Category Archives: General Reviews

Empress of a Thousand Skies, by Rhoda Belleza

Empress of a Thousand Skies

  • Genre
    • Science Fiction, Soap Opera, Youth Adult
  • Plot Summary
    • Princess Rhiannon Ta’an is the last survivor of her assassinated dynasty. Upon her coming of age, the world expects her to take her throne. She intends to take vengeance. 
  • Character Empathy
    • This is a more plot and setting focused story, but thankfully the characters weren’t neglected. The chapters jump back and forth between Rhee, the princess, and Alyosha, a soldier who gets caught up in events. Rhee was a real surprise to me. The author wasn’t afraid to let her get dirty, both physically and emotionally. She goes through shit, she reacts badly, she is impulsive and well, a teenager. It was fascinating to read teen royalty who, instead of being wise beyond their years, was wise at exactly-her-years, and awfully banged up inside to boot. And despite, how raw and angry she was, I still cared about her. Alyosha, meanwhile, was also wounded and naive in his own ways, but a bit sweeter and more mature. He was a unique person, but had a more familiar protagonisty flavor The two perspectives complimented each other perfectly; Alyosha kept the book from being bogged down while Rhee kept surprising me. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Exciting! It was one of those books I got through in just a couple days, because I was too eager to find out what happened next.
    • It is the first of a series, and leaves some unanswered questions at the end. But thankfully it wasn’t one of those that felt like it just stopped before the last scene. The characters went through real change, the questions that could be answered were, and the ones left were the ones that really felt too big to be satisfactorily resolved in a single book.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The technology in this is not only cool, but well used. I’ve seen too many stories where something with mind-boggling implications is just used in one limited context, and the rest of the world has never heard of it. In this book, there’s a bit of tech that I thought was just background world building, but it keeps coming up again and again. Not only was it used in multiple ways throughout the setting, but the ethical issues and potential for abuse ended up being key to the ever deepening layers of conflict. I really loved it.
    • Dwarf planets! She uses dwarf planets to justify the single-biome tropes, and also throw in some cool stuff with gravity and weird geography. I’ve been wanting to see people embrace dwarf planets as a new and cool thing instead of a travesty inflicted on Pluto, so this made me really nerd-happy. 
    • The plot justified itself well. By which I mean, I’m used to tolerating a certain degree of coincidence to get through a story, especially when an author clearly wants to have fun, but in this one there kept being a perfectly thought out explanation, even when I was prepared to expect that there wouldn’t been.
  • Content Warnings
    • It’s an action adventure book, so there’s some fights. A few of them are pretty brutal, which I actually liked. In this story, violence isn’t just a video game. It not meant to be glamorous; it’s scary, and has real impacts on the character’s lives.
  • Quotes
    • “If all we are is what people think we are, then we’re all screwed.”

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

Dealing With Dragons

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Comedy, Young Adult
  • Plot Summary
    • To escape an unwanted engagement to an insufferably dull prince, Princess Cimorene volunteers to become a dragon’s princess. This turns out to be a great career move. 
  • Character Empathy
    • This book has some of the most likable characters I’ve ever read. Special shoutout to Princess Cimorene. She was the first spirited, non-traditional princess I read, and most who came afterwards haven’t lived up to her. Too many authors aim for rebellious and hit spoiled brat. Cimorene is someone you would want to invite over for a dinner party, and wouldn’t mind asking to grab some chairs or watch the grill while you get the drinks set out. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Adorable and goofy and really, really fun. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Morwen. She’s a sensible, scrupulously neat witch who keeps nine cats, none of which are black. All the traditionally warty witches think she’s a hopeless mess and Morwen gives zero shits.
    • Negotiations with an accidentally freed genie; one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read.
    • Patricia C. Wrede uses a great mix of famous and obscure fairy tales. When updated-fairy-tale-mashup stories rely too hard on the ones everyone knows, it gets really easy to see where everything is going. She included some that even I hadn’t heard of before, which kept things interesting.
    • So many feminism metaphors. And, you know, just straightforward feminism.
    • If you like it as much as I do, there are three more books in the series.
  • Content Warnings
    • You’re good
  • Quotes
    • “Well,” said the frog, “what are you going to do about it?”  “Marrying Therandil? I don’t know. I’ve tried talking to my parents, but they won’t listen, and neither will Therandil.” “I didn’t ask what you’d said about it,” the frog snapped. “I asked what you’re going to do. Nine times out of ten, talking is a way of avoiding doing things.”
    • “Then they gave me a loaf of bread and told me to walk through the forest and give some to anyone who asked. I did exactly what they told me, and the second beggar-woman was a fairy in disguise, but instead of saying that whenever I spoke, diamonds and roses would drop from my mouth, she said that since I was so kind, I would never have any problems with my teeth.” “Really? Did it work?” “Well, I haven’t had a toothache since I met her.”  “I’d much rather have good teeth than have diamonds and roses drop out of my mouth whenever I said something”
    • “No proper princess would come out looking for dragons,” Woraug objected.”Well I’m not a proper princess then!” Cimorene snapped. “I make cherries jubillee and I volunteer for dragons, and I conjugate Latin verbs– or at least I would if anyone would let me. So there!”

Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac

Code Talker

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Ned Begay, veteran of WWII, tells his grandchildren stories from his days as a Navajo code talker with the Marines. 
  • Character Empathy
    • Ned tends to view people through the lens of culture first, and then sketch them out as individuals, but this doesn’t result in stereotyping or simplifying. Instead, Ned has an eye for the complexities of culture; how it influences people for good and ill, how it can share knowledge but also limit perspective. Through his eyes, you see his love for his own Navajo culture, his affinity for other marginalized groups, and his ability to see the difference between an oppressive culture and the individuals who make it up. He’s able to do the latter without minimizing the crimes or neglecting the victims.
    • At the beginning of the story I thought of Ned as a mere neutral storyteller, but by the end I was intensely attached to him. He sees the worst of humanity and reports on it accurately, but he is also determined to look for the best in humankind. He’s one of those characters that my brain won’t let me treat as a fictional character. He’s real, dammit! He’s real!
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s understated, in a good way. On the surface, it’s the voice of an old man, pragmatic rather than poetic, recounting the facts as best he’s able to for the sake of his family’s history. Beneath, it’s full of love, sympathy and insight. It never beats you over the head with its points, nor does it bandy about with false complexity. It is simply authentic.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The research is incredible, both the military history and the portrayal of the Navajos. Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, was especially determined to get the latter especially right, and sought out as many Navajo code talkers to interview as he could find. I’ve looked at a few different reviews, both from Navajo perspectives and non-native history geeks. Everybody says it is dead on accurate; I’ve yet to find someone mention a single error. This book will probably teach you more than most non-fiction books. 
    • The bantering friendships between him and his fellow Marines. So many warm happy feels! Also, although he mentions that people die, he doesn’t usually torture you with in depth gory deaths of individuals you love, so that’s a nice change. It doesn’t feel cheap; more like Ned just didn’t want to spend time dwelling on the sad parts. These were his friends, and he doesn’t want to remember them dead. He just wants to pass on the happy memories.
  • Content Warnings
    • Obviously there’s violence, though he tends to skim over it. As I said, it seems to be that, as a narrator, Ned doesn’t want to dwell on the bad. The most intense description actually isn’t of the war at all, but his time in boarding school, when his mouth was scrubbed with soap for speaking Navajo. 
    • Racism against the protagonist and other Navajos, running the gamut from intentionally harmful programs like the boarding schools to unintentional microaggressions like the ubiquitous nickname “Chief.”
  • Quotes
    • “Never think that war is a good thing, grandchildren. Though it may be necessary at times to defend our people, war is a sickness that must be cured. War is a time out of balance. When it is truly over, we must work to restore peace and sacred harmony once again.”
    • “Strong words outlast the paper they are written upon. ”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  • Genre
    • Memoir, Autobiography
  • Summary
    • Frederick Douglass describes his resistance and ultimate escape from slavery in Maryland. 
  • Information
    • In a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, an influential abolitionist of the time, he talks about claims, commonly touted by slavery advocates, of well-treated slaves and bans on excessive punishment. Frederick Douglass, even as a slave, grew up with relative luck. Everyone agreed that Maryland was far less brutal than the deep south, and furthermore he typically got to work as a skilled laborer, rather than grueling field work. Even so, he saw enough violence and brutalities to shock anyone. On top of that, he lays out for his readers the dynamics of psychological abuse, and the ways that even the supposed “kindness” of nicer owners were ultimately just tools to dehumanize. Today, we still hear the same arguments, used to justify white supremacy as “white heritage” and other such nonsense. This book destroyed white supremacist bullshit back then, and it still does today.
    • Plus, the man’s life was fascinating. The way he not only survived but constantly improved himself, in the face of a world where his basic humanity was attacked daily, is incredible. He learned to read despite the fact that it would get him beaten or even killed, just because he wanted to, which pretty much makes him the patron saint of badass bookworms.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • I think most people would, without knowing better, assume this book is historically significant, but old, dull, stuffy, and ultimately not worth reading unless you’re an actual historian or taking a class. If you’ve thought that, let me tell you, you are completely wrong. Frederick Douglass was the furthest thing from stuffy. His prose hits this perfect balance of crisp and straightforward but expressive and moving, and despite how time and language have marched on he is still remarkably readable. It’s a short book, but there is so much in it, you will probably find yourself reading more than you intended to every time you pick it up. In other words, this book isn’t just going to enlighten you about an essential part of our history that we’re still embarrassingly bad at talking about; you will actually like reading it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The part where he recalls how he taught himself how to read. I don’t want to spoil it but basically he figured out how to trick snotty white boys into teaching him the alphabet and it’s hilarious. 
    • When he goes on rants, it is a fucking joy to read. He comes up with the most devastatingly constructed and beautifully cutting ways to say “fuck you.”
  • Content Warnings
    • I mean, it’s the life of a slave. If you think he’s not going to describe beatings and gaslighting and people being murdered while they beg for their lives, well, you’re probably exactly the kind of person who needs to read this book. 
  • Quotes
    • “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
    • “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

Hope For Endangered Species And Their World, by Jane Goodall

Hope for Endangered Species

  • Genre
    • Nonfiction, Conservation, Zoology, Ecology
  • Summary
    • Jane Goodall, together with her fellow activists Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson, investigate success stories of animal species brought back from the brink of extinction.
  • Information
    • These stories are more than just warm, fuzzy and inspiring. They reveal crucial information about the real challenges of environmentalism. It’s easy to rail against human greed and destruction. It’s harder to get into the nitty gritty of what animals can adapt to and what they can’t, about the particular behaviors and needs of diverse species, about the specific links in every ecosystem, and the things we are still learning about rare, endangered species. Every chapter will teach you something you didn’t even realize was an issue, and all the creative ways people have found to overcome it. It’s brilliant and fascinating.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • If you’ve read any of Jane Goodall’s writing, you already know exactly what to expect, and don’t need any further convincing. For the rest of you; this book is full of love. You can feel Jane Goodall’s gentle affection for animals in every sentence. It’s also got a clear, almost homespun clarity to it. You feel like you’re a kid sitting down to tea with your coolest aunt; the one with all the stories, who seems to know everything, and who talks to you in a way that makes you feel more grown-up than you are.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I think any activist, whether environmental or not, will find this book not only inspiring, but empowering. We struggle with overwhelming obstacles, whatever we fight for, and there are too few narratives that talk honestly about them. We gloss over the mistakes, the failed experiments and the setbacks. As a result, actual activism becomes far too unappealing, and it becomes easier to talk about doing than actually move. This book will show you how, even when there seems to be no hope, the battle can still be won. It shows you how small actions really can add up to bigger changes. It reminds you that it’s worthwhile to fight.
    • Each chapter is a complete story, which can be read independently of the others. I love that in non-fiction. You can go, “okay, wallabies are adorable and all, but I’m dying to know how the california condors made it! Like, they were down to single digits so how the hell do you come back from that???” And voila, you can skip straight to that part. Maybe that’s just my personal impatience talking, but there you go.
    • Beautiful animal pictures! There are both black and white photos, and glossy color plates, and every one is just stunning.
    • If you go for the audiobook, Jane Goodall reads it herself, and she has the most delightfully soothing voice.
  • Content Warnings
    • N/A
  • Quotes
    • “It was close to midnight when Brent called out: ‘There’s one!’ And I saw the eyes of a small animal shining brilliant emerald green as they reflected his spotlight. As we drove closer, I made out the ferret’s head as she looked at us, listening to the engines. She did not vanish as we cautiously drove closer. And when she did duck down, she could not resist popping up for another look before disappearing. When we eventually went over to peek down the burrow, there was her little face, peeking back at us, not at all afraid.” 

 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

  • Genre
    • Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • Yeine Darr, the mixed race daughter of a banished princess, is summoned to the imperial capital to be named as one of three competing heirs. This summons is not what it seems, and she is pulled into a web of intrigue that involves not only the royal family, but the gods themselves.
  • Character Empathy
    • It’s similar to most SF. The protagonist is likable but mostly serves as someone you can disappear into, rather than a person you come to know, while the secondary characters are more individual and colorful. That’s not my favorite style, but it does make for effective storytelling. 
    • It is heavy with profoundly evil villains, but it earns them in a way many books do not. Most stories with scary, despicable antagonists just let the reader accept that evil is simply a part of that character’s nature. Explaining where evil comes from is usually treated as an excuse for it. This book is unflinching. You understand exactly what created the evil, and comprehending it makes it no less horrifying.
    • The heroes tend to be complicated rather than straightforwardly virtuous. They are wedged into situations where, no matter now much they want to be good, the most they can do is try hard to be less awful.
    • My favorite characters were the gods. I have a weak spot for characters who are easy to care for and relate to, yet are clearly not human.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Intense. The revelations pile up fast, and at the same time the book keeps you asking certain key, agonizing questions until the very end. I listened to this on CD in my car, and I could not wait to get on the road and hear the next disc. And listen, people, I hate driving. I really, really hate it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Makes a brutal and effective attack on imperialism that you rarely see in epic fantasy. I love the genre, but it does come from a very imperialistic heritage. Modern works tend to either ignore or find a way to excuse their particular characters for engaging in it. It’s cool to see an author actively embrace it as a source of conflict. I wish more writers would do this. 
    • The magical history of the gods is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else. It raises interesting questions about not only power and justice, but love, family, healing and destruction.
    • The main setting, in the city of Sky, is beautiful, weird, creepy, and a perfect spot for this story. I’m more of a character reader than a setting reader, but this place still grabbed my attention.
  • Content Warnings
    • Most of the attacks the gods and royals make on each other are emotionally manipulative, rather than physical, but there are some gory fights and also a scene of creepy body horror magic.
    • Sexual abuse and threats of it. Usually the actual abuse is offscreen, and the threats are right there. I don’t know whether that made it harder or easier to get through; your mileage may vary.
  • Quotes
    • “In a child’s eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.”
    • “We can never be gods, after all–but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.”
    • “But love like that doesn’t just disappear, does it? No matter how powerful the hate, there is always a little love left, underneath.
      Yes. Horrible, isn’t it?”

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Coming-of-Age
  • Plot Summary
    • A poor girl named Minli goes on a quest to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to improve her family’s fortune.
  • Character Empathy
    • Both Minli and the companions she meets along the way are fun and likable. They were all characterized in the classic fairy tale way; quickly characterized and simple, prone to either remain unchanged or to change in very archetypal ways. Despite that, they all felt very vivid and lifelike. That’s not easy to pull that off, and it was absolutely wonderful.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • A mixture of charmingly lighthearted and enchantingly beautiful. This is very much a  fairy tale adventure, but Grace Lin spices it with the effortlessly lovely descriptions of places, people, foods and scenes. Reading this book is like walking through a garden; stimulating but peaceful, and good for the soul.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Unlike many hero’s journey stories, where the people at home are abandoned offstage, this book periodically returns to Minli’s parents. They struggle in the aftermath of her disappearance, but ultimately both grow as people. It’s not something I’ve ever seen before, and I loved it. 
    • Tons of stories within stories that ultimately weave together in the most delightfully satisfying way. 
    • Dragons and grumpy old wise men and talking goldfish!
  • Content Warnings
    • None
  • Quotes
    • “If you make happy those that are near, those that are far will come.”

This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

This One Summer

  • Genre
    • Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Coming of Age, Literary
  • Plot Summary
    • Rose Wallace spends the summer at her family’s favorite beach, while her parents struggle to get over a year of tragedy. 
  • Character Empathy
    • I love how Jillian Tamaki draws the expressions. They are incredibly subtle, especially for a graphic novel. If most comics characters are dancers in a Broadway musical, this is that underrated actor who communicates an entire mood with one twitching jaw muscle. The effect is immersive and effective.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The story is a strange mixture of sweet and suspenseful. Rose and her friend Windy are on the brink of growing up, but aren’t quite ready to yet. They want to enjoy one more summer of childhood, yet events around them keep threatening to shatter their innocence. As they peek in, then pull away, you’re simultaneously curious at what they’ve missed, and relieved that they have avoided it.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • This is one of those rare books that perfectly captured what it was like to be a kid in the summer. I think it’s the things the girls did that seemed almost boring; lounging on the couch, picking up pebbles, digging massive holes, debating whether to go swimming or rent a movie or pick up ice cream without really caring. Part of the fun of summer is that nothing you do is too important, so you just do whatever you feel like. Often that something is nothing at all.
    • I loved the way the characters were drawn. I saw bodies that you see every day in real life, but almost never in art or fiction. I especially liked Windy’s squashy pear shape. I don’t know why; I think she reminded me of a friend I once had.
  • Content Warnings
    • Not really applicable; most of the adult content is hinted at, rather than depicted outright.
  • Quotes

God, man, just look at the pictures in this one.

Summer 4Summer 1Summer 3Summer 2

I Remember Beirut, by Zeina Abirached

I remember Beirut

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Memoir, Graphic Novel
  • Summary
    • The memories of a childhood spent in the middle of no man’s land, during the Lebanese Civil War.
  • Character Empathy
    • Characters are sketched very simply, but in a way that doesn’t diminish them. In the same way that a silhouette can trigger a more visceral reaction than a photograph, the characters here don’t suffer even a little for the brief glimpses you get of them. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Simultaneously light and thought provoking. I brought it to work and finished it in one lunch break, then was mulling over it for days later. It’s sad, but in many ways also beautiful and hopeful.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • As you can no doubt see from the cover, the art is absolutely beautiful.
    • The contrast between the perspective of Zeina and her brother, for whom all of this is normal, and their parents, who remember the old days and are trying to give their children a normal life despite everything. It’s understated and perfect.
    • There is a story about a terrible barber that I absolutely loved. I can’t explain why, but something about it was immediately familiar and made me laugh. You’ll just have to get the book and see what I mean. 
    • Almost every sentence in the book starts with “I remember,” but it never gets tiresome. It just pulls you straight through. I don’t know how she does that.
  • Content Warnings
    • Although the time is brutal, there is no graphic violence. It’s more about psychology. How does the human mind adapt to a world where violence is your next door neighbor? It’s about damage, but also resilience, and finding joy and beauty in the little things.
  • Quotes
    • “I remember that during the war, the school bus skipped our neighborhood. The neighborhood’s alleys were close to the demarcation line and had a dangerous reputation. The bus would stop at Ward’s ice cream parlor at 6:30 every morning and 3:30 every afternoon. By virtue of being on the edge of the zone where the bus didn’t dare go, Ward’s had been turned into a bus stop.”
    • “I remember back when you could still smoke in planes. I remember that during the war, we were short on water, bread, electricity, and gas… but never cigarettes. I remember that every living room had a platter with packs of cigarettes on it. The hostess would offer them to her guests, as if she were passing around chocolates.”
    • “I remember my brother collected bits of shrapnel. I remember that after my brother’s outings with Chucri, he would spread his loot out all over the coffee table. Then he would put the shrapnel away in a basket my mother had given him. I remember that I had taken to leaving my backpack by my bed at night. In my backpack, I had everything I wanted to take with me, if we had to run.”
    • “I remember old Kit Kat wrappers. I remember the three steps before eating: ripping through the glossy red paper, folding back the white tissue paper, and crinkling up the foil.”
    • “I don’t remember the last day of the war. But I remember the first time you could take a real shower.”

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

Where the Line Bleeds

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Drama
  • Plot Summary
    • Upon graduating from a poor high school near New Orleans, twin brothers Joshua and Christophe look for work. Joshua finds it, but Christophe doesn’t, and turns to pot dealing. As Joshua becomes afraid of the path Christophe may be following, and Christophe becomes resentful of Joshua’s good luck, both struggle to keep the relationship that has let them survive this far. 
  • Character Empathy
    • The two protagonists are lovingly detailed. Some of the secondary characters are a little less fleshed out, but on the whole, I liked all of the main characters, even while I felt the need to scream “what are you doing? Don’t do that thing! That won’t end well for you!” 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The pace here is simultaneously luxurious and suspenseful. The book takes time to set up the characters, so you never have to ask “why do I care?” You care because you know Christophe and Joshua, and you know what they’re going to do, and if they don’t get through their shit okay then so help me… and once the book has you in that position, it just lets you stew, for page after page while the tension builds and the climax is inched towards. It’s agony, but god help me if I didn’t love it anyway. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The scenes are full of the kind of sensory details that too many authors neglect. Jesmyn Ward knows that to really put readers into a scene, you shouldn’t just tell them what a thing looks like. We need to know smells, sounds, tastes and textures. I can still remember a scene where their grandmother was preparing shrimp, not because of anything special that happened, but just because I really felt like I was there.
    • Teenage characters who actually feel like dumb teenage boys, while still being incredibly sympathetic. Not many people can pull that off. 
    • No spoilers, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t like the ending and I very much did. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Some fistfights and obviously drug use (mainly alcohol and marijuana). Without going too deep into my personal politics, I think the substance abuse is handled very well; not demonized, not glorified, just portrayed as something people are vulnerable to when they have nothing else in their life to look forward to.
  • Quotes
    • “Christophe peeled the shrimp slowly and carefully: that was his way around her, and it was the exact opposite of his usual demeanor. She knew it for what it was: love.”