The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu9781481451864

publication date: 2015
pages: 618
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1

In this attempt at an epic fantasy novel, author Ken Liu presented a sprawling fictional universe, chockful of dozens of new proper nouns that I had to memorize and become interested in. The Grace of Kings focused on the island kingdom of Dara and the jockeying for power among Dara’s ambitious citizens. The novel began with a parade, celebrating the new emperor of Dara, Emperor Mapidéré, whose brutal conquest of Dara left many in his kingdom with rebellious and power-hungry thoughts. Liu then spent the next 550 pages detailing the political and military maneuverings of all those interested in the throne.

The Grace of Kings was just the first in a series of books, called the “Dandelion Dynasty,” which described the rulers of Dara. I, for one, will not be reading the rest of the series.

My main problem with the book was that it was tiresome. It’s tiresome to learn an entire geographic region, and its relevant history, and its contemporary elite. And this particular universe that Liu created wasn’t even very original; it was like reading the “A Song Of Ice and Fire” series, or the excellent “Graceling” series, but with different proper nouns. All of the political and military intrigue was tedious. This was all perfectly represented in a single sentence, from about a third through the book:

With the help of Faҫa’s King Shilué, King Jizu, the grandson of the last King of Rima before the Unification, had reclaimed the throne in the ancient capital of Na Thion.

It was so hard for me to care about any of that. I had no context. I only just learned about Rima 100 pages before, much less all that other stuff. An effective way to get me to care about a fictional world and plot is to create compelling characters. Unfortunately, Liu’s characters had a very rocky start. His characters began as very rote: the trickster, the heartless emperor, the feckless child king etc.

However, although the characters began as uninspired tropes of the fantasy genre, Liu used that to his advantage and, by the end of the book, the characters were very rewarding. Liu created space for all the characters to grow and change with their circumstances, which meant the wife and mother you met at the beginning of the book was very different from the wife and mother at the end.

Also, specific and particular plot points within the book could be fun and interesting. There was an assassination attempt with a kite, and an origin story involving a silk scroll with a prophecy found inside the belly of a fish, and an ascendant king traveling the ocean by riding on the back of a whale. So although I didn’t care much about the overarching plot, with someone always fighting with someone else for some small bit of land, each individual scene usually contained some engaging action.

This book was certainly not terrible. It was much better than another fantasy book I reviewed, The Name Of the Wind. And it seemed like the author was trying to do something interesting, was trying to take the common tropes of fantasy and use them for a purpose, instead of just populating his book with them. If you’re new to fantasy, this is one of the better books in that genre to read. If you love fantasy, might as well give this a shot because it does adhere so well to the genre. If you’re just a casual reader of fantasy, I don’t know that I would recommend this book over any other.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

npr
Elitist Book Reviews
Tor.com

Native Guard

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey514ukx2mkzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2006
pages: 49
ISBN: 978-0-618-60463-0

In this 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Trethewey presented powerfully structured poems, which contained immediate imagery and explored personal and potent themes. For those who like poetry, this is a wonderful and effective collection.

The first thing I noticed about the poems was how suited they were for being read out loud. Trethewey’s use of rhythm and the sounds of the consonants and vowels in her words was impressive. Here was an example, which I would encourage you to read out loud:

                             She is leaving behind
the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film
of red dust around her ankles, the thin
whistle of wind through the floorboards
of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

In these poems, Trethewey examined issues of race, loss, identity, motherhood, home, and memory, all in a cohesive and energetic way. Here she explored loss and mourning, in a poem titled “After Your Death”:

First, I emptied the closets of your clothes,
threw out the bowl of fruit, bruised
from your touch, left empty the jars

you bought for preserves.

Here was another example, focusing on race and history, written from the perspective of a former slave who has joined the Union Army in the Civil War:

                                                     I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory – flawed, changeful – that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.

Additionally, Trethewey used the strictures of poetry, such as meter, rhyme, and repetition, in a careful, studied way. Her use of repetition was always especially effective. The rules that Trethewey adhered to allowed her to craft compelling and unpredictable poems. Here was an example of this from the poem titled “Incident”:

We tell the story every year –
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

Generally, all the poems were engaging, but there were a few slow or dull ones in the second half of the book. If you enjoy poetry, I would absolutely recommend this.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of Native Guard:

Bookslut
Savvy Verse and Wit blog
Nothing More Wonderful blog

Spoken From the Heart

Spoken From the Heart by Laura Bush 9781439155202

publication date: 2010
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5521-9

Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush, the 43d president of the United States, published this memoir about two years after her husband left office. The book, which wasn’t short, spent about 200 pages discussing Laura’s childhood, the early years of her marriage with George, and the first few months of George’s presidency. The remaining half of the book focused on 9/11 and the years following.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Bush was a fine writer and had access to many interesting stories, which she usually told with aplomb. The book was most effective when Bush depicted the stories of all the amazing, ordinary people she had met, like the doctor on the Thai-Burmese border who dedicated her life to providing medical care to Burmese refugees.

Bush’s retelling of the events surrounding 9/11 was very moving. I cried. In her description of that day – and throughout the book – Bush included perfect details to capture the essence of whatever she was recounting. For example, here was her portrayal of the evacuation of a nearby school:

Within minutes of the attack, many parents had rushed to the school to pick up their children, but as the streets clogged with evacuees and emergency vehicles racing south, 150 students remained behind. The school’s principal, Anna Switzer, herded them, their teachers, and a few parents inside. Before the South Tower fell, Switzer and her teachers lined up the students, ages five to eleven, in a single file and told them to hold hands. They stepped out of the building into the ash and smoke. Some looked up and watched as men and women flung themselves from the upper floors of the towers, their bodies passing through the billowing flames. One child said, “The birds are on fire.”

Although Bush spent a significant portion of the book discussing politics, she didn’t offer much criticism of her husband or herself. She attempted to rationalize much of her and her husband’s behavior, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. She completely skipped over things from the Bush administration that existed but that she seemingly didn’t agree with. For example, in the entire book, she only referred to Dick Cheney twice, although she brought up other political figures numerous times. She also never mentioned the controversial use of torture that was a huge issue for the Bush administration. She managed to remain silent on torture even as she recounted her visits to Bagram Air Base and dismissed the travesty at Abu Ghraib prison as a failure of the system of command.

The book humanized Bush and her husband, by detailing intimate moments of their lives and by describing all the time and attention to detail that goes into being a head of state. However, it didn’t remove the feeling of dissatisfaction with their performance, especially surrounding the nonexistence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Spoken From the Heart was obviously very political. If Bush’s politics are so disagreeable to you that you can’t see them in print, then I would not recommend this book to you. However, the portraits that Bush created in this book, of people doing amazing, or interesting, or important things, were very compelling and effectively rendered.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
OnTheIssues.org

The Coldest Winter Ever

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah9781439119976

publication date: 1999
pages: 284
ISBN: 978-0-7432-7010-6

In one of the major books that fueled the renaissance in urban fiction, Sister Souljah presented a compelling story of a young black woman’s life as part of a culture of drug-dealing.

The Coldest Winter Ever followed Winter Santiaga, the self-proclaimed queen of the projects, who lived in Brooklyn with her family, including her drug lord father, Ricky Santiaga. Winter’s life began to change on her sixteenth birthday, when her father announced plans to move the family out of their vigorous urban neighborhood and into the rarefied New Jersey suburbs. However, Winter’s world really fell apart when her father was arrested by the FBI for drug-trafficking and RICO violations.

Winter was a wonderful main character. She was the perfect anti-hero, long before Walter White was introduced. Almost every move Winter made seemed morally wrong or, at least, against her best interests. And yet I wanted her to succeed throughout the book. I was rooting for her even as she knocked out an old woman with a sock full of rocks.

The tone of writing was punchy and stylized. As an example, here was a fun passage that showed the heat and sexuality of some teenagers:

Now I loved Poppa but I hated the way he cock-blocked. Every teenage girl wants to cut loose and get close to the fire, but I was like a pot of boiling milk with the lid on. You know that’s ready to explode and slide down the side of the pan.

Although the writing was animated throughout the book, the plot in the middle did become dull. Fortunately, that only lasted for about fifty pages and, by the end of the book, I was completely immersed again in Winter’s story.

Souljah has been explicit that she wrote this book with particular messages in mind. Specifically, she wanted to show that drugs lead to a hopeless path and that young people should apply their talents toward a legal business, and to create role models for black men, women, and families. Souljah’s explicitness of purpose made the book preachy at times. There were literally passages of speeches given by a character named Sister Souljah as she was speaking to a group of people about how to live their lives.

The characters in the book were also unambiguously anti-gay. Seemingly, Souljah shared that view. That made the book seem, at the best, dated and, at the worst, hateful.

The book contained a lot of sex, drugs, and language, and an irresistible story of a person who was trying to get theirs in a world that seemed set against them.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Senior Critics blog
Salon
YA Books Central

Bike Lanes Are White Lanes

Bike Lanes Are White Lanes: Bicycle Advocacy and Urban Planning by Melody L. Hoffman51xsjhsnvwl-_sx320_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2016
pages: 196
ISBN: 9780803276789

In this book, Hoffman studied what happens when bicycle advocates, and even bicycle riders, don’t examine the racial, political, and historical aspects of any given place, such as a city, a neighborhood, a trail, or a proposed bike lane. In her opinion, bicyclists – especially leaders in the bicycling community – damage historical minorities, cities, and bicycling itself when they take a race-neutral stance or attempt to create events and policies without looking at how those who aren’t upwardly-mobile white people would be affected.

To explore these issues, Hoffman presented three case studies. One looked at a twenty-four-hour bike event in a mixed-race neighborhood in Milwaukee. The second studied the fervor and hostility generated in Portland when a black neighborhood was experiencing gentrification, which was symbolized by the installation of a bike lane on a prominent street. The third and final case study analyzed Minneapolis, which has a recent history of deliberately and explicitly recruiting middle-class white people to the city by creating bike infrastructure.

I loved this book. It converged with so many of my interests: bicycling, urban planning, communities of color, and other things. It also generally dovetailed with my own particular view about how the world is and should be. However, I realize not everyone would love this book as much as I did. Perhaps many of the underlying concepts would be alien to some readers or even disagreeable. Also, some might find discussions of cycling or urban planning boring because those aren’t topics that interest them. With that caveat in place, I have a lot of great things to say about this book and I would recommend it to most anyone because it was a quick and informative read.

Hoffman presented an interesting question at the beginning of Bike Lanes: what could possibly be wrong with an educated white person riding a bicycle in the city? I thought she did a great job of showing that there isn’t necessarily anything inherently wrong with being an urban white cyclist, but instead showed that being an urban white cyclist isn’t representative of many people’s experiences on a bicycle. For example, data in one city showed that 4 out of 5 tickets given to people on bicycles were given to black people. This discussion set up the rest of the book by showing the inaccuracy of bicycling as a “race-neutral” form of transportation.

Although most of the book was easy to read and enlightening, sometimes the concepts presented were confusing. For example, I still don’t understand what this sentence meant:

[N]eighborhood [is] “The place where one manifests a social ‘commitment’ . . . the domain in which the space-time relationship is most favorable for a dweller who moves from place to place on foot, starting from his or her home . . . .”

I struggled with what rating to give this book because I enjoyed it so much but I could see others not liking it. However, if you ever do come across it, I highly recommend you pick it up.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

CBS Minnesota
Amazon
Green Room

OUTsider

OUTsider by Ruth Marimo41mh4gjqj7l-_sx321_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2014
pages: 248
ISBN: 978-0-9895868-0-1

This book had two things going for it: a heartfelt and genuine tone and a thought-provoking account of a person not often represented in the media.

OUTsider was the autobiography of Ruth Marimo, a gay, undocumented immigrant activist originally born in Zimbabwe. The book detailed her struggles of being an orphan in Zimbabwe, the confusing events that led to her living in America at nineteen without a status, her abusive marriage, and her self-discovery as a lesbian and an activist.

Marimo was very open about much of her life, including her struggles with her sexuality, her noxious relationship, and her status as an undocumented immigrant. That sincerity and candor was often effective, as in this passage from shortly after Marimo arrived in the States:

At first, I was very alarmed and upset that I had come to this country so ill prepared. I had not been treated well, and I had to work real hard for everything I had.
I was nineteen.
I was a kid.
For the past year, I had fended for myself so far away from home and from any assistance. Now, with my predicament, I simply had to do whatever I could to survive. I shopped for all my clothes at the Goodwill . . . .

The ardent nature of the writing and the important subject matter, especially surviving a physically abusive relationship, was enough to recommend the book. However, the book had some problems.

The writing was self-indulgent, like a journal or diary, as though Marimo was using the writing process to work through her own problems. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with using writing as a tool, but then don’t sell the book to others as something that would interest them.

Also, the writing could be very disorienting. Parts were contradictory, from the smallest lines to entire passages. As just one small example, early in the book, Marimo said she was “really in love” with a young woman named Belinda when she was around 16. Then, only nine sentences later, she said she fell in love with a young man named Masimba at 17, and this “was the first time I was truly in love with someone.” Entire sections contained these kinds of contradictions, which made the book confusing to read and lessened its effectiveness.

Additionally, Marimo did not have a coherent thesis beyond just the importance of her story and stories like hers. That was enough of a thesis for me, but the book seemingly strove for a more actionable thesis, and failed.

The book was a quick read and contained many illuminating passages about Marimo’s life and experience.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

goodreads
Amazon

Iron Cast

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria9781419721922

publication date: 2016
pages: 376
ISBN: 9781419721922

This YA book reminded me of 2007’s book The City of Bones, the first of the Mortal Instruments series. They were both set in an urban world cloaked by a veil of mystical characters and phenomena. The main characters in both lived in a secret, separate haven built specifically for them. The plots involved enemies who were closing in and there were always hints of distrust, even betrayal. Further, both authors focused on quotations, poems, and music as part of the dialogue and as important plot points.

Although Iron Cast, which was set in pre-Prohibition Boston, might have been an heir to The City of Bones, there were some things it improved on – and others it wasn’t as successful with. I enjoyed the two main characters from Iron Cast, Ada and Corinne, very much. Ada was a second generation Swahili-Portuguese immigrant and Corinne was the sequestered daughter from a wealthy family. What brought them together was not their personalities or their backgrounds but that they both suffered from a mysterious affliction known as “hemopathy,” which gave them the ability to manipulate the minds of others using words or music, and an aversion to iron. Ada and Corinne were compelling, intricate characters that presented a wonderful example of female friendship. The best writing centered on Ada or Corinne. For example, here was a small bit from Corinne’s inner monologue:

She had spent her whole life trying to always be the cleverest person in the room, and it was just now occurring to her how boundless her own stupidity was.

The plot of the book was interesting enough. Ada and Corinne lived in the Cast Iron, an iron-free hemopath sanctuary run by Johnny Dervish. To pay Johnny back for giving them shelter, the girls ran cons and illegally entertained non-hemopath’s at Johnny’s club. The book focused on the girls’ schemes, as their iron-free world was threatened by those on the outside. Although the larger plot was fine, individual plot points were very contrived and unconvincing. I won’t be specific because I don’t want to give anything away, but several turns within the plot seemed designed merely to get Corinne and Ada to some predestined outcome.

Additionally, a large focus of the book was on words and music but those sections were often dull and tedious. Many passages quoted poetry or other lyrics but they held no passion or fire. After a while, I just skipped over them.

However, the book did contain some good writing. The description of the hellish Haversham Asylum was especially effective:

They went through a doorway at the end of a long corridor that opened into a large, low-ceilinged room. The sharp smell of disinfectant assaulted [Corinne’s] nostrils. This room was brighter than the corridors, with bright medical lamps that glared off the white tile and stainless steel surfaces. The brilliance temporarily blinded Corinne, and they were several steps into the room before she recovered. Once she did, the only thing she could really see was the man a few feet away from her. His face was so skeletal that for a split second she thought he was dead – but no, his gray smock moved barely with the slow rise and fall of his chest.

A lot of the book was just okay. But, Iron Cast created an intriguing world with two engrossing main characters that were worth the read. Ada, especially, as a person of color in early 1900s Boston, was especially captivating.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Olivia’s Catastrophe blog
School Library Journal
Heart Full of Books