Sunday, September 15, 2019

Red Sister

Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1) by Mark Lawrence (2017)

Eight-year-old Nona is set to hang for murder, but at the last minute she is saved by Abbess Glass, who takes her away to the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Here she is to train in fighting, poisons, and the faith of the Ancestor. However, the family of the man she tried (unsuccessfully) to kill have not forgotten her and will do anything to stop her.

In this world there are special bloodlines, and Nona is hunska, which means that she is extremely fast. Gerants are giants, including the man she tried to kill. Quantals and marjals are able to tap into various types of magic. At Sweet Mercy, Nona learns of a prophecy about a Chosen One with multiple of these bloodlines, and a Shield who is destined to protect the Chosen One.

This all takes place in what appears to be an extended ice age, only a small part of the world habitable. Past civilizations have been lost, but people have manipulated the sun (and/or moon? the details are fuzzy to me now) so it focuses and keeps the Corridor open and habitable. But the sun is dying so they know they don't have a ton of time left. It's a desperate time, many people are starving, and Nona is grateful for the luxuries she finds at Sweet Mercy: a soft bed, hot water, plenty of food at every meal.

At some point, each girl will decide on her focus: Red Sisters are fighters; Grey specialize in espionage, stealth, and poisons; Holy Sisters focus on the faith; and Mystic Witches are those gifted in magic. Each year of training focuses on one of these areas, and during this book Nona is in the Red Class where they learn fighting. There are three books in the series, but I don't know if it's complete.

I found the setting and story pretty fascinating. I'm always drawn to books set in cold climates, and I like stories about someone being taken from their crappy life and set off to train in a special school. It suddenly sounds a lot like Harry Potter, now that I describe it that way! I admired all the young women in this story for their strength, bravery, and loyalty to each other. It wasn't the easiest book to get through, taking me close to two weeks. I don't know if that's just because of how my life was in those two weeks, or if it's actually because of the book. It's fairly dense and doesn't move super fast, but I have no real criticisms about it. The world-building and plot were compelling, and there were passages I re-read because of the beauty and cleverness of the writing. Part of me does want to continue this series so I can find out what happens and learn more about this world, but right now I just need to read some shorter, easier books for a bit.

Red Sister was the final book for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Everything Buddhism Book

The Everything Buddhism Book by Arnie Kozak (2010)

I started this while re-reading The Wise Heart, but luckily they're two very different books so I should be able to keep them straight. I've been meditating for a few years now (I mean, not continuously!) and I'm trying to integrate Buddhist principles into my life more because I'm really starting to think that guy was onto something. Somebody I follow on Twitter was getting suggestions for books to read about Buddhism and this was one that was mentioned.

This really is a little bit of everything about Buddhism. It covers Buddha's life, his teachings, the spread of Buddhism, different types of Buddhism, specific practices, art, and various other topics. Unsurprisingly, there were chapters that I found much more relevant to my interests than other chapters, some I found boring, and some that I didn't really understand. So I read parts of it more intently than other parts.

I've read other books that go over the basics of the philosophy (The Wise HeartBuddhism Without Beliefs) but at this point I still really need to be reminded so it was totally fine to read about that again. I also really liked reading about different types of meditation, art and architecture, tea ceremonies, social activism, and applying Buddhism to daily life. It really helped give me a broad, holistic view of how Buddhism applies to various facets of a person's life and the world. I tend to be pretty socially conscious so I was happy to read the chapter about how beneficial this philosophy can be in terms of environment issues, politics, leadership, and other aspects of social life. The chapter on karma and what it actually means was not only enlightening but very familiar. It's not a magical property whereby if you are mean to somebody you will later be struck by lightning; rather it's more like if you're mean to somebody, you're hurting your relationship with that person and that's going to be bad for you as well.

Chapters I struggled with were those that really delved into the nuances of the different schools of Buddhism, because I had a tough time thoroughly understanding it. Some of the history was also a bit dry for me, especially the overview of how Buddhism spread throughout Asia, with short chapters on each country covered. But it's good information and it made sense to be there.

It took me a while to get through this book, but I found it very helpful and also came away with lots of suggestions for further reading. I feel like a lot of this is going to fall out of my head almost immediately because I'm terrible at retaining information, but hopefully if I read enough on the subject it will really start to stick.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Barracoon

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston (2018)

In 1927, author Zora Neale Hurston interviewed the last person alive who was brought from Africa on a slave ship, but the story wasn't published until last year. Cudjo Lewis was 86 when Hurston interviewed him, and he had experienced a lot in his lifetime. His village was destroyed by another group of African who captured the survivors and held them prisoner until they were sold to white men and brought to America. Lewis then worked as a slave for 5 years or so until he was freed. Life continued to be a struggle for him and his family.

His story is only around 100 pages; the rest of the book contains multiple introductions, prefaces, an afterward, an appendix, glossary, notes, etc. I don't have very much to say about it. I learned a little more about the role other Africans played in the slave trade, at least in this particular instance. I didn't learn much more about slavery, which I had hoped to - I thought I would get more of a first-hand story about the experience but he didn't talk about it much at all.

Hurston let him tell his own story, and I understand and respect that decision. However, he just told the story in a very simple way and that's what we got. Most books show rather than tell, but this one was definitely telling which made it difficult to really get into the story and get much out of it. Even when Lewis told about the deaths of all his children and his wife, it didn't pack the emotional punch it could have had we gotten the opportunity to get to know them first. I hate to criticize this book for not being, essentially, a novel. I do think it's an important story and I'm glad that Hurston was able to capture it. It's an interesting story, but I just didn't get a whole lot out of it.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Red, White and Royal Blue

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (2019), narrated by Ramon de Ocampo

It's 2020 and the son of the first female U.S. President falls in love with the Prince of Wales. Alex Claremont-Diaz has long loathed Prince Henry, but when they get into a scuffle at a royal wedding and spectacularly knock over the wedding cake, it's a PR nightmare that can only be solved by a fake friendship. The two  young men must pretend to be good friends, but soon they find they are becoming actual friends, and then more.

There is no way I can do justice to this book. I can't convey how charming both Alex and Henry are, or how much I adored Alex's close friendship with his sister June and the VP's daughter, Nora. Or how much I loved the opportunity to live, even briefly, in a world in which a woman had won the 2016 presidential election and did not incite the rise of white nationalism. I was even able to laugh at the storyline that involved the compromise of a private email server.

Even once Alex and Henry figured out that they were attracted to each other, there were still hurdles. On Alex's end, that was his mother's bid for re-election and the potential scandal of his relationship with the Prince. On Henry's end, it was his role as potential heir to the throne, responsibility to provide more heirs, and the deeply conservative tradition of the royal family. It's a romance so you know they'll get through it, and there's a lot of fun in seeing how that will happen.

Ramon de Ocampo expertly narrated the story, infusing personality and heart and humor. Early on when their friendship was still fake, Alex added Henry to his phone contacts as HRH Prince Dickhead [poop emoji] and it was hilarious hearing that read during every text conversation, even after they fell in love. Alex never changed it and so the narrator continued reading texts that began with "HRH Prince Dickhead poop emoji" which cracked me up. There were so many little details like that.

The biggest problem with this book is the lack of a comma in the title after "White." Other than that, it's pretty much perfect. It is adorable and life-affirming and uplifting and funny and sweet. I picked it up because I heard so much about it and was looking for more books similar to those by Becky Albertalli - this was a great one to fill that need. Now I just need to find more like it!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Mrs. Everything

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (2019)

This decades-long family saga opens in 2015, with just a couple of pages letting you know that Jo's breast cancer is back and it's probably not good this time. You learn little else, except that she has a wife who isn't named, and a few daughters, who are. After the opening, it begins again in the 50s when Jo is a kid living with her parents and sister, Bethie. Jo is the difficult one who doesn't quite fit in and wants to be a writer rather than a wife and mother. Bethie is practically perfect in every way, always behaving the way her parents expect her to.

We go through formative events in both sisters' lives, and watch how it changes them and the resulting directions their lives take. They both have complicated relationships with their mother, Sarah, whose own life appears very confined. Jo wrestles with her sexuality and Bethie struggles with the effects of sexual assault, neither of which are easy to deal with, especially in the time period in which they first come about. Both women have relationships that are unconventional in some way, and of which their mother is not supportive.

As the novel spans decades we see various cultural movements and trends, including hippie flower children and the proliferation of 1980s home exercise videos. Some criticize the timing of certain styles and other cultural references, saying they weren't showing up at the right time, but I didn't notice that and I'd be surprised if Weiner didn't research styles and trends while writing this. Another criticism was the inconsistencies - for example, early in the book the girls' father worked for Ford and bought the latest model every year, but later in the book when this is referred to, it says Chevrolet. There were a couple of things of this nature, but this is about the editing not the writing so they felt pretty minor.

Overall, it was a pretty engrossing family saga and I was fascinated by the twists and turns that Bethie's and Jo's lives took and how their relationship changed and grew over time. Despite complications and fights and setbacks, the sisters really took care of each other. One of my favorite things was how, when they were growing up, Jo would tell Bethie fairy tales in which Bethie was the heroine and it gave her self-confidence that she was able to draw on later when she really needed it. I just felt like there was a lot of thought put into this book and in turn it gave me a lot to think about.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Wolves of Winter

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson (2018)

After nuclear war and a widespread deadly flu, Lynn lives in the Yukon with what's left of her family. She's in her early 20s, great with a bow and arrow, and pretty fearless. She misses her dad a lot and is kind of tired of being cold all the time and eating nothing but potatoes, carrots, and whatever they manage to kill. Now, after years of seeing no other humans but those in their makeshift settlement, a stranger appears and changes everything.

Jax arrives with little explanation, obviously hiding something, yet he seems trustworthy. It's not surprising though that where there's one newcomer, others will follow. Soon Lynn and her family feel like they are in serious danger from a world they thought they had escaped.

I was concerned about reading this immediately after another post-apocalyptic novel, The Lightest Object in the Universe, but it's very different story. I'm happy to say that they're both ultimately hopeful though. But The Wolves of Winter took place in an isolated area, so there's no rebuilding of society - in fact, there was an avoidance of society. Lynn's family moved from Chicago to Eagle, Alaska to the Yukon Territory to get away from everything when the world started going wrong. The nuclear wars were devastating enough, but it was the flu that really drive them out into the wilderness. They had no connection with any civilization and they were happy that way. Well, Lynn always knew she would end up leaving - she wanted to go find out where there were people and what was happening in the world. However, it turns out that there's a lot she doesn't know about the reasons her family left the city in the first place.

This was on my list for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. Now I realize it shouldn't have qualified because it was published in 2018, but it had been on my TBR list for more than a year because I added it pre-publication. Well, in my own head it counts. As a post-apocalyptic novel and one that takes place in a cold climate, it hits a couple of marks for me and I'd be very interested in a sequel.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Lightest Object in the Universe

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele (2019)

Hooray! A new post-apocalyptic novel! I first heard about this one from Kirkus Reviews, which said this about it:

"...given the current state of our deeply divided, heavily armed nation, it takes a stretch to imagine that, in the event of total international disaster, so much of the population would cheerfully turn to manual labor and generosity. It’s pretty to think that a global economic, political, and technological collapse could be solved by bike co-ops, backyard chickens, and a radio show about a homegrown superhero, plus a little true love, but this novel just doesn’t make it plausible."

My reaction? Sign me up! I'm happy to read a book about the collapse of civilization that has people rebuilding and helping each other rather than tearing each other apart. I've had enough of our deeply divided, heavily armed nation. Bring on the backyard chickens!

There are two primary characters: Carson, a teacher on the East Coast, and Beatrix, an activist and organizer on the West Coast. As things were getting dire, Carson promised Beatrix that if everything collapsed he would make his way to her. Then things collapse, and he set out on the road. Meanwhile, Beatrix had just returned from a stint in Central America and is putting her community organizing skills to work in her own neighborhood. There's this religious leader named Jonathan Blue broadcasting over the airwaves to attract people to the Center, where he promises all sorts of abundance. He's the only thing on the radio and Beatrix wants to counter his rhetoric with helpful information about growing vegetables, fixing things, raising chickens, canning, etc so she sets out to start her own radio station.

I love post-apocalyptic novels of all kinds, and this one felt to me like a cross between The Dog Stars and Station Eleven. That's really saying a lot, and I don't want you think it's necessarily as wonderful as either of those because I don't think it's quite as magical as either of them but it's a pretty solid 4 stars for me. It's not perfect - for instance, there are a lot of homeless people and I don't understand why. A lot of people were killed off by flu and a lot of other people left for elsewhere so surely there are empty houses and apartments? No need to live in your car! It also could have used a proof reader as there were a few noticeable errors. But it was a compelling story about the different ways people handle the collapse of society, and the hope that brings so many of them together to build a better future.