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.

Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

37969723._SY475_The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. Briseis was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war, all of them erased by history. Pat Barker offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations.

Review:

This was my first read for the Booktube Prize finals and I gotta say, my expectations were pretty low. I’m not a fan of Greek mythology, though I have been pleasantly surprised in the past (see: The Rose). And while the book is obviously good enough to make it through to the finals, I haven’t heard anything in reviews that made me want to pick it up.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed myself, following the actions of Achilles and the Greeks as they try to take Troy. The plot is solidly put together and I kept getting drawn back to the page in spite of myself.

I’m lukewarm on the writing because it doesn’t stick to a historical tone, throwing in modern idioms and speech. On one level this may be a good thing, making the text more accessible, but it pulled me out of the setting.

The hype around this book stresses that it focuses on the women, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a re-framing of the myth, but not a reclaiming. Achilles is very much the hero and the protagonist, and hearing the tale from Briseis, standing in the corner, doesn’t change that. Everyone once in a while, though, a passage shines:

As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”

This ended up being a book that I’m glad I read as it was an interesting introduction to The Iliad. I put The Song of Achilles on my TBR as soon as I finished because the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was one of my favorite parts of the myth. Not amazing enough to rise to the top of my ranking, but enjoyable all the same.

Who Says You’re Dead? Medical and Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious and Concerned by Jacob M. Appel

46221669._SY475_Drawing upon the author’s two decades teaching medical ethics, as well as his work as a practicing psychiatrist, this profound and addictive little book offers up challenging ethical dilemmas and asks readers, What would you do?

In short, engaging scenarios, Dr. Appel takes on hot-button issues that many of us will confront: genetic screening, sexuality, privacy, doctor-patient confidentiality. He unpacks each hypothetical with a brief reflection drawing from science, philosophy, and history, explaining how others have approached these controversies in real-world cases. Who Says You’re Dead? is designed to defy easy answers and to stimulate thought and even debate among professionals and armchair ethicists alike.

Review:

3.5 stars

I wasn’t sure if I should pick up this book, but when I saw that the author is not only a practicing psychiatrist but also a bioethicist and attorney, I couldn’t resist.

Appel looks at 79 dilemmas, some rare (can a millionaire advertise for a new liver?) to situations many of us will face (decisions regarding end of life care). Each case is introduced in a succinct vignette and followed up with a reflection covering legal, ethical, and personal issues that may affect the decision made. It truly is a reflection – Appel doesn’t rule for one side or the other, and he’s sure to mention factors that could make a seemingly off-putting choice rational. The setup gives you a moment to sit and reflect on what you would do in that situation. If a patient revealed that he’s gotten away with murder, would you report it to the police? Would you give someone on death row a liver transplant? What do you do when the sisters of a dying patient disagree about treatment?

The situations themselves are crafted with care. Some are edge cases pushing beyond settled law, some straddle an ethical line, and others show the most sympathetic patient for a particular treatment or intervention. While the vignettes are fictional (doctors Scarpetta, Hawkeye, and Jekyll make appearances) they’re based on actual people and cases, mostly in the US and UK. If you’d like more info there’s a robust appendix pointing to related papers, articles, and books for each dilemma.

With the heavy and at times disturbing medical content it’s not a book I can recommend to everyone, but I found it fascinating. It helped clarify (or occasionally muddy) my thinking about these ethical issues, and pointed me towards some that I didn’t even know existed. Did you know that with gene editing technology it may be possible to use ancient DNA to bring a Neanderthal to term in a human woman? It’s creepy and seems like an absolute no-go, and while Appel leans heavily in that direction he does imagine a semi-apocalyptic scenario where it might make sense.

I had small quibbles with two scenarios. One struck me as slightly ableist and used small d deaf to refer to capital D Deaf culture and people. The other talked about wrongful birth, where a doctor is negligent tying tubes and the woman becomes pregnant and ends up giving birth to a child, her fifth. Juries find it difficult to award damages for having a healthy baby, wanted or not, but the discussion didn’t touch on ways that settlement money could help the family meet the unexpected expenses of raising another child, not to mention psychological impacts. The other scenarios offer nuanced thoughts so this one felt out of place.

Those are only two small concerns, though – overall I found Who Says You’re Dead? fascinating and engrossing. I put it down now and then to take a breath – who wouldn’t after delving into the ethics of full-body transplants? – but it’s a compulsive read for medical nonfiction fans and armchair ethicists.

Thanks to Algonquin Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (The Sacred Dark #1)

43689541._SY475_Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

Review:

Content warnings for fantasy violence, suicide, mind control, and homophobia.

What a ride!

The good:

  • We have nonbinary protagonist Mio (he/him pronouns) and immortal Rhodry (male) together as a couple, written by a nonbinary author.  Hell yes.
  • There’s a major power imbalance between the two, but it’s handled with care. Rhodry checks in with Mio often, makes sure he doesn’t feel forced in any way, and backs out of some situations where he fears consent may be freely given, even if only in part.
  • The relationship is incredibly sweet overall. I’m a fan of these two.
  • There’s more than the romance, though – a lot of plot is going on. The world is vaguely European and teeming with fantasy elements. There are mages and moon souls, ghosts and bear shifters. Political machinations? Yup. Family drama? You bet. A pivotal scene that takes place at an opera house? Check!
  • The happy for now ending satisfies and excitement looms on the horizon.

The not-so-good:

  • Worldbuilding is easier, I think, when you start with a small scene and expand out in the world. Here the world starts kinda big and focuses down on events in a single house over time. It’s jumping in the deep end, and I’m not sure it’s the most successful.
  • The fantasy elements feel like a hodge podge that don’t quite gel together, at least not in this first book. I can see it working on a series level, but having so many supernatural beasties from the start is a lot to take in.
  • There’s a bit of talk about dying to be with someone, which makes sense in a world where ghosts are real, I guess, but it may still rub you wrong if you’re not into it.

It took me a while to wrap my head around the plot and characters, but once I was immersed I couldn’t put the book down. I’m super curious to see where Peterson takes the story next now that the worldbuilding and important relationships have been fleshed out.

Thanks to Carina Press and Netgalley for providing a review copy.