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Book Review: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Image of a digital book cover. A plant with green leaves and the red lips of a kiss on it is in the background of the book title.

Summary:
This bawdy book originally published in 1973 tells the story of Molly Bolt, the adoptive daughter of a dirt-poor Southern couple who boldly forges her own path in America. With her startling beauty and crackling wit, Molly finds that women are drawn to her wherever she goes – and she refuses to apologize for loving them back. 

Review:
I’ve been trying to read more queer classics and not solely limit myself to modern queer books. I stumbled upon this when looking for other books published around the same time as Tales of the City (review). While I absolutely appreciate how groundbreaking this was at the time, it didn’t work for me. I’ll have to give a couple of spoilers to be able to discuss why, so be forewarned!

Let’s start with what I did like. The prose calls out the racism of the north at a time when Jim Crow was still around in the south. Just because things may be better from a legal perspective doesn’t mean they actually are any less racist. This isn’t done in a preachy way. It comes about smoothly as Molly’s family moves from the hills of Pennsylvania to Florida. I really liked Molly’s dad, and the arc of her relationship with him. I loved how Molly’s first crush in middle school on another little girl named Leota is depicted. I appreciated how key moments in Molly’s life makes it clear she has to conform to succeed, and she refuses to do it. It hauntingly shows how minoritized people are kept down.

This is told in the first person, and Molly isn’t, to me, particularly likeable. I really wanted to like her. But I didn’t. She’s crass, abrasive, quite reactionary. She looks down on other people even while insisting she doesn’t. Ok, so for most of the book she’s a teenager or a young adult working her way through college. No one is perfect, and she has a lot stacked against her. But I would say she just becomes more full of herself as the novel progresses. I didn’t feel like she really learned anything. I suspect I’m supposed to think she did based on her final film school project, but it was hard for me to be moved by a film I didn’t see.

Something about Molly that particularly bothered me was an instance that really reminded me of some movies from the 70s I’ve seen, where a woman will say no to sex, but then the guy gets a little rough, gets her a little drunk, and later she basically says she’s grateful he took “advantage of her” because she really wanted it deep down (aka he raped her but she liked it). Well, Molly takes on the role of the aggressor in just such a situation in this book.I get it that this was a common trope at the time this book was written, and I’m imagining the goal was to show the same scene but with two women. But just because something was commonly shown in media at the time doesn’t make it right. I just can’t view Molly as a heroine when that’s how she engages with other women.

The other thing that’s problematic about Molly is that, since she’s adopted, she likes to say she doesn’t technically know her race. She bases this on having dark hair. At the end of the book she finds out she’s half…wait for it…French. She sees a photo of her father, and he’s French with dark hair. She never confronts herself about why she had this weird obsession with imagining herself as partially another minoritized race.

One more thing I feel I ought to mention is that Molly has a tendency to speak very negatively about butch presenting lesbians. It’s ok to not be into dating butches yourself. It’s even ok if you yourself find the butch/femme dynamic odd (although why you should care is beyond me). What bothers me, though, is how she describes butch women every single time she sees them. It’s downright insulting. You can be kind to other queer people you aren’t attracted to.

Again, I don’t expect characters to be perfect. Indeed, I think first person books with an imperfect main character are important for understanding other people’s perspective. But I do expect some growth and development over time. I felt throughout the book like Molly had no interest in self-improvement or reflection, and she never even has an epiphany that maybe she should.

Overall, why I understand why this book was groundbreaking, and it certainly had some memorable scenes, I felt the main character is unlikeable and doesn’t grow or change over time. I really liked her dad though. He was a morally flawed, complex character who I really felt could have held up his own fascinating book.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 221 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: I’ll Be You by Janelle Brown

Image of a digital book cover. There is a beautiful sunset behind a desert plant.

Summary:
Two identical twin sisters and former child actors have grown apart—until one disappears, and the other is forced to confront the secrets they’ve kept from each other.

Review:
I previously read Janelle Brown’s Pretty Things and really enjoyed its delightful thriller take on Instagram influencers. I was excited to see another of her books on NetGalley and even more excited to see it using a child star identical twins plot. I smashed that request button, let me tell you, and this did not disappoint. In fact, between the two sisters, it covered two of my other favorite plots – a person with addiction in recovery and a person falling for a cult.

Imagine if the Olsen twins were identical (they’re not) and had a falling out right after they stopped acting. That’s the basic set-up of this book. Sam continues to try to act and also continues to fall into a hole of addiction. Elli pursues a regular life, going to college, setting up a florist business, and marrying. We find this all out in flashbacks, as the book starts with a bang with Sam, who we quickly find out is just past a year in recovery, getting a phone call from her parents to come help take care of her niece. Elli brought her newly adopted toddler daughter to them to go on a quick spa retreat in Ojai, but is gone longer than expected. Sam is shocked by all of this because she and Elli haven’t spoken in over a year for ominous reasons we don’t know yet.

I loved this book. I was immediately enamored with Sam. What a tough situation to get plopped in your lap just over a year into recovery. She suspects something is amiss with Ellie, but Ellie has always been the stable one and Sam the untrustworthy addict, so her parents don’t take her concerns seriously. But we, the readers, quickly see that Sam is likely right. There’s something fishy going on. Why would Ellie and her husband suddenly separate right when they adopt after years of infertility? How likely is it that a woman who struggled with infertility for years would suddenly disappear to a retreat for more than a week, barely speaking to those caring for her long hoped-for daughter? Why won’t Sam and Elli’s mom and dad admit something is off? There’s a lot of delicious suspense immediately.

Most of the beginning of the book is from Sam’s perspective, but partway through we swap to Elli’s. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this, because I was so invested in Sam, but it worked. Eventually, we swap back to Sam’s toward the end. Sam’s characterization is just so strong and relatable to me, whereas Elli’s is a more difficult character for me to relate to. But the reason it worked is Sam needs to come to understand Elli and so, getting inside Elli’s head and perspective helped me see that, so that I started to root for Sam’s attempts to rebond with Elli in a way I hadn’t before.

The only reason this is getting four stars and not five from me is because of one scene where a secondary lesbian character is biphobic. It was hurtful to me to read that scene, and I just didn’t think it was necessary to the plot of the book. I’m ok with characters being imperfect when it serves needs of character and plot development, but the exact same plot device could have worked without the biphobia. (Essentially, this character exacts revenge on her ex-wife. While the revenge is spurred on by multiple things the ex-wife did, the tipping point is that she got together with a man after the divorce, and the character is extra upset because it’s a man and she’d “hid” being bisexual from her. Ick. We could have just….had something else be the tipping point. There are plenty of options. An example of biphobia I would have been ok with seeing would have been if Sam and Elli’s big fight was about one of them being bisexual and the other not being able to handle it. That’s important character development. This wasn’t.)

Overall, this was a fun, different read with a main character I really enjoyed and a different take on some common thriller plot devices. I recommend it, and I think I myself might go back and read more of Janelle Brown’s back catalog.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: House of Zeor by Jacqueline Lichtenberg (Series, #1)

Digital image of a paperback book cover. A man with tentacles coming out of his arms holds a woman from behind.

Summary:
In the distant future, humanity has split into two mutant forms: the life-energy producing Gen, and the vampiric, tentacled Sime. Most Simes treat Gens like animals to be consumed for food. Hugh Valleroy from the Gen Territories must infiltrate the Sime lands in order to locate his beloved Aisha. This means joining House Zeor, a Sime Householding led by Klyd, that believes in the necessary unification of the two peoples, and who have the ability to let the Sime feed without killing the Gen donors.

Review:
I do my best to read widely in scifi, which includes older scifi. I especially try to find older scifi by women authors. This book was first published in 1974, and, in addition to being older scifi by a woman, I heard it involved tentacles. I was intrigued, so I hunted down a copy. There are very few reviews online from modern reads. There are some nostalgic reviews about reading it many years ago. So, even though I didn’t like it, I thought it might be helpful to others to contribute a modern, non-nostalgic take.

The basic concept was interesting. There are predators who absolutely need something from the prey to function. It is made abundantly clear that eventually without consuming some Gen life force the Sime die. But the prey are sentient. What to do? Something else that was interesting was that the mutation doesn’t occur until puberty and, bizarrely, children in both Sime and Gen territory mutate into both forms. This means Gen parents turn on their Sime child (for fear of being eaten) and Sime parents….eat their Gen children. What a world! I wish this had been explored more deeply than it was.

A lot of the world building is touched on briefly but then not really explained or not explored deeply enough. Hugh has a “starred cross” he wears that his mother, who escaped Gen territory, gave him, telling him belief in it would protect him. But does it? It’s unclear. What is he believing in exactly? It’s never explored. Similarly, the “selyn” is mentioned a lot but never really defined. The Gens all speak English but the Simes speak “Simelan.” Is this true of the whole world? Just this area? What is Simelan anyway?

Let’s talk about the three things that made me bump this down from three stars to two. First, one of the heroes of the book, Klyd, displays clear homophobia. He and Hugh are an auction of Gens looking for Aisha. It’s established that most Simes view Klyd as a “pervert” because he doesn’t kill Gens but rather has a symbiotic companion relationship with them. Another Sime goes to bid and Klyd says that Sime is the true pervert because he sleeps with men as if they are women. He and all the other Simes show disgust at it, and our other hero doesn’t argue back against it. The existence of queer people is never touched upon again in the book, so this viewpoint remains unchallenged. I found this particularly upsetting as the companionship relationship has some really clear homoerotic undertones. In order to do a selyn exchange, the two people must hold each other’s forearms and then touch at a fifth touching point, the preferred one is lip to lip contact aka to kiss. It’s also common for companions to share a bed. But somehow this relationship isn’t a perversion but being queer is?

The second thing is how race and ethnicity are handled. At a couple of points, it’s established that at some point the races all mixed up together and we have many blended people now. That’s fine. But the main characters are all white coded. I mean, really white coded. In a way that wouldn’t make any sense if this was truly a future of completely mixed races. And when talking about it, Hugh, who is born in this “mixed race” world uses current terms to talk about what races he thinks various people are mixed with. Um, ok. If it’s all of them, why even wonder this? I also want to mention for my Asian diaspora readers that at one point a slur is used to describe someone of Asian descent.

The third thing is how the women in the book are handled. This frustrates me as this was written by a woman. You’ve already noticed the two main characters are men out to save a woman. There are really only three other female characters in the book. One is raped (off-screen). (Slight spoiler coming here). One dies in childbirth. I’d say Hugh’s mother is the only woman character who is well-rounded and interesting.

Overall, the initial world imagined is interesting, but how it is handled is not. Additionally, those looking for a thoughtful handling of the existence of queer people, race, and women won’t be getting it in this book.

2 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

Image of a digital book cover. A pond in a forest in the winter with the name of the book.

Summary:
In this book, Pema provides the tools to deal with the problems and difficulties that life throws our way, so that we may let our circumstances soften us and make us kinder, rather than making us increasingly resentful and afraid. This wisdom is always available to us, she teaches, but we usually block it with habitual patterns rooted in fear. Beyond that fear lies a state of openheartedness and tenderness. This book teaches us how to awaken our basic goodness and connect with others, to accept ourselves and others complete with faults and imperfections, and to stay in the present moment by seeing through the strategies of ego that cause us to resist life as it is. 

Review:
The majority of this book suggests that fearlessness can be accomplished via mindfulness and various types of meditation. This may be true. I’m certainly not an expert meditator. Although it is something I have been working at for many years. But it was disappointing to me how much of this book was essentially – meditate and be mindful, and you will become fearless. It’s not that it might not work; it’s that I wanted more.

Some of the more that I was wanting did come up a couple of places in the book. The first was in a story of a couple who live in a gated community. They eventually become so afraid of what is outside the gates, that they basically stop living. They get so caught up in the what if’s that they don’t live. I liked how this showed that walls can be of our own making, and being fearless is a daily practice. You don’t just suddenly wake up one day walled in, rather you build that wall gradually day by day. The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of one small step a day.

I also appreciated the introduction to the idea of training in the three difficulties. This was a new a concept to me. I’ll just post the quote, since I doubt I could explain it any clearer than it is in the book.

[It] gives us instruction on how to practice, how to interrupt our habitual reactions. The three difficulties are (1) acknowledging our neurosis as neurosis, (2) doing something different, and (3) aspiring to continue practicing this way.

29%

This reminded me of the wisdom of early sobriety. Becoming sober is largely about changing negative habits into good ones. We acknowledge what isn’t working, commit to do it differently, and practice doing that every day. I liked the idea of applying that to anything I wanted to be braver at. I also like that it has a name. The three difficulties.

If you are new to meditation, the instruction in the book is good. It’s largely focused on metta (loving-kindness) meditation and tonglen (taking and sending). Metta is one of the first types of meditation I learned, and it definitely helps me when I’m in a bad mood. I’m not personally sure that it makes me braver, though. Although, who knows, maybe I would have been much more fearful these last years without it.

Overall, this is an interesting book and a quick read. It was not what I was expecting, but also had its moments of value. Recommended more so to those who are new to meditation and mindfulness.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 187 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

April 12, 2022 4 comments

Summary:
Tully and Rachel Aston look upon their father’s fiancée, Heather, as nothing but an interloper. Heather is younger than both of them. Clearly, she’s after their heart surgeon father’s money. They understand why he might want to date, given that their mother is in a care home due to rapidly advancing early onset Alzheimer’s, but it feels disrespectful that he’s going to divorce her to marry another. Meanwhile, they’re each struggling with a secret. Plus, Heather has secrets of her own. Will getting to the truth unleash the most dangerous impulses in all of them?

Review:
I have a soft spot for Australian psychological thrillers. This is the fourth Sally Hepworth one I’ve read. It ranks near but not quite at the top among her works for me. (My favorite being The Mother-in-Law). It’s pretty obvious early on that Heather is not the big bad, so then the main mystery remains – who is? And of course, what is Rachel’s secret? And when will everyone find out Tully’s secret?

We find out almost immediately that Tully struggles with kleptomania and that Rachel used to date but suddenly abruptly stopped. So the main issues surrounding the two sisters is when will others find out about Tully’s uncontrollable shoplifting and what exactly made Rachel stop dating. I thought the former was handled better than the latter. Tully seeks out therapy and her problems don’t disappear overnight. Rachel meets a nice guy and with him is able to overcome her trauma. That frustrated me a bit. Especially since Rachel is set up as being so strong. One can be strong and also find help in therapy. Or even in a support group structure. It shouldn’t all be on the significant other to help someone heal. So it was a little bit hit and miss for me with the two sisters.

I thought the main mystery of what was actually going on in the weird triangle of the dad, Heather, and the mom was quite well done. I especially appreciated the handling of Alzheimer’s. I do think this book falls prey to the old idea of alcoholism – that one can only have an alcohol problem if one is at rock bottom. Beating a spouse or getting delirium tremens (the shakes) when going too long without it. There are definitely characters in this book who display problems with alcohol, but the narration brushes off the idea that they might have a problem.

The structure starts with a bang – at the wedding, someone is injured, and we don’t know who. The wedding is put on hold, the police are called. We then flash back to Heather meeting the daughters and build back up to the wedding. This is a multiple point of view book. Rachel, Tully, Heather, even the mother get a turn narrating.

This book confronts the problem looming for a lot of new contemporary fiction – do we or do we not acknowledge the pandemic? This strikes a gentle balance of what to do. The characters talk about not shaking hands anymore, one character had a big career setback due to lockdowns, and another character’s marriage is a bit impacted by the work-from-home situation. No major details are mentioned (for example, masks are never discussed, no deaths from the pandemic are mentioned). I envisioned it as happening in 2021 or early 2022. Post lockdowns but not far flung future. I thought it worked fairly well.

Overall, this was a fun read with a different enough plot to keep me engaged. It was a little bit of a mixed bag, which is what kept me from loving it. I put content warnings in for this book over on Storygraph if you’re interested in those. I did wish I’d had them myself.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 352 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair (Series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A Black teenage girl with a fro and a bright head band holds her hands around her mouth accentuating it. The title of the novel comes out of her mouth as a speech bubble.

Summary:
Set on Chicago’s Southside in the mid-to-late 60s, following Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, a young Black woman growing up through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Stevie longs to fit in with the cool crowd. Fighting her mother every step of the way, she begins to experiment with talkin’ trash, “kicking butt,” and boys. With the assassination of Dr. King she gains a new political awareness, which makes her decide to wear her hair in a ‘fro instead of straightened, to refuse to use skin bleach, and to confront prejudice. She also finds herself questioning her sexuality. As readers follow Stevie’s at times harrowing, at times hilarious story, they will learn what it was like to be Black before Black was beautiful.

Review:
After reading Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (review) and finding myself disappointed with how it handled race, I intentionally looked for older classics of LGBTQIA+ lit written by Black authors. (As a starting place. I intend to continue this searching with other BIPOC groups). In my search I found this book listed as an own voices depiction of a queer young Black woman in the South Side of Chicago. My library had a digital copy, so I was off.

First published in 1995, this is certainly an own voices book. The author grew up in Chicago in the same time period as Stevie, and that authenticity really shines through. The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 (spring 1965 to summer 1967), Part 2 (fall 1967 to fall 1968), and Part 3 (fall 1969 to spring 1970). Part 1 begins in Stevie’s last year of middle school. It establishes the systemic racism Stevie and her family live with that the Civil Rights movement that Stevie will later become involved in in high school. It also demonstrates Stevie’s difficult relationship with her mother. In Part 2, Stevie enters high school, Dr. King is assassinated, and Stevie starts to push back on racism and colorism. In Part 3, Stevie starts to question her sexuality and also the lack of interracial friendships and relationships she sees among her friends and family.

In some ways this was a tough book to read. It pulls no punches about what life was like for a young Black girl at this time. Although it always pains me to read about racism and colorism, there was an extra twinge in reading this because Stevie is just such an immediately likable little girl with a protective mother. The book opens with Stevie asking her mother what a virgin is (because a boy at school asked her if she was one), and her mother not wanting to tell her. This reminded me of all the conversations about Black girls being forced to grow up too fast and letting them stay the little girls they are. Although I advocate for frank talks about sexuality with questioning children, I also understood her mother’s impulse to keep Stevie little just a while longer.

Stevie’s sexuality is left open-ended in this book, in spite of my finding it on a list of lesbian fiction originally. Essentially the idea is posited that sometimes adolescents feel confused only to realize later they’re straight. I wondered if this is what happens with Stevie so peaked at the sequel. (spoiler warning!) Apparently in the sequel Stevie identifies as bisexual. This thrilled me, because there’s so little representation of bisexual folks in literature, but also because I felt a bit of a twinge of recognition when reading about Stevie’s confusion in the book. Part of why she’s so confused about if she’s straight or a lesbian is because the answer is neither. It was a great depiction.

I did feel the book ended kind of abruptly. It’s definitely a bit of a plot hanger that leaves you yearning for the sequel. Not in an uncomfortable way but more in a I want to see Stevie finish growing up way. Plus, it’s the start of the 1970s, and that’s such a fun time period to read about.

Overall, this own voices book gives a realistic yet fun depiction of growing up Black in the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. If you’re coming for the queer content, hang in there, it shows up in Part 3. A great way to diversify your reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Series, #1)

A digital bookcover shows a door in the middle of the forest with forest on both sides. It is a door with no house around it.

Summary:
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care at her Home for Wayward Children understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things. No matter the cost.

Review:
This is the first book in the series but they all also can be read as stand-a-lone stories if you want. One of my siblings-in-law gave me the second book as a gift, and I decided I wanted to read the first book first to ensure I got the greatest enjoyment out of it possible. I felt confident with this decision, because I’ve really enjoyed everything else by Seanan McGuire I’ve read. As expected, this was a fun read.

The worldbuilding is gorgeous and creative. Not just the idea of the doors but also the map of how the other worlds are organized. Stephen King’s other worlds are organized around a tower. These are organized around a compass, similar to those political leaning compass tests, only this is organized on points such as Logic vs Nonsense and Wickedness vs Virtue. The worlds are varied, and so are the children who get drawn in then come back. Although come back is the wrong term for these children. They all want to “go home” to their other worlds. The children who don’t want to go back attend a different boarding school. (Now that’s also a series I’d read, just saying).

I found the plot to be less engaging than the world building. The mystery at the school was both bloodier than I would have preferred and also far too expected and easy to figure out. I viewed the plot as an excuse to continue sojourning in the world.

There is diversity present in the book. Although the main character and owner of the school are both white, Nancy’s roommate is Japanese-American. One of her new friends is Latino. I do wish the races and ethnicities of more of the secondary characters were more clearly stated. There is a trans girl character, who is a strong secondary character with a lot of realistic struggles. Nancy, the main character, is asexual (but romantic), and the word is used. Although I am myself queer and bisexual, I fully admit my understanding of the ace members of our community is less than it might be. I was uncertain about the representation in the book, so I found an ace person’s review. They loved the representation and felt Nancy to be very representative of them.

Some folks complain the book is too short, but largely because they wanted to linger longer. I thought it was just about the right length. I like reading a shorter read sometimes, and this means it’ll be much faster and easier to visit the worlds of the other characters featured in the other entries in the series more in-depth.

Recommended for readers looking for a quick read with a creative and engaging fantasy world. Especially recommended for those looking for asexual and trans representation in their fantasy.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 176 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Race Across Alaska: The First Woman to Win the Iditarod Tells Her Story by Libby Riddles and Tim Jones

Image of a book cover. A woman with a dog sled team races across the cover.

Summary:
Libby Riddles wanted an adventure. At the age of 16 she left home for the snowy frontiers of Alaska, the Last Frontier. There, her love of animals drew her to the sport of sled dog racing. When she entered the Iditarod in 1985, the famous marathon from Anchorage to Nome, she was just another Iditarod Nobody. Twelve hundred miles later, having conquered blizzards, extreme cold, and exhaustion, she and her dogs crossed the final stretch of sea ice, miles ahead of the nearest competitor… and suddenly she realized: I will be the first woman to win the Iditarod. This is the story of a courageous woman and her heroic dogs. This is the story of Libby Riddles’s adventure.

Review:
First published in 1988, this book drips with the freshness of an event recently lived. Both in the assumption that everyone reading this knows at least some things about Libby and in the clarity with which she remembers the events. In fact, Libby was actually featured in Vogue magazine after winning the Iditarod, so the novelty of being the first woman to win meant it reached out further to the general population than it might have otherwise. Reading it in 2022 without previously having given much thought to women in the Iditarod made it feel like a fun, time-travel adventure.

Each chapter is one day of the Iditarod, and the book jumps right in with day 1. There’s no prologue or introduction to Libby. It’s just day one of the race. Each chapter also shows which part of the trail Libby completed that day, gives a note on the weather (highs, lows, and wind speed), and a brief summary of what that day was like for her. Throughout the book there are asides explaining various aspects of the Iditarod and mushing, everything from what clothes mushers wear and why to the history of the event. I found these very helpful. I just wish there’d been one introducing me to Libby too.

I expected the Iditarod to be a story of loneliness and individual perseverance. Instead, I learned that the race involves a lot of people, includes seeing people more than you might think, and is a meaningful event to various towns and villages along the trail. In retrospect I should have realized this. But the Iditarod is discussed as such a survivalist event that it never crossed my mind. Especially at the beginning of the race, the mushers are quite close to each other, and even sometimes travel in groups if they have a similar pace. Villages, towns, and even just individual homes are checkpoints throughout that the mushers must check in to. The locals open up their homes to the mushers, even giving over their beds for them to get an hour or two of shut-eye. At one point, Libby sleeps in a bed with two other mushers briefly. It’s really not the individual experience I was expecting! This sort of help is allowed only if it’s offered to all mushers equally, so when a person chooses to open up their home and feed and clothe people, they’re really offering it up.

Each checkpoint also has at least one veterinarian available to check in on the dogs. Dogsled racing is largely about the dog teams, after all. Many mushers actually breed their own sled dogs. Libby’s dogs were half hers and half her partner Joe’s. Throughout the book, we get to know her dogs a bit and see how much care she gives to them. Libby also won the award given by the vets to the musher who took best care of their dogs, an interesting accomplishment for the person who also won the whole thing that year.

This isn’t to say that mushers are never alone or reliant only on themselves and their dogs. As the race goes on, they get more spread out from each other. At one point, Libby must camp out on her sled in the middle of a blizzard completely alone. Also the further in front you are, the less clear the trail is, and the easier it is to get lost. So winning is also about having the fortitude to go ahead of everyone else.

I enjoyed how I learned about the Iditarod without ever feeling like it was a textbook. The learning happened naturally as I followed Libby on her route and rooted for her inevitable win I knew was coming. You can see some footage of Libby in the 1985 Iditarod and her induction moment into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame here. If you have little ones in your life, you might like to get Libby’s children’s book about her historic Iditarod win. The adult memoir is a fun and educational read for anyone interested in the tale.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 244 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

A digital book cover featuring the head of a deer with the title written between the antlers.

Summary:
Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

Review:
This book really kept me on the edge of my seat. I never knew what was going to happen next. I kept glancing at my Libby app (I listened to the audiobook) to check how much was left, because I felt certain the only remaining plot was about to wrap up without much left to say. But then a whole new twist would occur, and I’d find myself with an entirely different situation to choose sides in.

The author is Blackfoot Native American, and so this is an own voices book about these four Blackfoot men in Montana. My father and brother lived in Montana for a few years, and I visited them there, and I found myself smiling at how rapidly and well the scenes were set in Great Falls. In spite of the surrounding fantastical element of – is there or is there not a mythical creature after these young men – everything read as authentic and real.

Something I worried about slightly going into a horror, because I always worry about this going into horror books, was about what level of violence might be seen against women. Although women are not entirely safe from the mystical creature, it felt to me like a flip-flop of what is normally seen in horror. With men being the ones more likely to fall victim than women. I couldn’t articulate exactly why I felt this way, but I felt a respect toward women in the book. This is reflected in the author’s note at the end, where he notes his deep love and respect for Native women. I especially liked the character Denorah – the daughter of one of the men who wants to make it good.

Although who and how the horror happens was a refreshing change, this is definitely a gory horror read. This mystical creature has no empathy for anyone, including dogs. This is no fault of the author. That’s what’s expected of horror. I think a few years ago I would have given this five stars, in fact. But personally I’m finding myself less able to handle gore than I once was. So keep that in mind as you go into it.

There’s also a strong connecting subplot regarding basketball. A lot of characters play it, and some important scenes happen on the court. Now, I simply am not interested in basketball. Ok, it goes beyond a lack of interest. I detest the sound of basketballs being dribbled and actively stay away from basketball courts if I can. So for me those scenes detracted from the book, because I had to pay attention to them because important plot points were occurring. But it was basketball. That said, I think a reader who loves basketball would be super into this book for this reason. It’s not a basketball book per se but it’s a book with characters who love the game and have important moments on the court.

Overall, this is a delightful addition to the horror genre that showcases all that makes own voices books so great. It brings fresh plots and perspectives, a fantastical mystical creature, but is still grounded in a realistic today. Particularly recommended to readers who don’t mind gore and love basketball.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Series, #1)

March 8, 2022 2 comments
Image of a digital book cover with a cartoon drawing of a street in San Francisco.

Summary:
San Francisco, 1976. A naïve young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous

Review:
This was first published as a novel in 1978, although it was published prior to that as a serialized story in a San Francisco newspaper. It is considered a classic of LGBTQIA+ literature. The first tv show miniseries based upon it that premiered in 1994 had a same-sex kiss made history and was also protested (source). The Netflix reboot/update in 2019 brought fresh attention to it, and I thought it was high-time I read the classic.

It’s clear that some restraints were placed upon Maupin, either by the newspaper or simply the culture of the time. Our window into the queer world in San Francisco is given to us by Mary Ann Singleton – a single cis straight woman who comes from Cleveland for a visit and decides to stay. She’s invited into Barbary Lane and declared one of us, although why exactly she’s considered part of the found family is not resolved in the first book.

The book is definitely a product of the 1970s. 1970s fashion and freewheeling culture are everywhere. Lack of acceptance of queer people is a real threat and concern, and the AIDS crisis had not yet hit. It’s an interesting snapshot of a very particular point in time.

While characters are quite loose about who they will sleep with, there’s also a lack of diversity in the cast of main characters that’s jarring. Especially for a story set in a city that’s so diverse. Particularly noticeable to me was how the Asian-American characters are all peripheral, even with this being San Francisco. I don’t think this lack of diversity is a product of its time – there were other very forward-thinking works of fiction at the same time as this. This lack of diversity is something to keep in mind when approaching the book.

There are also two plot twists that revolve around race, and I don’t think either is handled with particular grace. The race of someone’s lover is identified by pointing to a yellow flower. This is obviously offensive. While it seems to me that the character who does this is someone we’re supposed to think badly of, on the other hand, it seemed to me that this was supposed to be a funny moment. And it definitely was not. In the other case, a character reveals that they believe that the only way to become a successful model is to be Black. It is unclear what the other character they are speaking to thinks of that. I think this instance may be intentionally leaving it up to the reader to decide what they think, but it’s also a strange plot point in a book that’s mostly about hookups and very little about careers.

This reminded me very much of other books and tv shows that have dramatic, gasp-inducing storylines with large casts of characters whose lives intertwine and overlap in mysterious ways. Think Jane the Virgin or Desperate Housewives just with fewer identical twins and less murder (so far…..) and more queer characters. If you like that type of storytelling, then you’ll likely find this hilarious and engaging. If you don’t, then you probably won’t.

I personally found it to be a rapid read with an engaging storyline and funny chapter titles. I wished it had been more forward-thinking and intersectional, but I also respect that the mere depiction of queer people in a soap opera like story was quite groundbreaking. I appreciate it for what it is, and it was a fun, quick read.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 386 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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