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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Anne Bishop: Etched in Bone

New York Times bestselling author Anne Bishop returns to her world of the Others, as humans struggle to survive in the shadow of shapeshifters and vampires far more powerful than themselves…

After a human uprising was brutally put down by the Elders—a primitive and lethal form of the Others—the few cities left under human control are far-flung. And the people within them now know to fear the no-man’s-land beyond their borders—and the darkness…

As some communities struggle to rebuild, Lakeside Courtyard has emerged relatively unscathed, though Simon Wolfgard, its wolf shifter leader, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn must work with the human pack to maintain the fragile peace. But all their efforts are threatened when Lieutenant Montgomery’s shady brother arrives, looking for a free ride and easy pickings.

With the humans on guard against one of their own, tensions rise, drawing the attention of the Elders, who are curious about the effect such an insignificant predator can have on a pack. But Meg knows the dangers, for she has seen in the cards how it will all end—with her standing beside a grave.

I’ve been waiting a year for the fifth and final book in The Others series to come out. And I’ve had the ARC in my collection for months–I had to have been one of the first to be approved for it. My willpower is SO STRONG, guys. Sometimes I don’t know how I manage to wait until the release month to read these. Probably because I just have way too many books in line.

Anyway, the anticipation was strong with this one. I’ve loved the first four, and the last one teased some mega romance. My body was ready.

But maybe my brain wasn’t? Or maybe it’s because I’m halfway through marathoning ASOIAF for trivia next week. THIS FELT LIKE SUCH A CHORE. I couldn’t make it halfway.

Something about Etched in Bone just didn’t measure up to the rest of the series. Slow doesn’t begin to describe it. It also barely focuses on Meg and Simon at all, which is what I was really looking forward to in this last edition.

One thing I noticed, in the slowness, is that Bishop is continually reintroducing characters to us, even though this is the fifth book. Really, if you’ve made it this far, you should know her world by now–how packs operate, why Meg is special, etc. A little bit of that is fine, but it shouldn’t still be happening more than 25% into the book. it makes the story/series seem very choppy and ruins the flow of it.

The plot also focuses around domestic abuse, and there is a LOT of victim blaming. For a series that unpacks mental illness and addiction, I was pretty grossed out by how this topic was being handled. Maybe it resolves itself later–but it wasn’t looking good.

I hated to DNF this, but I hated to finish it more. When a book becomes a chore, it just is not worth it, no matter how much I loved the rest of the series. I’m so disappointed.

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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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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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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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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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Roxane Gay: An Untamed State

Roxane Gay is a powerful new literary voice whose short stories and essays have already earned her an enthusiastic audience. In An Untamed State, she delivers an assured debut about a woman kidnapped for ransom, her captivity as her father refuses to pay and her husband fights for her release over thirteen days, and her struggle to come to terms with the ordeal in its aftermath.

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places. An Untamed State establishes Roxane Gay as a writer of prodigious, arresting talent.

I am sitting here watching the snow fall and I just have absolutely no idea what to even say about the book I just read. I was so not prepared for a story of this magnitude.

Let me start by telling you straight out that this is a book about rape. Roxane Gay does not hold back, either. The descriptions are very very vivid. Mireille is kidnapped and held in the most horrid conditions for 13 days–tortured and raped in an attempt to break her will. The result is devastating PTSD and a broken family.

But this isn’t just a story about a kidnapping. Roxane Gay highlights the challenges in interracial marriage, and she forces us to look at privilege in the face of terrible poverty.

Your heart will be in your throat the entire time. I hated to put this down for fear that if I did, Mireille wouldn’t make it to the next page. It’s THAT kind of story. The main character might die if you put it down even for a few minutes.

She also writes extensively about privilege and wealth, culture and poverty. Mirelle’s father grew so rich and callous that he was too scared to risk his lifestyle, and love is nothing without the money to back it. You can nearly smell the shit he feels he is smearing underneath his feet as he walks, and that attitude destroys him and his family.

Don’t put it down. It’s too important that you not miss a single bit of Roxane Gay’s message.

(The only reason this book didn’t receive a full five Book Dragons from me is because of just how many trigger points there could be in the story. I can’t put it on my MUST READS list because not everyone could read this. Otherwise, this book is brilliant. Just please be careful if you are sensitive to rape, sexual assault, or kidnapping. There is a great deal of violence in this novel.)

 

DiversityBingo2017:  Black Main Character Own Voices

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Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress…

Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.

A friend of mine tweeted recently that we were living Brave New World. I hadn’t read it yet, but coincidentally (or not), I’d just ordered it from ThriftBooks. Well, I suppose I better move it up the list, then.

Aldous Huxley certainly wastes no time in horrifying the reader. From the very first chapter, I read slack-jawed in terror about the “utopia” he had created for us. There are definite similarities to what we are seeing today. I don’t know that we are there yet, but we should certainly be wary. It is alarming, for sure.

As far as the book goes–this is going to have to be a twofer. I will need to reread it again. I understood the overall themes and concepts, but I didn’t connect with any of the characters. Maybe it was just too abstract for me.

I have two observations to make:

The first, is just about utopias in general. In every other utopia I’ve read–The Giver, for example–the drug use is hidden. The leaders don’t want society to know they must have drugs to suppress their natural urges, go on with the utopian lifestyle, etc. The drug is always hidden in vitamins, or the water, or something. Here, it is relished, open, necessary. Not taking high doses of soma is frowned upon. You SHOULD be an addict. But don’t take TOO much. Don’t take 20, or you will die. Take a lot, but just enough. Have fun, all of the time. Be high, all of the time.

Second, the caste system–bred into the new embryos, then taught while the children sleep. HOW CREEPY IS THAT?! This is the part that really resonates to today’s world, because while we don’t have a utopian system built for this yet…we have a societal structure that is already this way. Parents teaching children without realizing some of the toxic things that are getting in. I don’t want to get full on conspiratorial but…I think you could see how it could go downhill fast.

Brave New World is a book that would be burnt first if ever such a thing were to happen. If literature starts disappearing, hide your copies. Read it now, while you still can. It should be read, by everyone. And read it more than once, so you know you truly understand what is happening.

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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.