State of the TBR Pile: December 2020

There’s something about this time of year that makes me gravitate towards fantasy. My impulse is to blame years and years of being on Cybils speculative fiction round one panels, and somehow subconsciously missing that this year. But it also just may be this time of year (granted, my reading is often fantasy-heavy) that makes me want to read about imaginary worlds.

Either way, here’s what’s on my pile:

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (I haven’t done a reread of this in a couple years; I’m actually working my way through the whole sequence)
Maskerade by Terry Pratchett
The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis
The Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi
A Blade So Black by L L. McKinney
Only Ashes Remain by Rebecca Schaeffer
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

What are you looking forward to on your TBR pile?

Audio book: Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and talk about sexual assault, abuse, and rape. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I think I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell in the past, but it’s been a very long time. However, after listening to an interview with him on It’s Been a Minute, I kind of felt like this was an important book to read. And I’m so glad I chose it on audio; it was a fabulous way to experience this book.

Gladwell takes the arrest of Sandra Bland in Texas in 2015 and examines it to find out what went wrong. He comes up with three areas that affect the way we talk to strangers: human’s tendency to default to truth — we always believe that everyone else is on the level; the expectation of transparency — that our faces show our emotions the way the faces in movies and television do; and the idea of coupling — that there are certain things that go together, like crime and certain behaviors.

It’s a fascinating and revealing book, one that makes me believe that our current crisis with tribalism and police brutality really might boil down to an incredible lack of understanding all around. We don’t really get to know people anymore, and so we’re constantly surrounded by strangers. Which means, we’re constantly relying on these faulty “tools” that we use to get by in society.

The audio is fabulous as well; instead of reading the book straight, Gladwell uses original audio as much as possible, so that it has the feel of a podcast rather than an audiobook. I think it made for a better reading experience than if I had just read it outright. It definitely gave me much to think about.

Highly recommended.

The Good Luck Girls

by Charlotte Nicole Davis
First sentence: “It was easier, she’d been told, if you kept a tune in your head.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are illusions to sex and drinking, but none actual. There is also some mild swearing, It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The Good Luck Girls work at a Welcome House providing “services” to male clients. Most of them have been sold to the welcome house, because their family needs the money. Sisters Clementine and Aster — not their real names; they take on flower names when they’re sold to the house — decide to run when Clementine accidentally kills a “brag” — one of the men they service — which is not an easy feat. They end up taking three other girls with them when they get away, but they’re on the run from the law and the raveners — men who possess powers to create despair and pain — and in search of a bedtime story: Lady Ghost who is supposed to help girls like them.

It’s a long, dangerous path, and one that the girls can only make with the help of a ranger, Zee. Aster is the leader and our main character, and it’s interesting following the journey through her eyes. She doesn’t have the love arc (that belongs to other characters) or the sacrifice arc, but I do appreciate how she grows as a leader. She has difficult decisions to make, and I thought Davis did an excellent job giving Aster the complicated storyline.

It’s a good “road trip” story, with a hint of the old west. I liked that the girls were up against the patriarchy, even if Zee was a bit overhelpful. It made sense though, since the girls didn’t have much outside experience. As fantasy is a way to explore real world issues, this brings to light the plight of girls who are sold into sex work, and the ways in which they are kept captive.

It also works as a stand-alone, which is nice. I think there’s potential for a series, but there doesn’t have to be, and I find that immensely fulfilling.

A good debut.

Once More to the Rodeo

by Calvin Hennick
First sentence: “I can’t even get us out the door right.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: December 10, 2019
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some talk of emotional and physical abuse. It will be in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Calvin Hennick is a white man who grew up in the Midwest. For him, that meant a hot mess of a family, a father that didn’t care and wasn’t there, and not looking back after he graduated college. He met his wife Belzie, who happens to be black, in New York, and they’ve made a life for themselves in Boston with their two children. As their oldest, Nile, turns five and is about to start kindergarten, Hennick gets this brilliant (maybe) idea: take Nile on a road trip, just the two of them, to Iowa to see the rodeo. On the way, maybe Hennick can teach Nile a bit about being a black man in American (though that’s probably not something Hennick, who is white, can do well) and maybe he can figure out this whole fatherhood business once and for all.

Lofty goals for a road trip, and Hennick really doesn’t achieve them. However, the joy really is in the journey in this book. Hennick weaves his experiences on the road with Nile — who really is a sweet and precocious little kid — with reflections on his situation growing up, and the lack of love and support he felt from the adults in his life. Honestly: I’m surprised Hennick didn’t end up staying in small-town Iowa, knocking some girl up at 15, and just becoming bitter. It’s a sterotype, but that’s where his life was pointing. He didn’t, though, and he is a moderately successful (and a very good) writer. He’s making life work. And if he has doubts and questions about his ability to be a good parent… well, we all do.

Still, it was enjoyable spending time with Hennick and Nile and going on a road trip from Boston to Iowa. And maybe I learned a little about being a decent parent along the way, too.

Monthly Round-Up: November 2019

Can you believe that 2019 — that the 2010s! — are almost over? I really can’t. This year has been so crazy, in a much different way than the past few years, but it’s gone by so incredibly quickly!

I was super heavy on the YA this month, but my favorite was this one:

Are you surprised? No, you are not. It really is a great book. As for the rest:

YA:

10 Blind Dates
The Toll
American Street
The Queen of Nothing
Tarnished Are the Stars

Non-Fiction:

Nine Pints
Lab Girl
Born a Crime

Adult Fiction:

Twenty-One Truths About Love

Middle Grade:

Look Both Ways

Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah
First sentence: “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence and swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I am a sucker for celebrity memoirs (especially on audio, and I’ve heard this one is great), but it seems like I’m the last person to read this one. I don’t know why I put it off, but I was really glad that my in-person book group picked it.

It’s basically the story of Trevor Noah’s (host of the Daily Show) upbringing in South Africa. He was born under apartheid to a black mother and a white father (who were not married), and his mother raised him. To be honest, it’s more a love story to his mother; you can tell, reading this, that Noah loves and admires his mother and the sacrifices she made for him. It’s a very funny book: Noah was not a “good” child, and was constantly in trouble. But, it’s also a reflective book: Noah breaks down apartheid and racism and why South Africa is so messed up. It’s thoughtful and funny and sweet and interesting, which is actually very remarkable for a celebrity memoir.

And I’m really glad I read it.

Tarnished Are the Stars

by Rosiee Thor
First sentence: “There was nothing quite like the first tick of a new heart.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some death — but not violent death — and some romance. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s the future, and Earth has become inhabitable for reasons unnamed. A group of settlers have made it to a new world — Earth Adjacent — and have put up a settlement there. The Queen is still orbiting the world in the “Tower”, but the ruler of the earth is the Commissioner, who has issues with technology. So a splinter group of settlers have moved out to a hidden city, determined to use tech, mostly because they need it to survive. Something is making hearts stop working.

Enter Anna, the settlement’s most wanted criminal: The Technician. She defies the Commissioner’s edicts, in order to help people survive. And then one day, she runs across the Commissioner’s son, Nathaniel, who has a TICCER — an artificial heart — just like she does. That opens up a whole world of questions. Which only get more complicated when Emma, the Queen’s personal spy — arrives from the Tower, in order to marry Nathaniel and carry out the Queen’s will.

I started listening to this one on audio, and it was a complete fail. I just didn’t like the narrator, and there were enough moving parts that I couldn’t keep it in my head. Note to self: I don’t do fantasy on audio well (this isn’t my first fantasy audio fail). That said, I was interested enough in the story to pick up the physical book and finish it. And… it’s not bad. I liked that there wasn’t a lot of romance, and that the focus of the relationships were friendship and family. I thought the ending was a bit rushed, but it didn’t take away from the clever premise of a new world and what it takes to settle and populate one. And hooray — it was a stand-alone! I appreciate that Thor was able to wrap the story up in one book.

I solid debut, I think.