrifying, and there were several mysteries that kept me guessing.  …Which leads me to book 2…

Invasion of the Tearling (514 pages)

cover art for the book The Invasion of the Tearling

Kelsea starts becoming such a badass in book 1, which is part of what makes the second book so frustrating.  Not only does it become increasingly clear she is going to make a horrible bargain with the devil (like I think he honestly is a demon), but she also becomes ridiculously obsessed with the Fetch and decides to hook up with someone she isn’t particularly into because he rejects her.  FOR LIKE THE 30TH TIME.  Someone get this girl a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You.  The Fetch is even more of a dickbag in book 2, and not in an “I know it’s wrong, but I like it anyway” type of situation.

Additionally, the plot alternates between Kelsea’s storyline and the introduction of a previously unmentioned pre-Crossing character, Lily.  It’s hard not to feel bad for Lily, who is constantly victimized by a dystopian, Handmaid’s Tale­-type society where women have almost no rights.  However, it’s also really hard to actually like Lily, who remains completely oblivious to the suffering of those around her for a fucking long time.

This book also reminds you that the, ahem, hero who led everyone over in the Crossing thought it was a good strategy to put EVERY doctor and EVERY piece of medical equipment on one fucking ship…that SANK.  Brilliant plan, dude.

Also there’s the big reveal of a time travel thing that doesn’t make a ton of sense.

The Rating: 3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I did at least finish both books, and I will more than likely pick up the last one because I really want to know what happens (erm, mostly to the Mace).

However, I couldn’t help feeling the specifics of the Crossing hadn’t been hammered out before the series was written, making for a rather disjointed story in book 2 with some frankly desperate plot twists.

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: Bitch Planet, Vol. 1

I’m the worst at keeping up with book reviews, but look at me now.  Writing a review…like a month after I read this one.  Which doesn’t reflect my feelings toward this comic/graphic novel/I can never decide which term to use, Bitch Planet, Vol 1:  Extraordinary Machine by Kelley Sue DeConnick.

The premise is the stuff dreams are made of:  in the near future, non-compliant women are sent to a prison planet informally known as Bitch Planet.  You know you’re going to adore all of these characters, don’t you?  You also know your love is doomed.

In the beginning, we follow Marian, a married woman who insists this is all a mistake and her husband will be doing everything in his power to have her released.  There are some great point/counterpoint panels that support everything Marian says…until there’s a sudden dark turn.  Remember this series is called Bitch Planet, ok?

After our dramatic twist, it turns out Kamau is really our protagonist.  In addition to being a gifted fighter, Kamau has some sort of mysterious dark past b/c of course she does.  Her life on Bitch Planet is about to get even more unpleasant since she is framed for murder by the prison guards.  All of this happens because the Bitch Planet execs want Kamau to form a team that will fight to the death against a team formed by the prison.  It’s apparently a Bitch Planet tradition that makes them a lot of money.

a woman with an afro poses in a martial arts defensive position

So we’ve got a rigged futuristic football game to the death, which Kamau is pretty reluctant to participate in.  However, several of the other inmates convince her to form a team, which includes my faves Meiko and Penny.

Penny had a particularly difficult childhood—her mother was considered dangerous, and Penny was raised by her grandmother until age 8.  After her grandmother was arrested, Penny became a ward of the state.  In her adult life, Penny remains fiercely loyal to her family and becomes violent when provoked.  Not a reflection of idealized beauty, Penny nevertheless remains full of strength and self-confidence, never letting others define her.  She’s definitely my hero.

a woman with several pads and wires on her face proclaims "...And you bastards ain't never gonna break me"

It’s not a great idea to get too attached to any of the characters, though, as even the practice game of prisoners vs. guards ends in tragedy for our team.

You know even more shit is going down in volume 2 (which I’ve already pre-ordered).

Rating:  4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really enjoyed it, but there were times when I wanted to skip ahead to the fake newspaper at the end of each issue called Hey Kids, Patriarchy!  Not because there’s anything wrong with the main story plot but because the biting satire is at its strongest in these issues.

an advertisement for a large foam hand with the middle finger sticking up reads "We've got your spirit fingers right here"
books

Book Would You Rather

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for honestly months to years because I completely forgot to post it.  I don’t think the person I stole this from is even on WordPress anymore, though admittedly I’m an extremely unreliable blog neighbor.  Apologies if you’re still out there.

Either way, here goes Book Would You Rather at last!

books1
Image via Unsplash

Book Would You Rather

  1. Would you rather: read only trilogies or stand alones?

Standalones.  I usually avoid series because I HATE.  Waiting.

  1. Would you rather: read only female or male authors?

This one is the worst.  I’m going with female because of Margaret Atwood and Charlotte Brontë, but it kills me that I can’t invite Michael Chabon to the party.

  1. Would you rather: shop at Barnes & Noble or Amazon?

Amazon, for I am lazy and prefer to avoid human interaction whenever possible.

  1. Would you rather: all books become movies or TV shows?

TV shows because Kavalier & Clay would make the greatest show.

  1. Would you rather: read 5 pages per day or 5 books per week?

5 books/week.  Especially if that would mean I just stay at home and read books all of the time.

  1. Would you rather: be a professional reviewer or author?

Author, but reviewer is very tempting as I do like to read and provide scathing commentary.

  1. Would you rather: Only read your top 20 favorite books over and over or always read new ones that you haven’t read before?

Always read new ones.  It would be sad not to be able to revisit my favorites, but I have too many books on my TBR pile for that shit.

  1. Would you rather: be a librarian or book seller?

I AM a librarian.  And convincing people to buy things is not my strong suit, so I’m going to stick with my career decision.  Ask me tomorrow, though.

  1. Would you rather: only read your favorite genre, or every genre except your favorite?

Hmmmmm, as a genre denier, this is a rather difficult one for me.  I’d say only my favorite genre because my favorite genre changes A LOT.

  1. Would you rather: only read physical books or eBooks?

Physical books.  While eBooks appeal to my lazy nature, I despise staring at screens for hours on end (and fuck Paperwhite).

Feel free to participate, blog neighbors, but I hope you realize almost every one of these scenarios is a catch-22 if you love books.