Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (Memoir)

Tagging along on Trevor Noah’s South African childhood is quite a ride. This series of vignettes are told in Noah’s signature comic style while simultaneously offering real insight about life during and after apartheid in South Africa.

The “illegal” offspring of a black woman and a white man, Trevor is always the outcast — never fitting into any of the official segregated groups (black, white, colored, and Indian). This is the best (to me) kind of memoir — we get the stories as they felt to him as a child, laced with adult commentary on what he later came to realize about the context. I appreciate learning about a place and time through the actual experiences of a single individual living it. While historical and cultural trends are interesting at the macro level, I never feel close to understanding something until I see it through the eyes of people living it.

The adult commentary (with just the right amount of background facts (e.g. the number of official languages in South Africa, the complexities of apartheid, and specific tribal practices) gave me a radically different perspective on apartheid, different systems of oppression, and how context shapes the people who grow up within its confines. The comedy helped me read through experiences that would be too hard to read without. However, it is his insight that makes this book worth reading — insight into how we judge others. Insights such as what makes us think someone is like us or different, what assumptions we make about what people mean when they say or do something, and what really constitutes equal opportunity.

I liked some of the stories better than others, but while discussing at a book group, found that others had almost the exact opposite reaction. That in itself is just as interesting — showing how even a group of people with similar backgrounds processes information in completely different ways.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers (Speculative Fiction)

A hardware malfunction causes a cascade of crashing comm satellites over the Five-Hop One-Stop space station causing the quarantine of all beings present. In a story long on socio-cultural world building and short on plot, individuals from four different species are forced to spend time together while each desperately needs to get back to the life that was abruptly brought to a halt. A quarantine story for our time…

Chambers excels at building intricate and engaging cultures which makes the relatively absent plot easy to overlook. She manages to include all of the current “hot topics” camouflaged in non-humanoid skins. Roveg is the insectoid Quelin who takes in information through smells and has a completely non-emotive space; Pei the Aeluon cargo captain who loves a human against the interspecies mating taboo of her kind; Speaker is the perpetually space-suited Akarak as the only planet that could support her methane-breathing life was rendered useless in a previous war; and Ouloo and not-yet-gendered offspring Tupo are the furry Laru who host the station. Throughout their enforced stay, the four learn about each other’s cultures, opinions, and preferences in a pretty interesting set of expositions on modes of communication, mating rituals, taboos, etc.

It’s nice to read a speculative fiction story that isn’t fully dystopian. We’re not embedded in Ewoks here — there are plenty of problems and even a history of downright atrocities — but the characters are able move forward in a more positive way after their experience in a model that suggests how this might be done for any of us. A harmless and relatively uplifting book.

While this is #4 in the series, the books just share a common universe. Not necessary to read the prior novels though I confess I found the earlier books a little more interesting.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Speculative Fiction)

The first few chapters follow a count down to the specific time at which Nora Seed will decide to die. She is 35, has worked at a music store called String Theory for the last few years, is estranged from her only relative, recently split from her fiancee, and is now presented with the body of her dead cat. She feels as though she is a black hole — “a dying star, collapsing in on itself”. On the brink of death, she finds herself in the Midnight Library — where the infinitude of books are all instances of her own life, hinging on some decision large or small.

The book is nicely executed — plenty of philosophy, psychology, and scientific tidbits (many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, Dunbar’s number, and environmental asides). I did find it a bit disappointing — it has received such rave reviews but I feel like it has been done before and most of the “insights” were of the self-help variety. Entertaining but (for me) not terribly inspiring.

The Bone Code by Kathy Reichs (Mystery)

I haven’t read any of Reichs’ previous Temperance Brennan books but I’ve seen a few seasons of the TV show so I’m familiar with the characters. In this installment, Tempe (forensic anthropologist extraordinaire) goes up against a vicious killer who appears to have struck again after a 15 year hiatus. In a timely subject, the mystery centers around vaccines and genetic engineering, including details about CRISPR gene editing (the work which netted the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry). Full of wry commentary, some romance, and plenty of forensic detail, the story is a gripper. My only complaint — and this is a spoiler alert — is that part of the story depends on using a vaccine to spread bad juju to unwitting recipients. With all the anti-vaxxers freaking out about vaccines, do we really need that in the story?

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 6th, 2021.

A Cup of Silver Linings by Karen Hawkins


Writing: 3/3 Plot: 3/3 Characters: 4/5

A second installment of what promises to continue the fun, lightly magical, tales of Dove Pond. This episode focuses on Ava Dove, the sixth of the seven Dove sisters, whose semi-magical herbal teas — carefully concocted for each individual client — are starting to go wonky. Meanwhile, buttoned-up grandmother Ellen is brought to town for the funeral of her long-estranged daughter Julie and runs into trouble trying to convince Julie’s daughter Kristen to leave Dove Pond for a fabulous new life in Raleigh. Sarah Dove — daughter seven — is back as well, continuing to listen (literally) to books as they tell her who needs to read them (yes, I would be so happy to pay for that talent!). Simple but appealing characters and a light touch of mostly playful magic that is more an extension of the person’s character — this feels like a combination of Alice Hoffman and Fannie Flagg to me. A nice feel good book.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 1st, 2021.

The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
An unusual (and engaging) book — the narrative felt so real I had to remind myself it was fiction, not memoir.

Filipino-American writer Christina Klein (Ting) travels back to the Philippines — ostensibly to write a book about an episode in Filipino history featuring a headhunter tribe’s role in Coney Island’s “human zoo.” A short year after the election of a dictatorial leader, Ting experiences the new Manila superimposed on the remembered culture and practices of her youth, which in turn are layered on stories and experiences from a more distant past as told through her historical research and the stories of her many elderly Titas and Titos.

The writing is fluid and provides fascinating linkages over time and class — her interactions span people with varied backgrounds, living conditions, and political opinions, from her aristocratic family to earnest socialists to those in the current circles of power. The dialog perfectly distills different perspectives and her ongoing reflection gives us insight into her personal journey to understand and evolve her sense of morality in a situation where nothing at all is perfectly clear. It’s masterfully done, IMHO.

As an aside, I learned a lot about Philippine history, although it is a backdrop to the story rather than a comprehensive presentation — 7,000 islands and 182 non mutually intelligible languages!

Some good quotes:

“Morality is the spine of fiction, even if it is most often twisted and deformed.” <— my fav

“They liked microphones and Spam. America’s streets and classrooms had instilled in many a sense of inferiority and in some a seething resentment at being brown in a white world. The Fil-Ams suffered from the shame of otherness, while Filipinos born and educated in the Philippines struggled with disdain for gauche American culture. In the States, we were all seen as being of the same tribe, but it was, at times, a flawed taxonomy.”

“This was to illustrate the colorful ways of the backward Filipinos and justify American’s occupation of the islands. Why exterminate all the brutes when you could display them and make a profit?”

“Inchoy watched me watching the children, and I felt my perspective slowly shift from mine to his: from my joy at the beauty of the children to Inchoy’s perception of forced child labor. He flicked his eyebrows at me to drive home the point.”

“Tita Rosa’s ambush resolved itself quickly: this was Manila and duty presented itself in clear, direct ways. Resignation was the backbone of survival here. Resistance only created anxiety.”

“The results of Gumboc’s presidency are that the poor live in fear for their lives and with reason. Gumboc’s army of assassins operates in a price per head economy and there is no due process. These people are murdered for money as part of a government-sanctioned program.”

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 10th, 2021.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E Harrow (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4 / 5 Characters: 4.5 / 5 Plot: 4.5 / 5

I had such fun reading this book — clever and funny with plenty of gender benders, surprise twists, and sass. Short, too, at only 128 pages.

Zinnia Gray of Ohio is the Dying Girl. Afflicted with GRM — a malady that always kills before its victims reach 22 — she has become obsessed with all things Sleeping Beauty (a girl with very similar problems). What follows is a funny and piercingly acute adventure through alternative narratives where an array of women try to alter the “crap” storylines they were given.

It’s a brilliant modernization, magnification, and multiplication of Sleeping Beauty stories, all come together with the spare prose and humorous asides that I love in Harrow’s writing. Some of the references to academic takes on folklore and feminism crack me up while simultaneously getting to the point of what is truly important. A favorite line referencing a female character with a sword: “I know they promoted a reductive vision of women’s agency that privileged traditionally male-coded forms of power, but let’s not pretend girls with swords don’t get shit done.”

Great characters that I liked a lot, no BS, plenty of adventure, some cool self-reflection and growth (always enjoyable), and plenty of gender norm challenges that are playful rather than strident.

Harrow is right up there in my must-reads list.

A couple of other fun lines:
“My only friend in this entire backwards-ass pre-Enlightenment world is about to be married off to a sentient cleft chin.”

“We might not be able to fix our bullshit stories, but surely we can be less lonely inside them at the end.”

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 5th, 2021.

Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5
This was a real palate cleanser for me. A light and funny murder mystery written by a woman who typically writes award-winning Steampunk and Horror novels. Leda Foley is an “inconsequential psychic” who is struggling to get over the murder of her fiancée (Tod) a few years before. Her life consists largely of “Klairvoyant Karaoke” at a local bar and getting her travel agency (Foley’s Far-Fetched Flights of Fancy) going. Until one day she manages to save the life of a Seattle cop who is investigating a murder that just might be tied to Tod’s murder … Lots of fun references to the Seattle goth scene (I think? Some scene anyway!) and favorite (to me) places such as Elliot Bay Books and the Seattle Central Library. Irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone.

Some good quotes: Quotes:
• “But this was the granddaddy of them all — eleven geometrically styled stories of pure, weapons-grade knowledge.” (About the Seattle Central library)
• “Dude pronoun for the sake of statistical likelihood, though I wouldn’t count out his wife. If anyone hated that guy as much as I did, it’s probably her.”
• “Steve folds like a paper crane any time someone mentions about the cops.”
• “… and a waistcoat with a pocket watch that said he visited the nineteenth century in his downtime, for funsies.”
• “An army of ankle-high canines spilled out of the house, swarmed Grady’s feet like furry piranhas, and followed both men back inside — where they thoroughly sniffed the newcomer, deemed him harmless, and immediately began fighting over whose belly he’d pet first.”

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 26th, 2021.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (Non-fiction)

This is a thought-provoking, though somewhat rambling, overview of the impact of systemic racism in U.S. housing policy on African Americans. To be clear (because systemic racism has become an almost meaningless phrase thrown at everything), Rothstein documents the laws and policies — federal, state, and local — that explicitly made it illegal to sell real-estate to non-whites, give mortgages to non-whites, or offer certain kinds of tax-breaks to non-whites. These laws and policies were in action just as the suburban lifestyle took center stage with new housing developments supported by transportation networks optimized for suburb to city commutes. Subsequent chapters followed the resulting situations as housing prices outstripped wage gains and tax policies swerved to benefit home owners over city renters, etc.

While Rothstein’s extended research is accurate (and horrifying) it is anecdotal and not comprehensive. In other words, we hear about all of the racist laws, the long court battles trying to change them thus upholding the 14th amendment, and the many workarounds people used to avoid repercussions for ignoring court decisions — but we don’t really get to understand how prevalent this behavior was. I’m guessing it was quite prevalent, but I can’t actually tell from reading this book.

I’m also not thrilled by his conclusions — he constantly conflates race and class and often leaps straight from terrible situations to unsupported causal connections. For example, in one part he goes from housing unfairness to gangs in four sentences without considering any other possible explanations. Similarly, in a discussion of income mobility, the data showed African Americans had less income mobility than whites — but not as much less as one might expect under the circumstances. This he explained with a wave of hands suggesting that African Americans had worked twice as hard and / or that affirmative action was “working.” Lastly, despite the title, this book focussed only on the aspect of law that relates to housing and not to the many other aspects of law that could be shown to support racist policies.

Still — incredible eye-opening descriptions of what was done by the government to treat African Americans unfairly and the lengthy and complicated process required to make changes. If you can find someone to give a good summary, that might be preferable to actually reading the book which is a bit of a slog.

All Together Now by Matthew Norman (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

In a kind of modern-day Big Chill, four far-flung high school friends are brought together for one last blow out weekend. Billionaire Robbie Malcolm is dying of cancer and asks his oldest friends to come for one last get together. Cat Miller — Hollywood producer — has just quit her job and ended her lesbian relationship with the married star of her show; Wade Stephens — “inexplicably good at useless things” — is flat broke as he watches his second novel go through a long string of rejections; and Blaire McKenzie Harden — married with children — is wondering how on earth she ended up owning a minivan. For each, it becomes a time of reflection about friendships, parenthood, relationships, and the inevitable effects of time marching on without consent.

As an aside, l Iearned about an interesting financial scheme called viatical settlement — where someone buys the insurance policy from someone who is dying for less than its value. I honestly didn’t understand what was so despicable about it — it allows someone access to money before their death and they pay for the privilege. There was some discussion about rich people, how they got their wealth, whether or not they could be good people, etc. but not at the depth it deserved. That was one aspect of the book that fell into stereotyped treads and wasn’t really developed on either side.

I liked Norman’s last book — The Last Couple Standing. He is good at writing realistic relationships and presenting multiple character viewpoints well and that comes out here as well. For this book, I didn’t really love the “billionaire facilitation” aspect of this story, though it served its purpose and didn’t sink into too much Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Overall an easy and enjoyable read.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 15th, 2021.