Book Review: The Path to Peace: A Buddhist Guide to Cultivating Loving-Kindness by Ayya Khema

Image of a digital book cover. Golden light is behind a white cloud. The book's title is against the white cloud.

Learn about the Buddhist 15 Wholesome qualities and a collection of visualization-based loving-kindness meditations lovingly transcribed from talks given by Ayya Khema.

Summary:
Having escaped Nazi Germany in 1938, Ayya Khema has singularly profound perspective on creating peace, unconditional love, and compassion. She gently teaches that inner peace is not necessarily natural or innate. Instead, peace should be considered a skill that needs intentional practice—every day. Peace is the sum of many parts, namely the fifteen wholesome qualities the Buddha himself noted in the Metta Sutta, including usefulness, mildness, humility, contentment, receptivity, and others. In the first part of the book, Ayya Khema expertly guides us through each individual condition, using her trademark humor and personal narrative, to help each reader shape their own path to self-transformation. The second part of the book includes an eye-opening discussion of metta (loving-kindness) as both a morality and concentration practice, as well as ten meditation practices using visualizations.

Review:
Ayya Khema was an impactful Buddhist nun, who established a forest monastery in Australia, a training center for Sri Lankan nuns in Colombo, and a monastery and Buddhist center in Germany. Ayya Khema’s early life, escaping Nazi Germany with her Jewish family, could easily have led to bitterness. Instead she worked out of love to help others. While she wrote many books during her lifetime, this book was put together posthumously as transcripts from some of her talks.

The first part of the book is a transcript from a talk she gave on the Buddhist 15 Wholesome Qualities. I found this section to be ideal to read right before bed. Each Wholesome Quality was like reading a short devotion, and each section gave me something to think about as I fell asleep. Here is an example of the sort of discourse found in each section, from the section on the sixth Wholesome Quality – Mild:

Not looking after oneself, both mind and body is a lack of compassion, a lack of compassion for this person who is having all sorts of difficulties. And if we don’t look after ourselves, and aren’t mild towards ourselves, then it will be difficult to do this with others.

loc 324

This section also introduced to me to a new sutta I’d not heard of before – the Maha-Mangala sutta, which Ven. Khema states is popular in Asian Buddhist communities. Something I liked about how this speech is structured is while some content is there in its fullness, others are mentioned in passing, and if you’re interested you need to go look it up for yourself and study it. These aren’t talks for beginners – for instance, dukkha is never explained (it is the Buddhist term for suffering), but they helped me dive deeper into my studies in new ways.

The visualization-based loving-kindness meditations in the second part were interesting. I have seen some visualization-based loving-kindness meditations before, but I particularly liked “The Golden Light” and “Forgiveness” versions given here. This section is useful to both new and established meditators, as visualization is one of the more engaging forms of meditation for beginners, but also the different structure can introduce some variety to established meditators.

There were a few statements Ven. Khema made that I disagreed with, but that’s to be expected from any discourse. We don’t all agree on everything, that’s why it’s discourse. Nothing she said was something I found majorly disagreeable, just minor things like why people are shy, for example.

Overall, this was an interesting book of discourses from a well-respected Buddhist nun. The first part is perfect for bedtime reading, and the second part may be used either as an introduction to loving-kindness meditation or a way to introduce some variety to an already established practice.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 173 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Pray for a Brave Heart by Helen MacInnes

Image of a print book cover. A woman in a white dress holds a candlestick on a staircase. It is labeled "A haunting novel of romance and suspense."

A 1950s spy novel written by a woman that intermixes early Iron Curtain fears and post-WWII concerns about missing Nazi loot.

Summary:
It was 1953, and nothing could shake Bill Denning’s resolve to leave the army and return to the States. Nothing, except one of the largest diamond hauls ever – which, in the wrong hands, on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, was a potentially lethal force. In a small village in the Swiss mountains, Denning discovered that there was not only a jewelry robbery at stake. In the ruthless world of espionage and international conspiracy his adversaries were the most unlikely people – and the most dangerous.

Review:
I picked this up antiquing with the cover you see here, and a blurb that revealed that a woman was being watched by a chinless man, and nothing else. I was expecting a romantic suspense based on those two but instead this is a spy novel. I had no idea Helen MacInnes is known as the “Queen of Spy Writers.”

The book uses third person omniscient narration style, which I hadn’t read in a while. It was interesting to see how the intrigue managed to remain when perspectives shifted to essentially everyone in the scene. How could this be so, I wondered in retrospect? Well, in spite of being omniscient, we never take the perspective of the bad guys. So we only ever take the perspective of the good guys, none of whom have everything figured out. While we go inside all of the good guys’ heads, the perspectives we take the most often are Bill Denning, his friend’s wife Paula, and her friend from school days Francesca.

The narrative device works to subtly other the Communist characters. If a character is a Communist, we never enter their head. We never see their perspective. Francesca is the sole character who shows some empathy toward those with viewpoints different from her own, and the narrative is certain to punish her for that and have her see the error of her ways. It’s an interesting example both of the Red Scare era and how writing styles can be used to reenforce viewpoints.

I felt this book was low on action. A lot of the scenes are characters talking in a room together trying to puzzle out what’s going on. The last few chapters really picked up on the action, and I wished the rest of the book was action-packed like that. There’s even a couple of scenes where characters stop to read poetry or discuss Latin. On the one hand, the literary aspect was nice. I found myself checking out a book of translated German poetry from the library. But, on the other hand, I wouldn’t call that an action packed scene.

The Swiss and Berlin settings are beautifully rendered. You really feel as if you are there. I also liked the insertion of German phrases without explanation for what they mean. In books where characters are bilingual or traveling this should really be done more often. It gives more of a sense of the travel. Plus the reader can look up the phrases if they really want to.

Overall, this is a decent spy novel, if a bit slow-paced. It’s a good view into the Red Scare era. Others suggest that if you are interested in Helen MacInnes’s writing to start with one of her WWII spy novels such as Above Suspicion or Assignment in Brittany.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 284 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: purchased

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Book Review: The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Itō

February 27, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. Peach colored roses with thorns are painted on the background. The title is written in a cursive font in a dark brown.

One of Japan’s most prominent women writers writes of a contemporary woman’s life split between caring for her much older British husband in California and her aging parents in Japan and her three daughters in both places.

Summary:
The first novel to appear in English by award-winning author Hiromi Ito explores the absurdities, complexities, and challenges experienced by a woman caring for her two families: her husband and daughters in California and her aging parents in Japan. As the narrator shuttles back and forth between these two starkly different cultures, she creates a powerful and entertaining narrative about what it means to live and die in a globalized society.

Ito has been described as a “shaman of poetry” because of her skill in allowing the voices of others to show through her. Here she enriches her semi-autobiographical novel by channeling myriad voices drawn from Japanese folklore, poetry, literature, and pop culture. The result is a generic chimera—part poetry, part prose, part epic—a unique, transnational, polyvocal mode of storytelling. One throughline is a series of memories associated with the Buddhist bodhisattva Jizo, who helps to remove the “thorns” of human suffering.

Review:
I picked this up from my library’s new books shelf, and for some reason I misunderstood and thought it was creative nonfiction. Since the main character shares the author’s first name, I stayed under this belief for quite some time, right up until the main character does something that shocked me. Then I investigated and realized it’s fiction heavily inspired by the author’s own life. I mention this to say that this reads like very modern creative nonfiction. It’s a mix of poetry, vignettes, and factual asides and doesn’t use quotation marks ever. Each chapter ends with a note of what works inspired that particular chapter. I was honestly impressed at this fictional creative nonfiction.

While each chapter vaguely goes in order of a year or two or Hiromi’s life, each also explores other parts of her life. And some weeks may be dropped in-between. The point isn’t a linear story but rather an exploration of how Hiromi deals with being in the sandwich generation with the added factor of her husband being at least 20 years older than her and so, he is aging more rapidly than she and requires more caregiving than he might otherwise. Hiromi thus deals with universal themes of caring for others while struggling to care for yourself. Of trying to give space to others to make their own decisions about their lives while worrying about them and wanting them to stick around.

Another major theme is Hiromi’s global life. She’s Japanese, living part-time in California, raising three daughters all of whom are American, one of whom is biracial (it’s unclear from the story if the older two daughters are biracial or not), living with a husband who is a British immigrant to the US who is also an older generation than her. There are so many cultural and generational differences for Hiromi to deal with. She struggles with Japanese perceptions of her husband, her husband’s perceptions of Japan, her own daughter’s difficulties to speak Japanese fluently, and more. What I found the most interesting was her husband’s misguided belief that because she was Japanese she wasn’t religious at all, only to become very angry at her when he finds out she took their daughter to visit a shrine. He thinks of this as religious. She thinks of it as simply a way of being. This thus explores the very interesting question of how much, if any, of spirituality is cultural?

Jizo and Jizo’s shrine are interwoven throughout the book. Hiromi feels a particular affinity for Jizo and so we see her memories of the shrine and also see her visiting the shrine in present time. Jizo is a Bodhisattva who is believed to help relieve suffering. Bodhisattva is a term used in two ways. It can mean anyone who is working in this life toward enlightenment. But it also can mean souls that have attained enlightenment but delays going to nirvana to help ease the suffering of others. This book takes up the latter definition, because the main character most strongly identifies with Pure Land Buddhism, which is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that uses this definition of Bodhisattva. Although I have familiarity with Buddhism (as you can see in one of my short stories), I don’t think you have to in order to appreciate how Jizo is interwoven in the story. Hiromi is dealing with very difficult aspects of life, and when she’s struggling, she leans on a comfort from childhood – Jizo and his shrine. This is a very relatable emotional choice. It’s so relatable, in fact, that one cannot help but empathize with Hiromi when her husband struggles to understand why she feels an attachment to Jizo’s shrine when she’s dealing with her father’s aging and her mother’s slow death from a stroke. (Honestly, her husband is infuriating, even while you can see that he does indeed love Hiromi.)

As you can probably tell, this book does deal with difficult topics. Be aware that Hiromi’s mother’s stroke and its impact on her body is quite central to the story. Her father’s aging is depicted honestly, without any gentling of the more difficult aspects. Hiromi mentions in passing having had multiple miscarriages and abortions in the past. A character has a cancer scare that leads to a rather graphic scene of bleeding. Another character has a heart issue. Eating disorders are mentioned although not depicted graphically. Racism and xenophobia are both depicted on screen. Finally, and what was to me the most shocking, Hiromi engages in a violent act against her husband at one point. I thought all of these were dealt with in an even-handed and fair way except for how Hiromi treats her husband. That I felt was glossed over a bit too easily, especially for a character who believes suffering can come from a human killing spiders. Her lack of guilty feelings felt out of character to me.

Overall, this is an engaging read that merges creative nonfiction and fiction in fascinating ways and provides perspective on Japanese, American, and British cultures. For those less familiar with Japan, the translator offers an introduction to help understand what you might need to in order to enjoy the book fully. I also appreciate the translator’s note at the end that describes the translation process and how the author had some say in it.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 300 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

February 20, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A yellow background feature the title of the reviewed book in black and white.

A computer science professor discusses why working distraction-free can set you apart and how he applied these techniques in his own career.

Summary:
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Dividing this book into two parts, the author first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four “rules,” for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.

A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, Deep Work takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories-from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind, to a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free from distraction in the air-and no-nonsense advice, such as the claim that most serious professionals should quit social media and that you should practice being bored. 

Review:
A drive for traditional academic and corporate success tinges the majority of this book. But if you are able to see past it, there are some good facts and tips as well.

It’s easy to feel plagued by distraction in this world, no matter if your goals are traditional or nontraditional. Part of that is by design. Most of us at this point carry a smartphone, and they’re designed to be addictive. Even if your goal is to relax watching a movie with a loved one, you might find yourself reaching for your smartphone repeatedly throughout the movie instead of focusing on enjoying simply the movie and the moment with your loved one. Times of deep focus is what this book terms “deep work.”

A strength of this book is the discussion of the benefits of spending some time in a deep work (focus) state. It lets you master difficult things at a faster rate. It leads to greater satisfaction because when we’re unfocused we skew more toward pessimism rather than optimism. And, something I personally think should be talked about more, our worldview is based on what we pay attention to. So, we should be more mindful about what we are paying attention to. These are all good points and motivators to take the power back from addictive devices over our time. But then the author goes into a work-obsessed left field.

There is a palpable sense throughout this book that any negativity a worker may feel about their workplace is all down to the worker not focusing in the correct way. Even a simple mismatch between the worker and the work’s goals is somehow something the worker can just focus past in the author’s mind.

You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.

loc 1012

People deserve to do work that makes them feel good. And we are all blessed with different talents, skills, and gifts. A job might not suit one person but suit another. A job doesn’t need to be rarified to be satisfying. And a worker doesn’t need to be rarified to excel at their job. I might also question, why the pressure to excel? Why can’t we simply do our jobs well and complete the day satisfied?

Toward the end of the book, the author describes a year in which he really pushed himself as he was about to come up for tenure. He states that during this year he was “a deep work machine” (loc 2908). He literally thought about work in every spare moment – when going on walks, when raking leaves. He had at least one young child at home, and he still spent all this time engaged in deep thinking…about work. Why? Because he didn’t get an opportunity his colleagues did. He does at one point express that maybe he went a little too far, but he also discusses how much work success it brought him and seems generally pleased with the outcome. I find it interesting that he talks so much about bringing focus to his job but not about spending focused time with his child or wife, for example. In spite of the fact that the same techniques for focus he uses for work could be applied to many other aspects of our lives. But he only seems to see their use in climbing the academic crab bucket.

If we choose to see past the toxic application of focus in only career, what are the tips given in this book for developing focus? These are what stuck out to me. Schedule times of deep focus. When in your scheduled deep focus times, focus on things that are, to you, wildly important. Keep a tally of the deep focus time you have accomplished – not the tasks, but the time. Review this weekly to help yourself understand what’s interfering with your deep focus time and adapt. On the flip-side of scheduled focus times, schedule times for distraction. So, for example, pick a 30 minute window where you will browse Instagram, and that’s the only time you do it that day. To hone your skills, select a task you want to accomplish and set a timer for slightly less time to finish it than you think you will need. See if you can beat that time. This will help you focus more deeply and become faster over time.

Overall this book has some interesting explanations of why focus matters and tips on how to bring more focus into your life. But you will need to look past the lack of work/life balance present in many of the examples given, instead extracting solely what is best for your own focus goals in your own, well-balanced life.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 296 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: She and Her Cat by Makoto Shinkai and Naruki Nagakawa

February 13, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A Japanese woman is laying on her back in bed reading a book. A cat lays on her chest.

Interconnected short stories explore the relationships between women and their cats in a Japanese city.

Summary:
Lying alone on the edge of the sidewalk in an abandoned cardboard box, a nameless narrator contemplates the indifferent world around him. With his mother long gone, his only company is the sound of the nearby train. Just as he fears that the end is near, a young woman peers down at him, this fateful encounter changing their lives forever.

So begins the first story in She and Her Cat, a collection of four interrelated, stream-of-conscious short stories in which four women and their feline companions explore the frailty of life, the pain of isolation, and the limits of communication.

With clever narration alternating between the cats and their owners, She and Her Cat offers a unique and sly commentary on human foibles and our desire for connection. 

Review:
When I saw this collection of interconnected short stories about women and their cats, I couldn’t hit the request button fast enough. One of my favorite short story collections is James Herriott’s Cat Stories. I’m always on the lookout for something similar. This delivered in more ways than I was anticipating. I didn’t realize the stories would be interconnected, and that really adds something to the collection as a whole. Makoto Shinkai is a well-known animator and filmmaker. His most recent anime is Suzume no Tojimari but this book was actually originally an anime short in 1999 as well.

The stories alternate between a human and a cat perspective. Whether it’s a human or a cat is indicated by the section break. If it’s a human, it’s a usual decorative scene break. If it’s a cat, it’s the silhouette of a cat. The first story opens from the perspective of a cat who is the runt of a litter in a cardboard box listening to the sound of a train. The cat is clearly about to die but then a woman’s face appears and takes him in. He becomes an indoor/outdoor cat. I won’t spoil the trajectory of the whole story, but where the interconnectedness comes in is that this cat (Chobi) meets a young cat while outside who shows him a woman who feeds her fish when she shows up in her yard. The next story is then this cat’s perspective. And so all of the stories have these connections between the cats, but also slowly the humans come to be connected, largely thanks to their cats.

The stories offer subtle but insightful commentary both into universal aspects of human nature and into more specific aspects of Japanese culture that impacts these women’s lives. I’m not an expert by any means on Japan, but I do know, for example, that there’s a problem with toxic work cultures where people stay at the office overnight and don’t come home. This is one of the issues addressed in the stories. The animals also offer commentary on human nature and bigger life questions (like what happens after we die). it reminded me a little of animal fables in that it was the animals offering these lessons to each other, wanting to help humans, and yet the humans couldn’t understand them.

Where the stories really shine, though, is in showing the relationship between, as the book says, she and her cat. The unconditional love of the cats for their owners is heart-wrenching and left me near tears. This line in particular shone to me. It’s from the perspective of a cat with an owner who is struggling with loneliness.

I couldn’t do anything about her problems. I just lived my days at her side.

loc 443

There were two things that held me back from five stars. First, sometimes I did get confused about who was speaking. This is because in some stories it’s not just the owner who is a human perspective. So it’s not a straightforward swap back and forth between the cat and her owner – sometimes there were other humans in there too. Second, one male cat calls his owner his girlfriend and that gave me the heebie-jeebies. Perhaps that was a translation issue, though.

Overall, this is a delightful collection of short stories that is sure to please any cat lover. With full page illustrations throughout, it would make a great gift.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 144 pages – novella

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Broke the Bread, Spilled the Tea by Mitchell Kesller

February 6, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A black background has a white line drawing of a mouth eating bread while a cup of tea spills beneath them.

A bisexual, Christian man explores how he came to a queer-affirming version of his faith.

Summary:
The Christian Church has long been one of the most influential institutions in society. Self-proclaimed as God’s representatives on earth, it is ironic to see how a faith of love and inclusion has been the source of wars, genocides, slavery, and oppression throughout the ages. In an era of misinformation and blind faith, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at the Bible and “judge by the fruits” of what is real and what is not. Broke the Bread, Spilled the Tea aims to explore one of Christianity’s most marginalized groups and breaks down exactly what the Bible says about queerness through a contextual, historical, and lexicological lens. Bridging the gap between identity and faith is possible when we conclude that perhaps the God preached on the Sunday pulpits isn’t the fullness of who He actually is.

From an author deep in the trenches,
I’ve broken the bread,
it’s time to spill the tea.

Review:
There’s a big divide in the various sects of Christianity about what to say and do about us queer people. Some say simply being queer is an abomination. Some say it’s ok to be queer but you must not act on it. And some are affirming churches – that say being queer is how God made us, and He loves us just the way we are. Catholicism’s response to queerness is a mixture of tradition, catechism, and what the Pope says. (It has tended to come down on it’s ok to be queer as long as you’re celibate.) Protestant sects, in contrast, make their decisions based on interpretations of the Bible. Mitchell was raised Protestant, and this is a Protestant exploration of queerness. Thus, it is largely rooted in interpretations of the Bible and focuses a large part on the clobber passages. These are 6 (or 7, depending on who you ask) passages in the Bible that non-affirming interpretations view as condemning queerness, whereas affirming churches view as not doing that. I tried to find a neutral explanation of the clobber passages but could not. So here is one from a non-affirming viewpoint. Here is one from an affirming viewpoint.

Kesller starts the book with a memoir chapter, explaining who he is, his upbringing, and how he came to his affirming viewpoint (without the fine details – those are covered later in the book). I found it particularly interesting that his perspective is of a bisexual person. I know as a bisexual person myself that often people find it difficult to understand why I couldn’t just let go of my queer identity and pass. Kesller does a great job of articulating why that wasn’t possible for him, and I found it quite relatable. Another interesting aspect of his perspective is that he immigrated to the US from Brazil as a child, so his childhood church experience wasn’t the pasty-white version of Evangelicalism you usually see on the news. In general, Kesller has a humble, relatable tone throughout the book. He’s not preachy. He’s just trying to share his own journey of how he personally came to understand the Bible and Christianity generally and the clobber passages specifically.

After the memoir section, the chapters explore the ancient church, how we got the Bible, and how God is represented in the Bible. Only then does Kesller go into the clobber passages. I like that he gives context to this exploration. Too often people dive right into Bible verses with no surrounding context whatsoever. I appreciate how Kesller tries to focus on the big picture of who Jesus is, what his message was, and what that means for Christians. I think some of his points on the clobber passages are stronger than others – and that’s coming from an affirming person. This is to say….I think some of the apologetics need some work. But that’s not really a critique because this is his own personal journey, not an apologetics book. There are other books out there if that’s what you’re looking for. (Clobber the Passages or UnClobber spring to mind.)

Interestingly, I think the greatest strength of this book is in calling out modern day Protestant churches for falling into Pharisee like behavior – being focused on religiosity rather than living lives of radical caring. The two quotes that I think really demonstrate this are these:

More often than not, we see Jesus living out a ministry of relationships rather than one of religiousness.

loc 299

The Church often tries to eliminate a symptom without treating the underlying cause.

loc 1829

I also think this book could be really useful in trying to help build a bridge between a non-affirming family member and an affirming one. It answers the question of “how can you both be happily queer and a Christian” in a gentle manner.

Overall, I appreciate Kesller’s bravery in writing this book and being so open about his own life and faith journey.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codes. Thank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 157 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

January 30, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A woman holding a guitar has her mouth wide open singing or screaming. The title of the book runs over her eyes so we can't fully make out her face. The cover is in shades of brown, yellow, green, and blue.

An eerily prescient book that came out in September of 2019 that looks at a future where stay at home orders in response to both bombing attacks and a deadly virus mean performing music live for a crowd is illegal.

Summary:
In the Before, when the government didn’t prohibit large public gatherings, Luce Cannon was on top of the world. One of her songs had just taken off and she was on her way to becoming a star. Now, in the After, terror attacks and deadly viruses have led the government to ban concerts, and Luce’s connection to the world—her music, her purpose—is closed off forever. She does what she has to do: she performs in illegal concerts to a small but passionate community, always evading the law.

Rosemary Laws barely remembers the Before times. She spends her days in Hoodspace, helping customers order all of their goods online for drone delivery—no physical contact with humans needed. By lucky chance, she finds a new job and a new calling: discover amazing musicians and bring their concerts to everyone via virtual reality. The only catch is that she’ll have to do something she’s never done before and go out in public. Find the illegal concerts and bring musicians into the limelight they deserve. But when she sees how the world could actually be, that won’t be enough.

Review:
I wouldn’t have been too surprised if this vision of a dystopian future was written during the height of the pandemic then came out recently. What intrigued me about this book was that it was published in September of 2019. It both predicted stay at home orders and density rules and imagines what would have happened if they’d never been lifted. In an interview in Marie Claire, Pinsker graciously states that this is simply a risk of writing about the near future. Indeed, she’s correct. Near future scifi is about paying attention to the current and predicting where we might end up soon – whether dystopic, hopepunk, or somewhere in-between. Pinsker certainly had her finger on the pulse of both risks and what responses to those risks might be given our technology.

She was a note that hadn’t ever known it fit into a chord.

page 213

While the book is certainly about the risk/reward balance and how to live in a satisfying way, it also is drenched in music and musical references. It was obvious to me that Pinsker is a musician, and I wasn’t surprised at all to look it up later and see she’s an indie rocker. If you’re a musician who wants to see music accurately represented in fiction, just stop reading this review now and go pick up this book. It’s the best integration of music from a musician’s perspective I’ve ever seen in a fiction book.

Another element of this book that is a wise storytelling choice is the dual perspective from Luce and Rosemary. Luce remembers the Before very well. The bombings and pandemic ripped away her success just as she was taking off. Rosemary barely remembers the Before, because she’s about 15 years younger than Luce. She remembers a baseball game at a stadium. But mostly she remembers being in the hospital with the Pox. Luce is able to remember all that was good and not actually that dangerous about Before. But Rosemary is able to see the parts of Now that are good – and there are parts that are. For example, the ability of rural people and people who can’t travel to go see Graceland (and other cultural places) in Hoodspace. There’s one scene in particular where Rosemary argues with Luce about how Hoodspace isn’t all bad that reminded me of some people speaking excitedly about being able to go back to conferences just the way they were before, while people with disabilities tried to get them to listen to the fact that joining things remotely meant they weren’t being left out any longer and how much they didn’t want to lose that. Without spoilers, an important part of the plot is Luce and Rosemary having to figure out together how to take the best from both and make a better future.

An important theme of the book is the balance of staying safe with still being able to live a fulfilling life. Who gets to decide what’s too risky? What actually is too risky? And isn’t that something that’s fluid? Are things that were once risky always risky? And aren’t things that were once safe sometimes too risky for a time? This is definitely a book that comes down on the side of part of life is taking some risks.

Now she understood how much she’d missed; how much had been taken from her in the name of safety and control.

page 268

While this isn’t a book about being queer, it is a book by a queer author full of queer characters. Luce and Rosemary both are attracted to women. Their relationships are mentioned when relevant to the plot but there’s no big coming out arc for either. Also, you can tell this was written by a queer person because Luce and Rosemary are not automatically attracted to each other just because they both happen to be women who are into women. Love to see that. A flaw I often see in books with queer characters by straight author is this idea that all women who are into women are automatically attracted to each other. That’s….not how it works. So I found the representation to be quite authentic. It’s just people living their lives who happen to be queer.

I also want to mention that Luce is Jewish, originally from an Orthodox community that she became ostracized from due to her sexuality. The author is herself Jewish, and I trust people to represent their own faiths and cultures well. I will say, much like the queer representation, there was one scene where Luce thinks about Rosh Hashanah’s in the past after seeing some people throwing paper into the river, and I found it very moving.

Overall, this is a scifi book about a dystopian future written by a queer, Jewish musician. It thus brings authentic representation to all three of these and tells a universal story about balancing safety with risk and using technology to accentuate our lives.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne

January 23, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A high level view of a room with a large fireplace and a wall of bookshelves. There are plants near the rafters. Two people sit in cozy chairs near the fireplace.

A sapphic (wlw) cozy fantasy where a woman commits treason by running away from her lifelong job as the Queen’s private guard to start a remote tea shop with her girlfriend.

Summary:
After an assassin takes Reyna hostage, she decides she’s thoroughly done risking her life for a self-centered queen. Her girlfriend Kianthe, the most important mage in all of the land, seizes the chance to flee responsibility. Together, they settle in Tawney, a town nestled in the icy tundra of dragon country, and open the shop of their dreams.

What follows is a cozy tale of mishaps, mysteries, and a murderous queen throwing the realm’s biggest temper tantrum. In a story brimming with hurt/comfort and quiet fireside conversations, these two women will discover just what they mean to each other… and the world.

Review:
This might be the first time I’ve ever impulse read a book on my kindle’s “recommended for you” list. I was precisely in the mood for something lighthearted and escapist, and none of my library books or currently owned ebooks fit that bill. When I saw this title, I laughed. Then I read the description and, delighted to see it was a cozy fantasy, decided to give it a whirl. (What exactly is cozy fantasy? It’s a newly defined genre, but I like the devoted Reddit subgroup’s definition. The Kenosha Public Library is a little more specific in their definition.)

I mostly expected a plot about opening a tea shop in a fantastical land with dragons. That was really one of three plots. The other two involve Reyna’s treason and Kianthe’s role as the most powerful mage. It was a little more high stakes than I was expecting. People’s lives are at stake at quite a few points. It didn’t particularly stress me out, but I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of – oh no we’re out of honey and can’t get anymore for a month because the dragons are blocking supply chains – sort of thing. That said, even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it was still a relaxing, escapist read to me.

I like the main couple. They have a sweet dynamic with things to overcome. Mainly that Reyna was raised to a role of servitude to those born to power, and Kianthe was born to power. Reyna has to come to understand her worth, and Kianthe does amazingly supporting her through that. I also loved the dragons and griffons. There are two nonbinary secondary characters, both of whom use they/them pronouns. Although the word isn’t used, it’s strongly hinted at that a secondary character who is a woman married to a man is bisexual.

Kianthe is a woman of color, although I personally was left confused by what exactly her skin tone is. It is described as “the color of drying clay” (page 42). I checked on Writing With Color’s skin tone guide, and they do suggest clay as a reference. From the picture on their page, I think it’s supposed to denote reddish-brown. For me, though, when I was reading, I thought of gray clay. Writing With Color does state that creative descriptions can be confusing to the reader and suggests using additional descriptives to help. I don’t think drying brings much clarity to the sentence. Who’s really stood around watching clay dry? They also suggest to consider the associations that come up with a word. Clay is malleable, and I think Kianthe is anything but. Similarly, while Reyna’s hair is described many times as the typical shimmery blonde, I’m still not sure what Kianthe’s looked like due to a lack of description.

The tea shop itself ends up being a giant room full of plants that Kianthe keeps magically alive in the cold climate. I loved that aspect of it. The tea itself is largely inspired by our own world’s tea, and the goodies are essentially the same as here as well. The only exception being bagels with “creamed cheese.” The bagels are treated as kind of exotic and that confused me. Why are bagels exotic and not the scones? Why is cream cheese spelled differently and not bagels? One other thing that bugged me so much I ran an Instagram poll about it is that the tea shop owners make tea incorrectly. They add tea bags to cups of hot water. While this is totally fine in one’s own home when using a microwave and in a hurry, the proper way to make tea is by pouring the hot water over the leaves. Only one respondent in my entire poll said they do it the other way around, and they messaged me to tell me they do it that way because they have to microwave their water. This is a nice tea shop, and Reyna and Kianthe don’t make tea correctly! It hurt my escapism a bit. I wanted scenes of making various types of tea in the various different ways required. I wanted a matcha whisk and special timers for different steep times and different pots for black tea and green tea and herbal tisanes. I wanted Kianthe and Reyna to offer to make special mixes for customers based on something about them like this one tea shop in Portland, Maine did for me once. Essentially, I wanted less book time spent on the stakes and more on the tea. Bonus points if there was a fantastical tea with some wild steep requirements like, I don’t know, you have to add a molted scale from a dragon.

Overall, this is a different fantasy read featuring a w/w couple at the lead. It’s a fun universe to visit and was escapist for me. Recommended to readers looking for a quick, light read who don’t mind some stakes in their cozy.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 339 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Kindle Unlimited

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Book Review: Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

January 16, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A white woman with a high bun stares at two nearly identical photos of palm trees.

Revisit the land of Sliding Doors in this exploration of two different paths one life can take due to one decision.

Summary:
At the age of twenty-nine, Hannah Martin still has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She has lived in six different cities and held countless meaningless jobs since graduating college. On the heels of leaving yet another city, Hannah moves back to her hometown of Los Angeles and takes up residence in her best friend Gabby’s guestroom. Shortly after getting back to town, Hannah goes out to a bar one night with Gabby and meets up with her high school boyfriend, Ethan.

Just after midnight, Gabby asks Hannah if she’s ready to go. A moment later, Ethan offers to give her a ride later if she wants to stay. Hannah hesitates. What happens if she leaves with Gabby? What happens if she leaves with Ethan?

In concurrent storylines, Hannah lives out the effects of each decision. 

Review:
I consider the 1998 movie Sliding Doors to be a cult classic. Whether or not you agree, the term “a sliding doors moment” has entered the lexicon, meaning a moment in a character’s life where their seemingly innocuous decision has far-reaching impact on how their life plays out. I had been curious to read a Taylor Jenkins Reid book. The mention of her name stirs up controversy. Some folks love her work. Others find it problematic. I wanted to read one for myself to see. I thought it would be the most fair to read the one that appealed to me the most, and that was this one.

I found it to be an enjoyable piece of contemporary chick lit. To be fair, it’s hard for a book with a sliding doors moment to turn me off. I just love the idea so much. Evidence of this fact is how much time this book spends in a location I dislike, the fact that I didn’t like either of the potential love interests, and that health sciences careers are featured prominently…which is something I prefer not to visit in my leisure reading. But I still gave it four stars. Because I just love the sliding doors moment so much. So for me it was an enjoyable read. But after the fact, I did get to thinking about the things I didn’t like, and it left me kind of scratching my head as to why I enjoyed it so much. Beyond the fact it was simply just really lighthearted, which I needed at the moment.

A non-controversial issue I had with it is that I don’t think the sliding doors moment is really in the spirit of a sliding doors moment. In the movie that gave us the phrase, it’s literally simply whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow’s character catches a subway train or has to wait for the next one. Whether the doors slide closed in her face or not. In this one, it’s whether or not the main character stays at a bar with her high school ex-boyfriend after not seeing him for years and moving back to town. That just simply feels like a life-defining moment in a way that catching or missing a subway train (that usually come a few minutes apart) does not.

To address some of the criticism about how Taylor Jenkins Reid, a white woman writer, handles race. I want to be crystal clear – I’m a white woman author too. So this is not a critique from a BIPOC voice. I can see what the author is trying to do. She’s trying to be inclusive and accurately reflect the diverse world of LA. But I can also see why how she depicts race rubs some people the wrong way – and this isn’t one of the books where the main character is a woman of color. Hannah is white. So I can see how it would be more of an issue in one of those books. The biggest issue in this book to me is that characters are default white unless Taylor Jenkins Reid describes them as not white. (Andrea J. Johnson discusses this in point 3 of her very insightful post from the perspective of a Black woman author on writing race.) She does mention Hannah is white, but every other character defaults to white unless described otherwise. Hannah’s best friend is Black, and there is a cringe moment where Hannah asks her in a flashback if her new college friend is a closer friend because she’s Black too. On the one hand, I appreciate flawed characters. On the other hand, I’m not sure why that scene was even included. It was part of introducing how Hannah and Gabby are best friends but Hannah is white and Gabby is Black and it’s no big deal. Interracial friendships are great and belong in literature! But how it was handled in this book definitely made me cringe.

A related moment that made me cringe, is when Hannah and Gabby lay in a bed together and just wish they weren’t straight so they could just simplify their lives and remove all men and just be together tee-hee! As a bisexual, queer woman this makes me see red. It’s not an endearing moment. It’s not cute. I absolutely loathe it when straight women do things like this. Because, as someone who is capable of being attracted to many genders, what keeps a friendship from progressing to a romantic relationship isn’t at all simply what body parts someone has. With my really good friends whose sexual orientations line up with mine, what kept us from becoming romantic partners was far more nuanced than that. At its simplest, it’s that romantic love and friend love are not the same thing, and I’m not in romantic love with them. (I am in romantic love with my spouse.) I have to admit, I didn’t read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo because it has a bisexual main character, and I knew Taylor Jenkins Reid is straight, and I just was not in the mood for dealing with questionable representation. Having read this book and this moment, I think I made the right choice for me.

I was also left confused about what the book’s message is about fate. Without spoilers, there are three hugely impactful aspects of a person’s life – whether or not they partner, if they do with whom, and what their career is. Some of these are the same in both lives and some of them are not. What is this saying about fate, then? I found the mixed message puzzling, especially when Gabby’s life seemed nearly identical in both storylines.

Overall, while I found this to be a fluffy and very readable book, in retrospect I’m left wondering how I managed to enjoy it so much. There are cringey moments in it, and even the sliding doors moment itself is a bit too big to really count. From what I’ve seen in this book, I can see why there’s controversy. I think I’ll be getting my fluffy reads from other sources in the future. Recommended if you’re a sliding doors moment enthusiast who really wants to have consumed all the media out there with such a moment.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 342 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Foundling by Ann Leary

Image of a digital book cover. A blueish greenish gloom settles over a vista of the tops of connected buildings with one light glowing in one window.

It’s 1927, and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle thinks she’s found her way to independence and success when she starts working as a secretary for a woman doctor at a remote institute for mentally disabled women. But not everything is as it appears to be at Nettleton State.

Summary:
It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing AgeShe’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Review:
I read Ann Leary’s contemporary fiction The Good House last winter (review) and was excited to read her new one and further intrigued to see it was a piece of historic fiction. In spite of being very different from that piece of contemporary fiction, this book lived up to it quite well with richly imagined settings, complex and flawed characters, and an honest depiction of alcohol.

The author discovered this aspect of history – the forced institutionalization of women deemed “feebleminded” in the 1920s for the express eugenics purpose of preventing them from having children – while researching her own family genealogy. (Please be aware that “feebleminded” is a pejorative in modern times. In the 1920s, it was a term used clinically to classify patients.) Her grandmother worked briefly as a secretary at such an institution. The author was made curious by the name of the institution and thus the research that led to this novel was borne. Read more about her perspective on the research process, connection to her family, and the history of this treatment of women.

One of my favorite aspects of Leary’s writing is the characters. She’s not afraid to let them be flawed. In this case, the flaws are partially a reflection of the flaws of the times and partially innate to the characters themselves. No one in this book is perfect, and yet you find yourself rooting for them anyway. It can be difficult from a modern perspective to understand why Mary’s initial reaction to the asylum is positive. Or why she doesn’t trust or believe Lillian right away. But this book does an eloquent job of showing why that is, for personal and societal reasons, and letting Mary grow and change on her own.

Another strength is in making the horrific problems clear without dwelling on them in a gratuitous way. By the end of the book, the reader knows exactly what’s wrong as the asylum, but it remained straight-forward and succinct about it. I dislike it when historical books about difficult issues have scenes that feel like they could have come from a Saw movie. This book avoids that well.

The book also highlights the very serious issues for interracial couples. But there is an interfaith couple for whom the same attention isn’t paid. It felt a bit pie in the sky to not directly address the issues facing a Jewish/Catholic couple in the 1920s. Especially when the Catholic half of the couple is serious enough about her faith that she attends weekly Mass and worries about when she can have Confession. This is a level of seriousness about her faith that made me question how she seemed to not worry at all about the issues facing her in an interfaith relationship. Given the attentive detail given to the interracial couple, it felt even more like a weakness.

I was interested as to how the author would handle alcohol in this 1920s historic piece given The Good House is largely about a woman struggling with alcoholism. Alcohol is not the focus of the book, but it is featured in ways that are realistic to the 1920s. In other words, while Prohibition is still in existence during the book, alcohol is pervasive in society. The downfalls of alcohol are well depicted, again, without being too gratuitous.

Overall, this is a well-researched and crafted piece of historic fiction that covers difficult ground with grace. Recommended to fans of historic fiction. But keep in mind the romance is a subplot in this one.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)