Trail of Lightning

36373298Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

I read it as a: paperback

Source: library

Length: 287 pp

Publisher: Saga Press

Year: 2018

The ice caps have melted, causing the Big Water. The continents are completely reshaped and billions globally have died. On what’s left of the American continent, the Dine nation has survived, and the gods have returned to the land and walk among humans again. Someone is also creating monsters who are roaming the land, killing innocent people and wreaking havoc and terror. Enter Maggie Hoskie, monsterslayer. She is able to draw on ancient, powerful skills of her tribe, a rare gift, or curse, depending on who you ask. Maggie’s particular skills make her very good at killing, which she uses to kill monsters and Bad Men alike. She soon gets swept up in a job for the trickster Coyote to find a tool that is being used to create the monsters, destroy the person who has it, and prevent the tool from being used to make any more monsters. Maggie is aided by Kai, a young medicine man who has powers far beyond anything she can understand. Maggie has to decide if her skills are the gift Kai says they are or the curse she’s been taught, and whether she is destined to roam the world alone or if perhaps there is room for someone to love a monsterslayer.

NATIVE AMERICAN SCI-FI, you guys!!

This was such a fun book! More than that, it was terrific to see such a rich mythology woven into science fiction. The creation myth of the Dine tribe has been completely reimagined so that the world we live in, the fifth world, is being destroyed and recreated into the sixth world. I loved that Roanhorse used Native mythology in this way. I am somewhat familiar with the Navajo creation story because I teach world mythology, but even if I hadn’t known it, reading this book would have given at least a very brief overview of it, which is great. Various characters from mythology make appearances, most notably the trickster Coyote.

Maggie is an interesting character. She is damaged and uncertain because of her past. She is confident in her skills, but she hates having them. She feels unworthy of being loved, whether as a lover or just as a friend, yet she makes an excellent and loyal friend. Kai is, in many ways, a stereotypical pretty boy – confident, manipulative, and kind when it serves his purpose. Yet he is also complex because his kindness is actually genuine, his confidence is a bit of a disguise, and his manipulation comes at a price. Throughout the novel, the question arises – who are the real monsters? The ones Maggie hunts or is she one of them?

A couple things I do wish the book had are a map with the new continent borders. We get descriptions, but it’s always nice to see it as well. I glossary of the Navajo words would also be super helpful. Mostly, you can figure out the word based on context, but there were a couple that I couldn’t get. Having a glossary is nice to be able to flip back to. A pronunciation guide, if possible, would be even cooler.

I loved this book and can’t wait to read the second one in the series!

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

32075853Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 295 pp

Publisher: William Morrow

Year: 2017

London-born Nikki utterly rejects her Punjabi culture’s traditional views, especially arranged marriage. So she is naturally horrified when her older sister, Mindi, actually decides she wants an arranged marriage and asks Nikki to post a marriage profile on the temple’s announcements board for her. Nikki does, grudgingly, and while there, discovers a notice for a job teaching writing at the local Punjabi community center. She takes the job and quickly learns it is not a creative writing class, as the flier had implied, but a basic adult literacy class given to mostly older widows who had never been educated in their native language, let alone in English. Understandably, they are uninterested in learning to read and write using the texts for kindergarteners, which is all that is available to them. What they are interested in is storytelling. Specifically, telling romantic and generally filthy dirty erotic stories. So Nikki uses that to help empower the women, many of whom had never been encouraged to speak up or felt loved in their marriages, going against her culture and customs to do so. At the same time, she inadvertently stumbles across some evidence from the death of a young woman that may prove she hadn’t died in the way everyone had been told, placing Nikki and the widows in danger with the local gang of self-appointed “morality police.”

I loved every word of this novel. I thought it was so interesting to see the differences in the younger and older generations in this very traditional culture. I know next to nothing about Punjabi traditions, and so it was kind of shocking to me to know that arranged marriages are still a thing for many of them even living in Western countries. I am a bit confused by some things that I read when getting ready to write this review as compared to what was written in this book. For example, multiple sites indicate that Sikhs value gender equality, and yet it seems that some of them, at least the very traditional people, get bent if a girl is not a virgin when she gets married. Honor killings were a thing in this book. Of course, wayward sons didn’t seem to get anything worse than ignored/cut off from family, but girls get murdered. So I don’t get that at all. Not sure if that’s just typical religious hypocrisy or patriarchal bullshit or what, but there it is. Then there were The Brothers, the self-appointed bunch of moral police/thugs who try to reign in the widows from telling their stories. Word to the wise, little boys: don’t fuck with the grannies. It will not go well for you.

Aside from me being confused by religious contradictions and hypocrisy, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows me even a little bit, I just loved this story. I think it was interesting that Nikki got so involved with the widows. At first, it could seem like it was self-serving on her part, that she simply wanted a job, but I think she quickly realized that she could make a difference to the women and to the community as a whole. Also, when she tells the widows that some people don’t even know about Southall, the London Punjabi community, and that they should change that, I do think it is because she sees a lot of potential in the women themselves, and has tapped into her own latent desire to do social justice, even if she herself wasn’t aware of it yet. The widows are able to help her, and themselves, accomplish something new and daring in part because of their almost invisible role in the community. As one of the women stated, no one ever listens to old women talking because it’s like white noise. They used their low position in society to effect change, because no one knew what they were up to until it was too late to stop them or contain it. That’s fucking phenomenal.

This invisibility also shows just how much younger generations disregard the lives and experiences of their elders. No one ever thinks about how our parents or grandparents have lives and individual identities that have nothing to do with us. They have and had desires and fantasies just the same as our own generation, whatever generation that may be. Sometimes, I suppose that realization comes as a surprise to people. Having the widows write their fantasies is such a delightful way to show the young’uns that they were not, in fact, the first ones to discover stuff to do in the bedroom, or anywhere else.

Overall, I just loved this book and definitely recommend it. It would make a great book club selection.

Born a Crime

33632445Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Trevor Noah

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:44:00

Publisher: Audible Audio

Year: 2016

Trevor Noah is known to most American audiences as the newest host and replacement for Jon Stewart on late night comedy. But this book chronicles his childhood in South Africa in the last few years of apartheid, through the years immediately after with their unrest and violence, and his own experiences with abuse. And yet, through it all, he kept his innate goodness and kind nature, despite seeing some horrific things. I don’t know that I could have come through as happily as he did.

I’m not generally a fan of memoirs, though I find that I’ve been reading more lately. So I don’t know, maybe I’m more of a fan of them than I thought. In any case, Noah managed to discuss some really heavy topics like apartheid, racism, domestic violence, and crushing poverty with genuine humor. I never thought I would have laughed out loud over eating “dog bones” because you’re too poor to buy better food, but goddamn the way he told it was hilarious. Maybe the best way to effect change is to make people laugh about a thing. I don’t know. But by turning it into something laughable, it kind of felt like it was a little disrespectful. But I am not the one who lived through it, so I also feel like I don’t really get a say in it. In any case, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about many things. I definitely recommend this whether you enjoy Trevor Noah as a comedian or not.

A Bollywood Affair

40098577A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Priya Ayyar

Source: Hoopla Digital

Length: 10:23:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2014

Mili was a 4 year old child bride in an arranged marriage and grew up doing everything she could to become the ideal wife for her husband, an officer in the Indian Air Force, a man she’d never met but who she knew would come for her one day. She went to college because an officer’s wife should be educated, and her studies take her to a post-grad program in America. Meanwhile, her husband’s brother, Samir, famous Bollywood director and notorious playboy, finds himself with a serious case of writer’s block on his next script. When his brother gets in a bad accident and it comes out that his marriage to Mili hadn’t been annulled when they were children as they had thought, he sends Samir to America to get Mili to sign the annulment papers since he himself was bedridden and unable to do it himself. While there, Samir finds himself unexpectedly bewitched by Mili and her onyx eyes. His writer’s block miraculously cured, he devotes his time to writing and to Mili, who was injured and needs help because she’s a klutz and has no one to help. Sam sets himself up as her new neighbor and naturally, drama ensues.

I am not a reader of romance. I read this because it checks the box for one of the 2018 Read Harder tasks. I enjoyed it well enough, I laughed out loud a couple times, but I confess that I find the whole romance genre baffling. Two people meet, they have drama of some kind, they have a big fight for some reason, there is a separation, then they get over it and end up happily ever after. Maybe sometimes the man is an alpha male asshole, maybe sometimes he’s a sensitive beta. Maybe the lady is a shy little wallflower, maybe she’s a spitfire. Maybe it’s a lesbian couple, maybe it’s two men, maybe it’s some other combination on the gender spectrum. But the formula always seems to be the same. I just…it’s boring to know how it will end before you even start reading. Do people read romance just for the sex? This is NOT a rant against this book or Sonali Dev in any way, I just truly don’t understand the appeal, I guess.

As far as romance books go, this one was fine. I liked Mili, she had dreams and did what she needed to carry them out. She had gumption and ambition and learned how to speak her mind. She was a loyal friend. All are qualities I admire and value. Samir was a spoiled brat but he also was loyal to his brother, anyway. He turned out nice enough. I’m not sure what else to say about it, really. It was a fun and fast read, but nothing surprised me or anything. It seemed to follow the formula I was expecting to the letter.

I do definitely want all the Indian food now, though. The descriptions of food, festivals, clothing, and locations were all really vivid and rich, which I loved. Made me want to travel.

Bluebird, Bluebird

40605488Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: JD Jackson

Source: my own Audible collection

Length: 9:25:00

Publisher: Hachette Audio

Year: 2017

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger who is on suspension. While he is called home to Lark, TX, he begins digging around in the deaths of two people – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, found in the same bayou two days apart. Darren starts investigating, even though he is suspended, in an attempt to head off the racial tensions building in the tiny town.

This is the first book of Locke’s I’ve read. Her prose is rich and evokes a great deal of authenticity regarding race relations in tiny, backwoods Southern towns. I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was set in modern times, not 50 years or more ago. The details of the crimes were complex and believable within the scope of the story. I really found her writing to be relevant for many issues society still, sadly, deals with today. She showed how racism is deeply ingrained in both the white and black communities, which is so sad on every level.

That said, I didn’t actually like this book much. I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. I didn’t like how Darren would use his badge to manipulate people to get what he wanted from them. I didn’t find most of the people terribly sympathetic, even the victims or the victims’ loved ones. I was mostly bored with the crime plot and it dragged too much for me. I like plenty of detail and don’t mind slow pacing but this was too slow. I can easily see why this book got so many 4 and 5 star reviews, because it really was well written and deals with important issues. It just wasn’t for me.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

29010395I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

I read it as an: hardback

Source: library

Length: 340 pp

Publisher: Knopf

Year: 2017

Julia is a fairly typical 15 year old – she wants to hang out with her friends, have fun, and get good enough grades to get out of her neighborhood and go away to college when she is old enough. She struggles with depression, though she initially doesn’t realize it, because her parents are oppressive and don’t want her to achieve anything more than to get through high school without getting pregnant, then get married and get a job as a secretary, which is the best job they can think of. To be fair, her dad works in a factory and her mom cleans houses, so working as a secretary would be a big step up to them. However, Julia is highly intelligent and a talented writer; she wants to go to college and be a writer when she grows up, a job neither of her parents understands or supports. The death of her older sister, Olga, which happens before the start of the book, naturally throws her into a deeper depression than she already had been in.

Olga had been the perfect Mexican daughter, according to Julia’s mother. Olga was happy to stay at home forever, never dated, was happy to help her mother clean and cook traditional food. Julia wanted nothing to do with any of these things. After Olga died, Julia discovered that Olga may have had a secret life and makes it her mission to learn what it was. The weight of the secrets she learns becomes too much to bear and it has a terrible impact on Julia’s mental health.

I read this in one sitting and it made me ugly cry. It was so fucking good! There are so many issues wrapped up in this novel. Julia’s parents are undocumented immigrants and, over the course of the story, we learn about their harrowing trip across the border from their home town on Los Ojos in Mexico, the horrible things that happened to them. They were unable to return to Mexico when their parents died because they wouldn’t have been able to return to their home in Chicago or to their children. They work the worst jobs with the worst shifts because their employers know they have them over a barrel. Julia’s dad and his factory coworkers live in constant fear of raids by immigration; it’s pure dumb luck the raids have never happened during any of his shifts. Julia’s mother cleans houses in the rich areas of Chicago and deals with all kinds of abuse from the homeowners, from bored rich housewives hovering and criticizing everything she does to gross old men leering at her.

Julia suffers from depression and anxiety, but she doesn’t know it. She just thinks that she is weird and that nothing she does is good enough to please her mother. She’s a victim of her culture, to a large extent, and of her mother. Depression is not something that her mother understands and she thinks Julia just needs to be happy with her family and go to church more. Oppressing Julia’s need for a creative outlet and showing no interest in things she loves – literature, writing, travel – makes her feel as though she is unseen and unwanted, and understandably so.

Another issue in the book is how homosexuality is dealt with in the Hispanic community. I am not Hispanic, but I know that, traditionally, being gay is not very well tolerated. Readers see that in one of Julia’s friends, a gay boy who is frequently beaten by hi father for being gay.

Being from AZ, I know maybe a tad more about Mexican culture than some, but really I don’t know tons. Reading this book helped me learn more than I expected and for that, I am grateful. I want to learn more.

Overall, this book was sad and enlightening and shines a light on a huge number of issues. I loved it so hard.

Small Country

36750086Small Country by Gaël Faye

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection (BOTM selection)

Length: 192 pp

Publisher: Hogarth

Year: 2018

Small Country is Gaël Faye’s debut novel, and it is a gutpunch. The novel is told through the eyes of a ten year old boy, Gaby, who is the child of a French father and Rwandan mother. He and his younger sister, Ama, live a fairly privileged life in a neighborhood of ex-pats, relatively sheltered from much of the political instability and poverty that the rest of the country is subject to. Gaby’s father actively discourages him from listening to or learning about politics and doesn’t believe children should join in adult conversations, so for the first half of the book, most of the political events are filtered through the lens of a child who doesn’t really understand what is going on. Gaby’s main sources of concern are his parents’ fracturing relationship and maintaining his friendships with Gino and the other children in his neighborhood. When the war touches his family, though, Gaby grows up faster than any child should ever have to.

This was a difficult read, obviously. The topic alone would make it so, but seeing it through a child’s eyes made it worse. It was obvious that Gaby had no real idea what was happening and that his life was a lot more sheltered than the lives of many of those around him, including his household staff. Gaby’s home was in a fairly exclusive, guarded, safe-ish area. The cook and gardener who worked at his house everyday lived in a different area and were in danger every time they set foot in their homes. I don’t think Gaby ever fully realized that. It was just that one day, he noticed Donatien and Prothe were not there anymore and he wondered where they were. The political events were similarly vague until near the end of the book. They were all filtered through Gaby’s childish ignorance, which wasn’t all his fault. His father kept his children ignorant of politics, whether for their own safety or for some other reason, we never really know. Clearly, it didn’t work to keep them safe or clear from war. It came to them anyway. It stripped Gaby of his childhood, brutally. The writing reflects the way Gaby tried to cling to his childhood, wanting to keep things the way they were, just wanting to play with his friends and not worry about protecting his street or neighborhood. One of the most poignant lines of the book was when Gaby told his friends Gino and Francis, “You’re my friends because I love you, not because you’re from one ethnic group or another. I don’t want anything to do with all that!” (153). He is clinging to a childhood that has already deserted him, but he has not yet realized it, and it is heartbreaking.

How much of Gaby’s childhood was taken from him is really highlighted in the letters he exchanges with his French pen pal, a ten year old girl named Laure. In one of his letters, Gaby told Laure about the elections held in Burundi and how the people turned out in their droves to vote, told her about the political parties in the country, the candidates, and who ultimately won the election and why it was such a big deal to the people. In return, Laure sent a three-line letter, telling him she was having a fun vacation at the beach and that what he had written to her was funny. What Gaby wrote didn’t even register to Laure as an actual event, or that another child the same age as her could be living through something as impactful as a democratic election, as horrific as a genocide. It makes me think of this when he is thinking to himself, years later, “I used to think I was exiled from my country. But, in retracing the steps of my past, I have understood that I was exiled from my childhood. Which seems so much crueler.” (179).

This is a book that I will be thinking about for a long time.