Audio book: The Bad Muslim Discount

by Syed M. Masood
Read by: Pej Vahdat & Hend Ayoub
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There was some swearing and references to sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Anvar Faris was a child in Karachi, Pakistan, but when unrest started to affect his city, his parents decided to immigrate to the US. They landed in the San Francisco area, where Anvar met the love of his life (Zuha, at least I’m hoping I spelled that right), and realized that no matter how much his mother tried, he was not going to be the kind of Muslim that she wanted him to be.

Safwa grew up in war-torn Baghdad, with a conservative father who was taken and tortured by the US soldiers. She fled, leaving her ailing brother to die alone, something her father could not forgive. They ended up in Afghanistan, where they meet a opportunistic young man who gets Safwa and her father passports to Mexico, and from there they come to the US, ending up in San Francsico.

This book is less about the plot — though there is some tension between Safwa and her father and the young man (whose name I don’t think I could spell, having only heard the audio) and Anvar and Zuha help, in the end. It’s much more an exploration of how people live their religion (or don’t) and the reasons behind what they do and why the do it. Safwa’s father is strict and abusive, but how much of that is his beliefs and how much of that is the abuse he suffered at the hands of the US? The young man is angry and manipulative, and how much of that is his religion, or is it the circumstances of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan? Anvar is lax in his religion, but how much of that is laziness and how much of that is a serious questioning of religion His other brother is strictly faithful, but how much of that is because he believes and how much of that is putting on appearances? It’s an interesting exploration.

It’s also a good look at the variety that Islam has. I think too often, especially here in the US, we tend to paint Muslims as all one thing, when in reality (um, much like every other religion) there is a spectrum.

At any rate, the writing is good, and the narration was thoroughly enjoyable. I liked this one a lot.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

by Douglas Adams
First sentence: “This time there would be no witnesses.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (though it may not be in print anymore?)
Content: There’s some mild swearing. It would be in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section if we had it at the bookstore.

Dougas Adams, I have decided, does not really do plot. I mean, really: what Is the plot of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the the Galaxy? Right? So, to say that Dirk Gently doesn’t have much of a plot, but rather Stuff Happens is pretty on par for Adams. It’s Enjoyable Stuff. Sometimes it’s even Funny Stuff. But it’s not Plot.

There are characters — Richard McDuff (who is our Arthur Dent in this book), Dirk Gently (the holistic detective who specializes in believing the impossible), Reg (the forgetful old Cambridge professor with a Secret), Gordon Way (who really just is the reason to try and have a Plot), and his sister Susan (and the girlfriend of Richard, who really doesn’t do anything). There’s an Electric Monk, too. But he’s not really of much importance.

I spent the book thinking — now that I’ve read a lot more Pratchett than when I first read Adams — that Pratchett does what Adams was trying to do — societal satire with witty observations and quirky characters — but a whole lot better. For one thing, Pratchett’s books have a Plot. But, in talking to Russell, he pointed out that it’s probably because Adams was a radio guy. He came up with Sketches (how influenced was he by Monty Python?), and maybe there was an over-arching story, but what he really wanted was a clever idea and a punchline. Which is what this book is. A clever idea — of the Holistic Detective Agency that investigates, well, Weird Phenomena — and a bunch of sketches that were sometimes funny.

Still. It’s not a bad way to pass some time.

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia E. Butler
First sentence: “I had my recurring dream last night.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of violence, some frank talk about sex and rape, and some mild swearing (with one or two f-bombs). It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

It’s 2024 and the world has gone to hell. Climate change, drugs gone rampant, violence due to poverty and desperation, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives with her father, step-mother and three-half brothers in a walled and gated community that isn’t rich, but is surviving pretty well. Lauren’s biggest obstacle is her hyperempathy — a condition that allows her to feel and experience another’s pain if she sees it — which makes her extremely vulnerable. And then, as the years and book goes one, things get worse. Lauren finds herself in the open, trying to survive the growing chaos, and finds, among other things, a birth a of a new faith.

I remember reading an Octavia Butler ages and ages ago, or at least trying it. I wasn’t successful. I’m not sure which one it was, but it just didn’t connect with it. But this one? Maybe it was the time — it begins basically in our present — and my awareness of our current political situation, but this felt not just like fiction, but, well, prophecy. It’s less about the characters, though I did care about them and what happened to them, and more about the way the characters interact with the world. It’s a survivalist tale, it’s a dystopian — though it’s in the early stages of being a dystopian — it’s a book about trusting each other and yet not making oneself vulnerable. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, harsh, brutal, and very very hard to put down. I went out and picked up the sequel because I need to now how this story ends.

I’m so very glad I read it.

People We Meet on Vacation

by Emily Henry
First sentence: “On vacation, you can be anyone you want.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: May 11, 2021
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There are a dozen or so f-bombs and some tasteful on-screen sex. It will be in the Romance section of the bookstore.

When Poppy met Alex their freshman year of college they immediately decided they were not for each other. She was loud, dressing in vintage clothing, and loved to travel and experience things. He was quiet and studious, preferring khakis and to stay at home in their Midwest hometown. So, it was incredibly unlikely that they would become friends.

But become friends they did. And one of the things they looked forward to? Their annual Summer Trip: Poppy picked the destination and made the plans, usually cheap and haphazard, and they went and had a great time.

Fast forward ten years, and Poppy and Alex have had a falling out. They haven’t talked or texted or gone on their vacation for two years, and when Poppy’s friend asks her when the last time she was truly happy, she immediately knows: the last time she was with Alex. So, she takes a risk and asks him to go on one of their old vacations again. Miraculously, he agrees.

The thing is, they’ve got a week to figure out what went wrong in their relationship. And how to get it back again.

I plowed through this book, not wanting to put it down. Not only does Henry give us a sweet friendship-turned-romance (and the payoff is SO worth it!), she gives us a bunch of little travel vignettes. I adored reading about the places that Alex and Poppy went and loved their experiences there. It’s not wholly a travel book: Poppy and Alex have an arc, and Henry deftly fills us in on not just their history but their pasts apart from each other as well. It was all deftly packaged within the framework of their trips.

No, it’s not earth-shattering, or life-changing. But it was fun. A LOT of fun. And right now, I’ll take that.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

by TJ Klune
First sentence: “‘Oh dear,’ Linus Baker said, wiping sweat from his brow.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are several mild swear words and some illusions to abuse. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section but I’d give it to any kid who doesn’t mind reading about a couple of 40-something men.

Sometimes, you hear about a book for a while before it really seeps into your head that you ought to read it. This was one of those books. I’d seen it around the store — maybe not in hardcover, but definitely in paperback in December. I have to admit it was the cover that first drew me in (well, that and hearing about it on bookish Instagram) but eventually I heard about it enough that I picked it up on a whim. (Read: I needed to shelf a couple of books and there wasn’t enough space, so I bought this one to make space. Bookseller side effects,)

The plot isn’t really what the book’s about: Linus Baker, a case worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, spends his days observing the orphanages that DICOMY has set up to take care of, well, magical youth. He observes the conditions these children are in, and makes his objective recommendations. And then he gets assigned an orphanage with highly classified children out in the middle of nowhere (on an island in the sea, actually). And once Linus has meet Arthur Parnassus, the headmaster, and his six wars, his life will never be the same.

This has all the charm of a Pratchett novel with a heavy Arthur Dent-ish vibe. It was so so so delightful, Watching Linus come out of his shell.. The children. Oh, the children. Silly, hilarious sentences, but with the underlying point: we are all children, we should all be valued for what we are rather than what society wants to see us. It’s got deep themes, but at its heart, this is a deeply, wonderfully, happy, joyful book.

And I am so so glad I finally read it.

Black Buck

by Mateo Askaripour
First sentence: “The day that changed my life was like every other day before it, except that it changed my life.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and tasteful on-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Darren is an aimless 22-year-old who has been working his way up the ranks at Starbucks instead of college and a more traditional route. Then one day he does a hard sales pitch on a regular customer and finds himself working for Sumwun, a tech startup. It’s an all-white, elite work environment (Darren is neither of those things) and Darren finds himself being subject to some pretty intense and racist stuff.

And honestly? That’s as far as I made it. I should have known it wouldn’t agree with me when it was being billed as satire. It’s skewering white business practices, and I get it, but satire and I don’t get along. We just don’t. I’ve tried books that are supposed to be funny pokes at things, and I just don’t “get” it. This is why I say this one isn’t for me, and I abandoned it halfway through. Life is too short to read books you just don’t like, even if they’re for book club.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It just wasn’t for me.

Shipped

by Angie Hockman
First sentence: “Every time I collect my mail from the paint-spattered box in the lobby and see my name printed over and over in bold black ink, I’m reminded that I’m named after a rock star.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some off-screen sex. It’s in the Romance section of the bookstore.

Henley Evans has big goals for her life: work really really hard, progress in her job as marketing manager at a small cruise line, and suriving her work nemesis, Graeme Crawford-Collins (who was, disappointingly, not British. I think with a name like that, you need to be British). When both Henley and Graeme are up for the same promotion, and then sent on a cruise to the Galápagos islands, Henley is sure it’s going to be the worst vacation ever. But things don’t always go as expected, and not everything (and everyone) is what it seems.

I had been reading a few heavy-ish books, and I needed a light, silly, palate-cleanser, and this hit the spot perfectly. It’s a perfect rom-com, following all the familiar beats, with a side trip to the Galápagos islands put in. I enjoyed Henley’s girl crew, including her sister Walsh, and I liked the push-pull between Henley and Graeme. It’s not deep, but it was a lot of fun. Which is exactly what I needed right now.

Libertie

by Kaitlyn Grenidge
First sentence: “I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 30, 2021
Content: There is tasteful on-screen sex and use of the n-word. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It is the middle of the 19th century, and Libertie is a free Black girl being rasied by a single mother who has the audacity to become a doctor. And who wants only the best for Libertie. Which is to say, she expects Libertie to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor as well. The weight of that is so much for Libertie, that before her mother can find out that she flunked out of college, she marries and runs off with a man — her mother’s assistant — to Haiti. Only to find that the freedom she was hoping for isn’t there.

It’s less about the plot, though, than it is about Libertie and her relationship with her mother. There is very much a push-and-pull there; with Libertie wanting love and unconditional acceptance, and her mother showing her love with the expectation of excellence. It’s set in a world where there is slavery, racism, and colorism but that only brushes up against the plot. It’s mostly about expectations: those that are placed upon us by others — parents, spouses, society at large — and the ones we place on ourselves.

Greenidge is a very talented writer, and I think Libertie is a character that will stay with me for a while. I’m not sure I thought the ending was realistic, but I appreciated it. It was a good read and I’m glad I read it.

The Bees

by Laline Paull
First sentence: “The old orchard stood besieged.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is exactly one swear word used. There is some graphic violence, but nature is graphic, I guess. It’s in the adult section of the bookstore.

Flora 717 isn’t your normal, average sanitation worker bee. She can speak, for one, and she’s incredibly curious. So, she breaks the norms of the hive and instead of working in sanitation, drearily cleaning up after more important bees, she goes to take on the jobs of several other of the kin clans, working in the nursery, serving the male drones, foraging for pollen and nectar, and even serving the Queen herself.

This book was simultaneously really really weird — anthropomorphizing bees is not something I’d ever think needed to be done — and also really really compelling. I was fascinated by the way that Paull depicted the hive (do bees really act like that? — not the speaking and everything, but the actions — How much, exactly, is rooted in science and observation?) and the interactions between Flora and the different classes of bees. For not a lot happening — it basically follows Flora through the year of her life (how long do bees live, anyway?) — it was incredibly captivating to read about.

Weird as all get out, though.

When I was telling the family about it, they mentioned that it sounds a lot like Watership Down and I think that’s a super apt comparison. Which is also a pretty good marker for whether or not you’d like a book about an odd little bee in a beehive.

Deacon King Kong

by James McBride
First sentence: “Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is swearing, including many f-bombs, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is almost incidental: Deacon Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lambkin (who also gets called Deacon King Kong for the amount of hooch he drinks) shot (but did not kill) a local drug dealer, who used to be a kid that played on a baseball team Sportcoat coached and umpired in the projects in Brooklyn. And, because of this, Things Happen. What the Things are doesn’t really matter: this is a novel that is propelled by the characters. And there’s a whole mess of characters. So many that when I tried to listen to this on audio, I got lost with who was who. But, reading it helped keep some of them straight. It’s a whole neighborhood full of characters, their wants and needs and desires and connections to each other. And McBride truly captured a moment in time, and a place, as the people of this Brooklyn neighborhood lived their lives and tried to keep things together as much as they could.

I didn’t absolutely love this book, but I didn’t dislike it either. It’s funny at times, and always interesting, if you like charioteer-driven novels.