Harry Potter and the Tag of Books

Newsflash: Having first proposed Book Tag Tuesday, I promptly forgot all about it and consequently did not have a suitable post last week. We’re fixing that now. #headdesk

Anyway. I’ve been wanting to do this tag for a while, and now I finally have an excuse! Tag stolen from All You Read Is Love.

Flagrate – Writing Charm
A book whose theme you found interesting, but you would like to rewrite it.

House of Many Ways (Diana Wynne Jones). I had high expectations for this book, which is #3 in the Howl’s Moving Castle series, and it failed them all spectacularly. I liked Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer for the maybe five minutes they were in the story, but for the most part the book revolved around Charmain Baker, a spoiled, snotty little brat who reads a lot but can’t figure out how to dry a fucking dish. That’s not an exaggeration, she literally has no clue. She is inexplicably partnered with Peter Regis, the astonishingly stupid once and future king, who adds absolutely nothing to the almost tragically predictable story. A couple of the other characters keep mishearing Charmain as “Charming,” and for the life of me I don’t know why. The premise sounded great when I didn’t know anything about the characters, but the book really needed some heavy-duty surgery.

Alohomora – Unlocking Charm
The first book in a series, which got you hooked.

The Color of Magic (Terry Pratchett), the first installment of Discworld. I was in so much trouble when I got to the little demon who lives inside cameras and paints pictures at the click of a button.

Accio – Summoning Charm
A book you wish you could have right now.

The Thirty Names of Night (Zeyn Joukhadar). Seriously, I can’t wait till this comes out in November. It’s in my planner so I won’t forget to buy it.

Avada Kedavra – Killing Curse
A killer book. Take it as you like.

If we’re talking about a book that killed me (figuratively speaking), I’m going to have to go with Cat’s Eye (Margaret Atwood). This is the book that destroyed the few ambitions I harbored during high school and made me want to become a serious writer instead.

If we’re talking about a book I’d like to kill, there are several, but if I had to choose just one for destruction I’d probably pick Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s fanfiction. It should never have been published. I don’t think we’d lose anything if it just suddenly vanished. (Also, to clarify my general stance on fanfiction: I’m not against it, but I also feel that it shouldn’t be making money if the original work isn’t in the public domain. My attitude would be different if Fifty Shades were a BDSM-themed Shakespeare rewrite instead of a cheap Twilight rip-off.)

Confundo – Confundus Charm
A book you found really confusing.

Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov). I did not understand this book at all. I’ll be the first to admit I have very little luck with Nabokov because I generally have trouble following his prose, though I did love King, Queen, Knave. That being said, I was in my early 20s the first and only time I read Pale Fire and I’ve changed a bit since then, so I bought the book a while ago and will try it again at some point.

Expecto Patronum
Your spirit animal book.

The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston). MY GOD THIS BOOK. There are aspects of Kingston’s experience that I don’t identify with because my parents are not immigrants, but I understand very well the desire to be a warrior in a world that doesn’t want you to be one.

Sectumsempra – Dark Charm
A dark, twisted book.

A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea (Masaji Ishikawa). This book was fucking depressing. Not only did Ishikawa suffer for 36 years while watching every member of his family slowly starve to death and/or eat toxic foods in an effort to not starve to death, he didn’t even get a happy ending because his sons are still in North Korea and his wife and daughter died before he could send them money.

If you’re looking for something less depressing but still dark, I’d go with The Year of the Witching (Alexis Henderson), in which a young woman living in a puritanical society meets a group of witches and takes control of four powerful curses that could lay waste the earth if she’s not careful. The most twisted part of the book isn’t the curses or the witches, it’s the creepy church that rules over everything and locks up potential heretics for torture. It’s really good. Go read it.

Aparecium – Revealing Charm
A book that surprised you in a great way and/or revealed that it was more than you thought it was.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors (Kawai Strong Washburn). I’ll be finishing the last 62 pages tonight because OMG I LOVE IT. I think I was kinda put off by the synopsis, which describes a family being driven apart and is the most likely reason I didn’t buy it the first time I saw it, but I’m really glad I changed my mind because this book is like home. Both sides of my family landed in Hawai’i before eventually proceeding to the mainland, and, though we’re not islanders anymore, the words used in this book – haole, hapaobakemusubiboro-boro – are all words I’ve grown up with. As a child I never realized how fortunate I was to have access to books written by people who looked and talked like me, but as an adult I can’t describe how powerful it is to pick up a book and start running into the words my family uses all the time, without explanation or apology. Also, the number of times spam pops up on the characters’ dinner tables? ON POINT.

I can see why it might not have as high an overall rating as I think it deserves – the Japanese and Hawaiian words are not defined or explained, so it would be easy for readers to get lost – but this obviously has not been an obstacle for me. This book has been such a wonderful surprise and I hope Washburn is planning to write more, because I really like his style.

July Reading Summary

Holy shit that month was long. On the other hand, now we know what happens when I have a month-long involuntary vacation: I go crazy and read about four books a week. There was also a regrettable adventure obtaining an SSL certificate for this blog, but the point is it’s secure now and the logo is no longer broken. In any case I’ve been looking forward to writing this post since about two weeks ago, when I thought July should have ended, so you’re gonna get a text wall. Sorry.

July was a landmark month in a number of ways: I had the highest monthly page count I’ve seen since February; I read my first ARC; I finished my 2020 reading challenge; and I finally outread my 26-manga credit!!! More importantly than any of these, I also started using the Kindle Paperwhite I bought in May. (Fun fact: I originally wrote that I’d ordered the Kindle several months ago, but a quick fact check revealed that it hasn’t actually been as long as I thought. Also I think I must’ve bought mine just in time, because the model I chose went out of stock almost the second I ordered it. Go figure.)

At the beginning of the year I would have let myself be boiled in oil before I stooped to reading eBooks, but then the quarantine happened and after a couple of months those Kindles started looking awfully cute. I was thinking about getting the cheapest one on offer, but I read a lot and I figured “Go big or go home,” so I ended up getting the one with the most storage space and no ads. It was more expensive, but in the long run this was the right decision because I don’t plan to trade this thing in anytime within the next decade. I’m not even sure why I decided to take the plunge and order a Kindle, though it may have had something to do with my desire to (1) borrow books from the library and (2) read the Discworld series without having to buy the 50 or so books that comprise it. As of this writing I have used it for neither of these purposes, but I have read a whole book on it with no trouble, which seems like a victory. Also I’ve always been a sucker for pretty packaging and the Kindle gave me an excuse to buy a cute cover, so I can’t really complain. 🙃

If you’re looking for a super cute Kindle cover or any other kind of cover, I highly recommend Hello Journal Shop over on Etsy. The cover arrived about a month after the Kindle did (it shipped from Australia) but it’s well made, and, unlike other Kindle covers I’ve seen while browsing around Etsy, it doesn’t make you slap a velcro sticker on the back of the Kindle. To be completely fair, the velcro stickers aren’t supposed to leave a residue if you change your mind later, but I’ve never liked the idea of putting stickers on my devices, so the cover I ordered was perfect. It does have a funny smell, which I tried to blow off it with a fan, but a month later the smell is still there so it may be the material used to make the cover. It’s gotten better over time, so I’m hoping the smell will go away with repeated use of the Kindle. Either way, it’s not a huge deal. Plus the case came in this really cute package. Like I said, I’m a sucker for cute packaging.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with that little box, but it doesn’t matter. I still have it, and I’m sure I’ll find a use for it.

Just one tiny complaint…

One thing that I did not anticipate was that page numbers are not always A Thing with eBooks. I’m not sure how prevalent their use is or is not because I’ve only read one eBook so far, but this was an issue I ran into when I was reading The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True. I suspect the page numbers were missing because it was an ARC – the pages were labeled differently than I was expecting – but, since I rely on page numbers to track my reading, I ported the file into Kindle Previewer, which laid out the pages in rows of three, and counted the number of rows and multiplied them by three to come up with a rough estimate because I am a frightening little person and sooner or later I usually find a way to get what I want. Of course, it was only after I’d estimated the page count that I found out that a page count was provided on the book’s Amazon page and that my count was off by seven pages. That’s what you call ironic. #headdesk

On another note, I’ve finally remembered that I need to start using my three-month Kindle Unlimited trial membership, which came free with the Kindle and will start charging me on August 20. This seemed like a good idea when I first bought the Kindle, but I’m currently kicking myself because I’m the biggest fucking procrastinator you’ll ever meet and I’ve basically wasted two months’ worth of free books, which I am now going to try to make up for in less than a month. Wish me luck. 😭💀 (And also pray with me that the Discworld books are on Kindle Unlimited, because that would save me a lot of trouble.)

July Reading Stats

Books Finished:

  1. Heart Berries – Terese Marie Mailhot
  2. Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
  3. Miss Iceland – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
  4. The Forest of Wool and Steel – Natsu Miyashita
  5. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – Suzanne Collins
  6. Dune Messiah – Frank Herbert
  7. Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson
  8. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  9. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
  10. Girl, Serpent, Thorn – Melissa Bashardoust
  11. Children of Dune – Frank Herbert
  12. God Emperor of Dune – Frank Herbert
  13. The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True – Sean Gibson
  14. Conjure Women – Afia Atakora
  15. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  16. The Butcher’s Wife – Li Ang

Total Pages Read: 5,417

This month was more diverse than previous months have been, but it still wasn’t up to my standards because the Dune chronicles and the Hunger Games books got in the way and fucked up my diversity count. That won’t be an issue moving forward, however, because I have made the decision not to continue with Dune.

It took a while to sink in, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not a Dune fan. I’ve never been invested in the world of Arrakis at any point. I don’t care about these characters. Dune itself was a good read and it got me interested enough to read the next three books in the series, but I didn’t enjoy any of them. Dune Messiah and Children of Dune were boring and annoying, and God Emperor of Dune had one amazing chapter that the rest of the book never lived up to. I feel like this is the part where Dune zealots are going to come out of the woodwork with asinine comments along the lines of “Well, you missed the point, then!” Maybe I did, but maybe the point wasn’t made very well to begin with.

While the books were generally readable, there were definitely moments where I felt like Frank Herbert was trying too hard. This is what I mean when I say that the point wasn’t well made, because whatever points were made were often obscured by layers of oblique dialogue and rambling passages. There were nonsensical snatches of internal dialogue that seemed to use uncommon words just for the sake of using them. There were exchanges between certain characters that made no fucking sense because they were spoken in a particular tone of voice that carried a very specific subtext, which means their true significance was never actually explained. (See above: TRYING TOO HARD.) My biggest problem was Herbert’s reliance on the “Plots within plots within plots!” and the “If he knows that I know that he knows that I know” themes, which I’ve never liked. This series did not change my mind because these same themes cropped up over and over again in every book, and with every fresh plot it seemed like the House of Atreides grew less and less sympathetic.

One of my least favorite aspects of the series was the gradual loss of humanity in each successive generation of Atreides. Dune introduced Duke Leto Atreides I, the head of a Great House, who was forced into an impossible situation that ended with his death. He was survived by his children, Paul and Alia Atreides, and then by Paul’s children, Leto II and Ghanima, and eventually by Ghanima’s thousand-times-great-granddaughter, Siona. The Atreides were, if not exactly heroes, at least the primary protagonists. Duke Leto was ruthless and clever, but he wasn’t so caught up in the larger picture that he started to devalue the lives of the men who served him. Later generations of Atreides got lost in their overarching plans for the human race, and they started to make decisions that, though theoretically beneficial to humans as a whole, were detrimental to the people alive in that present moment. Duke Leto sacrificed rare equipment to save the lives of men he’d never met; some 3,500 years later, Siona sacrificed a bridge full of people, including her own father, to assassinate Leto II. I liked her at the beginning of God Emperor, but I didn’t by the end. Overall I was disappointed with the handling of the women: Dune ended with a handful of strong, promising female characters, but by the end of Children of Dune they were all dead, insane, and/or completely stripped of all agency. I realize these books were written in the ’60s and ’70s, but damn.

Moral of the story: read Dune but don’t bother with the rest of the series unless you really, really get invested in the first book because it’s a long hard slog through the rest. I have zero interest in the plot of Heretics of Dune, which just sounds like more of the same, and Chapterhouse: Dune seems to be all about the Bene Gesserit and I don’t like the Bene Gesserit so that’s definitely a no-go. I might change my mind if I get bored enough and if all the other books in the world suffer a fatal catastrophe before the movie is released, but for the time being I have discontinued the series and have no plans to pick it up again.

August Reads

I’ve been looking forward to this for a week: Now I get to pick out what I’m going to read this month! My reading slump was vanquished by my reading schedule as much as by my habit of reading 100+ pages per day, so I’ll be continuing both practices. I think I might also start reading one short, one-sitting book (e.g., 200 pages or less) on the first of each month, because I started July by reading Heart Berries in one day and it gave my motivation a solid kick in the ass. With that in mind, here’s my August must-reads, in the order in which I will most likely start them (and not including the other books I’ll probably pick up at random throughout the month):

Physical Books

Monsieur Pamplemousse on the Spot
Michael Bond
This’ll be my Day One boost-my-ego book, which I will read sometime tonight. It sounds cute and it’s only 160 pages, and that’s pretty much all I can say about it. I don’t know too much about Monsieur Pamplemousse, but he’s got a great name (pamplemousse is French for “grapefruit”) and it’s all about food, so I’m game.

The Year of the Witching
Alexis Henderson
I’m SUUUUUUUUPER excited about this one omg 🤩 It was published eleven days ago, and is about a young mixed-race woman who lives in a puritanical society but somehow meets a group of witch spirits. SIGN ME UP.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors
Kawai Strong Washburn
I’ve seen the cover for this one in the bookstore before, but I’m not sure why I didn’t pick it up the first time because it sounds amazing. This one is about a Hawaiian family facing supernatural challenges. Also it’s got an upside down shark on the cover, so how can it possibly be bad?

The Book of Night Women
Marlon James
I’ve heard good things about Marlon James and I’m always up for a good story about rebellious women, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold
C Pam Zhang
I ordered this probably back in March or April but have not yet read it, which is a real pity because it involves history, Chinese symbolism, and a sibling story rather than a romance.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass
Melissa Bashardoust
I just read Girl, Serpent, Thorn and it made me want to read more of Bashardoust’s work, so here we are 🙃 I am slightly hesitant about this one because it sounds like it’s full of the kind of character fights that drive me nuts, but we’ll see what we see!

The African Trilogy
Chinua Achebe
Achebe has been billed as the father of modern African literature, so I couldn’t go without reading his books. The African Trilogy is a bound volume comprising Things Fall ApartArrow of God, and No Longer at Ease, and starts with the story of Okonkwo, an Igbo man who clashes with missionaries. I know it won’t end well for him, but I hope he gives ’em hell.

Suzanne Collins
I’ve been doing a Hunger Games buddy reread with Lori and even though I swore on my ancestors’ graves that I would never ever ever read Mockingjay a second time no sir you must be crazy I’ve somehow gotten curious if I’ll hate it as much a second time as I did the first time around. (My money’s on yes, but I guess we’ll find out.)

Kindle Books

A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea
Masaji Ishikawa
This is one of the books I found through my dying Kindle Unlimited trial, which I will be squeezing as much as I possibly can to make up for the last two months of forgetfulness and deliberate neglect. Ishikawa is a half-Korean, half-Japanese man who moved to North Korea at 13 and escaped 36 years later. It sounds excruciating, which is why I’m reading it first.

Opium and Absinthe
Lydia Kang
Opium and Absinthe is the story of Tillie Pembroke, a bookworm and laudanum addict whose sister may or may not have been murdered by a vampire. It sounds great. 😈

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife
Meg Elison
Apparently I borrowed this one from Prime Reading a year ago? Like, literally to the day? I thought there was a mistake when it said I’d borrowed it on August 1, 2019, but whatever. It’s about post-plague survival and it sounds interesting, so I’ll give it a try.

Reading Goals

I hit my 2020 goal of 60 books when I finished Children of Dune, which by my reckoning was the only good thing about Children of Dune. With my yearly goal out of the way, I’ve set a stretch goal of 86, which will balance out the 26 mangas I used to pad out the first 60 books. (And, yes, mangas are real books, but they’re also 99% illustration and sound effects and I’m generally more concerned about my ability to read books without pictures.) I established a habit of reading a minimum of 100 pages per day during the month of July, and intend to keep it up for as long as I can. There were a couple of days where I had to stop before the 100-page mark, but, given the reading slump that’s been plaguing me since the end of last year, I’m really pleased with the amount I read in July.

That being said, I’m slightly worried about my ability to retain what I’ve read, because I’ve fallen lately into the habit of anticipating the thrill of finishing a book more than the book itself. This means I’ve been blitzing through my reads and missing some of the finer details instead of taking the time to appreciate them properly, which is something I want to work on in the coming months.

Random-Ass Book Flex

I don’t like Gilmore Girls, but I couldn’t stop myself from (1) watching a Rory Gilmore readathon vlog and then (2) taking this Buzzfeed quiz. For the record, no, I am not as well read as Rory Gilmore because I’ve only read 37 of the 339 books on the list, which apparently is still more than 67% of quiz-takers.

Of course, it would be more fair to say that I’m differently read than Rory, rather than saying that I’m not as well read. I can name 393 books that I’ve read and I know for a fact that I’m missing a lot of childhood books from that list, which is how I justify it seeming so short even though the real reason is that I spent several years hoarding but not actually reading.

I was actually mildly impressed with Rory’s list: I’d thought it would be all Western classics (again, I don’t watch the show) and I was mostly right, but there were also some hidden gems, such as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie) and Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi), both of which are now on my TBR.

Rory Books I’ve Read

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  2. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  3. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
  4. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  5. Beloved – Toni Morrison
  6. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  7. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
  8. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  9. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
  10. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  12. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  13. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  14. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
  15. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling
  16. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
  17. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  18. How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss
  19. The Iliad – Homer
  20. The Jumping Frog – Mark Twain
  21. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  22. Macbeth – William Shakespeare
  23. Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
  24. The Merry Wives of Windsor – William Shakespeare
  25. Night – Elie Wiesel
  26. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
  27. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  28. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
  29. The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien
  30. Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare
  31. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  32. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
  33. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  34. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  35. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
  36. Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett
  37. The Wizard of Oz – Frank L. Baum

A lot of these I need to reread because I barely skimmed them when I had to read them in high school but we won’t discuss that 😬

The Adventure of the SSL Certificate

I recently installed an SSL certificate on a client’s website, which made me think it’d be really swell to install such certificates on all of my own websites, including this blog. The installations went smoothly until they got to WyrdGurls, where the SSL system apparently choked on the number of installation demands I’d made of it and broke WyrdGurls for two to three days until I finally pounded on DreamHost’s door and made them fix it. I’m still not sure what happened with the certificate, but at least the connection appears to be secure now and I’m hoping it stays that way. Satan give me strength.

Checking In With the Senior Nap Manager


Reading Habits Tag

Time for another tag! I’ve been tagged by Lori from Food for Thought, which is great because I love these things. 🙃  (Also, can we make Book Tag Tuesday a thing?)

1. Do you have a certain place at home for reading?

I didn’t used to, but this year I seem to have staked out the couch in the piano room. That room is perfect – I get the full benefit of the AC and the Wi-Fi, I don’t have to listen to the TV, and it’s close to the kitchen.

2. Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Hahahaha. Ha. I have a long history of inventive bookmarks. When I was little I used to dog-ear, which annoyed one of my friends so much she straightened out all my dog ears and consequently lost all my places, but as I grew up I abandoned the dog ears in favor of random shit I happened to have lying around (old receipts, clean napkins, other books, etc). Within the last couple of years I discovered Barnes and Noble sells the cutest bookmarks, so I’ve been using those because I buy  too many of them.

3. Can you just stop reading, or do you have to stop after a chapter/certain number of pages?

Currently I’m reading at least 100 pages a day. I used to be able to stop in the middle of a chapter, but nowadays I have to finish whatever chapter I’m on before I call it quits. Thanks, OCD.

4. Do you eat or drink while reading?

Fuck no I don’t want my books getting dirty

5. Multitasking: music or TV while reading?

I’m easily distracted, so no. I can’t have other words floating around me while I’m reading.

6. One book at a time or several at once?

Several at once. I’m currently reading Conjure Women (Afia Atakora) and Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). This is low by my standards, given that I generally have three or four going on at a time, but I want to finish these two by the end of the month to round out my book count to 15, so I won’t start any new books until they’re done.

7. Reading at home or everywhere?

Always at home at the moment, but everywhere when we’re able to roam freely. What are waiting rooms but free reading time?

8. Reading out loud or silently in your head?

Silently in my head.

9. Do you read ahead or even skip pages?

No. I do skim over passages if I don’t like the book and want it to end, but I wouldn’t feel right skipping pages. (I have gotten into the bad habit of glancing ahead on a page or even onto a next page, which has led to some significant spoilers that I wasn’t very happy about, but that’s on me.)

10. Breaking the spine or keeping it like new?

What kind of monster deliberately breaks a spine?

11. Do you write in your books?


12. When do you find yourself reading? Morning, afternoon, evening, whenever you get the chance or all the time?

Usually during the evening and night when I’m working. During the three weeks I was off work, I read at all times of the day.

13. What is your best setting to read in?

In a quiet room by myself. A squashy couch and a moderately comfortable floor would be preferable. Sometimes I get tired of lying on the couch and have to lie on the floor instead because #VARIETY

14. What do you do first – Read or Watch?

Read. The only cases I can think of where I watched first and read later was Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Prestige: with Bridget Jones my roommates happened to be watching it and I liked the movie enough to go back and read the book, and with The Prestige I wasn’t aware of the book until after I’d seen the movie.

15. What form do you prefer? Audiobook, E-book or physical book?

Physical book, but I like to listen to audiobooks while I work (only for books I’ve already read or I’ll get distracted and won’t get anything done). I’m not a huge fan of eBooks because it’s not the same as holding an actual book in your hands, but I’m getting used to the idea.

16. Do you have a unique habit when you read?

Uhhh sometimes I lie on my back on the floor with my legs up on the couch, does that count?

17. Do book series have to match?

YES! It drives me crazy when I don’t get to read a matching set omfg how hard is this

The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True

The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True
Sean Gibson

NOTE: I read an advance reader copy. The book will be published December 15, 2020.

I’ll admit I had my doubts. It’s hard not to doubt a book described thus:

Is this the best mediocre comic fantasy about a self-styled legendary bard and four neophyte adventurers aiming to take on a very unusual dragon on behalf of a bunch of dim-witted villagers?

Books that describe themselves the way The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True describes itself can go a couple of ways: they can be amazing, or they can be total fucking disasters written by the barely literate. However, I’ve never been able to pass up a free book, so I jumped at the chance to win a digital ARC for The Part About the Dragon. I’m glad I did, because the book is hilarious, self-aware, and definitely not above skewering the men who usually inhabit high fantasy. If Brooklyn Nine-Nine suddenly got plopped into a fantasy world, this would most likely be the result. My love for this book is probably at least partially fueled by my overwhelming need to read something that is not Dune, but who cares? The book is great either way. It even managed to get in a Harry Potter reference, to which I said TEN POINTS TO GRYFFINDOR.

The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True relates the story of Heloise the Bard, a mind-blowingly vain half-elf who finds herself inextricably linked to a group of inexperienced adventurers attempting to slay a dragon. The group comprises Nadinta Ghettinwood, an elf; Rumscrabble Tooltinker, a middle-aged half-dwarf half-halfling with a thing for magic tricks; Borgunder Gunderbor, an incontinent rock giant; and Whiska Tailiesen, a giant talking rat with magical powers and no manners. (This probably goes without saying, but Whiska was my favorite character.) Though she tries to extricate herself from their company, Heloise ends up tagging along with the group, and accompanies them while they rethink some orc-related stereotypes, slog through shit-scented swamps, burn all their clothes after trekking through said swamps, turn their brains inside out trying to answer impossible riddles (spoiler alert: there is no answer), fight a minotaur with IBS, and confront Melvin, the dragon who inadvertently kick-started their quest. Through it all, Heloise – in her official capacity as bard – tells the two stories that make up the book. One is the glorious, non-socially-conscious high(ish) fantasy version of events, in which everything goes smoothly and orcs are Bad and elves are Good. The second story tells a different version of the first, a.k.a. What Actually Happened.

Probably the best thing about the book, aside from its humor, is the glee with which it shoots down men who need to get with the times. Misogyny and racism are called out repeatedly. Chauvinism is rewarded with ridicule. The one man who tries to blame his village/town’s problems on the woman who refused to sleep with him is promptly shut down. This exchange may mark the exact moment I sold my soul to this book:

“While we appreciate your opinion, as always, Farmer Benton,” replied the Alderman smoothly, “I’m quite sure that it’s not the Widow Gershon’s unwillingness to, ah, lay [sic] with you that’s causing the dragon to attack. As such, burning her at the stake is unlikely to resolve our situation.”

“Ach! How much do ye ken fer suren? Might culd be her monthly bleed!”

“I haven’t had a monthly bleed in fifteen years, you tiny-todgered pig lover!”

LAAAAAAAAWL. I need to be friends with Widow Gershon, though I’m pretty sure she’d call me a harlot. Then there was this:

“[Heloise] had a real nice can, too, if it’s not improper to say,” continued the man.

“It actually is,” replied the Alderman. “Exceedingly improper, in fact.”

And this, which comes very very close to being the best damn line in the book:

“Ah, yes, well, no one means to suggest that the racial heritage of our good heroes would be in any way an impediment. After all, we here in Skendrick draw great strength from our, ah, diversity of, ah, um, well, our diversity of points of view, I suppose.” He surveyed the all-white, all-human, mostly male, universally stupid assemblage.

Of course, none of this is to say that the book is perfect. It was sprinkled quite liberally with typos, which I noted and will attempt to force onto the appropriate authorities. I liked Heloise overall, but there were a couple of points where she was just a liiiiiittle too questionable, such as her attempt to create humor by telling the rest of the group they were going to die. It’s true that their odds of defeating both a minotaur and a dragon weren’t amazing, but they’d just won a battle, and that seems like a pretty shitty thing to say in the aftermath. Nadi does call her out for it and she does somewhat recant her statement, but her “apology” doesn’t actually include the words “I’m sorry,” and I’m not sure I would’ve accepted it in their place. And, as much as I love the last line I quoted, it does make me wonder: How diverse is this world? The main cast represents many different species and is diverse in that respect, but the humanoid characters all seem to be white. Will there be humanoid characters from other parts of the world in future books? I sure hope so, because otherwise that “all-white” line is going to fall flat on its face.

Overall, however, I didn’t have any major issues with the book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a physical copy. This series and this world have a lot of potential, and I’m excited to see what Gibson does with them.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn

Girl, Serpent, Thorn
Melissa Bashardoust

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Sometimes the princess is the monster.

These fateful words grace the cover of Girl, Serpent, Thorn. They are perfectly true, but they’re also the reason I lifted my Romance Embargo in favor of this book. I may hate romance with the fire of a thousand suns, but I’m a sucker for fairy tales – particularly ones retold from the perspectives of different cultures – and I couldn’t resist such a promising tagline.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a Persian retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” only the princess skips the coma  and – as in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” – is poisonous to the touch. The princess, Soraya, lives in Atashar, a world inspired by the Sasanian era of ancient Persia as well as the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), an eleventh-century account of the history and folklore of the Persian Empire. Her twin brother Sorush is the shah of Atashar and lives in different palaces throughout the year, but Soraya lives solely in Golvahar, a palace with a labyrinth of hidden passages and doors. This enables her to stay hidden from the public view without forcing her to live her whole life in her rooms. Owing to her poisonous touch, which kills upon contact, she has few diversions and spends most of her time in her rose garden, visited sporadically by her mother. As she grows up she finds her curse increasingly difficult to control, as it responds to her emotions, and she becomes obsessed with finding a cure against her mother’s wishes. Having been lied to all her life, she is unaware that the curse was actually a div (demon) gift intended to protect her from the Shahmar, a tyrannical but misguided quasi-div bent on ruling Atashar, and doesn’t realize the full consequences of lifting the curse until after she’s done it. Upon lifting the curse, she finds herself with an unforeseen mess on her hands and sets out to fix what she’s broken with the help of Parvaneh, a young parik (a human-shaped div subspecies) and sworn enemy of the Shahmar.

The best part of the story is the curse itself, which starts off as an encumberance but gradually evolves into a source of empowerment. Soraya in the beginning believes that all her troubles are caused by the poison in her veins, but, after removing it, finds herself oddly vulnerable and incomplete without it. Though she removed it in order to be able to touch people without killing them, she later restores it in order to save her family. She accepts the poison of her own free will, and, in embracing it, learns to control it without sacrificing her ability to touch people. Instead of viewing it as a curse she must endure, she bends it to her own purposes and uses it to protect her family and the people of Atashar. She worries that Parvaneh – with whom she falls in love over the course of the story – will reject her after seeing what she’s done, but Parvaneh loves her for who she is, poison and all, and in the end they both leave Golvahar to live in a forest with the other pariks.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was the lack of traditional romance. There is a love story, yes, but it’s made pretty clear from the beginning that Soraya is bi. She is attracted to Azad, a handsome new soldier in Sorush’s service, but she also harbors an unrequited infatuation for Laleh, her childhood best friend and Sorush’s betrothed. Later she meets Parvaneh in Golvahar’s dungeon and quickly becomes attracted to her while her budding romance with Azad crashes and burns. Though their relationship suffers the same irritating setbacks generally found in YA, in the end they manage an equilibrium where neither of them is dominated by the other. They love and protect each other, but it’s a mutual protection that doesn’t require an overbearing supernatural boyfriend. (No offense, Azad.) It’s so good.

That being said, the book is lamentably predictable. It’s not hard to pinpoint the bad guy. When Parvaneh told Soraya to think about who might be mobilizing all the divs into an army, my first thought was “Gee, wouldn’t it be funny if it was Azad?” (Spoiler alert: I was right.) The “twist” of Azad’s villain reveal wasn’t actually a twist for me because he never seemed trustworthy anyway. Later Soraya learns that Azad became the Shahmar by capturing a div, whose advice he used to acquire power. My first thought: “Must’ve been Parvaneh.” (I was right about that too.) Then she tries to reinstate the poison but doesn’t see immediate results, but this didn’t seem like a huge setback to me because I figured it would take a while for it to kick in, and it would probably reassert itself at the most dramatic moment. (Guess what ended up happening?)

Even with these internal predictive spoilers, however, I’m still glad that I read this book. I loved the cultural background and the world of Atashar. If you’re planning on reading this book, definitely stick around at the end, because the author’s notes are really interesting. (I feel like I might be the only nerd who reads author’s notes, but I love having extra insights. I’m not even sorry.) I’m not familiar with Persian history or mythology, so I will be reading the Shahnameh at some point, though it’s like 900 pages so that won’t be happening this month. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter if you know the history or not. The book explains itself beautifully, and I never had trouble following the terminology. Just maybe smother your internal autopredict with a pillow before you get started, and you should be good to go.

10 Assumptions About Me

Hello hello!

This post was the brainchild of Lori from Food for Thought, who suggested that we do the Reacting to Assumptions tag floating around BookTube. I’m always up for a good tag, so here’s her assumptions about me!

P.S. Lori’s assumptions post is here. While you’re at it, visit the rest of her blog if you’re tired of listening to me natter on about books and nonsense. Not only does she have a lot of awesome reading suggestions, she also discusses food, coffee, and gaming!

1. You have a very specific coffee mug you use for your morning caffeine. You will wash that one specifically, even though there are clean ones in the cupboard.

Very true! I have a pair of minion mugs, which I kept in one of my work cabinets while I was still going into the office. They were my very favorite mocha mugs, though lately they’ve been sitting around in quarantine with me.

2. You prefer Marvel to DC, but you don’t consider yourself a huge superhero fan.

I have no idea how you came to this conclusion but you are so right holy crap this is seriously amazing. I’ve never really gotten into the superhero genre, but I do love the Marvel movies I’ve seen. (I mean, seriously, what’s not to love about Captain Marvel???) I’ve only seen one DC movie that I can recall (Wonder Woman), and have zero interest in the others.

3. You are a gamer, but strictly play Nintendo games.

I wouldn’t consider myself a dedicated gamer, but every now and then I get bit by the gaming bug and drop everything so I can play Pokémon for about three weeks straight. I mostly play Super Mario, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh! on my Nintendo gear. I also have a neglected PS3 named Eustace, on whom I play Dante’s Inferno, Plants vs. Zombies, and Critter Crunch.

4. Not only can you produce a violin vibrato, but it is *chef’s kiss.* Don’t be modest here, or I WILL come fight you.

I wish I could!!! 😭😭😭 I only started the violin three years ago, and have had exceptional difficulty learning vibrato because it’s really hard to relax my arm. However, the new shoulder cradle I bought makes it easier to relax, so I’m hopeful!

5. You own at least 3 pairs of combat boots and will wear them regardless of the season, because you know how to own the hardass aesthetic.

I DO LOVE BOOTS. ❤️ I currently have a pair of Doc Martens (not sure if they’re real or knock-offs) and need to buy more. I have one other pair of boots that I like to wear, but they’re not combat.

6. Your favorite mythical creature is a Griffin.

Nope, dragons are my ride-or-dies.

7. You are extremely organized with your schedule, and mark all of your work obligations and personal projects in your planner meticulously. You likely know what blog posts you will be writing weeks in advance.

Almost right – I use my planners to keep obsessive track of my work projects and reading accomplishments, but I actually don’t plan my blog particularly well! 🤣 (I do have a list of future posts, but those are all the monthly reading summaries. Otherwise I generally post on the spur of the moment.)

8. You are at least bilingual.

I’m not, but I wish I were! Unfortunately neither of my parents is bilingual, though they still tried to teach me and my brothers Japanese. (Guess how that worked out?) We use Japanese words in everyday conversation and are capable of hailing the lunar new year in Cantonese, but none of us is fluent in either language. To compensate, I’ve been developing my own languages for use in my novels.

9. You keep your desk/workplace pristine.

I bring shame on my ancestors.

10. You’re a proud Virgo, but you don’t really believe too deeply in astrology.

Good guess – I’m actually a proud Aquarius! I don’t buy into astrology, but I find that the Aquarius description does generally suit me.

NOPE! Book Tag

Friends, readers, countrywomen: I was really really bored, so I started hunting through book tags for a fun one. I have a habit of noping around a lot, so this one fit the bill. The questions were taken from the Caffeinated Bookworm Life.

As always, there will be spoilers.

NOPE! Ending
A book ending that made you go NOPE in denial or rage, or simply because the ending was crappy.

Miss Iceland (Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir). This book pissed me off so much because it made me read 255 pages of whimsical loveliness before springing literally the worst ending on me on page 256. The book follows Hekla Gottskálksdóttir, a young Icelandic writer who moves to Reykjavík in the hopes of getting her novel manuscripts published. In Reykjavík she meets Starkadur Pjetursson, an unpublished poet, and eventually moves in with him even though he knows almost nothing about her. (She reads foreign literature. He gives her a cookbook for Christmas. I would’ve tossed him into a fjord.) When he learns that she is a writer, that her poems have been published, and that he and his little club of male poet buddies have been enjoying her poems without knowing they’re hers, he becomes shocked, jealous, and threatened. He later admits that he stalked her long before she even knew about him. Having never been particularly attached to him, Hekla leaves him in the dust when she runs off to Denmark with her friend Jón John. That’s fine, but what pissed me off was that even after she’s left him she still sends Starkadur one of her novel manuscripts with the request that he allow her to use his name as a pseudonym. EXFUCKINGCUSE ME?!

I can understand Hekla’s need to publish under a male pseudonym. She’s a female writer in the 1960s. Icelandic men don’t take her seriously. Fine. I can live with that. The thing is, she already has a couple of pseudonyms, under which she’s published several poems. I don’t know why she needs Starkadur’s name. Starkadur himself says he was initially uncomfortable appropriating her work, though he grants her request all the same. The last line in the book is “The book shall therefore be mine.” I am not okay with this. This isn’t a nice send-off. Starkadur is a whiny, controlling stalker. Though he does show admiration for Hekla’s talent, it’s always with an edge of jealous insecurity. Instead of using her work as inspiration to improve his own abilities, he quits writing and starts driving a taxi because he is convinced that he will never be able to compete with her greatness WHY DOES HE DESERVE TO HAVE A NOVEL IT’S BEEN A WEEK SINCE I’VE FINISHED THIS AND I’M STILL MAD (ノಥ益ಥ)ノ ┻━┻ AND ALSO I KEEP WANTING TO CALL HIM STARDAKAR BECAUSE I SWEAR HIS NAME LOOKS LIKE SARDAUKAR AND I’VE GOT DUNE BRAIN GAAAAAAH

NOPE! Protagonist:
A main character you dislike, who drives you crazy.

Song Leiyin (Three Souls, Janie Chang). I like the book, but not because of Leiyin. She is a singularly frustrating narrator. She’s not a bad person, but there are moments where she’s so completely awful that you can’t actually sympathize with her situation. She is arrogant, selfish, and almost completely lacking in judgement. For someone who’s supposed to be smarter than her four older siblings, she can be astonishingly stupid. She’s well educated and was at the top of her high school class, but this actually means very little, because she still has no idea how the world works even after being shown a glimpse of it by her stepmother. She starts out with admirable goals but quickly loses sight of the bigger picture the minute she meets Yen Hanchin, a handsome communist. You could literally boil the entire contents of her brain down to “Yen Hanchin! Yen Hanchin! Yen Hanchin!,” because he’s the only thing she thinks about for the rest of her life. I’ve never spent so much time wanting to slap someone.

NOPE! Pairing:
A “ship” you don’t support.

Nitta Sayuri and Toshikazu Nobu (Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden). I’ve never actually gone looking for Memoirs fanfiction, but I know there are Sayuri/Nobu shippers because people will ship anything.

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Nobu didn’t end up with Sayuri because he did not deserve her. I didn’t quite catch this the first time I read the book because I was probably somewhere between 12 and 15, but as an adult I have had it with this “He’s a kind man in his own way” garbage that all his friends keep feeding to Sayuri. He’s not kind. He’s an abusive asshole. He shows a kind of affection to people he likes (e.g., Sayuri), but he’s awful to everyone else. Later in the book, he forces Sayuri to beg and cry for his favor before he agrees to help her. He loses his temper with her even later and slams his hand onto a glass bottle, then tells her not to make him cut himself the next time he asks her for an answer. In case it wasn’t obvious already, she didn’t make him do anything. I’m sorry half his face got blown off, but SAYURI IS NOT HIS REHAB.

NOPE! Plot Twist:
A twist you didn’t see coming and didn’t like.

I technically haven’t reached this twist yet, but I made the mistake of reading the summary for Children of Dune (Frank Herbert) and have learned that Alia Atreides, one of my very favorite characters from Dune, is going around the villain twist because the voices in her head are driving her into literal insanity. I am Not Pleased.

NOPE! Genre:
A genre you will never read.

I really hate romance. I can’t even handle rom-coms. I’ve had to bypass a lot of books that sounded interesting because their summaries all promised romance. Case in point: I really wanted to read All the Stars and Teeth (great title), but I was out the minute the summary mentioned that the protagonist has to strike a deal with a mysterious pirate.

NOPE! Book Format:
Book formatting you hate and avoid buying until it comes out in a different edition.

There’s a specific type of cover material that I cannot physically handle. It’s rough and sandpapery, and every time I touch it it feels like nails on a chalkboard. I don’t know why publishers have to use this stupid material, but it’s prevented me from buying a lot of paperbacks.

NOPE! Trope:
A trope that makes you go NOPE.

Female protagonists who are supposed to be smart but actually aren’t the brightest. Yeah, it’s great having the other characters fawning over the protagonist’s brains and all, but it means nothing if the girl keeps falling into stupid traps that shouldn’t work.

NOPE! Recommendation:
A book recommendation that is constantly pushed at you, that you simply refuse to read.

Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan). A lot of my friends and coworkers have read the book and/or seen the movie, but I don’t do romance. This one poses some difficulty for me because I really want to support Asian American literature, but my fellow Asian American writers are making that very difficult because they seem to keep insisting on writing fucking romances.

NOPE! Cliché:
A cliché or writing pet peeve that always makes you roll your eyes.

The “I Must Not Harm Children Because I Am A Woman” trope. Exhibit A: season 5, episode 8 of Game of Thrones, in which a previously badass woman lays down her weapons and refuses to fight the ravenous ice zombie children who quickly mob and kill her.

NOPE! Love Interest:
The love interest who’s not worthy of being one.

Will Parry (His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman). Lyra was the only thing that series had going for it, because it went straight downhill after The Golden Compass. The Subtle Knife drove me crazy because it should’ve continued Lyra’s story but instead introduced a rude little brute named Will, who quickly became the hero while Lyra politely stepped aside and let him take over. Lyra was kinda bratty, but Will was on a whole other plane of rudeness, on top of which he threatened to kill Lyra the first time he met her. It seemed like Pullman was trying to make him forceful and charismatic, but he was just an ass. The worst part of their “romance” was seeing how much Lyra admired Will, even though he treated her like shit. Give me a fucking break.

NOPE! Book:
A book that shouldn’t have existed.

The entire Fifty Shades series. I’m sorry, but this is fanfiction. I have zero respect for the Twilight series, but it’s still Stephenie Meyer’s intellectual property, and I have no idea how Fifty Shades managed to get published when it’s literally just Twilight with no vampires and more abuse. I read the first book and was able to identify all of the original Twilight characters (major and minor), as well as scenes that were ripped wholesale from Twilight.

NOPE! Villain:
A villain you would hate to cross.

I would be worried if Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar were coming after me (Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman).

NOPE! Death:
A character death that still haunts you.

Abu Sayeed (The Map of Salt and Stars, Zeyn Joukhadar) 😭😭😭

NOPE! Author:
An author you had a bad experience with and have decided to quit.

Christopher Paolini. I tried reading Eragon years ago and couldn’t do it.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Suzanne Collins

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Well, that was a thing.

Somehow I got it into my head this week that it would be neato to read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes at the same time as Dune Messiah. I don’t know what I was thinking because they’re both making my head hurt, though in different ways. I still have 136 pages to go in Dune Messiah, but at least now my brainspace isn’t preoccupied with whether Snow is going to go crazy and murder his girlfriend or not. (Spoiler alert: He does. Maybe.)

To recap, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy, and relates the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, the future president of Panem. Snow starts off as a stellar Academy student on the cusp of graduation, but, while serving as a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games, starts suggesting enhancements to better engage audiences in the Capitol and the districts, most notably the tribute sponsor system. (Fun fact: I’d heard fan rumors that the Hunger Games prequel was going to be about Mags, the victor of the 11th Hunger Games and one of Katniss’s allies in the 75th Hunger Games, and was sorely disappointed to find out that it was in fact about Snow.) He accepts the mentor position in the hopes of winning a university scholarship, as he cannot afford tuition, but is outraged to find himself assigned to Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12. Despite his initial doubts, he finds that Lucy Gray is feisty and not easily subdued, and falls in love with her while trying to keep her alive both before and during the Games. After the Games, circumstances quickly evolve beyond his control, and he starts on a downward spiral of murder and betrayal before finally getting onto the path that will make him the most powerful man in Panem.

I had a lot of problems with this book, all of them relating to Snow’s character and status as protagonist, which I complained about three days ago. I stood by those complaints then, and I stand by them now. I don’t know about you, but following an intensely problematic character for 517 pages makes me feel somehow tainted and unclean. To be clear, Snow’s character is problematic because Collins intended it to be problematic. He is a thoroughly despicable man. He is arrogant, vain, greedy, controlling, cowardly, and frail-minded. Even when helping people not of his immediate family, he is always thinking about what they can do for him in return. When faced with physical threats, he devolves quickly into a paranoid, gun-clutching mess. He unwillingly befriends Sejanus Plinth, a classmate and one of his fellow Games mentors, and pretends to regard him as a brother, but betrays him with hardly any compunction and gets him sent to the gallows, then allows Sejanus’s grief-stricken parents to adopt him as their new heir. The Plinths have no idea that Sejanus was executed based on Snow’s information, and they shower him with gifts and pay for everything he and his family need, which I find infuriating. Snow can’t even say he’s solely responsible for Lucy Gray’s popularity in the Capitol (even though he does say it), because she cultivated her image on her own and actually had to coach him a little bit. He would’ve died in a monkey cage if it hadn’t been for her advice.

I had initially thought that the reader was being asked to sympathize with Snow, but that isn’t entirely the case, which is fortunate because I have no sympathy for him whatsoever. Every time he seems like he might be capable of redeeming himself in some way, he goes and does something hateful and self-serving. I felt genuinely awful for Sejanus, a sweet, sensitive soul who apparently has no idea how to spot a manipulative, conniving asshole and considers Snow his best friend. This impression is cemented by Snow’s habit of pulling Sejanus out of trouble, though he does this only to avoid getting in trouble himself. Most of Snow’s decisions revolve around his own survival and advancement. This is a policy he follows to the letter until the very end, when he becomes convinced that Lucy Gray is trying to kill him and does his best to shoot her before she can. Despite his declarations of love and his desire to run away with her and start a new life far away from the Capitol and the districts, he turns against her with shocking speed and starts trying to annihilate her based on the flimsiest of thought processes. It’s unclear what her intentions actually were because he shoots first and asks questions never, and it is similarly unclear what becomes of her. Like Schrödinger’s cat, like the Lucy Gray in the Wordsworth ballad after which she was named, she is and is not alive, though I suppose she can reasonably be presumed dead by the events of The Hunger Games.

If we leave aside the issues with Snow’s role as protagonist and quasi-hero, the book is fine. It’s better than Mockingjay. That’s a super low bar, but it passed it. It was irritatingly difficult to put down. In the fine tradition set down by the original trilogy, it made me really, really hungry because the characters always seem to be eating amazing foods, even in District 12. (I’m sorry, but I’m a peasant and the fried baloney and potatoes sounded really good to me.) There were some fun callbacks to the original trilogy, such as the moment you realize the Flickermans have apparently cornered the Hunger Games host job. It’s not a book I would read over and over again, but it was interesting to see how the Games got their start before they turned into a full-blown reality show. I appreciated that Snow is never quite presented as hero material: though he gets into dangerous situations and comes out on top, it’s always with his own best interests in mind. His greatest weakness is his crippling paranoia, which inspires his worst impulses and ultimately drives him from the path of sympathy and redemption. His first thought is always for himself. He never gets too caught up in his concern for others, and Collins makes that clear. I was concerned that she might get swept up in romanticizing this earlier, slightly more innocent version of him, but she never does.

And yet, as glad as I was not to see him glorified, his general character still leaves me with one crucial question: Why did we need his story? Is it, as the interview in the back of the book indicates, a philosophical exploration of war theory and human conflict? Is it a YA-themed brawl between Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dumbed down for a younger audience? Is it a reminder that a person who receives multiple chances to redeem him or herself may still make the wrong decision? Or is it more of a cautionary tale, a warning that things can get far, far worse if we forget the original intentions of democracy and allow an autocratic tyrant with no regard for human life to take the reins? It’s a little bit late for that, but thanks for the warning, Suzanne.

Of course, I can talk all I want but the book still got its hooks into me, because I have every intention of rereading the first two books and watching the inevitable movie. See y’all at the theater.

Four and Twenty Tributes Baked in a Pie

WARNING: Spoilers.

This, apparently, is what happens when I have whole weeks off of work: I read all day and post without rhyme or reason. I honestly was going to get something accomplished today but then my scheduled reading time spiraled out of control and long story short I’m now 192 pages into The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

For those not in the know, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy, in which children from twelve districts fight to the death for the pleasure of the privileged. The Hunger Games started as a form of war indemnity extracted from the districts but evolved into a spectacle-driven circus over the 75 years they were held, until they eventually fused into a bizarre cross between a battle royale and a beauty pageant. Songbirds and Snakes explores the origins of Coriolanus Snow, the cruel, money-grubbing showman who serves as the main villain in the original trilogy, and shows how the Games began to evolve from war punishment to murder pageant.

I don’t remember if Snow’s origin story was mentioned at all in Mockingjay and I don’t feel like reading it again just for the sake of checking, but as far as I can tell there hasn’t been any retconning so far. Of course, my memory of the original trilogy is hazy at best because I last read it sometime around 2013, so if anything’s been retconned I probably won’t catch it unless it’s fairly major. In any case, he doesn’t start as a despotic showman; he starts as an ambitious, controlling 18-year-old whose wealthy family has fallen on extremely hard times following an almost decade-long war between the districts and the Capitol. He is given a coveted position as a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games but finds himself stuck mentoring Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12, whose tributes generally die in the first five minutes of the Games. As of page 192, he has made friends with her, and has also (extremely predictably) developed a crush on her, which may or may not be unrequited.

The good stuff first, because there’s less of that: I don’t hate it. I feel more positively disposed towards it than I did by page 192 of Mockingjay. I thought it would be boring and/or hard to get through, based on what others have said, but it goes by pretty quickly. I like that there’s an unintentional mini Hunger Games, with tributes and mentors dying like flies even before the official Games even start. It would’ve been easy for Collins to rehash the original trilogy, but Songbirds and Snakes is actually quite different so far. I like that the Capitol residents aren’t entirely the depraved hedonists they are by Katniss’s time; they may be overprivileged and oblivious, but at least some of them are still aware that the Hunger Games are backwards and barbaric. I like Lucy Gray. I thought that either she was going to get killed in the arena or Suzanne Collins was going to retcon the ending to let her win because I was for some reason convinced that Haymitch was District 12’s only victor, but I checked my copy of The Hunger Games and it does say that District 12 has had two victors in its history, one of whom is (1) dead and (2) unnamed. I’ll be pretty surprised if she doesn’t win, but this is the series that killed Finnick Odair for absolutely no reason, so I suppose it’s anybody’s game.

And now the bad stuff, which can be summed up in one overarching question: Why do we need to humanize President Snow?

I cannot get behind him as a protagonist. I cannot think of him as Coryo, as his family and classmates call him, or even as Coriolanus. He’s President Snow. He will always be President Snow. I don’t care how much he loves his family or how much he suffered in the war because, thanks to the original trilogy, I already know he’ll lose all his redeeming features over the next 64 years. I already know he’s going to commit horrific crimes against his own people. I already know he’s going to sell future Hunger Games victors into sexual slavery. I already know he’s going to dress up the horror of the Games in bright lights and fashion. I already know that no matter how much he may love Lucy Gray, HE’S STILL GOING TO KEEP THE GAMES RUNNING ANYWAY.

This, for me, is the biggest problem in this whole “President Snow is a person too!” narrative. The opportunity to tell his story is a grace he doesn’t deserve, because he’s still going to become probably the most heinous war criminal in Panem history. No one is going to force him into this. This is something he’s going to choose to become, over and over and over again. It’s something he chooses with every crime he commits against the people he’s supposed to protect. The seeds of it are there from the beginning of the book, where he is introduced as a haughty private school brat who’s more worried about the state of his shirt than he is about the state of his country. He spends the first chapter whining about having nothing to eat but cabbage soup, about the damage to the one good shirt that fits him, about his Very Bad Prospects if he fails to produce a Hunger Games victor. Don’t get me wrong: he’s up against some very serious problems. His future and his finances are no laughing matter, but, as much as he complains, he still has food, clothes, and family. He lives in a penthouse, goes to school, has a reasonable chance of getting into college, and has enough social standing to obtain favors from the right people. He is able-bodied and doesn’t appear to suffer from any mental illnesses. His physical needs are more or less adequately met and he will never find himself fighting for his life in the murder arena, which is a damn sight more than children from the districts can say. He does have a fractured relationship with the dean of his Academy, who seems to be out to get him, but that’s his own stupid fault. Cry me a river, dude, because I have no sympathy.

I will say that he’s gotten better over the course of the story, but, again, this doesn’t mean much because it’s going to be straight downhill from here. It’s a little too early to tell if he’s going to come out of this as a hero or not, but, given that he’s going to become the Panem version of Hitler, this seems unlikely. My best guess – and biggest fear – is that the general rationale behind his whole story is going to be something along the lines of “He was really poor for a few years and the girl he liked kicked the bucket, which is why he went crazy.” Because, make no mistake, something is going to happen to Lucy Gray. Even if she wins the Games, which she may very well end up doing by default, I don’t see this having a happy ending. I don’t see Snow ending up as a happily married man. At best he may find some temporary happiness with Lucy Gray, but whatever he gets isn’t going to last unless Collins has planted a major retcon at the end. (For the record, I hope she hasn’t, because that would be beyond lame.) The people in the Capitol generally have this “If you hit us, we hit back twice as hard” mentality, and I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a major factor in Snow’s evolution from schoolboy to tyrant. Of course, it’s equally probable that he’s going to betray and/or abandon Lucy Gray if he finds himself forced to choose between her and his own advancement, which he most likely will at some point.

However this ends up playing out, I can’t reconcile my knowledge of Snow’s future with his (relatively) innocuous present. I’m not okay with him being given a chance to tell his side of a story that should only ever be one-sided. Obviously he’s human just like everyone else and he didn’t spring fully formed from his father’s head, but some origin stories are better left untouched.

P.S. If you’ve already finished the book, don’t tell me what happens.

2020 Mid-Year Book Freak-Out

I normally don’t do back-to-back posts, but in this case I saw the 2020 mid-year book freak-out tag over on Food for Thought so I had to hop on 🤣 I love book tags and I’ve been meaning to do one, so I figured this was as good a place as any to get started!

The links in the first question lead to my reviews/thoughts on each book. Subsequent links in this post will generally lead to the books themselves. For the purposes of this tag, I have chosen to exclude Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling), Three Souls (Janie Chang), and Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman), all of which I had previously read.

Best book you’ve read so far in 2020

Hang tight, I’ve got a list.

  1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
  2. The Great Passage – Shion Miura
  3. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  4. The Map of Salt and Stars – Zeyn Joukhadar
  5. The Book of Longings – Sue Monk Kidd
  6. The Girl with the Louding Voice – Abi Daré
  7. Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2020

I’m going to have to pass on this one. I actually haven’t read any sequels this year, unless you count the Soul Eaters I binged earlier (which, since I haven’t been counting mangas, I don’t).

New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

I was originally on the fence about Mexican Gothic (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), but I’ve been getting more and more interested lately, particularly since it was highly reviewed in the paper. I’m also looking forward to How Much of These Hills Is Gold (C Pam Zhang), which I bought a couple of months ago and haven’t touched since, and Conjure Women (Afia Atakora).

Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

I really really really want to read Girl, Serpent, Thorn (Melissa Bashardoust), which is getting released in two days. I’ve never read Bashardoust, but it’s about a girl who poisons people with a touch and it’s supposed to have LGBT themes so I’m intrigued. And, since I’m bad at this and I can’t pick just one book to be excited about, I’m also looking forward to The Thirty Names of Night (Zeyn Joukhadar), which is about a closeted Syrian American trans boy and sounds heartbreaking. It’ll be great.

Biggest disappointment

The Dove’s Necklace (Raja Alem). I’ve already explained in great length why I was disappointed with this book, so I won’t repeat it here.

Biggest surprise

This one probably has to go to Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Jung Chang). I went into it expecting a dry history textbook and was very pleasantly surprised, even if it did take me two months to finish it.

Favorite new author (debut or new to you)

I’m torn between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus) and Zeyn Joukhadar (The Map of Salt and Stars). Both their books were excellent, and I’m super excited to read more of their works.

Newest fictional crush


Newest favorite character

Gonna have to go with my top eight because I’m so incredibly bad at picking just one of anything sorryyyyyy 😭 I tried ranking the eight but it turned out to be impossible so they’re just listed in the order in which I read their books.

  1. Eleanor Oliphant (Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine)
  2. Red (The Girl in Red)
  3. Aunty Ifeoma (Purple Hibiscus)
  4. Rawiya (The Map of Salt and Stars)
  5. Ana ben Matthias (The Book of Longings)
  6. Adunni (The Girl with the Louding Voice)
  7. Chani (Dune)
  8. Alia Atreides (Dune)

Book that made you cry

Okay, so lately I seem to have become one of those people who weep over books and I now have a goodreads shelf named Heartbreakers, which I’ve built up considerably this year, but The Map of Salt and Stars really did me in. I originally had a list here, but I realized after writing it that Map was the one that made me cry the most.

Book that made you happy

It’s a close call between The Great Passage (Shion Miura) and Chocolat (Joanne Harris). The Great Passage is about a handful of Japanese geeks writing a dictionary, which really spoke to my soul, but Chocolat is set in a charming French village, has lots of chocolate, and is one of the sweetest, kindest books I’ve read in a long time. In other words, it was exactly what I needed to read after Purple Hibiscus smashed my heart to pieces.

Favorite book-to-movie adaptation this year

I haven’t really seen any movies because COVID, but in general I don’t go for book adaptations, (1) because they rarely do them right and (2) because I don’t really like going to the movies. This can vary depending on how excited I am about the movie, but usually I avoid theaters because I can’t just turn off the TV if I don’t like the movie.

That being said, I am still looking forward to the Dune movie coming out in December.

Favorite review you’ve written this year

My best reviews were probably the ones for The Silence of the Girls and The Dove’s Necklace, which were written before I started on my present habit of talking too much in my reviews.

Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received)

The Map of Salt and Stars. I’m a sucker for books with blue covers that remind me of the sea and/or the stars, and this one was just so perfect.

What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

I need to finish the Dune Chronicles before the movie comes out. While the movie only covers the first half of the first book, I still want to read the whole series in case they reference later books. I’m also making it a goal to read the older books on my shelf that haven’t been touched because I keep wanting to get rid of them, but I won’t do that until I’ve actually read them.