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?

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: 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

The Girl in the Tower.jpg

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.

The Girl in the Tower 02

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: STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor

From the author of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy comes the first in a new duology.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

What a fun and magical ride this was!

We have librarians and warriors, gifts both dark and magical, gods both terrible and beautiful, and, of course, dreams. Wrapped inside this fascinating story, within swaths of lovely imagery, is a message about discrimination and forgiveness.

I thought Taylor did an amazing job at world-building, with Zosma and Weep and everything in between. I found Lazlo (junior librarian, orphaned and raised by an austere order of monks) to be an extremely likable and relatable protagonist, and his chapters were just as interesting as those of Sarai, the Godspawn girl trapped in a floating citadel.

There is a romance in these pages, but as a YA book, it manages to be just steamy enough without crossing into mature content.

Normally I really despise it when I read a book thinking it’s going to be a standalone novel, just to find out at the end that it’s not. This is the case here, but for some reason, it didn’t really bother me. Maybe because our characters have found ways to deal with this book’s main conflict, with plenty of story left to tell featuring the new conflict introduced with the cliffhanger ending. Rather than being annoyed, I am satisfied with this book and very much look forward to reading it’s sequel!

Book Review: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

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“He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

Only I did not think it would be so soon.

Or that he would precede us.

Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another.

Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond.

I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay.”

This book was truly something amazing! Not your average read, but rather something to be experienced.

Be warned: the format of this book definitely took some getting used to. A multitude of narrators pitch in to tell the story, often for just one line at a time before switching to the next character. Interspersed within this structure are lines from Abraham Lincoln biographies and actual correspondence by his contemporaries. At the beginning I did ask myself, “Can I get past the unusual style?” The answer was very quickly revealed to be a yes, and I am so glad for it!

At the core of the story: when President Lincoln’s son Willie dies of typhoid fever he finds himself in the bardo, a place where according to Tibetan tradition we go after dying but before moving on to the next life. The colorful cast of characters young Willie encounters here all have their own reasons for not wanting to let go of the lives they knew (revenge, unfulfilled desires, etc). Many of them deny the truth of their condition even to themselves, instead choosing to believe that what they are experiencing is akin to an illness. The distasteful things they leave each night to rise up and move about are simply their “sick-forms”, left in isolation in “sick boxes” as a form of treatment. These characters offer up much absurdity and hilarity in equal measure.

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William Wallace Lincoln

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Oak Hill Cemetery, the book’s setting – I don’t know why these captions won’t show up aligned in the center…

Histories report that the elder Lincoln went for a prolonged visit in the dead of night to the cemetery where his son was temporarily interred in a borrowed tomb. This story takes place over the course of that night. Though the way the story is told is so very amusing at times, it contains many moments that can be sad or touching, but also hopeful moments.

“All over now. He is either in joy or nothingness.

(So why grieve?

The worst of it, for him, is over.)

Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worrying and doing.

Only there is nothing left to do.”

Besides what he felt over the loss of his child, this book also takes a look at what Lincoln may have thought about the war his country was embroiled in while he was at its helm, and those who blamed him for the deaths of so many American soldiers on both sides. There is no shortage of good lines on the subject of grief here. A few I appreciated:

“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness-masks to hide any sign of their happiness, which-which went on. They could not hide how alive they yet were with it, with the happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them. Strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.

To us.

Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we a bring baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby must also depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.”

And one last bit about the nation that may offer a bit of hope:

“Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched) and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.

Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.”

 

The icing on the cake: it turns out this author teaches at Syracuse University. I hail from Syracuse myself, and the hospital I work at is basically across the street from the University. I stop at the local Starbucks every morning on my way in to work, and now I wonder if maybe I’ll cross paths with him there someday 🙂

 

Book Review: BORNE by Jeff Vandermeer

 

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“Am I a person?” Borne asked me.

“Yes, you are a person,” I told him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”

This was a wild dystopian speculative fiction story that asks some important questions and is quite touching at times. The land has been laid to waste by drought, conflict, and loosed biotech from the now-defunct Company. Rachel and Wick team up to take a stab at survival in this newly arranged city, and a real sense of tension is conveyed. Wick tries to maintain a hold on their territory through the dealing of information as well as his own psychoactive biotech, while Rachel scavenges for salvage off of which they can live. It’s during one of her outings that she finds something rather extraordinary.

This book left me bit confused as to the details of some of the science fiction elements. The who, what and why of the Company was never made clear, nor were specifics of some of the biotech it turned out. I think this was mostly a conscious choice by the author, but it did leave me a bit unsatisfied. Near the end I realized that the character of Mord had once been human, and it seemed like that fact had been revealed much earlier but I had somehow managed to either miss it or else forget it completely. The fact that the giant and vicious flying bear used to be human, and a former coworker of Wick’s at that, seems like a point that should be too significant to be missed/forgotten.

The story does many things right, though, and the best part by far was Borne himself – sweet and innocent and endlessly amusing.

“Those are three dead skeletons on the wall, Borne.”

“Yes, Rachel. I took them from the crossroads. I thought they would look nice in here.”

And yes, I maintain a belief in Borne’s inherent innocence. (And as it says in the book’s blurb, “in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing.”) Borne simply does what he was designed to do, but because Rachel raises him with a human’s sensibilities, he feels great guilt and shame about his own nature. Which gives me all the feels!

“We all just want to be people, and none of us knows what that really means.”

And I sincerely hope to be able to subscribe to a book box someday(when I’m not so broke), because it turns out Quarterly’s most recent fiction Literary Box was curated by Vandermeer and included some of his own drawings of just what Borne looks like in some of his many forms. How fun is that?!

 

If you like science fiction of the speculative and dystopian variety, amusing plant/animal/salvage/biotech thingies, and The Feels, then give this one a read!

Book Review: Veiled Intentions

I just recently joined Net Galley, and Veiled Intentions by Eileen Carr is the first title I received and read in exchange for an honest review.

Veiled Intentions

DESCRIPTION:

When a young Muslim high school student is accused of a crime she didn’t commit, her school counselor gets involved to clear her record in this ripped-from-the-headlines romantic thriller from the author of Vanished in the Night.

When Lily Simon finds cops in the lobby of the high school where she’s a guidance counselor, she’s not surprised: cops and adolescents go together like sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But when the cops take Jamila, a Muslim student, into custody for a crime she didn’t commit, Lily’s high school becomes a powder keg.

Police think Jamila is responsible for a hit and run, and since she’s not talking, they have no choice but to keep her as the main suspect. And since the victim—a young soldier recently returned from Afghanistan—is lying unconscious in the hospital, the whole town is taking sides on whether or not Jamila’s arrest is religious persecution. Determined to find the truth, Lily teams up with a reporter to uncover what really happened the night of the hit and run. But Lily didn’t expect to find such a tangled web…

MY REVIEW:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…The chain reaction of evil-hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars-must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

This Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote sums up the message of Eileen Carr’s novel, Veiled Intentions.

A high-achieving Muslim  student gets accused of a hit-and-run accident involving a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Jamila is stunned, and heartbroken, to see how quick all the people she has grown up with and known her entire life are to suddenly label her as “Other”, even though she denies any involvement in the accident. She, along with other Muslim families in the community, become targets for bullying and hate crimes. They are alienated in their own hometown. Jamila is no longer a seventeen year old high school student active in community projects who also practices Islam; now the view of her is limited to simply her religion. In her distress, she turns more toward the only aspect of herself that society will allow her to be defined by.

Veiled Intentions looks not only at Jamila and how she feels about and reacts to everything that ensues, but also all of the other various members of the community. We see all the different viewpoints involved in such a situation-the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is not a “feel good” book. However, it takes a necessary look at issues that are prevalent in the world today. It does an admirable job of surveying all of the different thoughts and opinions found in society today about issues of religious or cultural differences and how they should be ‘dealt with’. It does so through simple and straightforward writing.

In addition to representing all of the views that crop up about such matters in a smart fashion, this book drives home the lesson Dr. King was attempting to teach decades ago: Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. This is a call for the world to find a way to stop the cycle of discrimination and violence.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Veiled Intentions has an expected publication date of Dec 29th