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.

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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!

A Study in Scarlet Women

35009017A Study in  Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Kate Reading

Source: my own collection

Length: 11:00:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2016

A Study in Scarlet Women is, in essence, a gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes story. Right there, I wanted to read it. The premise of this novel is that Charlotte Holmes is a brilliant woman and has no interest whatsoever in marriage. She’s told her father so and they made a deal – if she makes a genuine effort to find a suitor and let him make her fall in love with him and she still doesn’t want to get married, when she is 25, he will pay for the education she needs to set up shop as the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school. Charlotte holds up her end of the bargain; her father does not. So she takes matters into her own hands and has an affair with a married man, thus ruining her reputation and rendering her unfit for marriage. Yay, idiotic Victorian morality! She has no intention, either, of being imprisoned at their family’s country estate forever, so she runs away to London where she intends to support herself as a typist. Eventually she meets Mrs Watson, who hires her as her companion. Mrs Watson convinces Charlotte to take on clients as an investigator, pretending to be the sister of the bedridden man, Sherlock Holmes. The ruse works and Charlotte is able to support herself quite well by solving mysteries. She is called in on one case that strikes close to home when suspicion falls on her sister, Livia, who had publicly accused the mother of Charlotte’s lover of ruining her sister’s life, and hours later, the woman was dead. When two other people die mysteriously, Charlotte and an Inspector Treadles work together to solve the mystery and figure out how the victims were connected.

I enjoyed seeing a gender-flipped Sherlock. Charlotte is a woman who knows what she wants and makes plans to get it. She has good body image and isn’t worried about being stick thin. These are all good things about this novel. There are a lot of strong and independent women, even being set in Victorian London. I think that the mystery itself took too long to set up and get to, though, and once we got to it, was unnecessarily convoluted. It was hard to keep everyone straight and the ending was really complicated. I read a ton of mysteries and am really good at keeping track of who’s who and it still confused the hell out of me. I felt that the book’s strength was in the character development, which was excellent for nearly every character we meet. Though I didn’t feel the mystery part of the plot was terribly well done, the rest made up for it and I am still looking forward to reading the rest of the books in this series.

Old Man’s War

51tnlj8xnbl-_sx342_Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William Dufris

Source: my own collection

Length: 9 h 58 m

Publisher: Macmillan Audio

Year: 2007

In the future, the Colonial Defence Forces don’t want young people with no experience to join up. They are too green, too excitable, too likely to do something stupid. Instead, the CDF takes recruits when they turn 75. They give them a shiny new, genetically enhanced body, teach them how to be soldiers that would be the envy of the most badass Marines or SeALs, or astronauts ever. And then they send them off to the front, where they will do battle with all the aliens in the galaxy who surround all the human colonies, and who want to kill humans, often for food. Neat!

This first entry in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series is some of the finest sci-fi I’ve read in years. It was full of action, excitement, adventure, and a shit ton of sarcasm. Scalzi is one of the funniest writers around at the moment, and his humor colors nearly every page, from boot camp to even the goriest of battles. Who knew it could be hilarious to read a scene where an entire unit dies but one man, who gets his jaw ripped off and kicks himself in the uvula in the process? I wouldn’t have thought that, but indeed I laughed out loud. It’s either excellent writing, or there’s just something wrong with me. Jury’s still out on that one, I reckon.

The narrator for this was also excellent. I am used to Wil Wheaton narrating Scalzi’s books, but this was read by William Dufris. It was a good choice because he sounds older, or made himself sound older at any rate, than Wil is. He was able to do some terrific crotchety old fart voices, and had a bunch of different voices and accents and overall just really played up the already terrifically fun story.

I have universally loved all of Scalzi’s novels so far, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the Old Man’s War series.

Artemis the Loyal

61tdlmrcvll-_sx334_bo1204203200_Artemis the Loyal by Joan Holub

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 288 pp

Publisher: Aladdin

Year: 2011

In Artemis the Loyal, Artemis is on a mission to convince Principal Zeus, King of the Gods and Ruler of the Heavens, that it is not fair that the Olympic Games are for boys only. She is an excellent athlete and wants to compete, as do many other girls. Artemis goes on a mission to convince Zeus to change his mind and allow girls to have their own girls-only Olympics. Simultaneously, he twin Apollo is determined to take on the Python of Parnassus in a battle of wits. Artemis is concerned because the python can read minds and she knows Apollo can’t tell a lie, so she thinks he will lose. She tries to discourage him from entering the contest and inadvertently causes a rift between them, which is heightened when Apollo utterly scorns her attempts to get Zeus to sign off on a girl Olympics. Artemis has to learn when to lean in and when to let others learn lessons on their own in this latest installment of Holub’s GoddessGirl series.

This was a fun and quick read with my daughter at night for a bedtime read. It was a little more progressive and feminist than the other books in the series thus far in that it had a lot of focus on gender equality. I also liked the theme of figuring out when it is ok to be pushy and try to help and when you need to back off and let others figure things out for themselves. That is something a lot of people need to learn.

I still think the books in general are too focused on what other people think and on hetero-normative crushes, but it wasn’t AS big a focus in this one as in others and it provided a couple times to have a good chat with my daughter about a few things.

A Man Called Ove

18774964A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 337 pp

Publisher: Washington Square Press

Year: 2012

Ove is a stereotypical curmudgeon, which is a terrific word anyway, isn’t it. He is cranky, he feuds with his neighbors for not following the posted signs or the rules of the neighborhood association, and he just wants to be left alone. Really, what he wants is to die, and he has his own reasons for wanting that which are no one else’s business. But things keep happening that piss him off just enough to keep him engaged and living, and he knows from long experience that if he doesn’t handle it, it will never get done right. Such as teaching the new neighbor how to back up a trailer so he doesn’t run over his mailbox. Again. Or teaching the neighbor’s wife how to drive because the neighbor fell off a ladder and broke himself and needs someone to drive him around. Or teaching the local barista how to fix a bike so he can give it to his girlfriend. Or do battle with a corrupt White Shirt (Ove’s version of two by two, hands of blue) determined to forcibly remove a neighbor with Alzheimer’s to a nursing home against the wishes of the family. Along the way, even though Ove is a cranky old sod (he really isn’t), it becomes clear that he has a deep and painful past and that it’s always the quiet ones who are the most interesting, the ones you have to keep your eye on, and who care the deepest even if they don’t make a spectacle about it.

This was such a touching book. People who say nothing much happened didn’t pay attention. The people who disliked it just because Ove didn’t like the cat (or Jimmy, or the kid who couldn’t repair his own bike, etc) totally missed the point. I feel bad for those people. Ove looked past the exterior of people and saw the good in them, despite not being able to do things he thought they should be able to do for themselves. If they didn’t know something, he taught them. He was rough on the outside, but at heart he was a true teacher and went out of his way to help people when he didn’t have to. In the end, the community realized they were the ones who had been wrong about Ove all along.

Also, this book made me miss my grandad, even though he wasn’t a curmudgeon. But in a lot of ways, Ove reminds me of him anyway.

Some of my favorite lines (behind the cut in case of spoilers):Read More »

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.

Dragon’s Code

51m5loezfzl-_sx327_bo1204203200_

Dragon’s Code by Gigi McCaffrey
I read it as a: digital galley
Source: Netgalley
Length: 272 pp
Publisher: Del Rey
Year: 2018

A NEW PERN BOOK!! *FLAILS*

Ahem. Dragon’s Code, set in the Ninth Pass of the Red Star, returns readers to the characters Lady Anne originally wrote – F’lar, Lessa, Master Robinton, the Oldtimers. Here, young harper Piemur, whose voice had previously been glorious until its adolescent break, has been somewhat adrift for the past three years. While waiting for his voice to settle, he has been mapping the Southern Continent for Robinton, but has been pining for his lost voice and his harper’s trade. He feels bereft and useless, something no one enjoys. Robinton, really the Pern equivalent of Francis Walsingham, spymaster extraordinaire, has learned of a plot against Jaxom, the young Lord of Ruatha. This is based in part on the theft of Ramoth’s queen egg by the desperate Oldtimers, an event that could drive dragon to fight dragon, and which is very familiar to long-time Pern fans. In response, Robinton sends Piemur and Sebell, his own journeyman, into Nabol, from whence the threat arises. While there, Piemur and Sebell encounter the worst people Nabol has to offer, enduring abuse and worse. Piemur has to learn the lesson that sometimes revenge serves no justice and can cause further damage. Ultimately, he finds his voice – in an unexpected way.

This was a wonderful addition to the Pern canon. I admit that part of it is pure nostalgia because no one can write Pern as well as Lady Anne herself, not even her daughter. The Ninth Pass is my favorite, mostly because that is what Lady Anne wrote mostly, and what she wrote first, and what most readers were introduced to when first encountering Pern. It’s the “right” time to be in. It felt good to come home to the Ninth Pass.

I also loved seeing Piemur grow from a lost, and let’s face it, kind of whiny kid to a young man full of purpose and drive. There was a lot to be said of his path in this story. It is not just a traditional bildungsroman, which would have been boring, indeed. He learned to lean on his friends and family, to trust himself, and when in doubt, always listen to your mother. I loved the bits of wisdom Ama doled out – it felt like those might have been things Lady Anne said to Ms Gigi and Todd as they grew up. It was like a little bit of Anne coming back to talk to her readers, and whether it is true or not, it was delightful. My favorite was:

I don’t think, my Pie, that any of us could be happy in life by doing just one thing. Through all these long Turns I’ve lived, I’ve grown to see some parts of my life very clearly. It was the unlikely choices I made – where the sights I set my aim at were hardest to reach – that became the most highly valued feats of my life. Maybe it’s because the goals were hard-won. I could not say for certain. … You’ll be fine, my Pie. Just be yourself, and always listen to your instincts…and you’ll be fine. (Kindle loc 3421)

Piemur took these words to heart and managed to find his voice, literally and figuratively, in a way that is perfect for him. I can’t wait to see what the next installment has in store.

The book played on themes of honor and trust throughout, which is directly related to the titular dragon’s code. The code that has to be upheld for Pern’s way of life to work has been violated on both sides – Oldtimer and modern riders alike have acted wrongly. The trust the crafters and holders place in the dragons has been broken. The honor of the dragonfolk has been bent, if not broken as well, and all must learn to work together to repair the code.

At first, there was a little too much telling and not showing, especially for readers already intimately familiar with Pern. It took a little while, but Ms. Gigi did eventually hit her stride and the pacing got much better. Some things are a little inaccurate based on her mother’s previous books. For example, Silvina is the Harper Hall’s headwoman, not Fort’s. The Hall and Fort are separate, though adjacent, so each would have their own headwoman. Totally minor, though, and not anything that took away from the overall story.

Overall, I HIGHLY recommend this book – I already preordered the hardcopy for my own collection – and was absolutely beside myself to see a new Pern book on the market. I devoutly hope there will be more Pern books, and soon, from Ms Gigi. I was fine when Todd was writing Pern books, because any Pern book is better than none. But I didn’t care for his nearly as well as I did for this one. I thought Ms Gigi’s was better written, and I admit that I prefer those that are set in the Ninth Pass.

Dear Ms Gigi – PLEASE write more Pern books! I loved this and miss the people of the Ninth Pass terribly. They are real people, you know, and we need to visit our friends. I can’t wait to see what Piemur’s new career has in store for him! Love, Me.

A Girl Like That

51h8gf05wjl-_sx329_bo1204203200_A Girl Like That  by Tanaz Bhathena

I read it as a: hardback

Source: library

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Farrar Strauss

Year: 2018

Sixteen year old Zarin Wadia is a girl caught between family, social, and peer pressures. Orphaned at four, being raised by her hateful aunt and spineless uncle, Zarin has never really remembered a time when she felt loved. Her only friend is a boy she sees from her balcony who waves to her as he heads out to school each morning. When her aunt and uncle move her from her hometown of Mumbai to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Zarin has even more rules to follow, for interactions between men and women in Saudi are highly regulated and women are closely guarded. Zarin begins rebelling against the societal boundaries, learning to avoid the religious police as well as her aunt, just for an hour or two of unsupervised freedom. When she encounters Porus, a young man working at the neighborhood deli, they each recognize each other as the balcony friends they had been in Mumbai ten years earlier. Porus, against his mother’s wishes, stands by Zarin through bullying, slandering, assault, and abuse, determined to be everything for her that she never had before. When the two of them die in a horrific car accident (not a spoiler, it happens on the first page), the pieces of their stories come together in astonishing ways, revealing slowly just how Zarin came to be known as “a girl like that,” and how very, terribly wrong rumors and reputations can be.

This book was devastating. Utterly, completely, beautifully devastating. The pain the Zarin endured for so much of her life was tangible and leapt from the page. The bullying the girls at school put her through is something kids today across the world might be familiar with, which is disgusting as it is. Added to that was the way misogyny and violence towards women is codified into so much Arabic law. No, there was no hint of Islamophobia in this novel, as some reviews implied. It doesn’t make the author anti-Muslim to point out that Saudi Arabia actually has plenty of misogynistic laws reinforced by religious police. It was interesting to learn more about the region, and the various other cultural groups that live there besides Muslims. Zarin and her family are Zoroastrians, a small minority within the community. They don’t speak Arabic, or at least not well enough to defend themselves if they had been detained by the religious police. They spoke Hindi and Gujarati, mostly, and a little Arabic and Avestan. In my ignorance, I had never heard of Gujarati or Avestan in my entire life before reading this book. So I learned a few things, which is always good.

There were too many things that were sad and mad me cry in this. I loved the parts that made me happy, too. Porus is such a sweet character. We need more like him. The one thing I wanted more of was to know why her aunt was the way she was. Did she have schizophrenia? Early onset? Was she just an evil person? What happened to make her like that? What happened to Zarin’s uncle to make him lose his balls and not defend a child under his care from abuse? We also only got a little closure with the schoolmates. I get that the story was Zarin’s and not theirs, but they contributed to the misery of her life, so it would have been nice to know what happened to them beyond just a couple. I suppose we had some answers regarding the biggest offender, but I still wanted more about the other girls in the end.

I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this book, how gutwrenching it was, and how important I think it is that everyone read it. It’s a major discussion on a multitude of topics from bullying to rape culture and toxic masculinity to the long term impact of an abusive home environment. It pulls no punches, nor should it.