Eva Luna (CBR13 #77)

Eva Luna

It has been a few years since I last tackled an Allende work, but with tasks in both the Read Harder and Reading Women challenges about translated works (the former asking for non-European novel in translation, the latter asking specifically for a book by a South American author in translation) I had the perfect excuse to move Eva Luna up my to read list.

The amount of emotion, detail, and characterization that Allende weaves into her writing is simply astounding. It always takes me a long time to work through her novels, but that is not a bad thing. There is so much history, allegory, and personal stakes woven into the story that you want to spend the time, you want to give the book its due. Like The House of the Spirits each paragraph, each page, and each chapter in Eva Luna need time to be digested and understood.

The book follows Eva from her earliest years, moving from Eva’s description of her mother’s life, and her own conception. Eva’s mother dies when Eva is still young, and she is forced to fend for herself. From there we follow Eva as she faces the death of her mother’s employer the Professor and is forced to move on and eventually stumbles her way into the care of La Señora, the owner of a brothel, and then eventually on to Agua Santa, and then back to the city where she reunites with Melecio, now known as Mimí and takes back up with Huberto Naranjo a leader of a guerrilla unit fighting a revolution. In typical Allende style the country remains unnamed, and it doesn’t matter.  As time goes on, Eva realizes that Huberto is not the man for her. Throughout the novel a parallel narrative is told: the life of Rolf Carlé. As Rolf grows up, he becomes interested in reporting news and becomes a leading journalist, shooting film footage from the front line. Rolf films the guerrillas, meeting Huberto, and later Eva.

Eva Luna easily finds its place in Allende’s works which all involve young women and misfits of society who search for truth and love all while combating class conflicts and oppressive governments. The picaresque is combined with magical realism in Eva Luna, in which the title character survives one crisis after another with the aid of unseen powers and the force of her own imagination. Eva’s ability to induce others with her stories is her gift to the world, helping her deal with the difficulties that many women, like herself, faced in a tyrannical and explosive political environment.

Lakota Woman (CBR13 #70)

Lakota Woman

Like many, my formal education didn’t contain much indigenous history, and certainly almost none about modern indigenous history. Reading Women task 8 was read a memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman which helped move Lakota Woman up my TBR (I had added it in 2015 for a similar Read Harder task but I read Rabbit-Proof Fence instead). It certainly didn’t hurt that it was also the Indigenous Reading Circle’s choice for November (the group that inspired the Reading Women task).

Lakota Woman was published in 1990 and discusses Mary Crow Dog’s experiences in the 1970s as a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). It is a searing autobiography that is at various times audacious, heartfelt, and expressive. It is also a tough read for a variety of reasons. The book opens with Crow Dog’s description of the difficulty of her life as a young Sioux girl, growing up in poverty, suffering at Catholic boarding school, and quitting school to drink, shoplift and rebel. Its at this point that her path crosses AIM’s and she would eventually give birth to a son in 1973 at Wounded Knee while it was under siege by the federal government.

The narrative reminds me of an oral history. The book is written in one person’s lived experiences told in a stream-of-consciousness style and Mary Crow Dog was present at many of the significant events of this civil rights movement in the early 1970s. She writes of AIM’s infiltration by FBI agents and of helping her husband endure prison following his unjust arrest. The book ends with a brief synopsis of events after Leonard was freed and his work on reclaiming the sacred rites and practices of their people.

“I read somewhere in an anthropology book that we Sioux ‘thrive on a culture of excitement.’ During the years from 1973 to 1975 we had more than enough excitement for even the most macho warrior, more than we could handle.” p. 192

Nadiya’s Kitchen & Easy Gourmet (CBR13 #66-67)

Nadiya’s Kitchen 

After having fallen in love with Nadiya and her outstanding bakes on the Great British Bake Off (Great British Baking Show in the U.S.) and placing her season (who am I kidding, all GBBO) in my self-care television routine I purchased her first cookbook in January of 2020 without really doing much digging into what it contained. I was pleased to discover how easily Nadiya’s authorial voice reminded me of the version of her we were all introduced to on the show. The book features favorite recipes of Nadiya’s and her family’s. Chapters are broken up less by type of food and more by when or why you might be eating them, one for example is ‘Lazy Sunday Mornings’ and others are ‘Midnight Feasts’, ‘Snacks and Sharing’ to ‘Dessert for Dinner’. Which, while not singular in the cookbook arena did make for a nice break from mains, sides, desserts. Nadiya does in this book what she did on GBBO, twists on traditional classics and incorporating flavor profiles of her Bangladeshi heritage.  

There were some small, but significant obstacles for me with this one. First, this is a book for the non-American audience, the measures are all in weights which is not how most Americans including myself cook. I was raised in the fine tradition of the Boston Cooking School, cups and such for me please, which has meant that I must do some homework before attempting any of the recipes, or I need to break down and buy a kitchen scale. The other is that I do not enjoy cooking fish at home (although I do enjoy eating it) and there are a lot of recipes in the book featuring fish, including her Cod and Clementine. But the handful of things I have tried have been good, and this is just a comforting read, having Nadiya tell you about food usually is.  

Easy Gourmet 

Easy Gourmet is the first cookbook by Stephanie Le, creator of I am a Food Blog. I was pointed in the direction of Le by emmalita’s review of her forthcoming cookbook with her husband, That Noodle Life. Impatient about waiting until April for that book to publish and wanting to get a feel for her writing I decided to see what my library had in stock, and lo and behold, Easy Gourmet was waiting for me.  

This is a very visual book. Le’s beautiful photography is a strong presence and matched with her strong friendly voice you feel empowered to cook. Which, while the recipes looked delicious there were still a couple of boundaries to me jumping right in. The first is that some of these recipes are a little fancier than I traditionally cook/eat – it does say gourmet in the title, I was sufficiently warned. The other is that a couple recipes called for equipment I don’t have at home, specifically (and annoyingly) a waffle maker for several of the breakfast recipes.  

Easy Gourmet is full of updated modern twists on your favorite classics (the Sriracha Hot Wings are calling my name), many of which are things I’m wanting to make for myself. Basically, it succeeded on making me excited for That Noodle Life, so that definitely counts as a win for me 

Other Words for Home (CBR13 #59)

Other Words for Home

I read Jasmine Warga’s debut My Heart and Other Black Holes in 2016, and its one of the books that has stayed with me most as it contained some of the truest descriptions of being a teenager that I have ever read. When I was hunting for a book to fulfill the Muslim Middle Grade novel task for the Reading Women challenge and came across Warga’s name I decided that Other Words for Home would be the book I read, without looking any further into what the story actually contained. While a dangerous move, it was not a mistake.

Told in verse, Other Words for Home is Jude’s story. When things in her Syrian hometown start becoming unstable, Jude and her mother go to live near Cincinnati with her mother’s brother and his family, leaving behind her own father and older brother. Jude was happy in Syria and initially doesn’t want to make the move but promises to be brave. From there, the story traces Jude’s experiences in all that is new to her in the United States, from making new friends, living with whole new family, through to a school musical that Jude might just try out for.

This one is geared towards middle grade readers, but certainly not out of place on any grown-up’s shelves. This book tackles big things as it is set in the midst of the Battle of Aleppo (where Jude’s brother goes), and touches on prejudices against Muslims writ large and refugees and immigrants. Warga also doesn’t shy away from the way people, particularly white women, can choose to see choices that are not their own as not a choice at all.

I’m glad to have read this one, and not ashamed that it made me tear up several times, something I was not expecting in a novel in verse since I so often struggle with poetry.

“There is an Arabic proverb that says:
She makes you feel
like a loaf of freshly baked bread.

It is said about
the nicest
kindest
people.
The type of people
who help you
rise.”

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (CBR13 #56)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The Reading Women Challenge for 2021 (its last year, as it turns out) contains two challenges which surprisingly caused me some consternation – I didn’t have anything in my nearly 600 book deep to read list that was a book written by an Eastern European woman and/or a crime novel or thriller in translation. I spent time on and off all year hunting up a book that could work for both – it had to be out there and the whole point of this is to stretch my reading habits. And I’ve not been reading enough translated works lately as it is (this is only my second all year, and I have one more on deck).

What I found was Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Tokarczuk is a leading Polish author, (she recently won the Nobel Prize for literature for her book Flights) and Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a study of the shadowy spaces between sanity and madness, righteousness and tradition. The novel was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize, Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ translation was also longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

The novel tells the story of a remote Polish village, and one of its residents. Mrs. Duszejko devotes the winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake with her friend, and taking care of the summer homes her neighbors leave behind each winter. Mrs. Duszejko is also a Civil Engineer, English Teacher, and committed Vegetarian. She has a reputation as a crank and a recluse which is amplified by her not at all a secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Mrs. Duszejko inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay an old lady any mind.

Her characterization as an eccentric old lady that is often treated with skepticism or even derision by other characters, further endearing her to the reader. But, without giving anything away, this book features perhaps the most unreliable narrator I’ve come across in a while, or maybe she’s just the oddest narrator who happens to be purposefully unreliable. The whodunnit, and how, isn’t revealed until near the very end, and it puts everything we have learned from Mrs. Duszejko into a new light. This is a complex book my brain is still working through, and I’m still not sure if I liked it, but I can recognize its quality.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb (CBR13 #54)

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is Sebastian’s trade paperback debut and I’m excited for the people who get to discover her work with this outing. There were times during The Queer Principles of Kit Webb that I was reminded of the first Cat Sebastian I ever read (her debut) The Soldier’s Scoundrel. There’s a class difference, one character making their living on the wrong side of the law, and a major injury. Plus, I really, really liked it. Sebastian writes steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the protagonists find their matches in their partners. We have two characters falling in love despite themselves, humor, and found family – which is catnip for me.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is set earlier in time than the other of Sebastian’s works that I’ve read. We’re in the mid-18th century, 50 years at least before the more common Regency era. I’m borrowing much of narfna’s plot summary since she nailed it and I’ve been struggling for a week to write a better one. We get our two heroes, the titular Kit Webb, a former infamous highwayman who is now retired due to a job gone wrong that left him disabled and with a dead partner. He now runs his coffee shop, once simply a front for his criminal activity it is now his entire life. When we meet him, he hasn’t much left its general environs in weeks. Next, we’ve got Edward Percival Talbot, Lord Holland, who goes by Percy. Percy has returned from the continent to several pieces of awful news not the least of which is that a blackmailer has surfaced with proof that his father the Duke is a bigamist, making his mother, his childhood best friend and now stepmother Marian (and there appears to be much drama there) victims, and himself and his new baby sister Eliza illegitimate. Marian and Percy have only a few months to concoct a plan to salvage their futures and punish Percy’s father. Marian is the brains of the operation and it’s her idea to hire Gladhand Jack, Kit’s alter ego, to rob the Duke, so that she and Percy can get the book they need for leverage. When Percy approaches Kit, it’s clear that his bad leg will make performing the robbery impossible, so instead, Kit offers to teach Percy to do it himself. From that point we watch as the two men are drawn to each other while Kit teaches Percy the skills he needs to commit the crime and Percy plans for his future. This outing also features Sebastian’s command of banter, her salty secondary characters and situational humor balances everything out.

Sebastian takes on the different elements of privilege that are tied up together and starts pulling them apart. In this case it’s how Kit and Percy are seen by the world around them– specifically in the ways they use artifice to hide. Class plays a significant role in the story, as Sebastian writes characters who are conscious of class – as the should be – and hinges much on characters moving up and down the social rungs and what life looks like when they do. I love Sebastian’s “eat the rich” mentality and how in this book she has Kit blatantly state it. It could be the thing that breaks these two characters of vastly different backgrounds, but it isn’t. Because Percy has come to agree that while the trappings of the wealth mean home to him, they are in fact not worth what they cost in terms of people’s suffering and use of resources. It is an example of how Sebastian uses her craft to create tension and release it without having to write a break-up at the 80% mark and I appreciate that about this book, much as I did with Lucy Parker’s Battle Royal.

The other is how she navigates the differing sexual identities of her two leads. Percy is pretty open about his only being attracted to men and finds himself a bit of a challenge in understanding Kit, who appears to be sexually interested in him, but does not act on it for a decent amount of the story. We the reader bounce between Kit and Percy’s viewpoints so we know that Kit is likely what we would now term a demisexual in that he feels sexually attracted to someone when he has an emotional bond with them as well as being bisexual having had a fulfilling sex life with his deceased wife. Kit’s need for emotional connection, and Percy’s relative inexperience in the emotional arena is the other tension point Sebastian works her characters through. I would have liked to see it get a little more conversational space in the story, but that even isn’t much of a complaint. I do wish I knew going in that there are significant portions of the narrative that are left on a cliffhanger, even though Kit and Percy find a way to be together even though they live in a society that has deemed it illegal.

In an interview Sebastian commented about writing to reflect identity and I find it instructive to understanding why Sebastian’s books work so well for me. “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better!”

Content notes (from the author): non-graphic violence (including gun violence), reference to past infant death, reference to character being imprisoned in the past, period-typical homophobia, explicit sex, alcohol use

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex (CBR13 #52 – Cannonball!)

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex

Books have answers, and that is one of the reasons I love them. The past few years I’ve spent some time digging into me, and how I work, and how much of what I have presented to the outside world was authentic, and how much was what I had been expected to do.

I had some knowledge of aces and asexuality before reading this particularly as one of my friends is ace and has been out for at least the decade I’ve known her, probably longer. But while I had functioning experience with at least part of the ace spectrum I had on some of the blinders lots of people have about it, since my friend is on the sex aversed end of the spectrum. My brain simply hadn’t made room for there being more to the spectrum, and so much more nuance to the whole thing.

One of the things that stood out to me when I was reading Queer: A Graphic History earlier this year is how much of how we all behave in society is based in compulsive sexuality, specifically compulsive heterosexuality. Chen digs into this concept in a big way in Ace. Chen, as Barker did, lays things out it in a way where it becomes apparent how foundational the assumption that there is a baseline desire for sex that is the same for everyone.  Further, how ubiquitous the idea that if you don’t share the same levels of desire either you haven’t found the “right’ scenario or are repressed (and what a death nell to self-value that term can be). The result is that if one doesn’t have the same drive for sex, there must be something wrong or defective with the person. This thinking is incredibly harmful on so many levels, and at least for me has led to letting others assume that my desires and needs are what they expect, and not necessarily what they are, let other aspects of my personality do the speaking. 

Do I have fewer questions now than I did before? I’m not sure, but I have new ones, different things I need to ponder, more time to spend deciding which descriptors fit me best – a path I’ve already been on the past few years. The more I learn about myself and the human experience the more I learn that it is not, really, as universal as we were led to believe, not even close. Everyone, literally everyone, experiences it differently. And that’s a good thing.

When I was prepping to write this review, I went back to the reviews its already gotten at Cannonball, certain that I had commented on at least one of them: I had not. I think that probably speaks to how many questions I had even though so much of what I was reading in others’ reviews and experiences was ringing true. Do I think you need to be wondering about your own identity to find value in this one? Nope. I agree with Chen that by acknowledging asexuality and striving to understand it further, we will de facto have a better and more complete understanding of the spectrum of sexual identity and desire – and that’s just good for everyone.

Vampires Never Get Old (CBR13 #50)

My Halloween read this year is this collection of new vampire tales edited by the team of Zoraida Cordova and Natalie Parker. I enjoy vampire stores because they offer so many different views onto the human condition, if you go looking for them. In Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite Cordova and Parker, along with the assembled authors, take the time to dig in and explore these angles – with postscripts by Cordova and Parker after each story.

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite

Let’s handle individual stories in groups, first up: the very good (4 stars).

Seven Night for Dying by Tessa Gratton is a great opener, exploring the choice to become the vampire and exploring a world where you need to drink a vampire’s blood for seven consecutive nights in order to turn, and what that time will afford to ponder as they contemplate eternal life. The Boys from Blood River by Rebecca Roanhorse pulled at my heartstrings, its lead character is an outcast, and following the death of his mother alone in the world. His heart cries out to not be alone, but at what cost, and with what creatures? The Boy and the Bell by Heidi Heilig is the one I wish was a longer work. Heilig is poking at so much in this 13-page story, gender identity, class warfare, power dynamics, resurrectionists, the panic surrounding being buried alive in the middle of the 19th century… I want very much to spend more time with Will and find out what his life will be. In Kind by Kayla Whaley is a deliciously dark story of revenge that has important things to say about personhood and disability rights.

The quite good (3 stars):

A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire by Samira Ahmed is the funniest of the group, taking a unique angle into a vampire introduction plan. Eat the colonizers is perhaps the best plan when it comes for finding a food source. Bestiary by Laura Ruby had great atmosphere, Ruby easily plants the reader into a perhaps not to distant future where we’ve truly broken the planet, and the mega rich are the only ones living well. We are with Jude as she navigates her new world, and we are introduced to a unique version of being turned, and what gifts and curses come with it. The House of the Black Sapphires by Dhonielle Clayton is my second Clayton short story in two books. This one focuses on a family of Eternals, descendants of enslaved Africans who were turned by white vampires and then sent firebirds by their ancestors to give them their own path. Bea has lived her immortal life tied intrinsically to her family, but must decide if independence, and the possibility of love with the Eternals sworn enemies, is worth the risk.

The they’re good but could be better for me group (2 stars):

Senior Year Sucks by Julie Murphy is a light, but pointed, take on the teenage female slayer motif and while I found it a bit thin in development, I was very glad to see the kind of lead Murphy is known to write be the focus of a family of slayers defending a town from a reform home for vampires. First Kill by Victoria Schwab explores the romantic implications of the mismatched pairing of a slayer and a vampire, but works to make the power dynamic equal. Mirrors, Windows, & Selfies by Mark Oshiro was one that I wasn’t sure I liked until I was well into it, and even then, I think I’ve landed more on appreciating it. Oshiro uses blog posts to tell the story of a child of vampires who has lived is life isolated from the world, so isolated in fact that he has never seen his own image – told that he will die if he does. But his cries out into the internet void find the right audience and the calvary comes, but can he trust it? Vampires Never Say Die by Zoraida Cordova & Natalie Parker explores a queen vampire type who befriends a human on social media, and how it all goes wrong (or right?) when that human tries to throw her friend a birthday party without realizing that she’s managed to invite an entire New York coven and politics are not civil.

Blackout (CBR13 #49)

Blackout is a novel comprised of several short stories covering five hours in the course of one night in New York as it experiences a blackout. Tiffany D. Jackson writes The Long Walk which is broken up into five acts, Nic Stone contributes Mask Off (perhaps my favorite of the bunch), Ashley Woodfolk’s Made to Fit, Dhonielle Clayton provides All the Great Love Stories… and Dust, as well as being the person who sparked the project into existence, Angie Thomas’s No Sleep Till Brooklyn, and the Nicola Yoon penned Seymour and Grace. (It should be noted that Nicola Yoon just made headlines this past week as part of the YA Authors NFT cluster.)

Of these authors, I’ve only personally read The Hate U Give by Thomas. While I found that work very, very good, there isn’t much in this collection that ranks at that level – but it is still definitely worth your time. I love the premise of Blackout, following six pairs as they experience the big, dramatic love stories that we don’t often get to see Black teens have in our pop culture. We get a full swath – first meetings, friends of longstanding who might be more, bitter exes forced to spend time together, and unexpected opportunities. There’s also a wide variety of identities present, we’re treated to m/m pairing as well as f/f, non-binary persons, immigrant families, single parent households, and on and on.

The book has been optioned by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company to turn it into a six part anthology and I’m quite excited for it to eventually make its way to Netflix because the entire time I was reading I was seeing it as a movie, bouncing from one interconnected group to another as they each make their way to converge at the block party.

Read Women 16: Read a Queer Love Story

Read Harder 17: Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain

Network Effect (CBR13 #48)

Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5)

It has been almost three years since I last ventured into the land of Murderbot (January 2019) and while I had to wait like everyone else for Network Effect to publish, I also put it off a little while, over a year in fact. I blame Pandemic brain. Because the minute I picked this one up, I was back with Murderbot and it felt like almost no time at all since I last visited this part of fictional space. Wells has an incredibly strong authorial voice, which becomes even more evident late in the book. Murderbot is still working out this whole “person” thing, and continues to hate humans looking at it and seeing the details of its personhood and not just the shell of a SecUnit but it is getting better (more comfortable? More accepting?) at figuring out how to communicate with its humans for the best result for everyone. Usually. Although it becomes deeply uncomfortable, awkward, and anxious just as easily as it did back in book one, All Systems Red.

This story continues Wells’ unpacking the nature of relationships and our humanity. Murderbot is actively telling us the story and since Murderbot is self-referential and sarcastic it keeps the narrative moving at a brisk pace. We meet ART again (I still love it very much) and Dr. Mensah, her family, and her team are also here. Dr. Mensah continues to bring out the person in Murderbot in a way no other character does, with the exception possibly of her daughter Amena, as the story progresses. In broadest strokes the plot of this one is that Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, let’s not be crazy here. Well except maybe Ratthi.) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action. So drastic action it is, then.

Murderbot still has to act within a system that would dismantle it, if its autonomy were known. That trapped feeling of the mix of trauma, depression, and anxiety all at odds with a desire for understanding and true independence makes Murderbot an incredibly compelling character, and that’s before we get into the never-ending job of keeping its humans alive. My only real complaint is that it felt like this book took a long time to get really going. The first hundred pages (of 350) are really setting up the story, and include some flashforwards (flashbacks? The HelpMe.file excerpts are hard to describe) that are not explained until much later.  But even through that there is a lot of action happening (and a lot of emotions) (Even Murderbot will agree to that). Because – and if I had read narfna’s review earlier I would have known this going in – Network Effect is also a romance. ART and Murderbot’s relationship goes through so many of the major plot points of romance, and I say this knowing full well that we’re talking about an asexual android and bodiless A.I. It’s a beautiful arc and the main reason I’m including this book in my Read Women Task 16: a book featuring a queer love story (and there’s a lot of other queer relationships running around in this book as well).

This story shows a lot of growth, both for Murderbot and those around it. I wondered about the title of the book when I got done, thinking I knew what it was after, and a quick search told me I was correct since the titular Network Effect is a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it. Sounds about right to me.