September 2020 Books

Books Reread

The Sandman Radio Drama by Neil Gaiman
CW: for mature audiences
Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors (another features later in the post). I’ve read the Sandman comics, but Audible has just put out this radio drama that covers #1-20, or the first 3 collected volumes, Preludes and Nocturnes, A Doll’s House, and Dream Country. Though I love the art from the comics, and that aspect of the Sandman story should not be missed, I really loved the radio play as well. James McAvoy played a wonderful Dream, and Kat Dennings was superb as Death. Gaiman himself plays the narrator.
3.5/5 dreaming cats (cats are something of a theme this month)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little Women is one of my absolute favorites. Whenever someone asks me that question “What literary character do you most relate to?” I always say Jo March, like practically every other young, independent feminist. “Timeless classic” is a cliche but this book really is one. I love the feminine-centric story, the love between the sisters, the sweet, funny, and moving trials each sister faces. I also love basically every adaptation of the story. The 1994 movie? Fabulous. The 2018 miniseries? Delightful. The Broadway musical? Perfection. The 2020 movie? Masterpiece. This time I listened to the Audible original version read by Laura Dern and a full cast. It’s not verbatim the original text, but it’s still wonderful.
5/5 sensational stories by Jo March for the Weekly Volcano Press

New Books Read

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire
Wayward Children book 4 of 5
This may have been my favorite book yet from McGuire’s Wayward Children series. The Goblin Market is my favorite of the worlds we’ve been able to explore through McGuire’s infinite doors. In this installment we learn the backstory of Lundy, a character from Every Heart a Doorway, the first book in the series. The story is at once beautifully imaginative, heartbreakingly sad, and absolutely fair.
4/5 fruit pies

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
Book Hangover Alert**
I absolutely adore David Mitchell’s work. I’ve read all his books and have been eagerly awaiting this one since 2015. My favorite thing about his books is that they all exist in the same universe and the characters of one story may waltz through another if you’re paying attention. All across time his stories intersect and interlock. Though you don’t have to have read any of his previous works to understand and enjoy this book, I would recommend reading The Bone Clocks and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as companions for maximum mind-bogglingness. Mitchell’s stories all have an element of the fantastical but the writing, characterization, and world-building is such that you could comfortably live in the house he has created with his words and not realize the walls were made of paper. Utopia Avenue tells the story of a folk-rock band born in London’s fertile 1960s music scene. Not only do characters from Mitchell’s other works make cameos, but real classic rock and folk icons from the 60s jam their way through the novel. The book was so good I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it and I now feel like I have to go back and reread all his books again. Best of all, the book comes with a Spotify playlist for maximum reading and listening pleasure.
6/5 chart-topping singles

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson***
CW: anti-Black racism, murder
A gritty historical-fiction/supernatural tale of mobsters and crooked cops set in New York City in the 1940s, Johnson’s novel examines race and thorny issues of morality. The novel follows Pea, an assassin with blessed hands. Some people of color are blessed with special abilities by saint-blessed hands. Naturally, white people want anything that people of color have that they don’t, so what follows is a twisted, dark tale that, like a throwing knife thrown high into the air, you won’t be able to look away from.
4/5 tarot cards

Books read for the Community Cats Podcast

I read the following* books for a book review post on the Community Cats Podcast blog. You’ll be able to read it here when it’s posted.

The Lion in the Living Room by Abigail Tucker
Honestly, I was pretty disappointed by this book. I did not enjoy it. Tucker tries to tease out the mystery of how cats have found a place in our hearts and taken over our homes and lives, even though we didn’t domesticate them like dogs or other animals, and they supposedly don’t contribute anything to our lives. Unfortunately, the book reads like a laundry list of reasons why we shouldn’t like cats–including but not limited to their status as an invasive species, their possible link to schizophrenia through an invasive parasite they can give their owners, and studies that show no real health benefits to owning a cat as well as some health risks. Apart from all the science and history she piles up that make cats seem like the worst human-animal alliance in history, she also makes cat lovers sound insane, from breeding and cat fanciers to Jackson Galaxy and the pet product industry, from TNR advocates to Instagram-famous cat owners. Though much of the science and history was interesting, I felt Tucker failed to discover the true nuance of the human-cat bond. Perhaps the benefits I receive from having my cat in my life are not quantifiable by science, or studies, or terms that can be qualified as “useful to humanity,” but I certainly believe my life is better for having my cat in it.
2/5 toxoplasma gondii parasites

How to Take Awesome Photos of Cats by Andrew Marttila
I’ve read the book, but I’m obviously still working on this one (see above photos). Marttila’s book was a great and very accessible guide to getting better photos of your cat. The book covered basic photography skills, tips for working with feline subjects, specific guides for using smart phones for photography as well as dedicated cameras, basic editing suggestions, and how to use the great photos you’ve taken. Marttila’s tone is casual and easygoing and not at all overwhelming, as some other photography guides can be–full of technical jargon that you feel dumb for not knowing. I’m excited to give his suggestions a try, especially those about editing as I’ve never really known much about that.
3.5/5 cats on catnip

My Life in a Cat House by Gwen Cooper
Author of Homer’s Odyssey, Gwen Cooper writes this time about all the cats she has shared her home with over the years. The memoir is structured into short stories focusing on each of the unique feline’s she has known. I hadn’t read Homer’s Odyssey but I was drawn in to Cooper’s world by her writing style and her keen observation of her feline family. The memoir was a joy for any cat lover, who will recognize the idiosyncrasies and the charm of sharing your home with a cat. At times funny and touching, Cooper fully characterizes each of the five cats she has shared her life with.
3.5/5 unique felines

Our Symphony with Animals by Aysha Akhtar M. D.***
CW: sexual abuse of children, animal abuse, trauma, PTSD, violent crime, drug abuse, discussion of serial murder and abuse of women 
I thought this book, based on its title and cover, was going to be hokey and eye-rollingly sentimental. Boy, was I wrong. This book provided me with everything I felt I was missing from The Lion in the Living Room. Dr. Akhtar’s book explores the deep bond of empathy humans share with all animals and how that bond can be incredibly healing. This, I felt, was what Tucker failed to talk about in her quest to understand why people love cats.  Dr. Akhtar also discusses the idea that a lack of empathy toward animals could translate to a lack of empathy toward humans. She visits prisons, animal rescues, poultry farms, the New York Police Department, among others, and speaks with veterans living with PTSD, a serial killer, detectives investigating animal cruelty cases, a former mobster, an ex-rancher, and more. She also cites a wealth of studies and scientific evidence that support the anecdotes and interviews that fill her book. She succeeded in convincing me that a strong empathetic bond between humans and animals is both natural and necessary to a healthy way of living. It’s even convinced me it’s time to be a vegetarian (something I’ve been thinking about a long time).
4.5/5 vegetarians

*Included in my Community Cats Podcast blog post but not here is New Choices in Natural Healing for Cats and Dogs: Herbs, Acupressure, Massage, Homeopathy, Flower Essences, Natural Diets, Healing Energy, 2017 by Amy Shojai, because I didn’t read the whole thing, which is generally a requirement for this blog (it’s a medical handbook, you aren’t supposed to read it cover to cover). I did read the introduction and methodology, which I summarize in the CCP blog.

**Book Hangover Alert indicates the kind of book that will leave you full up on love. Satisfied, but wishing the book never had to end. You’ll be laying on the floor with no idea what to do with yourself (other friends have called this feeling Good Book Depression or say that certain books necessitate Floor Time). This is the kind of book that gets its teeth in you and won’t let go easily. After the last page you’ll be thinking about this book for a long time. You’ll bother all your friends trying to get them to read it so that you won’t be alone in your Hangover.

***This book is part of my Books for a Social Conscience series! Read Trouble the Saints to learn more about anti-Black racism, passing, and corruption in the police and how, although set in the 1940s, those issues are still relevant today. Read Our Symphony with Animals to learn more about empathy for animals, how cruelty to animals can lead to cruelty to humans, and the paradox of protecting some animals (companion animals, endangered animals) and hurting others (animal agriculture farms, scientific testing).

Reads marked as part of the Books for a Social Conscience series will regularly address topics like race and racism, colonialism and post-colonialism, LGBTQ+ experience, feminism, BIPOC experience, social and political issues, history, identity, class, disability experience, immigration, gun violence, poverty, colorism, environmentalism, and more! The goal of these books is to diversify the stories we’re reading, grow our empathy for those who are different from us, and amplify voices who are often silenced.

August 2020 Books

A stack of books

Books Reread

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling*
Harry Potter book 1 of 7
I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd and I’ve read all the books so many times–well mostly I’ve listened to them a lot of times. We have all the audiobooks read by Jim Dale (my absolute favorite narrator). When each book came out my family would buy the book and the book on tape (back when there were tapes) and then by about book 5 we were buying the book on CD when it came out. This was because my older sister got to read the book first and I, not wanting to wait to read it until she was finished, would listen to the book. We’ve lately been listening to the Harry Potter at Home recordings, where actors associated with the franchise read chapters or portions of chapters. None of them were quite as good as Jim Dale, I think, but I still loved hearing the story again, and I was able to follow along in the gorgeous illustrated edition. A side note: I love illustrated books, especially when they’re not children’s books.
And yes, I’m a Slytherin.
5/5 post-carrying owls

New Books Read

The cover of Children of Virtue and Vengeance shows a black woman with white hair and gold tattoos

Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adyemi ***
Legacy of Orisha book 2 of 3
I love the rich fantasy Adyemi creates in these books. The world is based in West African mythology and Yoruba language and culture. The basic conflict is between those with the ability to use magic, marked by their white hair, and those without magic. The non-magic people have been oppressing the magic-users for many years and managed to block their access to magic. Without giving away what happens in the first book, I’ll just say that the second book was also good, and I’ll definitely be reading the final installment when it comes out. This book did have a lot of conflict and a lot of the characters were annoying in that they didn’t seem to be able to listen to each other or work together, which was a bit frustrating as a reader. However, the conflict was believable and understandable. I’m definitely interested to see how Adyemi wraps everything up. I hope there’s a happy ending for both Zelie and Amari.
3/5 magical glowing auras

The cover of the Kingdom of Back shows an upside down blue tree with spindly branches below and roots above with 2 moons in the sky

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu
This book was delightful. A mix of fantasy and historical fiction, it took readers back to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s childhood through the eyes of his older sister Maria Anna, or Nannerl. From history we know that Nannerl was also an accomplished pianist and prodigy in her own right. It is suspected that she wrote her own compositions but none now survive under her own name. Lu explores Nannerl’s talent for composition and weaves in the fantastical world of the Kingdom of Back. The prince of this faerie kingdom offers Nannerl her dearest wish to be remembered, but Nannerl soon finds that the price of this dream may be higher than she is willing to pay.
4.5/5 piano concertos

Cover of The Beautiful shows a silver goblet pouring out rose petals

The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh
Book 1 of 2
CW: murder of women, attempted rape, racism
Everyone loves a good fantasy romance set in New Orleans in the 1800s full of vampires, seedy characters, and a plucky heroine with a secret, right? Well, I do. Ahdieh’s books are so hard to put down and I just devoured this one. I’m excited to read the next one (I do love a duology). One thing I loved about the book was that it wasn’t whitewashed. Many historical fiction books ignore the people of color who lived at that time (unless it’s a slave narrative, or a book specifically about racism), so it was really refreshing to see a variety of people in Ahdieh’s book. We got the chance to examine the tensions of race and identity and what it means to be able to pass, without that being the main focus of the novel. I also loved the characters. Celine is smart and has a healthy (or perhaps not so healthy?) thrill-seeking streak. Odette is delightful and I’m definitely ready to see more of her in the next book. And of course, Bastien. Who doesn’t love a bad boy (at least in fiction, anyway–in real life they’re so disappointing)?
4.5/5 embroidered handkerchiefs

Cover of The Witches of NY shows a sepia photograph of a Victorian woman with a black box over her face, only revealing her left eye

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay
CW: murder of women, religious fanaticism, torture
Another supernatural/historical fiction mash-up! I guess that was the theme this month. Set in New York in 1880, two witches run a tea shop, catering to the ladies of New York City. When they hire a new shopgirl who can see ghosts, their world is turned upside-down. I loved this feminist tale full of intrigue, science and the supernatural, and a priest convinced he’s doing the work of God by trying to eliminate witches–but instead he is helping demons. I really enjoyed it and still hoping there will be a sequel? It came out in 2014 but as far as I can tell there isn’t yet a sequel. Anyone know if there will be more Witches of New York?
4/5 ghosts

Cover of Ilustrado shows a design in white and orange on black

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco***
Set in the Philippines, Syjuco takes readers on a wild post-modern literary ride, weaving together the story of a young writer who shares his name and an older, established Filipino writer named Crispin Salvador. After Salvador’s reported death at the beginning of the novel, Syjuco sets out to write the definitive biography of his former mentor and literary idol. Through this work we learn both about Salvador’s life, and about Syjuco’s life, as well as seeing clips from Salvador’s published works. I thought this was really interesting. The inclusion of these short pieces supposedly parts of Salvador’s novels functioned as flash fiction pieces that were able to stand on their own, but also evoked a longer work. With all the skipping around and fragmentation of the novel, I expected to be confused, but I wasn’t. I’ve only read one other book by a Filipino author (Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn) and I’d definitely be interested to read more; I like the way both novels weave together the stories of many different characters as well as exploring the socio-political happenings in the Philippines.
The New York Times wrote a much better review of Ilustrado, so feel free to read it here.
3.5/5 hits of cocaine

Cover of Grave Peril shows the silhouette of a man in a hat with a staff in a misty room

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher
The Dresden Files book 3 of 17
Yet another solid installment in the life and times of Harry Dresden, wizard. It’s called Grave Peril because there are ghosts and vampires. Get it? Grave? Anyway, as ever Butcher’s books are full of action, humor, lore, and interesting characters. I especially enjoyed Micheal and Charity in this one. I also like a super gross, ugly, vile vampire (as opposed to the sparkly kind) and boy, does Butcher deliver. I’m a fan of how Dresden is developing over the course of the series. He has already grown emotionally more mature, and I hope we get to see that keep developing in the next 14 books.
3.5/5 vampires

Cover of The Illustrated Man shows a tattooed arm with lions bounding out of the tattoo

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
I’ve always enjoyed Bradbury’s work and this book was no different. The collection of short stories is structured like a nested narrative, with all the stories playing out in the tattoos on the skin of the Illustrated Man. Each story offers a glimpse of the future, full of space travel, Martians, advanced technology, and most of all the human condition. Each story had that surprise punch that is so coveted in a good short story. My favorite stories were “The Veldt,” in which a virtual reality room isn’t virtual enough, “The Other Foot,” which Bradbury had trouble getting published because it was about Black people going off to colonize Mars, “The Fox and the Forest,” which involves time travel and a chase, “The City,” which features a sinister city, and “Zero Hour” which features sinister children. My only complaint is the female characters. They aren’t many, and they’re all pretty boring (except for Mink, the child from “Zero Hour”). All the other women are wives and/or mothers who fall in to one of the following categories. 1. Frightened of something: of the technology of their house (“The Veldt”), of what will happen when the white man arrives in the rocket (“The Other Foot,” though Hettie is arguably the best of the wives), of their husband on a rocket dying (“The Rocket Man”), of being caught and sent back to the future (“The Fox in the Forest”), of Martians (“Zero Hour”), of their husband killing them (“The Illustrated Man,” though that one is warranted). 2. Nagging their husband (“The Marionettes, Inc.,” “The Rocket,” “The Illustrated Man,” and a few other instances). And I think all the rest of the stories didn’t have women in them at all, or just a passing reference to a wife or lover. I mean honestly, in the future when space travel is common, you think women aren’t going to be on the rockets?
3/5 tattoos

Cover of Night Sky with Exit Wounds shows a photo of a grandmother, mother and son

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong***
Everything Ocean Vuong writes is gorgeous. I loved his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous because of its poetic prose. This book was his first book of poetry and it was also gorgeous, enduringly so. My favorite poems were “Aubade with Burning City,” “Notebook Fragments,” “Prayer for the Newly Damned,” and “Immigrant Haibun,” though choosing favorites of his poems is something like choosing a favorite star in the heavens. Each poem is meticulously crafted with a wonderful ear for rhythm, metaphor, imagery, and sound. He has a way of describing things we are all familiar with in a way that makes them something new to discover.
4/5 exit wounds

Cover of Gingerbread shows a crow holding a branch with an orange growing on it

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi***
This book is unlike anything else I’ve ever read, and, not to brag, but I’ve read a lot of books. Part fairytale, part dream, part mother-daughter story, the novel is filled with magical realism and is utterly unique. I love fairytale retellings, but this isn’t really one. Crumbs of Hansel and Gretel are sprinkled throughout, but I wouldn’t call it a retelling; it’s something far more original. I don’t even know how to tell you about it. NPR said it best in their review: “Trying to summarize the plot of Gingerbread is like trying to describe a strange dream you had — it’s nearly impossible to put something so odd and compelling into words that will actually convey the experience.”
4/5 gingerbread shivs

*Though I love, and will always love, the Harry Potter stories and universe, I can no longer support J. K. Rowling as a person. Trans women are women.

***This book is part of my Books for a Social Conscience series! Read Children of Virtue and Vengeance to learn more about Yoruba and West African mythology, to see Black characters in fantasy, and to see discrimination reframed based on magic use instead of race. Read Ilustrado to learn more about the socio-political state of the Philippines and how Spanish and American colonialism and post-colonialism impacted and continues to impact the Philippines. Read Night Sky with Exit Wounds to delve into poetry by a LGBTQ+ author of color and to learn more about the immigrant experience. Read Gingerbread to experience an original fairytale full of Black characters (something we so rarely see in fairytales), and to expose yourself to one of the finest emerging Black writers.
Reads marked as part of the Books for a Social Conscience series will regularly address topics like race and racism, colonialism and post-colonialism, LGBTQ+ experience, feminism, BIPOC experience, social and political issues, history, identity, class, disability experience, immigration, gun violence, poverty, colorism, environmentalism, and more! The goal of these books is to diversify the stories we’re reading, grow our empathy for those who are different from us, and amplify voices who are often silenced.