Tag Archives: diverse books

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

Changing My MInd

What It’s About

Assorted essays, written for various occasions by award winning author Zadie Smith.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are some books you read because you want to learn a particular lesson, and others you read because they are fun, and some books you read because they feel like a friend. This is a good friend book. Reading it feels like going out for a cup of coffee with the author, and rambling on about literature and movies and politics and places she’s travelled to. In terms of content, I did get a lot out of this book. It convinced me to hurry up and read Middlemarch already, reshaped my understanding of the whole “death of the author” debate, and gave me a new way to frame how I approach writing (I’m, apparently, a macro-planner, rather than a micromanager). But it’s not a book that you go into knowing what you’re going to get out of it. You read it because Zadie Smith is a person worth listening to, even when she herself isn’t sure what she thinks.

The book is titled Changing My Mind with good reason. While she has strong opinions, she is also, like most interesting people, in a constant state of re-evaluating them. Many of these essays are almost short stories of how her thinking has evolved, as new things occur to her, as somebody points something out, or as something unexpected happens. At times she almost comes across as intellectually ostentatious, but then reveals a very English self-deprecation. You like hearing what she thinks, even when you disagree, because you don’t feel frustrated. Instead, you feel that, if you were to stand in front of her and make a counterpoint, she’d listen with interest and keep talking it over with you.

These essays all have a meandering, conversational feeling to them. Sure, they have topics and themes and all that literary stuff, but she can start out quoting Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and end up talking about Barack Obama as a symbol of our changed expectations for leaders in an era of globalization. But it all hangs together, because those are both people who engage in code-switching; who pick up one style of speaking and then learn another. And that connection is interesting, because of what that says about identity, and how we judge the identities of others, and how willing we are to let people have multiple identities, and when the insistence on multiple identities becomes its own way to condense your own personhood, and…..

I found it all great stuff to think about, and I think you will too.

Content Warnings

She alludes to adult content, from violence to suicide to sex to former child soldiers in Liberia. She avoids being graphic, and often it seemed not that she was being delicate out of some sensitivity, but because she had interesting things to say that didn’t need to plunge you into the visceral experience in order to say them. In other words, you’re probably good.


The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Mistress of Spices

What It’s About

In a quiet little Indian bodega, an elderly enchantress works her subtle magic on her customers, through the spices she sells.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I love those little shops that feel a little bit magical, and I love the idea of magic being all around us, working subtly. So, if this had only been a series of anecdotes about the customers and the spices, I would love loved it. I would have rejoiced in the ideas of subtle actions having tremendous ripples, and ordinary problems having the same import as grand quests. And this book did give me all of that, guaranteeing a positive review. It just also gave me a whole lot more than that.

In addition to all the little stories woven throughout, Tilo, the Mistress of Spices herself, has her own story. Her backstory is not what I expected, but it was brilliant and set up a whole adventure and character arc of her own. I won’t give it away, but I will say she is among my favorite protagonists of all time.

The world itself was also beautiful and extremely cool. I’ve heard it said that if you want magic to solve your characters problems, it needs rules, but if you want magic to create problems, it needs to be mysterious. In this world, the magic is somehow both at once. The spices have their associated powers and are each good for different things, but at the same time, they collectively have a will and mind of their own. It was brilliant and made for a unique and stunning fantasy world.

Then there’s the prose; beautiful and meandering, simple and philosophical. It got me thinking about fate, destiny, will and choices. I felt I was being prompted to ask questions rather than fed questions, while at the same time I was given satisfying conclusions. The ideas interacted with the plot like, well, like a well spiced dish.

All in all, this book had layer after layer to it, each one making it better and gripping me more intensely. As I reached the last pages, I was completely oblivious to the world. I was sitting in my car, waiting to meet with a friend, and not only did I not notice when the friend arrived, but I did not notice when she repeatedly banged on my window.

She forgave me, on the condition that I loaned her the book when I finished.

Content Warnings

She sees flashes of other characters lives, including times when they have been beaten, bullied or sexually abused. Some of the physical violence is on the graphic side.

How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

How to be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick

What It’s About

A cancer survivor writes an in-depth etiquette book for those with chronically ill loved ones.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Given the title and subject matter of this book, you could be forgiven for thinking it has niche market, which you are probably not in. Now that I’ve read it, I disagree. I think it is a good book to read if you want to understand the perspectives of people in hard circumstances. It think it is a good book if you spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the world a kinder, more empathetic place. And, frankly, because everybody will probably have a sick friend someday, it’s a good book to read just in case.

I think one question that is incredibly hard to answer, in modern times, is “how to be a genuinely kind person?” It’s hard to ask, for that matter, because even to ask it is to raise insecurities. And I don’t think modern society is creating some kind of horrid post-manners hellscape from which decency will never emerge again. Nor do I think we need to reclaim antiquated norms in order to be nice again. We have come up with a new society. We need to invent new rules to go along with them.

I’ve read some attempts at inventing new rules, and a lot of them have frustrated or upset me. They have been too married to the author’s limited experiences; that one person takes how they would like to be treated and projected it on the entirety of modern culture. What I love about Letty Cottin Pogrebin is that she does not just give a list of ways she would love to be treated. She talked to her fellow cancer patients, and reached out to people with different health problems, and created her book from an aggregate of experiences. She talks about things that some patients appreciate and others don’t. She offers suggestions of things to offer or ask about, and tips on how to recognize when you are tasking a sick person with too many questions. She lists of things that hardly any sick or disabled person wants to hear. She goes into the fine art of caring for a sick person’s caregiver. She explains why, barring a few special circumstances, health advice is rarely appreciated but ice cream nearly always is.

On top of that, the prose style is simply delightful. She has a fantastic sense of humor that is equal parts snark and self-deprecation, and at the same time the whole book feels very warm and caring. It was like hanging out with your cool great-aunt; the politically active one who drinks wine and knit you a Hogwarts scarf that one Christmas. The great-aunt who knew which house colors to use, because she gets you.

It’s not only a fantastic primer on how to help sick people, but a good framework for how to talk about kindness and empathy in general, and frankly a really fun read.

Content Warnings

There’s not a lot to be afraid of here. She does mention some potentially disturbing medical conditions, but keeps a good balance between frank and tactful, so even if you’re easily grossed out by hospital stuff you’ll probably be okay. Honestly, the biggest content warning I can issue is for language. As an author, her voice is not one you would usually associate with profanity, but every so often she likes to make the point that, for someone in real pain, sometimes you just gotta unleash your inner sailor. I really liked that.

Legend, by Marie Lu


What It’s About

A dystopia where the United States has turned into a totalitarian dictatorship and children are subjected to eugenic trials. In this world, June, the Republic’s military prodigy, goes on a manhunt for a Robin Hood-like rebel, and in the process learns more than she wanted to about the world she is living in.

Why I Think You’d Like It

First of all, I really enjoyed both protagonists. I didn’t lose sympathy for June despite the ways she was a tool for a corrupt institution. I also thought Day, the rebel, hit a good balance between heroic figure and ordinary human. He wasn’t just a cunning rogue; he had clear vulnerabilities and limitations, right from the first chapter.

This is in many ways a relationship novel. Not gonna say what kind of relationship, because spoilers, but the characters are well matched, with a nice blend of contrasts and similarities. Their perspectives and skill sets are in opposition, but both are observant, logical, driven by family yet coolly devoted to justice. The interplay between their different agendas and natural kinship makes for fantastic scenes. There wasn’t a single point where the dynamic was driven by a contrived miscommunication or other such device. Everything that happened between them unfolded naturally and proceeded from what had been established about their characters.

Also, the world felt messy and human in a way that I liked. I feel like, in the YA dystopia subgenre, there’s a pressure to have some high concept gimmick in your world. Many of these are genuinely clever, but sometimes they are so tidily conceptual, they stop feeling like a world that arose from human failings. This world has verisimilitude. No tricks, just bad human beings who gained far too much power over other human beings.

The pacing moved perfectly; slow enough for me to adjust to each twist and new revelation, but fast enough that I was always hooked. The exposition was nicely interwoven with the plot as well. And, while it is the first of a trilogy, the central conflict is given a satisfying resolution. There is room for continuing adventures, but you aren’t left with the feeling that the climax has been left off just to force you to buy another book. It’s an exciting, satisfying adventure, so if you are into the dystopia YA genre and haven’t tried this book yet, you should!

Content Warnings

Violence, fights, blood, scary plague victims…. the usual dystopic stuff. Nothing unexpectedly graphic though.

Black Self-Determination, by V. P. Franklin

Black Self Determination

What It’s About

An early history of resistance and achievement by African-Americans, from the antebellum era to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.

Why I Think You’d Like It

If you’ve read many conventional history books, the agency of Black Americans erased or downplayed. Many kids grow up thinking of them as largely helpless and ignorant up until the days of Martin Luther King. This book is one of the most thorough challenges to that notion. It uncovers a wealth of original sources that were long ignored by white historians, and tells the history of Black emancipation from their own cultural perspective.

Rather than being a simple linear history, it takes on history subject by subject. It starts with the work of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, and puts them in the context of a contentious period of self-discovery. He shows how their perspectives didn’t align with the experiences of many freed slaves, which is context that I never got when I learned about these men.

It goes on to talk about the cultural history of Black religion, education, music. It outlines core values of the early Black community, such as freedom, education and self-determination. It especially argues how they were developed as tools to survive slavery and how they evolved to empower and strengthen their communities as slavery ended only to bring new challenges.

It is incredibly thorough, both in its scope and in its cited sources, and I sorely needed to read it. For anyone looking to unwhitewash their understanding of history, I can’t recommend it enough.

Content Warnings

Quotes periodically from writings of Black people on lynchings, beatings and other acts of violence that they witnessed or experienced. Some descriptions are fairly graphic.

Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin

Starry River of the Sky

What It’s About

A runaway named Rendi gets stranded in a town with no moon. There he meets a mysterious storytelling guest, who unveils secrets about the ancient wrongs that left their marks on the town, and how the boy can help to erase them.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is an excellent companion to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I think anybody who likes one would like the other. After all, who can get enough of little kids going on quests in beautiful magical lands? Not me, that’s for sure!

Like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, this book is full of stories within stories. The folklore adds color and depth to the world, but they also hold clues to the resolution of the protagonist’s question. Once you have read both you will also see ties between each other, but honestly you can read them in either order. This one was written second but takes place first, so I suppose it’s technically a prequel, but the main connection is simply that they take place in the same world.

As much as I liked Minli, I liked Rendi even more. He actually started out as quite the spoiled brat, but in the fun way where he starts growing as a person almost immediately, and each chapter gives him more depth and nuance. For such a short, simple book, there are beautiful layers, both to his character and the ideas and world that are built around him. He’s not the only one with an interesting character arc either, and those who don’t evolve have some other interesting secret to be unveiled.

The magical elements were absolutely captivating. This is a marvelous, enchanting world that I was thrilled to spend some time in. It’s a great story for kids who want to be transported, and adults who want to rekindle their childlike wonder.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

The Wrath and the Dawn/The Rose and the Dagger, by Renee Ahdieh

Wrath and the Dawn

What It’s About

A magical retelling of the Arabian Nights, with love triangles, political intrigue and ancient curses.

Why I Think You’d Like It

When I was a kid, it was easy for books to sweep me up. As soon as I picked up a book, I would get lost in the world. I would care about the characters so deeply that I would periodically close books and whisper to the spines, begging the pages to not kill off this character and please make sure this one evil jerk gets punished. I’d yell at them and curse the author’s name if they ended on cliffhangers, and then run off to get the very next book. Growing up has brought more good than bad, but I really miss that feeling of total immersement. Books can still make me feel that way, but some I enjoy more cerebrally, and others gradually earn it. Suspension of disbelief has become more elusive.

This book brought back that feeling almost instantly.

The protagonist, Sharzad, is simultaneously larger than life and intimately relatable. She is fierce, brave, brash, clever and beautiful, but she has more than enough moments of short sightedness and human failings. You want her to win because she has good intentions and an admirable strength of will. You’re scared she won’t because she is ultimately human just like us. Khalid, the young caliph who she marries to stop him from murdering his nightly brides, is a great character as well. Renee Ahdieh does a fantastic job hinting that there will be a big reveal of how he has been compelled to become a murderer, and in the meantime characterizing him as flawed but longing to break free of his crimes. Long before you know why, you want there to be a reason that will let you like him, and the reveal hits that perfect blend of surprising and inevitable. Lesser authors have failed to make less monstrous characters relatable, but you care about Khalid. The supporting cast is fantastic as well. I can’t reveal too much about them without spoilers, but every one starts out fascinating and only become more so as the story fleshes them out.

The setting is marvelously rich and magical. The pacing will stop you from putting this book down for a moment longer than necessary. The resolution is satisfying… once you get to the second book, that is. The Wrath and the Dawn wraps up several major plot threads but does end on a cliffhanger, which The Rose and the Dagger resolves perfectly. That’s why I am recommending both books together. It seems unfair not to warn you that, once you pick up the first book, you will absolutely have to read the second.

But hey, who says that’s a bad thing?

Content Warnings

Mostly violence. There are sword fights, assassination attempts and references to a past suicide.

There is some sexual content, but despite the source material it is all consensual. In the first few pages, Sharzad believes that Khalid will expect her to sleep with him, but Khalid makes it clear that she does not have to make herself available to him. She does continue with her plan, because she intends to use her sexuality along with her stories to end the slaughter. It is a conflicted choice, but it is unambiguously her choice. There’s also a brief scene where she is harassed while in disguise on the street, but that ends poorly for the harassers.

Also, the only drawn out, sensual scenes are the ones where consent is not only present, but enthusiastic.

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

What It’s About

The story of Darling, a mischievous Zimbabwean pre-teen in a shanty town where the adults no longer know what to do with themselves.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is a beautiful, engaging, heartbreaking novel. It tells the Darling’s story in sporadic anecdotes of trials and misadventures. In a way, it reminded me of an Upside Down version of Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables; it has the same episodic structure, the same cast of recurring friends and enemies, the same sense of childhood mischief. But of course the mischievous episodes involve stealing guavas to ward off starvation, seeing adults lose their grip on reality, parents dying of AIDS, and pregnant friends who are barely old enough to be called teens. In Darling’s life, the horrific and the diverting are all mixed up together. Innocence and corruption are experienced side by side.

Darling’s narrative voice is distinctive and fascinating. I love some of the metaphors she comes up with, and how her phrasing evolves through the story. I loved the way she never apologized for her perspective, or tried to make it more comfortable for a Western reader. She bluntly states her mind and takes it for granted that this is simply how things are.

That was especially interesting during her childhood stories. I often thought, “this is how kids think. They don’t censor. They don’t apologize. They just wonder why the rest of the world is doing such a bad job conforming to their expectations.”

It got a little more dissonant as we got into her adolescence, and she immigrates to America.  I did expect her to become a bit more empathetic more quickly. In retrospect, I like that she didn’t. To clarify, she is not a mean or heartless protagonist. She does care about the well being of others. It is more that, while she gets better at the adult hypocrisy of acting how she is expected to act, she has trouble grasping the shape of another person’s suffering. If someone endured something she could directly compare to her own struggles, she would care, and care deeply. But if someone’s pain had nothing to do with her own experiences, (a teenager with an eating disorder, for example) Darling’s reaction is usually anywhere from annoyance to scorn to anger. I don’t think that made her a bad character. It made her complex, realistic and interesting. If she was frustrating at times, she was always frustrating in thought provoking ways.

The only downside is that it did make the last third of the book a little less fun, but again, I think that was honest and smart. Part of the point is that immigration did not magically solve all of her problems, and we got to see her learn that. The only thing I wish is that we had seen her press on to a level

I thought it was among the most interesting and well crafted books I’ve read. It’s probably a love it or hate it book, and if you’re interested in immigration stories that are equally brilliant but a little less dark I’d recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But if nothing I’ve said so far has put you off, you will probably love it.

Content Warnings

Violence, sex, profanity, references to bodily functions, physical emotional and sexual abuse… and of course all of that is witnessed by children, if it does not happen directly to them. It’s a book for those with strong stomachs.

Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber

What It’s About

An epic bildungsroman about a young girl’s journey from fugitive to folk hero, set in a future where space is colonized by Caribbean peoples.

Why I Think You Will Like It

God, there are so many levels on which I want to recommend this, it is honestly hard to pick where to start.

First there’s the sci-fi coolness level. This is a fucking awesome world. You’ve got your androids, your nanotechnology, your pocket dimensions and your aliens, all well thought and neatly integrated into the coolest fucking neo-Caribbean culture. The dialect and carnivals and food and clothing all make for a spin on space opera that I desperately want to see more of. This was my first taste of Afrofuturism and I got hooked, in the best way.

Then there’s how it handles abuse and trauma. Tan-Tan is a fun protagonist, full of spark and wit and ferocity. She’s a perfect blend of larger-than-life enough to be thrilling, but flawed enough to be relatable. In her childhood you see the makings of a rogue on par with Han Solo or Jack Sparrow. At the same time, people don’t become that devilishly tough without surviving some absurdly scary shit first. This is a hard balance to portray; how to be honest about the pain of trauma survival without losing the fun of a thrilling adventure? Not only does Nalo Hopkinson pull this off, but she pulls it off with some subject matter that even very skilled Serious Literary Authors can fumble badly. (see content warnings for details, and some mid-book spoilers)

And then there’s just the story as a story. It starts out fascinating, takes several twists, builds to a point where you can’t see a way out and are internally bargaining for at least a bittersweet ending, and then explodes into a perfectly satisfying eucatastrophe. This book is not just science fiction at its best; it is storytelling at its best, period.

With all that, I still have not mentioned how it handles imperialist colonization tropes, or how the aliens as individuals are some of the most relatable characters but as a group feel genuinely alien, or the beauty of the prose, or how the folk tales within the novel are beautifully atmospheric… gah, just go read this book! Read! This! Book!

Content Warnings

It’s definitely a grown-up book. There are fight scenes, alcoholism, nudity, and lots of swearing. Also, by way of a trigger warning, there is child abuse, including sexual. The actual scenes are brief, but realistic and scary.

I’m almost reluctant to admit to that last, because if I had known I might have been more shy about this book, given that I picked it up wanting a fun adventure (which I got!). Sexual abuse and fun adventure stories don’t usually go together, or if they do it’s because the victims were used as cheap props to artificially up the stakes.

One in three women and more men than you’d think survive some form of sexual assault, and in the real world that does not mean their lives have to be doom and gloom forever. The problem with addressing that in fiction is that it can too easily turn into dismissing or understating the pain. But it is equally a problem to build up the expectation that a survivor of sexual assault is Ruined Forever(TM)! It’s just another thing that makes coming out as a survivor more difficult. People are genuinely baffled to meet a survivor who is not Ruined Forever(TM)!

This is one of the few books I’ve read that actually has an honest, painful, doesn’t-happen-in-one-epiphany recovery for a survivor of abuse. It does this while also giving you a fantastic fantasy romp. If sexual assault is a major trigger for you, probably don’t read this book. But if it’s not, give it a try. Books like this need to exist.

Ugly, by Robert Hoge


What It’s About

Robert Hoge was born with a facial tumor and deformed legs. This is his memoir of a childhood of surgeries and misadventures, bullying and friendships, growing up and ultimately learning to love his body and his face.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I’m probably supposed to write about how inspiring and moving and educational this is, but honestly, I want start off recommending it for its humor. It’s a book about surgeries and prejudice and kids being assholes, but it’s also about spitballs, sports, what happens when you cross clunky prosthetics with a bicycle and a beehive. It’s about getting stuck in the mud and rescued by a nun, and refusing to learn from that experience, because mud is fun.

And there’s sad stuff too. When he was born, his mother was terrified to look at him, overwhelmed by the prospect of raising him, and has to go through a journey before she decides to take him home. Too many stories either erase or excuse the ableist reactions of a parent who first has a disabled child. I love that this story is there, without sugar coating, and also that he can talk about his mother overcoming that reaction without excusing it. That story was part of his normal; and not, thankfully, something used to make him feel guilty or grateful. It was a story of how his mother almost made the biggest mistake of her life, and missed out on a beloved son. In that one story there’s so much to learn about ableism and societal pressures and family and how love isn’t just a feeling but also a choice. And it’s just one of many equally thought provoking stories in the book.

I think there’s a huge need for well-rounded books about disability. His story is full of sad parts and happy parts, but it’s neither a doom and gloom navel gazing memoir nor a sugary mess of Inspiration!(TM) It’s an honest book about an ordinary person being dealt a really crappy starting hand, making the best of it, and going on to have a life of his own.

Content Warnings

None; even the descriptions of the surgeries and bullying hit a good balance of honest, but not graphic or immersive. This is probably because the book is actually aimed at middle grade readers, though I recommend it for anyone of any age.