A Recap of My Reading in 2021

I previously posted about the books I read for prompts in Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge. In reading a total of 51 titles in 2021, I only managed to meet three of the prompts for that year’s challenge. I think instead of detailing those here, I’ll write about my 4 and 5 star reads of the year. I am just going to copy and paste the reviews I wrote for these books over on Goodreads and The StoryGraph, so some are much more thorough and detailed than others. Buckle up!

…my work pursuits are much more modest: neurons and proteins and mammals. I’m no longer interested in other worlds or spiritual planes. I have seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. In people, I’ve seen even more.

Gifty is a PhD candidate in neuroscience researching the neural mechanisms involved in reward-seeking behavior using optogenetics in mice. We learn about her childhood in Alabama as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, how her brother died of a heroin overdose, and how her mother has been sunk low by depression in waves ever since. We see how a turbulent history with her religion has shaped how she approaches the world today.

Gifty struggled when she first had to devise a project for her thesis. “Though I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life, and I didn’t want to give it even one more second of my time. But of course, there it was. The thing I really wanted to know. Can an animal restrain itself from pursuing a reward, especially when there is risk involved?” Parse out the technical language in her proposal, and it boils down to

Could this science work on the people who need it most? Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?

Beyond looking for a way to help people, we learn that Gifty’s research is also partially driven by a history of incompatible passions and self-loathing, inherited as part of growing up as a black girl in the southern United States. Her church, such a huge part of her early life, went from ecstatically praying for the success of the local star high school athlete to gossiping about addiction being more common in “his kind”.

Nana is the reason I began this work, but not in a wholesome, made-for-TED Talk kind of way. Instead, this science is a way for me to challenge myself, to do something truly hard, and in doing so to work through all of my misunderstandings about his addiction and all of my shame. Because I still have so much shame. I’m full to the brim with it; I’m spilling over. I can look at my data again and again. I can look at scan after scan of drug-addicted brains shot through with holes, Swiss-cheesed, atrophied, irreparable. I can watch that blue light flash through the brain of a mouse and note the behavioral changes that take place because of it, and know how many years of difficult, arduous science went into those tiny changes, and still, still think, Why didn’t Nana stop? Why didn’t he get better for us? For me?

In addition to telling us about Gifty’s brother, her upbringing, her religion, and her research, this story is also largely about her relationship with her mother. Their shared grief has in fact driven a wedge between them. Losing Nana has changed both irrevocably, but is it possible for them to find the way back to one another?

Gyasi’s writing is sublime. I realize this review is quote-heavy, but so much of it is eminently quotable. So allow me one last quote to wrap this thing up!

When I watched the limping mouse refuse the lever, I was reminded yet again of what it means to be reborn, made new, saved, which is just another way of saying, of needing those outstretched hands of your fellows and the grace of God. That saving grace, amazing grace, is a hand and a touch, a fiber-optic implant and a lever and a refusal, and how sweet, how sweet it is.

Very well written and sucks the reader in completely, as with French’s other novels I have read. Only, as her works are largely murder mysteries, don’t expect anything very uplifting.

A very interesting read about schizophrenia and the Galvin family.

As their twelve children passed through adolescence, Mimi and Don Galvin watched helplessly as six of them became psychotic. The author does a superb job balancing writing about the family with what is known about schizophrenia, including current research as well as the history of how it has been understood and treated over the centuries. Learning about the family members’ motivations and how their lives were turned upside down really added to the human interest side of things.

There’s a story of me and Violet that goes through my head sometimes. That story goes like this: …I am not a monster, and neither is she.

NOT a feel good book, that’s for sure, but The Push is a page-turning psychological drama that broke my heart. Seriously, I finished it in two sittings and cried two or three times. Maybe you have to be a parent yourself for it to hit you in the feels as much as it did for me, but still, full of riveting tension.

“…some parts of us are shaped by what we see. And how we’re treated by other people. How we’re made to feel…I don’t want you learning to be like me. But I don’t know how to teach you to be anyone different.”

She left us the next day.

I enjoy Gothic tales to begin with. Throw in an absolutely wonderful main character (Noemi has a sense of personal agency and seems like such a realistic, fully fleshed-out character) in a setting different from the usual (the mountains of Mexico instead of the moors of Europe) to shake things up a bit and add another level of interest, and this book was an all around winner.

After Noemi’s cousin marries someone her family knows little about and moves off to his ancestral home, she isn’t in touch very much. Until she sends a letter claiming her husband is poisoning her and there are voices in the walls. Virgil Doyle, the accused spouse, assures Noemi’s father that his wife is being well looked after by the family doctor in light of her troubling state of mind, but Noemi is sent to investigate whether or not they should insist her cousin be removed to the city to see a psychiatrist.

What Noemi finds is the reliably Gothic setting of a neglected old house inhabited by an exceedingly unusual family who do not welcome her presence. As she works at figuring out what is happening to her cousin, she begins to experience strange things herself. Most notably the nightmares that seem so real.

Noemi finds one potential ally in the patriarch’s nephew, the one family member who isn’t either openly hostile toward her or else leering at her lasciviously. Can she convince him to help her understand the truth about his family, what is really going on at High Place, and whether or not it is too late for her cousin to avoid the fate that awaits her as the newest Doyle?

Hints that began subtly enough were dropped about what the final reveal was going to be, but only enough that I entertained it as a possible component of the answer. There was no way I would have guessed the entirety of how it all came together, keeping me hanging on until the last.

Atmospheric, deliciously creepy up until it becomes outright horrifying, and with a hint of romance, this book only took me two sittings to devour. Delightful!

I found this book to be incredibly interesting. I enjoyed learning about HeLa cells – what makes them so unique, as well as all the scientific discoveries and medical advances that came around in part because of them. Learning about Henrietta and her family really lent to the human interest part of the story.

The book talks about the history of informed consent and ethics in research with human subjects. It was crazy to hear about some of the research done before there were federal laws and IRBs to protect people, like the physician who injected live cancer cells into people without telling them what it was (including cancer patients, prison inmates, and anyone who had gynecological surgery done at Sloan Kettering)!

The second part of the book deals more with Henrietta’s children and grandchildren learning that her cells were still alive in massive quantities 20+ years after her death, and being used in all sorts of research. Her children did not have many opportunities for education, and their health literacy was pretty much zilch. So when they learned that half of HeLa’s DNA was combined with half plant DNA to make a hybrid cell, they believed there was a creature in a lab that was half plant and half their mother. When a scientist in London used HeLa in his cloning research, her family legit believed there were clones of their mother living in London. Even years later, when other medical professionals asked to draw the family members’ blood, the consent was not at all informed – they thought their blood was being tested to see if they had the same cancer that killed their mother, and had no idea their DNA was being used for research.

Then there’s the question of who “owns” and has rights in regards to tissue taken from patients (in Henrietta’s case, without her knowledge). All of the HeLa cells that have existed since they were taken from Henrietta’s cervix in 1951 would probably add up to weigh more than 50 million metric tons, according to one scientist’s estimate made 10 years ago when this book was published. HeLa cells are still sold, often at prices of $100-300 per vial at the time of publication. So how fair is it that Henrietta Lacks’s children and grandchildren can’t afford even health insurance?

And there is a brief foray looking into the horrible things that likely happened to Henrietta’s eldest daughter at an institution for “the negro insane”. I don’t recall the second experiment they said she was likely subjected to her before her death there at the age of 15, but learning about the pneumoencephalographs they performed on residents was bad enough.

A very interesting read, with some really interesting facts reported in the Afterword as far as what rights people have over their own tissues today. Since the book is now 10 years old, I do wonder if anything has changed since then, and plan on looking into it myself.

The Blogess’s newest book is as immensely amusing as her others. If you’ve read her prior works, you’ll know just what to expect.

Lawson addresses health issues and makes points about why it’s okay to be “broken”, but interspersed with the real talk are her usual hilarious takes on stories from her life. Some of these are things she tweeted about when they happened, and as a follower of hers, there were few times throughout this book when I thought, “I remember when that happened!”

I listened to the audiobook, narrated wonderfully by the author herself. I would listen through ear buds while going on long walks around my neighborhood, and many times found myself laughing out loud and then looking around to see if anyone had witnessed it.

Needless to say, Jenny Lawson has become an auto buy for me.

Matt is an openly gay teen (well, open to everyone but his mother, as far as he knows) whose world was turned upside down when his sister took off without so much as a goodbye. In the course of trying to understand what drove her away, Matt realizes that starving himself gives him extraordinary powers. This YA book tackles family dynamics, first romance, and eating disorders/mental health, all while maintaining a very droll tone. A good book for teens, but just as interesting for adults.

SPOILER ALERT! UPCOMING SPOILER! AVERT YOUR EYES, ALL YE WHO WISH TO AVOID A SPOILING!

I do think it was an odd choice to reveal at the end of the book that Matt’s powers were real after all, and not tied to his mental health. An interesting twist, but I think it makes the story’s message less powerful.

Not only was it interesting to learn about the course of Shetty’s life and his time living at the ashram, but this book is also full of practical suggestions for how to “think like a monk”. Topics include detaching oneself from external influences, living a meaningful life through service, cultivating healthy relationships, and more. I listened to the audio version of the book, and the author does a very good job – of course, he is used to sharing insight through the use of his voice, as he is the host of the world’s number one health podcast.

If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, meditation, and learning how to apply these and other pieces of monk wisdom, this is definitely a book you don’t want to miss.

(It seems I never wrote a review for this one after reading it. Sorry. Think “contemporary murder mystery thriller in Ireland”.)

(Hmm, no review for this, either. I remember I selected it for the October pick for my workplace book club–shout out to Liberty!–because it’s a sort of paranormal horror story. Apparently there are tie ins with Mitchell’s other works, such as The Bone Clocks, but those would have gone over my head, as this was the first book of his I had read.)

(I didn’t write a review for Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience, and technically I didn’t read this short story, I listened to Levar Burton read it to me, which was just lovely.)

I really appreciate Rae as a character and the themes of this story. I did enjoy reading it but for two things for which I am partially to blame: I failed to read the author’s comments here on Goodreads, so went into this having no idea it wasn’t going to be a complete story in and of itself, with a cliffhanger ending; and I think it would have been a good idea for me to have reread the companion novel, Thorn, (and even the companion short story, The Bone Knife) before diving into this one. You don’t need to read those first to understand this book, but I had managed to forget some plot details that would have been helpful to know. But mostly, I remember being really into the idea of a romance with a certain thief after reading Thorn, and it turns out I should have rekindled that before jumping in, because here I was just not that into it. A reminder of why I had wanted to see that happen might have helped.

Looking forward to the next part of Rae’s story!

A fun read about some people you’d actually want to be friends with playing a risqué game, and the relationships they develop as a result.

There is certainly explicit sex here, but the majority of these scenes just wind up glossed over. Which is actually probably okay, as there is quite a lot of sex happening, and it would surely get repetitive after a while of reading about it over and over again!

Although I APPRECIATE the way the main characters spoke and thought, I did find it highly unlikely that there might be four high school students who are all that reasonable, intelligent, and mature. I don’t know how likely it is that there are even four adults all in one place who think and speak like this.

The middle of the book dragged a bit for me, but I enjoyed it over all.

Note: Karan K Anders is a pseudonym for self-published author Andrea K Host (I’m finding I’m not able to type an ‘o’ with an umlaut here?), but since her other works only feature “fade to black” romance scenes, she differentiated this one with a different pen name.

This book had me in tears, but it was well worth it because Chika’s life deserves to be recognized. I enjoyed learning about this little girl with a big personality. There are also inspirational notes about parenting/family/love. I did not agree with everything pertaining to the Alboms’ thoughts and feelings about Chika’s medical providers, but these things were always treated in a respectful way in this book, with the acknowledgement that no one in these situations knows the “right” thing to do.

Thank you, Mr. Albom, for sharing Chika and her story with us.

WHY IS THIS IMAGE SO MUCH LARGER THAN THE OTHERS OMG WHY

I think he must be a good man. But nobody is only one thing.

Inti and her team have released wolves back into Scotland in an attempt to rewild it and mitigate some of the damages that go hand in hand with climate change. The locals are not pleased.

Eventually we are treated to a murder mystery in an isolated rural area, where everyone seems to know each other’s secrets and outsiders may not be much more welcome than the new predators threatening the livestock. In the midst of all this are Inti and her twin sister, their own history and the damages it wrought, and the wild that can still be found inside some people as well as in the forest.

Very emotional at times, with a romance that was pretty flat but an engaging plot and some intriguing characters. And wolves, which is always a bonus.

Another lovely installment in the Murderbot Diaries!

Minus one star just because some of SecUnit’s funny lines seemed a little too forced this time, but there were still plenty that made me grin. It was another engaging plot, and I love MurderBot as much as ever.

AGAIN, AHHH

My favorite of all mythology retellings I’ve read to date. This book is not fast paced, but it is emotional – I definitely cried, SEVERAL times, mostly when it came to the bonds between parents and their children that were so beautifully depicted here.

The author does a spectacular job of making gods and other characters of myth all sympathetic and relatable, which I think is not such an easy thing to do. I loved this book!

(Definitely not a Bore Ragnarok, eh, Call Me Kevin fans?

What am I Consuming?

This was the title of a segment of Felicia Day’s podcast, Felicitations, back when I last listened (it’s been a while, so I can’t say if she still does this), and it amused me, so here I have adopted it myself.

So what am I consuming these days in the way of entertainment? I recently played through a nice little video game called What Remains of Edith Finch. This is the kind of title that some would argue is not actually a game, but more of a “walking simulator”. There’s only ever actually one way you can go in the game, and there aren’t really any puzzles or challenges, so you just keep moving forward and enjoy the story unfurling before you. These are usually very atmospheric and Edith Finch is no exception.

The Finch family might be cursed. Many of their number die young of unusual causes. The titular character’s grandmother certainly believed in the curse, though others think her raising the younger generations on sensationalized stories of the tragic ends may have contributed to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Wanting to bury the past, Edith’s mother moves them far away. Now, as the last remaining Finch, Edith returns to the family home on Orcas Island off the shore of Washington State to try to better understand her family history.

Part of the magic of the game is just seeing and experiencing the Finch home, which seems so real and gives you a strong feeling of who these people were and how they lived. The setting is just gorgeous.

Edith learns more about each member of the family and how they died, many in ways that may seem to have unnatural explanations, but that can be interpreted in much more mundane and realistic and heartbreaking ways. For instance, in 1947 ten year old Molly wrote in her diary shortly before passing away that, after being sent to bed without supper, she was so hungry that she turned into a cat and stalked a bird outdoors, then became an owl and devoured rabbits before transforming into a shark and hunting down a seal. Finally, she became a sort of sea monster. After attacking and eating the crew of a fishing vessel, she smelled something tantalizing coming from a house on the nearby shore. After following the scent up through drainage pipes and into her own home, the strange experience ends after she slithers underneath her own bed.

The more likely explanation is that Molly hallucinated these events before dying of poisoning, since we first see her eating whatever she can find in her room after being sent to bed hungry. This included her pet gerbil’s food, and entire tube of toothpaste, and some random berries growing inside her bathroom window. Grandma Edie (Molly’s mother) very probably believed the version of events in her daughter’s diary, but Edith’s mother Dawn (the niece Molly never lived to meet) thinks that’s nonsense. Although when they later adopt a stray kitten, it’s Dawn who names it Molly…

Each person’s story is told via a unique method. Barbara had been a child star, cast in a cult hit monster movie. Her end is told through a comic book that you, as the player, get to interact with in places. Some of these are quite creative!

If you, like me, enjoy video games for the story moreso than (or at least as much as) for combat and other challenges, I recommend this short title with a haunting story and gorgeous aesthetics.

I’ll leave off with this interesting glitch I encountered during my second playthrough (there is so much context you can miss when you don’t yet know the whole story). Where the front door was supposed to be, the ocean, and some floating trees!

Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge

This year, I am undertaking Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge for the first time. The challenge provides 24 tasks that prompt you to read things outside of your usual purview. Book Riot also provides a reading log to help you track what you read throughout the year, and offers stats on how many books you read of each genre, how many by authors of color, how many with LGBTQIA protagonists, etc. As far as the challenge, here are the tasks I’ve completed so far.

Task #1: Read a YA nonfiction book.

IraqiGirl: Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq by IraqiGirl

This is a collection of blog entries written by a teenage girl in Iraq during the US occupation after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As such, it left me wishing for something that went a little deeper, something a little more reflective, but this never purports to be a memoir. It is a great source for showing readers just how the lives of Iraqi civilians were affected during this time, and how they felt about it all. However, I have to admit it bothered me a bit just how one-sided the author’s thoughts seemed to be. She blames the US soldiers for all of the flying bullets and explosions, but never once seems to consider who or why they are attacking. I can understand just wishing the occupying forces would leave to put an end to the fighting, but there should at least be an acknowledgment that there were insurgents exchanging gunfire and planting car bombs. The author also does not acknowledge what the US was aiming to do during the occupation, why the forces were there, but I suppose the lesson here is that civilians whose lives are seriously disrupted, endangered even, don’t necessarily understand or even care why. They just want the disruption and danger to stop. Something to be considered no matter how you feel about it intellectually. 

Task #5: Read a book about a natural disaster.

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

In the nineteenth century, a dam was built in the mountains of Pennsylvania to facilitate the canal that was being built at the time. By the time the dam was completed, the canal was defunct. It sat neglected for years before being purchased by an exclusive gentleman’s hunting and fishing club. The reservoir created by the dam was stocked with fish, cottages were built along the lakeside, and Pittsburgh’s successful and wealthy businessmen visited the clubhouse in pursuit of leisure. Over the years, the stability of the dam was questioned, and shoddy maintenance was performed by people wholly unqualified. In 1889, a storm unlike anything seen before caused the neglected dam to fail, leading to nearly 20 million tons of water cascading down the mountainside and completely decimating Johnstown below, killing over 2,000 people and wiping out almost every single thing that stood in its path. This book gives a detailed history of the disaster, everything leading up to it, and what followed. The eyewitness accounts are harrowing. This is a fascinating read, although I’m not entirely sure it counts as a natural disaster, as it was the failings of men that led to the extreme rains having such a calamitous outcome.

Task #8: Read an audiobook of poetry.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

Poetry generally isn’t my thing, but then again, the point of this challenge is to read outside of your comfort zone. I don’t listen to a whole lot of audiobooks, either – nonfiction I can do, but fiction in audio format just does not work very well for me. However, listening to this book of poetry as read by the author is definitely the way to go. Warsan Shire is a Kenya-born Somali poet based in London. Born in 1988, she is an artist and activist who uses her work to document narratives of journey and trauma, often as told through women’s bodies.

“Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things
but God,
doesn’t she wear
the world well.”

Task #11: Read a debut novel by a queer author

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #1) by Tamsyn Muir

I read this book before deciding to take on the Read Harder challenge. I will copy my Goodreads review here, which is quite a bit longer than the those I wrote above.

Well hot damn!

A solar system of necromancers across nine planets is overseen by an Emperor god, Necromancer Divine, King of the Nine Renewals, the Resurrector, Necrolord Prime. Saints from each of the Nine Houses have served the Emperor as immortal Lyctors for the past 10,000 years, but over time their numbers have dwindled and vacancies have opened up. The heir to each House and their cavalier primaries are invited to the ancient, ruinous, (haunted?) Canaan House to face a challenge involving mysterious necromantic tech to earn a place as a new Lyctor. Some of the competitors are being picked off, but by whom…or by what?

The Emperor needs necromancers. The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman. Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense.

This book is marketed as “lesbians in space,” which, strictly speaking, is true. However, that blurb gives many readers the false impression that character sexuality may take precedence over plot, and that the space setting is at the forefront of the story. The main character has one hell of an adventure, all while she happens to be a lesbian. Almost all of the story takes place in a palace on one planet, as “decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor”. And it’s great!

This Science Fantasy story reminds me a bit, in some aspects, of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. The “decadent nobles” with Latin-inspired names, potentially from Greek mythology-inspired Houses, travel to another planet to compete with one another in a challenge. And I get the feeling that, similar to the RED RISING series, the sequel will have us spending much more time in space.

The story matter may be quite grim, but the snarky tone of the narration is endlessly amusing.

She said, “I’ll still do it.”

Harrowhark chewed on the insides of her cheeks so hard they looked close to staving in. She steepled her fingers together, squeezed her eyelids shut. When she spoke again, she made her voice quite calm and normal: “Why?”

“Probably because you asked.”

The heavy eyelids shuttered open, revealing baleful black irises. “That’s all it takes, Griddle? That’s all you demand? This is the complex mystery that lies in the pit of your psyche?”

Gideon slid her glasses back onto her face, obscuring feelings with tint. She found herself saying, “That’s all I ever demanded,” and to maintain face suffixed it with, “you asswipe.”

Some major mysteries are left unanswered at the conclusion of this part of the story, and I am 100% along for the ride when the sequel comes out this summer! (August 4th is the release date!)

Task #16: Read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman

I had also already read three books this year that qualify for this prompt before starting the challenge. These include Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1), and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Here I’ll post my Goodreads review of the last one.

Er, it turns out I never actually wrote a Goodreads review, just a post in the group for a book club consisting of some coworkers. So it’s not very thorough, but here were the thoughts I posted there:

I enjoyed this book. Sometimes you just want to reach into the pages and strangle some of the characters, but overall I thought it had a lot of really accurate messages about relationships – as parents, as siblings, as spouses. Parts of it really resonated with me.

I feel like Wendy was a really great character. I mean, she was definitely a jerk at times, so not like she was a great person, necessarily, but a really interesting character that added a lot of color to the story.

Task #17: Read a sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages)

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

I love the world constructed within the pages of this book, a steampunk alternate history New Orleans influenced by African deities, the Orisha. I enjoyed the voice of this story as well, the dialect writing. My one issue was that, with its novella length, it just didn’t do enough for me overall. I would totally read more by this author, though!

Task #20: Read a middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the US or the UK

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

This is another book I read before starting the challenge, for another Goodreads book club I am in, Sword & Laser. I think it counts for this challenge prompt, as the majority of the story takes place in the fantasy world of Fantastica. I listened to it in audio format, which I already said is not usually how I like to consume my fiction. Maybe that had something to with why I really, really did not care for it. Another likely reason is that it is middle grade fiction, something I don’t often find myself able to appreciate. Things were overly dramatic and very black and white. The movie based off this book actually only portrays the first half of the story. After the events in the movie have occurred, Bastian’s adventures in Fantastica are relayed, during which he becomes a giant douche. If you like reading drawn out, oversimplified stories about giant douches having dramatic adventures in a fantasy world where everyone and everything is cookie cutter, then this might be your jam.

Task #21: Read a book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non)

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

This is an #OwnVoices story featuring a girl living in a historically-based village on Martha’s Vineyard where 1 out of 4 people was born deaf. I didn’t exactly love this book, again probably only because middle grade fiction just doesn’t really do it for me. However, I think this would be a great option for assigned reading for elementary school students. Everyone in the village knows sign language, and families often come up with their own dialects. The story addresses how villagers feel about the Wampanoag and freedmen in their midst, as well as how mainlanders feel about the island’s deaf population, and the main character learning how to deal with her neighbors whose views differ from her own.

Those are the Read Harder Challenge tasks I have met so far, and I plan to post again with updates as I forge ahead. Happy reading!

Book Review: THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle

Then he stopped suddenly and said in a strange voice, “No, no, listen, don’t listen to me, listen. You can find your people if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints.”

I have fond memories of the movie based off of this book, watched several times when I was a child. Of note to me was how closely the movie follows the book as compared to current book-to-screen adaptations (perhaps because of its shorter length, but also likely thanks to the author also writing the screenplay). And the movie’s soundtrack – the music moves me to this day!

“Do you know what I am, butterfly?” the unicorn asked hopefully, and he replied, “Excellent well, you’re a fishmonger. You’re my everything, you are my sunshine, you are old and gray and full of sleep, you’re my pickle-face, consumptive Mary Jane.” He paused, fluttering his wings against the wind, and added conversationally, “Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart. I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name.”

“Say my name, then,” the unicorn begged him. “If you know my name, tell it to me.”

“Rumpelstiltskin,” the butterfly answered happily. “Gotcha!”

I liked the book well enough. The writing was certainly poetic and lovely, the unicorn remains a sort of tragic fairy tale heroine, but tragic only through the lens of a silly mortal. Humorous at times, the story also has deep messages about mortality, joy, beauty, and the overall fleeting nature of human experience. Here seems like a good place to mention that I think King Haggard is a seriously underrated character in classic fantasy!

“They are nothing to me,” King Haggard said. “I have known them all, and they have not made me happy. I will keep nothing near me that does not make me happy.”

It’s hard to say what I would have thought of this book without the associations of my fond recollections of watching the movie as a child, but really a middle of the road 3 stars seems apt. I appreciated some aspects of the fairytale and the language, other parts of the book were a miss with me. I couldn’t always account for the characters and their behavior, or why everyone else seems to love the roving outlaw part while I just found it kind of annoying.

But did I mention Haggard?

“I suppose I was young when I first saw them,” King Haggard said. “Now I must be old–at least I have picked many more things up than I had then, and put them all down again. But I always knew that nothing was worth the investment of my heart, because nothing lasts, and I was right, and so I was always old.”

Not a favorite of mine, but a solid read. And you know what, from the sheer quotability I’m finding as I write this review, I’m going to go ahead and award a fourth star out of five.

“I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.”

Book Review: THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin

“The impossibility of moving beyond loss, faced against the likelihood you will: it’s as absurd, as seemingly miraculous, as survival always is.”

This book was near perfection.

In New York City in 1969, four siblings visit a mysterious woman who tells them the dates they will die. The rest of the book shows us how each of them chooses to live their lives in light of what they were told.

Was it just a scam? Could it be true? What if the dates of their deaths have been altered by the knowledge itself?

“Varya has had enough therapy to know she’s telling herself stories. She knows her faith-that rituals have power, that thoughts can change outcomes or ward off misfortune-is a magic trick: fiction, perhaps, but necessary for survival. And yet, and yet: Is it a story if you believe it?”

Loss is a big theme in this book, as well as the indomitable ties of family, and the difference between living and merely surviving. It’s not exactly an uplifting story, but it is often pure magic in the telling. We’re transported to San Francisco in the 1970s, where many people first felt it was okay to be gay; to magic shows that don’t aim only to create illusions, but to reveal truth; to labs where primates are used for research on aging; to family gatherings both joyous and fraught with tension, and more.

I adored so many of these characters. Simon and Klara’s parts of the book were my favorites, but Daniel and Varya’s were wonderful in their own ways. Raj and Ruby are lovely, too, and of course we can’t forget Gertie (“After everything I gave you: education, opportunity-modernity! How could you turn out like me?”)

It is worth it to note that, other than the possibility of the fantastical in a woman who may be able to see when you will die, this book is largely literary fiction, with its focus on family dynamics and loss.

Some lines remind me of the exact thoughts I had when my own sister passed away.

“She’d lost both him and herself, the person she was in relation to him. She had lost time, too, whole chunks of life that only [he] had witnessed…”

But the story does bring us ultimately to the fringes where grief meets healing.

“For so long, she stifled these memories. But now, when she calls them up in these sensory ways, so that they feel more like people than ghosts, something unexpected happens. Some of the lights inside her-the neighborhood that went dark years ago-turn on.”

I’ve included so many quotes in this review because the writing was just so exquisite and hard-hitting. I think I may now be an official Chloe Benjamin fan girl, and will make a point to read more of her work. And, because I can’t resist (and at risk of telling you nearly the whole darn story), I’ll end this review with yet more quotes from The Immortalistthat really spoke to me:

“His death did not point to the failure of the body. It pointed to the power of the human mind, an entirely different adversary-to the fact that thoughts have wings.”

 

“They began together: before any of them were people, they were eggs, four out of their mother’s millions. Astonishing, that they could diverge so dramatically in their temperaments, their fatal flaws-like strangers caught for seconds in the same elevator.”

 

“There were times he thought of his siblings and felt love sing from him like a shofar, rich with joy and agony and eternal recognition: those three made from the same star stuff as he, those he’d known from the beginning of the beginning. But when he was with them, the smallest infraction made him irreversibly resentful.”

 

“What will Klara tell her, with frantic and unheard insistence? To [her daughter], Klara’s past will seem like a story, Saul and Simon no more than her mother’s ghosts.”

 

“…Daniel couldn’t understand why they didn’t feel what he had: the regret of separation and bliss of being returned. He waited. After all, what could he say? Don’t drift too far. You’ll miss us. But as the years passed and they did not, he became wounded and despairing, then bitter.”

 

“[Her guilt] shrank…when she was hungry, which she so often was-there were times when she felt light enough to drift toward the sky, light enough to drift toward her siblings.”

 

“‘I was afraid,’ she says. ‘Of all the things that can go wrong when people are attached to each other.'”

In case you couldn’t tell, I really loved this book!

Book Review: AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon

 

 

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

 

“All that was left were the taunts, and the crack of Scar’s knee, and the past swooping in, an unkindness of ghosts. Her old life had possessed her, strengthening her, but like everything else, used her up and then was done.”

Well I thought this book was pretty great!

The setting is one thing that didn’t work all that well for me, as I never could grasp the details of the spaceship Matilda – its size and layout, the population aboard, how it sustained…well, everything. It runs on autopilot and (almost) no one is paying attention to its trajectory. We also never know how exactly it came to be that a society capable of launching a generation ship into space and sustaining its population for centuries had also managed to backtrack to the point of organizing society in a way just like that of the antebellum South.

But I was able to look past that and very much enjoyed the story set within those parameters. Aster, a black intersex autistic alchematician, is such a great character. Taking everything at face value, her authenticity is a delight. Her relationship with the Surgeon/the Hands of the Heavens/the queer ascetic bastard child of the former Sovereign and one of the black lowdeckers, is nothing short of wonderful. The plot of this story revolves around Aster following the clues left behind by the mother who died shortly after birthing her, the mechanic who may have found a way to leave Matilda behind and make it to a better world.

“A scientist, Aster had learned something Giselle had not: decoding the past was like decoding the physical world. The best that could be hoped for was a working model. A reasonable approximation. That was to say, no matter what Aster learned of Lune, there was no piecing together the full mystery of her life. There was no hearing her laugh or feeling her embrace. A ghost was not a person.”

This book was troubling to read at times, as it deals with abuses of nearly every kind. I actually choked up when Aster broke down, saying, ‘”Nobody is allowed to touch me. Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive,” she sobbed out. “I’m alive.”‘ This in reference to her recent line of thinking about every living thing being owed the same basic respect.

“People like this guard tried so hard to make Aster feel lesser, but some days, like today, it didn’t work, because she saw clearly how superior she was.”

If you can suspend disbelief about the details of the setting, and you can stomach the non-gratuitous but plentiful scenes of violence and implied sexual assault, I recommend taking this journey with Aster. You might be surprised at where you wind up.

Book Review: IRON GOLD by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold

A decade ago, Darrow was the hero of the revolution he believed would break the chains of the Society. But the Rising has shattered everything: Instead of peace and freedom, it has brought endless war. Now he must risk everything he has fought for on one last desperate mission. Darrow still believes he can save everyone, but can he save himself?

And throughout the worlds, other destinies entwine with Darrow’s to change his fate forever:

A young Red girl flees tragedy in her refugee camp and achieves for herself a new life she could never have imagined.

An ex-soldier broken by grief is forced to steal the most valuable thing in the galaxy—or pay with his life.

And Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile to the sovereign, wanders the stars with his mentor, Cassius, haunted by the loss of the world that Darrow transformed, and dreaming of what will rise from its ashes.

Red Rising was the story of the end of one universe, and Iron Gold is the story of the creation of a new one. Witness the beginning of a stunning new saga of tragedy and triumph from masterly New York Times bestselling author Pierce Brown.

A thrilling and action-packed book that sets us up for a new branch of Red Rising story to tell.

Brown does a good job at the multiple-narrator thing, the POV switching with each chapter. We follow along with Darrow, Lysander au Lune (grandson of the Sovereign whose regime was toppled in the revolution), Lyria of Lagalos (a Red released from the mines when the Society crumbled at Mustang and Darrow’s feet), and Ephraim ti Horn (a Gray thief who was once engaged to marry a character familiar to readers of Morning Star). We see more of those we’ve come to know in the previous three books, such as Sevro, Victra, Sefi, Cassius, and the wonderful character of Romulus au Raa.

They planted us in stones, watered us with pain, and now marvel how we have thorns.

I’ve seen the writing in this book compared to that of George R.R. Martin in ASOIAF, but I take one exception to that – our heroes fall on hard times here, and yes, it sets us up for the new trilogy, but what Martin does differently that works so well is to throw the protagonists a bone every once in a while as well. Sure, he usually lifts them up just so they can crash down all the harder, but here we didn’t even get those instances to feel good about the way things were going for once. The more to invest you in reading on in the series, I suppose, but I think Martin’s method is more effective.

Still, Brown knows how to spin an exciting tale. In addition to his storytelling, he has a beautiful way with words.

Love is the stars, and its light carries on long after death.

If you were a fan of the original Red Rising trilogy, I fail to see how you could be disappointed with Iron Gold.

Book Review: THE GIRL IN THE TOWER by Katherine Arden

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The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

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When I read the first book in the Winternight trilogy, I found it to be a good dark fantasy story based on fun and interesting bits of Russian folklore. It was exciting, it was spooky at times. Vasya was a great heroine who was easy to root for.

Book 2, in comparison, was a bit of a letdown for me.

The setting and atmosphere in this book were just as great as they were in its predecessor. The members of Russian folklore continue to make enchanting appearances across the snowy landscape and politics of a medieval Russian winter. We have spirits both helpful and mischievous, mystical horses, warnings imparted by vengeful ghosts, and a sorcerer who has found a way to cheat Death.

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On the other hand, the biggest disappointment here was the character of Vasya. Her development in this installment is more of a regression. She tries to experience a freedom not readily available to women in her time, but winds up almost dying several times in the attempt, and being saved time and again by the male potential love interest. Why can she not save herself just once, after being such a strong character with a great sense of agency in book 1?

Speaking of love, I found the romance aspects in this story lukewarm at best. An unconventional, clever country girl labeled a witch and a frost-demon? I could ship that so hard! But their encounters here are rather lacking in any sort of exciting tension. As this is Young Adult historical fiction I certainly wasn’t expecting smut, but the romance is missing much of a spark at all.

There was still enough for me to enjoy in this book that I plan on reading the next in the trilogy, but I will keep my fingers crossed that Vasya’s character arc improves, and the romance heats up (I’m hoping that’s not too much to ask of the winter king!)

 

Book Review: JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

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Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.

Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.

 

Color me impressed with my first encounter with Fonda Lee’s writing!

In Jade City, Lee does an incredible job creating a world that is wholly believable. She manages to flesh out the geography, culture, politics, commerce, international relations and religion of Kekon and its surrounds, without ever resorting to infodumping.

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Then she adds a dash of magic. In this world, jade can be used to amplify a person’s energy, focusing it into superhuman powers. Green Bone warriors train in martial arts with a twist, incorporating feats of Lightness, Strength, Deflection, Channeling and Perception. The result looked in my mind a bit like the fighting seen in such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Against this lush backdrop Lee has painted for us is what is essentially a gangster family saga, with lots of East Asian influence. The Clan of No Peak is led by the Kaul family, while the Mountain Clan answers to a ruthless woman named Ayt Mada. Each group takes tribute from areas of the city of Janloon that it considers its own territory, in exchange for protection and endorsement. Each controls a significant portion of the nation’s most valuable commodity of jade. The characters on all sides of the conflict are pretty great, which is not to say they’re all good people.

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The most compelling relationships for me were the ones among the Kaul siblings. Lan, Hilo and Shae are as different as can be, but family still holds an implacable bond to the Kekonese, no matter how one might try to escape it.

“Screw you, Hilo,” she snapped. “I can kill my ex-boyfriends myself.”

If forced to come up with something I didn’t appreciate about this book, the only thing I can think of is my confusion over the apparent lack of cell phones. By all appearances Janloon is a modern place, with luxury vehicles and airports – but every time they use a phone, they need to first locate a landline, even when contacting one another with new developments can literally be a matter of life and death. This is as far as can be from a big deal for me, but it did pull me from the story long enough to stop and wonder.

Jade City is an adult fantasy novel with a bit of sex and a fair share of violence. It is the first installment of a planned trilogy, and tells of what amounts to the opening salvo in a larger war to come. I look forward to finding out what happens next with the clans of Kekon.

“All he knew now was that remorse had a natural limit. After a certain amount of time, it finished eating a person hollow and had to alchemize into anger that could be turned outward lest it consume its host entirely.”