Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Book reviews Fiction Indie publisher LGBTQIA+ Memoir Monthly wrap-up Nonfiction

API Heritage Month, Short Story Month, and Random Reads Just Because! It’s a May Reading Wrap-Up

Hello, I am alive and still reading and reviewing books! Life keeps getting more hectic, it seems, but it’s not July yet so here I am with my May wrap up! May was API Heritage Month, so I made a point to read several Asian/Asian America authors in celebration of that and as an excuse to make the world’s tiniest dent in my mountainous TBR. I also branched out genre-wise (for me), including a graphic memoir, zombie fiction, a courtroom drama, and a book in a language other than English (the only other language I can speak, the not-so-useful Danish). Here’s a breakdown of the month:

11 books

  • Authors of color: 7
  • Women/nonbinary or trans: all (11)
  • LGBTQIA+ writers and/or content: 2 (3 if you count Sylvia Plath)
  • Mental or physical illness: 6
  • White: 4
  • Poetry: none

Reading Women prompts fulfilled:

  1. About a woman athlete: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer
  2. Written by a South Asian author: Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob, Monsoon Mansion by Cinelle Barnes

Year of Indies challenge: 2 (Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell- McSweeney’s; Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer- Catapult)

So without further ado, here’s the books I read this month (I mean, last month. Like a full month ago. It’s ok.)

Fiction:

Sylvia-Plath-1.jpg

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

I have never read anything by Sylvia Plath (I know 😬) but this was available at the library and May is also short story month, so hey why not? The audio is only 48 mins so I listened in one go, and found it very compelling. One of the things I love about short stories is how well the form lends itself to using blank space, to saying just enough, and engaging the reader’s own imagination to answer questions. This story does that. Basically Mary boards a train at the urging of her parents, bound for the ninth kingdom, and meets a woman who becomes important. That’s all I’ll say. I recommend this story as a good example of short story structure and a mysterious little gem of a read.

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Sabrina & Corina

This book is one of those dazzling ones, the ones that keep you enthralled with tight structure and the bright petals of atmospheric sentences and characters you care about immediately. Every story in here was a hit for me. Kali Fajardo-Anstine has created something gorgeous. These stories center Indigenous and Chicanx women, lovingly rendered and living their complicated, varied lives in present-day white supremacist America, often building up, laughing with, helping, and loving each other, in families and friendships. They mostly take place in Colorado, and the landscape is a constant presence, which the characters have mixed feelings about but for the reader it feels very grounding. These stories feel like perfect gems, both in craft and in content. Definitely don’t sleep on this one! Can’t wait to read more from this author.

I received an eARC from the publisher, OneWorld, in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.

The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin

Unpassing 2

“Because we weren’t so many, we were so few.”

This is the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family living in Alaska in the 1980s, told from the perspective of 10-year-old Gavin. He lives with his parents, older sister Pei-Pei, and younger siblings Natty and Ruby. The book opens with him contracting meningitis from an outbreak at his school; while he survives, his sister Ruby gets it too and dies. The unraveling that happens in the aftermath of her death is the scaffolding of this story.

First of all, the writing in this book is right up my alley- poetic and lyrical, with some dazzling descriptions of landscape. Lin also does that magical thing where the story seems muted and quiet, even slow, and then completely wrenches the reader’s heart by making them realize they actually fell all the way in love with the characters. That’s how I felt anyway. The family at the center of the story must deal with some extremely heavy burdens, including the loss of a child, unemployment and poverty, and sharply strained relationships with each other. But the love that holds them together is palpable, and the neighbor family that the children befriend are really compelling characters too.

I really loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who likes beautiful language, a setting that’s its own character, stories about family and coming of age, own voices books, and ensemble casts with characters you’ll get invested in.

I received an ARC from FSG in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

May wrap up last ones left alive and Fannie Davis -1

(a few light spoilers ahead) Ok so, I need to preface this review by saying that I am not a fan of anything involving zombies. I respect the culture around zombie stories and the fact that it can contain a lot of depth, but I am a squeamish baby when it comes to violence and death. I’m a sensitive little vegan homo. So I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed a good chunk of this book. There are some very hard to read scenes with zombies and killing and a lot of blood, but in the first half, the story setup was really great.

Orpen was born after the ‘end of the world’ on an island off the coast of Ireland, and was raised in an abandoned village by her badass lesbian moms. They are the only three people there and Orpen grows up never meeting a man. So I’m already into the narrative from this setup. Orpen’s moms, Muireann and Maeve, keep pretty quiet about their former lives in Phoenix City (formerly Dublin) and the society there, which the reader learns a little more about later in the book. They create an idyllic childhood for Orpen, and as she becomes a teenager they start to train her physically and teach her to fear three things: skrake (the name for zombies), other people, and men specifically. But Orpen doesn’t get first hand experience with any of these until she’s a young adult and, through a series of events, ends up trying to find Phoenix City by herself.

She meets three runaways- Cillian, the first man she’s ever seen; Nic, a pregnant woman who ostensibly is in a relationship with Cillian though the baby is not his, as she was a ‘breeder’ in Phoenix City before they ran away; and Aodh, a young girl who somehow ended up with them. It’s here that the story starts to fall apart a little for me. I was so into the idea that a book, especially a zombie book, could be man-less, so I was a little disappointed when one showed up, but it wasn’t until they’d been traveling for a while that I really got annoyed. Somehow in the middle of near starvation, constant threat of death (and undeath) from monsters, crushing grief and no real plan, Orpen needs to fall in love with this dude she barely knows. Why? Can a book exist without this please. The sudden interest in kissing his neck took me right out of the story and I never really found my way back. The fact that he sacrificed himself to save the women, and then somehow managed to not die (?!), and appear out of the blue after Orpen had been picked up by another community of badass women, felt so forced and ridiculous.

That said, this criticism comes from my personal biases, which generally lean far away from cis men. To me there was nothing compelling about Cillian and he flattened Orpen’s character. As for the rest of the book, the pacing wasn’t super even but I think that actually worked for the story. The landscape was really important and Davis-Goff did a great job creating an atmospheric setting. Orpen’s voice was distinct and I enjoyed that, as well as the quieter, more melancholic aspects of the dystopian world. It was a very fast read, definitely a page-turner. The second half was more heavy on the zombies which is another reason I preferred the first half. So I would say, if you like a quick zombie dystopia read that is gloomily atmospheric and *almost* succeeds in subverting the patriarchal narrative, this is a good one to pick up.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Miracle Creek 1

I know you can’t go anywhere without tripping over this book right now, so I decided to see what the hype was about. This book is a wild ride. Angie Kim does a seriously impressive job of managing a huge cast of characters, all with their own stories, flaws, pain, hopes, and secrets. The plot of the novel is a whodunnit and a courtroom drama, and I find this genre/type of story to be a little too melodramatic, and that’s something I felt at times in this book too. I also found some of the language around disability and physical/mental illness to be insensitive and sometimes downright jarring. But! I do feel it was true to the characters, and beyond that, I think the dexterity and skill with which Kim brings her characters to life is truly a wonder. The Yoo family, who really anchor the story, were so well-rendered and their experiences of immigration were written into their character development in such a nuanced but clear way. I would recommend reading this based on that aspect of the story alone, but I also think if you’re drawn to plot-driven books, mysteries, ensemble dramas, and own voices stories that this is worth picking up. I listened on audio and thought the narrator, Jennifer Lim, was really engaging. But the very best part of the audio, and a reason I would suggest getting it in that format if you can, is that Kim’s editor interviews her at the end and hearing that interview enhanced my experience of the book x100. Angie Kim is such a cool human and has done so much!

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace Patty Cottrell 4

[CW: suicide] I’ve had this book on my TBR since I heard Russell at Ink & Paper Blog recommend it last year, and decided to read it this year as part of the AAPI Heritage Month readathon. I’m really glad I did, though it’s not an uplifting read (there are many moments of dark humor though). Helen Moran is eking out an existence as a partially employed caretaker of ‘troubled youth’ in NYC, when she gets a call from an uncle she doesn’t quite remember to tell her that her adoptive brother has died from suicide.

The word ‘adoptive’ is used in every single reference to Helen’s brother and parents, which immediately establishes a sense of distance between her and her family, and even her entire reality. She and her brother, each from a different part of Korea, were adopted by a white midwestern couple and raised in Milwaukee, and the bond they share is one that doesn’t appear to be very deep other than the fact that they share a crucial understanding of the particular isolation of their childhoods. As Helen becomes obsessed with investigating why her brother committed suicide, she really is investigating her own life and how she can live with both her past and the loss of the only person who understood her (even if only partially).

Helen is an unreliable narrator (funny since she repeatedly refers to herself as Sister Reliable); her choices, her occasional narcissism, and her overuse of exclamation points made me frustrated with her character more than once, but it’s clear that this is by design. The reader is not supposed to love the characters; in fact the only person whose flaws are muted are the brother’s. But I was still invested in her journey and compelled enough to finish the book, the ending of which I found satisfying (not an easy feat, especially in a debut novel).

Cottrell is also queer, which is one of the reasons I wanted to read this, and I actually read Helen as asexual and possibly neurodivergent, which made her more interesting to me. But aside from some references to her fixation on ‘LGBT novels,’ there’s nothing explicitly queer about this book. However that does not bother me at all, in fact sometimes subtext is the best choice, especially when the story the author is trying to tell is not about sexuality. This is a novel about grief and disconnect from reality and family dynamics and how people cope. I definitely recommend it! Just be warned that it is very sad at times.

Nonfiction/Memoir:

The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis

May wrap up last ones left alive and Fannie Davis -2

It feels right that I finished this on mother’s day, because the core of this story is about a mother and daughter. It’s also about Black identity, tradition and culture in Detroit in the first half/3/4’s of the 20th century (and in many ways the present), about dreams both real and of the ambitious variety (including some exploration of the American Dream), about capitalism and access, and about what it means to be a family and a community where the members hold each other up. Bridgett M. Davis weaves a tight narrative of her badass mom, a successful Detroit number runner who cared for herself, her family, and her community, while also giving the reader a fascinating history lesson on the numbers game as a Black cultural pillar and clearly illustrating how the establishment of a legal state lottery was rooted entirely in racism. As someone who has never gambled or been interested in gambling, I really learned a lot from this historical context. Beyond that, the story of Fannie Davis and her family is just a really beautiful one- through moments of blissful happiness as well as tragedy, the sense of closeness and love within the Davis family is palpable. I definitely recommend this multifaceted read if you’re at all interested in memoirs that incorporate larger historical/cultural contexts and/or amazing matriarchs.

Monsoon Mansion by Cinelle Barnes

monsoon mansion

This book is such a dramatic and twisty tale, I had to keep reminding itself it wasn’t a novel. I listened to the audio, which I recommend as the author reads it herself. It’s hard to summarize this story, but basically it takes place in the 90s in Manila and a little outside Manila too, where the very young narrator lives with her parents and older brother in an opulent mansion. As she grows into a pre-teen and teenager, her family and everyone in it unravels due to economic hardship, the loss of a child, addiction, and a truly evil manipulative and physically + emotionally abusive man who gaslights the hell out of Cinelle and her mother. Through the extreme difficulties of this adolescence, the the narrator remains steadfastly true to herself, which is one of the best things about this book. She is also extremely close with a servant girl, and although their relationship at times is moving, it’s problematic in the sense that there’s always a power imbalance, even when Cinelle’s material circumstances change dramatically.

The writing in the memoir is beautiful, with gorgeous looping metaphors and imagery. I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for an own voices family drama/coming of age story that also touches on some of the politics of the Philippines.

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Good Talk Mira Jacob

I listened to this as an audiobook, which seems strange for a graphic memoir, but WOW. Not only does it totally work in audio format, but it’s one of the best audiobooks I’ve listened to. It’s got a lot of production value- a full cast, sound effects- which works to translate the extra visual details of a graphic book into aural detail. Beyond that, this book is just really good. In it, Mira Jacob writes with breadth and nuance about race and racism in America, identity, and growing up both on her own childhood and again when she finds herself needing to answer hard questions from her 6-year-old son. Jacob chooses scenes/conversations from throughout her life that sharply illustrate her themes. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

Rough Magic 1

I really love stories about women doing epic things in sport, especially non-team sports (because that’s what I’m into, though I do still love team sports stories). I’m someone who came to endurance sports later in life, and am totally fascinated with the weird alchemy of grit, determination, drive, and physical power that gets people through endurance pursuits. And I’m enamored with the wide-open, splayed-out, nothing-left, raw emotion state that happens at the end of an endurance event. Those finish line tears! Like nothing else.

I picked up this book right now, a week ahead of a huge endurance event of my own, for some inspiration, and I found it. A listless Prior-Palmer, at the age of 19, decided on a whim to register for the Mongol Derby, a 1,000 km horse race across Mongolian grassland. With a mix of youthful confidence, bold ambition, and a lot of things that come up during the journey, she makes her way through this race and [spoiler, but it’s on the jacket] wins it.

Prior-Palmer definitely writes with the voice of an English person who studied history; she references philosophers and historical facts and figures, and carried a copy of The Tempest with her on the ride, often quoting it (to great effect). She also crafts some really gorgeous sentences, landscape descriptions, and some visceral and very real truths about the physical and emotional reality of endurance and how those realities progress over time. I dog-eared and underlined so many passages and lines.

I definitely recommend this book- it’s an adventure story, a sports story, a compelling inner and outer journey. It’s the perfect thing to read before you do something big, but it’s also just a really good book.

I received an ARC of this book from Catapult in exchange for an honest review. Opinions are my own.

En Som Os (Someone Like Us) by Josephine Kuhn and Nanna Elizabeth Hovgaard

En Som Os 1

*English review below*

Hvert forår begynder jeg at blive tiltrukket af det danske sprog igen, nok fordi jeg kan mærke i min krop at nu er det snart tid til at rejse tilbage til Danmark. Min mormor beskriver mine sommerbesøge som ‘at komme hjem,’ dog jeg har aldrig rigtig boede i Danmark (undtaget de 2 år jeg læste på KU og blev kandidat i landbrug- en vild sjov og mærkelig periode i mit liv). Alt det ville sige, at jeg ville gerne fordybe mig selv i dansk, inden jeg igen rejser ‘hjem’ for at besøg min dansk familie og venner til sommer.

Heldigvis har Nanna og Jose skrivet denne fantastisk bog, som jeg kan lytte til. Jeg elsker deres podcast, og den kærlighed jeg har for den er måske ikke helt indlysende- jeg er et queer menneske i USA og meget af deres samtaler handler om hetero sex/relationer. Men jeg bliver altid så rørt at høre de kvinder tale om deres indre liv, og kan relatere helt vild meget til en stor del af hvad de snakker om, fordi jeg har også vokset op en socialiseret kvinde. Udover det, er det vidunderlig at høre 2 kvinder som er så tæt på hindanden, støtter hindanden, og elsker hindanden på højt grad. Mine forhold til min veninder fylder også enormt meget i mit liv, og jeg kunne aldrig undgå dem.

Selve bogen minder meget om podcasten, med lidt mere behind-the-scenes. Den er nemt og hurtig at lytte til (dog der er en del tunge emner, som selvmord og spiseforstyrrelser), og jeg kan højt anbefal den til alle der godt kan lige podcasten, dybt venskab, stærke kompromisløse kvinder som ikke er bang for at blive sårbar, og dem der gerne ville øve deres dansk med at fordybe sig i en fantastisk lydbog 😉

***

Every year in springtime, I find myself drawn to the Danish language again; my body seems to know it’s almost time to go back to Denmark to visit my family. My grandmother calls my summer visits ‘coming home,’ even though I’ve barely lived in Denmark (except for those amazing and strange 2 years where I got a masters in agriculture from Copenhagen University, what a time!). But regardless, part of my need to refresh my Danish, which sadly will never be as good as my English, is watching and listening to Danish tv shows, podcasts, and yes, audiobooks!

I’m a really big fan of Nanna and Josephine’s podcast Fries Before Guys, which might be surprising since I’m a queer gender-questioning human and these are cis women in straight romantic relationships, which they talk about quite a bit. But the real crux of the podcast (and the book) is their deep relationship with each other. I too find that my platonic relationships with other women identified people to be the most fulfilling relationships in my life. Nanna and Jose’s closeness is palpable, and they speak so honestly and freely about every taboo subject you could imagine in such an endearing way. I find myself relating to most of what they say, from mental health, feelings of inadequacy, sex and masturbation, all kinds of body stuff and friend stuff and weird life stuff. And they do it in Danish! Which is so wonderful for me 😉

This book is a lot like the podcast, with a little more behind the scenes stuff. It’s a quick and easy listen (but CW for suicide, eating disorders, and mental illness in general). I highly recommend it to anyone who is into deep friendship, unapologetic women who are open with their vulnerability, and/or who wants to practice their Danish comprehension 😉

That’s it for May reads! Thanks for reading, and I hope you pick up some of these books. If you do, let me know your thoughts!

May wrap up 2

I am an IndieBound affiliate! If you decide to purchase any of the books mentioned by clicking on the links above, I make a small commission that goes toward supporting this blog.

Sarah Neilson
<p>Reading mainly own voices books, usually in the genres of memoir, literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry. I love reading and hope you'll find some great reviews here!</p>

Leave a Reply

Back To Top
%d bloggers like this: