New Books Read
The Last Hero by Linden A. Lewis***
Book Hangover Alert**
The First Sister Trilogy book 3 of 3
CW: fantasy racism, oppression, scientific research and testing without consent, prostitution
The stunning conclusion to the First Sister Trilogy, this book is a whirlwind of war, politics, and resistance. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read the first two books. I enjoyed the final book, though I do feel like the pacing was relentless in that every chapter we switched character POVs and every chapter the POV character was in mortal danger. It was exhausting as a reader. The book is already pretty long, but I felt I need some places to rest when the characters could breathe. But I found the series conclusion satisfying.
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer***
CW: slavery, n-word, racism
I wanted to like this book more than I did. In Barbados just after the end of slavery, a mother searches for her children who were sold away from her plantation. She discovers freedom in the long shadow of slavery. While I was interested in learning more about the history of slavery in the Caribbean and about the legacy of slavery, particularly how it continued with the ‘apprenticeships’ after the legal end of slavery, I didn’t feel like I connected with any of the characters. I also felt that the protagonist’s journey was almost too easy. She actually does find out what happened to all of her children which seems sort of unlikely. I also found the way the dialogue was written to be rather jarring. I’m sure it was probably historically more accurate than writing the dialogue like we speak today, but it pulled me out of the story.
Hellbent by Leigh Bardugo
Book Hangover Alert**
Alex Stern book 2 of at least 2
I was utterly useless for three days while I sat and read this book, doing everything one handed and complaining about going to work. Alex Stern, agent of Lethe, the oversight agency of the secret societies at Yale, continues her quest to rescue her mentor Darlington, ready to go through hell and back to bring him home. It was excellent. Perhaps even better than the first one. There are a few pretty traumatic events in the first book, and this one was in my opinion less traumatic. We also got to spend more time with characters we already love, so that’s why I think I enjoyed it even more than Ninth House.
5/5 rituals to open a portal to hell
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Scholomance book 1 of 3
This book was very enjoyable. In an odd way, it reminded me of Gideon the Ninth in that it was a fantasy with a complicated magic system and world building with a protagonist with a very distinctive voice. Unlike Gideon the Ninth though, I liked it. I liked El’s distinct voice and how she grew over the novel. It was a little hard to understand the magic system and world at first but it was very unique and worth the effort to understand it.
The Sun and the Star by Rick Riordan and Mark Oshiro***
Companion to the Percy Jackson series
We’ve all been waiting for Uncle Rick to give us a book about Nico and Will and it’s finally here! Nico, son of Hades, and Will, son of Apollo, must undertake a quest to Tartarus to rescue a friend. Along the way, they’ll learn just how much they mean to one another. This book was good. It was enjoyable and I’m grateful to Riordan and Oshiro for writing it because it think there are some teenaged queers that need to see themselves represented in fantasy. I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped; I didn’t love it as much as the first two series of Percy Jackson books. There was a lot of working through trauma and developing healthy relationships, which are of course good things, but sometimes you just want demigods making jokes and killing monsters.
The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill
CW: domestic violence
I love Barnhill’s work. In the near future, a teenaged girl’s mother falls in love with a man who is sometimes a crane, and sometimes a man. The crane soon becomes an abusive and menacing presence, demanding the mother, a talented weaver, create a masterpiece for him. The protagonist is then left to care for the house and her younger brother alone without the income from her mother’s work, and unable to convince her mother of the evil of the crane. The novella is a dark fantasy reimagining of the crane wife folktale from Japanese mythology, and it does a wonderful job of examining domestic violence, generational trauma, and the patriarchy.
The Bone Shard War by Andrea Stewart***
**Book Hangover Alert
The Drowning Empire book 3 of 3
Another conclusion to a trilogy this month. Two years after the conclusion of book two, Emperor Lin is struggling to hold her empire together as the governors grumble, resistance factions spring up, and the secrets of the Alanga threaten to tumble her rule. Sometimes I feel like writers give their characters too much adversity. I realize the story would be boring without it, but at this point I just want Lin and Jovis to be happy. The conclusion to the series was bittersweet and satisfying, which is really the most I can ask of any book.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz***
CW: homophobia, hate crimes
This book gets a lot of hype on BookTok, and I’ll be honest, I thought it was going to be more gay. In this coming of age novel, Mexican-American Ari and his best friend Dante learn how to be themselves in a world that’s not always kind. The book is compulsively readable but I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. Ari has a lot of self loathing to work out, which is a relatable experience for many queer teens, but is not always enjoyable to read. I have one other qualm but it’s a spoiler so read on at your own risk. Read More: SPOILERS AHEAD
Throughout the book, Ari is obsessed with knowing more about his brother who has been in jail since he was young and no one in his family will talk about him. Ari eventually finds out that his brother committed a homophobic hate crime, murdering a trans person. And that doesn’t really seem to bother Ari that much? Which I thought was odd? Ari is irate when he learns Dante is beaten to within an inch of his life for being gay, but he seems to feel no anger that his brother committed that crime. And I understand that Ari is worried about becoming like his brother because he also has anger issues and likes to fight. But he chooses to put up photos of his brother and wants to write to him in prison and while I’m all for forgiveness and healing, I didn’t understand why he wasn’t more upset that his brother MURDERED someone, specifically a trans woman.
3/5 birds with broken wings
Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun by Jennifer L. Shaw***
CW: antisemitism, homophobia
This lovely coffee table book details the life of Claude Cahun, an artist and writer active in the Surrealist movement of the 1920s. Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore also resisted fascism, running a sophisticated anti-Nazi propaganda movement on the occupied island of Jersey during WWII. The book is fascinating and full of photographs of Cahun and Moore’s work. Moore was an artist in her own right and she and Cahun collaborated on much of their artistic work.
3.5/5 surreal collages
Atalanta by Jennifer Saint
CW: victim blaming, rape
Jennifer Saint is one of my favorite writers of mythological reimaginings. Atalanta follows the titular character from her abandonment on a mountain as a baby, her childhood being raised by bears and nymphs of Artemis, and her involvement in the Argonaut’s quest for the golden fleece. The champion of Artemis and the only woman on the quest, through Atalanta’s eyes we get to experience the myth of the golden fleece anew through a feminist lens. I adored it.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan***
CW: genocide, slavery, antisemitism, war
Based on a true story, this novel follows the experiences of Pino Lella during WWII as he helped refugees flee across the Alps from Italy to Switzerland and then became a spy for the resistance in the Nazi high command by driving for General Hans Leyers. The book was definitely very engaging and interesting. I didn’t know much about the war in Italy. That being said, there have been some rumblings on the internet about how much truth there is in this ‘true story.’ The author’s note states the following:
“Due to the document burning, the collective amnesia, and the death of so many characters by the time I learned of the story, I have been forced in places to construct scenes and dialogue based solely on Pino’s memory decades later, the scant physical evidence that remains, and my imagination fueled by my research and informed suspicions. I have also comingled or compressed events and characters for the sake of narrative coherence and have fully dramatized incidents that were described to me in much more truncated forms.
As a result, then, the story you are about to read is not a work of narrative nonfiction, but a novel of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945.”-Mark T. Sullivan
So perhaps it’s more constructive to think about this book like a movie based on a true story–as we know movies always “Hollywoodize” the true story. Several different people on the internet have made different claims about the veracity of several pieces of the narrative. So I guess I would say to read the book, enjoy it, learn more about the broad strokes of WWII in Italy, but treat the book more as a historical fiction.
3.5/5 cathedrals of God
Weyward by Emilia Hart
CW: domestic violence, abuse, trauma, rape
I enjoyed this book. It was my March BOTM pick. The novel follows three women from different generations of the Weyward family as they discover their affinity with nature, survive abusive men, and come into their own power. I found all three narratives compelling and I liked the way they were all woven together. I did find the writing style a little choppy and featuring too many em dashes (which contributed to the choppiness) at least in the first half of the book. It didn’t bother me as much in the second half, either because I got used to it or the writing flowed better later on.
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang***
The Poppy War book 1 of 3
CW: genocide, extreme body horror and mutilation, rape, war, addiction, colorism, racism, human experimentation, self harm, slavery
I loved Babel by Kuang so I was really excited to read this book. The start to an epic fantasy trilogy, the story follows Rin, an orphan from a remote part of the Nikara Empire who tests into the elite military academy Sinegard where she attempts to prove she belongs there. Along the way she discovers her own shamanic powers and begins to unravel the mysteries of her past. The book is inspired by Chinese military history from the mid-20th century but set in a world closer to the Song Dynasty of the 13th century, with fantastical elements. It’s an incredible work of fantasy to be sure. I didn’t love it, and it isn’t because it wasn’t good. It was good. All the characters, but especially Rin, were so complex and interesting and flawed. It was so fresh and new and I’ve never read anything like it. But it was a little too dark for my taste. It was a little too gory. The atrocities were more gruesome and horrifying than I wanted to read about. I’m not very knowledgable about Chinese and Japanese history, so it’s possible that some of the atrocities described by Kuang are inspired by actual events, in which case I think it’s important to learn about those things, however, I didn’t necessarily pick up this book because I wanted to read 101 ways humans can desecrate other humans. That being said, I’ll probably still read the rest of them.
4/5 poppy seeds
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang***
Book Hangover Alert**
CW: racism, microaggressions, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts
I can’t stop thinking about this book. And I’m not sure I’ve thought about it long enough to form a coherent review of it. Yellowface follows June Hayward, a white author who steals an unfinished novel draft from her Asian-American author friend after her untimely death. June finishes the novel and passes it off as her own and we watch as everything spirals out of control. This book reminded me of Self Care in it’s page-turning, watching-a-train-wreck quality. And June reminded me of the protagonists in Self Care, who were the same kind of white woman (we all know the one). Kuang’s biting satire of the publishing industry brings up a lot of important issues like who should be able to tell what kind of story, what is cultural appropriation, how the publishing industry treats writers of color, how privilege operates in the industry, how white women weaponize their own victimhood. It was so good. I might have more to say later, but I’m still in the lie-on-the-floor stage of the Book Hangover.
5/5 stolen manuscripts
**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 The Last Hero for disability, LGBTQIA+ rep in sci-fi. Read River Sing Me Home to learn about the legacy of slavery in Barbados. Read The Sun and the Star for LGBTQIA+ rep in fantasy. Read The Bone Shard War for an Asian inspired fantasy with LGBTQIA+ rep. Read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe for a Mexican-America, gay coming of age story. Read Exist Otherwise: The Life and Words of Claude Cahun to learn about a forgotten female, lesbian artist and her heroic resistance against the Nazis. Read Beneath a Scarlet Sky to learn more about WWII and the atrocities committed in Italy. Read The Poppy War for a fantasy inspired by Chinese and Japanese history. Read Yellowface to learn more about racism and microaggressions in the publishing industry.
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.