“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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“M, King’s Bodyguard” by Niall Leonard – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Based on a true story, M, King’s Bodyguard is a gripping, atmospheric thriller about anarchy and assassination in Edwardian London, and one detective’s mission to preserve the life of his king and prevent a bloody war in Europe.

Goodreads


I don’t read a ton of mystery/thriller novels, so I picked this one out just for variety. And its setting – London in 1901 – makes it more akin to Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie than the more contemporary thrillers.

William Melville worked within Scotland Yard, and had a special assignment protecting the Queen – very much like what we Americans would call the Secret Service. Upon the Queen’s death, his services transfer to her heir, the next King. While preparing for the royal funeral, Melville uncovers a plot to attack the Kaiser – the leader of Germany at the time – during the funeral procession.

He feels compelled to run down every lead to stop this act of terrorism, but has several obstacles. First of all, can he be sure his leads are even valid? He also has to balance the wishes of his boss at Scotland Yard with those of his real boss, the King. Lastly, the King is insistent that Melville works with the man in his position within the targeted Kaiser’s retinue – a man named Gustav Steinhauer – but Melville isn’t entirely sure that Steinhauer is trustworthy.

There are several women characters in the mix as well, and while they don’t feature as prominently as Melville or Steinhauer, they do prove to be pretty integral to the plot.

There are a few twists I didn’t love, but obviously… as the story is based on true events, I can’t very well blame the storyteller here. Sometimes real people are messy.

The story was fun, and fairly full of action. The fact that it was based on real events makes it even more intriguing.

“M, King’s Bodyguard” is being released today, July 13th. I read an advanced copy through NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing.


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“Millennial Nuns” by the Daughters of St. Paul – Review

By: Angie Haddock


More and more people—especially millennials—are turning to religion as a source of comfort and solace in our increasingly chaotic world. But rather than live a cloistered life of seclusion, the Daughters of Saint Paul actively embrace social media, using platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to evangelize, collectively calling themselves the #MediaNuns.

In this collective memoir, eight of these Sisters share their own discernment journeys, struggles and crises of faith that they’ve overcome, and episodes from their daily lives. Through these reflections, the Sisters also offer practical takeaways and tips for living a more spiritually-fulfilled life, no matter your religious affiliation.

Goodreads


This book appealed to me just from the description, as I’ve had a fascination with nuns for years! But these aren’t the nuns your parents complain about from their Catholic school days… these ladies are young and on Instagram.

Even though I grew up Catholic – and around nuns – I hadn’t heard of the Daughters of St. Paul before. Having been a media/broadcasting major back in my school days, I can’t help but be attracted to their mission.

From the intro: “The Daughters of St. Paul reflect deeply on how people interact with the media and are formed by it.”

(Good thing for my husband that I didn’t find this order in my formative years!)

After an introduction, the following chapters of the book are each written by a different member of the order. Almost all of them tell the story of how they came to learn about the Daughters of St. Paul, discerned their calling to be a nun, and maybe what they do within the order now.

I read a lot of memoirs, and love a good personal story. But, after a few chapters, I felt like the format started getting repetitive. Obviously these women have different backgrounds and details to their stories, but most came to discover their longing to be a nun around college age. Many of them confirmed their belief in this calling by visiting the order’s Mother House in Boston.

But about halfway through the book – right when I started feeling the repetitiveness – we meet a nun who is in charge of helping curious young women with this act of discernment. So now, we can see the process from the other side. It was exactly the change of pace that was needed at that point.

I would also say that one of the most compelling personal stories comes in the back half of the book – so it is worth moving through the slight repetitiveness.

There are a lot of good thoughts and quotes in here, many of which are about faith. But there are also inspiring thoughts on finding and pursuing one’s calling in life, which could appeal to people of any (or no) faiths.

This is a fun and uplifting read. I have even looked up a few of the contributors on Instagram – and from there I learned that they also have a podcast!

This book releases today, July 6. I was able to read an advanced copy through Netgalley, and Tiller Press.


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“The Black God’s Drums” by P. Djèlí Clark – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Creeper, a scrappy young teen, is done living on the streets of New Orleans. Instead, she wants to soar, and her sights are set on securing passage aboard the smuggler airship Midnight Robber. Her ticket: earning Captain Ann-Marie’s trust using a secret about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

Goodreads


This one was my group’s #DiverseSFF pick for May. After many struggled with “The Brothers Jetstream,” we opted for something short for the next month – this one came in at 111 pages in paperback, or 3 hours 4 minutes on audiobook (I did the audiobook).

This was a fun romp set in an alternate-history version of New Orleans. In this story, the Civil War did not end in the rejoining of the United States, and there continues to be both a Union and Confederacy. However, New Orleans is a free port, where both sovreignties – and many from throughout the Caribbean – can come and go to enact trade. This feels fair for New Orleans, as they tend to consider themselves, culturally, their “own thing.”

One of the things that intrigued me about this one is that I would put it in the realm of steampunk, which I had never delved into before! There are airships, and Captain Ann-Marie has a mechanical leg.

Another fun aspect is that there is a mixture of religious and cultural beliefs that are woven through the story. (Again, totally fair for the ethnic diversity found in real New Orleans.) The main characters believe in orisha, which are a pantheon of gods and goddesses brought from African tribes to the New World. Our two main characters, Creeper and Ann-Marie, are imbued with special characteristics of two, Oya and Oshun.

And yet, they rely on some Catholic nuns for information.

Another interesting aspect in here is that The Black God’s Drums are actually an invention that allows the user to manipulate the weather. I know that in steampunk, we’re dealing with some theoretical contraptions, but this whole idea made me think of the current debate on geoengineering.

Overall, this was a fun, quick romp through a very diverse and lush alternate version of an already diverse and lush city. If you’re interested in mixing old traditions with outlandish science fiction inventions, you would definitely enjoy it.


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“The Tea Dragon Tapestry ” by Katie O’Neill – Review

BY: ANGIE HADDOCK


“Join Greta and Minette once more for the heartwarming conclusion of the award-winning Tea Dragon series!”

Goodreads


I had been seeing the illustrations from this series floating around on some bookish sites for a bit, and thought it looked cute. When I got the chance to preview this new installment, I took it! First, since this is the third in a series, I eagerly devoured the first two through Hoopla. Then, I read the galley of this one, “The Tea Dragon Tapestry,”distributed from Oni Press.

All the reviews and blurbs I had seen about the series used the term “charming,” and it’s actually apt here. Katie O’Neill is both the writer and illustrator. The world she’s created is full of diversity – main characters are of various genders, roles, colors, abilities, and even species. But it’s also full of tradition. Characters learn trades from their elders, and interact with dragons who have centuries-long lifespans. The major themes within the series include friendship and family, finding your path/place, learning, and caring for others.

The illustrations are warm and rich. Each story takes place over a period of time, and often different color schemes are used to denote the season or place of different threads within the story. There are sweeping vistas, character shots, and pictures of everyday home life. Even the margins are often filled with little doodles and details.

In the first book, we meet main characters Greta and Minette, who are just learning to take care of some tea dragons. Hesekiel and Erik are their teachers in this endeavor.

In the second book, we step back in time to when Hesekiel and Erik are a bit younger, and have not yet settled into their home that we saw in the first book. They are traveling, and visit Erik’s home village. We meet his niece, Rinn, and a full-sized dragon, Aedhan.

In the third book, we are back in the village where Hesikiel and Erik are settled down and teaching Greta and Minette about tea dragons. But Rinn (now an adult) and Aedhan also come to visit here. Since this book is the final one, it’s nice that we can check in on the characters from both of the previous books.

The main threads of this story, however, focus on Minette and Greta. In Minette’s case, she is haunted by her past – which she only can remember in vague glimpses. At first she is frustrated with the feeling that she isn’t living the life she had started before. Eventually, she accepts that both her past and her present are important parts of her path.

In Greta’s case, she is trying to impress a blacksmith that she wants to apprentice for. At the same time, she is trying to bond with her tea dragon, who is depressed and not eating. She decides to make the dragon its own bowl, with her name and a cool design on it. The blacksmith is ultimately impressed that she chose to use her craft to communicate with another being, instead of making a battle instrument, and agrees to teach her.

The story ends with a little epilogue from Hesekiel, who is relieved that the girls are carrying on the tradition of caring for the tea dragons – an art he was afraid would be lost over time.

These three graphic novels are aimed at a middle grade audience, so they are fairly easy reads. But, they are a great respite for times when the world feels harsh. I would definitely recommend them if you need a little pick-me-up.

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” was originally supposed to be published in October, 2020. It was delayed due to a printing issue, however, and is now releasing on June 1, 2021.


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