November 2020 Books

Honestly, I didn’t read much this month, so this will be a short post. I participated in NaNoWriMo, so I was frantically trying to write a novel instead. Reading is definitely a way I procrastinate writing.

Books Reread

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling*
Harry Potter book 2 of 7
We went on a socially distanced road trip and there’s nothing like listening to the soothing tones of Jim Dale reading one of your favorite stories as you drive through the desert. Chamber of Secrets is probably one of my favorite of the Harry Potter books (though I’m not sure I can choose a favorite). I love the mystery and how all the loose ends tie up so neatly. It’s also fun rereading after you’ve read the whole series, because you can see how all the groundwork is laid for the later books. I think it’s super neat the way the books sort of work in parenthetical pairs, with this book connecting to the sixth book (this is where we first visit Bourgin and Burkes and see all the items that will be important in The Half Blood Prince; our first introduction to visiting another’s memories and to the horcruxes which are both super important in HBP; meeting Aragog who dies in HBP).
5/5 basilisks

New Books Read

Sourcebooks Landmark

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
Not good. Super disappointed. This book was set during the Great Depression in the boonies of Tennessee. It’s about this odd woman with blue skin who works as a packhorse librarian for the WPA. To me it read like a poorly constructed race narrative. This woman is the last of the blue people and she and her family are discriminated against because of their skin color. The way the story was told seemed like it was meant to emphasize discrimination against people of color, but by centering on a blue-skinned protagonist, it minimized the struggles of real people of color in favor of this mystical other race who had it even worse than Black people. It served to distance the reader from the characters. Though it may have depicted accurate racial discrimination, the reader could dismiss it because blue people don’t exist. The main character was problematic because she was so pure, unselfish, and kind, that it sends the message that she didn’t deserve to be discriminated against because look what a good person she was. No one deserves to be discriminated against. You don’t have to be a saint to not deserve that. Then there was also this white savior-y doctor who wanted to do experiments on the protagonist to figure out why she was blue and if she could be cured. She doesn’t have any agency to agree to or decline to participate in the tests and they are traumatic for her. And yet she still acts super grateful to this creepy doctor who has the “best interest” of the blues at heart. Then the doctor actually does find a cure that turns her blue skin white temporarily, though with side effects. She thinks people will treat her better because she’s white now but they don’t, so she has to learn to come to terms with her blueness. It was also unfeminist because the protagonist talks the whole book about how she doesn’t want to get married and she wants to keep her job as a librarian because of the independence it gives her, and then the minute the only not-awful man shows interest in marrying her, she throws away all her principles. The only thing I liked about the book was the packhorse librarian stuff (which is why I thought it sounded interesting enough to read in the first place). I liked learning more about that program which I have heard of before and think should still be a thing. I would love to ride a horse around delivering books to people.
Now, those were my thoughts after I finished the book. Then I read the author’s note which shed a little light on the author’s intentions for the book. Generally I don’t think authors’ intentions matter much; what matters is the reaction of the reader. But I learned from the author’s note that there was a real congenital disease called methemoglobinemia that affected a family in Tennessee and caused some of them to have blue skin. Apparently this is what the author was basing her fictional story on. So instead of a race narrative, we’re actually dealing with a disability narrative, and it’s still bad. There are a lot of tropes in disability literature and media about disabled people who are selfless and kind and bear their disability with grace so that the abled community can pity them and be ‘inspired’ by them, while still discriminating against them. Then we have the cure. Though the cure is historically factual, it’s problematic in disabled circles to try to find a cure to a disability that isn’t actually causing harm. For example for things like Autism, Down Syndrome, and others. Instead of trying to cure these disabilities, we should be trying to change our society to offer more accommodations, and be more understanding and accepting of diversity of thought and experience.
(Also I just saw that 86% of the people on Goodreads liked this book. Neat.)
2/5 ornery mules

Llewellyn Worldwide

The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian
The Accidental Alchemist Mysteries book 1 of 4
Also disappointing. Do not recommend. This was not a great month for reading. The language was repetitive, the story dragged, the characters were boring. And the main character was an alchemist who’d been alive for like 400 years, so it seems like it would be hard to make that kind of person boring. But she was not actually that good of an alchemist and very slow on the uptake, which was frustrating as a reader. Having a female character who has lived 400 years, I think, is a really interesting opportunity to analyze how the world has changed and how it has stayed the same for women and other minorities, but this is just something mentioned in passing in relation to women, not explored. There were too many characters and even when we learned their backstory it was like, “Wow, I still don’t care about them.” The mystery wasn’t a neat and satisfying story where all the clues come together in the end and you get that lovely Eureka! moment. Even when we found out what was going on, I was like, “Oh, that’s it?” And the protagonist falls in love with this detective (who doesn’t seem like he’s that good of a detective either), and the romance is just so eye-roll inducing. She talks to him like not that many times and the book would have been far more interesting if the love interest had been the bad guy (Spoiler alert, he’s not). Every time something exciting and sinister-seeming happened, it turned out to be just these teenagers getting up to mischief. Also way too many details about the protagonists energizing smoothies she drinks every morning. I. Do. Not. Care. The best part about the whole thing was Dorian, a gargoyle come to life who also happens to be a great French chef. He was definitely the most interesting character. We listened to this one on our road trip too and no one in my family was a fan.
2.5/5 talking gargoyles

Both of these not-very-good books came from Audible titles that are included with the subscription (meaning you don’t have to spend a credit on them). Is this because they couldn’t get people to actually spend money on them? Does this mean that all included titles are either Classics, bad, or both?

Now my Audible account is suggesting more books by these authors. Please. No.

*Trans women are women. Trans people are people.

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.