The City We Became

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “I sing the city”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence, including sexual assault, and many f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

In this universe, cities are alive, not just in the metaphorical sense but literally. There is a “birth” that results in the city being embodied in a person. Sometimes this doesn’t work — New Orleans was a stillbirth, for example — but mostly it does. Except: in the case of New York City, something has gone awry. It’s not a stillbirth, but it’s not alive, yet.

So the city adapts: five other people wake up, one for each borough. Their purpose is to get together, work together, and wake up New York as a whole. But, they meet unexpected problems in the form of an alien entity that is trying to stop this city from ever becoming alive.

Oh, my word this was so good. I think I liked it better than her Broken Earth trilogy. It’s clever, it’s fun, it’s got a Neil Gaiman feel to it. And I adored the characters as well as the way Jemisin played with race and New York stereotypes in the book. It as a joy to read, one that I plowed through incredibly quickly. And while it stands well on its own, I am fascinated to see where Jemisin takes it with the sequels.

Audiobook: Velvet Was the Night

by Sylvia Moreno Garcia
Read by Gisela Chipe
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s very sweary, including multiple f-bombs, very violent, and has on-screen sex. It’s in the adult section of the bookstore.

Maite, 30 years old and still unmarried, works as a secretary in a law firm in Mexico City in 1971. She’s bored with her life, lonely, and has only one thing to live for: the next issue of Secret Romance, a comic romance she follows. She reluctantly agrees to take care of her neighbor, Leonora’s, cat when she leaves the the weekend. The problem only begins when Leonora doesn’t come back. Determined to get her pay, Maite falls headfirst into a world od activist student, Russian spies, double-crossing government agents. She’s not the only one looking for Leonora, either: Elvis, who works or a shadowy government figure, is trying to track her down as well. Told in alternating narratives, Moreno-Garcia paints a picture of an underground Mexico City in the 1970s that was dangerous as it was alluring.

I’m not quite sure what to think of this one. I don’t usually go for thrillers, and so I don’t know who it stacks up in the genre. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, though they grew on me as the book went on. Maite is so incredibly pathetic, it was hard not to feel sorry for her, but she got some pluck and drive as the book went on. Elvis seemed like a one-note character, but became more complex. At the very least, it kept me reading, which does say something. Though that may have more to do with the narrator, who was fabulous, than with the story I really enjoyed Chipe’s narration; she definitely knew how to pull the listener in, and keep them entertained

I’ve been saying at work that Moreno-Garcia doesn’t write the same book twice. If you like noir, you might like this one. It is a fascinating picture of a time in history, and she’s a good writer. I just don’t know if this is a great book.

Life’s Too Short

by Abby Jimenez
First sentence: “Wailing.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content:There is lots of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also on-screen sex and talk of penis size. It’s in the romance section of the bookstore.

Vanessa Price is a pretty famous travel blogger, and so when she landed in St. Paul to help her sister give birth (its an unplanned an unwanted pregnancy), the last thing she expected was to end up taking care of the baby full time. But, here she is, without content, not having showered for ages. Coming to the rescue is Adrian Copeland, defense attorney, eligible bachelor, and surprising baby whisperer. As the weeks go on, Vanessa and Adrian grow closer together, figuring out life and babies and family and ultimately how to live your life to the fullest.

I absolutely devoured this one. It’s fluffy and fun, but it’s also got depth as Vanessa is dealing with a family history of ALS as well as a parent who is a hoarder and a half-sister (the baby’s mom) who is a drug addict. Mostly, though, it’s a lot of flirting and will they/won’t they and a lot of spending huge amounts of money on wine and home furnishings (Jimnez knows that a man cleaning is sexy!) and ultimately a very satisfying romance. I read it in a weekend afternoon, and then found out it was part of a “series”, so I picked up the first one.

I can’t wait to devour that one, too.

Go Tell it On the Mountain

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Everyone had always said that John wold be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence, some talk of sex, a liberal use of the n-word, and some swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one is difficult to describe plot-wise. It takes place over one night, as John, the son of a preacher in New York in 1935, goes to the church to clean and pray with his parents and other church-goers. Over the course of the prayers, we learn that John is not the biological son of his father, who resents his mother for not being more repentant for her sin of bearing John out of wedlock. We learn that John is conflicted about his stepfather, and the idea of church. We learn that John’s mother is just doing what she needs to do, and that his aunt — his stepfather’s sister — has held a lifelong grudge against her brother.

There isn’t much of a plot, it’s more of an exploration of the ways in which racism, enslavement, and patriarchy have affected the lives of these characters and the way they use religion to justify or explain or hide from the world. I’m not entirely sure it comes off as favorable to religious people; religion seems like a crutch to escape and a means of punishment rather than a means of worship and service. But that’s my white privilege talking; I have never been enslaved and I don’t know how religion works in that world. It was a fascinating read (possibly not one that I would recommend while on painkillers) and a complex one, even if it lacked plot.

Audio book: One Last Stop

by Case McQuiston
Read by Natalie Naudus
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including many, many f-bombs. Plus some on-screen sex. It’s in the Romance section of the bookstore.

August can’t settle down. Literally: she’s 23 years old, and she can’t seem to finish college, or find a place where she belongs. She’s transferred to New York City in yet another attempt to get out from underneath her overbearing mother and to find a place where she fits.

Enter a few quirky roommates and August begins to feel at home. And then she meets Jane Soo on the subway: Its love at first sight (kind of), except there’s a hitch: Jane can’t leave the Q Train. And August, who has been trained by her mother to be obsessive about finding people and fixing things, can’t seem to let it go.

It’s not a brilliant novel, but it’s sure a fun one! I liked how McQuiston played with time in this one, and how Jane’s and August’s relationship wasn’t a perfect one. That said, it was a combination of the narrator – she was fabulous – and the secondary characters that kept me listening to this one. I adored all the characters McQuison populated the world with; they were funny, sweet, lovable, and interesting.

It wasn’t my favorite of all time, but it was a good solid romance and it was fun. Perhaps that’s all I can ask for.

News of the World

by Paulette Jiles
First sentence: “Captain Kidd laid out the Boston Morning Journal on the lectern and began to read from the article on the Fifteenth Amendment.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

Captain Kidd is a veteran of several wars, but, now at 71, he just wanders over north Texas performing readings of newspaper articles from around the world for a dime admission. It’s not a great life, but since his wife died, it’s a decent one. Then at at stop in Wichita Falls, he is paid $50 in gold to deliver a girl — Johanna — who was kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe when she was six. Now, four years later, she is being returned to the family she has left down near San Antonio. He agrees to take her, even though the journey will be dangerous, and they set out. The rest of the story is really just about Kidd and his developing bond with Johanna, through their good times and trials.

I didn’t dislike this one — even though I have an issue with authors who don’t use quotation marks for dialogue — but I din’t love it either. In retrospect, this one may have been better for me on audio, because I wouldn’t’ have been distracted by the form. I did like Kidd’s relationship with Johanna, though there was a part of me that felt like the book had a bit of a white savior complex: sure Johanna was kidnapped (which was wrong) but she had acclimated to her new life with the Kiowa. Why does she need to assimilate with the white people? Was the bits of her life with the Kiowa accurate (probably not)? Why is it important that men rescue a white girl from the “vicious natives”? It just felt a bit off to me, especially since the book was written by a white woman.

So, yeah. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a great one either.

Parable of the Talents

by Octavia Butler
First sentence: “They’ll make a god of her.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Parable of the Sower
Content: It’s rough, violence-wise and emotionally. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

This book picks up five years after Parable of the Sower: Acorn is a settled community, not large but flourishing and prosperous. Earthseed is growing as a movement and Oamina and Bankole are expecting a baby. But, in the wider world, the United States has elected a Christian American minister and facist as a president — someone who believes that all vagrants, homeless, and heathens should be “reeducated” and their children taken away and raised by Good Christian families. Once he’s elected, he backs off, but there is a movement –Jarrett’s Crusaders — that takes it upon itself (without consequences) to follow Jarrett’s philosophies. They attack Acorn, take away the children (including Olamina’s 2 month old baby) and enslave the rest of the adults. It’s a pretty horrific section, reminiscent of the Nazi Concentration camps (and made me ashamed to identify as a Christian though I understand these people were Not Really Christian.) Eventually, Olamina escapes and then spends the rest of the book looking for her child and restarting her Earthseed movement.

The most interesting thing about this book was that Olamina’s daughter, Asha Vere (which was the name her – admittedly not great — Christian adoptive parents gave her), narrated it as well. Every chapter began with an Earthseed verse and then some narrative by Asha. At first, this bothered me — Asha blamed her mother for starting Earthseed, not finding her soon enough, and for decisions she made, none of which really sat well with me; her mother did the best she could given the circumstances — but eventually, I came to understand Asha’s resentment, and her bitterness toward her mother. Butler had to create conflict — because novels are not life — and she did that brilliantly by creating a division between mother and daughter (as well as between Olamina and her brother, who embraced Jarrett’s Christian American movement). Butler is an excellent writer and a consummate storyteller, and, much like Handmaid’s Tale, is quite prophetic. She pulled from history and put together a tale that is a warning as much as it is an engrossing story. I did find myself skimming toward the end, when things settle down and Earthseed becomes moderately successfull, eventually sending ships into outer space, but really: this duology deserves the accolades it has gotten.

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.