Sunday, February 23, 2020

We Are All Paralyzed by Brandon Sulser with Kate Lee

genre: memoir

For Brandon Sulser, life has not been a straight, predictable path.  From the time he was twelve, physical challenges and very real trauma have led to a life that some might see as tragic.  After four life-threatening accidents, though, Brandon chooses not to see it that way.  And make no mistake, it's a absolutely a choice - a choice to move towards the light of life instead of wallowing in the tragedies that have befallen him.

Despite my familiarity with Brandon and his story, I still found this a really engaging and enlightening book.  It's told from a Christian perspective and I often found myself feeling really deeply for him and his family as he experiences the kinds of tragedy that can make you wonder if God really does exist.  I appreciated his vulnerability that helped me have more empathy for those who are living with a physical disability.  I crazy admire his courage and tenacity and while sometimes the message is a little repetitive, it's a dang good message.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman (audiobook)

genre: nonfiction

There are so many ways to die by poison.  It's pretty astonishing, really.  Throughout history, if you were in any position of power then the fear of being poisoned was a very real one.  In this history of poisons we learn of all the different ways one might be given a  poison (it's in your tea!  or your makeup!  or a your cupcake! or you inhale it because it was sprayed on some paper!) as well as many historical figures who died by poison and what that looked like. It's not a pretty book.  It shares, in all it's graphic and gory details, what it looks like to die from poison.  There are countless autopsies, exhumations, examinations of records of gruesome deaths.  If you're into this sort of thing, it's pretty dang awesome.

I found it highly entertaining.  Sometimes the historical detail got a little bit dry but overall I felt like I learned a lot and wanted to talk about what I was learning with the people around me.  Some wanted to hear it, some didn't.  HA!  It's not for everyone but I enjoyed this quirky history lesson.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Five: The Lives of Jack the Ripper's Women by Hallie Rubenhold

genre: non-fiction, history

While most people have at least heard the name Jack the Ripper, and maybe even know he was a serial killer in Victorian England in the late 1880s, I'd say it's highly unlikely that one also knows the names of his victims, let alone anything about them that's true.  The Five is determined to change that.  One by one, our author describes these women, their histories and challenges, what we know, what we don't know, and what we can make pretty educated guesses about.  The idea that all these women were prostitutes, that they might somehow be deserving of their gruesome fate, is very explicitly and intentionally debunked.  As the author says in her conclusion, "the victims of Jack the Ripper were never "just prostitutes"; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers.  They were women.  They were human beings, and surely that in itself is enough."

I really appreciated that these five women and their personal stories were also used as a framework to understanding the lives of all lower class women in Victorian England.  Just to be a woman during this time period at all meant that you were a second class citizen and that you could assume that your "morals" or choices were absolutely expected to be fodder for public knowledge.  The double standard of Victorian prejudice is so frustrating and had such a deep impact on the lives of women whose circumstances fall out of their control due to illness, trauma, abuse or any other number of things.  To have your only choices be the workhouse or the street, to be reviled by your loved ones, to be constantly hungry and cold - all of these things were the real experiences of so very many women.  I love that this account sorts through the interviews, the courtroom statements, the letters and tries to create truth based on primary sources rather than the sensationalized and so often completely false or twisted narratives in the papers at the time.  It's not a pretty story, by any means.  We are down in the gutter with these women and we do learn about the life of a prostitute at the time and occasionally the narration does dig a bit deeper into popular history when there are gaps in a women's timeline but overall I found this a very readable and very interesting look at both a small group of women who deserve to be known for more than being murdered, as well as a broader look at a place and time.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

genre: young adult fantasy

Echo's life is quiet and lonely.   She works at her father's bookshop, she reads and chats with her brother - until her father goes to do an errand...and never comes home.  When Echo goes to find him, the entire trajectory of her life changes when a familiar wolf asks her a question that really has only one answer - if he promises to save her father's life, will she join him in his forest home for one year?  Of course, this wolf is not just any wolf, and in this retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Echo's life with the wolf is going to take her deep into a magic that she'll need to understand in order to get back the life that she loves.

I feel sad because while the first 2/3 of this book really captured me, the last 1/3 dragged.  I loved the wolf's forest home, the magic there intrigued and surprised me, even if I didn't QUITE understand how it worked or why.  A lot of good world building there and the writing kept my attention.  But after the plot twist that I saw coming, (seeing it coming didn't bother me - I'm familiar with the fairy tale it's based upon) the story slumped.  Too little action, things went so slow, the villain character wanted things and was angry about things for reasons that weren't ever really explained.  Especially sad is that I never really felt all in with the love in this story because even by the end, the characters never felt fleshed out and real enough for me to super care about.  It's possible that other readers won't mind the slow pace and I don't think it's a poorly written book, just not a good fit for me.

The Wicked King by Holly Black

26032887. sy475 genre: young adult fantasy

Picking up where The Cruel Prince left off, Jude is now second in command to Cardan, the new High King of Faerie who is securely under Jude's command.  Or at least she is trying to keep him there - but making someone a king and KEEPING him on the throne are two different things.  When the Folk from under the sea come with contentious plans and when those who were kept from the throne have ideas of their own, Jude is going to have to be constantly scheming to keep every secret, every enemy and every ally right where she wants them to be.  Games of power can only be won by those with the stamina and the stomach to win.  And Jude wants to win.

The treachery!  The intrigue!  The plot twists that made this book want to be constantly in  my hand!  I loved that we delved even deeper into this Faerie world and met some of its other inhabitants.  I loved seeing Jude have to pick herself up, again and again, finding ways to get one step closer to the future she knows is best - but then being thwarted and having to do it again.  I never knew who I could trust, watching Jude have to confide in SOMEONE but never knowing if she'd chosen wisely.  By the end of this book my brain was reeling and astonished by where the plot had taken me and I love how I just didn't see it coming but I totally believed it.  YES MORE PLEASE.

War Girls by by Tochi Onyebuchi

genre: young adult science fiction

In a future Nigeria torn apart once again by a bloody civil war, sisters Onyii and Ify have only known a life of unrest and conflict.  Prepared to fight in a "mec" and known for her tactical and battle genius, Onyii is prepared to give her life for her fellow war girls.  While both sides utilize bionic body parts and network connectedness is a way of life, the War Girls are undoubtedly a contingent of the underdogs in this battle and scrambling for every tiny resource is a way of life.  In a climate that's become desperate enough to send colonies into space, Onyii and Ify know that their dreams of peace may be only just that - dreams.  But they know they are dreams worth fighting for.

Dang I wanted to love this.  Afrofuturism with strong, fully fleshed out female characters and a cause to fight for.  Sister love.  The world building here is expansive and intricate.  The bionic body part plot device was intriguing and the "band of sisters" vibe really did work for me.  But it didn't all work for me, unfortunately.  It went on too long - the last quarter of the book stretched my ability to suspend my disbelief while I kept feeling like it should be done and the narrative continued to rush from scene to scene.  Plot holes kept pulling me out of the action and frankly, I just got tired of battle, I guess is the truth of it.  I know that really exposes my privilege - I recognize that people LIVING a civil war probably get crazy sick tired of battle too, so maybe for some teen readers this book can really help them get a taste for the senselessness and exhaustion of war.  As a reading experience it just didn't hit the spot for me right now.

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

Orphan Elisabeth was raised among books, but not just any books.  The books that Elisabeth heard whispering from the shelves of one of the Great Libraries are grimoires, magical spell books with minds of their own that Elisabeth has known since she was a girl that she wanted to grow up and protect the kingdom from.  Because the sorcerers that use the grimoires are evil, everyone knows that.  They use demons to work their spellcasting magic and Elisabeth wants nothing to do with it.  One fateful night, however, something at her Great Library goes very wrong and her decision to solve it will lead her to learn more about sorcerers and demons than she couldn't ever imagined.  Suddenly the lines between evil and good aren't as black and white as they seemed.

As a book lover, it's hard to not be drawn to a book that's about BOOKS, right?  And those books (and the libraries that protect the world from them) are an important piece of the mystery that Elisabeth has to unravel.  I like a book with a capable (and tall!) female heroine even if sometimes her naiveté was a little frustrating.  The thing that sometimes bothered me a bit is that in her actions she seems to capable to swordfight, solve problem, etc. but sometimes her inner monologue and dialogue feels much younger that her behavior would suggest.  I just never felt super connected to her as a character because of this, despite enjoying myself as I followed her story.  I like the demon plotline and that part of the world building was interesting - I just didn't totally fall hook, line and sinker for the rest of the world building and sometimes plotholes bogged me down, I just couldn't BELIEVE it all.  Here's what I DID love: the male main character had a very interesting backstory and his dialogue was very witty, I liked him a lot and I appreciated his vaguely fluid sexuality without that being his main characteristic.   The romance was a slow burn that was fulfilling enough and while I think I liked the IDEA of this story better than the execution, it was still entertaining.

3.5 round up to 4

fiction, fiction20, audiobook, audiobook20, strong female characters, fantasy, young adult, magic, demons, books and reading, orphans

Internment by Samira Ahmed

genre: young adult speculative

In an America that looks nearly identical to ours, Layla Amin and her parents are suddenly enemies of the state for one reason: they admit to being Muslim.  For this cause alone are they taken from their homes and forced to relocate to a camp in the desert - a place where any rights they'd once had are now forfeit.  Internment does not sit well with seventeen year old Layla, as well it shouldn't,  and her mind is constantly spinning with ways to resist.  She doesn't just want resistance, though, she wants her freedom back, and she knows she can't do it alone.

This book hits so close to truth that it's super uncomfortable, in the right way.  Layla is a strong character that knows her mind and is willing to do the right thing even when it's terrifying.  I appreciate that her inner monologue gives context to what's happening, so that teen readers can know that yes, American has ACTUALLY DONE THIS ALREADY.  While the story itself is fairly predictable, it's an interesting read and I like that, especially if you've never actually known anyone that's Muslim, you might walk away from this story a little more educated. For me as an adult reader, even though I agree with what she's saying, sometimes it was too preachy and "sound byte-y" for me.   One of the main characters, the "baddie," felt vaguely caricatured but not so much that I couldn't suspend my disbelief.  I appreciated that Internment felt very "real time" and even with those few little things, I'm really glad I read it.

Overall, teens should read this story just to let their minds go to this really scary place, to imagine what THEY might do if this were to become an American reality.

Fireborne by Rosaria Munda (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

On the island nation of Callipolis, a bloody revolution overthrew the dragonlord regime and nine years later, a new type of government has been pieced together in which your role in life - your profession, your standing, is determined by a test that is administered to all citizens as they come of age.  People with the greatest capabilities may have the honor of becoming guardians - those who have dedicated their lives to protecting the island from astride the back of their own dragon.  Now, not just the wealthy landowners are dragonriders, anyone from any background may have that honor - and both Annie and Lee know that to reach the position of "firstrider," they will have to be the best of the best.  Orphans from very different backgrounds, Annie's family was killed by a dragonlord but Lee's was murdered by the revolutionaries themselves, living a secret life and hiding the fact that he's dragonborn-family survivor working his way through the ranks as he maneuvers to finally live the dream he had back when he was a boy.  But when it comes time for the Firstrider Tournament, outside pressure will force Lee to choose sides when shadows of the past reach out and influence the present.  The stakes are so high but both Annie and Lee are so capable - if they can remain true to themselves.

This was a GREAT listen.  I love revolutionary stories but the thing that made this so intriguing was that we weren't a part of the revolution itself, we watched how things are put back together again, how old ideas influence the new and how incredibly challenging it is to change the minds of an entire society.  Ideas and culture and prejudice run so deep and I really liked the plot device of Lee being a closeted dragonborn - it makes emotions so high and decisions so much harder.  I liked the hard look at classism and how a belief that one group of people is innately MORE WORTHY than another can color our choices and our morals.  Annie is a strong female carrier that works hard to come into her own.   The romantic plot is less straightforward and more interesting than in the usual young adult novel and I appreciated the nuance.  The plot of the book and the overarching ideas I really liked, even if sometimes the minutiae of the telling felt a bit scattered as we move back and forth both in time with one omniscient narrator and the points of view of both Lee and Annie.  Sometimes we are just told about something that happened after the fact instead being a part of the action, which with two solid narrators felt a little frustrating, that I had to guess at details.  There's some repetition that I think more editing could've solved (how many times to I have to be told that people have bruises under their eyes?) but that's me being super nitpicky.  I wanted to listen to this story nonstop and I found myself gushing to my teenage son about it, who wants to read it next.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman

genre: young adult science fiction

Year: 2380 Location: Milky Way

Five cadets fresh from The Academy.
One wild card who’s been asleep for the last two hundred years. 
A galaxy full of trouble to solve (cause?) and mysteries that these six can’t even imagine. 
With enough brains, guts and cooperation, this squadron could be exactly what the Aurora Legion needs to help keep the peace among the races inhabiting space. Except things get complicated really quickly and more than just teamwork and luck are going to be needed when one among them could be their undoing.

I couldn’t get enough of this space drama. I loved the unique voices of each of the characters as the narration shifted between them. I really liked how well defined the characters were and how their differently abled squadron members were fleshed out and capable. The plot moved so quickly and was intricate enough to really make me wonder what was coming next. There was one climactic scene that felt a bit underexplained to me, where I felt a little out of the loop, but other than that I was all in and didn’t want to put it down. I loved the world building and the finding-your-own-family aspect. The dialogue is sharp and witty and even though a few elements felt borrowed from some contemporary pop culture and there was a tiny bit of repetition in the narrative stream of consciousness, I cannot wait to see where this story goes next.

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