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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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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Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of American literature. For not only does Ralph Ellison’s nightmare journey across the racial divide tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.

As he journeys from the Deep South to the streets and basements of Harlem, from a horrifying “battle royal” where black men are reduced to fighting animals, to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.

I found this book, on one hand, extremely boring. I kept putting it down every few paragraphs. The Prologue was lovely, and I copied much of it into my reading journal, but after that I really struggled to hold my attention to the story.

However, on the other hand, Invisible Man was eerily familiar. Even though it was published in the 40s, all of this could have happened today. Switch The Brotherhood with the Black Lives Matter movement and it all becomes recognizable, especially the second half of the book. I realize there are some big differences, since The Brotherhood was based on a communist organization, but there are also some parallels too–a factional group fighting for their beliefs, recruiting members, training people to serve their cause. Some of the things that happened just gave me so many chills. This is a big part of why it’s such a hard, heavy book–these are hard, heavy times and we are seeing all of these hard, heavy themes in our own current events every day.

It’s a hard book to review and rate. I didn’t really “like” it, but I definitely see the importance of the literature. I’m adding it to on my ongoing list of books that should be read in schools, because I think kids would benefit from teacher-led group conversation on such a heavy theme.

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DiversityBingo2017:  OwnVoices

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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.

Josh Hanagarne: The World’s Strongest Librarian

Josh Hanagarne couldn’t be invisible if he tried. Although he wouldn’t officially be diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome until his freshman year of high school, Josh was six years old and onstage in a school Thanksgiving play when he first began exhibiting symptoms. By the time he was twenty, the young Mormon had reached his towering adult height of 6’7″ when — while serving on a mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints — his Tourette’s tics escalated to nightmarish levels.

Determined to conquer his affliction, Josh underwent everything from quack remedies to lethargy-inducing drug regimes to Botox injections that paralyzed his vocal cords and left him voiceless for three years. Undeterred, Josh persevered to marry and earn a degree in Library Science. At last, an eccentric, autistic strongman — and former Air Force Tech Sergeant and guard at an Iraqi prison — taught Josh how to “throttle” his tics into submission through strength-training.

Today, Josh is a librarian in the main branch of Salt Lake City’s public library and founder of a popular blog about books and weight lifting—and the proud father of four-year-old Max, who has already started to show his own symptoms of Tourette’s.

The World’s Strongest Librarian illuminates the mysteries of this little-understood disorder, as well as the very different worlds of strongman training and modern libraries. With humor and candor, this unlikely hero traces his journey to overcome his disability — and navigate his wavering Mormon faith — to find love and create a life worth living.

Show me a book with books on the cover and I’m probably going to read it. There’s nothing better than a book about books–bookception!

But make that bookception a memoir about a disabled person fighting tooth and nail to overcome his disorder by sheer force of will? Yes please. Josh Hanagarne has fought his entire life to beat Tourette’s. There’s no cure–he knows that–but that isn’t going to stop him from challenging his body and mind to an all out war.

You’d think such a battle would strip a person of their humanity, but this memoir is funny, loving, and sweet. Hanagarne also tackles some pretty deep religious skepticism in his pages, as well as other topics like infertility, adoption, and depression. This is all mixed in with anecdotes from his job at the Salt Lake Public Library.

I couldn’t put this book down. Everything about the story was involved and beautiful. This isn’t a “The world did me wrong, I hate everything” type memoir.” Hanagarne certainly could have felt that way, and been fully deserved of those feelings. But he wanted to find any possible way to find peace in his tormented body and he was going to keep going until he found it. He’s still going, still trying new things. To someone with my own (different) medical problems, it’s very inspiring.

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DiversityBingo2017:  Diverse NonFiction

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a dazzling new novel: a story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home.

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

What a book to end 2016 on. You aren’t reading this post until long after I’ve written it, but as I sit here it is the week leading up to Christmas. I may read two or three more books but I don’t plan on doing anything too heavy. Americanah is the last BIG book of the year. And damn, what a finish.

This is the type of book that makes me wish I were rich so I could send unlimited copies to people I think need to read it. This week in Book Twitter we’ve had fight after fight to protect TEENS from racists. Adults who are so twisted by their white privilege that they abuse and bully and threaten–over a book review. And the entire time Book Twitter is fighting, I’m reading Americanah.

It’s about a Nigerian immigrant who comes to America, and all that she goes through. She writes a lifestyle blog that gives commentary on what it is like to be a POC immigrant in America. Guys, this blog says exactly EVERYTHING that Book Twitter has been telling us over and over and over. It’s as if she took everyone’s tweetstorms and turned them into a book. Except this book was published in 2013. This isn’t new. That should tell you how real these issues are. They didn’t just start because Donald Trump is president. Maybe it exacerbated things but it’s been going on forever.

If you’re a white person in this community, put this on your immediate TBR for 2017. It really helps connect the dots of so many conversations being had daily on social media about racism and diversity and white privilege. This book is fucking HONEST. She gets REAL. And you and I need to hear it. Really hear it. Open this up and listen.

DiversityBingo2017:  Book by Author of Color

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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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Dual Review: Thelonious Legend: Sins of the Father + Childish Things

I reviewed Sins of the Father a year ago, when it was first released. I hadn’t developed my Book Dragon system yet, but I gave it a 3 on Goodreads. But it has stuck in my memory, and every time I think about it, I have wanted to go back and reread–I really did love these girls. Because he has written a sequel, Thelonious Legend contacted me and generously sent me both books, and so here is an updated review for Book 1, as well as my write up for Book 2.

Book 1:  Sins of the Father

This was going to be a special year for the Parker sisters. Eve was going to dominate in the classroom and on the basketball court. Gwen was going to make the starting five and go down in history as the greatest prankster ever. Ana was going to do as little as possible. But without warning, all three sisters gain extraordinary abilities that defy science… powers that come with a cost. Now all they want to do is make it through the school year without drawing any undue attention, while racing to find a cure before the side effects of their new abilities kill them. Eve’s temperament, Gwen’s fondness for pranks, and Ana’s predilection for money, however, are challenges they must overcome to achieve their goals. Because if they can’t, they’re dead…

My memory did not deceive me. The Parker Sisters are just as incredible the second time as they were the first. They are smart, strong, and fast–and that doesn’t just refer to their super powers, but the plot itself. I read this over Christmas weekend and kept having to put my Kindle away. I couldn’t wait to get back to the story! It is racially diverse without bringing attention to it. It simply IS diverse.

At the book’s core is a story about three black middle school girls who develop super powers and have to navigate school drama while fighting for their lives. But behind all that is also a backdrop of privilege and culture that teaches us all to look deeper than the mask people wear.

I would definitely recommend this for older middle schoolers (7th grade+) or really anyone who likes YA. There is some violence and darker themes so just be cautious with younger audiences–though I’d never discourage anyone wanting to read this.

 

Book 2:  Childish Things

Mo Powers Mo Problems! It’s a new school year for the Parker Sisters but it’s the same song and dance. Get good grades, avoid being kidnapped or killed before dinner, and don’t forget to take to out the trash. But this year there are a few new players in the game. Players who are as special as the Parker Sisters. Let the games begin.

I know I’m reading a really good book when I stop and it is way too quiet. Was I listening to music? No…the book is just THAT good.

This happened more than once while I was reading Childish Things. The action gets completely turned up in Legend’s second book. The girls are older, wiser, and more powerful. They are training harder, and are more prepared for the bad guys that are, well, badder.

Childish Things is Gwen’s story, where Sins of the Father centered more around Eve. This gives the book a very “middle child syndrome” spin, as we see her take on friends, boys, and life while constantly comparing herself to her older sister.

The social justice spin is more subtle in this second book, but it is there in the margins for those who are paying attention. I am very interested in the almost backward character development of Stacey in particular, and how Legend is using her to show white privilege and the kind of subtle unknowing prejudice we don’t realize we have.

 

Both of these books are fantastic, and ones that’ll be making my top recommendations this year. For sure add this series to your Diverse YA TBRs. I cannot wait to see what Legend does with Ana’s story next–she got quite a bit of development in Childish Things, and she’s my favorite of the three sisters. I said in my original review for Sins of the Father that Thelonious Legend would do “Legendary” things with his writing, and it may have been a pun…but I wasn’t wrong. I LOVE these books, and you will too!

Disclaimer:  The author did provide me with copies of both books for an honest review, after I had reviewed the first last year for a book tour. 

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Marie Lu: Legend

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths—until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Can I tell you how weird it is to read a dystopia right now? WEIRD. We are basically living what used to be dystopian fiction, so to read it is very creepy.

Thankfully, Legend is still a ways off, and the world June and Day live in seems to have been created originally by natural disasters first, and horrible human government second. Our natural disasters are getting worse…but at least we haven’t had a super volcano yet. Right?

I’m trying to find a silver lining here guys. I’m trying.

(Hopefully by the time I post this review there hasn’t been a super volcano. You never know. Italy has had some pretty serious earthquakes lately, and there was one in New Zealand this week too.)

I’m scaring myself. What was I talking about? Oh, right. June and Day.

Real life nightmares aside, I can understand why this is so popular. It’s young adult fiction for young adults. Sometimes, as an adult reader, I forget who the audience is supposed to be while I’m reading books like this–the writing seems juvenile–but this was written by a very young author for a young audience. And for that, it fits wonderfully. Are the characters the deepest I’ve ever read? No. Is the plot totally unique? No. But I was instantly wrapped up in June and Day’s dual POV plot lines. I loved the idea that these kids were brilliant, and that they had such different life experiences.

This series goes back in my TBR jar so I can read the rest of the series. We can only hope our government looks a little less dystopian by the time I get around to finishing it. Fingers crossed (plus a whole lot of letter writing, calls, twitter rants, etc).

Update 2/10/2017–This has now been added to my shame list, and the rating has been changed to reflect that. A friend pointed out today that June is described as “She was either Native. Or Caucasian.” That is unacceptable language. It is incredibly harmful. I have removed the other books from my TBR, and moved this to my DO NOT READ list.

 

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