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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Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures (Young Readers’ Ed)

Now in a special new edition perfect for young readers, this is the amazing true story of four African-American female mathematicians at NASA who helped achieve some of the greatest moments in our space program. Soon to be a major motion picture.
Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. This book brings to life the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African-American women who lived through the Civil Rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the movement for gender equality, and whose work forever changed the face of NASA and the country.

If you haven’t heard of Hidden Figures by now, you must be an naive astronaut yourself…ala Catcher Block (please tell me I’m not the only one who has watched that movie 700 times).

 

I still haven’t seen the Hidden Figures movie, but thank goodness it did not take a lifetime for the book to come available at the library. Although the edition I received was the Young Readers’ Edition…and I’m not sure how much of a difference (if there is one) between this and the regular version? I can tell you this only took me two hours to read, so do with it what you will. If there is an adult version out there, let me know what you thought of it!

I will never be over the amount of erasure that went into our school history books. Learning that might have been the biggest shock to my white privilege–I take education so seriously, and having huge chunks of information left out is unfathomable. I will slowly uncover some of what I have missed, but those who don’t care to extend their education will never know anything outside of those empty textbooks.

That is why it is so crucial for stories like Hidden Figures to be told. We learned about the space race, but all of the faces in that story were white. We never learned about the women at Langley, much less about the black computers crunching the numbers. Margot Lee Shetterly details each woman’s journey through Langley’s West Side Computing Office and into NASA.

Now, because I had the YRE, these stories were simplified. I am unsure what or if anything was left out or minimized. Nothing was extremely vivid–I have a feeling a lot of the edges were sanded down. On one hand, it was nice to have a lot of the science explained at a lower level, since I am the furthest thing from a mathematician. But I am quite interested in a more detailed depiction of these women’s lives. Also, we hardly got any information on Christine. The introduction sounds like there were four women involved, but the book is mostly about Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine. I would have liked a little bit more in her section.

I’m looking even more forward to seeing the movie now. And maybe I’ll see if the library has the full version. Maybe I just requested the wrong book–it has been known to happen! If you liked the movie, I highly recommend reading more about these women! And question your history books. What else are we missing from those 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.

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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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Han Kang–Human Acts

From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a rare and astonishing (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.

In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.

The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.

An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.

This book.

Deep Exhale.

This book is a ghost story. To read this book is to experience the mass casualty that overcomes a city in war. We see both sides–from the living and bereaved–trying to find closure in a city building overcome with overflowing death. We see, too, through the blind eyes of a trapped soul, panicking under the press of rot and gore, unable to release himself from the body that no longer lives.

And that is only the beginning.

This book is a ghost story–and there are so many ghosts. There are only 218 pages, but I could not read this for more than a few minutes at a time without putting my bookmark in and just breathing. I could not cry because I felt like every emotion I had was sucked right out of me.

I’m not sure how to describe this book–beautiful? amazing? great? All of those words could fit but mostly it just tore me to shreds. This short book is exhausting to read and in literature that is the exact opposite of a negative review. Just be prepared when you go into this. Han Kang does not need to waste 500 pages on dramatic world-building, she can do it in a whisper. You will be haunted by Human Acts. This book is a ghost story.

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Read the World:  South Korea

DiversityBingo2017:  NonWestern Real World Setting

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Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me

In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the “Atlantic” writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people–a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate and deliberate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates powerfully sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. A timely work, this title will resonate with all teens–those who have experienced racism as well as those who have followed the recent news coverage on violence against people of color.

I’m so glad I read Malcolm X before getting to this, but also that I read them so close together. I’m not sure I would have understood Between the World and Me as well without Malcolm, but Coates also added much needed polish to Malcolm’s rough and angry manifesto. This is the kind of book that makes me want to bury myself in a great old library with piles of books and not come out again for days. There is just so much I do not know or understand, and the more I read on this topic, the less I feel prepared to work on it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ prose is more like poetry. He repeats the same phrases over and over in his work, and they really begin to resonate.

hisbodyhisbodyhisbodyhisbody
mybodymybodymybodymybody
yourbodyyourbodyyourbodyyourbody

Like a poem that none of us have a right to read.

He also rarely, if ever, calls us white people–instead using the term “the people who must believe they are white.” That is such an important distinction. Race is a social construct, birthed by this idea that some people are less than other people.

His mission in this book is to help explain to his son why black people are being killed–after they watch Michael Brown’s killer go free in Ferguson. He discusses many other similar violences, but mostly is trying to teach his son how to protect himself. This is a letter from a concerned parent to a scared boy in a world that does not care about him.

Toni Morrison states so clearly on the cover that “This is required reading.” She is absolutely right. This was written for a 15 year old boy, so it could technically be considered young adult, though I don’t think it is. It should be taught in every high school across America, though I’m sure it isn’t. It’s absolutely going on my MUST READS list, no doubt about it.

Beat the Backlist Challenge #64

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Jacqueline Woodson: Feathers

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” starts the poem Frannie is reading in school. Frannie hasn’t thought much about hope. There are so many other things to think about. Each day, her friend Samantha seems a bit more holy.”There is a new boy in class everyone is calling the Jesus Boy. And although the new boy looks like a white kid, he says he’is not white. Who is he?

During a winter full of surprises, good and bad, Frannie starts seeing a lot of things in a new light:—her brother Sean’s deafness, her mother’s fear, the class bully’s anger, her best friend’s faith and her own desire for the thing with feathers.”

Jacqueline Woodson once again takes readers on a journey into a young girl’s heart and reveals the pain and the joy of learning to look beneath the surface.

Oh Jacqueline Woodson, you strike again. When I read Brown Girl DreamingI added this one to my TBR right away. I fell in love with her poetry and wanted to read more of her incredible writing.

I was not disappointed. Feathers is prose instead of poetry, but it is just as gorgeous. Written for middle-grade, her story combines so many different facets into a book under 150 pages. We see a young girl learning about life alongside a mother with depression and a brother who is deaf, and that gives her a unique outlook when a new boy comes to school needing a bit of compassion.

This is for sure going on my list of books to recommend when my parent friends reach out to me for their kids. If you have a child in middle school, definitely add this to your shelves.

DiversityBingo2017: D/dEAF/HARD OF HEARING MC

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Malcolm X: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

If there was any one man who articulated the anger, the struggle, and the beliefs of African Americans in the 1960s, that man was Malcolm X. His AUTOBIOGRAPHY is now an established classic of modern America, a book that expresses like none other the crucial truth about our times.

 

My thoughts about Malcolm X’s autobiography are many, but also, I feel, extremely disorganized. This man is not at all who I thought he was–though admittedly, I did not know much beyond that he was a black leader in the time of the Civil Rights Movement.

That’s really such a fault of our history classes, isn’t it? He even discusses it at one point–that black history is limited to one paragraph. “We” think of him as the same kind of leader as Martin Luther King, Jr, because he is brought up in the same conversation–but in reality, the men taught exactly the opposite principles. MLK taught nonviolence and desegregation, while Malcolm X wanted Separate but Equal. And while he wasn’t exactly violent, he certainly wasn’t nonviolent or peaceful either.

This book is a real punch in the face for a white person to read. Over and over and over he calls us “devils” and “rapists.” But all the more reason I should read it–especially for Black History Month. It hurts, certainly, but that pain is nothing compared to the pain that caused his words in the first place.

For the white man to ask the black man if he hates him is just like the rapist asking the raped, or the wolf asking the sheep, ‘Do you hate me?’ The white man is in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hate!

It’s a tough read. I won’t pretend that I didn’t feel sick at times. But that sickness is due to all of the very valid points he was making. I don’t agree with all of his points–I think I’m more on the integration side of the debate (That is to say, that maybe a peaceful integration is the goal ultimately. I know it isn’t happening now in reality, and is it possible? I don’t know. As a white person, it is easy for me to speculate on these things without actually experiencing them.) than Separate but Equal (Because we know it is never equal.)–but I can certainly understand his arguments for the latter. He has some things to say about multiracial people vs racial purity that is very problematic, and he was very much a misogynist.

Most interesting was the actual development of the book itself. Malcolm X did not start off as a revolutionist preacher. The first half of his story takes place in the nightclubs of Boston and Harlem, where he dealt drugs and pimped women until he was sent to prison for 10 years. It was there he found the Nation of Islam. The telling of his story starts rough and is slowly smoothed out by sandpaper until it becomes a sermon that predicts the exact political climate we are in today. It is actually pretty creepy how right he was. I had goosebumps for most of the last section of it.

The things he said in this book about America’s race problems are terrifyingly accurate. If you’re looking for a book to read for Black History Month, Malcolm X might be a good one to turn to this February. I’m still developing my thoughts on this, and I’d love discussion about it. This is certainly not a book I read once and never approach again–I’ve even come back while reading Between the World and Me and adjusted a few things. These two books make me want to bury myself in the library stacks and research for days. There are some books that I don’t feel worthy of writing reviews for because I am not smart enough to understand them yet, and I could never live the experiences that the author has lived. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of those books.

(I included some of my aside thoughts in pink, mostly for clarification’s sake. I went back and forth on whether to keep them there, but I think it’s important for you to know my reasoning. Either way, our system is so broken, and I don’t know how to fix it.)

DiversityBingo2017:  POC on the Cover

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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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Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance

In 1975, in an unidentified Indian city, Mrs Dina Dalal, a financially pressed Parsi widow in her early 40s sets up a sweatshop of sorts in her ramshackle apartment. Determined to remain financially independent and to avoid a second marriage, she takes in a boarder and two Hindu tailors to sew dresses for an export company. As the four share their stories, then meals, then living space, human kinship prevails and the four become a kind of family, despite the lines of caste, class and religion. When tragedy strikes, their cherished, newfound stability is threatened, and each character must face a difficult choice in trying to salvage their relationships.

I will never be amazed at how much books surprise me sometimes. Rohinton Mistry was recommended to me as a key Indian author, but I’ve never much been interested in books written about the 70s, so I was hesitant to read this. When I saw how BIG this book was…I won’t lie–I put this thing off until it was absolutely due at the library, and even then I extended my contract.

951 pages later (I mistakenly got the large print version, I think the regular one is only 600), I have laughed, cried, gasped, and near made myself sick over this book. Mistry has sewn together a quilt of patches from poverty to familial abuse, from fascist regimes to mob bosses. I expected India to seem as far away as 1975–decades and countries away. Certainly something I needed to learn about, but I didn’t think I would be able to relate to quite so much. But this story resonated in so many ways with what is happening in the United States today–this book was a little TOO real.

It was also impossible not to fall in love with the characters. Mistry flips prejudice and privilege on its head because the people he wants you to see aren’t the rich and freshly-bathed, but the beggars and Untouchables–those who most disregard completely. Dina struggles over and over with her prejudice against the tailors–she is us, our wrinkled nose and closed door. There are also those who are obsessed with political movements, and those who are being affected by the horrific changes by the massive changes made by the government…and those who just don’t seem to care at all what is going on until it is too late.

A Fine Balance is two things. It IS a brilliant book about Indian culture in the 1970s. I learned so much about the country and amazingly diverse people that I did not know before. But this book is also us, in our country, right now. It’s on my list of books kids should be reading in school but would never be allowed. I know it’s long, but devote some time this year for this one. It’s worth it.

DiversityBingo2017:  Indian MC Own Voices

Read Around the World:  India

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