Archive

Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Book Review: Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor by Anna Qu

August 10, 2021 5 comments
Image of a digital bookcover. A yellow background with scissor open to cut three threads over it. The title of the book is in black. The author's name is in blue.

Summary:
When Anna Qu was in high school, she had her guidance counselor call child protective services because her mother was making her work without pay in the family sweatshop. In her memoir, she explores how her life went from living with her grandparents in China while her widowed mother pursued success in America to the level of division and problems with her mother that led to calling CPS. An exploration of sweatshops, immigration, and difficult relationships with family of origin.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by this book because I thought – wow, what kind of mother brings her child to the US only to turn around and force her to work in a sweatshop? I could wrap my head around a mother owning and running a sweatshop. I could even imagine having your child work in a sweatshop in a different cultural context (due to need, due to cultural expectations, etc…). But the usual immigration story is a desire for your child to have a better life than your own. How does that compute if your own life is owning the sweatshop? I had to find out.

Anna deftly uses this moment in her teen years as the way into telling her life story that is also simultaneously the story of her family, of immigration, of sweatshops, and of what happens when a family member is seemingly randomly selected as the one to be ostracized. Anna felt loved and wanted by her grandparents, but that all changed when she came to the US to join her mother, new stepfather, and two new half-siblings. But this is real life, not a fairy tale, so the change wasn’t instantaneous. To me, one of the most painful scenes of the book is the party the family threw when she arrived from China. Being able to bring a loved one over from China you had to leave behind was a real status marker and cause to be celebrated. How that party went awry and how the relationship with her mother started to fall apart was painful but eloquently told.

Of course because this is a memoir we never truly get to know Anna’s mother’s motivations. But we do get some of her perspective revealed through the case worker, case documents, and what Anna’s grandmother has to say about it. Anna is willing to explore the impact of intergenerational trauma on her mother, without excusing her mother’s actions.

Anna also explores the importance of belonging, and how that being denied outside of the family is even more important when it’s being denied inside of the family. Anna describes her role in her family as:

I was a ghost haunting a family that wanted nothing to do with me, and the loneliness left a tightness in my chest.

location 392

Yet she also explores being othered outside of her family as well. At school she’s different because she spends some time away attending a different school. (Her mother briefly sends her to boarding school in China). She also experiences being different when she goes away to college without any familial support. The fact that she has to advocate for herself, get herself declared independent from her family, that she has to struggle to find a place to go on winter breaks and more, these all serve to show how she doesn’t fit in. I thought this was a great example of ways that society should strive to be more inclusive, as we never know what people’s home lives are like.

Beyond exploring her family trauma, Anna also examines the two-pronged issue of sweatshop labor and workaholism as seen in many immigrant families. From her perspective, this starts out as a necessity and then becomes a way of being even when it’s not a necessity anymore. With regards to sweatshop labor, Anna points out how interesting it is that she could get out because of laws about child labor but somehow this same labor was acceptable among adults. She also talks about how much worse it is for those with no legal recourse, such as those working under the table. What are the societal issues that lead to someone working under the table and how can those be addressed?

There are no easy answers to the difficult questions and problematic situations described in this book. I think a strength of this book is how Anna points out abuse has to be really bad to be resolved in our country – whether talking about home abuse or work abuse – but there’s lot of other abuses that are still abusive that still hurt people’s souls that just keep happening with very little to no intervention. What makes people, workplaces, and cultures abuse some and not others is a central exploration of this book with no easy answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Netgalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: Safe In My Arms by Sara Shepard

Image of a digital book cover. A fence with a yellow backpack hanging on it. the title of the book is superimposed over it in a different shade of yellow.

Summary:
Three women whose children attend an elite preschool in coastal California find their lives intertwined when they all receive threatening notes in their children’s backpacks.

Review:
Sara Shepard is most famous for writing Pretty Little Liars, the series the hit tv show is based upon. In Pretty Little Liars the threat is text messages. Here it’s old school notes. Only this time, it’s the moms twisted into secrets and lies.

The three moms are at the center of the book, and I only actually liked one. Andrea is a trans woman who moved to California to be able to transition and live openly, away from her elite and judgmental family. Now, I will note I am a cis woman, and I would like to hear what a trans woman thinks of the representation, but I thought Andrea was written very well. I appreciated the realism of having to deal with some transphobia in her family but also being warmly welcomed by the other two women – both as a friend and as a woman. The author’s note at the end makes it clear she sought out a sensitivity reader for Andrea, and I could tell. If only the same efforts had been made for the other two women….

Lauren is struggling with postpartum rage (a symptom tied to postpartum depression). I just felt she was quite two-dimensional, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about her.

Ronnie is a topless maid, formerly a stripper, who moved here from Pennsylvania with her daughter. It at first appears she did so to get away from an abusive man. I can’t talk about Ronnie without revealing a slight spoiler (it’s revealed about 1/3 of the way into the book), so be warned.

Ronnie’s “daughter” is actually her niece. Her sister was in a relationship with an abusive man and was addicted to something. It’s vaguely explained as drugs. Ronnie, after a violent fight with her sister’s significant other that ends with her discovering her sister wounded on the floor, takes the baby and runs with her. She never follows up to see if her sister is ok. No, no, she just steals her daughter, changes her daughter’s name, and decides her daughter is better off with her anyway. I just simply could not empathize with the child abductor here. Ronnie had other options to help her niece. She had never even tried anything else (beyond living with her sister to “protect” her). I’m ok with a book featuring a less than ideal character. I’m not ok with the whole tone of the book being that I should empathize with her or that what she did was a mistake.

Because that’s the thing. The book kind of wraps up with the message that all moms make mistakes and it’s ok to not be perfect. I mean, sure, within reason. But there’s it’s ok to not be perfect and then there’s you’re only in the mom club because you stole someone else’s child.

Also as someone who cares about addiction and recovery, I found the depiction of Ronnie’s sister Vanessa to be heartless. She isn’t given the same chance and possibility to recover and change and learn from her mistakes as the other mom’s. In fact, the whole “moms don’t have to be perfect” scene features the moms describing all the reasons their children make them drink alcohol. The hypocrisy of this scene sickened me.

Contemporary books are approaching the pandemic in a variety of ways. This one chose to set the story “post-pandemic.” I’m fine with that optimistic choice, and I understand why it was made. But the strange thing is it mostly seems to acknowledge the impacts of the pandemic as purely economic – there’s a lot of talk about economic challenges from when we all stayed home but almost zero mention of anything else. I think there was one mention of face masks? This is set in California. There was way more impact than just economic. It rubbed me the wrong way how it made it out to be all about economic issues, and also how things just immediately snapped back to normal. If one wants a normal contemporary book, fine, just don’t acknowledge the pandemic at all then. Include an author’s note that this is for escapism and move on. Don’t acknowledge it as an economic downturn like 2008 and nothing much else…..

Beyond this, the actual main issue going on at the school was interesting and twisty. I had my suspicions early on, but I still enjoyed the twists. What really saved the book for me, though, was Andrea. We need more positive trans rep in psychological thrillers, and Andrea was very well-done.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 304 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Image of a digital book cover. A yellow sky with an orange sun. In front of this on the rise of a hill is an army on horses with one leader in front. The title of the book is She who Became the Sun.

Summary:
In China in 1345, a little peasant girl barely surviving a famine hears her brother will have a great fate but she is fated to nothingness. When their father dies and her brother chooses to die with him, she lays claim to his fate, going to a monastery and pretending to be a boy for survival. When she grows up, she finds herself pursuing her brother’s great fate and clashing repeatedly with Ouyang – a man who survived an order to kill his entire male line by being forcibly turned into a eunuch. As the Mongols and the Nanren clash for dominance in China, Ouyang and the person known as Zhu Chongba find their fates clashing.

Review:
This is being marketed as the queer Mulan, and I just have to say that Mulan was already queer. Li Shang Mulan regardless of what gender she is presenting as. But there’s plenty of room for more than one queer ancient China war drama. 🙂

I loved the beginning of this book. The famine and Zhu’s entire time in the monastery just spoke to me. I was engrossed. But then when Zhu leaves the monastery the tone and setting of the book changed, and it worked less for me. To me the beginning of the book is about choosing your own destiny, and the clash of desire and faith. The end of the book is about being the best warlord with your brains instead of brawn, which just was less compelling to me personally. Actually, I think this quote from the book sums up how Zhu is at the end of the book, even though this is actually Zhu describing someone else:

[T]he ferocious, irreligious joy of a man who has willingly cast aside any chance of nirvana for the sake of his attachment to life.

(location 843)

The fantasy elements of this book include that Zhu and some others can see ghosts – hungry ghosts specifically, which is a Buddhist concept. Leaders also have a mandate from heaven, which presents itself as a visible fire they can summon into their hands. Different leaders have fire of different colors. It’s interesting to note that many sides seem to have a real mandate of heaven. Why is an interesting question that I hope the sequel will explore.

The queer elements in the book include both gender and sexuality. Zhu seems to experience some gender dysphoria – this is not presented simply as a cis woman passing as a man. It’s more complex than that. However, I do wish this was explored more deeply. For example, the omniscient narrator refers to Zhu as “she” regardless of how Zhu seems to feel about their gender at any point. Ouyang is a eunuch, and eunuchs fall under the queer umbrella. Ouyang has romantic feelings for another man. It was unclear to me if these feelings were ever consummated. Zhu falls for a woman, and they have sexual relations onscreen. For me, Ouyang’s relationship was a classic queer tragedy. Zhu’s is more complex, and I’m interested to see where it goes in the sequel.

There is a character who loses a limb in this book. The moment of the limb loss is presented as a turning point for this character. It lets them become who they need to be. I felt negatively about this. It read to me as a bit like disability inspiration p*rn. I understand that, for this character, their relationship with their body is complex. But I wish another way had been found to help the character come into their own rather than this.

Overall, I really enjoyed that this fantasy was set in a culture steeped in Buddhism as a nice change of pace for fantasy. Queer characters are central, rather than as tragic sidekicks. The qualms I had did not keep me from enjoying the book as a whole, and I am interested in its sequel. Recommended to fantasy lovers looking for a change or to those who don’t usually read fantasy but might enjoy it for the representation.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 416 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

July 13, 2021 3 comments
Picture of a digital book cover. A red-tinged foggy photo of a black gate into a university campus. The title of the book - They Never Learn - is imposed over the gate in white font.

Summary:
Scarlett Clark is an exceptional English professor. But she’s even better at getting away with murder. Every year, she searches for the worst man at Gorman University and plots his well-deserved demise. But as she’s preparing for her biggest kill yet, the school starts probing into the growing body count on campus. Determined to keep her enemies close, Scarlett insinuates herself into the investigation and charms the woman in charge, Dr. Mina Pierce.

Meanwhile, Gorman student Carly Schiller is just trying to survive her freshman year – and her crush on her roommate, Allison. When Allison is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly becomes obsessed with making the attacker pay.

Review:
This felt like a woman-centered, queer Dexter, and I really enjoyed it.

The book seems straight-forward at first, but midway there is a plot twist that made me make the shocked Pikachu face. From there on, the plot just kept surprising me. In a good way. It’s not exactly what it seems it might be at first.

Although my own ethics don’t agree with revenge seeking, this is just the right mix of campy social commentary and revenge violence to work for me. I was able to view it as a cautionary tale of what could happen if we don’t start working to solve the academia culture that breeds violence against women. There are certain moments when the tide could have been turned if someone, anyone, had listened to the violated women. To me, this is what the takeaway from the book really is supposed to be.

For me, the queer content was delightful. There are multiple bisexual women characters. This means, instead of suffering from tokenism, bisexual characters get to come into full expressions of themselves. The word bisexual is used frequently in the book (or the short version bi). There are even multiple coming out stories present in the book.

I read this in audiobook format, and the narration of both voices was well done. It was easy to tell them apart but also not jarring to switch back and forth. I also thought both actresses did a solid job with accents.

A quick content warning that sexual assault, violence and murder are all described on-screen in this book.

Overall, the plot compelled and surprised me, and the characters were engaging with multiple different bisexual women present. A delightful addition to the thriller genre.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 378 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Audible

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

Image of a digital book cover. A graveyard is in the background. The book title is laid over it in white, with three red stars, and then the author's name.

Summary:
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital, the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University) with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Covering the inequalities innate in cadaver harvesting through the mismanagement of discovered human remains on university property in the 1990s, journalist Chip Jones explores how organ transplant in the US reveals systemic inequalities and racism, not just in health care, but in other related fields as well.

Review:
Organ transplant science is something that can feel like it’s been around forever, but in fact it’s really still a fairly new form of treatment. The first transplant of any organ was in 1954, and the first heart transplant was in 1967. The Civil Rights Act was in 1964, so at the time this treatment was emerging, segregated health care was still present in the US.

This book first gives context to the inequities seen in organ donation and reception by looking at the topic of where student doctors get cadavers to practice dissection upon. Although currently there is a system in place for the ethical donation of remains for educational use, at the time there was no such system in place. Medical schools turned to grave-robbing – and they preferentially robbed from Black graveyards. Black families called these “night doctors.”

Parents even used the specter of “night doctors” to make their children stay in bed. “You’d better go to sleep,” they’d say, “or the student doctors will get you.”

(loc 3353)

This was also a time period where there was some debate about what counts as death. Legally, until 1968, death was the full cessation of the working of all organs. In 1968, with advancing science, the theory of brain death was proposed. This was partially due to new health care technology that allowed for a machine to keep the organs operating. In tandem, the science of organ transplantation was emerging. The fresher the organ, the better the chances for the transplant to succeed. With the emerging theory of brain death meaning organs were operating but the patient might be able to be considered dead, and I’m sure you can see where this was going.

Bruce Tucker was a blue collar worker. He was hanging out with friends having a few drinks of alcohol on a stone wall. He fell and suffered head trauma. He was brought to the hospital alone. In spite of having his brother’s business card in his pocket, no one called his brother. Police officers were sent to his home to try to find family, but he didn’t live with his brother. At the same time, a white businessman was waiting for a heart transplant at the same hospital.

The early conversations among the surgeons had little to do about his chances for survival but rather concerned using him for another purpose. No one was discussing whether he might recover and be rehabilitated….Men like Tucker, arriving with alcohol on their breath and seemingly no one to claim them were often written off as ‘charity patients.’ They weren’t expected to pay their bills, with the hospital absorbing any expenses.

loc 2064

Jones notes that Tucker thus suffered from what can be termed a social death. Arriving at the hospital with alcohol on his breath meant that he was looked down upon by society, on top of how he was already perceived as a Black man in a Segregated southern hospital. Add to that the fact that the hospital decided he seemed to have no loved ones, and he was viewed as disposable.

Tucker did have loved ones, though, and when his body was sent to the funeral home, the caretaker notified his family that he arrived without a heart. This is when Tucker’s brother started to pursue answers and justice.

The next part of the book deals with the lawsuit that came about and how the court case was ruled. I wasn’t surprised, but was still severely disappointed to see how the hospital and doctors got away with it, and the Tucker family was left without justice. Notably to me is the quote from the prosecuting lawyer,

It doesn’t change the fact that when they took his heart from him he was not dead according to the law. So they broke the law and never would admit it, and that’s what bothered me more than anything else.

(loc 4397)

A clarifying note that the defense team used the argument of brain death, which was not the law at the time. The defense team also organized for as many transplant experts as possible to be in town at the time of the trial. They arranged for a transplant conference that just so happened to coincide with the scheduled trial. The conference was sponsored by Pfizer. The book notes just how much sway having transplant experts on the stand had on the judgment.

What stood out to me in reading this book is how societal inequalities and judgements can and do severely impact the quality of care that a patient might receive. I also was surprised to learn how recently brain death became the standard, and to read about the arguments on both sides of that debate. Brain death is not as clear-cut as I once thought it was.

The author does a good job of making history personal by focusing on Bruce Tucker and his family but also fleshing out with enough surrounding historical details that the complex situation made sense to read about. I do think his epilogue was unnecessary, where he details trying to speak with Bruce Tucker’s son, who did not want to speak to him. I feel that truly leaving Bruce Tucker’s son alone would have entailed simply a note that he did not wish to be interviewed and leaving it at that.

Overall, this is a fascinating and sad read about the history of organ transplants and brain death in the US. Recommended if these topics interest you.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (Plus Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide)

Digital cover of the book One Last STop. A white woman with a bigger body and red hair holds a cup of coffee outside of a train. The train is labeled Q. A medium skin-toned Chinese-American woman in torn jeans with a leather jacket and a backpack stands inside the train. The doors are open between them. Subtitle of the book is - Sometimes love stops you in your tracks.

Summary:
Twenty-four-year-old August has struggled to find her place in life. She’s now transferred to her third college, this time in Brooklyn, and she hopes it’ll stick. She finds a room in an apartment that comes with a delightful mix of found friends all also a part of the queer community, and they set her up with a job at the local diner. August thinks maybe it’s finally time to fit in and start to feel like she’s living a normal life, but then she meets a stunningly cute Chinese-American girl on the Q train. And meets here again. And again. Slowly she discovers that this girl might not be quite what she seems to be – in fact she’s a punk rock lesbian from the 1970s displaced out of time. Can August solve the case of how she got displaced and not lose her heart in the process?

Review:
I heard this described somewhere as a queer romance similar to the movie Kate & Leopold. That’s one of my favorite romantic comedies, so I was sold. I can definitely understand the comparison. They’re both set in New York and feature a love interest displaced out of their own time. While I love Kate & Leopold though, I have to admit I didn’t quite love this book.

Let’s start with what I liked. The main character, August, is bisexual and says it (more than once) with confidence. There is no biphobia expressed in this book by any of the characters she cares about. I also really appreciated seeing a bisexual main character who is a virgin and yet still declares this. An important moment of representation that one does not need to sleep with people to know one’s sexuality

August’s roommates and new friends are eclectic and fun while still feeling real. There is representation of gay and trans* folks especially. One of the roommates is Black (with Chinese adoptive parents), one is Greek-American, and one is Jewish. There’s a lot of diversity here. Part of what made them all feel real is that all of them had their own different families and issues. It wasn’t one queer story but many. I also really liked how real the local drag club felt, and I appreciated the representation of someone in recovery (the chef at the pancake restaurant).

I thought there was a lot of sizzle between August and the girl on the train – Biyu. Now at first she goes by Jane but over the course of the book she comes to ask to go by her birth name, Biyu, rather than her Americanized nickname. I want to be respectful of that. I also enjoyed the mystery of how she came to be on the train, and how August goes about solving it.

I felt pretty neutrally about the sex scenes. They were steamy without being explicit, but they weren’t anything particularly memorable for me. Some readers, I know, were turned off by the fact some of the sex happens on the train. That didn’t bother me because it makes sense for the characters. But be forewarned!

Now what I liked less. I don’t think the book handled racism and homophobia as directly or clearly as it should have. Biyu is from the 1970s and is a Chinese-American who is visibly lesbian. She literally had run-ins with the cops over wearing men’s clothes in her time period. But being jetted forward 40 years doesn’t solve the problems of homophobia and racism. I think the book acknowledges this by having Biyu have a run-in with someone who says something both racist and homophobic to her (the words are not said in the book and the incident appears off-screen). Yet August responds by saying, “most people aren’t like that anymore” (I can’t give an exact page number as this was a review copy but it occurs in Chapter 12). This does lead into a large fight between Biyu and August, which I think implies that August was wrong in what she said. However, I think August needed a bigger I was wrong moment, where she acknowledges that she did a very poor job of both being there for Biyu in that moment and of describing the complexity of how racism and homophobia are simultaneously different and yet not in modern times. I think readers also would have benefited from a nuanced discussion of how, for example, same-sex marriage is now legal and yet hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have increased dramatically in the last year, especially against Chinese-Americans (source). I think this book wanted to say something big and interesting about sexuality and queerness especially in the 1970s versus now, but in my opinion it falls short of accomplishing this.

Additionally, I know I was supposed to find the ending satisfying but it left me dissatisfied. I think for similar reasons – it’s a complex situation and the book doesn’t dig deep enough or hard enough into these complexities. Things are kept at the surface level. While it is a book in the spirit of a romcom, romcoms can say big and difficult things while not losing the romcom feel. Confessions of a Shopaholic springs to mind – it deals with the very serious issue of shopping addiction while still feeling like a very fun romcom.

Overall, this book is fun and lighthearted. It features a realistic bisexual lead and steamy, yet not explicit, f/f scenes. The queer found family is delightful. But it could have stood to have dug a bit deeper into the serious issues it brought up. They are important conversations to have that wouldn’t have messed up the lightheartedness of the romcom vibe.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 422 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: The Queen of the Cicadas / La Reina de las Chicharras by V. Castro

June 22, 2021 2 comments
Digital cover of the book The Queen of the Cicadas / La Reina de las Chicarras. A red silhouette of a woman is against a blue background. A quote reads "Dark, atmospheric, sexy, and dangerous, her fiction bringers readers her unfiltered Latinx essence and a unique pulpy flavor. Her work matters. Read it."   Gabino Iglesias, author of Coyote Songs.

Summary:
You’ve heard of Bloody Mary and Candyman but have you heard of La Reina de las Chicharras? The legacy says she’s a Mexican farmworker named Milagros who was brutally murdered in 1950s Texas then given new supernatural life by the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. In 2018, Belinda Alvarez arrives in Texas for a friend’s wedding on the farm that inspired the legacy of La Reina de las Chicharras. But is it just a legacy or is it real?

Review:

I’m a woman of a certain age. I know that shit isn’t always right.

Chapter 9

This struck me as a Latinx, female-led version of Candyman, only, over time, La Reina de las Chicharras comes to protect the downtrodden who call her.

Milagros’s life story that leads to her becoming La Reina is told in parallel with Belinda’s discovering her story and coming into her own realizations about Mictecacíhuatl. I really resonated with the Milagros chapters but struggled to relate to Belinda. She needed more depth and roundness to seem as real as Milagros. Some additional chapter breaks could also help with the jumping perspectives. In general, though, the dual perspectives worked and the uniqueness of the storyline kept me quite engaged to find out what would happen.

In addition to the strong Latinx content, the Indigenous history of Mexico is present. Milagros’s relationship especially to the Indigenous people who were brutally colonized is drawn clearly. There is also relatively significant queer content here. Milagros is a woman who loves women. There are two important gay male characters, and Belinda exhibits fluid sexuality, although she never gives a label to this.

Two things in this book were at ethical odds with me. First, Belinda is written as a woman in addiction who then never overcomes it (or even tries to) in spite of her character arc seeming to indicate that she has been transformed in a positive way. I’m ok with a realistic depiction that not everyone finds recovery, but it bothered me that it comes across as a positive transformation when she remains in addiction. It’s relatively clear that this is a bit of a vengeance fantasy. I understand the importance and role of having a place for anger at injustice to go. But my own spiritual beliefs uphold forgiveness over vengeance, so my world view differs.

If you like urban legend style horror and want to see women in the lead, then you will likely enjoy this read. Those offended or disturbed by the idea of the universe holding multiple gods and religions simultaneously should likely look elsewhere.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

Digital image of the cover for The House in the Cerulean Sea. A cartoon drawing of a Victorian style home on a cliff over the ocean with two trees blowing in the breeze. A yellow bar on the side advertises that this is a New York Times and USA Today bestseller.

Summary:
Linus leads a solitary life with his cat and his records and an ethical commitment to his job as a Case Worker for the Department in Charge of the Magical Youth in the UK. When his long-time commitment to investigating cases precisely according to the book by Extremely Upper Management with a highly classified case, he finds himself Marsyas Island Orphanage. Here six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must put aside his own fears and decide if they’re likely to bring about the end-times, all while keeping a particularly special eye on their mysterious caretaker, Arthur Parnassus.

Review:
When I picked this up, I expected to read a cheery tongue-in-cheek book about the end times. What I got instead was a cheery book, yes, but one about taking the risks that allow you to actually live your life in a fulfilling way. It inspired me and made me teary-eyed.

Klune simultaneously depicts the soul-crushing horror of working for a bureaucratic organization and makes it funny. This is evident just by the name Extremely Upper Management. It is just so relatable to see Linus working for a government organization that clearly has some nefarious tendencies and, at the very least, creates a terrible work environment, yet that Linus has convinced himself is him doing an ethical job. He clasps to the idea that he is making a good impact on the world, and therefore allows his life to be the horrible and depressing way it is. It takes going to Marsyas Island to snap him out of it.

Just as Linus’s depressing London life is drawn (the depiction of his commute alone is just so on point to a city commute), Maryas Island is depicted to beautifully that even now, weeks after finishing the book, I can send my mind back there for a mini-break. It’s not that it’s perfect, there are, of course, infuriating aspects to small town life (like the ferry) but! Linus can see the sun again. And he can see what can happen when people are encouraged that there is good in them they just need to draw out. My favorite of the children is the gnome, a little girl with a beard who loves her garden and threatens to kill with her shovel anyone who seems like a danger to it. But instead of focusing on the negative (the shovel threatening) Arthur focuses on encouraging her to show people her garden and guide them through what there is to appreciate about it and how to appreciate it respectfully.

I was surprised but thrilled by the blooming attraction between Linus and another adult male at the island (I somehow didn’t know that Klune is a Lambda Literary Award winning author). When I realized that a potential change for Linus might include finding love after 40 as well, I was thrilled. I would be hesitant to call this a romance, because I felt like it was really a book about living your life in a way that is authentic to who you really are and makes you happy, Loving someone who loves you back is part of that for Linus. But it’s not the focus. His life calling is the focus.

I want to encourage readers who might be distressed by Linus’s initial disappointment in his own body size and commitment to dieting that this is not a story where pounds magically fall away on an island and only then can our character find love. No, this set-up is part of making room for Linus to learn to love his body and care about other markers of health (like having a healthy glow).

This is a delightful fantasy about breaking out of your routine to find the life you really want to live. About helping children and adults find the good in themselves and draw it out. About a gay man learning to love his body and finding love in his 40s. It was so beautifully written it left me speechless, and I pre-ordered Klune’s next book. Recommended to those wanting to find inspiration to living a life that brings joy.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 394 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (Series, #1)

Digital image of the cover of the book Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. A woman's body is in silhouette against the moon. She appears to have wings. Another body is superimposed over hers. A pull quote from Viola Davis is featured stating, "A book that shifted my life...epic, game changing, moving, and brilliant."

Summary:
Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who is immortal who has so far largely passed without notice. But when Doro, a being who maintains his immortality by stealing others’ bodies, discovers her, everything changes. He considers her to be wild seed for his project of gathering together all humans with special powers to breed them to try to create those who can match him. But is Anyanwu already a match for him? And can they ever produce children who are like them?

Review:
The simplest word to describe this book is unexpected. That’s something that’s difficult to achieve in fantasy about immortality, so I was pleasantly surprised.

This book immediately asks the reader to identify with and understand Anyanwu at least a little bit. Unlike in some other fantasies about immortality, she is already immortal when she meets Doro. So the challenge isn’t does she want to be immortal but rather what is it like to be truly seen by someone else? Doro is somehow more frightening than Anyanwu. The reader thus sides with Anyanwu, even though she is also a little bit scary. Anyanwu also says she goes with him to protect her children from him, an emotion it is easy to understand. Thus, the reader develops an ability to see Anyanwu’s viewpoint. When Anyanwu later does certain things that would have seemed shocking, this ability to see her perspective remains.

It is also interesting to see Doro and Anyanwu’s lives placed against a backdrop of slavery. Anyanwu is African. Doro can take the body of anyone he chooses, but he does state his original human body was in Africa. They are aware of slavery and even pull some seed away from being slaves to live in Doro’s villages instead. Doro breeds people regardless of their race. What he is interested in is their abilities. However, slowly the book comes to ask if this is in a way another form of slavery? Doro says the people view him as a god and that is their relationship, but Anyanwu feels differently. That sets up the reader to ask how free are these people in these villages really?

I was also pleasantly surprised by an appearance of queerness in the later half of the book. Anyanwu makes some interesting discoveries about her shapeshifting that leads to some pregnancies and relationships that are decidedly queer in nature. I was glad the book went there but surprised because so often books about shapeshifting and body inhabiting never do cross the line of gender.

Although this is the first book in a series, I felt it stood strongly on its own yet, simultaneously, propelled me to read more. The immortality angle is what makes it work this way. This is a solid chapter in the lives of Anyanwu and Doro. Yet clearly their story isn’t over, and there are new people who are going to encounter and challenge them. It was fantasy that felt possible and challenging simultaneously. Recommended to fantasy readers looking for a fresh take on immortality.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes

Digital cover of the book "The Deep" by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes. A mermaid swims among what appear to be whales.

Summary:
Yetu is the historian for her people – the mermaid descendants of pregnant enslaved African women thrown overboard from slave-ships before they could give birth. As the historian, Yetu holds the painful memories of her people, helping them to experience them once a year. But the pain of holding the memories is more burdensome for Yetu than for previous historians, as she is more sensitive than any historian before her. One year, in the middle of the history ceremony, she flees for the surface in an act of self-preservation. Can she both preserve herself and not abandon her people?

Review:
This book wowed me, taking my breath away from start to finish. If you know you like mermaid stories and want a fresh take on them, just go pick this up immediately.

The number of authors is large because this book was inspired by a song by the hip-hop group, .clipping. I love that the song authors gave permission to Rivers Solomon to write this book inspired by the song, and Solomon in turn credited them for the book. It’s a beautiful collaboration, and the song is well-worth the listen.

No one ever says explicitly that Yetu is neurodiverse, but it’s clear that she is. Her neurodiversity both made her a candidate to be the historian but also made the task soul-crushing and life-destroying for her. I love that no one in the book ever decides that Yetu is the one at fault for this. In other words, Yetu is not blamed for this problem, rather the culture is questioned and it is wondered how sustainable this model is if it doesn’t work for everyone in the culture. Similarly, although Yetu on some level wants to break fully away from her society, she also feels a responsibility to them and wrestles with how to be loyal to both them and herself. The questions that Yetu asks herself in this process struck me as so poignant and painfully real.

Was there anything about her that wasn’t a performance for others’ gratification?

(location 17%)

Is this my curse? To be unfathomable? 

(location 58%)

But this isn’t just a book about a culture being a space for those both neurotypical and neurodiverse, it’s also a myth that demonstrates the role of intergenerational trauma. It shows intergenerational trauma rather than telling, and that is powerful.

As with all of Rivers Solomon’s work, there is also queer content in this book. There is gender fluidity (in the mermaids) and a queer relationship between Yetu and a two-leg. I thought this was one of the more artful relationships between a mermaid and a land dweller I’ve seen.

Recommended for readers looking for Black mermaids, a neurodiverse main character, and/or a queer relationship between a mermaid and a land dweller.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications