Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Bees by Laline Paull

genre: fiction

Born as a sanitation worker, the lowest of bees, Flora 717 knows exactly what she must do: accept, obey and serve.  But knowing it and doing it are two different things when she begins to stretch outside of her caste.  Gifted with unusual abilities and a fierce love for the queen, Flora 717, the choices she makes and the miraculous things that happen to her, will ultimately determine the future of her hive. 

IT ACTUALLY IS A BOOK ABOUT BEES. The bees are the characters.  They have names and roles to play, they feel and the make decisions.  Their world is a lush drama of scents and textures and it is amazing to behold.  I was so hesitant to try this but in some ways, it blew my mind, the majesty and the complexity of hive life.  It's sensual and vast with an actual plot that moves a long, with villains and enemies, friends and a wide world full of pollen and color.  This is not going to be a book that every can get into - there is an excessive amount of discussion about what various bees look like and it's strange, at first, to be told about your character's thoraxes moving or their antennae reaching out.  But slowly, I started to really feel deeply about Flora 717 and what happened to her, which makes me think that this author really did do something right.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Euphoria by Lily King

genre: adult historical fiction

Nell, Fen and Bankson: anthropologists studying the tribes living along the Sepic River in Papua New Guinea.  In a time when the scientific observation of non-Western peoples was truly beginning to explode on the larger public scene, these three people will be changed by the land, while at the same time their own goals and decisions will change it.

I don't really want to say much more than that, I found the journey here such an intriguing one.  So many ethical issues to grapple with, so much pain and love and curiosity.  Sometime, the IDEA of what we considered acceptable behavior then is quite upsetting, to see it through the eyes of these contemporaries, seeing what was acceptable and what wasn't in terms of how we treated people, their culture and creative work.  The foreshadowing felt a little heavy handed for me but I finished this book thinking deeper about appropriation and appreciation, about our need to possess both things and people and about what are the threads that tie all humans together.

Note for sensitive readers: there is some language and mildly graphic sexual situations

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

genre: graphic nonfiction

What Don Brown has done in this book is tell the stories of countless Syrian refugees through telling the stories of a few.  The illustrations are stetchy and non-specific in the sense that we are not supposed to be following along and recognizing specific people - that's not the point.  The point is to tell the general story of how people could be living a perfectly fine life in Syria to a few years later be living in a refugee camp, or be killed trying to flee in a tiny raft or be resettled in another country.  It outlines historical context and give a broad sense of how the world handled this huge problem. 

It made me teary, more than once.  It made me THINK and HURT and it also made me think about how strange it is to imagine such recent history this way - to see this diaspora right before our eyes, to have lived through watching it on the news and then see it laid out, the shame and horror of it.  The illustrations aren't unduly graphic at all and while I read this quickly, I think it will be on my mind for a while to come.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Yeshiva Girl by Rachel Mankowitz

genre: young adult fiction

Izzy wasn’t happy at her old school, not by a long shot. But she certainly wasn’t interested in going to a new school either, especially the Yeshivah that her newly-Orthodox father has chosen for her. While he claims it’s for her own good, Izzy doesn’t doubt that it had more to do with the sexual misconduct accusations against her father. Psychologically suffering from her own trauma, Izzy doesn’t know who to talk to or where to go where she can feel safe and loved, or even if such a place existed, if she’d be brave enough to settle in and stay.

Painful and relevant, Izzy’s story is one of domestic violence and religious exploration; of a girl scratching at the surface and trying to find her voice. Set among an observant Jewish community in New York, Yeshiva Girl is also about faith, about growing up and trying to figure out if what your parents do - or don’t do - is enough or too much compared to what you want for yourself. It’s about the tough questions and finding people who will listen. While this book had several minor editing errors, the writing itself is fluid and painfully beautiful at times. Izzy’s pain is compassionately drawn and surely many teens might find some strength of their own after reading her story.

Content warning: some language and sexual conversations and content (without actual sex)

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Lines We Leave Behind by Eliza Graham

genre: historical fiction, psychological suspense

When we meet the young woman in the asylum, World War II has been over for two years.  What the war has to do with her mental illness, what her brain is keeping from her, that's what she's trying to find out.  With the help of her therapist, she slowly starts to unravel the past, from her childhood in the Balkans to even more recent events, events that might help her understand why she is locked away.  With the backdrop of both post-war London and a foreign battlezone, her memories are the threads that will put her story together.

I got this one for free from Kindle First Reads and by the time I got to it, I had no memory of what it was about so I went into it blind.  I actually really liked it - I liked that it was set in a different World War II world than I usually read about,  I liked the strong female protagonist, I thought even the first-person perspective of a person with trauma-induced mental illness was really well done.  It's sad and it's mostly slow moving, but it kept me really interested.  Some of the psychological stuff was creepy and while I wouldn't call it a thriller, it was definitely suspenseful in a few parts.  Glad I tried it.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

genre: historical fiction

For Claude and Blanche Auzello, the Ritz is more than just the most upscale hotel in Paris, for them, it is home.  Claude, as the general manager, works to keep all the balls in the air that require a high end property to stay in top form all hours of the day and Blache, well, is BLANCHE.  Boisterous and friendly, she loves her role as the "mistress of the Ritz" until the unfathomable happens and their beloved Paris becomes occupied by Nazi Germany.  The Ritz, safe haven that it was, is now full of occupiers, both soldiers and civilians, demanding and expecting the same level of service.  For Blanche and Claude, the stress this causes and the choices they make will determine what remains at the end of a devastating period of time in France's history.

I love historical fiction and World War II fiction, and I have read less about France during the war than other countries.  There were things about this book that I did enjoy - the setting (and, really, third primary character) of the Ritz was unique and added a different spin to the story.  The complicated marriage between Claude and Blanche, while sometimes trope-y and frustrating, also was a look at how war can affect people and relationships.  For me, however, it went really slow during the first half, I had a hard time keeping myself engaged, especially because there was a lot of switching back and forth in time that I had to keep making sense of.  The last 1/4 went much faster but I really wished I had been able to see more of Blanche's activities instead of just hearing about them after the fact. 

While this book wasn't a perfect execution, I do think it's an important story about two little-known people doing their best to not just survive but make a difference in their own way. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (audiobook)

genre: adult science fiction

For three hundred years, the HSS Matilda has sailed through space, full of humans whose ancestors managed to escape a dying earth.  It is not, however, any sort of earth-like utopia.  It is a stratified, plantation-like dystopian space where, based on what deck you live on, what language you speak and what color your skin is, you either live a pretty sweet life or you're essentially a slave.  Aster lives in the slums, but she's wicked intelligent and although sometimes she prefers plants and experiments to people, she still knows that this horrific setup is not sustainable.  When her dead mother's notebooks start giving her clues and strange happenings on the ship give her motivation, Aster realizes that the time for change may be sooner than she can even hope.

The language of this story, the depth of its pain and the issues it delves into made this a really good read.  The audio was stunning.  There is so much here that is raw, so much violence - but also so much discovery.  Self-discovery, self-appreciation, an acknowledgement to the world that to be a person is ENOUGH.  It is enough to require, no, demand respect.  Sexuality is fluid here - more on some decks than others and more with some people than others, but in a way that doesn't come off as LOOK!  FLUID SEXUALITY IS THE POINT!  The characters in this book are people first - rich with a complicated history of oppression and snatches of joy.  Aster is complex herself - neurodiverse and passionate in her own way, sometimes she's a hard character to understand but the choices she makes and how she interacts with the world she lives in makes this such an interesting story.  I loved all the science of it, intertwined with a fast-moving plot and interspersed backstory.  It just worked for me.  Some readers will find it to dark, I think, too violent.  Sometimes I felt that way, but overall, it felt appropriate for the story that was being told, as upsetting as that is.  This book stretched me and upset me and made me think.  I'm glad I gave this one a try.

for sensitive readers: language, violence, sexually explicit conversations and sexual scenes

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

genre: young adult fantasy

Practically born with a needle in her hand, Maia Tamarin was born to sew.  Trained by her mother and father, she is as good a tailor as any man - for all the good it does for her.  In Maia's world, steeped in folklore and tradition, positions of power will never belong to women.  When a one-in-a-million chance to travel to the palace to vie for the position of imperial tailor arrives at her doorstep, Maia won't let her woman-ness stand in her way.  Dressed as a boy, she leaves her home to prove to the world what she's capable of sewing - but in the end, she'll do so much more than that.

I enjoyed much of this - the East Asian overtones, the girl-as-boy plot, the thread of romance, enough that I really was always happy to read and find out what happened next.  My brain caught several plot holes, though, and threads that got lost, things seemed too strangely convenient and sometimes time went by WAY to fast and other times they sat around for actual DAYS but then still ended up where they wanted to be at the exact actual MOMENT they needed to be - stuff like that pulled me out of the narrative a bit.  Her teenageryness was annoying sometimes (but hey, accurate!) and I wish I'd known it was the beginning of a series because holy cow is it a cliffhanger ending.  There's your warning.  It feels like I'm mostly finding it's faults but it was a good story, especially for those who enjoy the creative arts - the magic and the sewing add a really interesting twist to your average fairy tale journey.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

genre: non-fiction

This book combines two of my favorite interests - disease and popular history - and discusses not just history's worst plagues but also the way that societies and individuals responded to them.

I loved it.

Each chapter is a different plague and we learn about them in chronological order.  The bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, most of them I'd heard of - several of them I hadn't, or if I had, I didn't have any context.  This fleshed my history out for me and entertained me at the same time.   Wright's writing is snarky and clever, she doesn't shy away from the dirty details and she does a good job of tying threads of history together.  She veered towards the didactic sometimes, especially in the vaccine arena, but since I agreed with her and because she was so funny as she expressed her opinions on science, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I know disease books aren't for everyone, but they for sure are for me.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Don't Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno

genre: young adult, magical realism

Rosa Santos is cursed - all the women in her family are.  Both her Cuban grandmother and first-generation mom lost the men they loved to the sea, so Rosa just knows.  The ocean isn't for her.  Neither are boats.  And of course boys who sail are completely out of the question.   With a college decision looming and a deep desire to understand the Cuban world of her grandmother, Rosa's Florida town and her neighbors will be the backdrop as she makes sense of how to move forward as a girl who truly knows where she belongs.

Rosa caught my heart from the beginning.  I loved her open and vulnerable voice, her love for her grandma and her Cuban magic, her need for control and order while at the same time finding herself enchanted by the wild and forbidden.  I really liked the role that Cuba - what it represents for her and for her family - played in this book.  The magical realism in the story comes on softly, sometimes I had to stretch my suspended disbelief a bit, but I was rooting so hard for her that I was able to manage it.  A few scenes left me wanting but overall the writing was strong.  At one point I had tears at the tenderness of strong women who love each other and find ways to survive and thrive even as they are hurting in ways that no one may ever understand. 
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