Michelle Moran: Cleopatra’s Daughter

At the dawn of the Roman Empire, when tyranny ruled, a daughter of Egypt and a son of Rome found each other…

Selene’s legendary parents are gone. Her country taken, she has been brought to the city of Rome in chains, with only her twin brother, Alexander, to remind her of home and all she once had.

Living under the watchful eyes of the ruling family, Selene and her brother must quickly learn how to be Roman – and how to be useful to Caesar. She puts her artistry to work, in the hope of staying alive and being allowed to return to Egypt. Before long, however, she is distracted by the young and handsome heir to the empire…

When the elusive ‘Red Eagle’ starts calling for the end of slavery, Selene and Alexander are in grave danger. Will this mysterious figure bring their liberation, or their demise?

I’ve previously read and enjoyed two of Michelle Moran’s historical fictions, and after the last one I added most of her collection to my Goodreads. Her stories are so rich and detailed that I feel I’ve been transported right into the ancients. Granted, they aren’t perfect–and they are very fictional–but extremely fun to read. And you get a fantastic look at the world from a woman’s view at the famous people we hear about in history, which were typically men.

Cleopatra’s Daughter shows us what Rome looked like during Octavian’s rule from Kleopatra Selene’s perspective. She is terrified when forced to leave Alexandria after her mother and father commit suicide, and her world is thus turned upside down. Through her eyes we see war and gladiator battles and slave riots and court judgment–everything Rome is famous for, but from an outsider looking on horrified.

There are a couple things to look out for. There are a few mentions of rape, especially when it comes to the female slaves. And speaking of slavery, there is a multitude of it. The attitudes are mixed–some are for, some are against. There’s a revolt happening and a rebel is trying to stage an uprising in the Senate to free them–there are some interesting conversations happening, but I’m not sure as much care was spent on those sensitive conversations as could have been. The biggest problem I noticed was that blue eyes/blonde hair was the MOST BEAUTIFUL AND COVETED ALWAYS–even though the Romans had conquered Gaul and taken them as slaves. The Romans still had a preference for those blue eyes and that blonde hair–it was mentioned at least every other chapter.

It isn’t the most problematic book I’ve ever read–just some things to be aware of while you’re reading. Keep your eyes open. Selene is not a woman I could ever say I want to be. But it was certainly fascinating being in her shoes for a few hundred pages.

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Melissa Febos: Abandon Me

In her critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart, Melissa Febos laid bare the intimate world of the professional dominatrix, turning an honest examination of her life into a lyrical study of power, desire, and fulfillment.

In her dazzling Abandon Me, Febos captures the intense bonds of love and the need for connection — with family, lovers, and oneself. First, her birth father, who left her with only an inheritance of addiction and Native American blood, its meaning a mystery. As Febos tentatively reconnects, she sees how both these lineages manifest in her own life, marked by compulsion and an instinct for self-erasure. Meanwhile, she remains closely tied to the sea captain who raised her, his parenting ardent but intermittent as his work took him away for months at a time. Woven throughout is the hypnotic story of an all-consuming, long-distance love affair with a woman, marked equally by worship and withdrawal. In visceral, erotic prose, Febos captures their mutual abandonment to passion and obsession — and the terror and exhilaration of losing herself in another.

At once a fearlessly vulnerable memoir and an incisive investigation of art, love, and identity, Abandon Me draws on childhood stories, religion, psychology, mythology, popular culture, and the intimacies of one writer’s life to reveal intellectual and emotional truths that feel startlingly universal.

How do I know a book deserves an automatic five-star rating? When I have eight pages of quotes in my journal. EIGHT.

I could have copied this whole book down and still needed to go back and copy it all again. Melissa Febos’ prose is FLAWLESS. God. It’s so beautiful that I can not find a single thing to criticize.

It is also DRIPPING with sex.

In fact, most of the negative reviews on Goodreads say something like “Why does this book have to be so sexual?” Um, guys, you picked a book by dominatrix…did you expect something G rated?

This isn’t so much about her time as a sex worker–that’s another book–but about every other loaded section of her life. As she puts it:

“I am Puerto Rican, but not really. Indian, but not really. Gay, but not really. Adopted, but not really.”

The memoir’s story follows her abusive relationship with a married woman and her constant struggle to escape it. She details her addiction to self-harm, then alcohol, then drugs, and then love–all in an effort to gain control over her own body. We get to know, some along with her, the heartbreakingly damaged people in her life.

But the most important point of this book is how she teaches us of the incredible psychological trauma of the Indigenous Peoples of America. At one point, she has a conversation with her agent about how no one wants to read about Native Americans, that she should write something more akin to her dominatrix book, something about her–urban and edgy. So she does just that with this book–writing her love story, but still managing to weave in Native American history in every stop that is made, and let us know just how that genocide and erasure has affected the people we have tried so hard to push down.

Prove that agent wrong. Order this book immediately, guys. It’s sexy, it’s beautiful, it’s IMPORTANT. There are LGBTQIA+ and Native and POC people everywhere in this. And you know, that agent is right about one thing–we don’t see too many Native American authors–but that shouldn’t mean a lack of wanting them published. We need more stories like this, and we can start with Melissa Fabos. GO ORDER THIS BOOK, YA’LL.

NetGalley and Bloomsbury provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Zadie Smith: Swing Time

Two brown girls dream of being dancers–but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

I feel a bit like I’ve missed some critical piece of this book somewhere. I got to the end and even though I felt as if this was agonizing at times…I’m thinking, “That’s it? What was the point? Did I miss it?”

Swing Time is written as a series of flash forwards and flash backs, so the timeline jumps all over the place–from London to West Africa–telling the story of two biracial girls from childhood to their tumultuous adulthood. Yes, you did read that right, TWO BIRACIAL MAIN CHARACTERS, each with their own unique perspective and personality. There’s also a gay man and bisexual woman. It had so much diversity and promise. And Zadie Smith does do a marvelous job of showing the huge variety of privilege that there is in the world:  white privilege and the privilege of the wealthy and first world privilege. Our main character is so incredibly naive, even with her activist mother.

The backbones of the book were there. I found myself nodding along with a lot of it, marking down quotes, googling things that I needed to reference or read later. But unfortunately, the actual plotline didn’t hold up to Smith’s incredible prose, and that is the disappointment. I still don’t understand the connection between Tracey’s story and Aimee’s, or what actually happened with Aimee at the end. It’s almost as if this book is SO DEEP, that the plotline just dissolved into the message–such a weird feeling.

If you were looking forward to reading Swing Time, I’d say still read it. The message alone is worth it. And maybe you’ll pull more out of the plot than I did–if you understand the ending, please tell me, because I’m utterly confused. Any Zadie Smith fans out there that can help me out?

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Malinda Lo: Huntress

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

How funny that I read Of Fire and Stars, and then IMMEDIATELY read another F/F book right after? That was not planned AT ALL! I had Huntress out from the library in an effort to read more POC authors, but I didn’t know it also had LGBTQIA+ characters. What a nice surprise!

I fell into this book right away. I was a little afraid that starting a fantasy right after fantasy would be redundant–sometimes I have to spread them out a bit–but no, this was wonderful. The world building in Huntress takes off right away, and it’s mystical and both lush and soft at the same time. I really appreciated the pronunciation guide at the beginning, too, and made sure to study it before diving in.

As for the romance, it is both steamy and modest. There are no explicit scenes, and certain things are left to the reader’s interpretation and imagination. I can’t really tell you why because, spoilers, but I sort of preferred it that way in this context. Also, if it allows this book to get into the hands of younger LGBTQIA+ teens, then I am ALL for it.

There were a few scenes that I felt were a tad rushed, or maybe should have been left for a next book. I kept thinking that the book would end and sequel time! …but then it kept going… Those hesitations/cliff drops were a little strange. But overall I loved this story and now I need to go pick up Ash as soon as possible.

DiversityBingo2017: LGBTQIA+ MC Of Color

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Audrey Coulthurst: Of Fire and Stars

This review is a tiny bit spoilery, but if you know anything about the book at all, then they aren’t anything you haven’t already heard.

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

December was my very first OwlCrate, and I was PUMPED. I’d been wanting to try it out for awhile, and not only did they run a Black Friday discount, they ALSO made December’s theme EPIC. It included all of our fave fantasy franchises:  Harry Potter, LOTR, Game of Thrones. I couldn’t pass it up. The box was made even MORE amazing by including a romance about two princesses who fall in love. FISTPUMP!

The story itself is beautiful:  Denna travels to her new country, expecting to meet the prince she has been contracted to marry. The two countries are preparing for war, and everything is unstable. There is a group of magical rebels trying to siphon the power from the land. Denna’s soon to be sister-in-law hatches a plan to obtain information about these rebels, and along the way they fall in love.

I have mixed feelings about this book, and from looking at the reviews, I wasn’t the only one. Many people were disappointed.

But first, the good. THIS IS A WORLD WHERE GAY PEOPLE ARE ACCEPTED. Duty, class–that is important–but F/F or M/M is not a problem. It is referred to without shame or judgment. Mare is even bisexual and that seems to be a normal thing. Cheating is unacceptable, betrayal is unacceptable, and you are expected to stick to your rank. But you can sleep with whatever gender you please.

I saw a few people commenting that the girls fought hard not to share their feelings with each other, but in my opinion, it seemed that had more to do with their duty than shame. Denna felt she couldn’t back down from her promise to Thandi, and Mare saw that and didn’t think Denna felt the same way about her.

It’s the first fantasy novel I have read where this is the case. I think it’s the first novel altogether with F/F main characters. We need more books like these, for certain, and I’m happy to see one in a popular book box like OwlCrate.

I do need to make one comment about worldbuilding in fantasy novels, Of Fire and Stars included. It always seems like the good guys/MCs live in lands with temperate climates and have allies with mountainous lands with snow, or visa versa. But the bad guys are almost always from the desert, and shady characters have some kind of vague accent. This is a very problematic trope because it mimics the prejudices in our real life. We make judgments about the characters based on actual stereotypes–and I am beginning to find that lazy.

For the most part, I would call this book delightful. I enjoyed reading it, and anyone who likes a love story about princesses probably will too. Just be aware that it’s a little problematic where worlds are concerned. I do hope Coulthurst writes more fantasy–I’m interested to see what she does next.

DiversityBingo2017: Free Choice

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Zoraida Córdova: Labyrinth Lost

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

I fall to my knees. Shattered glass, melted candles and the outline of scorched feathers are all that surround me. Every single person who was in my house – my entire family — is gone.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

Beautiful Creatures meets Daughter of Smoke and Bone with an infusion of Latin American tradition in this highly original fantasy adventure.

I’ve seen this book EVERYWHERE lately–it’s touted as the MUST READ for 2016. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why! A multiracial, bisexual main character who is also a witch? YES PLEASE.

There’s no skirting around that bisexuality, either. There are two love interests, though one is certainly stronger than the other, and Alex’s sexuality is never in question. It’s completely normalized and it’s WONDERFUL. More of this please!

The world of Los Lagos is incredibly beautiful–fans of Alice in Wonderland are going to find this book familiar, except instead of a bland British background you’ll see a vibrant canvas reminiscent of Day of the Dead celebrations and Afro-Caribbean influences.  Cordova’s worldbuilding is as magical as the magic of the brujas, which is interwoven through families, and blessed by the gods.

I only have one real criticism of this book. More than once, Alex refers to Nova as having “bipolar eyes.” What do “bipolar eyes” look like? That is not an acceptable descriptor, even if you WERE speaking about someone with a mental illness–and nowhere in the rest of the book, that I could find, is Nova described as having Bipolar Disorder. It shocked me that in a book as amazingly diverse as this, that such a harmful word choice was used.

Aside from that issue, though, I loved the book. Is it enough for me to tell you not to read it? No, definitely not. Labyrinth Lost is an incredible story with incredible diversity. Teens should be able to see this much bisexual representation is EVERY popular YA novel. But it was enough of an issue for me to keep it from my 5 book dragon list MUST READ list. I hope she leaves that descriptor out of the sequel.

DiversityBingo2017:  OV Latinx MC

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Lesléa Newman: October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard

A masterful poetic exploration of the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder on the world.

On the night of October 6, 1998, a gay twenty-one-year-old college student named Matthew Shepard was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young men, savagely beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. Gay Awareness Week was beginning at the University of Wyoming, and the keynote speaker was Lesléa Newman, discussing her book Heather Has Two Mommies. Shaken, the author addressed the large audience that gathered, but she remained haunted by Matthew’s murder. October Mourning, a novel in verse, is her deeply felt response to the events of that tragic day. Using her poetic imagination, the author creates fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence Matthew was tied to, the stars that watched over him, the deer that kept him company, and Matthew himself. More than a decade later, this stunning cycle of sixty-eight poems serves as an illumination for readers too young to remember, and as a powerful, enduring tribute to Matthew Shepard’s life.

It’s official. This book has broken me. I knew when I picked it up that it would be sad but WOW I did not know that I would cry all the way through it.

I was 12 when Matthew Shepard was killed in a horrific hate crime in Wyoming. I vaguely remember it but until college it really didn’t register with me what had actually happened. I remember now, the anniversary being celebrated on campus and hearing the story. It was my first real understanding of what a hate crime was–outside of the history books, I mean. These things still happen? What kind of world did I live in? Back then the world seemed so big, but so much gentler. I never could have imagined a 2016 like we’ve had.

Newman took the stories and testimonies from the town of Laramie and turned them into a heart wrenching book of poetry. In it, she allows us to witness Matthew Shepard’s last night, and the following days of grief. She honors his memory by showing us just how bright his light was, and just how cruelly it was darkened.

A book like this is going to be hurtful to some people, so protect your heart if you need to. I can’t label this a MUST READ because it could be extremely triggering. But for those who can read it, read it as a way to bring awareness to the terrifying life of being LGBTQIA+ and being out. Hate crimes are an all too real thing in this world, and getting worse. We need this message shared until every LGBTQIA+ person is safe to live without fear of violence.

If you are LGBTQIA+ and need to talk to someone, please reach out to The Trevor Project. They are there for you 24/7. 866-488-7386.

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Robin Talley: Lies We Tell Ourselves

In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.

Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.

Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept separate but equal.

Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.

Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it.

I have SO many feelings about this book. And that makes sense–it’s a book written to evoke extremely strong feelings. It’s a book I may need to sit on for a few days before I fully comprehend everything I just read. Which means by the time you read this, I will have edited this review 100 times at least.

Lies We Tell Ourselves is written in dual POV:  Sarah, a senior POC moving to a previously whites-only school that is being desegregated; and Linda, a white Southern Belle who is diabolically opposed to desegregation. These two spiral around each other tighter and tighter as the year goes on.

My feelings on this book are so much like reading Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. Dual POV (except SGT had three). One white, one POC; written by a white author. Why is this necessary? Tolley very obviously did her research here. But that is not enough. There is no way a white author could ever put herself in the true voice of a POC in the middle of desegregation. There’s so much pain and abuse and complicated human experience that a white person–ie myself trying to write this review–could absolutely never appropriately put into words. This is why Own Voices is crucial.

In fact I actually had this on my Own Voices list. It is. Sort of. But for a completely different reason. And so I would very much hesitate to call this OV in the future–the author is white, and this is a story about the Civil Rights Movement.

There is an obscene amount of racist slurs in Lies We Tell Ourselves. Part of my brain (that old part that hadn’t been exposed to diversity and humanity still pops up way too often) says “Well, Haley, this is a book about desegregation in Virginia. Of COURSE there are going to be racial slurs. Of COURSE people are going to do hateful, horrible things.” I’m also disgusted, ashamed, and I want to protect all of my friends from what is said here.

This is also the epitome of the Oppressor/Oppressed romance trope. It’s gross. Linda is a racist. Even when she “changes her mind” she still only changes her mind about Sarah, not desegregation. Sarah is different, she’s special. And Sarah is constantly having to convince herself that Linda has changed, or that she can be changed, right up until the end of the story. It’s just so disgustingly problematic.

There are some good things about this book:  Queer characters, a diverse cast of POC, girls standing up to abusive parents–really just ladies figuring out what they want in general and going for it. Unfortunately all that is overshadowed by the major problems that this book has. I am really just striking out lately, it seems.

Kay Ryan: Say Uncle

Filled with wry logic and a magical, unpredictable musicality, Kay Ryan’s poems continue to generate excitement with their frequent appearances in The New Yorker and other leading periodicals. Say Uncle, Ryan’s fifth collection, is filled with the same hidden connections, the same slyness and almost gleeful detachment that has delighted readers of her earlier books. Compact, searching, and oddly beautiful, these poems, in the words of Dana Gioia, “take the shape of an idea clarifying itself.” “A poetry collection that marries wit and wisdom more brilliantly than any I know…. Poetry as statement and aphorism is rarely heartbreaking, but reading these poems I find myself continually ambushed by a fundamental sorrow, one that hides behind a surface that interweaves sound and sense in immaculately interesting ways.” — Jane Hirshfield, Common Boundary; “The first thing you notice about her poems is an elbow-to-the-ribs playfulness.” — Patricia Holt, San Francisco Chronicle.

Poetry collections are much harder for me to review. They are so much more subjective. Are they fiction? NonFiction? Sometimes they tell a story, but usually just snippets or pieces.

I’m not sure Say Uncle generated “excitement” in me, but I did like some of them. A few were worthy enough to be copied into my journal. Many, if not most, had some connection to nature, with an undertone of romance or heartbreak.

I’m interested enough to read more from Kay Ryan. I’m not gleeful, but perhaps…delighted?

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Louise Gornall: Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Norah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.

Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.

How do some books just find you at the perfect time? It seems that I’ve read bad book after bad book lately (with one or two exceptions), and then blammo, right when I needed it, this book happened. Two days after I was FINALLY diagnosed with OCD, I pick up Under Rose-Tainted Skies.

I was hooked within the first couple pages. The narrator described her obsessions almost the exact same way I had written about them in my journal the day before my therapist appointment, and I got CHILLS. So much of what she talked about rang true with me. Mine is not near as severe, and I don’t have agoraphobia, but it was incredible to have such representation in a book.

But enough about me and back to the review. There are a lot of similarities between Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything and Under Rose-Tainted Skies. However, Norah doesn’t have to be “fixed” to have a relationship with Luke. Instead, he comes to her. He makes an effort to learn about her disorder. In the process of their relationship, she does heal some, but she isn’t magically better. It’s baby steps, or “new pathways,” as her therapist would call them. Luke helps her grow a bit out of her comfort zone.

This book is going to be triggering for some people. There is a component of self-harm, and a very traumatic scene. Norah also experiences panic attacks throughout the book–those were difficult for me to experience, as they were very vivid. Right on target, but also hard to read through if you are one who has panic attacks yourself. Representation is everything, and amazing…but just proceed with caution if you also suffer from these kinds of mental illness.

I loved this book, I found it so helpful to read about someone like me. We need so many more Own Voices books about people with mental illness in this world. Definitely put this on your list for 2017!

DiversityBingo2017:  MC with an Invisible Disability

NetGalley and Clarion Books provided an ARC for unbiased review. This post does contain affiliate links.

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