The Authenticity Project

by Clare Pooley
First sentence: “She had tried to return the book.”
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Release date: February 4, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It starts with a green notebook, with the words “The Authenticity Project” on it, that gets passed from one person — a depressed former artist named Julian — to another — a stressed cafe owner named Monica. From there, we learn their stories, their fears, and as they form a friendship and pass the book to other anonymous people, a community of people. The plot is simple: everyone needs friends, but we don’t really know how to Truly make them anymore, and maybe being honest about our Truths will help.

I’m not making it sound all that exciting, but honestly? I loved this one. I was thoroughly charmed by the relationships and the community that grew because of this book, by the lives that were changed by friendship. And yes, there is a romance in it (which I kind of called from the beginning, but was still satisfied to see happen), but mostly it’s a relationship — all kinds of relationships! — book.

It’s sweet and charming and I loved every minute of reading it.

QualityLand

by Marc-Uwe Kling
Translated by Jamie Lee Searle
First sentence: “So you’re off to QualityLand for the first time ever.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some sexual content. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

In the future, our world has been automated to the point where we don’t have to think. Algorithms can pick your partner, determine your “level” in life (which determines your privileges and careers and your partner), personalize your literature and movies, and even send you stuff before you know you want it. QualityLand (which is the “bestest land”) has commodified absolutely everything. So when Peter — a Level 9 (anything under 10 is determined to be “Useless”) scrap machine operator (except he’s kind of bad at that, preferring to salvage the AI that he’s supposed to be scrapping — receives something he doesn’t want — a pink dolphin vibrator — from TheShop (think Amazon), he decides to return it.

This book is a LOT less about plot (there isn’t really much of one) and more an exploration of what life would be like if we took our current society (this was published in Germany in 2017) and pushed it to the extreme. It’s not an argument I haven’t heard before (living in the family I do, married to the person I am married to): while technology itself isn’t inherently bad, letting technology overtake our lives is (she says, while scrolling on Instagram). The people who are behind these corporations are NOT out for *our* collective good, they’re out for personal gain. They’re selling our data, they’re invading our lives, and we should be aware of what’s being taken from us.

That said, coming across as “fiction” makes it sound a whole lot less “grumpy old man conspiracy extremist” than in the essays and non-fiction books I’ve read (or heard Russell talk about). Maybe it won’t make me change my ways but there’s certainly a lot to talk about. It’s clever and weird and funny (at times). And it’s Kling is definitely one of the “prophets” out there screaming to the void (how many of the readers will buy it as an e-book from Amazon, and what’s the irony in that?) that maybe we need to remember our humanity. If only for the sake of our culture, if not ourselves.

A fascinating read.

The Bear and the Nightingale

by Katherine Arden
First sentence: “It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence and some sexual content. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is hard to describe: it’s Russia on the cusp of when Christianity is becoming more accepted, but the Old Ways are still in play. There are demons keeping the Big Demon — known as The Bear — at bay, but due to priests, the people are beginning to neglect the Old Ways. Everyone, that is, except for Vasilisa. The youngest daughter of a northern lord, she sees and talks to the demons that keep the hearth fires burning, the stable animals quiet, and the lands safe. And when her father remarries a woman who is paranoid about the Old Ways, Vasilisa is the only one who keeps the village and the lands safe.

It’s a slow start, this one, but once it gets going — about halfway through — it really takes off. I mostly liked Vasilisa as a character; she is headstrong and not traditional and doesn’t keep anyone’s advice but her own. I really enjoyed the magic and the contrast between the Old Ways and religion, and how the priests believed that the two couldn’t co-exist. Arden is exploring interesting themes and I’m curious to see where the next one goes, since this one felt like a stand alone.

Maskerade

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “The wind howled.”
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Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd SistersWitches Abroad, Lords and Ladies
Content: There’s some reference to sex, because that’s just who Nanny Ogg is. And some creative swearing. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore if we had it.

Ah, I have come to adore Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Sure, some of the witches books are better than others (my personal favorite is still Witches Abroad), but I do adore the combination of Granny and Nanny taking on the world.

In this one, they head to Ankh-Morpork to tackle the opera. It seems that one of Lancre’s own, Agnes Nitt (aka Perdita X. Nitt) has moved to the big city to try and make her fortune, and has fallen in with the opera. That has a Ghost who seems to not only be haunting the opera house, but is murdering members of the cast and crew.

So, if this sounds vaguely like Phantom of the Opera, you’re probably right. Except — like a few of the other ones in the witches series — Pratchett takes the familiar bones of the story and overlays a funny and clever and insightful story with Granny and Nanny being their amazing selves. There’s a mystery in this one that they manage to solve (with some hilarious asides about being in the book publishing business), before getting Agnes to come back to Lancre and take up her True Calling as a witch.

Not my favorite of the series, but definitely fun! (I thought this was the last of them, but it turns out that there’s one more to go before I hit the Tiffany Aching series.)

Dominicana

by Angie Cruz
First sentence: “The first time Juan Ruiz proposes, I’m eleven years old, skinny and flat-chested.”
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Content: There is swearing, domestic violence and rape. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Ana Canción is a 15-year-old girl living in the Domincan Republic. It’s 1965, and all her family wants is for her to marry well, particularly a Dominican who has immigrated to America. So when 32 year old Juan Ruiz proposes (seriously: he’s 32! She’s 15!) her parents basically sell her to him (well, they give Juan a piece of their land in order to get him to take her) and she’s off to New York.

Where life is hard. Juan has a lover, Caridad, and is always going to see her. And he’s abusive — both physically and controlling her life and who she sees and talks to — on top of that. So, when he’s called back to the Dominican Republic to hold onto some land during the revolution, Ana takes the opportunity to enjoy life: take some English classes, start a small business, fall in love with Juan’s brother Ceasar.

And because it’s an adult book, that doesn’t mean there’s a happily ever after.

I liked that it was an immigrant story. I liked hearing Ana’s perspective about America, and how hard these characters worked to make ends meet. They hustled and worked and saved and tried their hardest. And though Cruz didn’t directly touch on racism and discrimination, it was an undercurrent. I appreciated that she even brought up the Ruiz brother’s attitudes towards Jewish or black people; racism comes in many shapes and forms. I appreciated how hard it was for Ana to make friends (though much of that was Juan’s abuse) and how hard it was for her to find a place.

But I had a hard time stomaching the abuse. A really hard time. It was abuse and rape, and a 17 year age difference (!) and while I finished the book, I couldn’t, in the end, get past those parts of the story.

I know that this book was being raved about, and I do agree that immigrant stories need to be told. I just wish this one was easier (for me) to take.

Gideon the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir
First sentence: “In the myriadic year of our Lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s violent and it’s sweary (including many f-bombs). It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

So, this one is hard to describe. The short pitch is lesbian necromancers in space, though that doesn’t really begin to touch on what really goes on in this book. The slightly longer version is that Gideon is an orphan raised by the Ninth House, which (in this world) is tasked with guarding the Locked Tomb for the Undying Emperor. However, when the heirs to each of the nine houses are called to the emperor to compete to be one of his Hands, Gideon is dragged along as the cavalier to Harrowhawk, the Ninth heir, into a world of intrigue.

But that doesn’t even give you a glimpse into the total awesomeness that is Gideon the Ninth. Not just the book, either: Gideon the character is so very awesome. Full of snark and sass and grit and just plain awesomeness, she’s a marvel. And I adore the relationship that grows between her and Harrow. Muir is a marvel of a writer, and the world that she has built is unique and brilliant and wild.

I can’t wait for the rest of this trilogy.

Lords and Ladies

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Now read on…”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad
Content: There’s some mild swearing and inference about sex. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Up until this point, with the witches series, you really didn’t have to read the ones that came before it. I mean, it helps, but it’s not ultimately necessary. However, with this one, you really do need to know what happens in the previous books if only so that all the little things that are happening in this one make sense.

Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick have just gotten back from their jaunt in Witches Abroad and it turns out that Magrat is marrying the King of Lancre. (Who was the fool, but that’s the story in Wyrd Sisters). However it turns out that someone has been playing with the boundary between Lancre and the Elf world. As it turns out, elves — who the witches refer to as “the lords and ladies” — are not nice people, and they want to come through and create havoc. Which they do. And it’s up to the witches to stop them.

There are a few references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it’s not as direct a parody as Wyrd Sisters is of Macbeth. Mostly this is the story of Magrat figuring out how to stand up for herself, and embrace what she really wants. (There was a moment near the end in which I literally cheered: “Go Magrat!”) And that you don’t have to do things the way books say, just because books say so.

Its not my favorite of the witch books, but I am really enjoying this Discworld series.