Female Authors

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Wow you guys. This book.

It’s pretty fair to say that I actually didn’t know much of what this book was about. It’s been on my radar for ages, and the excitement of basically everyone on the internet exploded when it came out last week, so I had to go and get it for myself. I knew that it was vaguely about a black religious community, but that was about it. I sat down this weekend and devoured it.

When Nadia is a high school senior muddling through grief after losing her mother, she starts seeing Luke, a college football star working in a diner because of an unfortunate injury. Their romance doesn’t last but they have a secret, something Nadia doesn’t even share with her best friend Aubrey, and that secret will follow them through early adulthood and warp their relationships in ways they could never have anticipated. They all have their flaws, but you can’t help but feel for each one of these characters as they navigate through what life has dumped in their laps.

So, the secret is such a big thing, but I don’t want to say what it is in case anyone reading this has avoided that detail so far and doesn’t want it to be spoiled. But I very, very much loved the topic and the many ways in which it was discussed and dissected. But the other big piece of this book is the concept of mothers. It’s about how our mothers affect our lives, whether they are present or absent. It’s about the different shape that mothers or mothering can take – it can be a caring sister, or a doting daughter, or one of those old wise ladies at church praying for the community. It can be the ways in which you choose to be there for friends and family, it can be knowing the difference between right and wrong, it can be doing the hard thing even if doesn’t feel right. Mothering can be the decision not to be a mother, or the decision to actively pursue motherhood no matter what.

Brit Bennett did an absolutely wonderful job in this book. There were so many quotes that I jotted down to muse over later, that lend insight on blackness, and sadness, and womanhood. I absolutely cannot wait to see what she puts out next, but whatever it is I’m here for it. She’s going on my auto-buy list.

Have you read it yet? What did you think?

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Fledgling by Octavia Butler

 

This is definitely one of those “Why did I wait so long to read this??” books. I picked up Fledgling from a used bookstore a couple years ago, but it’s just been sitting on my shelf. I added it to my TBR for this month because I wanted to read something I’ve had on my shelves for a while, and plus it was about vampires so perfect for Halloween-time, right? Well, it was not even remotely scary so maybe not a great Halloween pick, but it was still a great read.

Fledgling is about a black girl named Shori. She’s a 53-year old vampire who looks like she’s about 10 or 11, but she doesn’t know any of this about herself. At the book’s opening, she wakes up barely alive – blind and burned, with a crushed skull. She eventually heals, but with no memory of who she is or what has happened to her. She comes to realize that she is a vampire, an experimental, genetically modified one who is unique in her ability to be in the daylight, and that she is the only survivor of a brutal attack on her family. Shori has to set out to learn about herself, about what it means to be a vampire, and who is launching the attacks against her people.

I kind of very much love Octavia Butler’s version of vampire lore. I don’t want to spoil much, but I think most of it makes a lot more sense than the traditional folklore. She does some unique things with their existence, abilities, and traditions that I haven’t seen done elsewhere. I think that you’ll like this a lot if you enjoy the mythology of vampires more than the action and gore of vampire stories. But for me, that’s only one part of what made this so interesting.

Race plays a secretly big role in this book, and Butler uses it to make some commentary on the way the concept of race exists in our world, through her use of genetic modification in Shori’s creation to how insidious racial bias is. I had a great, long conversation with my husband about the race dynamics in Fledgling, especially after a pretty critical review I happened across online when I was about ⅔ through the book. And of course, Octavia uses this simple plot – who is trying to hurt Shori and how can they be stopped – as a backdrop to play with concepts of sexuality, consent, power, family, justice, and intimacy. I wish that I had read this with a book club because there’s just so much to be picked apart here. I love it when novels give me a lot to chew over.

Have you read it? Thoughts?

You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson

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“Society doesn’t exactly make life terribly easy for black women – and yes, life is hard for everyone – but black women have their own unique battles, a Molotov cocktail of racism and sexism.”

I requested this on Edelweiss because I love funny-lady-memoir books, and ones by WOC are especially hard to come by, so thanks so much to PRH for approving my request! And it’s a double-win, because Phoebe Robinson is going to be at Book Riot Live and now I am extra psyched to possibly meet her in person. (We’ll see how that goes, I’m shy.)

The range of topics in these essays is broad, but man I hope she writes more books because I could read her thoughts on all the things. She’s hilarious and goes off on weird rambling tangents and it’s awesome. Basically, if you like funny-lady books and are even mildly interested in commentary on race and gender, then you’ll enjoy this much. And if you don’t get why you shouldn’t be touching (or asking to touch) a black person’s hair, then you desperately need to read this and many more books. This might be a good starting point.

Fave parts!

  • Why she loves boats.
  • When she talks about her Not-So-Guilty Pleasures and is talking about the famous dudes she’d like to sleep with, and this comes up: “Sure, he’s got biceps and triceps for days. Of course, eing incredibly talented at banging on drums all day means that he is most likely to put his thing down, flip it, and reverse it. But his name is Larry. Y’all. I can’t call out “Larry” during sex. I’m not about that life.”
  • She talks about the hyper-awareness that all black people live with and how exhausting that is.
  • She writes a list of demands to the First Female President, which includes forcing the world to become comfortable with the word “vagina”.
  • She TEARS APART the white lesbian couple who sued the sperm bank they used for giving them a black baby, because having a black child made their lives hard, partly because they live in a racist neighborhood. I enjoyed her critique of those women SO HARD.
  • She talks about coded language, which is often racist but white people will cling to it and claim that their use of those words in that context wasn’t racist. (AKA, that co-worker who told me to avoid a certain suburban apartment complex because it was “ghetto”. What she meant was that there were a lot of non-white people living there. That’s it.) “Coded language allows the speaker to deny any sort of responsibility unless their back is against the wall, in which they’ll generally offer up a paltry ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ non-apology.”
  • Her speaking about the movie Kingsman and how the ending was just stupid and ridiculous. (And I agree, it kind of ruined the whole tone of the movie.)

Go get it and go read it! And then go on YouTube and watch her Woke Bae videos, which are delightful.

Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood

 

I definitely grabbed this book because Mindy Kaling Instagrammed it. Confusingly, she seems to have deleted that post, but luckily nothing dies on the internet and there’s a screenshot out there for me to give as proof:

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Maybe she deleted it because she’s planning on faking her death and realized she might not want to give it away? Too late Mindy Kaling, sorry. Anyways, yes that was my main reason for deciding to get the audiobook and as usual, my kind of superficial reasoning paid off.

Elizabeth Greenwood sets out to learn about how to fake one’s death while feeling some serious stress about the amount of her student loans. I kind of wish she had gone into how our culture has gotten seriously out of control with the “you must go to college even if you don’t know what you want to go to college for” mindset we seem to force onto teenagers, therefore pressuring them into taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for a weak-ass Liberal Arts degree that won’t help them get a single job, but I digress. She owes a shit ton of money and is facing a lifetime of trying to pay it back, when someone jokes “Or you could fake your own death” and she thinks HOLY SHIT YES I COULD FAKE MY DEATH! And then she decided that researching pseudocide and writing a book about it was probably a smarter choice overall, and here we are.

So, the beginning of this book was crazy interesting. You know those books that lead you to sprinkle random facts from it into conversations even if it’s not even closely related to the topic you were discussing? Yeah I had that going on. SO fun! The early chapters focus a lot on her interviews with people who work in some way with disappearing people. Frank Ahearn is a “privacy consultant” and an expert in helping people disappear, and he talks a lot about the various reasons someone might not want to be found, and the major ways in which people trip up and get themselves found. Since such a big reason for pseudocide is insurance fraud, she also talks with Steve Rambam, who provides insight into how pseudocide comes into play in bogus insurance claims. Her work with these two men was really in depth, and are probably my favorite parts of the book.

The book starts to slip a bit when she talks to John Darwin, known (apparently) for faking his death and succeeding, until he turned himself in six years later. While I’m sure it was awesome to score an interview with someone who kind of succeeded at the thing, she spent a LOT of time talking to him, and he comes off as kind of a wang. According to Elizabeth, he spent a lot of their interview time talking about how much women throw themselves as him and how easily he can hook up with younger chicks. EWW. I don’t really think he deserved quite the amount of page space (or listening time) that Greenwood gave to him, and I got bored with the chapter on him. She does use his story to touch a little bit on how faking your own death can affect family and loved ones, but overall I’d pass. She was weirdly emotionally invested in talking to him. And then she dives into famous people rumored to have faked their deaths, and this is where I realized this book wasn’t going to be as awesomesauce as it initially seemed (maybe that’s why Mindy deleted her Instagram photo??). The distance between my interest in how people try to fake their deaths and my interest in people who spend their lives researching clues to prove Michael Jackson is still alive is VAST. I just do not give a shit if Elvis is really sittin somewhere gorging himself on peanut butter and banana sandwiches. This just felt like she was really stretching to meet that page count.

Anyways, this was still a really interesting read and I do recommend it. It was fun to listen to, and who knows? Maybe some of the information will be of use to me someday. Who knows where my journey will take me? It might just be that it takes me to living in some place where no one knows my name and I don’t own or drive a car because getting pulled over by the police for some minor traffic infraction is a really easy way to blow your cover.

~Sarah

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

 

Her hope wilts on its stem before it can bloom into promise.

Here Comes the Sun is about a family of Jamaican women. Margot has been working hard for years for the fancy hotel resort; and secretly sleeping with the foreigners there for extra money to support her family. Her mom forced her to do some unspeakable things as a child, and her main focus is to provide enough money so that her little sister Thandi can avoid the same fate. It’s largely Margot’s extra flow of cash and monstrous ambition that allows Thandi to attend a good private school, where her family just knows that she’ll succeed and one day get a glamorous job that will save them all from a lifetime of poverty. Thandi, however, has things other than school on her mind. Her whole life, she’s seen the positive impact that having lighter skin can get you so she starts sneaking off to a local woman who helps her lighten her skin. For Thandi, lighter skin means more opportunity, more popularity, more safety, and more beauty. Dolores is their mother, and she spends her days selling junk to white tourists. It’s never enough to pay the bills, but she never appreciates what Margot contributes and hangs all of her hopes for a better life on Thandi.

In a country where the tourism industry continues to wreak it’s havoc on the local populace, the people have few options. When all that you’re doing isn’t enough, what else are you willing to do to save yourself and your family? And how do you deal with the fact that those sacrifices might hurt the very people you’re trying to protect?

As you might be able to tell, this is not a happy novel. The bright cover and happy-sounding title are almost in jest, because by the end I just felt a little hopeless. But it touches on SO many important issues – race, homophobia, rape, skin politics, capitalism, prostitution, insecurities, and more. The despair feels so real, which is one of the things that makes this a great book. Nicole Dennis-Benn is a really talented writer and I can’t wait to see what else she writes. I’d feel weird saying that I “enjoyed” the book, since there was so much devastation, but it was well worth the read and definitely deserves the buzz it’s been getting.

(And if you’re participating in #DiverseAThon this week, this would be a good book to include in your reading pile.)

~Sarah

 

The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers


I’m so happy I picked this up! I heard about it on one of the Book Riot podcasts, and grabbed the trade copy from The Strand when I was in NYC last weekend because ‘fun space opera” stuck in my head. And that’s exactly what it is! Rosemary is (kind of) the main character, and since she’s running from some family stuff she gets a job as a clerk on a ship whose main function is getting work making wormholes through space. I know! They punch through the sublayer of space to connect distant locations, so cool.

I say Rosemary’s “kind of” a main character because though the book definitely starts with a focus on her, it ends up being about ALL of the crew, and man what a varied crew they are. There’s Ashby, the black pacifist captain of the ship who may or may not be in a taboo romance with an alien woman who he hardly ever gets to see. There’s Kizzy and Jenks, the off-the-wall talented mechanics of the ship (Kizzy reminds me a lot of Gaige from Borderlands 2). There’s Corbin, the annoying, abrasive algae specialist whose function is to basically fuel the ship. Sissix is the reptile-ish alien who pilots the ship. Dr. Chef is an big alien with 6 limbs and several throats whose function is being the doctor and the chef (hoho, bet you didn’t see that coming!) Ohan is the furry alien infected with a virus that allows them to view space in ways that humans can’t, hence making them the navigator. And, last but not least, Lovey is the ship’s AI who oversees everything in and about the ship. The group lives mostly on the Wayfarer, and generally part they get along swimmingly (except Corbin, that ass) until Ashby takes a contract job that’s bigger than anything they’ve ever done, and puts them in direct contact with the most hostile group of aliens known.

I’ll give a fair bit of warning here – this book is not super action-packed. Don’t get me wrong, some stuff goes down on more than one occasion, but it’s very much focused on getting to know the characters and for me, that was fun enough in of itself. I love the diversity among the different species. Some are gender and sexuality -fluid, some are very devout, some just want to cuddle, some can’t stand to be touched – they’re all so different and yet for the most part, seem used to functioning in a universe with each other. Technology is (of course) a huge aspect of life both in space and planetside, and that’s always fun to see, to imagine what those kinds of advances in technology would look like in our lives.

This is a crazy and fun ride through space, and I can’t wait to see what else Becky Chambers does for this world (universe?) she’s created. It looks like there’s already a new book slated for March – not necessarily a sequel, but a follow-up to one of the characters so don’t go reading the description for the second book because it will definitely ruin a piece of the first book for you. Anyways, I’ll be getting my hands on the second book as soon as I can.

~Sarah

Being Jazz: My Life As a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings

I had no idea who Jazz Jennings is, but apparently she’s pretty famous. She’s well-known on her YouTube channel and she does activist work speaking out for LGBTQ rights, and she has a reality show on TLC called I Am Jazz. I’m kind of surprised I hadn’t heard of her before reading her book, but this was probably a good introduction anyways. I stumbled upon it on Audible and went with it because A) I’ve been wanting to read some books by or about transgender people and B) it was only 4 hours (lame reason, I know, but still).

So Jazz was born as a boy but growing up it was clear to her, and most of her family, that she was really a girl inside. At the age of 4 she was diagnosed with gender identity disorder, and her parents slowly started allowing her to make the switch to living her life as a girl – first at home, and then publicly. Her mom, realizing that there didn’t seem to be any resources to help her manage having a gender dysphoric child, took up the mantle and started reaching out and building those resources for other families with transgender children, and Jazz talks a lot about how she’s grown up with a family that loves, understands, and supports her.

I feel like I learned a lot from Jazz’s memoir – for instance, the terms “gender identity disorder” and “gender dysphoric”, and a bit about the hormone treatment options for transgender youth. I still have a lot to learn, obviously, but this was a good jumping off point. The audiobook was fantastic – it was like listening to a teenage girl chat with you for four hours about her life, and that was awesome. She also told a lot of funny horror stories involving throwing up and peeing her pants, and she talks about the less glamorous aspects of being on a reality TV show, like never being able to actually eat while on camera because chewing makes too much noise. Jazz makes it a point to talk about how if you want to know more about being transgender, do the research yourself instead of putting a transgender person on the spot. She has a great list of resources in her book (in the PDF, if you choose the Audible version). 

The one thing I can say is that Jazz is very young. Her memoir is full of positivity, and from the sounds of it her family really has done a fantastic job of advocating for her in school, sports, media, etc. But her youth makes me wonder a little bit if she felt the need to put a bit of a happier sheen on some things, and I’ll be really interested to see another memoir from her when she’s in her 30’s.

Sarah Says: 4 stars, totally worth the read

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

Many thanks to Bloomsbury & NetGalley! I promise all the opinions here are my own. Pinky swear.

The description on Amazon is pretty detailed, so let’s take a look at that:

An asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. A big, bad one. Maybe not kill-all-the-dinosaurs bad, but at least kill-everyone-in-California-and-wipe-out-Japan-with-a-tsunami bad. Yuri, a physicist prodigy from Russia, has been recruited to aid NASA as they calculate a plan to avoid disaster.

The good news is Yuri knows how to stop the asteroid–his research in antimatter will probably win him a Nobel prize if there’s ever another Nobel prize awarded. But the trouble is, even though NASA asked for his help, no one there will listen to him. He’s seventeen, and they’ve been studying physics longer than he’s been alive.

Then he meets (pretty, wild, unpredictable) Dovie, who lives like a normal teenager, oblivious to the impending doom. Being with her, on the adventures she plans when he’s not at NASA, Yuri catches a glimpse of what it means to save the world and live a life worth saving.

Prepare to laugh, cry, cringe, and have your mind burst open with the questions of the universe.

I wanted to read this book for a few reasons. One – my nephew is getting older, 11 now, and I’m kind of on the lookout lately for books I think my sisters’ little ones might some day want to read. Two – main character is a physicist! Three – asteroid hurtling toward Earth! Four – NASA! Really, so many good ingredients there. Unfortunately, the final dish was a little bland.

I felt like this was more of a middle-grade romance novel. It felt very formulaic, and the main focus ended up being on Yuri’s crush on American girl Dovie. I was more excited about the possible asteroid-hitting and the science that would go into saving the world, so I was disappointed by that. But basically, two wildly different teenagers meet, have romantic feels, obstacles are in the way, etcetera. You know how romance novels go. Except there were no explicit sexy times, because this is for the teens. Despite the urgent crises in the book – an asteroid about to hit Earth, the question of how Yuri will get home, his feelings for Dovie – there were no surprises, no laughs, no heart pangs.

And I should have seen this coming just from the description – but Dovie is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character and man that’s a tired old trope. Her parents are hippies so that’s supposed to explain that, but it’s so boring to make that the reason for a guy to fall for a girl. “Ooooh, she’s so crazy and different, it’s what I didn’t know I always wanted!”

I read this in about two sittings, so it went by quick and was entertaining enough so that I didn’t just quit it, but it felt very trite. I probably won’t keep this on my running list of books to suggest to my niece and nephews.

 

~ Sarah

When You’re Behind in Reviews = Mini-Reviews!

I’ve done a decent amount of reading this month, but unfortunately me finishing a couple books in the last week or so means that I’m kind of failing on getting those reviews up in a timely fashion. And since I don’t have a ton to say on them anyways, mini-reviews will work to get caught up.

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Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean

This was on the a list at Book Riot of romances featuring plus-size heroines. I don’t know if Callie is really “plus-size” – it sounds like she was just slightly more curvy than the thin, willowy heroines that frequently appear in historical romances. I still liked Callie, because she was a woman who was out for a little spice in her life, but I’m getting sick of the virgin lady / promiscuous wealthy man mash-up. Also, during steamy scenes when Ralston is kissing her, it says he “ate her face” and I just can not get over that. And that phrasing was used not once, but twice, in two different make-out scenes. ATE HER FACE. How is that good sexy writing?

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In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero

Not being a OITNB fan, and never having seen Jane the Virgin, I didn’t really know who Diane Guerrero was but I picked up her memoir just because. It focuses on how at age 14, her undocumented parents were deported and she was left alone in the United States. Immigration is one of those things that always seems to be in the news, and I really suggest you read her memoir and seek out more information before voicing your opinions on immigrants in the US. Oh, and I highly suggest the audiobook version, Diane is a great storyteller.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

“How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it.”

Homegoing has been earning a ton of praise, and it is so well-deserved. I don’t know what I can say about it that hasn’t already been said. Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel spans continents and centuries, following the descendants of two sisters – one who was married to a British slave trader, and one who was captured as a slave and sent to the American colonies. Each chapter focuses on one of those descendants, alternating between blood lines, and each story is heartbreaking in it’s own way. I loved that the perspective changed every chapter – you never grew bored with any of the characters, and it gave such fascinating glimpses into so many points in history that are now just smushed under one general heading in American history. I can’t recommend it highly enough, go get it.

Have you read any of these?

~Sarah

Grunt by Mary Roach

Many thanks to W.W. Norton & Co for approving my NetGalley request! I promise these thoughts are my own, etc etc.

Mary Roach has a new book out today, and this time she’s dissecting the science of being a soldier. My husband is in the ARNG, so I had some personal interest in seeing what kind of insight and weirdness Mary could dig up.

The first half of the book was pretty strong. Mary talks about some of the details of military life that we don’t think of that often – for example, the balancing act of trying to protect soldiers from hearing loss without compromising their situational awareness. She spends some time on uniforms and the constant struggle to find materials with all the right properties – though I was slightly bummed she didn’t mention Alexander Hamilton’s role in forcing matching uniforms on US soldiers and how he was neurotic about buttons. And there were a couple chapters spent on injuries and loss of body parts, which led to phalloplasty and penis transplants, and the honeyman did NOT seem to enjoy me reading parts of that section out loud to him. But it was interesting! And that led to the question of whether soldiers should save some sperm before deploying, just in case, and if that should be their choice or a requirement, and the money and logistics that would go into that. GOOD QUESTIONS.

I started to get bored in the second half. I feel like there was way too much time spent on the scientific research the military has done on shark repellent. I have a hard time imaging that this is still a major issue. And I wasn’t super enamored with the research into weaponized stinky smells either. The second half almost seemed to move away from things that really affect the day-to-day lives of current soldiers and more into the “hey did you know this this is weird” realm. I know Mary Roach lives in that realm, but I found the more practical stuff so much more fascinating. Also, I noticed in this book how often she really reached to make a pun or tacky joke. That was kind of distracting.

And as a side thing – I feel like Mary’s books are best read in print. I read this on my Kindle (because e-galley, thanks again!) but the footnotes, often one of the best parts of her books, are at the end of the chapters instead of at the bottom of the page. Yeah, I’m not clicking on the little thingy to go to the end of the chapter to read the footnote and then finding my way back to the spot I was at. Not here for that. Come on technology, we can do better than that.

Anyways, this is worth the read. We should all really be more aware of the problems that soldiers face, and Grunt does a great job at giving you a peek at those.