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.