Happiness

32722015Happiness by Thich Nhat Hahn

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Edoardo Ballerini

Source: library

Length: 4:13:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2015

This is the first book I’ve read by Thich Nhat Hahn and it will certainly not be my last. What a gentle and wise soul he is! I have wanted to read some of his works since I frequently use a short article he wrote in one of my classes. It is called “God is a Flower,” and is all about tolerance and loving everyone, and how if a thing exists, it is because it was created by the Creator and since there is a relationship between Creator and Created, then an element of everything is in the Creator. Therefore a flower can say God is a flower, God is a Lesbian, God is Black, God is Native American, etc. Usually it either blows my students’ minds or pisses them off. The ones who get bent usually are the ones who could use more mindfulness practices and tolerance.

ANYWAY. This was a sweet, short book about incorporating more mindfulness practices into daily life. Many things I cheerfully admit I will never do, like carrying a bell, or even keeping one at home to ring. But others, I totally dig and fit in well with Stoic practices that I gravitate towards, like being present in the moment, being grateful, taking responsibility, and enjoying what you have rather than worrying about what you do not have. These are all lessons I think everyone can and should learn, regardless of creed, religion, lack thereof, or whatever.

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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.

Priestess of Ishana

Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston

I read it as an: ARC, finished as a paperback

Source: from the author, and I bought a copy for my own collection

Length: 453 pp

Publisher: Bronze Age Books

Year: 2018

Tesha is the 15 year old high priestess of the goddess Ishana, a deity of war and love. Her duties and devotion to the goddess are strong and she carries out her role faithfully at the temple, believing she knows her life’s role. Until one day, two shepherds discover the charred remains of a man’s body in a cave, who had been killed by sorcery, a crime punishable by death. When the Great King’s younger brother, Hattu, arrives to Tesha’s city to deliver a great treasure to the temple as a sign of his devotion to Ishana, he is arrested for the murder of the man in the cave. Tesha and her blind sister, Daniti, are convinced that Hattu is innocent, but their father, Pentip, the Grand Votary and High Priest, believes otherwise. Acting against her father, Tesha meticulously searches for the truth that will set Hattu, with whom she shares an inexplicable bond and visions, free of his prison and save him from execution at his own brother’s command.

You guys. YOU GUYS! This novel is Hittite historical fantasy! Let me say that again:

HITTITE. HISTORICAL. FANTASY!

This is exactly the historical fantasy novel you were looking for to round out your 2018 reading! The world building is intricate and painstakingly drawn, which is always pleasing. The pacing has a nice blend of faster action sequences combined with complex (but not convoluted) politics and religious rites. Each character has depth and personality, some of whom you love to hate. I thought Tesha in particular was a complex person, a woman in her own right who had some power as a respected priestess, but who was also a woman in a very different and much earlier society who adhered to some patriarchal rules. It was fascinating to see her carry out her duties as well as her investigation within the scope of the limits her society imposed upon her.

The excellent author’s note at the end gives further insight into both the creation of the novel itself as well as the Hittites. I think a lot of people don’t know about the Hittites at all, or else only what is mentioned about them in the Bible. But their civilization was enormous and they had a ton of influence on the ancient world. They were literally lost to the sands of time and were only relatively recently rediscovered. There is still a lot we can learn about them, and frankly, learning history by way of well written fantasy novels isn’t a bad way to go. I think Judith Starkston has struck on a totally unique niche within the historical fantasy genre, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in her next installation in the series!

**A slightly different, probably longer and better version of this review will also be posted at the very awesome book review site Discovering Diamonds. You should go check them out.

Underground Airlines

35051774Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William DeMerritt

Source: my own collection

Length: 9:28:00

Publisher: Hatchette Audio

Year: 2016

The premise of this alt-history novel is WHAT IF America had never had a Civil War? What if slavery was enshrined in the Constitution? There are four states – the Hard Four – which still have slavery, a highly regulated system with a lot of checks and balances. People like to think that it is not the slavery of the 1800s or even “fifty years ago,” but those people are incorrect. And it’s fucking slavery. Enter Victor, a young man who had once been a slave himself and managed to escape. He maintains his freedom by working for a shady government official as a runaway slave catcher, a job he is very good at but which gives him a great deal of conflict. His newest case is to track down a runaway named Jackdaw who is thought to be headed to Indianapolis. Along the way, Victor encounters shades of his past that he had tried to escape or push down, and learns that even the shady people he reluctantly works for are not at all what they appear to be.

This was a horrifying book, mostly because I don’t think something like this is really that far from truth. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to envision an America that still has slavery, judging from the revolting news we see everyday. There is rampant racism and neonazis and white supremacists and other disgusting groups who would probably jump at a chance to live in a world Winters portrays here. The poverty wages that many, many people earn are hardly better than slavery in this country, and in many other countries, there are sweathouse jobs that I would argue do constitute slavery conditions. So yeah, this book was terrifying. It is too easy to see this as reality. Let’s keep books like this fiction.

For as horrifying as I found this book to be, I was actually kind of bored with it. I thought the pacing was uneven and the plot a bit disjointed. It made it hard for me to follow at times. The characters as well felt rather flat and were hard to connect with. The narrator did a great job, though, using a variety of voices to differentiate everyone, which made it more appealing to listen to. I would still recommend this book, but perhaps not as an audiobook. I think I might have been more interested if I had eyeball read it instead. Maybe. I still think the characters would have felt one-dimensional and the pacing would still be uneven.

Doc: A Novel

8911226Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Mark Bramhall

Source: library

Length: 16:38:00

Publisher: Random House Audio

Year: 2011

This historical fiction novel focuses on the life of John Henry “Doc” Holliday from his early years, before he was famous for his role in the gunfight at the OK Corral. He was born to be a Southern gentleman, but he moved to Texas in hopes that the hot, dry air would ease the tuberculosis that was already ravaging his lungs. When the job market proved to be less than he had hoped, he started professionally playing poker. At the urging of Kate Harony, the Classically trained Hungarian whore he lives with, Doc and Kate move to Dodge City, KS and start fresh. And Doc becomes friends with a young man named Morgan Earp and his brothers Wyatt and James and the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?

This book! I read this book just to check off the “Read a Western” box on the Read Harder challenge, and it was the only one immediately available that sounded remotely interesting. I’m not a fan of westerns. I did not expect to enjoy it all that much, it was just something to get through. I had no idea that I would discover the book that is probably my favorite book of 2019! This novel was just absolutely delightful. Doc Holliday was not the man he is portrayed by history, at least not according to Mary Doria Russell. He was a quiet, mild mannered, Southern gentleman who loved playing the piano, reading Classical literature, and speaking Latin. He was born with a cleft palate, and he was one of the first babies the have his fixed. He was fiercely loyal and did not seek out fame or notoriety. This Doc Holliday was a person I genuinely cared about.

The narrator, Mark Bramhall, delivered a superb performance. He shifts seamlessly from Doc’s slow Georgia drawl to the sharper twang of the Texas cowboys to the cheerful Irish brogue of the local town drunk. He gives dry wit a biting edge that made me laugh out loud more than once, and imbued his voice with such sadness or nostalgia at times that only the coldest person would remain untouched. I hope he narrates other books, because I definitely want to hear his voice again.

There was almost nothing I didn’t love about this book. Some of my favorite scenes were when Doc fixed Wyatt’s teeth and gave him dentures to replace his missing teeth. Wyatt was so happy to see his own smile, it was heartbreaking. He had to practice saying his S’s and TH’s and he was determined to get it right, which was also somehow endearing. Doc was proud of his work and delighted to be able to give a person back some of their self confidence and health, which he vigorously defended later to Kate when she was nagging him about how dentistry doesn’t pay any money. I also loved the scene near the end when Doc was playing The Emperor piano concerto. That whole scene made my face leak on my drive to work. I want to buy this for my own collection. I would listen to it again, or eyeball read it. It was enthralling.

Star Trek: Prey: The Jackal’s Trick

29865636Star Trek: Prey: The Jackal’s Trick by John Jackson Miller

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Year: 2016

The second installment in JJM’s Klingon trilogy. The action picked up right where it left off in the previous book. Korgh has taken control of the ancient House of Kruge and, in rather Trump like fashion, is now taking every opportunity to attack the longtime allies of the Klingon Empire and weaken its ties to the Federation. Someone claiming to actually BE Kruge is whipping the Unsung into a froth of rage against traditional Klingons who haven’t been discommendated. And it’s all linked to an old Enterprise foe from nearly 20 years ago who was never what she appeared to be.

This was a fun and action packed novel. I could read it just on its surface but, rather unlike the first in this Klingon trilogy, it seemed a bit deeper, dealing much more closely with complex themes of honor and duty. Worf really gets put through the wringer in this one and he’s not done yet. I have hopes for a thing to happen with him in the final novel in the trilogy that began in this novel. A good thing about being so far behind on my Trek reading is that I don’t have to wait for the next one to come out to find out if I’m right! A thoroughly enjoyable read! ‘Qapla!

One random thing – that cover. Who the fuck is the Klingon demon supposed to be on the front, and why is he apparently punching himself in the face? It doesn’t fit in with the story, other but than one small and fairly irrelevant scene with Geordi and Tuvok, and doesn’t matter much to the overarching plot. That’s just the weirdest cover image I’ve seen in a while.

Star Trek: Prey: Hell’s Heart

29865635Star Trek: Prey: Hell’s Heart by John Jackson Miller

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 383 pp

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Year: 2016

In this first entry into John Jackson Miller’s Klingon trilogy, the Enterprise-E is helping Admiral Riker and the crew of Titan bring Klingon nobles to the former site of the battle of Gamaral, where the House of Kruge once fought against the Empire and, it turns out, suffered a humiliating defeat. The crews of the two starships are working together to conduct a ceremony for the nobles, each of whom is a legitimate heir to the House but rather than fight for their right of inheritance, they opted to share the rule of the House and keep peace. When they get to Gamaral, assassins in black strike and annihilate the entire House, with only one survivor. In the slaughter, Worf and the Emperor Kahless are kidnapped and taken to the assassins’ stronghold, hidden on a planet deep in a nebula. To understand the assassins’ motives and escape, Worf and Picard discover a surprising link to a prior Enterprise first officer, Spock.

This was a fun, if pretty dark, first entry in this trilogy. I would say “new trilogy,” but I’m super far behind on my Trek books and it’s a couple years old now. This was some sweet, sweet brain candy, though, much needed. I’m mentally exhausted and a good Star Trek novel is just what I wanted to read. I don’t often care much about the Klingons – they have never been my favorite aliens – but I do love Worf and the story was fun. This one wasn’t one of those Trek books that makes you think or that discusses social issues or anything. It was just a straightforward romp through space, and that’s totally fine with me. I’m jumping right into the next one, which is a benefit of being so behind on my reading. I don’t have to wait for the next instalment!

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.

A Missed Murder

51htbmniokl-_sx315_bo1204203200_A Missed Murder by Michael Jecks

I read it as a: galley

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2018

Jack Blackjack, which is either a really cool name or a really lame one, is an assassin in the employ of the historic figure John Blount. Blount somehow managed to convince Jack to be an assassin for him, even though Jack is squeamish around blood and is an indifferent assassin at best. He really takes the job only because he would get paid a lot of money and he’s jonesing for better food, nicer clothes, and a big house (not that I blame him for that), and because he is rightfully concerned that Blount will kill him for turning him down. Jack is also a complete fuck-up. He was ordered to kill a guy, then that order was countermanded, but Jack manages to kill him anyway, completely by accident. All that happened even though he had really hired the father of his lover to do the actual killing for him. See above re: squeamish about blood. Now Jack is trying to get out of his self-inflicted mess alive. The plot thickens as he scrambles to do a job, avoid a job, and not become his own next victim.

It sounds pretty fun, right? You would be wrong. This was the first book by Michael Jecks I have read and I have to say, I think it will be the last. It’s disappointing, too, because the blurb honestly sounded like it would be so good. I thought Jack was not merely an unlikable character but a revolting one. I am so incredibly sick of male narrators who are braggarts and arrogant and view women as objects. Within just the first few pages, there were a shit ton of comments made by the narrator about women and their vacant eyes and how that was a turn-on. Seriously, what the fuck? Additionally, there were tons of incredibly juvenile euphemisms for sex – hide the sausage, pounding the mattress, mattress galloping,  that might appeal to immature audiences, but not, I think, to most adults. There were men in the 16th century would have appreciated a woman with some wits about her, who wasn’t just some vapid cow. So this attitude – by the narrator? By the author? – didn’t really capture the sense of the social mores. Women at the time were, indeed, not equal to men, and were sometimes viewed as objects. Hey, kinda like today! But there are plenty of examples, both from the contemporary literature and real life, of men who valued a strong, intelligent woman. Also, it’s kind of hard to overlook the fact that there was a woman on the throne at the time this book was set, even if she wasn’t the most popular, and was followed by another woman who was one of THE most popular and longest-reigning monarchs in British history. So even allowing for 16th century social mores, the rampant sexism is hard to stomach. It’s used often enough that I don’t know if it is supposed to reflect the protagonist’s mindset or if it is the viewpoint of the author himself. The ubiquitous sexism also detracts from an already tepid plot that is lacking any meaningful historical detail. I know Jecks has a ton of books in another series, so it seems he’s pretty popular. Maybe this is an aberration and his other books are better, but I was thoroughly put off by this one and now have no interest in reading his other ones. A Missed Murder should have been titled A Missed Opportunity

The Hollow of Fear

36342330The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

I read it as an: ARC

Source: publicist

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2018

The Hollow of Fear is the third in Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series and honestly, they just keep getting better and better. In this installment, Charlotte Holmes helps her dear friend Lord Ingram when his wife’s body is discovered in the ice house on the grounds of his country estate, Stern Hollow. Charlotte provides assistance and moral support to Ingram, who is the prime suspect in Lady Ingram’s murder. In order to be able to assist and move freely among the police investigators, Charlotte dresses up as Sherlock’s fictional brother Sherrington, which is hilarious since Sherlock himself is fictional as well. Livia, meanwhile, though concerned about Ingram, is also pining for the mysterious man she met in the second novel, while trying not to be obvious about it. Readers will be rooting  for her to get some kind of happiness, which has been so long withheld due to circumstance and her parents’ unkind personalities. Throughout the twists and turns, Charlotte has to keep her sisters safe, keep her identity as Sherlock secret, and keep Ingram out of the hangman’s noose.

There is so much to unpack in this novel. The plot is wonderfully complex and it kept me guessing until the surprising end. We learn that, as so often in real life, people are not always as they first appear. Some turn out to be nicer than we think, and in this case, learning that was a delightful surprise. Others are harboring dark secrets and it hurts to find out who it is. It was also a treat to learn more about Ingram’s other two brothers: Wycliffe, the eldest and the duke, and Remington, the youngest and free-spirited of the group. Although they really didn’t make an actual appearance on the page to speak of, it still gave a more well-rounded background for Ingram and Bancroft that was appreciated. Readers of the series are already intimately familiar with Ingram, of course, and Bancroft, a quasi-Mycroft figure.

But it is beyond the plot where the novel’s true strengths lie. Charlotte still desires Ingram, and propositions him on occasion, to his consternation, since he operates within the scope of society. However, she only wants him on her terms and is willing to wait if necessary. Unlike the original Sherlock, Charlotte isn’t asexual, but she refuses to allow society to dictate how she lives her life, and she isn’t driven purely by mindless desire, which would be terribly boring. The fact that she is almost certainly on the spectrum also makes for some interesting interactions because she reacts to emotions very differently. Also unlike the original, Charlotte uses food and eating as her addiction rather than cocaine, which sparks great discussion about body positivity and body image. I love her commentary about “maximum tolerable chins.”

My favorite element of this particular story is that it has lots to say about gender identity. Thomas takes Sherlock and gender-flips him into Lady Sherlock, which is fun enough on its own. But here, Lady Sherlock goes and dresses as a man so she can help Ingram. While she was dressed as Sherrington Holmes, the handful of people who know Charlotte is actually Sherlock – Ingram, Livia, and Inspector Treadles – maintained her cover, addressing her as a man and treating her as such. They said things to her and allowed her to do things as Sherrington that never would have been allowed had she presented as Charlotte, even it was just Ingram, who is indulgent of her and lets her do pretty much what she wants. I found the interplay of gender identity and gender fluidity to be fascinating.

Oh, and that last line! I simply can’t wait for the next book!