Openly Straight

16100972Openly Straight by Bill Konigsburg

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Pete Cross

Source: my own collection

Length: 09:01:00

Publisher: Dreamscape Media

Year: 2017

Rafe is openly gay and lives with the full support of his parents and community in Boulder, CO. The problem, as he sees it, is that everyone sees his label first. He’s always the gay boy, the gay soccer player, the gay writer, never just Rafe. He finally decides he is tired of it and wants a fresh start, which he will get by moving across the country to an all-boys boarding school near Boston. Where he tells no one he is gay. He doesn’t go back in the closet, he argues, he just doesn’t advertise that he’s gay. Naturally, things get out of hand. One little white lie about not being gay snowballs into Rafe actively asking his family and friends in CO to pretend he’s straight. And then there’s Ben, the quiet, kind soccer teammate who Rafe can’t help but fall in love with, and who may or may not be discovering things about his own sexuality that he doesn’t want to confront.

This was a very interesting and quick read. Well, I listened to it on Audible, but still. I am straight and have never had to deal with coming out, so I can only imagine what it’s like for people always to be labeled as “the gay ____” of the group. I would hate that, and I really hope I have never done that to anyone. If I have, I apologize. It was inadvertent. Which is the point. Labels suck, and they are often placed unconsciously. This realization leads to the two best parts of the book. The first was the discussion in Rafe’s literature class when everyone was talking about tolerance. It really isn’t a very positive word, which is something I have said forever. To tolerate something – she is tolerable, I suppose – implies that it is just on this side of not making you vomit. You don’t actively hate it. You allow its presence but don’t welcome it. I tolerate the cat but I can’t fucking wait not to have a cat. So why do we say that tolerance is good in society? Wouldn’t something like acceptance or inclusion be infinitely better? I wouldn’t want someone just to “tolerate” me. Rather than being tolerant, let’s work on being accepting. Even better, let’s be inclusive. Accepting is better than tolerant, but it is still not perfect, since to accept something has an implication of resignation or surrender about it, that you may not like something but you know you can’t change it so you’re going to just let it go. It is better than tolerating something, but I think embracing or including a person or an idea or whatever is perhaps the best way to go about it.

The second part that I really liked, which may be a spoiler, I don’t know, so consider yourselves warned, is when Rafe realized that the “cameras” he was always so worried about were rarely actually focused on him. He realized that he had been staring at a guy in his group but he was thinking about himself and how concerns and realized what people think didn’t have anything to do with his own sense of worth or his own masculinity or identity. And then he had that lightbulb moment and realized that when others stare at him, it isn’t necessarily that they are judging him, but that they are thinking about themselves and reflecting on something utterly unrelated to him. I think a lot of people need to figure this out, that they aren’t the center of everything and that people aren’t always concerned with them. I know teens tend to have those imaginary audiences a lot, but I think many people never outgrow that. As my grandmother says, “you don’t worry so much about what people think about you if you knew how seldom they do.” It’s true – I think people think about themselves far more than anyone else and, for the most part, don’t care what other people do so long as it doesn’t affect them too much.

I’m a bit off YA at the moment, but this was still a very good book even though it wasn’t one of my favorites. The whole thing was just an interesting discussion and I am glad I read it. The writing style was easy and enjoyable, and apparently the author is local for me. Maybe one of these days I’ll see him at a book thing or something, which would be cool.

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.

Wings of Fire: The Dragonets of Destiny

 
My 8-year old daughter was watching me grade some assignments my college students had submitted. She decided she was not impressed and thought she could do better. Frankly, this is something I have often said. She spent half the day on Thanksgiving making a PPT on a Wings of Fire book she’d read recently. She didn’t do the whole hero’s journey part, which is what my students were supposed to have done, but she still made a better presentation than many of them did. I don’t think I’m being biased… 
 

 

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.

Medusa the Mean

12052534Medusa the Mean (GoddessGirls #8) by Joan Holub

I read it as a: paperback

Source: our own collection

Length: 240 pp

Publisher: Aladdin

Year: 2012

In Medusa the Mean, there are only two things Medusa really wants – to be immortal like her sisters and the popular girls and for Poseidon to like her. To achieve these dreams, Medusa decides she needs The Immortalizer, a magical necklace she saw advertised in a magazine. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work, of course. In the course of trying to become immortal, Medusa is also trying to find the perfect wedding gift for Zeus and Hera’s upcoming wedding, try to figure out how to bond with the kindergarten buddy she’d been saddled with, and make sense of the weird visit to the Grey Ladies she’d been forced to attend. And, since this is for pre-teens, there is plenty of angst and wondering about why she kinda likes Dionysus when her crush is on Poseidon.

I actually liked this one quite a lot. I’ve enjoyed the others well enough, though I think most are too involved with crushes and getting crushes and who likes whom, and hetero-normative reinforcement. But this one, though it had its share of crushes, focused a lot more on things like why Medusa was so mean. She was one of a set of triplets, but her parents treated her like she didn’t exist. Her sisters were born immortal but not Medusa. She was bullied in her hometown and had no friends. She is excluded from everything and to protect herself from being hurt, she starts shutting people out and being mean to keep them away. Which is completely normal, and really fucking sad. This is a great example of why you treat people nicely and try not to be a dick, because it can have real repercussions for people when you aren’t.

When we were reading this together, there were many times when my daughter said she felt really bad for Medusa. So did I. It opened up a dialogue of why kindness matters, and why maybe some people behave like they do. I’ve always told her that people who are mean didn’t get enough hugs when they were children. This is why we read literature, because it teaches and reinforces empathy. I don’t like all of the GoddessGirl books very much, but this one was definitely a win.

Star Trek: Prey: The Hall of Heroes

29430792Star Trek: Prey: The Hall of Heroes by John Jackson Miller

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 387 pp

Publisher: Pocket Books

Year: 2016

The final installment in Miller’s Klingon trilogy was a great read. In this, Korgh’s plotting of nearly 100 years is unraveling around him and he scrambles to keep his plans intact. Starfleet is working closely with an old enemy, Ardra, to find the truthweavers, the illusionists who are responsible for misleading the Unsung as well as a variety of other races. They have also brought the Kinshaya to the brink of war with the Klingon Empire because of Shift, an Orion woman now working with the Breen. Enterprise, Titan, and Aventine and their crews are all working to track the Unsung as well as Korgh’s Phantom Wing, of course not knowing about Korgh’s involvement in any of it. Worf and Kahless are working with the Unsung to help them understand the Klingon way, an act that ultimately brings about redemption in ways none of them anticipate.

This was a fantastic finale to this trilogy. There was a ton of action – space battles! Chases! Hand to hand combat! There was intrigue – Korgh did it! No, Shift did it! Wait, is that Ardra? Maybe she did it! The plot throughout the trilogy was pleasingly complex but not overly convoluted, which I think is a difficult balance to strike. Miller managed it beautifully.

I really loved the theme of honor in this one. It was woven throughout the trilogy, of course, but it came through strongest in this final novel. Is honor something you can really take away from a person? Can you earn it? If someone says you are without honor, can you still act honorably? Is honor something that is innate, regardless of dogma or inculturation? How do you learn about honor if no one is there who can teach you? These issues and more are up to Worf and Kahless to decide as they try to guide the Unsung on a new path to redeem themselves for their past acts.

I had kind of hoped that Sarken would stay with Worf, but the resolution to that was perfect and appropriate. And the last line of the book was killer! I loved it.

On a side note, I eyeball read this but I might pick up the audiobook versions just to show S&S/Pocket Books that there IS a market for full-length Star Trek audiobooks. I’m glad they are starting to get their act together and put out the newer ones but I really wish they’d go back and do some of the older ones in an unabridged edition. If the need a narrator, I volunteer as tribute!

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.

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.