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.

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.

June Reading Summary

I’ve got the worst fucking impulse control. The library book drops and the Barnes and Nobles reopened this week, which means I got rid of a stack of books and bought even more books and also a couple of new bookmarks because I buy too many bookmarks.

Also, BN had this sign in the SF section. I died.


June Reading Stats

Books Finished:

  1. The Book of Longings – Sue Monk Kidd
  2. The Girl with the Louding Voice – Abi Daré
  3. SPY X FAMILY 1 – Tatsuya Endo
  4. Dune – Frank Herbert

Total Pages Read: 1,528

If I hadn’t been reading Louding Voice with Jennicorn, I’m not sure I would’ve kicked the reading slump that carried me most of the way through June. Fortunately, since we were buddy-reading, I had greater motivation towards the end of the month and even managed to finish Dune, which I spent most of June avoiding. It didn’t actually take me a month to read it; I zipped through the bulk of it during the last three days of June because I went on a mental health staycation on July 1 and didn’t want Dune hanging over my head during my break.

I’m not really sure why I had such a hard time motivating myself to read Dune, because I actually liked it despite the long rambling chapters that Paul, Jessica, and Liet-Kynes spent lost and hallucinating in the desert. (For the record, those were super fucking long and not a lot of fun to read.) I didn’t really know what to expect from the book and it had some of the hallmarks I would expect from a book written in the ’60s, but overall it held up pretty well mostly because of Chani and Alia my god I need a book that’s just about them being the total badasses that they are. Also I fell hard for the sandworms because they’re nosy and unintentionally destructive and now I really want one for a pet so I can feed my enemies to it.

Next up: Dune Messiah. All of the Dune Chronicles books except for Messiah average 500-700 pages and I have no idea why they have to be so long. My mom’s already told me God Emperor of Dune is the next best after Dune and that’s fourth in the series, so I’ve got a ways to go. Good thing the movie isn’t coming out till December. 😖


Current Reads

I’m currently at 331 pages for July, helped along by my staycation and the week-long readathon I’ve been participating in, both of which have greatly boosted my motivation. I also learned that I’ll be off all of next week as well, which I was less pleased about, but, hey, more time for reading!

Last night I decided I’d start trying to read 100 pages per day, at least for the month of July, which hopefully will help speed me through the rest of the Dune series and keep me from falling into any reading potholes. July got off to a strong start thanks to Heart Berries, which was beautiful and excruciating and short enough for me to finish in one day, and I really want to keep the momentum going for as long as I can. I think it’ll help if I establish a book calendar and don’t waste time dithering over what I’m going to read next. I’m at 50/60 books and have a good shot at making it to 75 if I stay on target, so let’s do this thing!!!

Reading Now

  1. Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
  2. Miss Iceland – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Not to break my arm patting my back, but my reading choices this year have been spot-on so far. There’s been some ups and downs, of course, but I haven’t read anything that I would say was truly awful, which makes a nice change from last year. Last year ended with me slogging through The Amber Spyglass, which – along with The Subtle Knife – was some of the worst crap I’ve ever read. I made it through the His Dark Materials series out of sheer spite, which is really a pity because I loved The Golden Compass. Unfortunately for me, I also read the Chronicles of Prydain right before His Dark Materials, and it was so. Fucking. BORING. I feel like I might have enjoyed it at least somewhat if I’d read it as a kid, but even that I kind of doubt.

Anyway.

2020’s reading choices have been a lot better than the ones I made at the end of 2019, and my current reads are no exception. Homegoing starts with two half-sisters born in Ghana in the eighteenth century and then follows their descendants as they make their way to America. The book is structured as several interconnecting short stories; each story follows one character through one defining moment in their life, after which their story ends, unless they appear in another character’s chapter. You’d think there wouldn’t be enough time to get attached to the extensive cast, but you’d be so wrong. I’m planning to finish this one tonight, because it’s endlessly fascinating and almost impossible to put down. (I also really appreciate the inclusion of the family tree at the very beginning, without which I might be slightly more confused.)

Miss Iceland has also been good to me so far, though I made the same mistake I made with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and assumed Miss Iceland would be lighthearted fun. It’s not. However, since it talks about LGBTQ rights, I’m not inclined to complain. (I also managed to snatch the only copy on the shelf at BN when I went looking for it. Coincidence? Fate? Either one works for me.)

Miss Iceland is the story of Hekla Gottskálksdóttir, a young woman in early-1960s Iceland, who was named after a volcano and wishes to become a published writer. To that end, she packs a copy of Ulysses, a typewriter, and her first manuscript and takes the bus from her family’s farm to Reykjavík, where she moves in with her queer friend Jón John. So far she’s encountered sexism, harassment, and homophobia (against Jón), and if she doesn’t get published by the end of this I’m going to scream.

I’ll admit that I don’t love the writing. It’s full of things that normally drive me crazy, but I’m not sure if that’s specific to the author or if it’s a general style among Icelandic writers. Despite my issues, however, I really love this book so far, and it’s making me want to read Ulysses. It’s also making me want to investigate traditional Icelandic literature, which the characters reference frequently.

Reading Next

  1. The Forest of Wool and Steel – Natsu Miyashita
  2. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – Suzanne Collins
  3. Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson
  4. Conjure Women – Afia Atakora
  5. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve had The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes on my shelf since it arrived in May and I haven’t heard amazing things about it, so I kinda wanna get it over with because it’s kind of a chunkster and there’s a lot of other things I want to read. Wish me luck, I’m hoping it’s not too disappointing. If it’s at least better than Mockingjay, I’ll be satisfied.

I have much higher hopes for Americanah: I read Purple Hibiscus back in April, so I already know I like Adichie, and I’ve also heard good things about Conjure WomenThe Forest of Wool and Steel was totally random, but I fell in love with the cover because I do judge books by their covers and I like Japanese literature, so I had to order it. Monkey Beach I’ve already read, but that was about 12 years ago so I figured a refresh couldn’t hurt.


General Life Update

This week has been a lot better than most of June, which I suppose shouldn’t surprise me because that’s generally what happens when I actually take time for myself. I honestly thought I’d just be vegging on the couch this week, but I’ve actually been surprisingly productive. So far during this staycation I’ve gotten rid of my library books, visited the bookstore three times, gone to the beach, eaten in an actual restaurant that served the best crab cakes I’ve ever had, gotten a pile of reading done, and bought a new shoulder rest for my violin. Vera’s gotten into a bad habit over the years of ejecting my Kun shoulder rest, which is why she now wears a girdle.

TRY EJECTING THAT ONE, VERA. (Which, now that I’ve said that, she probably will. 😞)

In other news, I finally watched Hamilton for the first time! (Yes, really.) I’ll be the first to admit that I wouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars for a Hamilton ticket because I wouldn’t spend that kind of money on any ticket, but I love the production streaming on Disney Plus. The smackdown between Jefferson and Hamilton was hands down my favorite scene, and I’m looking forward to the DVD. The only trouble is that now I’ve got fucking George III’s fucking song stuck in my head gorrammit 🤬


Random-Ass Brain Fart

I bought reusable face masks yesterday. This was not the brain fart.

The brain fart happened when I walked into the Arlington CVS and came face to face with racks of wine and for a hot second thought that Virginia really was a different place until I realized that I was in fact standing in a Target that happened to have a CVS in the back. #headdesk

On the bright side, my masks were accompanied by this hilariously misspelled sign, which made me feel somewhat better about myself.

Book Bites 3

Happy Sunday!

I’ve realized recently that I have a tendency to fall into reading slumps the minute I finish whatever book I’ve been reading. I finished two books this week, but I’m trying not to get hit by a double dose of the reading doldrums because so help me I am going to finish Dune before my vacation time starts on Wednesday. I’ve been trying to motivate myself to read Dune for the better part of a month, and I refuse to have it hanging over me during my staycation.

As a side note, I seem to have gotten into a pattern of reading heartbreaking books with beautiful writing lately. However, since all of the heartbreakers I’ve read this year have been amazing, I’m not inclined to complain.

Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.

Theme of the week: Books that broke my fuckin’ heart.


The Book of Longings
Sue Monk Kidd

The Book of Longings tells the story of Ana, wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth, and her life before and after her marriage. She begins as an impetuous fourteen-year-old, educated and ambitious. Guided and encouraged by her incredibly badass aunt Yaltha, she grows into a fearless writer, a feminist far ahead of her time, who strives to tell the stories of women who have been silenced. After her first marriage falls through, she marries the twenty-year-old Jesus against overwhelming odds, and joins his family in Nazareth. Over the course of the book she makes friends with a goat, sets animals loose in a temple on a whim, and finds ways to save her writing from her arson-minded parents. In case this wasn’t obvious already, she’s really fucking cool, and I want to be like her when I grow up.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the characterization of Ana and Jesus. She calls him “Beloved”; he calls her “Little Thunder.” They are literally the cutest couple. Ana is fierce, hilarious, and iron-willed. She makes impulsive decisions, but she’s not stupid. She’s strong and resourceful, and she finds ways to get what she wants. Jesus is kind, hard-working, and loving. He sees Ana exactly as she is, and he loves her for it.

“I’m unsuited for you,” I said. “Certainly you know this…I have ambitions as men do. I’m racked with longings. I’m selfish and willful and sometimes deceitful. I rebel. I’m easy to anger. I doubt the ways of God. I’m an outsider everywhere I go. People look on me with derision.”

“I know all of this,” he said.

“And you would still have me?”

“The question is whether you will have me.”

Unlike other men of his era, Jesus delights in Ana’s spirit. He never orders her to be demure or ladylike. He encourages her to write and supports her use of birth control, despite his own desire for children. When Ana’s herbs fail her and she becomes pregnant, he celebrates with her; when their daughter is stillborn, he grieves with her. Though they don’t talk about it much, he later tells her he would’ve called their daughter “Littlest Thunder,” which broke my heart into a million tiny pieces. Throughout the course of their marriage, Jesus frequently goes away in order to find work, but he always returns to Ana.

Unfortunately, their peaceful life cannot last, and after several years Jesus starts to feel he is being called to a higher purpose. After a brief stint with John the Baptist (here referred to as “John the Immerser”), Jesus begins to spread his own teachings, gaining a huge following of people who name him King of the Jews. This puts him at odds with Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea, who feels he is better suited to the title than Jesus. After warning Herod’s first wife that Herod intends to kill her following his second marriage, Ana flees to Alexandria to avoid arrest, and spends the final two years of her marriage separated from Jesus. During her second year in Egypt, she and Yaltha find refuge with the Therapeutae, a religious sect with whom Yaltha had previously lived. Eventually Ana receives word from her adopted brother Judas that it is more or less safe for her to return to Galilee, but her journey suffers multiple setbacks, and she arrives in time to find Jesus being paraded through the streets on his way to his crucifixion.

The rest of Jesus’s life should be fairly clear to anyone even vaguely informed on his general life and times, but Ana’s story doesn’t end with his. After his death, she returns to Alexandria to live with the Therapeutae*, eventually becoming their leader, and dedicates the rest of her life to her writing. At the end of the book she buries a copy of her writings to save them from possible future destruction, and leaves the secret of their location with other members of the Therapeutae, to be handed down from generation to generation. I didn’t really know going in what to expect from this book, but that ending was absolutely perfect. If you haven’t already, add this book to your reading list, because everybody needs to read it.

*Just to be clear, the Therapeutae live on the shore of Lake Mareotis, backed by cliffs and with a clear view of the water. They spend their mornings in engaged in the work that keeps them all alive (farming, animal care, etc.) and their afternoons engaged in spiritual work (reading and writing). I have no words to explain how jealous I am. I feel like I could live with the religious angle if I were allowed to spend all my time reading and writing.


The Girl with the Louding Voice
Abi Daré

I am a word snob. My opinion of a given author’s facility for words will make or break my opinion of the book itself, regardless of its actual story, so I want you to take my full meaning when I say that the broken English employed in The Girl with the Louding Voice did not bother me. I don’t know how Daré did it, but the language she used was so beautiful and so well done that, even though it didn’t fit within English grammatical norms, I never struggled to understand what she was saying. Everything she wrote made perfect sense, and it used the language in ways that would never have occurred to me. Jennicorn and I read this one together, and we were both blown away.

The Girl with the Louding Voice tells the story of fourteen-year-old Adunni, who lives in Ikati, a village in Nigeria. Her first language is Yoruba, but she and everyone else typically communicate in rudimentary English. Adunni wants nothing more than to go to school in order to get a good job and develop a “louding voice,” a voice so loud that people will listen to what she says, but she is forced to stop school when her mother dies and her tuition money runs out. Even faced with these obstacles, Adunni continues to study on her own and starts teaching her eleven-year-old brother, Kayus, as well as other children who haven’t had the chance to go to school. All of this ends, however, when she is sold to Morufu, a twice-married taxi driver old enough to be her father. I mean that literally, not hyperbolically. His eldest daughter is Adunni’s age. He already has two wives, Labake and Khadija, but the minute you get to his compound and you see his four daughters you know exactly why he wants a third wife. Morufu is not shy about his reasons; he tells Adunni that he fully expects her to give him a son, and he also tells Khadija that if her fourth child is not a boy, he will send her back to her father’s house and let them all starve to death.

Adunni endures several months of torture, both from Morufu and Labake, but Khadija is a kind-hearted woman who befriends Adunni and helps her to survive, even helping her with her homemade birth control. Things abruptly take a turn for the worse when Khadija dies, and Adunni goes on the run, knowing she may be executed for Khadija’s death, even though she had nothing to do with it. She eventually ends up in the hands of Kola, a man who makes his living selling young girls as maids to wealthy families, and is sold to a woman named Big Madam, in whose house she suffers horrific abuse. While working for Big Madam, she learns that the last housemaid, Rebecca, was raped and groomed by Big Madam’s husband before going missing, and she begins to worry that she’ll share Rebecca’s fate, which is an entirely reasonable concern. One of the more troubling patterns in the book is the ways in which the women are screwed over by the men they know, which I’ve enumerated below.

Adunni’s Father
Adunni’s father marries her to a man so old he already has four children and has to take drugs before he can get it up.

Morufu
Morufu frequently threatens his wives with beatings, starvation, and death. He makes Khadija so desperate for a son that she conceives her fourth child with Bamidele, the man she originally wanted to marry, whose family produces mostly boys. He also marries his eldest daughter, Kike, to a significantly older man in order to get rid of her.

Bamidele
Bamidele tells Khadija that the women in his family have to bathe in the Kere River before giving birth, and that the ones who didn’t have all died. When her baby starts to come a month early, Khadija goes to Bamidele, believing he will help her with the bathing ritual, but he instead runs away and leaves her to die on the riverbank, presumably to keep everyone from finding out that he had an affair.

Kola
Kola tells Adunni he will collect her wages for her and bring them to her after her first three months, but predictably absconds with the money. When Adunni brings this up to Kofi, Big Madam’s chef, he tells her that Kola did the same thing to Rebecca.

Big Daddy
Big Madam’s husband, Big Daddy, is a useless alcoholic fuckboy who spends his days chasing after other women while Big Madam does all the work and makes all the money. While Big Madam is in the hospital visiting her sister, Big Daddy watches TV and demands cupcakes from Kofi. When Big Madam calls him out on his bullshit, he beats her. He also raped and groomed Rebecca prior to the events of the story. He got her pregnant and convinced her he was going to marry her, but gave her a drug to make her miscarry at four months, after which Big Madam kicked her out of the house. He attempts to groom Adunni as well, offering her money to try to win her over, but finally snaps and tries to rape her. Big Madam so resents his courtship that she treats Adunni more harshly than she treated any of her previous maids.

Dr. Ken Dada
While working for Big Madam, Adunni meets Tia Dada, who is kind to her and later becomes her tutor. Tia’s husband is infertile but doesn’t see fit to share this information with her because he believes she will never want children. As a result, his mother pressures Tia into a fertility ritual that is supposed to be a bath but actually turns out to be a vicious flogging intended to drive out “the evil of childlessness.” Adunni, who encouraged Tia to go through with the bath, is horrified and guilt-stricken at the brutality of the flogging.

I want to ask why [Tia’s husband] didn’t come too. Why didn’t he come and get a beating like his wife? If it takes two people to make a baby, why only one person, the woman, is suffering when the baby is not coming? Is it because she is the one with breast and the stomach for being pregnant? Or because of what? I want to ask, to scream, why are the women in Nigeria seem to be suffering for everything more than the men?

Good questions, Adunni. I wish I had answers. And yet, even with everything that Adunni has been through, even after everything she and the other women have suffered, the book isn’t completely without light. Adunni is smart, hard-working, and feisty as hell. The morning after her wedding night, she has this to say:

The knife make me wonder evil a moment. Make me think, if I take that knife and keep inside my dress, then when Morufu want to rough me this night, I just bring it out and slice off his man-areas.

Upon learning that Kola will run away with her money, this is her first thought:

“You mean he will be running away with my moneys?” I ask, feeling my heart begin to climb up and down, up and down. “Because I swear I will be finding that man and knocking his head with this too-big shoe on my feets.”

Good Lord, I hope she never changes. I seriously doubt that she will; she has a strong personality, and, despite the number of people who tell her to sit down and shut up throughout the story, she persists in asking questions and learning as much as she can. Though she initially sees herself as unworthy of attention, owing to a lifetime of dismissal and abuse, she spends the book learning to see herself instead as a person of value, a person who deserves to live her life the way she wants to, a person who can help strengthen Nigeria. She never loses sight of this goal, and, with help from Kofi and Tia, she eventually wins a scholarship and manages to leave the world of servitude behind, hopefully forever.

This is what I mean when I say that I seem to have gotten into a cycle of heartbreaking books, because Louding Voice broke my heart so many times and in so many inventive ways, both happy and sad. I am now officially that person who cries over books. Like with The Map of Salt and Stars, I was and still am abjectly grateful that Louding Voice has a happy ending, because it wasn’t always clear that it would. I was expecting Adunni to win the scholarship, but the story could just as easily have gone the other way. It could have made Adunni lose everything. It could have turned her into the next Rebecca, and I’m so glad that it didn’t.


Final Thoughts

Both of these books were amazing and I want to read them again, which is why I now have them in audio form as well. I’m a borderline obnoxiously fussy reader but I had no problems with either of these books, which should really tell you something. I only had one tiny gripe with the cover of Louding Voice, which is a gripe I have with the publisher and the industry in general rather than with the book itself. Please stand by, I’m going to have a quick tantrum…

WHAT IS THIS CRAP ON MY COVER?

Dear Publishers,

You seriously need to stop putting this shit on my book covers because it is pissing me off. I don’t give two shits who recommends this book. I’m still going to read it anyway. I’d read it even if Margaret Atwood said she hated it. I’m a grown-ass woman and I can decide for myself if the book sounds interesting or not. I don’t care about this “Read with Jenna” nonsense. I had to Google that to find out which fucking Jenna you were talking about. I’m mad that it’s not a sticker and I can’t remove it. This cover is so beautiful and so perfect and there’s this stupid little “Read with Jenna” circle messing it up. I’m also mildly annoyed that the author of American Dirt is quoted on the cover. I refuse to read American Dirt, which pirates the work of better writers with minimal effort, and I feel like it’s already received more than enough air time without crawling onto other writers’ books.

I told you I was fussy.

Obviously, none of this is the fault of either the author or the book. My reading was not stained by this dumbass permanent sticker on the cover. With or without the sticker, The Girl with the Louding Voice is an absolute must-read.

The Map of Salt and Stars

The Map of Salt and Stars
Zeyn Joukhadar

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


I’m going to have to start a list of the best books I’ve read this year. Back in March I proclaimed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine to be one of the best books I’d read in 2020 but we were only three months into the year, so what the hell did I know? My opinion of Eleanor Oliphant still stands, but she’s no longer alone on the pedestal because The Map of Salt and Stars was the best book I read in May and possibly the very best I’ve finished as of this writing. (I say “finished” because I’m currently 58% of the way through The Girl with the Louding Voice which is HOMGWONDERFUL so Eleanor Oliphant and Map are going to have some very stiff competition by the end of the week.)

The Map of Salt and Stars follows a twelve-year-old Syrian American girl, Nour, whose world turns upside down when her family relocates from New York to Syria following the death of her father. The move is less of a hardship for her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, who were born in Syria, but Nour is unfamiliar with Syria and struggles to communicate with its Arabic-speaking residents, as she finds she is far less fluent than she thought. To cope with her grief for her father and her sudden move to a country she does not know, Nour begins to recount for herself the story of Rawiya, a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to become the apprentice of legendary mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi. Nour’s story alternates with Rawiya’s, and their journeys mirror each other throughout the course of the book as both girls fight to find their places in their respective worlds.

Half of the book is devoted to Nour’s story as she and her family travel together in search of safety after their house is shelled during the Syrian Civil War. On the road to Jordan they meet another family headed by a woman named Umm Yusuf, who is moving her daughter and a friend to Amman, and the two families stick together until differing opinions cause them to separate. Following complications with the shoulder wound Huda received when their house was shelled, Nour and Zahra are forced to strike off on their own in a desperate attempt to reach their uncle’s house on the northern coast of Africa while their mother takes Huda to the hospital, with the promise that she will catch up with them.

There are so many things to love about Nour’s story. The characters are wonderful. I particularly loved Abu Sayeed, a family friend who calls Nour “little cloud,” and Huda. I even ended up loving Zahra, who starts the book as a crappy teenager but is forced to grow up very quickly. I loved the inclusion of synesthesia, a rare condition of which I know very little, under which Nour associates sounds and smells with specific colors and shapes. And yet, though this is a condition to which relatively few of us can relate, it’s woven into the narrative so seamlessly that you don’t really question it.

Oil and fat sizzle in a pan, popping up in yellow and black bursts in my ears. The colors of voices and smells tangle in front of me like they’re projected on a screen: the peaks and curves of Huda’s pink-and-purple laugh, the brick-red ping of a kitchen timer, the green bite of baking yeast.

I was mildly confused at first, but as I got to know Nour a bit better it started to make more and more sense. Though her condition sets her apart, in the end she reaches safety by following a map her mother painted specifically for her, a map color-coded based on Nour’s “color game,” in which different letters are associated with different colors. Her synesthesia is never treated as a weakness, or as a hurdle that must be overcome. It is celebrated as a strength, a quality that both empowers her and makes her uniquely herself. Zahra ridicules her in the beginning, but she never lets herself be shamed for being different. And, though Zahra seems to have zero redeeming features in chapter 1, over the course of the book you come to understand that she’s been closing herself off and lashing out at everyone else out of grief for her father. You learn that she chose a less constructive method of grieving, but you also learn that she can still grow. She matures tremendously while traveling to safety with Nour; she isn’t permanently stained by the decisions she made before getting hit hard with a huge dose of perspective. It’s wonderful.

That being said, I can’t mince this: This book will break your heart, repeatedly, and then stomp on the pieces. I spent most of it wondering why everything has to happen to Huda because literally everything seems to happen to Huda, who is one of the kindest, gentlest characters in the book. She is the only person injured when the house is shelled. She suffers serious infections and complications from her wound, most likely because she doesn’t receive as much medical care as she actually needs and is forced to travel through several countries, all of which are hotter than hell, during a very short time frame. She is dragged into an alley and almost raped by two bored boys. She almost dies of a fever related to her shoulder wound and has to have part of her arm amputated as a result. Through it all, she consistently remains a kind, thoughtful sister to Nour, who adores her and calls her “Huppy,” and who fights like hell to keep those bored boys from getting what they want. In the end the boys are chased off by Abu Sayeed before they can carry out their evil plans, but then the book hits you with this:

I look up at Huda, but she won’t look at me. I wonder if “almost” can cost you as much as “did,” if the real wound is the moment you understand that you can do nothing.

The heartbreak is all the more acute because it’s so beautifully written.

The other half of the book is less depressing because it is devoted to Rawiya, who leaves home at sixteen to apprentice herself to al-Idrisi. (Apparently I need to read more carefully because I was picturing her as Nour’s age the whole time so it was a surprise when the story fast-forwarded six years and she was suddenly 24, but whatever.) She leaves not for personal glory, but to try to bring money to her mother, who is extremely poor. Disguised as a young man named Rami, Rawiya impresses al-Idrisi by answering three riddles, and accompanies him on his two-year journey to create the Tabula Rogeriana. Over the course of the journey it becomes clear that Rawiya is not just an extremely clever sixteen-year-old, she’s also an unstoppable badass. Desert storms? No problem. Rude, overbearing soldiers? No problem. Murderous birds the size of mountains? NO PROBLEM. While her male companions wail and fret, Rawiya is out there gettin’ shit done, usually just armed with a sling, and I am HERE FOR IT. She never lets her gender decide what she can and can’t do. She never longs to be a man; she never curses the fate that made her a woman. While battling soldiers in King Roger’s palace, she gives the best line in the book:

I am a woman and a warrior. If you think I can’t be both, you’ve been lied to.

Eventually she falls in love with sensitive poet Khaldun, who swore fealty to her after she fixed his biggest problem, and reveals her true identity to him while they are imprisoned by Almohad warriors. She worries that he will angrily reject her, but instead he does this:

Khaldun knelt before her and lowered his face. “Whoever you are, I am at your service,” he said, “for saving my life and my honor. I only hope God will grant me the courage and the opportunity to return the favor. Man or woman, I have promised to follow you until the day I die, and I will keep my pledge.”

WHAT A MAN. 😭❤️ Al-Idrisi takes the news slightly less well and spends a few minutes lamenting her deception during their final battle with the vengeful roc that’s been pursuing them for most of their journey, but eventually he comes around:

Al-Idrisi called out to Rawiya, “I was wrong to judge your secret. Though I never told you, I had a wife and daughter in Ceuta. They drowned in the strait, crossing from Ceuta to al-Andalus. You have all the courage and strength I would have wished for my daughter. Nothing can change that.”

Then there’s this magical moment, where the entire male crew realizes she’s just saved their collective ass and is actually grateful:

As Khaldun helped Rawiya to her feet, al-Idrisi drew his scimitar. Taking it in both hands, he bowed his head and knelt. He offered the blade to Rawiya, saying, “Forgive me.”

“There is no need,” Rawiya said, holding her ribs. “We have both given up our secrets, both lost something precious. I have only done my duty for my friends.”

But soon the whole crew followed. The Norman sailors went silent and knelt on the deck. Soon the ship was an unbroken carpet of bowed heads.

Seriously, somebody please turn this into a TV show so I can watch this one scene.

Final Thoughts

The Map of Salt and Stars is magical, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. One of my favorite elements of the book, at least as far as design goes, is the poems that precede each section, which take the shape of the countries Nour and her family visit. I cannot recommend this book enough (and I also can’t stress enough how grateful I am that it had a happy ending).

If you’re unfamiliar with Arabic, like I am, I also recommend the audiobook so you can figure out how to pronounce all the names. As an added bonus, the print book includes a thoughtful, informative author’s note, in which Joukhadar discusses his research and talks a bit about the Imazighen (singular “Amazigh”), an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, who briefly appear in the book. Though their history is not fleshed out, Joukhadar encourages the reader to learn more about them and recommends a couple of Amazigh authors, whose works I will be reading in the future.

If you’re not sure about this book, read it anyway. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I can’t wait to read more of Joukhadar’s works.

Book Bites 2

I have got to learn to bake scones.

Scones seem to be a predominant theme in cozy mysteries, or at least in the ones I’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks. First there was The Secret, Book & Scone Society, which features a bakery that specializes in “comfort scones” completely customized to each diner. Then there was Brownies and Broomsticks, whose protagonist regularly bakes cheddar-sage scones. Fortunately for me, Brownies and Broomsticks at least had the decency to include recipes in the back.

I’ve been curious about cozy mysteries for a while and liked the general idea of the genre, so I finally decided to investigate. And I can’t mince this: the writing really threw me for a loop. My judgement of books is generally predicated on the quality of their writing. If the writing is bad or typo-ridden, it’s very unlikely I’ll give the book a good rating. The fact that I gave the first two books I read four stars apiece is a testament to the addicting nature of the stories, and possibly also to my newfound ability to lower my standards. (Look, that tends to happen as you get older and more disappointed with the world. I’m not proud of myself, I’m just saying.) I had originally planned to give each book three stars because that was what I honestly thought they deserved until probably about the last quarter, when everything suddenly became fascinating and the endings turned out to be extremely satisfying*. I don’t know how they managed to hook me in, because the writing was uniformly awful. The prose was dumb. The dialogue was bad. The first two books read like they were ripped off of Wattpad. One of the three seemed to have a typo every other word, either because it wasn’t proofread or because the proofreaders didn’t know what they were doing. Two of the three had at least one serious error involving a homonym. I get that we’re all human and there’s only so much we can do, but the number of errors I’ve found in these books is ridiculous. It’s almost like the publishers are cutting out the proofreaders so they can print these faster, though it wouldn’t surprise me if they were.

In any case the writing clearly hasn’t put me off yet because I’ve read two of these things and am working on a third, so I suppose we’d better get on with it.

Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.

Theme of the week: Cozy mysteries.

*UPDATE 8/7/2020: I’ve downgraded them to three stars because, in retrospect, they really don’t deserve four.


To Helvetica and Back
Paige Shelton

I’m a graphic designer and a card-carrying type/print nerd, so To Helvetica and Back seemed like a great place to start. This was the one that most convinced me that proofreading is not A Thing anymore, because it has at least one major continuity error, the prose is repetitive, and it gratuitously dips into the pluperfect several times mid-scene for absolutely no reason. There were innumerable typos that I would consider common among native English-speakers on the internet, but which are inexcusable in a professionally published work. It also became clear to me that Shelton doesn’t know the difference between “discrete” and “discreet.”

The valley was spectacular though. You could see part of the monastery’s walls and a few discrete houses around the perimeter.

Generally I take it for granted that most houses are separate units, given that we’d be calling them townhouses if they weren’t, so I’m assuming the intention here was to describe the houses as unobtrusive. I weep for the future of English.

The trouble for me, at least as far as abandoning this book and my headache went, was that the story was irritatingly addicting and I needed to know what was going to happen because I’m nosy as hell. The narrator, Clare Henry, is a mid-to-late-twenties (I think?) dork who works at The Rescued Word, a typewriter repair shop owned by her grandfather, Chester. Her duties also include restoring vintage books, selling stationery, and supervising her 17-year-old niece, Marion, who handles the custom stationery orders. They have a resident cat named Baskerville, son of their first cat, Arial. This shop is fucking GOALS. The details are something that Shelton actually did really, really well, because the type nerd in me was screaming like a little girl and wondering why The Rescued Word couldn’t be real and in Maryland. (And then, like the type snob I am, I started thinking I would’ve named my imaginary cats Avenir and Aperçu. Go figure.)

Clare and Chester generally have a quiet time at the shop, but things turn upside down when they discover a dead body in the alley out back of the shop, and they get swept into a murder investigation. Along the way Clare discovers strange numbers and letters scratched into the bars of a client’s typewriter and meets a hunky geologist, Seth Cassidy, who asks her out after she restores his copy of Tom Sawyer. I normally don’t go for romance, but this one was unobtrusive enough that I didn’t mind it. It was an important part of the story, but it didn’t overtake the plot. Seth was adorably dorky and apparently makes a mean lasagna, and I actually really liked him, even though I was suspicious of him for half the book. Their relationship almost seemed to be going a little too smoothly, though from what I’ve seen from both Helvetica and Book & Scone that seems to be somewhat typical for the genre.

Overall this book was kind of a mixed bag. It was riddled with typos, the dialogue was clunky, and the prose was just cringey, which is a shame because the book was actually genuinely funny.

Jodie honked the horn, causing Seth to jump and turn toward us.

Jodie smiled and waved. Seth waved hesitantly, until Jodie pointed at me in the passenger seat. Then Seth smiled and waved back confidently.

“It’s a wonder anyone has ever wanted to date either of us,” I said without moving my lips from a smile.

JFC. This is what I meant when I said these books read like they were ripped off of Wattpad. I loved this exchange until I got to “without moving my lips from a smile.” That sentence should have ended after “I said.” If Shelton was really convinced that I, the reader, would not understand that Clare was joking without her help, then she maybe could’ve written “‘It’s a wonder anyone has ever wanted to date either of us,’ I said, still smiling,” or something similar.

My other major gripe was that the plot was pretty predictable. There were a couple of twists that I didn’t see coming, but the general shape of it isn’t hard to grasp when you see these numbers:

11111438802966NW

I’m not sure why everyone in the book had such a hard time figuring out what these were. I mean, come on, those are clearly coordinates. Even if you don’t know how many digits there are in coordinates – I didn’t – the NW should give it away, and did give it away in my case. Given that there were coordinates scratched onto the typewriter and given that somebody was murdered shortly after demanding said typewriter, it wasn’t a big stretch to figure out that those coordinates probably led to a treasure of some kind. (Spoiler alert: I was right.) It also seemed clear to me that Seth would be able to identify those numbers, which he was.

Despite all these problems, I thought this was a good first installment: it was interesting, it was funny, it was easy to read, and it introduced me to an engaging cast of characters. I love The Rescued Word and I wish I could live in it. I probably won’t be pursuing this series, because I read the synopses of the next two books and wasn’t wildly intrigued, but I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things during this quarantine and may very well change my mind about this.


The Secret, Book & Scone Society
Ellery Adams

I usually don’t buy scones unless there’s literally nothing else to eat in the bakery case. This book is going to change that because Merlin’s Beard I really want a scone right now.

The story is narrated by Nora Pennington, a thirty-something woman living in Miracle Springs, North Carolina. Miracle Springs is a healing destination, and Nora has established herself as the owner of Miracle Books, a defunct train depot that she bought and turned into a bookstore. Her store is packed with books and shelf enhancers (tchotchkes used to brighten up the bookshelves), and she also provides comfortable chairs and coffee for those who want to sit and read. She calls herself a “bibliotherapist,” which means she helps people overcome their private issues by recommending a certain set of books for them to read. When a prospective client is murdered, Nora is called in to give a witness statement and connects with June Dixon and Hester Winthrop, who also met this client shortly before his death. Despite their testimony, the death is ruled a suicide by the corrupt sheriff, and the three women form the Secret, Book & Scone Society along with Estella Sadler, who owns the salon next door to Miracle Books. Together they make it their mission to solve the case and ultimately succeed, sharing their most intimate traumas with each other throughout the course of the book.

Bad news first: The writing in Book & Scone was just as cringey as it was in Helvetica, and the dialogue was pretty bad. On the other hand, there weren’t as many typos, so maybe it went through some form of proofing, and the book overall is funny and interesting, though the characters tend to fall into archetypes more easily than they do in Helvetica. There’s the shy, traumatized woman who just wants to keep herself to herself and avoids men like the plague. There’s the “town Jezebel,” who dresses provocatively and dates whatever she can get her hands on but – surprise! – has daddy issues. There’s the one obligatory character of color, who literally seems to be on her own as far as diversity goes. There’s the former “good girl” who made a mistake and became estranged from her family. And there is, of course, the evil real estate agency whose leadership has been popping in and out of each other’s beds and defrauding  local townsfolk on a grand scale.

Honestly, I don’t mind the archetypes too much. The characters were still fairly engaging, even if they were a bit flat. I don’t really know what it is, but I didn’t get into them as much as I’ve gotten into others; still, they weren’t unsympathetic, and they didn’t ruin the story, though they could on occasion be irritating.

“If you threaten those things, Estella, he’ll be your enemy. And what if we’re not around to rescue you the next time he gets angry?”

“I’ve never needed rescuing. I’m no helpless princess,” Estella snapped.

Before June could reply, Nora performed a referee’s time-out gesture.

Gag. Personally I would’ve said “Nora made a time-out gesture,” but that’s just me. And the thing is, Estella did need rescuing. She baited a terrible man and then started asking him stupid questions like “Just how ruthless are you, Fenton? Would you pay someone to push your partner in front of a train?” What the fuck? I thought these women were supposed to be smart. It’s true that Estella was smart enough to make sure she wasn’t truly alone with this man, but luring an entitled prick to a pool at night, stripping naked, and asking him really unsubtle questions about his possible role in a murder doesn’t seem smart to me. What exactly was the plan if her friends hadn’t been there? Would she have been able to fight him off, or was she banking on her friends to save her? Did she have any plans in the event that he, oh, I don’t know, maybe came to her salon after hours and tried to assault her again? Fill me in, Estella, because I’m kinda lost. I’m a huge fan of the “I Rescue Myself” thing, but I really don’t think the poolside interrogation would’ve ended well if June hadn’t intervened.

Of course, none of this really matters, because I will be continuing with this series. I can complain as much as I want, but in the end I can’t resist a series based around a bookstore and a scone shop. There’s two more books after this one, so I’ll be all set when the fourth one comes out in January. Maybe I’ll even have learned to bake scones by then. We’re still in lockdown and you can learn a lot when you’re bored, so the sky’s the limit.


Brownies and Broomsticks
Bailey Cates

I’m only on page 123, but Cates writes better than Shelton and Adams and I’m a sucker for witches and bakeries. The story is narrated by Katie Lightfoot, a 28-year-old pastry school graduate who’s just signed on as the head baker at Honeybee, a Savannah-based bakery owned by her Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ben. Aunt Lucy and Katie’s mother are hedgewitches, which means Katie is too, because it’s hereditary. Their powers deal primarily with herbcraft, which is why Katie has always had a green thumb, to the point where she jokes that she couldn’t kill a plant if she tried. While preparing for Honeybee’s grand opening, Katie meets Mavis Templeton, a grouchy old bitch who threatens to shut down Honeybee before getting her neck broken, most likely by somebody whose life she ruined. To be clear, I am 100% onboard with this. The back cover describes Mavis as “curmudgeonly.” This is an extremely generous term. I was picturing an endearingly crabby old man with a heart of gold. Mavis Templeton is a wealthy, entitled c*** who has no qualms about using her money and influence to shut down businesses, get people blacklisted within their industries, and just generally destroy lives. She can’t even be bothered to pay the full catering fee she agreed to in writing, and that kind of behavior infuriates me. She gets bumped off on page 32 and that’s still not soon enough because she is genuinely awful and I will be so pissed off if I get asked to feel sorry for her later. The book is kinda hinting that she might become more sympathetic later.

My overall impressions so far have been positive. I really really really love the premise. I had a feeling going into this book that this might be the one cozy mystery series that really gets me invested in the genre, because it’s pretty much what I was looking for. It’s funny and easy to read, it’s not badly written, and it has a magical bakery and a little black Cairn terrier named Mungo the Magnificent, who might or might not become Katie’s animal familiar. (I figure it’s either that or he’s a human who crossed the wrong witch, but I’m okay with that as long as he stays a dog.) If you don’t know what a Cairn terrier is, look them up because they’re seriously adorable. There are amazing foods scattered liberally throughout the 123 pages I’ve read, including but not limited to fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, crab cakes, spicy rice and beans, and peanut butter swirl brownies. There’s a couple recipes in the back, which I fully intend to try because SCONES. There’s even more than one character of color.

My main problem is pretty major, but I’m not actually sure if it’s a problem. Shortly after moving to Savannah, Katie mentions that she only sleeps for an hour at night but doesn’t seem to suffer for it.

For a while I’d wondered whether I was manic. However, that usually came with its opposite, and despite its recent popularity, depression wasn’t my thing.

Okay.

Not gonna lie, I had a full-on “You wanna run that by me again?” moment with this one. I had to wait almost a full 24 hours to cool down. I don’t want to rush into judgement, because I know I wouldn’t want my entire character to be judged by one misfired joke. Cates is clearly trying to be funny here. I know a failed joke when I see one, and this one is a failure of monumental proportions if it means what I think it means.

The trouble here is that Cates is suggesting that depression is a choice. She is implying that people decide to become depressed because they think it’ll make them cool. As somebody who has been living with a mental illness and will continue to do so despite the large body of people who think mental illness is self-indulgent and can be overcome through sheer force of will, I find this incredibly offensive and patronizing. Depression is not suddenly “popular.” The fact that celebrities have been increasingly talking about their struggles with depression and other assorted mental health issues doesn’t mean that depression is trendy or cool. Depression has probably been around since the dawn of man. We just notice it more nowadays because it is becoming more socially acceptable to talk about your feelings. The stigma is by no means gone and it’ll take a lot of hard work and social change to improve general attitudes towards mental illnesses and the people who have them, but we’re sort of getting there.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily what Cates meant to say. I don’t want to assume ill intent from bad phrasing. Maybe she just wanted to point out that more people are openly suffering from depression than before and it came out more flippant and dismissive than she intended. Maybe she thought it would be funny and didn’t have the background to consider the full ramifications. Maybe she’s suffering from depression herself and this is how she copes with it. Maybe in the future Katie will meet someone with mental health issues and acquire deeper empathy. (That one doesn’t seem too likely because these things aren’t that deep, but you never know.) I don’t have the context to make this call. This is the first book I’ve read of the Magical Bakery series, and the first of Cates’s works. I don’t know her, and I don’t know her style well enough to say if she was poking fun at depression. She hasn’t mentioned it since page 8, so I’m trying not to let it ruin my enjoyment of the rest of the book. On the other hand, if she did indeed mean it exactly how it sounds, then she and this series can go to hell. She is of course entitled to her own opinion and she has every right to write what she wants, barring hate speech, but I have the right to choose not to read things that piss me off.

My only other problem so far has been the slightly old-fashioned attitude towards courtship (Katie meets two hunky-dunkies, one of them keeps insisting on opening the car door for her and helping her down from his truck), but Katie likes it and that’s all that matters since she’s the one being wooed. The book has a host of promising female characters who all have names and talk to each other about something other than men and the men have all been playing supporting roles, so I don’t really care about this one.


Final Thoughts

Overall I’ve been enjoying this new genre (which isn’t new to other people, but is new to me). Cozy mysteries haven’t really been on my radar until fairly recently, and, yeah, they’re silly and cheesy and kinda dumb, but they’re also engaging, addicting, and pretty fast-paced. I like that each installment is quick and doesn’t require you to pay too much attention. I like reading about all the foods these characters eat, particularly in Brownies and Broomsticks. Of course the problem with that is that it makes me hungry, but yesterday I was prepared. I feel like I’m going to end up pursuing the Magical Bakery series with or without my qualms because any book that gives me an excuse to bake brownies is all right by me. For some reason I was really in Kitchen Mode yesterday and I wanted glass noodles and brownies, so I ended up making a three-course dinner for myself and my parents. We started with tofu with pickled mustard greens, which I made with both silken and medium-firm tofu, then had spicy glass noodles with ground pork (ma yi shang shu [蚂蚁上树], “ants climbing a tree”). I know, weird names, but I swear they’re both amazing and they don’t have ants in them. After dinner I made the brownies and omg they were AMAAAAAAAAZING. 😭❤️ We usually don’t make brownies but I’ve been craving them recently, so my mom brought home the Ghirardelli chocolate chip brownie mix.

So good. ❤️❤️❤️

April Reading Summary

It seems like I’m always in the middle of a crisis. Yesterday the crisis happened to be my foreign language dictionaries, which were blocking my document organizer for a while because Past Karo thought that would be a really swell place for them to live.

Don’t ask, I have no idea. Long story short, I needed to get to the scrap paper on the middle shelf, got fed up, and found a new home for the dictionaries on an actual bookcase. If you’re ever curious about the kind of chaos that tends to accumulate around me, just look at my printer table. That printer doesn’t even work but it’s been sitting there for months while I keep forgetting to call Epson because that’s just how I roll.

Anyway, it is now May and I’m currently at 40/60 books, which is pretty respectable, even if I am still working off that manga credit. I’m also in the middle of a reading slump, which hasn’t been helped along by the mild insanity this week inflicted on me, but I have time again so hopefully things will pick up this weekend because I have one giant obstacle standing between me and all the new books I’ve ordered during quarantine and I really want to read them naaaAAOooooOOooOOWWWwwwWW.


April Reading Stats

Books Finished:

  1. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. Three Souls – Janie Chang
  3. Chocolat – Joanne Harris
  4. Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
  5. Herding Cats – Sarah Andersen

Total Pages Read: 1,476

Ugh. Comparing my progress over the last three months, I’ve realized that my page count keeps decreasing from month to month. I’m insanely OCD about dumb shit like this, so if this doesn’t motivate me I don’t know what will. On the bright side, my goal of diversifying my reading list is going pretty well, even though it may not look like it yet.


April Highlight

I was going to recap all five April reads but then I cut it down to my three faves and then my thoughts on Purple Hibiscus gained sentience and ballooned out of control, so now we’re down to one. The rest will have to wait for a later post.

Warning: Heartbreak and spoilers ahead.

Purple Hibiscus
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

WOW THIS BOOK. 😭💔 The thing is, my timing was horrible. I read Purple Hibiscus before I was done being upset with The Dove’s Necklace, so it caught me at a particularly vulnerable moment, although to be completely fair I’m 99.99999999% sure it would’ve been heartbreaking even if I’d gotten to it after a more cheerful book.

Purple Hibiscus is the story of a 15-year-old girl, Kambili Achike, who was raised in a super strict Catholic household. Her father, Eugene, is a devout Catholic who uses his vast wealth to improve the lives of the people in his community. He gives generously to both people and organizations and is generally good to the community, but he also holds his wife and children to impossible standards and inflicts insane punishments on them when they inevitably fail to meet his expectations. Over the course of the book he beats his wife to the point of miscarriage twice, pours boiling water over his children’s feet, throws a missal at Kambili’s brother Jaja, and beats Kambili almost to death. He does all this not because he enjoys hurting his family, but because he believes he needs to keep them from going down the path of sin and takes extreme measures to get them all into Heaven. As the story progresses and his life grows more stressful and less controlled, they also become convenient targets. (Point of interest: I thought abortion was banned by the Catholic Church. Don’t the forced miscarriages count as a mortal sin?)

Living in constant fear of her father, Kambili grows up quiet and withdrawn, to the point that she doesn’t really know how to interact with normal children when she finally meets some. Her life takes a drastic turn when she meets her father’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma, and the cousins she barely knows. Aunty Ifeoma is an outspoken professor employed by the University of Nigeria, and she’s wonderful. She has no patience for Eugene’s controlling ways, and gives Kambili and Jaja a safe space to learn how to be children. She also tries to encourage their mother to leave Eugene, though this is ultimately unsuccessful. (And, yes, Aunty Ifeoma does slap her children, but never without a reason, and never to excess. As far as I can tell, they get one smack and then a lecture. They never get their feet boiled in the bathtub.) As Kambili and Jaja grow closer to Aunty Ifeoma and their cousins, they grow further apart from their father, who notices the distance and fights to maintain the control he’s exerted over them for the last 17 years, until he finally erupts and puts Kambili in the hospital.

The most heartbreaking part of Purple Hibiscus is not the steady pattern of violence, but Kambili’s continual desire to please her father. She doesn’t hate him; she loves him and wants to make him proud. If you take away the abuse, he actually is a caring father who loves his children and wants only the very best for them. Unfortunately, you really can’t take away the abuse and he’s still a controlling POS who can’t figure out how to keep his children on his idea of a Heavenly Path without resorting to violence. And yet, even after he puts her in the hospital, even after everything he’s done, even after her mother finally snaps and puts poison in his tea, even after he’s gone and is no longer able to punish or reward, Kambili still tries to behave in ways that would’ve made him proud. She is devastated when her mother tells her about the poison, and, though half of my heart was going “GOOD FOR YOU GIRL,” the other half was crying for Kambili, because she never wanted her father to be murdered. Even though I wanted Eugene out of their lives, even though I spent a lot of the book wondering how many of her children Eugene would have to kill before his wife finally left him, in the end it didn’t feel good when my wish came true. And that, for me, was the most powerful part of Purple Hibiscus: it never lost sight of its humanity. It never celebrated Eugene’s murder, but neither did it excuse him for the harm he had done to his family. It was just so, so good.

CliffsNotes: I love the story. I love the characters (except Eugene fuck that guy I hope he’s burning in Hell), I love Kambili and Jaja and Aunty Ifeoma. I love that Jaja always tried to protect Kambili from their father, and from unfamiliar social situations. Even if it never really worked out the way he wanted it to, he was such a good brother to her. The only (very minor) obstacle was the snatches of Igbo dialogue, which obviously I didn’t understand, but I didn’t need to understand it to follow the story. I’m going to go back through the book and make a list of all the Igbo words Adichie used and all the foods she talked about so I can look them up, and hopefully Google Translate is going to cooperate with me. If not, no big deal. 10/10 recommend this book, with or without accurate translations.


Current Reads

With nothing else to distract me, I’m currently working my way through this monstrosity:

It’s not really a monstrosity. It’s only 436 pages, which kinda pisses me off because it’s just shy of the Chunky Chunkster requirement (450+ pages). It is surprisingly readable, which I hadn’t really expected when I picked it up – it is, after all, a history book – and it’s very interesting. I like Chang’s style: it reads more like a story than a textbook, which is always a plus. So far Cixi has lost her son, survived an assassination plot, gone to war with eight countries, and pissed off both the Western Hemisphere and the Boxers, so there’s always something going on. (Full disclosure: I thought Cixi was the empress who chopped her enemies into pieces and stored them in wine jars, and was very disappointed when I realized I was confusing her with Wu Zetian, who came about 1,200 years before Cixi. Go figure.) I also had a bizarre dream I was telling my mom about the difference between the Pinyin and Wade-Giles systems of romanization, to which she said “Thanks, no wonder I was sleeping” when I told her about it the next morning because my mama savage af 🤣 It turns out my information was wrong anyway, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

I’ve been enjoying the book and am actually thinking about buying a copy after I finish it, but right now I can’t wait to get done with it because I’ve still got 156 pages to go and I have a long list of other books I want to read, such as this one that Rusalka just sent me.

I’ve seen this book floating around the internet but never really paid attention to it but it’s got a trash panda on the front so I don’t see any reason I won’t love it. 😍😍😍


Miscellaneous Reading News

I suckered out and signed up for a Barnes & Noble membership goodbye paycheck 😭 #whywasIcreatedthisway

Jade Attempts to Write a Book Review (on “Where the Crawdads Sing”)

As it turns out, being even more socially isolated than I normally am reminded me that I am actually capable of reading actual books and not just deeply depressing news articles or finding things I want and don’t need from Buzzfeed listicles. Who knew?

So, upon the recommendation of one of my best friends, I bought “Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens – the real book, partly because I’m a bougie bitch who likes to read off of paper pages and not blue-lit screens, but also because, inexplicably, the physical book was decidedly less expensive than an e-book. Suffice to say, I never expected to live in a world where something that required actual printed materials and takes up warehouse space and must be shipped costs LESS than something that is entirely digital, but here we are.

Anyway, on to the actual book. I don’t know that I can say I’ve ever read a book quite like this. It’s parts historical fiction, coming of age story, and murder mystery with ecology and biology factoids and copious poetry sprinkled in. It feels very much like someone wanted to mash up the writing styles of David Baldacci, Mark Twain, and Harper Lee, but add their own “secret blend of 11 herbs and spices” called science factoids and poetry. I did not realize until I had the book physically in my hands, and only thanks to the dust cover, that apparently this is a book from “Reese’s Book Club” –  I am assuming this means Reese Witherspoon? Anyway, that would explain how and why this book had well over 45,000 Amazon reviews. So my two cents is clearly needed, no?

Overall Thoughts:

  1. Jumping timelines. This story crosses decades frequently; years are entirely left out (though upon reading about the main character, Kya, you can understand why). I actually really like the idea of doing this, though I don’t always love exactly how it’s done in this particular book. I didn’t find it distracting personally, but I could see how someone would.
  2. Potentially jarring dialogue. Anyone who wasn’t raised in or around the South, specifically the mid-Atlantic, or isn’t a big fan of Mark Twain, may find the dialogue very grating. It’s a lot of “sho’ was the finest shoes I ever saw” type of dialogue that may take some getting used to and some might even find themselves frustrated trying to “translate” it, or put-off by what seems like an overdone cliche (but from my limited knowledge of the time period and my stronger knowledge of that specific area, I suspect that dialogue isn’t too far off from what it would have been at the time for the characters involved, potentially minus some perhaps inaccurate colloquialisms, like fireflies versus “lightnin’ bugs”).
  3. Character development. There aren’t many characters that we “need” to get to know throughout the story, but despite the 350+ pages in this book, we really only ever get to know each character on a pretty surface level. The only exception being Kya as the main character, whom we get to understand a bit more, though it’d be concerning if we never got to know any of the internal workings of a main character in a book that follows decades of their life. I digress. On the one hand, it’s understandable given the whole plot of the book that Kya, who is – by design – an outsider, doesn’t know much about anyone, but the other characters that we get to know anything tangible about fall into their archetypes exactly as you’d expect. “Formulaic” is a descriptor you might not hear any arguments against. No new tropes here.
  4. The science. If you like nature and ecology in general and birds specifically, you’ll likely enjoy how frequently they appear throughout the story. An abiding love of these things is one of the major aspects of Kya’s character/personality/development.
  5. The poetry. There’s probably at least a dozen references to song lyrics and poems throughout the book. To some degree, it eventually makes sense why (won’t give a spoiler on that except to say SPOILER ALERT), but if you couldn’t stomach Frost in school, well, you probably won’t like this any better. But also shame on you. Because Frost is sensational. (… just to be clear no Frost poetry is in the book; just poetry with similar thematics)
  6. Suspended disbelief. Alright, OBVIOUSLY, this book is a work of fiction, BUT chances are a lot of people reading it will find at least one instance in which they are unwilling or unable to suspend their disbelief. Maybe it’s about Kya’s entire background; maybe it’s about what she ends up doing with her life; maybe it’s about the parts of the book that surround the murder and resulting trial. But suffice to say, plenty portions of this book require the reader to suspend their disbelief, though not more than plenty of other pop culture shows, movies, or books do. Personally, I find it harder to suspend my disbelief in things that are “historical” since history, even in fiction, requires some more adherence to the parameters of “what actually happened” (and I don’t just mean from the white man’s perspective – because fuck that) and what was really possible or even in existence at the time. But that’s just me.
  7. The flow of the story. Kind of tying back to the first point about jumping timelines, I daresay if there is something people won’t like about this book it’s the flow (part of which is the timelines) in the sense that it is a) really slow going for the first part (and unless you really like her writing style – which admittedly I did –  you might find it difficult to want to keep reading), b) jumps around, as mentioned, and, c) is a little bizarrely broken into two “parts” (I guess to make clear to the reader that “we’re staying in this decade now”?)
  8. The actual plot. I could understand (and to some degree agree) with claims that this book has a kind of vague plot that could have been developed in a stronger or different way. The slowness of much of the book doesn’t help that case, but, honestly, MOST stories (whether book, TV, or movie) don’t have the greatest plots – so this is no worse or more far-fetched or underdeveloped than most other popular fiction in my personal experience. Just don’t be expecting Agatha Christie. You’re not getting Agatha Christie.
  9. The ending. Who doesn’t care how a story ends?! Without directly spoiling the ending, I would say the ending is a bit bizarre (just in what it is, not what it contains, if that makes sense) in that if felt like a forced wrap-up, the vast majority of which honestly wasn’t needed. There is a means to an end, but the path to get there… well, not my favorite but not the worst ever, either. I’d say it falls into the category “if you’re going to bother to do it, don’t half-ass it” –  it felt like a half-assed after-thought, and a quick “oh, fuck, I should probably actually let them know XYZ” as opposed to “this was my plan all along.” It tries to be clever, and to a degree is and has a beautiful element to do that, but there was a lot of unmet potential in that ending.
  10. And, finally, Jade Attempts to Write an Actual Book Summary in 100 Words or Less: Set across multiple decades, this story follows the coming of age of the abused and isolated main character – Kya. It captures her volatile family life, her endless thirst for knowledge, and her unique experiences with bouts of companionship among a lifetime of loneliness and heartache. The suspected murder of the town golden boy sets the stage for the reader to get glimpses of outsider Kya’s interactions and connections to various members of a community that has always shunned and shamed her, and her trial and tribulations on the rough roads of adulthood, relationships, and self-sustainment.

(It’s 95 words – on the first try?! GO ME – unless you count “self-sustainment” as two words because you don’t understand how hyphens work. Punks.)

Overall rating: 3.5/5 Stars: NEEDS MORE COWBELL (and by cowbell I mean plot development) but otherwise a worthwhile read if you appreciate art, nature, and science.

March Reading Summary

I know. I’m late.

I had the foresight to summarize my February reading on the first day of March, but now we’re halfway through April and it only just recently occurred to me that I hadn’t yet made a March reading post because this quarantine has been kinda killing my motivation. While I don’t object to the idea of staying inside and never going anywhere, it’s actually made me less productive because the TV’s always on and there’s Pokémon to be caught and a huge backlog of Forged in Fire episodes to watch. Look I’m not proud of myself okay 😭

Anyway: today I happened to be unusually motivated, partly because it’s the weekend but mostly because I decided I was going to support my favorite sandwich shop, which makes the best tuna sandwiches I’ve ever had.

This was a very good decision, because it motivated me to clean up the hideous black holes that my bookcases had become, not to mention all the random-ass books that were scattered around my desk and on the floor.

Apparently it’s been a while since I’ve dusted the black bookcase, because two of my bookends left prints on the shelf. I was amused.

I was originally going to go through my books and see if I wanted to donate anything to make room for all the new books I bought but haven’t read, but then I realized that I haven’t read probably about 90% of the books on my shelves and I didn’t actually want to give any of them away, so I ended up opening up a new shelf on another case and moving all the anthologies there. This somehow turned into me pulling all the books off their shelves, dusting the shelves, and putting all the books back in alphabetical order by author. I mean, it’s not like I’m going anywhere.

OMG I ACTUALLY HAVE SPACE……………………..FOR MORE BOOKS

I even had extra room on the new anthologies shelf for my library books, so now they’re not blocking the children’s section anymore!

Unexpected hazard: I kept knocking my duck off her shelf and just narrowly catching her. I’ve really gotta find a better home for her.

Bonus: I actually did manage to find a pile of books to donate.

PROGRESS. 🥳


March Reading Stats

Books Finished:

  1. The Great Passage – Shion Miura
  2. Snow & Rose – Emily Winfield Martin
  3. The Lake – Banana Yoshimoto
  4. The Girl in Red – Christina Henry
  5. The Dove’s Necklace – Raja Alem

Total Pages Read: 1,531

My March page count is significantly lower than my February page count, but February was padded out by twenty 200-page mangas, which really added up fast. In February I only read three books that I would consider “real” and in March I read five, so I’m pretty pleased with my progress. Even if it doesn’t happen within the next year or so, I want to eventually get to the point where I don’t have to rely on mangas to meet my reading goal.


And now, a moment of silence for my expectations.

The Dove’s Necklace
Raja Alem

Warning: Spoilers and a lot of confusion.

March’s crowning achievement was the completion of The Dove’s Necklace, which was………really something. I’ve never been this upset by a book, not even when I was slogging through The Amber Spyglass. The last time I wrote about The Dove’s Necklace, I thought I was going to love it because it was supposed to be “nuanced as a Nabokov novel.” The main difficulty that I for some reason did not anticipate is that I usually don’t understand Nabokov novels.

I think part of the problem was that I just didn’t get this book. I know absolutely nothing about Arabic history and culture, and I kinda get the feeling that the book would’ve made more sense if I’d been better informed. It didn’t help that the prose did indeed remind me of a typical Nabokov novel, in that it was so intricate that I spent most of my time trying to figure out what the author was saying. I hated all the characters, didn’t always recognize them when they popped up, and ended up doing a blitz read just so I could finish the book without getting hung up on the prose. I skimmed through the five-page character monologues and neverending emails/diaries so fast that I might as well have skipped them, but I think I caught most of the major points.

I missed a lot of finer details while I was blitzing, but the gist of the story is that a young woman is found naked and presumably murdered in the Lane of Many Heads, a low-income neighborhood in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The case is assigned to Detective Nasser al-Qahtani, who learns that the victim may be either Azza or Aisha, two young women who grew up in the Lane of Many Heads and recently went missing. Over the course of his investigation, Nasser reads the extensive love letters Aisha has written to her German boyfriend and gradually becomes obsessed with her. In a parallel storyline, Azza’s childhood friend and adoptive brother Yusuf learns that he is descended from a family that had something to do with the key to the Kaaba, most of whose history I have forgotten.

As far as I can tell, the dead woman in the alley was Aisha. I’m 99.9999999% sure that Aisha jumped off the roof following the stillbirth of her illegitimate child, and that Azza, who was secretly seeing a wealthy property developer named Khalid al-Sibaykhan, took advantage of her suicide to fake her own death and run. Azza briefly alludes to Aisha jumping, and also has disturbing memories of helping Aisha both deliver and bury her child. The other possibility is that Aisha was murdered by her runaway husband, who found her naked and video chatting with her boyfriend, but she seems to have fought him off and I’m not sure if he went back after that. Either way, Azza runs away to become al-Sibaykhan’s mistress and doesn’t directly appear in the story until the last third of the book, when she is introduced as Nora. I wish I could say she’s happy and fulfilled, but she is in fact trapped in a deeply unhealthy relationship with a man who thinks nothing of selling her into prostitution as a punishment for running away from him. And, at the end of the book, nothing changes: though Azza turns out to be a talented artist and starts putting on exhibitions of her work, though Yusuf unexpectedly appears and tries to get her to run away with him and she almost makes it out of the parking lot, she balks when she realizes that Yusuf is accompanied by Nasser, who turns out to be al-Sibaykhan’s personal assistant. Her story ends with her walking back into al-Sibaykhan’s office, with the understanding that she is going to be punished, while Yusuf is incapacitated and either arrested or killed by Nasser.

This was what pissed me off more than anything, because I struggled through 500 pages of Arabic philosophy to end up in exactly the same spot. Azza is back with al-Sibaykhan, Yusuf is back in jail, and al-Sibaykhan is still going to bulldoze the Lane of Many Heads. I understand why Azza went back. I understand that she had nowhere else to go and would probably not have been safe from al-Sibaykhan even if she had found somewhere to hide. I understand that she had nothing of her own and would not have been able to live off her art. It’s certainly a realistic ending, but it also means that after a 500-page slog there’s zero payoff. The other major obstacles for me were Yusuf’s articles and Aisha’s babbly emails, which extensively quoted D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and often came with several multi-paragraph postscripts. I’ve never been a fan of the Character Writing Letters device, and this book did not change my mind.

This isn’t to say that the book was bad. I would call it upsetting rather than bad. The prose, though hard to follow, was (when I understood it) lovely and often funny. My favorite part was probably the Lane of Many Heads, which was treated as a character unto itself and often served as a narrator. I may not have been able to appreciate this particular book, but I’m definitely going to look up other Middle Eastern writers. My reading list to date has been very homogeneous, but that’s going to change. I’m tired of visiting only one part of the literary globe.


Miscellaneous Reading News

I’ve told myself all along that I wouldn’t make an Instagram just for my books, which is why I now have one. 😬 I decided this week that I wanted a dedicated bookgram so I could spam everybody with gratuitous book pics connect with the reading community on Instagram without random junk pictures getting in the way, so my book photos will be posted on bookycnidaria moving forward. If you know any good bookgrams I should follow, please let me know. My follow list is rather sparse at the moment.