Big Sky

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (Website)

Genre: mystery

Setting: mostly a seaside town in the north of England

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Source: My own Audible collection

Length: 11:22:00

Published by: Hachette Audio (25 June 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I’m giving this 3 out of 5 stars only because Jason Isaacs’s narration was superb. The story itself was kind of boring. As with the rest of the books in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, Big Sky starts with Jackson working on a case, this time staking out a couple to provide proof of their infidelity to his client. Then, showing the kind of weird luck only Jackson seems capable of, he encounters a man on a crumbling cliff and gets sucked into a ring of sex trafficking and kidnapping. Of course, the only person who can solve things and fix it is Jackson.

If he weren’t so sexy, Jackson Brodie would be really fucking annoying. The whole trope of “only I can solve this” was old to begin with, and now it has been pretty much ruined by the Lobotomized Hitler currently squatting in the White House, and it’s a pretty arrogant thing to think regardless of who is saying it. 

It was nice to see Reggie come back in this story. Last we saw of her, she was a lost and scared young lady trying to get by mostly on her own. It was fun to see her in this story and see what she’s made of herself. Other than Reggie and Jackson, sometimes, I really found not one likeable character in this story. The traffickers of course were revolting, but Julia is a shallow twit, Nathan is a typical teen and no one really likes those, and most of the others were pretty one-dimensional. The plot itself wasn’t terribly compelling to me, and Atkinson’s style of writing is so nonlinear that listening to this as opposed to eyeball reading it was a chore. I found myself not listening to it as often as not, and only kept going by pure virtue of Jason Isaacs’s sexy voice and skill in narrating. I really wish he would narrate more audiobooks. He’s one of my very favorite narrators, and it isn’t just because he’s my mega celebrity crush. He is a genuinely excellent narrator, able to do a variety of accents well, and even reading women’s voices nicely. I hate it when male narrators do a falsetto for women, or make them sound like brainless morons. Like, what women do you know who really sounds like that? Isaacs does nothing of the sort and all his voices are authentic and believable. I just really wish Audible could/would make more use of his voice talent.

Akata Witch

Akata Witch paperback cover

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy, MG

Setting: Near Abuja, Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 349 pp

Published by: Viking Children’s (14 April 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny is a young American girl born to Nigerian parents. Although she was born in New York, her family returned to Nigeria when she was 9 so that Sunny and her brothers could grow up knowing their culture and heritage. Sunny doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, since in America she is considered Nigerian, and in Nigeria she’s considered American. Everywhere she goes, she is albino. She can’t go in the sun and carries an umbrella with her everywhere. She can’t play soccer except sometimes at night with her brothers. And on top of it all, now she is seeing visions in candle flames. 

Her childhood friend, Orlu, and their neighbor Chichi discover that Sunny is a talented witch, for lack of a better term. So are they, and Sasha, a friend from the US who was also born to Nigerian parents. The four of them make an oha coven, a group of people whose magic and physical traits are perfectly balanced. Their mentor begins training the children and helping them to learn the extent of their juju. However, none are skilled enough to take on a brutal murderer of children who is himself a highly advanced juju man. And yet, they must confront him not only to save innocent lives, but to prevent an ancient and terrible being from being brought forth into their world.

A super fun and speedy read from Okorafor. The descriptions of Nigerian culture are evocative and rich and, even though this story is at its heart a fantasy, I feel like I was able to learn a bit about Nigerian culture by reading it. My favorite parts were where there were food descriptions. We can learn so much about a place and people through the food they serve. I absolutely am inspired now to look up some Nigerian recipes and give them a try. 

There was a strong theme of the bonds of friendship throughout this novel. Without friendship and trust, none of the kids would have survived the various magickal events and tests they endured. As they mature, I think the idea of their perfectly balanced group is that they will pair off into couples, thus strengthening the magic of the entire group as well as individually. I’ll see if I’m right when I read the sequel, Akata Warrior

So far, this is 5-0 in favor of Okorafor! I’ve read all three Binti novellas, Who Fears Death, and now this one and have really enjoyed all of them. That’s almost unheard of for me. This one is a younger book than I would typically read, but I still liked it a lot and it covers one of the Read Harder tasks. Recommended for all who enjoy fantasy, especially if you are looking to branch out and find books set somewhere other than the US or Britain, and who like to learn about various cultures.

Lightning Round: Inside Out and Back Again and Too Much and Never Enough

IInside Out and Back Againnside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Genre: MG biographical fiction

Setting: Vietnam and Alabama

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 262 pp

Published by: Scholastic (22 Feb 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This novel is the story of Ha, who flees Vietnam with her mother and brothers to escape the war. They end up in Alabama where they are hosted by a family that Ha thinks is a family of cowboys. The story tells of her challenges in adapting to life in 1970s America.

The story is written in verse and makes for a very lyrical novel. The way Lai uses imagery in her poems makes the emotions Ha and her family are feeling visceral. They are afraid to leave their home, they worry that they don’t have news about Ha’s father or where he might be, and they feel like they are abandoning him and their culture to leave and set up a new life for themselves in America. When they get there, Ha’s fears are justified because she cannot speak English, people think she is dumb because of it, and the people in general are close-minded and unwilling to accept them as part of their community. It was a bittersweet story and a very good one to use to discuss the experiences of refugees with your children.

(I refuse to put a pic of this book cover here. I don’t want to see its ugly face)

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump 

Genre: nonfiction/biography

Setting: mostly New York

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 225 pp

Published by: S&S (14 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Mary Trump is Donald Trump’s niece, if anyone at all has been under a rock and didn’t learn that by now. She has a PhD in psychology and uses it to explain the excrescence that is her uncle, by diabolical fate the President of the United States. 

While this book really didn’t give any new information to those of us who have been paying attention, it is still nice to have our suspicions about the mango Mussolini confirmed by a member of the family who is an expert in the field. However, she seems to place all the blame squarely on the shoulders of his parents, in particular his dad. Yes, I am sure their horrible parenting impacted how he grew up. But doing so also takes the blame off of him – AGAIN – and makes it so he is not responsible for his actions. There are plenty of kids who had awful childhoods, far worse than Donny’s gilded negligence, and those people didn’t turn into malignant narcissists. So fuck that. He had a shitty childhood but he is the one who chooses cruelty over compassion and is a loathsome creature. 

Also, if I had a family like that, I would drop them so fucking fast you’d think I discovered warp drive. The fact that she hasn’t done so kind of seems to me like she’s sticking around in hopes of getting some money after all. That, or a scorching case of Stockholm Syndrome. Or both. #armchairpsychiatry. Whatever the case is, it rings hollow in a lot of ways.

Kindred

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Genre: let’s call it magical realism

Setting: 1976 and the antebellum South

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 287 pp

Published by: Beacon Press (1 June 1979)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dana is a modern young Black woman, married to a white man called Kevin, and they are both authors. They have recently purchased their first real home together and are in the middle of unpacking when Dana feels dizzy and falls to the ground. When the dizziness passes, she finds herself outside and hears a child yelling for help. Since Dana isn’t a dick, she rushes to help and ends up saving a young boy named Rufus from drowning. The boy’s father comes across them and, thinking Dana is trying to harm his son, aims a rifle at her. Dana is then transported back to her home, soaking wet and covered in mud from her rescue efforts. 

Over the next few weeks, Dana finds herself inexplicably called back to what she learns is the antebellum South, to a plantation with slaves. Somehow, anytime Rufus is in mortal danger, he pulls her back in time to him, completely unintentionally. Dana learns that Rufus is one of her ancestors and she has to keep saving him until he is able to father the child who is her direct ancestor. Each time Dana goes back, she stays longer and the trip is more dangerous for her. She eventually figures out that when she herself fears for her life, she is able to return to her own time, which is moving more slowly than the past. Dana spends hours, days, and months in the past and yet her own time period only moves forward by a few minutes or days even for her longest period spent in the past. Dana has to learn how to survive in a harsh past, retain Rufus’s trust enough that he doesn’t harm her himself just because he can, and keep her husband Kevin safe during her travels as well. 

This story was a difficult and yet un-put-downable read. Difficult because of the subject matter but a very fast and engaging read. Even though it was written in 1979, there was not actually much reference to technology so it didn’t feel dated. In fact, it could have been written this year and would have been hailed as a timely discussion on race relations and equality, given the ongoing protests surrounding police brutality towards Black people. It was a horrifying read as well because it explores topics such as slavery, which is to be expected from the book’s premise. What was worst, though, was Dana’s thoughts on how easy it can be to become accustomed to injustice. The discussion of racism was deep and explored some of the ways in which it has become institutionalized in America even today. Some scenes reminded me of part of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give where Starr and her brothers received “the talk” from their parents. Not the sex talk, but the talk about what to do and how to act if and when they are stopped by a police officer. The fact that such talks are considered a necessary part of parenting for so many people is heartbreaking, and Butler’s novel shows readers partly why that has come to be. 

Dana adapted fairly quickly to her new environment, not because she was somehow weak or didn’t resist hard enough, but because she had to adapt or die. Part of the discussion on how quickly Dana had to adapt to slavery conditions was also the sense of mutual obligation between many of the characters. They all tried to look out for each other and take everyone’s well being into consideration, even if it was sometimes to their own detriment. But parents, for example, would do whatever was necessary to spare their children and to keep them with them rather than being sold to different places far away. I can understand that; there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my daughter safe with me in those conditions. Despite Dana’s ability to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, she was not spared from being on the receiving end of some awful abuse, and she lived in constant fear of being sold to a plantation further south that was notorious for its truly brutal conditions. A modern person worrying about being sold – if that doesn’t absolutely horrify you, then you must be part of the problem.

Part of the discussion on adapting is, I think, the ways Dana and the other Black characters view Tom Weylin and Rufus. Tom initially appears to be brutal, every bit the worst of the stereotypical slave owner. As the novel progresses, how he is viewed doesn’t change so much to liking him as to seeing how he is more or less a fair man operating within the social constructs of his time period. He is a hard man and sometimes does cruel things, but he is doing what is allowed for him to do and doesn’t really step out of those bounds, as disgusting as they are to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, with Rufus, he seems to grow up to take after his father in most ways, except that he is in love with Alice, and his father never would have loved a slave. Use her body, yes, but love her, no. Dana is able to forgive Rufus for so many wrongs, and he actually seems to do worse things than his father ever did. He makes overt threats to Dana, lies about sending her letters to Kevin when he got trapped in the past, and is a volatile drunk. His father at least never seemed to let himself get out of control like Rufus does. In many ways, Rufus is a pitiable character, largely lacking in understanding, empathy, or willpower. To be fair, though, I’d probably be blind fucking drunk all the time if I had to live in the South at that time of history. In any case, the way Dana and the other Black characters view the Weylins very much makes me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they were just as awful as one thinks they were but the effect was lessened over the course of the novel by the psychological impact of being held against their will, malnourished, beaten and whipped, and worked until they dropped.

Normally, I don’t care much for first-person perspective in novels. But I think first-person is the only way this novel could be as powerful as it was. If Dana hadn’t been the narrator, if we had a third-person POV instead, it would have created a distance between the characters, events they went through, and the reader; the situations she went through would not have been as visceral an experience for readers and thus the discussions on various issues would not have been as effective.

The title itself is a stark reminder that being related to a person doesn’t always mean they are your family. There’s a big difference between relatives and family. Rufus and Dana are related to one another. They have a sense of mutual obligation to each other, though an admittedly lop-sided one. But they are in no way family as I would define it. So that makes an interesting contrast throughout the book, especially when you consider Dana and her husband’s relationship, and her relationship with the slaves. She seems much closer to them than to Rufus, her actual relative. Similarly, her marriage to Kevin is illegal in the past and, I would imagine, is seen as at least odd in 1976. I don’t think interracial marriages were very well tolerated at the time. 

In any case, this was a terrific read, if difficult at times because of the things that happened to people. I definitely recommend it to any fans of timeslip, sci-fi, magical realism, or antebellum history. 

Marginalized Voices in SFF

With continuing and growing protests over police brutality, racial and gender inequality, and various relevant activist groups, I am made even more aware of the disparity that still exists in the publishing world. Yes, things are getting a little better and more inclusive, ever so slowly. At times, it feels as if we take one small step forward and three or four giant steps back. But it is encouraging to see that there are more women and authors of color being published and recognized for their contributions. NK Jemisin, for example, was the first Black woman to win the Hugo in 2016, and she proceeded to win the prestigious science-fiction/ fantasy (SFF) award for the next three years in a row.

I mention that Jemisin won the Hugo for three years running not because she is an awesome writer of speculative fiction (though she is). Rather, I mention it because the Hugo Awards had been nearly taken over by an alt-right subculture that wanted to silence the rising prominence of women and other marginalized groups within the SFF (Romano. 2018). The publishing industry has been working towards creating more diversity across all genres, not just SFF. But within the SFF community, a few things happened to really help kickstart a better approach to publishing and fan communities. The first of these was “Racefail,” a year-long discussion about the lack of diversity and the overwhelming dominance of white colonialism within the SFF culture. Romano (2018) notes that “the conversations around Racefail resulted in an emerging awareness of the need to not only embrace the writing of women and people of color, but also to make the community a safer space for all writers” (para 7). Racefail led to a growth of diversity and a lessening of gatekeeping on who was allowed to participate in the SFF culture.

It is important here to note that the Hugo Awards are voted on by members of the annual World Science Fiction Society (WorldCon) rather than by a voting committee, and anyone can become a WorldCon member. Doing the voting in this way effectively makes the Hugos a crowdsourced event and it also helps to show changing trends within the SFF community. Unfortunately, it also can provide a space for people to try to game the system. Most notably within the SFF community, two subgroups have tried for years to influence the Hugo Awards by getting their followers within the WorldCon community to vote en masse for certain writers. These groups, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies (no, really), formed when author Theodore Beale “Vox Day” was banned from the professional Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) after he made posts referring to NK Jemisin in truly awful, racist ways. Another author, Larry Correia, made a blog post in which he whined that his book wasn’t getting any Hugo nominations and asked that all his readers vote for him. Correia went on to establish the Sad Puppies, and Vox Day followed suit and made the Rabid Puppies. Vox Day has since been recognized as a leader within the alt-right movement. The Puppies went on to get ultra-conservative voting groups to vote for authors they had approved to prevent more diverse authors from making it to the Hugo list.

The first year the Puppies were active, they got 107 out of 127 authors on the initial Hugo voting ballot. So, they were right that the Hugos could be pretty easily manipulated. However, turnabout is fair play, and it seems the SFF community in general loves a good bit of revenge. Things backfired brilliantly when, while attempting to make the Hugos into a joke, the Puppies nominated Chuck Tingle, an erotic fantasy author, to the list. Tingle was well aware of what the Puppies were trying to do, so he created a page on his website to celebrate his Hugo nomination, and then he directed his audience to the sites and books of the women the Puppies were trying to block from being nominated. Similar actions over the past few years have been the way in which the Puppies and other groups like them are being stymied. Many times, authors will simply withdraw their name from consideration if they were nominated because of actions from the Puppies. Another common practice is that voters choose “no award” instead of a “Puppy approved” nominee. For the past couple years, Sad and Rabid Puppies have seen their influence drop as the Hugos, and the SFF community as a whole, have sided with the voices of the marginalized. As Jemisin said in her acceptance speech for her third Hugo award (YES, girl!), “SFF is a microcosm of the wider world, in no way rarefied from the world’s pettiness or prejudice. …  I look to science fiction and fantasy as the aspirational drive of the Zeitgeist: we creators are the engineers of possibility. And as this genre finally, however grudgingly, acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalized matter and that all of us have a future, so will go the world” (Cadenhead, 2018, 2:33).

Below are just a few SFF books written by a variety of marginalized voices that are all well worth the read. If you have other recommendations, whether in SFF or any other genre, for novels by marginalized individuals, please let me know!

NK Jemisin – I can’t start a list for an article like this without telling you to go read Jemisin’s Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy posthaste. You will not be disappointed! She also has a fabulous book of short stories out, When Will It Be Black Future Month?

Nalo Hopkinson – I’ve read several of her books, most recently The Salt Roads and Brown Girl in the Ring. Both are excellent works of speculative fiction that explore privilege, social status, and race in beautifully rendered narratives, heavy with Afro-Caribbean cultural influences.

Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts is set on a generational spaceship that has been divided into social classes correspondent with where one’s living quarters are situated. They have a second book, The Deep, about water-dwelling descendants of African slave women who were thrown overboard while crossing the Middle Passage. Extra diversity info: Rivers Solomon identifies as nonbinary and on the spectrum.

Octavia E. Butler – one of the queens of “traditional” SFF, Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, beginning with Dawn, is the story of Lilith, a woman cryogenically frozen by the Oankali. These aliens survive by genetically merging with other species. They wake Lilith up when Earth becomes habitable again and Lilith has to decide if she will support the Oankali’s methods of saving humanity or if she will side with humans, even if it means extinction.

Roxane Gay – OK, so she wrote Black Panther: World of Wakanda and is well respected in the SFF community. But I really want everyone to read Gay’s memoir, Hunger, which explores topics such as sex, food, body image, and health through the lens of her own personal experiences. Also, her book of essays, Bad Feminist, is a must-read for everyone, whether you identify as feminist or not.

Karen Lord – her book The Best of All Possible Worlds explores topics ranging from technology to sexuality to injustices by telling the story of the Sadiri, whose home world was obliterated by another species.

Walter Mosley – Mosley is probably best known for his Easy Rawlins hard-boiled mystery series, and that is indeed a delightful series to read. However, Futureland is a collection of nine short stories about a future society divided by technology and wealth. Kind of like society today.

Victor LaValle – LaValle’s novel The Ballad of Black Tom takes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos for a spin by narrating the tale from the perspective of a Black man working for the protagonist, Robert Suydam.

Nisi Shawl – Everfair is Victorian! Afro! Steampunk! It speculates on what the world would look like if the tribes of the Congo had developed steam power before the Belgians colonized their land.

References

Cadenhead, R.. (2018, August 19). N.K. Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award Best Novel acceptance speech [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lFybhRxoVM.

Romano, A. (2018, August 21). “The Hugo Awards just made history, and defied alt-right extremists in the process.” Vox.com, retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2018/8/21/17763260/n-k-jemisin-hugo-awards-broken-earth-sad-puppies.

Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1

27396420._sy475_Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1 by Erica Laine (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 13th century England

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 124 pp

Published by: Brook Cottage Books (28 Oct 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Not many things, fictional or otherwise, are written about Isabelle of Angoulême, so when I came across this trilogy while researching the wives of King John, I was pleased. This first installment covers Isabelle’s life from just prior to her marriage to John, while she was still betrothed to Hugh le Brun de Lusignan, to John’s death in 1216. 

Almost nothing is known about Isabelle’s early life, but Raine filled in some blanks admirably with educated guesses at how a girl of her status would have been raised. There were tons of historically accurate details about daily life in medieval Europe, which made for an immersive reading experience. For instance, Laine often used quotes from various medieval manuscripts, chronicles, or people. They were not always given to the people who actually said the words, but it didn’t make a negative impact on any given scene, and I doubt anyone who hasn’t been up to their eyeballs in medieval research would even know it. But I got a kick out of reading things like “To some it was ugly news, to others, lovely,” which is from the History of William Marshal, and knowing where they were from, who said it, and the context. Raine clearly did her research even while taking some creative liberties.

Similarly, there are several different schools of thought regarding Isabelle and John’s relationship, why he married Isabelle, the reasons for his loss of the continental Angevin lands, and the personalities of each. Raine took some of these various theories and used them to spin a plausible story about this royal couple. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Isabelle’s life plays out in the remaining two books, and how she herself will grow and change. In this book, Isabelle was portrayed as very much a spoiled, somewhat vapid brat, a girl who was raised to be ambitious but who could be distracted with shiny baubles and jewels. 

Overall, a quick and interesting read about a woman many readers would never know about. Recommended.

The Silken Rose

The Silken RoseThe Silken Rose by Carol McGrath (Website, TwitterFacebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 1300s England

I read it as a: digital copy

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 355 pp

Published by: Accent Press Ltd. (23 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3-4 out of 5 stars*

This novel, the first of a planned trilogy, focuses on Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III, beginning with her journey to England to marry a man who was more than 15 years her senior. In this book, she is called Ailenor. The narrative brings readers along as Ailenor learns first how to be a wife and queen and then a mother. It gives us a varying perspectives, from Ailenor to Eleanor (sister of Henry III, wife of Simon de Montfort) and a fictional embroideress, Rosalind, and covering a variety of the events that plagued Henry III’s reign. The trilogy plans to take a look at the women who have been termed “She-Wolves” for various reasons. This first installment takes care of Eleanor of Provence and her reign as Queen Consort.

First, the good. There were many, many enjoyable things about this book. I loved how much detail there was. In every scene, McGrath evoked imagery, scents, sounds of daily life in medieval London. I especially loved the details with herb and flower gardens. I can practically smell the lavender and rosemary. Similarly, the descriptions of the street scenes in London were pretty evocative as well. 

I also really appreciated other small details, such as the use of relics, in particular the Virgin’s girdle, as charms for a safe childbirth experience. The churching ceremony after giving birth was not given a lot of detail, but it was mentioned a few times throughout the novel and it added extra depth. Also, a queen’s role as intercessor was mentioned several times. I’m fascinated by the queens’ intercessory role throughout time and how it changed, helped, or hindered politics. Little things like this make readers like me happy. I know not everyone cares about historical accuracy when they read a book for pleasure (*horror!*), but I am always deeply appreciative of authors who are accurate anyway. The readers like me will be happy and the readers who don’t care will still read the book and enjoy it regardless. 

A few quibbles. The writing here was clear and easy, flowing smoothly from one perspective to another. The main POV character was, of course, Ailenor, but Rosalind and Nell also got a good deal of time. I was glad, though, that the chapter headings indicated when a change of perspective happened because I didn’t find there was always a lot of variance in the voices between the three women. Ailenor, Nell, and Rosalind often sounded similar and could be hard to tell apart if it were not for chapter headings.

By the same token, I felt that Rosalind was the only one who really had any character development. Ailenor, by contrast, sounded like a fully mature woman even on her journey to meet her husband-to-be when she was only 12 years old. Rosalind, on the other hand, started as a young and shy embroideress but grew into a confident and respected woman, wife, and mother. I did wish a little more of her story had been given to us. She was probably my favorite character in the book. It felt a little incomplete because there were some fairly substantial jumps in the events of her life. However, since she was NOT the primary focus of the novel, it is understandable why the author decided not to make her a larger figure. 

The novel ended with the promised betrothal of Edward to Eleanor of Castile in roughly 1254. This was about ten years before the start of the Second Barons’ War. I was a little disappointed that the novel didn’t cover that time period since I think a lot of interesting content could have been written about Ailenor during that time period. She was considered one of the She-Wolves, and the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s role was a major element within Henry’s reign. It would have been particularly interesting to see Rosalind’s role in that. Even though she is fictional, sometimes those are the best characters through which to explore an historical event or person. Again, I understand why it wasn’t included. It would have been a tome otherwise! 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It was a fast, easy read and gives an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period of England’s history. 

*N.B.: I am unclear if the copy I received to review was supposed to be a finished copy or if it was an edited digital galley. The book was already published (in the UK, at least) when I got the file to review, but it was a PDF which is usually how I get galleys. I mention this because if it was a finished copy, then there were numerous places throughout where the text was positively jumbled up and sentences were a mash-up of words. For example: “I think it safer and the apartments there of the City. Without destruction remained have been redecorated.” And “He could not change his mind, had he so wished. as they fell resounding from the ancient A squire always followed his knight.” These are just two of several such examples that were scattered throughout the text. If I got an unedited galley, then never mind, these errors would be corrected upon editing. If it is supposed to be a finished copy, then that is not good and would certainly cause me to greatly reduce my rating of the book. 

Recursion

42046112Recursion by Blake Crouch (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: speculative fiction

Setting: All over the fucking place

I read it as a: hardback

Source: BOTM Club purchase

Length: 329 pp

Published by: Crown Books (11 June 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in contemporary times, Recursion is the story of scientist Helena Smith and Detective Barry Sutton. Helena’s mother has Alzheimer’s, which is the motivation for Helena to create a chair which can map and store a person’s core memories. However, an unscrupulous coworker realises that what she has actually created is a device which can transfer the consciousness of a person into a memory from their own past, thus rewriting history and creating false memories in the global population. Helena and Barry manage to team up across several timelines and lifetimes to try to prevent the chair from ever being created, saving the entire planet in the process. 

The theory behind this book is based on a real experiment from late 2012 in which two scientists from MIT implanted a false memory into a mouse. How the fuck they can tell what a mouse thinks or remembers is absolutely beyond me, but science is cool. Crouch took that experiment and ran with it for this novel.

It explores the risks inherent to meddling with time and history as we know it. Trying to go back and correct mistakes in one’s own life can cause significant changes to the world all on its own. When the government gets involved, trying to prevent major events like horrific school shootings or WWI and WWII or anything else of global importance, everything gets completely screwed up and people are suddenly confronted with memories of different lives, different families they have, different children, etc. This leads to mass suicides and eventually mutually assured destruction. 

I loved this book, even though it stressed me out. Especially once we got to the “let’s launch all the nukes at once!” part. But I also understand the desire to go back and change tragic events. If anything ever happened to my daughter and such technology existed for me to save her, I would absolutely burn everything down to save her. 

The characters in this were multi-dimensional, in part because they had to be across several lifetimes and different timelines. It was fun to see how each manifestation varied slightly from the one previous. I do wish we had gotten some closure on a couple minor characters, got to know what happened to them in the end. I have my assumptions, but perhaps others will come to different conclusions. 

Highly recommended for folks who enjoy a good, thought-provoking work of spec fic.

Tales of Ming Courtesans

52662129Tales of Ming Courtesans by Alice Poon (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 17th century China

I read it as an: ARC from the author (thank you, Alice!)

Source: review copy

Length: 354 pp

Published by: Earnshaw Books (1 June 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tales of Ming Courtesans is the interwoven story of three young women who trained and worked as courtesans in 1600s China. Rushi, Yuanyuan, and Xiangjun were all real women, and they had a shared background of being sold as children to “thin horse traders,” who were essentially sex traffickers. Their paths cross in a performance house in Nanjing and their friendship sustains them through some truly awful events, ranging from small personal tragedies to sweeping national crises. 

The thing I liked best about this book was how incredibly descriptive it was. Images, smells, and locations were all so vividly described, I felt like I could see the river, smell the flowers or the cooking, hear the birds and noise of the town. I liked the names of a lot of the houses or other places – Villa of Alluring Fragrance, for example. It’s descriptive and mysterious and lyrical. I loved it. It makes me want to take a trip to China to see some of these places. 

The women themselves were a force to be reckoned with – or should have been except that life, men, and the caste system kept them down. I know literally nothing about Chinese history, and even less about this particular period transitioning between the Ming and Qing dynasties. I enjoyed learning some of the history and culture of that time. It is such a rich culture with many interesting rituals, art, and literature. 

I have a very likely inaccurate vision of these courtesans as something akin to Inara Serra from Firefly. My understanding is that courtesans were pretty well educated, trained in poetry, dance, music, performance, and yes, bedroom skills. But they could choose whether or not to take a patron to bed for money, and that choice was the real defining difference between courtesans and prostitutes, who had no choice at all. At any given moment, all three women in this novel worried they would have to sell themselves to a brothel to pay off a debt or avoid homelessness. Owing a debt literally meant you could be sold like chattel to anyone who could pay off the debt by buying you. It is a horrifying thought that the women effectively were forced to participate in their own slavery and sale of their bodies. The courtesans seemed to be in high demand as well, which gives a really interesting dichotomy because it isn’t the sort of role I typically associate with being desirable. The ways in which families sought to have a child by using concubines was new to me. I guess I just need to read more since I am woefully ignorant about this part of the world, in any time period. 

Literally the only quibble I had was that, sometimes, the dialogue between characters felt a bit odd. Sometimes it seemed really formal, especially for just talking to friends or family, but maybe that is how people talked to each other in 17th century China. Other times it had some anachronisms that I am not sure about, like saying a courtesan can “hook up” with anyone she chooses to. That drew me out of the story a little bit, but the rest of it was so good that I got over it quick. 

I definitely recommend this one! It made me curious and want to know more about a place or time or culture, which, to me, is the very best thing any book can do!

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You can strive all you can to change a condition, but people can choose to ignore facts and cling to their bigoted views.
  • It sickened me to realize that Zhengyu was one of those people who could turn their back on a good friend just because standing up for the truth would inconvenience them. As Fo had remarked previously, it often took a critical incident to reveal the true nature of a person.
  • You must never let anyone make you doubt your own worth.
  • Time rushes forward and never back, oblivious of human joy or pain. We cannot but be driven by the tide of life.
  • What gives one person the moral right to call another human worthless? It’s just not right. A human is a human, regardless of high or low birth.
  • I’ve always believed food is the best glue to bind people together. 
  • Love alone can transcend time.
  • Look at the flowing water. Water is humble. It always heads to a low point. Water is soft, formless and flexible. It slides meekly and wittily around rocks, and it nurtures the plants on all sides. That way, it is content and it sings. If you are humble, wise and nurturing in the same way as water, you will not feel shame. You will have peace.

 

 

 

The Witches Are Coming

48589607._sx318_The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (Website, Insta)

Genre: nonfiction/ essays

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Lindy West

Source: my own TBR

Length: 06:27:00 

Published by: Hachette Audio (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

The Witches Are Coming is a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of feminism, mostly, with other topics such as white nationalism and climate change added as well. West is a terrific writer, making her arguments succinctly, pointedly, and with a lot of humor. I had not read any of her work before, nor have I watched Shrill on Hulu. So I don’t know how much of this collection is repetitive from anything she’s written previously, but it was all new to me. 

Well, the topics themselves were not new, and I’m not really sure West added any new points to them that haven’t already been said. But her own take on them was new for me, and I enjoyed her writing voice a great deal. 

She wrote about some things I’ve said for years, among which is we need to stop praising people, especially mediocre white men, for doing things normal adults are supposed to do anyway. You went to work! You do not get a ‘yay for you!’ for that. Adults are supposed to go to work. No, you cannot babysit your own children. Taking care of your own children is called parenting. Babysitting is what you pay the teenager across the street to do. Praising mediocre white men for doing things normal people are supposed to do is partly why we are stuck with Trump in the White House and his troglodyte followers in positions of power they are in no way qualified to hold. 

Also, stop talking about how charming and handsome Ted Bundy was. He murdered women and everyone is still hung up on how nice he was. No he fucking wasn’t! He liked to kill people. Murderers by definition are not nice. If it takes a while to catch them, it’s not because they are so nice or blend in so well with society, it’s because they snowed everyone around them and used their gullibility to get away, literally, with murder. That’s not charming, that is creepy.

Also, abortions are health care and modern day fucked up rape culture needs to stop. 

So yeah, I guess a lot of it is preaching to the choir and all, but I still think most of the essays included are excellent and this is yet another book that should be required reading.