The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)

32718027I normally have two or three books going at a time but once I got into The City of Brass I couldn’t bring myself to read anything else.  “Why would you want to start another book?  What is this one lacking?”  Nothing.  So I kept reading.

Nahri lives in 18th century Cairo and ekes out a meager living as a con artist, diagnosing mysterious aliments and driving out spirits.  She doesn’t believe in spirits but her marks do, so no harm, right?  That is, until one day she inadvertently calls a djinn warrior to her side and they are forced to go to the titular city of brass, Daevabad, while being chased by nasties of every description.

Huzzah for own voices Muslim fantasy!  I know next to nothing about this time and period which is just pitiful.  So many other series riff off the the same European medieval-eque fantasy that the setting nearly paints itself, but here my only cultural frame of reference is the Disney movie Aladdin.  I am so, so glad to expand on that.

The story is epic and has everything – fights, political intrigue, a varied cast of characters, and a touch of romance.  There are discussions of religion, colonialism, poverty, and governance.  What sway does your past hold over you, even when you can’t remember it?  Can the cost of standing up for your beliefs run too high?

It’s nuanced and absorbing.  There are no heroes or villains – nearly every character has made choices both admirable and abominable.  There’s so much that I may have to reread The City of Brass before moving on to the next book, scheduled to be published later in 2018, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

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The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

28953569The story Bhattacharjee covers is fascinating – in December of 2000 an FBI agent got a hold of coded letters sent to the Libyan consulate.  They were sent by a CIA analyst and offered to sell classified material to the foreign power at the price of millions to be wired to a Swiss bank account.  As proof of his access the writer included several top secret documents and promised information about US reconnaissance satellites, defense systems, and more.  It’s information that could put the US military and security in grave danger, not to mention kick strategy back a decade or two if it falls into the wrong hands.

I was excited to dig in – a whodunit, yea!  …except that we learn who the culprit is early on.  Heck, his name is in the first few lines of the jacket copy.  From there we could have gone down one of several paths – a why-dun-it, a how-dun-it, or a how-they-caught-him-…it.  But instead of picking one and committing Bhattacharjee gives us a little of each, and that lack of a single driving force made the read fall a bit flat for me overall.

Listening to the audiobook didn’t help, either, as alphanumeric code gibberish doesn’t translate well to the spoken word.  I got the sense that if the ciphers were laid out on a page it would all come together but in my ears it remained largely incomprehensible.

So… ‘Danger tonight’ would be enciphered as four dot one dot fourteen dot seven dot five dot eighteen star twenty dot fifteen dot fourteen dot nine dot seven dot eight dot twenty.

@_@

Not the narrator’s fault, not anyone’s fault, but it did make some parts tough going.

Overall the story is interesting and at 1.8 speed it’s a quick and fun listen, but while serviceable it didn’t tip over into awesome.  If you’re into codes or espionage you’ll want to give The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell a go, but do yourself a favor and stay away from the audiobook.

Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations ed. by Sarah Cleave

39737311Reading can be an escape, something transportative that takes you to different countries, cultures and states of mind.  It can take you to all the places that Donald Trump doesn’t want you to go.
(introduction)

Huzzah for Deep Vellum bringing this book to the US – it highlights stories we need to hear. Writers from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya were “asked to develop a fictional response to Trump’s discriminatory ban, exploring themes of exile, travel, and restrictions on movement”.  The resulting short stories, all in translation, range from realistic to fantastic.

I ended up reading each story in one gulp, often while on the train to work.  When I got to the end I’d sit with it while the landscape slid past – people are going through this.  It’s fiction, but it’s real.  Even the most fantastic stories have an air of ‘lying to tell the truth’, using unbelievable circumstances to skewer reality.  All but one use first person, holding us close, refusing any comfort afforded by distance.

We follow someone doing whatever necessary to get to safety, visit a fantasy-like village above the clouds, and follow refugees as they put on a play (of sorts).  As with any collection I liked some stories more than others, but they all got me out of my brain and own life experiences, which is the point.  A great starting point for anyone interested in the people and cultures that some in power would rather we ignore.

Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Lang (Tensorate #1)

33099588Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. What’s more, he saw the sickness at the heart of his mother’s Protectorate.

A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue to play a pawn in his mother’s twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond he shares with his twin sister?

Review:

I’ve been wanting to read more nonbinary authors and this book looked fascinating, taking place in a fantasy world where children are born without gender.  By puberty most pick the gender that suits them and switch from they/them to he/him or she/her pronouns.  I love the idea and how it’s executed.

The world building is good and sucked me in from the beginning.  Set in Asia with elements from several cultures there’s a magic system and fantastic creatures that are explained without being overwrought.  Yang strikes this balance by throwing in just enough of the familiar (elemental forces, phoenixes, etc.) and it works with the lower page count.

The plot, however, left me less satisfied as time went on.  In order to cover 35 years there are large jumps in time and while some work, especially while the twins are younger, the later skips left me wanting.  It seems like a lot should have happened to Akeha in six or twelve years, but not all that much changes, considering.  I especially would have liked to see how his relationship with Yongcheow evolved instead of just the beginning and end points.

While there’s a Big Happening at the end it’s not a resolution while also not being a cliff hanger.  Gah.  In sum I like the world, I like what Yang is doing and how they’re doing it, but the story doesn’t quite work for me at novella length.

Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch

33931697Though young women with serious illness tend to be seen as outliers, young female patients are in fact the primary demographic for many illnesses. They are also one of the most ignored groups in our medical system–a system where young women, especially women of color and trans women, are invisible.

And because of expectations about gender and age, young women with health issues must often deal with bias in their careers and personal lives. Not only do they feel pressured to seem perfect and youthful, they also find themselves amid labyrinthine obstacles in a culture that has one narrow idea of womanhood.

Lent Hirsch weaves her own harrowing experiences together with stories from other women, perspectives from sociologists on structural inequality, and insights from neuroscientists on misogyny in health research. She shows how health issues and disabilities amplify what women in general already confront: warped beauty standards, workplace sexism, worries about romantic partners, and mistrust of their own bodies. By shining a light on this hidden demographic, Lent Hirsch explores the challenges that all women face.

Review:

Part memoir, part anecdote, and part research, Invisible does an amazing job looking at women society deems “too young” or “too pretty” to be sick.

The good:

  • The book is own voices for both health issues and being queer, which is awesome in its own right, and her conscientious efforts mean…
  • …it may be the most intersectional book I’ve ever read. Lent Hirsch mentions how each woman interviewed identifies and the range across race, sexuality, religion, and gender is amazing.  She goes into how each of these identities affect how a woman interacts with health care as well as friends, family, coworkers, and romantic partners.
  • This care is reflected in own voices reviews for Invisible.  My favorite is by Corvus who identifies as Queer, trans, and disabled.  They write, “This is the first book of this kind that I have read – that was not specifically about LGBTQ populations – that didn’t let me down.”  Their whole review is wonderful, go check it out here.
  • There’s a thoughtful discussion with several people about using the word “disability” in relation to themselves, and why they do or don’t embrace it.  There are many answers to this question and I like how so many different angles are covered.
  • Large sections of the text are straight from discussions the author had with women of all sorts.  While reading I thought – if a straight cis white man wrote this book he would only grab the juiciest quotes and summarize the rest through the lens of his own experience.  Lent Hirsch, however, has each amazing woman speak for herself and the book is stronger for it.
  • Even though my own experience as a patient is thankfully limited there are still parts that hit close to home.

    The new pharmacist was great.  He never commented on my looks or how my body made him feel.  What a low bar I was holding him to: he was ‘great’ because he didn’t harass me.

The not-so-great:

  • Only one thing here – I would have liked the 30,000 foot level writing to be stronger.  There are themes that could have been developed to make the book gel as a cohesive whole and their lack feels like a lost opportunity.

Invisible is an insightful look at what women of all sorts go through while dealing with chronic illness.  It’s a must read if you have any tiny bit of interest in the subject – I loved it.

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

Caressed by Ice by Nalini Singh (Psy-Changeling #3)

458034As an Arrow, an elite soldier in the Psy Council ranks, Judd Lauren was forced to do terrible things in the name of his people. Now he is a defector, and his dark abilities have made him the most deadly of assassins – cold, pitiless, unfeeling. Until he meets Brenna…

Brenna Shane Kincaid was an innocent before she was abducted – and had her mind violated – by a serial killer. Her sense of evil runs so deep, she fears she could become a killer herself. Then the first dead body is found, victim of a familiar madness. Judd is her only hope, yet her sensual changeling side rebels against the inhuman chill of his personality, even as desire explodes between them. Shocking and raw, their passion is a danger that threatens not only their hearts, but their very lives…

Review:

When the world gets tough, the tough read romance.  I turned to the Psy-Changing series because I wanted to escape with paranormal in a well-thought out universe, but sadly the tropes worked against me.

Both our hero and heroine are damaged – Brenna after being abducted and abused by an Evil Dude, and Judd as part of his Psy upbringing.  I don’t often read romance where the trauma comes from both directions and it’s not really my thing.  I never completely bought the romance between the two and the thought that Judd was being hurt (like, blood dripping out of his ear hurt) when he felt love for Brenna doesn’t do it for me.

I would have given up a third of the way through but I don’t want to give up on the series yet.  There’s an overarching plot through all the books and I hate the idea of missing something so I plowed on.  Here’s hoping the next book is more my thing.

Peter Darling by Austin Chant

33358438Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.

But when he returns to Neverland, everything has changed: the Lost Boys have become men, and the war games they once played are now real and deadly. Even more shocking is the attraction Peter never knew he could feel for his old rival, Captain Hook—and the realization that he no longer knows which of them is the real villain.

Review:

This is the second book by Chant I’ve read and I think I love it even more than the first.

The good:

  • This is a trans story written by a trans writer – huzzah own voices!
  • I love how Neverland lets Peter be most himself and how it relates to the romance in the story.
  • I know next to nothing about Peter Pan but it didn’t matter.  I’m guessing that if you’ve read the original there are parallels and references but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.
  • One of fiction’s most powerful side effects, I think, is experiencing life as someone utterly unlike yourself.  I’ve read about body dysphoria in a non-fiction sense but feeling what Peter goes through makes it more clear than any informative article could.
  • The writing is just what it needs to be – exciting during the adventure parts, romantic during the “oh wait maybe this is love” parts, and held together with a solid plot.  It’s utterly different from Coffee Boy but Chant switches gears seamlessly.

The not-so-good:

  • While the book fits its pages I wanted so much more than a novella.  I don’t know if Chant writes as this length because it’s comfortable but I think he could blow us away with double the space to run around in.

A fun read that took me away from the crazy of real life just when I needed it.  A must for anyone who’s into LGBTQIA+ reads or retellings.

Depression and Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim

I picked up this book after seeing the Meonicorn’s lovely own voices review (check it out!) and watching Benaim perform what I think is the best poem, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother”.  Stop reading and take three minutes to watch – it’s amazing and has over six million views to prove it:

If you have ever experienced depression or anxiety or know someone who has these poems will speak to you, as they get right to the core of the experience.

at the grocery store i practice trying to make myself feel good by pretending i am a regular person buying her groceries & not a very sad person trying to distract herself from crying.

If you don’t know anyone with depression or anxiety the poems will open your eyes to what it’s like for you brain to go off in a direction you don’t like but are powerless to change.

36070215& this is why i have a hard time talking about my anxieties / not the big heavy anxieties / but the small ones / the ones that change my earrings / & chip at my general level of self-esteem / the ones that gorge on celery & watermelon after a heavy weekend / crying quietly / standing in line / behind you / the girl you’re pretending not to notice

In addition to these poems about mental health there are others about love, loneliness, abandonment, and memory.  With a couple of exceptions they don’t feel as strong but I’m having trouble pinpointing why.  Is it a personal thing, that they don’t speak to my lived experience? (Which seems silly, because I have loved boys who haven’t loved me back.)  Is it that the images aren’t as memorable or striking?  Or is my newbie poetry spidey sense picking up that they’re just not as “good”?  I’m not sure.

While this all sounds melancholy the poems aren’t fatalistic.  You sense that the author is working to understand herself and why things happen, all on the bedrock conviction that she will get through it.

i will let dance parties be the hospitals i heal in

if i need more help i will let the medication help me
i forgive my body for being a machine after all

A great read for anyone who has dipped their toes in these dark waters if only to know that:

i am not alone
because i feel alone

 

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Review:

(First some trigger warnings, especially for suicidal ideation and an attempt, abuse, and eating disorders.)

There is so much to admire here.  Allow me to list the ways:

  • Mailhot puts her story on the page in a way that’s both spare and evocative, simultaneously emotional and unsympathetic.  It’s like she takes the glass form of a memoir, smashes it at her feet, and rearranges it best for her truth, complete with stray debris and blood from her cut hands.
  • The writing is amazing.  Some chapters have an intricate internal logic that I’ll need to revisit to fully appreciate, and the one liners are art.

    I think of you often, but there are still spaces unchanged by you.

    I learned that any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion.

    Men objectify me, to such a degree that they forget I eat.  You feed your dog more kindly than you feed me.  That’s men.

  • Some chapters fairly jump off the page – the first is one of these and I was sure I had a five star read in my hands.  The good is blow the roof off amazing so maybe I’m greedy to want that all the way through, but some of the middle essays fell flat for me.  I’m hoping that changes on a reread.
  • The forward and Q&A afterward provide context and helped me build a framework to situate my thoughts.  Skip them at your own peril as they add so much to the work.  I’d also recommend reading Heart Berries in as large gulps as possible.  My own reading was spread over two weeks and feels diluted because of it.

Overall this is an unrelenting, masterfully written work – not my usual fare but I loved it all the same.

Thanks to Counterpoint and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

33815781Agreeing to go to a wedding with a guy she gets stuck with in an elevator is something Alexa Monroe wouldn’t normally do. But there’s something about Drew Nichols that’s too hard to resist.

After Alexa and Drew have more fun than they ever thought possible, Drew has to fly back to Los Angeles and his job as a pediatric surgeon, and Alexa heads home to Berkeley, where she’s the mayor’s chief of staff. Too bad they can’t stop thinking about the other…

They’re just two high-powered professionals on a collision course toward the long distance dating disaster of the century–or closing the gap between what they think they need and what they truly want…

Review:

There’s a lot to like in the first half but as the book went on I got more annoyed and ended up disappointed.

The good:

  • Interracial romance written by a person of color – totally my thing.
  • Both the hero and heroine are awesome at their jobs, and there’s no throwing away of a career for the sake of love.
  • I love marriages of convenience in historical romance so this “date of convenience” is just the thing for me.
  • The banter is on point and we get to see it with different people from the couple, friends/co-workers, and family.
  • The fact that Alexa is black and Drew is white doesn’t matter to them, but there are parts of society that do notice.  Drew is clueless but Alexa points out troublesome stuff and offers a subtle education.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • The sex is shown through foreplay but fades to black once a condom comes out.  I like my novels more steamy; your mileage may vary.
  • I had medical nitpicks but most novels written by a non-doctor will have something off, so whatevs.

The not-so-good:

  • The amazing communication that kicks off the book devolves into a Big Misunderstanding that had me pulling my hair out.  How could two people who were so good at talking suddenly suck at it?  GAH.
  • While the first part of the book reads like a single title romance (better writing, more complicated story for its 300+ pages) as it wears on it devolves into a 200-page category romance.  Sure, there’s a few more characters and scenes but the resolution and Big Mis were a disappointment.

While The Wedding Date has a lot to like early on the resolution hurt my overall enjoyment.  The book has a lot of early buzz, though, so I may be an outlier!

Thanks to Berkley and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.