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Book Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

Cover of the book The Conductors.

Summary:
Hetty Rhodes was once enslaved, but she ran away with her sister, only her sister was caught while she escaped. She began returning south to try to free her sister, but with her repeated trips became a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, alongside a man named Benjy, using their magic to help others escape. Now the Civil War is over and she and Benjy, who is now her husband, have built a life for themselves in Philadelphia. He’s a blacksmith, she’s a seamstress, and they both solve crimes in their spare time that the white authorities can’t be bothered with. When one of their friends turns up dead in an alley, their investigation takes them throughout Black Philadelphia on a hunt for answers.

Review:
The premise of the worldbuilding for this book reminded me of Thieftaker (review), the first in the Thieftaker Chronicles, which I really enjoyed, only set in the 1800s rather than the 1700s and with a Black woman lead rather than a white man. I say this as I was excited and thought this was a good thing. I remember thinking at the time that I wished there were more alternate history fantasy books and I was excited when the next one I saw brought such diversity to the genre.

I liked the magic in this book. I thought it was a great analogy for colonizing culture versus Black and Indigenous culture. The colonizing culture (Sorcery) requires the use of tools (wands) but the wands make that magic very powerful. The Black and Indigenous cultures use Celestial magic, which doesn’t require tools (they draw sigils instead). It can become very powerful but takes more study and time to become so. Anyone with magic being able to pick up a wand and wreak some havoc with very little knowledge as an analogy for weapons like guns I thought was great.

The book also demonstrates the community the Black folks of Philadelphia built up, which included those who freed themselves by running away, those who were freed by the Civil War, and those who were born free. There is a male/male relationship included among Hetty’s friend group, as well as a woman who experienced infertility and adopted a baby.

What didn’t work for me was the order in which the plot was told. The book starts in post-Civil War Philadelphia with Hetty and Benjy (her husband) working together to solve cases, in much the same way they used to work together as Conductors on the Underground Railroad. How Hetty escaped, met Benjy, and how they worked together as Conductors was told through a series of broken up flashbacks throughout the book. For me, this didn’t work. I was much more heavily invested in the stories being told in the flashbacks than in the present mystery, largely because a lot of the present storytelling relied upon the relationship between Hetty and Benjy and, without the full flashbacks, I had no understanding of the relationship between Hetty and Benjy. I needed to know why they were, for example, married but just for propriety’s sake. I needed to know why they decided to work together as Conductors in the first place. What finally pushed them to get married? I was so confused and felt so much like I was dropped into the middle of a pre-existing world that I went and double-checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally started with the second book in a series. Characters, even beyond Benjy and Hetty, kept talking about things that had recently happened in a way that felt like they had happened in a previous book. For example, the character who adopted a baby, the line about that felt like how the second book in a series will remind you of what happened in the first with that having been a key plot point in the first. I would say, in general, that for me, everything would have worked better if the first book in the series had been how Hetty and Benjy met and became Conductors together, maybe ending with them solving their first case as investigators after the War. Then this could have been the second book, perhaps with some additional flashbacks to inform us of some things from during the War.

I am sure that there are others that will read that paragraph and think “oh I like that vibe,” and that’s great. I hope this review helps this book find its audience. For me, though, I simply don’t like being dropped into the middle of the story.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

December 29, 2020 Leave a comment

Summary:
17-year-old Enchanted Jones has been making it work at her new highschool in the suburbs where she’s the only Black girl. She has a good reputation on the swim team, and she takes care of her little siblings after school while her mom and dad work to afford their kids’ private schooling and their new house. But what Enchanted really wants to do is sing – an idea her parents aren’t too fond of. When she goes to a reality tv show audition, she meets R&B singer Korey Fields. He takes a shine to her, but that might not be the good thing she thinks it is.

Review:
I read this book in less than 24 hours because I simply could not stop thinking about Enchanted and needed to find out what happened in her world. This book both manages to be about important issues but also doesn’t feel like it’s an “issues” book. It’s Enchanted’s story, and that happens to involve today’s issues because today’s issues are real.

This book is about a lot of things, but many of the things it’s about come right back around to how society treats Black girls. How we treat them like they are grown up, when they are still children. This book beautifully depicts how truly adolescent Enchanted is – something that many of our adolescents are not allowed to be but Black girls especially. Enchanted is interested in boys and has feelings about them but she also loves Disney movie night with her little siblings. She has big dreams of stardom but she also just misses seeing her grandmother and swimming with her in the ocean. She has typical adolescent breakthrough moments of realizing what you saw and thought was beautiful as a child might actually be something else. This book asks us to believe girls, but to believe Black girls especially, because so many others will just look at them and say “oh they knew what they were doing, they were grown.”

The book is also about how wealthy abusers groom girls and take advantage of their wealth and power to separate girls from their families. The abuse depicted in this book is realistic and depicts emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and could be a trigger, so please do note that. That said, the author depicts just enough abuse for us to know what’s going on, but it never feels gratuitous or unnecessary.

While this is YA, it has important content for adults too, especially if you regularly come into contact with adolescents. Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

October 31, 2020 2 comments

Summary:
Grayson Sikes is a new private investigator and is taking on one of her first cases, but it’s looking for a man’s ex-girlfriend who doesn’t seem to want to be found. She’s not too keen on trying to find a woman who wants to be gone.

Review:
Do you love black-and-white film noir but wish there was a story with a woman PI? How about a Black woman PI written by an own voices author? How about we get some actual backstory on the PI to find out just why she’s so hard-boiled anyway? And how about a femme fatale is also a Black woman? Then this, my friend, is the book for you.

I was utterly delighted to have a noir with, for once, a different case of characters but that still fits the genre’s markers. There’s even an excellent scene of Grayson pensively taking in the LA skyline with a note that its rich colors are the result of wildfires. I am here for this!

On that note, Grayson is not shy from telling it like it is. She’ll call out the wildfires. She’ll wonder if a witness is describing someone as disagreeable because she’s actually disagreeable or because that’s how Black women can be unfairly perceived. She’ll wonder if an ex-boyfriend really just wants his dog back or if it’s about control. She’ll wonder if the elderly neighbor lady is actually helpful or a busybody. Grayson’s questions are part of what makes her a good PI.

I do want to give a content warning that part of Grayson’s backstory includes both domestic violence and miscarriage [not a plot spoiler], so do please be aware if you prefer to avoid those topics.

Overall, as a fan of noir, I was delighted by finally getting some representation in this story. It both was fun to see and also made the story less predictable and more unique. More variety is a good thing! Pick this up if you love noir and want more or if you’ve never thought it was your jam because of the dripping masculinity. This twists expectations about gender in noir on its head.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 395 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

September 20, 2020 1 comment

Summary:
Member of the Potawatomi Nation and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer presents a series of essays on plants of North America, incorporating some memoirs from her life and her daughter’s recollections as well.

Review:
It’s difficult to describe how meaningful this book is. The description sounds so simple and yet, to me, it is a collection of scientific and Indigenous knowledge intertwined as near poetry. As an urban gardener who grew up rural among farms, I think of myself as plant knowledgeable, but I was humbled by this book. I also teach, and I found her ruminations on teaching and balancing teaching other people’s children versus your own to be beautifully honest. This book takes time to get through but because of the rich meaning in each essay. You find yourself wanting to savor it.

As a person who feels both spiritually and scientifically minded, this book spoke to me on a mind and soul level simultaneously in ways I cannot fully describe. I wish there was greater focus on teaching this way. I wish the two were not divorced from each other in our society. I think it would be healing to us all and to nature as well if they were not.

Allow me to try to pull out a few meaningful quotes to me by theme.

On morality, contentment, and consumerism:

Refusal to participate is a moral choice.

Transformation is not accomplished by tentative wading at the edge.

Balance is not a passive resting place.

In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition.

The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as “quality of life” but eats us from within.

On teaching and being taught:

The professor made me doubt where I came from, what I knew, and claimed that his was the right way to think.

Teach any who will come.

I’d left my baby girls at home with their dad in order to introduce other people’s children to something they cared little about.

Facts about plants that fascinated me, include that a 3 sisters garden [growing corn, beans, and squash together the Indigenous way] yields more food than if you grew each alone, polycultures are less susceptible to pest outbreaks than monocultures, breathing in the smell of humus (the dirt, not the food) releases oxcytocin, and lichens are actually two beings together (a fungus and an alga). I also learned:

Sweetgrass thrives where it is used and disappears elsewhere.

Plantain is not indigenous but naturalized. It’s so prevalent and well-integrated that we think it’s native.

Estuaries can have the highest biodiversity and productivity of any method.

Forest ecologists estimate that the window of opportunity for cedars to get started occurs perhaps only twice a century.

I hope I have made you intrigued by this book. I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy after starting off with a digital library copy.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 391 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Book cover depicting a Black woman's face set against a starry sky.Summary:
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

Review:
I went into this book hearing it was a space opera take on the American antebellum south with queer characters, written by a Black American author. That was an apt description, but what I didn’t know was that Aster is neurodiverse, and that was the finishing touch that really sent me over the moon about this book. So let’s talk about Aster first.

Aster is clearly autistic. (I am using this language, rather than person-first based on the wishes of the overall autistic community). Being autistic is just a part of who she is at her core of her being. It’s not perceived as something to be overcome or a superpower. There are parts of her autism that are strengths and parts that are weaknesses. Her ability to learn in-depth about plants and their healing powers is a strength and her tendency to take people literally and miss the point is a weakness, but only in situations where others aren’t considerate of how she perceives the world. When they are considerate and think about how to frame what they say in a way Aster will understand, it is totally fine. I loved everything about Aster. I want more books starring people like her with the representation handles so smoothly.

Other representations that exist in the book in beautiful ways include, but are not limited to: asexual, bisexual, trans*, lesbian, and a wide variety of abilities and disabilities.

The intermingling of spaceship and Antebellum American south was heartbreaking. Imagine everything about how Starship Enterprise is largely a utopia and turn that on its head, and you have the MatildaIt’s not that systemic inequality is not already clear to me, but I do think depicting it on the confines of a spaceship heightens the awareness of it seeps throughout everything.

The mourning of a child’s murder is not one of my moods, so please do not dismiss it thus.
[location 71%]

Although I think it should be obvious from the fact this is telling a story of the Antebellum south in outerspace, I do want to give trigger warnings for rape, abuse, violence, executions, and torture (all things that of course happened in the Antebellum south and anyplace with systemic inequality).

Everything about this was simultaneously richly imagined and depicting the diverse world we really do live in. I thought this was gorgeous and hope to meet Aster again (or someone like her) in future worlds by Rivers Solomon.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 351 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: White Ivy by Susie Yang

Book cover for White Ivy, featuring a Chinese woman from the nose down.Summary:
Ivy Lin isn’t sure of much of what she wants and never has been except for one thing – she wants Gideon Speyer. She fondly remembers his birthday party when she was 14 that she sneaked out to attend. Her parents pulled her away, sent her to China to visit relatives, and had moved to New Jersey by the time she got back. As an adult first grade teacher in Boston, Ivy runs into Gideon’s sister once again, and while she’s uncertain about what she wants most of the time, she immediately begins the work to get to be around and date Gideon. But does she really want only Gideon?

Review:
I went into this thinking it was a thriller based on the blurb that I saw – I wrote a different one for you that I think more accurately reflects the book. I would call it a contemporary story of the dark directions life can go when facing systemic and internalized issues. I would call it most comparable to Valley of the Dolls only featuring only one main character instead of many.

This is a strong own voices book. The issues Ivy faces as someone who immigrated at a very young age (and also spent some time being raised by her Grandmother in China waiting for her parents to send for her) were touching and felt real. The representation of systemic racism Ivy faced was subtle but woven throughout her life in such a way its insidiousness came across.

The author is also unafraid of pointing to the issues in the Chinese immigrant culture as well, particularly at the negative response to mental illness. This of course is not an issue limited to Chinese immigrant culture – I struggle to think of a culture that handles it well. However, I mention it as a way to say that the author did not present Ivy’s Chinese immigrant family as perfect. Rather, the problems in that family and in the broader culture as a whole twisted together to lead her down her path.

I don’t think this book is getting as much buzz as it should be. It’s a fun, different take that also brings diversity to the genre of contemporary women’s fiction. (I dislike calling it that but also there’s not a better term I’m aware of the communicates the genre I mean).

If you like reading contemporary women’s fiction with a twist of thrills (but not too many thrills), give this a chance. Especially if you’re looking to diversify your reading list or simply to find a Chinese-American leading character.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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