Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner #1)

13274939The first book in C.J. Cherryh’s eponymous series, Foreigner begins an epic tale of the survivors of a lost spacecraft who crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race.

From its beginnings as a human-alien story of first contact, the Foreigner series has become a true science fiction odyssey, following a civilization from the age of steam through early space flight to confrontations with other alien species in distant sectors of space.

Review:

Foreigner is my first foray into Cherryh’s work and the beginning sucked me in. A lost spaceship is stranded in orbit around a planet that supports life. They know they shouldn’t disrupt the native peoples but after years and years of sticking it out they send a few folks down, and then a few more.

First contact does not go as planned, but now Atevi and humans have an uneasy peace. The translator/ambassador between the two races is our main character Bren. It’s a stressful but quiet job spent attending meetings, filing reports, and trying to understand Atevi culture and language as best he can. One day his life is put in danger, though, and the story spirals from there.

The good:

  • Cherryh’s worldbuilding is wonderful. We learn tons of detail about Atevi language and history in passages that could feel like info dumps, but don’t. She’s thought things out in great detail, from how Atevi language influences their thought (there’s no word for “trust” or “friend”) to how such different cultures would exchange information over time.
  • Likewise, the characters are complex and the emotional beats ring true. Some people go through a heckuva lot over the course of the novel and they get just as mad and frustrated and sad as you would expect.
  • The beginning and the end of the book, especially, are exciting and kept me glued to the page.
  • I’m curious about and invested in this world.

The good-for-me:

  • I buddy read Foreigner with Rachel from Kalanadi which was amazing. She has read through much of the series before and provided context and encouragement when I needed it.

The not-so-good:

  • Once things get set into motion the reader is presented with a million things to puzzle over and wonder about but precious few answers. This, combined with Bren having next to no agency, made the middle third a little tough to get through. At the end of Book Three, Chapter Ten, though, things click into place and the meaning of many earlier events comes into focus. It was worth it for me, but may be annoying to some.
  • One way the Atevi are othered is that they have jet black skin, and that didn’t sit well with me, especially at first. Once we learn more of the history it’s obvious that the Atevi in no way correspond to people of color on Earth, but it’s not the best look. The book did come out in 1994, so keep that in mind, as well.
  • …it doesn’t help that the humans are all super duper white, though.

There are a lot of details to keep straight so I’ll be diving into book two, Invader, right away. Apparently Cherryh wrote the books of this series as trilogies, so I’m curious to see how the three book arc shakes out.

American Manifesto by Bob Garfield

9781640092808_e7adaAs is often observed, Trump is a symptom of a virus that has been incubating for at least fifty years. But not often observed is where the virus is embedded: in the psychic core of our identity. Garfield investigates how we’ve gotten to this moment when our identity is threatened by both the left and the right, when e pluribus unum is no longer a source of national pride, and why, when looking through this lens of identity, the rise of Trumpism is no surprise. Overlaying that crisis is the rise of the Facebook-Google duopoly and the filter-bubble archipelago where identity is tribal and immutable.

Review:

I was primed to like this book because I love On the Media, a public radio show Garfield co-hosts. He isn’t afraid to skewer received wisdom and group think, so I was curious to see what he thinks about the state of democracy in the United States.

Overall I agree with Garfield’s idea that we need to recognize that the internet has not been the democratization machine we’ve been hoping for (with some exceptions) and that Google and Facebook have an outsized influence on American society. I also agree that those in favor of democracy need to put aside some differences to work together for the common good.

The way these ideas are conveyed, though, is not my cup of tea. The first half of the book was hit or miss, with some chapters getting at interesting points and others feeling disconnected. It’s written in his voice, as he would write for radio, but some parts don’t work as well in print. The most glaring example is lists that are compelling when heard but easily skipped over on the page.

While the tone aims at irreverent it dips into coarse. Dick joke level coarse. I understand that he’s trying to get us mad, to funnel that anger into action, but I don’t think it works. At least not on me.

Near the end of his manifesto Garfield posits that America has split itself into too many “micro-identities”, casting themselves as a highly visible other. When you make yourself stick out, he implies, you shouldn’t be surprised that people backlash against you.

So that pissed me off.

And then he talks about a kind colleague that hinted that he shouldn’t start speeches with “ladies and gentlemen” because it’s subtly “oppressive”. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m on the colleague’s side and think that we should try to use inclusive language that works for all people, not just those on the gender binary. His answer? It’s wasted effort when there are bigger fish to fry.

My response – it costs nothing to change a few words and as a result be kinder and more understanding of those around you. You say you want us to unite, so why are you clinging to a phrase that divides?

I was prepared to give American Manifesto a ho-hum three star review until these sections near the end of the book. There are decent points here and there, but I think they could have presented in a more engaging way, with less unnecessary coarseness.

Thanks to Counterpoint Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

40265832Ibram X. Kendi’s concept of antiracism reenergizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America–but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. In How to be an Antiracist, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.

In this book, Kendi weaves together an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science, bringing it all together with an engaging personal narrative of his own awakening to antiracism. How to Be an Antiracist is an essential work for anyone who wants to go beyond an awareness of racism to the next step: contributing to the formation of a truly just and equitable society.

Review:

I first heard Kendi on the WNYC show On the Media being interviewed by Brooke Gladstone. He blew my mind twice in ten minutes so I knew I had to pick up How to Be an Antiracist.

The core tenet is that there is no such thing as being “not racist”. You either support and/or abide policies and actions that further racial inequities, as a racist, or you confront them, as an antiracist. Doing nothing, saying you’re “not racist”, only furthers the racist status quo.

Kendi breaks down a bunch of big ideas such as dueling consciousness and race as a construct, while interweaving stories from his own life. We watch him grow up from a boy who parrots the questionable ideas the world has taught him, to holding anti-white racist views in college, to appreciating and later fighting for not just antiracism but for those who fall at intersectionalities between race and gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and more. He’s not afraid to share ugly thoughts he’s had and how he worked past them – this is a man who has done the work and has the receipts.

The first few chapters of the book cover big concepts and I went through them slowly to take everything in. Once these basic concepts are set he talks about subsets and nuances before widening back out to end on the ideas of success and survival.

My ereader is chock-a-block with highlights – Kendi says so many things that are thoughtful and get at the core of an issue. He argues that antiracism and anticapitalism go hand in hand. That the idea that Black people can’t be racist is absurd. That racist ideas are born not of ignorance and hate but self-interest, and that holding up a mirror can be much more effective than trying to persuade those who support racist policies. You may not agree with every point but they are all presented clearly and grounded in history.

The historical overviews in the middle of each chapter may have been my favorite sections. Kendi summarizes history and scholarship in a way that provides all the essential details without being didactic. Sometimes I wanted to know more but I’m more than happy to read other books about the movements and people he mentions.

<i>How to Be an Antiracist</i> is an in-depth examination that encourages all of us, regardless of race and level of knowledge, to do our part to stamp out racism. I am thankful to Kendi for writing about his life experience and scholarship so openly and honestly, and now I’m looking forward to reading his other book, Stamped from the Beginning. I feel a bit changed inside, for the better.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

42771901When the technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding, and products to be monetized, nothing can be quite so radical as… doing nothing. Here, Jenny Odell sends up a flare from the heart of Silicon Valley, delivering an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity and techno-determinism, and to become more meaningfully connected in the process.

Review:

Reading How to Do Nothing was an odd experience, mostly because I was intensely interested in some sections and was utterly bored through others. It didn’t feel coherent, which is weird and unfortunate because Odell obviously put a lot of thought into each chapter.

She starts by pointing out that social media and apps that increasingly demand our attention have changed the way we think, work, and spend our time. We aim for productivity, work in a gig economy, and scroll through addictive feeds while simultaneously feeling more worried about and separate from the world around us. After explaining the impossibility of running away completely she touches on ways we can refuse the attention economy, how to open ourselves to new ways of seeing, and the importance of connecting with where we live – its history, ecology, and the fellow humans living there.

Odell discusses some amazing concepts, and some will stick with me. There’s the idea that we can different people in different real-life groups – a happy drunk with college friends, a hard-working professional with coworkers, an erudite conversationalist at a dinner party. Once you put yourself on social media, however, you’re the same person to everyone from childhood friends to potential employers. As a result you have to water yourself down to the most innocuous version, else risk offending someone today or years down the line. You go from many identities to just one.

There’s the thought that algorithms on Facebook and Spotify do such an amazing job of predicting what you’ll like that it’s unlikely you’ll try something new or find a favorite song in a genre you usually don’t listen to. That we’re constantly pressured to be more productive… but who does that productivity serve?

They’re fascinating ideas to think about. Some chapters, though, are duds for me. I did not need to read dozens of pages about why various communes failed in the 1960s. I also didn’t like the long descriptions of paintings and performance art. I flashed back to reading Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking, but this is nonfiction and the writing isn’t as strong.

As a result I’m a fan of the concepts but not of the telling, and the dead boring sections prevent me from giving it anything more than three stars.

Crux by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #2)

32335970._SY475_Erin McGarry fears she’s becoming the very thing she hates. She travelled to the planet Jekh to get her big sister, Courtney, out of a jam, and now Erin has become a colonist, too. To complicate her ordeal further, as one of very few women on a planet of desperate men, people expect Erin to pick a lover – or two – and settle down. With the Jekhan race having nearly been obliterated by Terran colonists, Erin refuses to help further dilute their culture. But at least two men think Erin’s objections don’t hold water….

Review:

This felt solid, largely because the heavy worldbuilding was taken care of in book one. I love the overarching plot, the themes of colonization and how best to rebuild a society that’s in trouble at a genetic level. The issues explored hark back to historical situations in the US but are completely different at the same time.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the romance, however. I wasn’t on board with Esteben because while he and Erin have a power exchange-esque dynamic it’s never discussed as such. As a result it feels creepy and kind of wrong, especially compared to her sweet relationship with swoon-worthy Headron.

There are a couple of elements that carried over from the first book that I wish didn’t, including native English speakers blithely using hard to understand idioms in front of people learning the language. I find it disingenuous that Erin and Courtney care so much about preserving Jekhan culture but don’t bother to learn their language, not even single words. They spend a lot of time reflecting on their position as colonizers, and at the same time expect all Jekhans to speak perfect English. GAH.

All that being said I’m excited to read the next book. I’m not sure the romance (m/f, not m/m/f) will be for me, but the large-scale story has me hooked.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Well Met #1)

43189874._SY475_Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

Review:

I was excited to read this book after hearing some wonderful reviews, but I have to admit, for the first 40% I was wondering what the fuss was about.

The beginning is all first book awkwardness, the scaffolding of an enemies-to-lovers romance bare and hanging in the wind. Simon is shown as an arse early and often, and other plot elements are predictable. The love triangle fake out dude, the reason Simon’s brother left – all incredibly obvious, at least to me.

But once the Ren Faire starts, look out! Simon’s character, a swashbuckling pirate, is out to woo Emily’s character, a tavern wrench. Sparks fly, but as soon as they get out of their costumes it’s back to the bickering status quo.

These two have plenty of stuff happening in their real lives – Emily was recently dumped in an ugly way by her near-fiancee, and Simon feels like his life has been set into motion for him with no choice but to go with the flow. The Faire lets them shed the baggage, but the real trick is working through that emotional load once the festival is over.

There’s a lot to like – competence porn, fun secondary characters, grand gestures, and good grovel when it’s required. Hot sex, dramatic human chess match scenes, and people talking through their problems? All here.

I wasn’t a fan of Emily’s thinking near the end, though. She’s suddenly riddled with misgivings, questioning and misinterpreting every little thing that’s said to her by both Simon and others. I’ve encountered this in several romances recently so I may be more sensitive to it, but I’m not a fan of driving conflict by having the heroine think, ‘he doesn’t love me after all’ after a single stray comment. The women are strong until they get buried in self-doubt. Gah.

Still, this is a strong showing for a debut. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series – several of the secondary characters are due their own Happily Ever Afters, methinks.

Thanks to Berkley and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

From the Periphery: Real-life Stories of Disability by Pia Justesen

44313724From the Periphery consists of nearly forty first-person narratives from activists and everyday people who describe what it’s like to be treated differently by society because of their disabilities. Their stories are raw and painful but also surprisingly funny and deeply moving—describing anger, independence, bigotry, solidarity, and love, in the family, at school, and in the workplace.

Review:

I’m a fan of oral histories so when I saw this book of narratives from folks with disabilities I knew I had to pick it up.

The good:

  • First and foremost, I learned a ton from this book. The interviewees are forthcoming about their experience, worries, and triumphs. In the process they taught me the difference between impairment and disability, rafts of stereotypes we need to smash post-haste, and how to be a better ally.
  • We meet people with a wide range of disability – visible and invisible, mental and physical. At the same time, we see how life for people with the same disability can very different depending on other factors.
  • I especially appreciated the interviews with more than one person. A mom might talk about what it was like to raise a small child with cerebral palsy, then we would hear from the child, now a teenager, about what their life is like. It provides a multi-faceted, insightful view on how disability can affect an entire family.
  • The book is intersectional across race, class, and generations. We see how disability is viewed within various communities, such as the African-American and Latinx communities. However, I have trouble remembering a single person who is not cis-gender and straight.
  • Justesen lets people self-identify, which I love. Most people say what their medical condition is right off the top, but not always. This is the way it should be – people are sharing their stories with us, and we have no right to demand certain information from them. Now and then you get to the end of narrative and realize that the exact disability was never stated and you know what? It doesn’t take anything away from their story.

The not-so-good stuff:

  • While there is a wide range of scope in some ways, most everyone interviewed is from the Chicago area and somehow affiliated with a particular advocacy group. This isn’t all bad – advocates are amazing at telling their story – I would have liked a wider range of experiences.
  • I’m not sure about Justesen’s chops as an interviewer. She has some amazing conversations with advocate spokespeople who are used to talking about themselves, but interviews with less media-savvy folks fall a little flat. I feel like there’s more insight there, waiting to be unearthed, but she didn’t get down to it.
  • There is very little by way of explanation, which is good because it’s places the focus on the interviewees, but I wanted more background. For example, many older folks talk about going to Catholic school. Why is that? Was there one Catholic school in Chicago that was accessible? Did the Church have a policy of providing education when public schools couldn’t or wouldn’t?

These detractors are relatively minor, though. I’m grateful that these folks shared their stories and in the process taught me so much – I gained all kinds of understanding feel like I’m on the path to being a better ally.

Thanks to Lawrence Hill Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

43092891Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. Another item? Do something bad. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

Review:

Trigger warning for discussion of a previous abusive relationship.

How I love this book. Let me count the ways.

The good:

  • First and foremost is the rep. Some of it is own voices (both Hibbert and the heroine are Black British women with chronic pain) but every single bit feels well considered and empathetic and full of love. Other rep includes fibromyalgia, migraines, fat rep, positive depictions of therapy, and other stuff I’m surely missing. There are some great reviews by own voices folks, which gives me even more confidence, and just seeing the way she handles wearing glasses made me, as a useless-without-my-specs person, feel seen.
  • The book is British without screaming it. The spelling is American (I’m going to guess that was the publisher’s call) but there’s much more emphasis on class differences than you find in American romance, or even Britain-set romances written by Americans. It felt real and not the least bit stereotypical.
  • Their relationship is a slow burn in the way I like – getting to know the other person, and finding them more attractive the more you know.
  • Red is a-ma-zing. He expertly walks a line of being considerate of Chloe and her limitations without being mothering or infantilizing her. His consent is first rate and the respect and love he feels are all over the page.
  • There is a cat and it’s actually important to the plot, not forgotten as the romance heats up. Huzzah!
  • The banter is good, but the communication is better. There’s a bit of foot-in-mouth syndrome going on, but after the initial anger passes they get together to talk things out like adults. I am not a fan of Big Miscommunications, so the way romance has been evolving away from it has been amazing.
  • Do you need a warm hug right now? Of course you do. This book is that warm hug, full of love.

I inhaled Get a Life, Chloe Brown during a 24 hour readathon and have no regrets on the binge. It’s an easy recommendation for almost any romance fan, as well as for those who are thinking about getting into the genre.

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Study is Hard Work by William H. Armstrong

1156272The text down the left side of the cover says that Study is Hard Work is “the most accessible and lucid text available on acquiring and keeping study skills through a lifetime”, and the table of contents points in that direction with headings like “The Desire to Learn” and “Acquiring Skill in Methods”.

I gobbled up the first few chapters which discuss the importance of listening, getting more from what you read, and the merits of scheduling your study. I found myself nodding and marking a couple of well written lines that I agree with.

After that Armstrong breaks out study strategies by subject, and it quickly becomes apparent that this book is aimed at middle and high school readers. How to build your vocabulary using prefixes and suffixes. How to outline a textbook chapter. How to structure a paragraph. While I could glean some tidbits from the first section there was nothing for me here.

Something that struck me is how much education has changed since this book was written in 1956. Armstrong talks extensively about tests that require paragraphs and full essays as answers, while much of what I encountered in school was short answer or multiple choice. I suspect that the balance has shifted even more in that direction since I graduated.  It’s refreshing that he doesn’t resort to “hacks” or how to rig technology to make your study more efficient, but the focus on middle school level material doesn’t suit me well. Might be good for a young person, but lifelong learners can move on.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

873920Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

Review:

I know this is a well-loved book but man, I couldn’t get into it and ended up hate reading near the end. My only consolation was that my buddy reader Cara agreed with me!

The setup and the underlying question are interesting – is Fevvers actually a woman with wings, or simply a sideshow fraud? My interest was quickly worn away as journalist Walser joins the circus in order to find out. The plot jumps the rails (literally), and by Part Three I ceased caring about the mystery – I just wanted it to be over.

Now and again there are beautiful images and nice turns of phrase, but most of the time it feels like Carter is trying to be clever, waving and pointing at her sentences as she does so. “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” Sometimes it is, but most of the of the time I’m nonplussed.

One and a half stars rounded up to two – not for me at. all.