“The Guncle” by Steven Rowley – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Patrick, or Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP, for short), has always loved his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. But in terms of caretaking and relating to two children, no matter how adorable, Patrick is honestly a bit out of his league… when tragedy strikes, Patrick finds himself suddenly taking on the role of primary guardian. Quickly realizing that parenting—even if temporary—isn’t solved with treats and jokes, Patrick’s eyes are opened to a new sense of responsibility, and the realization that, sometimes, even being larger than life means you’re unfailingly human.

Goodreads


This is the third novel by Steven Rowley, and it came out this spring. His first, “Lily and the Octopus,” had me bawling in my car at the end. (Hint: it’s great on audio, but maybe not while driving a car.) After that, I considered myself a dedicated fan.

This one did not disappoint. Patrick is a former TV star who has been out of the limelight – and LA – for a handful of years now. He’s suddenly thrust into the role of caretaker for his niece and nephew while their dad is in rehab. It’s their summer break, so there’s no school or anything like that to distract them. What a perfect time for them to spend 3 months at Patrick’s house, right? With his pool, maid, and gay neighbors.

The kids are already reeling from the recent loss of their mother, and not totally understanding where their dad had to run off to. So, initially, Patrick just tries to keep them distracted with fun. He orders pool floats and bikes, introduces them to the wonder of brunch, and eventually even gets a dog.

People sometimes question why Patrick is “hiding” in Palm Springs, and not pursuing new work in LA. Patrick has also suffered a major loss – although it was years ago – and perhaps he isn’t really over it. Eventually, he and the kids learn to face their grief together.

And yes, I cried again. (For those who’ve read it – it was the cake scene.)

The kids also teach him about Youtube. And start a little spark in him that eventually leads him back into the world of a working actor.

Since it takes place in the summer – and a lot of it takes place poolside – I’d consider this a great summer read. But the heart of the story can be appreciated anytime.


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“Small Changes” by Alicia Witt – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Alicia Witt isn’t here to dole out lists of dos and don’ts. But she is here to share her own journey to forming better habits and show the ways that adopting the small changes philosophy has allowed her to find balance, eat better, and feel better physically and emotionally.

Goodreads


Many years ago, I wrote for a blog about independent music. During that time, I interviewed Alicia Witt, who is both an actress and a musician. She was coming to Nashville to play a show at the time – but now, she lives here.

So of course I was interested to see that Witt was putting out her first book! The full title is “Small Changes: The Easy, No-Rules Way to Include More Plant-Based Foods, Peace, and Positivity in Your Life,” – which is a lot.

There are only a handful of chapters here, but they are each pretty substantial. In the first one, she recounts her history and career. That part was fun, honestly, even though I knew parts of it already. She also gets into her philosophy of making small changes over time.

As the full title implies, Witt is vegan – or, as she admits, mostly vegan. But she comes back often to the idea that if you do have a thing that you love, or can’t give up – don’t live in constant guilt over it. It’s not worth beating yourself up over. I like this part of her philosophy.

This book has a lot about food in it, but it also touches on other subjects including exercise, beauty products, having pets, journaling, and just going with the flow in general.

While I do like her approach from a mental standpoint, there are some things that didn’t sit right with me. For example, she repeatedly recommends gluten-free alternatives – but really, no one needs to be gluten-free unless they have an allergy. (I get the feeling that, for Witt, it’s more about cutting the carbs in general than the actual gluten in them.) She also advocates giving your pets “human grade” pet food. If you are into getting high-end pet food because your dog or cat likes it, go for it. But human-grade has always felt like one of those marketing/labeling ploys to me. (Here’s a brief piece on it.)

There are a bevy of recipes in the back, and gorgeous pictures of the finished products. (I feel like there is a zero percent chance my attempts would come out looking like these – but if you love ogling food pictures, these are worthy!)

This book comes out today from Harper Horizon, and I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley. Also, as part of the book launch, Witt will be doing a virtual panel at the Southern Festival of Books later this week.


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“Love in Any Language” by Evelyn Kohl LaTorre – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Love across cultures is tested when Antonio, a penniless university student, and Evelyn, a strong-willed Peace Corps volunteer, succumb to their attraction to one another at the end of her two-year commitment in Peru and Evelyn gets pregnant. Deeply in love, the twenty-three-year-olds marry in Cusco—and decide to begin their married life in Northern California.

Goodreads


From reading the synopsis, I thought I would love this book. I did like this book, and it’s interesting for several reasons. But I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I was struggling to put my finger on why, when the book itself answered my question for me in its last pages. And the reason was, admittedly, a little selfish. More on that later.

Obviously, the book is told from Evelyn’s perspective. She was born in Montana, as 1 of 6 kids in a blue collar, Roman Catholic family. Her parents moved to California as their kids got older, because they wanted them to have easier access to institutions of higher learning.

Right away we can see that, while Evelyn was raised in a pretty traditional manner, she and her family embrace a few more modern values. Not only did she expect to get a college education, but she also had her eyes on traveling internationally, and joined the Peace Corps. Not bad for a young woman in the early 1960s.

And this brings me to one of the key things I liked about this book: Evelyn was pretty ahead of her time in a lot of things. She was often juggling work and kids, and was sometimes even the breadwinner of the house. She continuously pursued higher degrees, additional certifications, more challenging jobs, and opportunities to travel – with or without her husband! She comes across as a strong woman – especially mentally.

Another interesting aspect is seeing how her work – and various things that intersect with it – evolved over the years. She started out in social work, and added psychology to the mix. She spent most of her career working within various school systems. She started out administering tests to determine students’ ability levels, and was later in charge of innovating ways to accommodate students who had different abilities. This book spans the 60s – 90s, mostly, and during that time we see new laws introduced that protect differently-abled students, and ensure their access to a public education. We also see the advent of computers, the introduction of the Meyers-Briggs personality test, and other concepts that affect Evelyn’s work.

While I found these aspects – and the international travels – fascinating, I still had a kind of “meh” feeling about some of the story. In thinking about it, I felt like every time she encountered a problem, it was solved within a page. I felt like the book lacked real conflict, basically. I’ve seen other reviewers applaud her “straightforward” writing style, so I thought maybe it was just that – she didn’t oversell or dwell on the issues. That made them feel a bit like non-issues to me, but I just kept rolling with it.

In the last pages, Evelyn puts out a thought that I hadn’t considered while in the midst of the story – but it definitely hit a chord with me, and I think it’s part of why I had trouble sympathizing with her “quick solutions.” Since the copy I read was an advanced copy, I won’t quote it directly. But the idea is that she benefited from many social nets that aren’t as easily available today – from low-cost childcare and subsidized housing to flexible work schedules and bosses that often gave her freedom to pursue what opportunities she wanted to.

Dr. Evelyn LaTorre accomplished a lot – and continues to do so, as this isn’t her first book! She was also helped by her family, and the many opportunities that were available to an educated woman at the time. If you have any interests in education or social work, I would definitely recommend her story.

“Love in Any Language” comes out today, September 28th. I was able to read an advanced copy through Books Forward.


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“America Calling” by Rajika Bhandari – Review

By: Angie Haddock


International students and immigrants have been the secret ingredient in America’s recipe for global success. America Calling shares one immigrant’s story, a tale that reflects millions more, and shows us why preventing the world’s best and brightest from seeking the American Dream will put this country’s future in jeopardy.

-Goodreads


This book was “right up my alley,” as the saying goes, and I almost missed out on reading it! I was approved for the advanced reader copy, but never saw that email – spam folder, maybe? – and didn’t find out until a few days before it came out! This is why I’m posting my review a week late – the book actually came out on September 14th.

The author came to the US as a grad student in the early 90s, and studied at a state school in North Carolina. Initially, she came because that is where her boyfriend was studying.

Later in life, though, she starts working for the Institute of International Education, which compiles data and research on exchange students in the US and elsewhere. So the first two-thirds of the book is her own story and experiences as a student first, then as an immigrant seeking a work visa. The last third of the book is other stories she’s compiled through her current job, as well as stats and figures from the world of international education.


Some statistics that struck me:

International students add $45 billion to the economy yearly. (Most pay their own way, or are awarded scholarships from their own countries to study abroad. Then, they still have to buy furniture and groceries here, like the rest of us.)

Only one out of ten US students studies abroad. (Meaning that an international student on their campus here may be their only exposure to other cultures.)

One out of four founders of start-ups valued at $1 billion first came to the US as an international student.

Then there are the softer stats, like how so many students who study here and return to their home countries become advocates for US universities, or the US at large. They offer a large and vast network of unofficial diplomats in all areas of the globe. Bhandari mentions the Fulbright scholarship program as a shining example of this. The program offers both scholarships for international students to study in the US, and ones for US students to study elsewhere. Over its history, it has sponsored 400,000 students. 39 of those have gone on to become heads of state in their home countries, 60 have won Nobel prizes, and 88 have won Pulitzer prizes.

Her own experiences are no less interesting, of course, although not as easy to break down into small bites. A few things she touches on, though, include reckoning with how Asians are considered the “model minority” here. Realizing that the freedoms she enjoyed as a woman in America made her unfit to return to her home country. Having to push hard to get through her masters and doctorate programs in 6 years, because being here on a visa meant she had strict time limits and couldn’t take any breaks.

I did study abroad when I was in college, albeit for only one semester. When I returned to my home campus, though, I joined a group whose members acted as unofficial ambassadors to the international students there. There were debates about food, music, and soccer – as would be expected – but there were also instances of giving rides to the grocery store or the mall. It was fun to have these conversations, and be able to pitch in on things like getting Christmas presents for their families back home. These experiences are why I said at the top that this book was “right up my alley,” of course. I had some exposure to international students when I was college-aged, and I appreciate knowing a little more about the issues surrounding studying internationally.

Thanks to Books Forward for introducing me to this one!

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“Yume” by Sifton Tracey Anipare – Review

By: Angie Haddock

A modern-day fantasy novel about demons, dreams, and a young woman teaching English in Japan.

Goodreads


This was a pretty hefty read – the paperback is expected to come in at 536 pages – with twisty and sometimes intense story lines. I am also not very well-versed in Japanese mythology, so I definitely took a while getting through this one. But it was certainly a wild and colorful ride!

Our main characters are Cybelle and Zaniel, although they don’t officially meet each other until the middle of the book. Cybelle is a black woman, originally from Canada, who has been teaching English in Japan for a handful of years now. Zaniel has a day job that is unimportant to the story… but by night, he finds human women for his boss, a demanding yokai named Akki.

How gorgeous is this cover?!

The world of yokai (mythical creatures of all shapes, sizes, and abilities) has been rocked recently by the arrival of a new creature. She grows larger and more powerful by eating – and she can also turn anything she wants into food to eat. At one point this includes Akki’s house, which puts her immediately at odds with the hot-tempered elder yokai.

Meanwhile, Cybelle is struggling to decide whether or not to renew her contract at the English school. The kids and parents are mostly ok, but she only gets along with one of her co-workers. She still feels like an outsider, at work and out in the world, even though she’s lived in Japan for over five years.

SEMI-SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!

The new yokai eating her way through the dream world is Cybelle, when she’s asleep. I say this is a semi-spoiler because I felt like it was fairly evident from early on… but Cybelle herself doesn’t understand it until the end of the story.

Zaniel, being well-versed in yokai, figures out the new yokai’s identity much earlier. This is what brings him to Cybelle’s school, acting like he’s applying for a job. He really wants to get to know her real life persona, and thinks that they can help each other.

Their adventures together are wild – both the ones they take in person, and in the mythical dream world. This is where the book really starts gaining speed, in my opinion. As Akki comes after them, and they need to fight to save themselves, things also start to get pretty gruesome.

One of the interesting things to ponder throughout this story is how Cybelle’s feelings – being an outsider, being different, being tired and hungry – seem like intangibles in the real world, but are then very real in the dream world. How much of her transforming into a yokai directly came from these feelings? Or was it something else entirely – a cursed object or apartment?

This was a fun read, although not a quick one. It is the author’s first novel, and the part about teaching English in Japan is autobiographical. This book comes out today, but I was able to read an advanced copy through Netgalley and Dundurn Press.


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“Beautiful Country: A Memoir” by Qian Julie Wang – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.

Goodreads


This was a good, albeit sometimes heartbreaking, read. Because the main character is only a handful of years younger than I am, I could identify with some of her memories that related to pop culture – the clothes, toys, books, and TV shows of the nineties make many appearances.

Qian tells first of her life in China – or, what little she remembers of it, since she was fairly young. But overall, her life there was pretty good. Like most kids, she didn’t really think about it or worry too much – it just was what it was.

And then, her dad left to come to America. She began to fear that he wouldn’t come back. A year later, she and her mom joined him in New York City.

She had previously only known of America through TV and movies, and she had heard that everyone there was rich. So it boggled her mind that her family had to live the way they did while there.

They often shared one room, in houses where other rooms were rented to other families, and they all shared one bathroom and kitchen. There were sometimes rats. Her parents worked long hours in miserable conditions, in places like sweatshops and fish factories. They garbage-picked their furniture.

Qian herself was first put into special education classes, because she couldn’t speak English. It seemed no one at her school was entirely prepared to help her with that. But, with a library card and a love of reading, she soon taught herself. Kids are both smart and resilient.

Even when she started doing better in school, though, she couldn’t quite shake her “outsider” status. Mostly because her parents couldn’t afford the clothes, shoes, and toys that the other kids thought were cool year after year.

Her parents had both been professors in China. Her dad seemed resigned to his fate – that they’d just have to be poor in America. He was probably depressed. Her mom was not ready to give up so easily. She put herself through some additional schooling, with the hopes of getting better jobs someday. Her mom also got very ill for a while, however. After her recovery, she was determined to get herself and Qian out of their miserable conditions – even if Qian’s dad didn’t want to come along.

If you want to know what happens, pick up a copy – “Beautiful Country” comes out today! I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley and Doubleday Books.


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“The Secret History of Food” by Matt Siegel – Review

By: Angie Haddock


An irreverent, surprising, and entirely entertaining look at the little-known history surrounding the foods we know and love.

Goodreads


This was a quirky book I found randomly on NetGalley. It was a short and fun read, with ten chapters covering:

How the history of food/agriculture is intertwined with human history, pie, cereal, corn, honey, vanilla/ice cream, celebrations surrounding food and drink, having too many choices, chili peppers, and how we fall prey to misconceptions about (or willful mislabeling of) the foods we eat.

Some of my favorites were the sweet chapters, like the ones on pie and ice cream. For example, did you know that ice cream’s popularity in the U.S. skyrocketed during prohibition? Apparently, we needed an alternative method of drowning our sorrows. And ice cream became a staple of soldiers’ diets during WWII – good for both fast calories and boosting morale.

The chapter on chili peppers was also entertaining, as it basically points out the craziness of doing things that hurt us. Various kinds of peppers were used in early agricultural days to keep animals out of the crops – by planting them around the perimeter, the would-be pests would encounter the hot peppers first, and turn the other way. And yet, we eat them on purpose. Are we just adrenaline junkies, or do we feel we have something to prove?

The last chapter is a bummer, though, as it gets into how much of our food is mislabeled, not as healthy as it claims, or doesn’t get inspected as much as it should. Specifically, vitamins and seafood are often not what they purport to be.

The book is so meticulously researched, though, that the footnotes take up HALF of the length. So, as I said earlier, it’s a quick romp to get through the ten chapters.

This book comes out today, August 31st. (The full title is “The Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat,” but that seemed a little long for the header of this post.)


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“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

Goodreads


This is a book that most “book fiends” have probably tackled – or at least heard of – by now. In fact, it was named the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fiction Book of 2020.

Among the many online reviews and posts I’ve seen people make about this one, I’ve really only seen one complaint – the fact that the main character tries to commit suicide can be depressing/triggering for some people. And while I would never fault anyone for their personal triggers, I do have to say – if you don’t get past that part, you will miss the entire story. The act happens near the beginning, and is what propels the main character to find the Midnight Library. So, I would say this – know that this is something that happens in the book, and proceed accordingly. While this is a fabulous story, it may not be for everyone.

Our main character is Nora Seed, and as it says at the top, she gets to try on many different versions of her life. But she doesn’t get to just pick them by what they are today – she has to change something in the past, not knowing what else might be different in that alternate reality.

To give you one example: our “root” Nora believes that she let her brother down by leaving the band they were in together. So, in one instance, she finds the life where she never left the band. The band is huge, global rockstars. She got to date her celebrity crush. But, her brother isn’t in the band anymore in this life.

Most lives, as this example illustrates, don’t turn out exactly like Nora envisioned. After seeing this play out a handful of times, Nora begins to have less and less regrets about the decisions she made in her root life.

The real key to what she learns from this experience can be found within the following quote:

There are patterns to life… Rhythms. It is so easy to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are the result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood that there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness… there is not life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.

This is a fun story, with a good lesson. They do actually talk about the multiverse theory a little, but not so much that the book on the whole feels like science fiction – I’d call it closer to magical realism, maybe? Very real people and messy lives, with a little bit of the fantastic thrown in.


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“Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old orphan, has arrived in this verdant corner of Prince Edward Island only to discover that the Cuthberts—elderly Matthew and his stern sister, Marilla—want to adopt a boy, not a feisty redheaded girl. But before they can send her back, Anne—who simply must have more scope for her imagination and a real home—wins them over completely. A much-loved classic that explores all the vulnerability, expectations, and dreams of a child growing up, Anne of Green Gables is also a wonderful portrait of a time, a place, a family… and, most of all, love.

Goodreads


I read this one in July as my #SummerClassic pick. It was originally published in 1908, and, according to Wikipedia, has been translated into 36 languages. A quick google search shows that various sites list it as being appropriate for children in the 8-12 range, which puts it squarely in the “middle grade” category. Nevertheless, this was my first time reading it!

One of the first things I found interesting in this book was the setting – Prince Edward Island. The only place I’ve visiting in Canada so far is Toronto, but I love cold weather, and have always felt like this region – on the Atlantic coast, just north of Maine – would be a lovely place to visit.

The story itself begins not from Anne’s perspective, but from that of a nosy neighbor watching Matthew Cuthbert leave town. We then learn that he and his sister, Marilla, are looking to adopt a boy of around 12 years old, to help with their farm. Neither of the Cuthberts married or had children of their own. Of course, we already know that their plan is going to get thrown off track when Matthew finds a girl waiting for him instead.

Anne is very imaginitive. This quality adds some pep into the Cuthbert’s formerly quiet life, but it also gets Anne into trouble fairly regularly. She loves trees and flowers, and delights in all things that bloom around Green Gables and the neighboring land. She is also overly concerned with the fact that her hair is red – a bad omen, in her mind.

The earlier chapters of the book go into many details of her adventures, and each one is likely to discuss only one incident at a time. Anne goes to both regular school and Sunday school – a first, in her life – and makes many friends and frenemies. We really get a feel for everyday life at the Cuthbert’s, and in the town in general.

The later chapters start to hurry things up a bit, as Anne goes off to college for a year and hopes to be a teacher. Some of them cover a whole season at a time. She initially wins a scholarship to go to an even better school, but tragedy strikes as Matthew passes away unexpectedly while she is home for the summer. Marilla’s eyesight is also failing, and Anne learns that she intends to sell the farm. Having none of that, Anne foregoes another year of school, and gets hired on to teach in town starting that fall. She cajoles Marilla into letting her support her in this way, instead of selling Green Gables.

This was a fun read, and recaptures some of the beauty of being a child with nothing to entertain you but your own imagination – and maybe some willing friends.


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“Dawn” by Octavia E. Butler – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before.

Goodreads


I read this with my online book club, as our last selection for our #DiverseSFF reads. I couldn’t let a whole six months go by without tackling some Octavia Butler – and I had never read her, myself! She is considered by many to be the mother of afrofuturism – or, black authors writing black and African stories and main characters in science fiction.

This one was not one of her earliest, although it is the first book of a trilogy. It was first published in the late 80s, and members of my group saw similarities to Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” series. I also thought it reminded me of the TV series LOST at some points. So, it’s probably safe to say that it influenced various things that came after it.

The story begins with Lilith waking up alone in a room. She goes through this scenario multiple times, with slightly different results. She has captors, who she can talk to, but she can’t see them initially. At one point, she is given a companion for a short period. She always ends up being put back to sleep, and being awakened again.

In the next portion of the book, Lilith finally gets to meet her captors – the Oankali. Earth was ravaged by a large scale war, and these interstellar travelers have taken many survivors onto their ship while working on rehabilitating the planet. While the humans have been in stasis, the Oankali have been studying their genetic code. Their species trades in this information, and has survived by integrating bits of other genetic code with their own – and vice versa. They tell Lilith that she had a genetic predisposition to cancer, which they have cured for her. While she eventually learns to communicate and live with them, she never fully trusts them – and sometimes thinks they did other experiments on her.

While she is living among the Oankali, Lilith learns that she has been chosen to train a group of humans to return to Earth. She does not want this position, but has no choice in the matter. And, of course, she does want to return to Earth herself. So, she learns what she is supposed to do.

In the next part of the book, she starts awakening other humans, and trying to teach them what they need to know to return to Earth. They don’t trust her, thinking she is too tight with their captors. The humans fight and break into factions – and it’s at this point that I start feeling the LOST vibes.

Those carry over into the last part, where the humans inevitably have to fend for themselves in a jungle environment to prove that they’re ready to go back to a wild and uncolonized version of Earth.

So, I’ve mentioned a lot of the major plot points here without going into the interior struggles and ethical debates that these events bring up. And those are really the things that make you think, even after you set the book down.

One of the key ideas that my fellow readers latched on to was the idea of consent… Lilith and her fellow humans are entering into a relationship with the Oankali in which they will be expected to trade their own genetic code. And, in reality, the Oankali have already taken it. So, how much agency do these humans have over what happens next? The Oankali think of themselves as saviors more than captors – the Earth was rendered inhabitable, after all. But the humans pretty much have to play by their rules if they ever want to see Earth again.

These are just a few of the concepts that are ripe for debate within this story. At roughly 250 pages, it’s succinct and effective. If you are a fan of science fiction, you will probably find a lot here to chew on.


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