Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
CW: racism, slavery, cannibalism
See my post, the Überbook, for more on my Big Summer David Mitchell Reread.
5/5 moon-gray cats
New Books Read
Friday by Robert Heinlein
CW: gang rape, torture
This is one of my dad’s favorite books and he’s been trying to get me to read it forever. I finally did. I didn’t love it. Artificial person and courier Friday must hide her enhanced abilities as she navigates the social and political conflicts of a Balkanized 21st century North America. Overall it doesn’t really have a plot, so it was tricky to write that little blurb. I chose not to hid any of this review for spoilers, and this is because I don’t recommend reading it. Read my review and don’t bother. This book is unique among sci-fi from the 80s in that it has a female protagonist. I’m sure that were I reading this in the 1980s, this would impress me very much. As it is, I’m a 21st century girl, used to 21st century female representation. Friday was such a male-gaze female character. It was awful; I felt like Heinlein was trying to convince me the whole time that he knows what it’s like to be a woman (he doesn’t, and I also hated all the female characters in the other book I’ve read of his). Maybe because she’s an artificial person, she’s supposed to read as an approximation of a female designed by men? But then that undermines Heinlein’s thesis that artificial people (or people genetically engineered in a lab and not born) are just as human as “purebloods.” There was also too much sex for my taste in the book. I get that Heinlein was trying to show a society whose attitudes toward sex and family were very different from the mainstream in 1982, but I don’t personally want to read about that much casual sex. Then we also need to talk about the gang rape. Friday is gang raped in the second chapter as part of being tortured for information about something that she carried as a courier. In the scene, Friday is able to use her training to not really suffer and even enjoy herself during the rape, and she experiences no trauma from this. To me this is misogynist and also reads kinda victim-blamey. Like oh, if you just have enough mental fortitude, then you won’t be bothered if you get raped! Ew. And then at the end of the novel, Friday reencounters one of the men who raped her and he’s like, “Oh, sorry, I was ordered to rape you and I didn’t really want to, but also you’re so hot I basically couldn’t help myself.” And Friday forgives him! And let’s him join her open polysexual relationship with several other people! Excuse me while I go throw up. Heinlein has a couple interesting ideas in the book as far as infrastructure in the future, and it’s nice that in the future society families and relationships can take non-nuclear shapes. Heinlein also has a good quote about the marks of a sick society that rings eerily true with regard to our own current society in the United States, but I would recommend Googling the quote instead of reading the whole book.
1/5 artificial people
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
CW: plague, death of children, infidelity
I’m a big fan of the new (?) genre of the imagined history novel. Hamnet follows William Shakespeare’s wife and children in Stratford while he’s off in London writing plays. We know almost nothing about them, other than their names and rough birth and death dates. O’Farrell’s writing is so lyrical and the way she created these characters is so lovely. She gives agency and personality to these women whose stories are lost to history. I didn’t like it quite as much as The Marriage Portrait, but it might possibly be because it’s hard to read about plague after you lived through one, and I was really interested in the art history aspect of The Marriage Portrait.
4.5/5 second-best beds
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
CW: child abuse, bullying
This was so delightful. I saw an ad for it on Facebook which said it was a cross between Red White and Royal Blue and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and since I love both those books, I immediately checked it out from the library. It did not disappoint. Discovering magic exists after a managerial error that led to his government job, Robin Blythe must team up with magician Edwin Courcey to unravel a plot that threatens all magicians in Britain. It’s gay and it slaps.
4/5 magic snowflakes
The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
**Book Hangover Alert
I love John Green. I love all his novels, but I was a little like, “eh not sure I want to read a nonfiction book.” But it was excellent! Green’s essay about seemingly disparate things (Kentucky blue grass, Canada geese, ginkgo trees, teddy bears, air conditioning) all speak to the wild, amazing, terrifying, beautiful, horrible experience of being a human. He does a wonderful job of blending personal stories, history, and science to examine what it means to be a human in this world. I loved it. I’ve also apparently watched enough of John Green’s videos that when I read the book, I heard the whole thing in his voice in my head.
4/5 teddy bears
Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo***
Acevedo’s adult debut, Family Lore, retains the the poetry-informed lyrical prose of her young adult work while delving into magical realism and examining more mature content and themes. After seeing a documentary, Flor decides to hold a living wake for herself, and, as someone with prophetic dreams that predict upcoming deaths, this troubles her family. Flor’s sisters, one with the ability to discern truth from lies, one with an affinity for plants and herbs, and one without an uncanny ability, only a passion for dancing, orbit Flor in the weeks leading up to the wake, though no one can make her reveal if she’s seen her own impending death. Flor’s sisters, daughter, and niece all play a part in helping to plan the wake, while balancing emotional upheavals in their own lives. The story skillfully skates between the family’s past in the Dominican Republic and present in New York City as Ona, Flor’s daughter and an anthropology professor, works to document her family through the lens of an ethnographer, afraid that this might be the last chance she has to understand her mother better. With heart, humor, and subtlety, Acevedo explores themes of family and legacy, immigration, and tradition and culture.
Six Creepy Sheep by Judith Ross Enderle and Stephanie Gordon Tessler, illustrated by John O’Brien
I went on a writing retreat at the Highlights Foundation campus in the Poconos with my MFA program, and it was so lovely. This book was in my cabin, and one of the prompts of the StoryGraph genre challenge this year was to read a children’s book you’ve never read before. It’s spooky season so this seemed perfect. It’s super cute! I liked the art and the simple rhyming prose.
3/5 creepy sheep
The Art Thief by Michael Finkel
**Book Hangover Alert
CW: destruction of art and cultural heritage
This book was a wild ride from start to finish. It’s a true crime tale of Stéphane Breitwieser, the world’s most prolific art thief. Breitwieser and his girlfriend stole more than 300 art works and artifacts from museums in France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria in the 1990s and 2000s. It was fascinating to read about Breitwieser, the only known art thief who stole things just to have them in his room–not for any economic gain. Finkel attempts to unravel Breitwieser’s psyche and examine how two people could have gotten away with so many heists before Breitwieser was finally caught.
4/5 priceless Renaissance oil portraits
Masters of Death by Olivie Blake
I enjoyed this book; it was fun. Death’s godson, Fox D’Mora, must save his godfather and all of humanity in the gambling game played by the immortals. With the help of a demon, a vampire, a ghost, a demigod, an angel, and a reaper, chaos ensues. I enjoyed a lot of the characters and the premise of the book. There was a little too much arguing, which is rarely interesting to read. I also listened to it and sometimes there weren’t quite enough dialogue tags to follow who was talking when we had big group scenes. I also really wanted to root for the romance between Fox and Brandt but I felt like all they did was argue and lie to each other. I wanted to see a little more tenderness or just happiness or fun between them. There was also too much use of the f-word. It just get’s tiresome and loses its power if it’s used too often in novels. But overall I enjoyed it.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn***
**Book Hangover Alert
CW: slavery, racism, death of a parent
This book was so great. After her mother’s tragic and suspicious death, Bree Matthews joins the mysterious Order of the Round Table, determined to find out if their magicians had anything to do with her mother’s death. Learning about the magic the Order practices, passed down by King Arthur and his knights, Bree begins to understand the magic that has lain dormant inside her and the legacy of her ancestors. This book was excellent. I love an Arthurian retelling, and this one was so fresh the way it also examined the legacy of slavery and generational trauma. I loved getting to know the characters, and I was right there with Bree as she unraveled the mystery. I’m excited to read the next one!
5/5 scions of Arthur
**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! First a caveat: I have decided that simply having queer people or people of color in a book is not enough to qualify it for the Books for a Social Conscience distinction. That sets the bar too low. So while in the past I would have marked A Marvellous Light and Masters of Death as Books for a Social Conscience, I have decided that the only way they are subverting dominant narratives is by having queer people and people of color in them. We love representation! Don’t get me wrong, but honestly at this point if you don’t have queer people and/or people of color in your book, like what are you doing? Maybe I should start marking books that I read that only have straight, white people in them.
Anyway, read Family Lore for a magical immigrant family. Read Legendborn for an interrogation of the legacy of slavery in the context of Arthurian legend.
Reads marked as part of the Books for a Social Conscience series will regularly address topics like race and racism, colonialism and post-colonialism, LGBTQIA+ 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.