Review: Reinas Malditas by Cristina Morató

Reinas Malditas by Cristina Morató

I read this book along with my friends from Mexico (and technically Canada since two of them are there) over the past three months. This book is about multiple women who were big historical figures from various European monarchies: Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Mary Antoinette, Christina of Sweden, Eugénie de Montijo, Queen Victoria of England, and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

I really wish that this book had been better… Morató wrote in a way that reminded me of gossip columns that was mostly drama and very little substance. In the first chapter she talks about Empress Elizabeth (Sisi) from Austria and she describes how her learning about life in court was like learning:

…gossip of the high aristocracy…

Sissi pg.37

Honestly, that’s exactly what this book was, pretty much gossip. Although I did learn about each of the royal women in the book I didn’t always trust the author (possibly because of her writing style) so I always ended up going to Wikipedia to learn more about them. (That’s not a good sign!) It was also very confusing because we kept jumping around in the timeline so you’d be reading about when they had kids and then go back to before they were pregnant or someone close to them died but the next paragraph we’d get a whole two paragraphs about them before they died. Just very hard to follow.

Overall I did not enjoy this book and I couldn’t recommend it on good conscience. I’d be interested in reading a non-fiction book about the life of any of these women, but I’d hope for something with a more linear and serious writing style. If you have any recommendations, let me know!

Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I was a bit hesitant to read “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini, if only because I knew it would break my heart like “The Kite Runner” did. And I was so right.

Hosseini just knows how to tell a story in a beautiful way, and in this multi-generational novel, filled with friendship, chosen families, all set in Afghanistan during a very turbulent and violent time, he does just that. This book starts out with the story of Mariam, a girl who is born out of wedlock who is hidden away with her mother out of view of society in Herat, Afghanistan.

The book is set in Herat and Kabul, Afghanistan.

We follow Mariam as she grows up with her mother and then as she marries a shoemaker and moves to Kabul. In Kabul we follow Laila, a young girl whose family is very close knit and who emphasize the importance of education for her future. Mariam and Laila are of two different generations but still experience the same events in very similar ways. As women, they have a limited say on what they want to do with their lives and I definitely felt the helplessness as they try to fight but ultimately accept their destiny. Eventually, their lives become interconnected and their relationship becomes an anchor for the both of them in the midst of the violence all around them.

I love stories that encompass a person’s whole life and I especially love those that are multi-generational. There’s the added bonus that these are women’s stories from a part of the world that’s very much outside of my general perspective. There’s also a wonderful diversity within Afghanistan of languages, cultures, and general ways of life. It really opened my eyes to that diversity and the contrast between the two areas in Afghanistan that are featured.

Mariam and Laila are wonderful characters who grow, learn, and really change throughout the book. They are not alone though! Their parents, partners, friends, and children all also have interesting arcs throughout the book. They are forced to react and adapt to the events that are happening around them that are completely out of their control. While Mariam and Laila are both wonderful characters, one of my other favorites was Laila’s dad, Hakim. Hakim is a teacher, lover of books, a romantic, and truly dear to my heart. At one point when they have to leave their house and sell everything, he is faced with the prospect of choosing which books he must leave behind. Him pacing his library making those decisions was a scene that I cherished a lot.

Overall, this is a brilliant book that I will be thinking about for a long time and which I’m very glad was chosen for our book club this month. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes multi-generational stories filled with complex and wonderful characters. I would warn, however, that there is a lot of violence in this book, including physical and mental abuse. If you are interested do check it out, it’s a great book, beautifully written, and full of powerful perspectives.

Review: Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

The first book I finished in July was Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan. This is the third and final installment in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, which I started way back in 2018 right before the movie came out. (Still waiting for that second movie…..) I read the second book in 2019 (I think, I actually didn’t record it on Goodreads but I definitely read it, I swear XD). In the first book we mostly follow Rachel and Nick, a couple who go to Nick’s friend’s wedding in Singapore, where Rachel finds out that Nick belongs to a super rich family. There’s romance, there’s drama, there’s a lot of expensive jewelry, dresses, food, oh the food…. ::drool:: The second book delves deeper into Nick’s family and we learn even more about Astrid and Kitty Pong, Kitty’s story was probably my favorite part in this book, where she tries to go from an actress who is not taken seriously to a more refined version of herself. In the second book Nick and Rachel end up in a life or death situation and it’s probably the most action-driven book of the three.

The third installment has much less about Rachel but Nick is still a big player in the book. Nick’s grandmother, Su Yi, is on her deathbed and the family is coming together to say goodbye but also… figure out what they will be getting in the will. Eddie, one of Nick’s cousins is so so so annoying and as melodramatic as usual. Kitty is back with even more ambition to have more power and respect from everyone. There is a particular chapter where Kitty hires Nigel Barker for a photoshoot and, as someone who used to watch America’s Next Top Model, I was laughing so much imagining him in this world, it was a lot of fun. Astrid is also on a journey of her own as she figures out her identity outside of her rich family’s expectations of perfection.

My favorite part of this book was that we got to see to the past and into Su Yi’s story of how she was a war heroine. As the Japanese invaded Singapore, she played a role in helping others stay safe and, even when her father sent her away to India until the war passed, she went back to Singapore and helped in the war effort. It was really cool to see what Su Yi was like in her youth and then how that contributed to how she was from book one and to the end of her life in book three. Also, looking into the real history of the Japanese invasion of Singapore, the real Tyersall park did serve as headquarters for some of the commanders so it was cool to learn some of the history through this book.

While the whole book is still filled with greedy, selfish people, who don’t seem to learn that money isn’t everything (mostly because they have just been taken it for granted), there are also some characters who start to see how there are more things to life than money and power. Of course, you still get a lot of glamour, name/brand dropping, insane parties and purchases that go beyond any “normal” human. Some of the characters are dealing with mental health issues, and that is much more apparent in this third book.

Perhaps the one thing that wasn’t perfect about this book was the time/pacing. Sometimes the book would jump months/days and it was hard to tell. The end was also wrapped up in a couple of sentences for each person, imagine a montage at the end of a movie where you see what happened with each person, not a bad ending at all since it did tie up everything pretty nicely, I just wanted more hahaha.

This is one of the most consistent series I’ve read (rated all three books with 4 stars on Goodreads) since they all kept me laughing, rolling my eyes, and just overall very entertained. As far as escapism goes, this was a great book to read and just forget about everything going on in real life. I definitely stayed up reading it way past my bedtime so if you’re looking for something like that, I do recommend this series.

Review: A Year Without A Name by Cyrus Dunham

A book on a white background. The cover of the book has the title at the top "A Year Without a Name". There is the image of a person with squares superimposed on top of the face, which is also shifted so the top of the head doesn't align with the bottom. Each square has a different image or color, black square, blue square, grey square, a square with "An anti-memoir" -- The Atlantic, squares with lips or eyes. It says Cyrus Dunham at the bottom.
A Year Without A Name by Cyrus Dunham

You have the right to say who you are without setting it in stone. You have the right to ask questions, to live with and in doubt, to try things on for size. Your life is your experiment. You can try to catch mist. When you learn that you can’t catch it, you can go outside and feel it on your skin.

Preface, pg.xx

I received this book in my subscription of the Feminist Book Club (FBC) box for June and I’m so so happy that I got to read it! As part of the FBC membership we also get a Q&A with the author, which happened earlier today. It was so great to hear from the author about their process and their experiences since writing the book.

A Year Without A Name is a snapshot of various moments throughout the time when Cyrus Dunham was exploring their gender and their body identity. These snapshots go from his childhood to the present time in the book and it’s very circular. It’s not a book that’s easy to understand right away because it deals with a lot of dissociation form the moment and also emotional trauma. Dunham takes us back to the time in their childhood when they tried to fit into being a girl and the feeling of failing at that because they did not identify as a girl. Then the feeling of having to choose between being a woman or a man in the present, along with everything that comes with that decision.

For me it was very valuable to learn about the experience of struggling with gender identity through Dunham’s point of view. It is amazing how they managed to translate those feelings and thoughts as they were happening and construct a memoir around those moments in time.

In the Q&A Dunham talked a bit about how they like to write into questions and not necessarily answers. That is exactly what A Year Without a Name is, it is an exploration into questions. Questions about gender, about the role of people in a world built around a gender binary, about the relationship of our selves and our bodies. It made me question my own relationships and not necessarily have answers but simply explore those questions for myself. The quotation at the beginning of this post embodies that idea that each individual should be able to explore and experiment however they like, try certain ideas, beliefs, identities, for themselves and see what fits and what doesn’t. We don’t have to have answers or the expectation of an answer when we explore our bodies and identities.

If you are looking for a memoir about gender identity exploration definitely check out A Year Without A Name, it is an incredible opportunity to see someone’s experience in their exploration of self, one that is not often in the spotlight.

Signature in purple on a lighter purple background. it says "~Paulina~" in a casual cursive font.

Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

I finished The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander today and what an amazing work by the author! This book is so well researched and put together that it’s accessible for anyone.

The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison.

Introduction p.15

The New Jim Crow details and tells the story of how the current system of mass incarceration came about in the United States, which affects black men most of all. Alexander takes us back to the beginning of slavery, the “end” of slavery, the start of the Jim Crow era, the “end” of the Jim Crow era, and our current criminal justice system at detail. To go through everything would take a long time but I want to highlight some of the things that impacted me the most, and which I hope will resonate with others as well.

Follow the money! I didn’t know that the reason why the War on Drugs is based a lot on politics and money (not a real worry about people’s health). Politicians, starting with Regan (the War on Drugs creator), made incentives for police departments to pursue the arrests of people for drug possession. If it weren’t for these incentives, the police would have no reason to go looking for people who have drugs as much as they do. All of the raids on homes with no-knock warrants, sending SWAT teams to find drugs and shooting first all come from these incentives. It is in the best interest of the police departments to arrest people for drugs because each arrest gives their department money while other arrests don’t have those same incentives.

Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding. Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, even for violent crime. As a result, when Jackson County, Wisconsin, quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000, the county’s federal subsidy quadrupled too.

The Lockdown p.98

Say now that someone is arrested. The sentencing for drug offenses is just illogical and it’s all based on politicians wanting to not be seen as “soft on crime” so they implement “3 strikes and you’re out” laws or minimum mandatory sentencing. For example:

Because [Edward] Clary had been caught with more than fifty grams of crack (less than two ounces), the sentencing judge believed he had no choice but to sentence him — an eighteen-year-old who had no criminal record — to a minimum of ten years in federal prison.

The Color of Justice p.141

The fact is, even after people who are arrested get out of prison, they are still under the really impossible situation that they are now labeled a “criminal”. They have to check that box saying that they have a criminal record and can’t apply for a myriad of things, including government aid for housing, food stamps, some licenses for certain jobs, and even voting is restricted.

One parent barred from voting due to his felony conviction put it this way: “I have no right to vote on the school referendum that … will affect my children. I have no right to vote on how my taxes is going to be spent or used, which I have to pay whether I’m a felon or not, you know? So basically I’ve lost all voice or control over my government … I get bad because I can’t say anything because I don’t have a voice.”

The Cruel Hand pg.201

There are so many heartbreaking stories within the pages of this book, from arrests to sentencing to life in prison, to life after prison, it’s just a lot! I just touched on a few things that Alexander dives deep into throughout the book so I highly recommend that you read it if this is of interest to you. Alexander leaves us with some thoughts on how this system could potentially be changed. The bottom line is that it’s not an easy thing to fix. It can’t be fixed with a law or a presidential signature. It will require a complete change in the thinking of a majority of our society. We can’t keep ignoring and turning off the news when black people are obviously being treated like second-hand citizens. We can all help in different ways for there are many things to do, from small acts of kindness to participating in social justice activism. The least we can do is inform ourselves of what is happening with the criminal justice system so that we can see past the political gestures of being “hard on crime” for what they are, reinforcements of the current system.

I highly recommend this book as well as the documentary 13th, which also talks about the system of mass incarceration and also features Michelle Alexander as one of the experts. I leave you with that full film (available for free on Youtube) and hope you’ll be interested in getting informed about these issues.

Full Feature film “13th” on YouTube.

Review: Disability Visibility Edited by Alice Wong

Disability Visibility Edited by Alice Wong

When I was in middle school in Mexico I went to a private all-girls school and one of my classmates was blind. She was one of the smartest people in the class and as far as I can remember, she participated in just about every activity we had with just some assistance from the teacher. I can’t quite remember how it happened but there was a news story about her and her achievements in school and she tried to make her case to the interviewer that what she really needed to further succeed was a computer for blind people. I remember that she was upset later because when the news came out there was no mention about the computer, just a lot of praise and amazement that she was blind and yet she was doing so well in school. Now I understand that the interviewer and the media only wanted that feel good story but didn’t care to further help her with what she truly needed. I also understand now that she was probably one of the more fortunate blind people in Mexico, able to get an education at a private school with teachers who seemed to be able to help her as best as they could. Otherwise, I would encounter blind people in the subway, singing, playing an accordion while someone led them through the crowded aisles. I now have more of a perspective on how it wasn’t a consequence of their lack of sight that led them to beg in the street but because of society’s lack of support.

In Disability Visibility I was able to learn about many other types of disabilities and the people who live with them. How they live, how they try and thrive in a world that doesn’t seem to care much about them. It’s a book about the realities and not about feel good stories, like the one told about my middle school friend. I loved the diversity of people that we hear from, we hear from men, women, non-binary people, queer, straight, trans people, and more! To try to summarize all of that here would be impossible but trust me that throughout this book you get to meet many amazing people and learn about what they’ve been through and what they hope to accomplish. Alice Wong put together a great array of stories and you can also see more of her work at the Disability Visibility Project website.

As I finished each story I went to see what the author was doing now or to learn more about them and their endeavors. I also stopped a lot to think about what I had just read, to process and let it sink in. These are not easy stories to read, in fact, quite a few of them have content warnings at the beginning of each story so it makes it easier to read carefully.

There were some stories in the book that really did blow my mind in the sense that if disabled people were given all the resources that they needed to thrive, they would be able to contribute so much to society! Specifically I think of the story by Wanda Díaz-Merced, which is actually a TED talk that was transcribed for the book. Wanda Díaz-Merced is an astrophysicist who lost her sight late in her career, but she managed to find a different way to study space and one that ended up giving more information to scientists than by just visual means. As non-disabled people we think that there are only so many ways to do things in our lives, but in fact, there are many ways to do things. If we can be more open minded, there really would be endless possibilities! These aren’t stories of people doing things despite their disability, these are stories of people using all of themselves to live their life as best as they can and fight for what they believe in.

I highly encourage non-disabled people to read this book. There are endless social aspects that affect people with disabilities, from public transportation, architecture, scientific research, legal rights, etc., but where they are not given a thought. I realized for example, my house is not accessible to people who use wheelchairs! My workplace does not have an elevator to the second floor! We can at least start noticing and asking for the people in charge to make things accessible to disabled people around us. And even more importantly, we can empathize with their stories and the obstacles that are put in their lives and help remove those obstacles as best as we can.

Book Review — The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith

Back in February of 2020 I had my last trip before [insert all.the.things]. I went to Portland and got to visit one of my favorite bookstores: Powell’s. At that time I had no idea it would be the last time in a while that I’d visit such an awesome bookstore so I didn’t buy too many books (if only I had known….). Still, I got one book purely because of the cover and a couple of key words on the back:

Image of a book on a shelf. Other books of various sizes are in the background. The book cover is in sepia, black, and white colors and has written at the top in black "The Good Place meets Law & Order: Bibliophile Crime Unit. This book is so much fun. -- Seanan McGuire. The image on the cover is of an arm coming out of the left side of a dark opening of ripped pages from what seems to be a book. The words on the ripped pages are in french. The title "The Library of the Unwritten" is in the dark opening where the arm is coming out of in white letters. Underneath the title it says "Join the Library. Raise Hell. Underneath the opening it says "A novel from Hell's Library" and under that "A. J. Hackwith"
“head librarian” “Hell” “hero escapes” “author” were the words that jumped at me from the synopsis of the book.

I don’t normally buy books that I’m not looking for but this book just yelled to be picked up! Hell’s library, what’s in Hell’s library?! Is it evil books? Is it books by evil people? What?! I also don’t normally read synopses because I enjoy going into books not knowing much about the plot but this one claimed that this library housed unwritten works, now that’s intriguing! The main character would be the librarian in charge of these unwritten books and that a hero escapes so they have to get him back. With only a tiny bit of unease at stepping out of my comfort zone I bought the book. That was February 2020.

Jump to July 2020 and I figured it was about time to get back into reading since I was stuck at home with not much else to do… Boy it took me a while to get into the book. I don’t blame the book too much though! Middle of a you-know-what and my mental health wasn’t great so my attention span was lacking. I was reading about 20 pages here and there and then I left it for a couple of months until I finally finished it in January of 2021.

Although this book took a while to read I really truly enjoyed it! The story centers Claire, the head librarian of the Unwritten Library. This library is home to all the unfinished works by people on earth. You know, you write half a story and leave it there? Yeah, that story now lives in that library. All the main characters live in those shelves but sometimes they get out of their pages and become “real.” These characters are then put back into their unfinished books by the librarian. But, in one case, a hero escapes his book and manages to get out of the library altogether. Now Claire and Brevity (a retired muse) have to get him back into his book before he meets his author and havoc ensues.

But of course that’s not all! The other big big issue is that someone somewhere has discovered that the Devil’s Bible, written by Lucifer (you know, king of the underworld, head of all things evil, fallen archangel) is somewhere it shouldn’t be. Books are huge sources of power, demons are always going to the Unwritten library to read and borrow some of that power so it is imperative that this particular book doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. So, heaven is making sure they find the book to put it in the proper place and also demons are now after the book! Well, of course Claire and Beverly get mixed into this mystery of where the book is and …well… you’ll have to read the book to find out!

An aspect of this book I really enjoyed also was that we got to visit multiple other afterlife places: Heaven, Valhalla, a random pagan afterlife, etc. The way that one gets there isn’t easy for these characters since one is supposed to be a human soul (I kept forgetting that they were not entirely human throughout the whole book, also a side effect of stopping after a few pages and picking it up again weeks later I bet). There are many challenges and puzzles that they must solve at each turn so that was really interesting.

I highly recommend this first installment of Hell’s Library because not only is it for all book lovers and aspiring writers, it also includes LGBTQ characters. Multiple characters are sexually diverse and the issues that they face through the book (and in their backstories) are treated really well. I did not know this when I read the book but A. J. Hackwith is a queer fantasy and science fiction writer so it makes so much sense now that she was able to write about the identities of the characters so well.

I would like to continue reading this series and perhaps re-read this book now that my mind is more at ease. What do you think? Have you read this book? Do you have an unwritten book that you’ve yet to finish?

An unwritten book is nothing but pure potential, a soul’s potential is power [in Hell]. Power naturally, is all the creatures of Hell care about. They’d descend on the shelves like a swarm of locusts if we let them

The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith

Book Review — The Spark by David Drake

The Spark
The Spark and Ulysses were this month’s TBR jar picks!

So I received The Spark in a Page Habit box a few months ago and it was an unexpected but pleasant surprise.

David Drake was born in 1945, he’s a Vietnam War veteran and he’s known for being a major author in the military science fiction genre. The Spark is the first book that I read by Drake and I really enjoyed it!

The Spark is a take on an Arthurian legend, if you are familiar with the tale, you’ll see plenty of parallels, but the differences are what really caught my attention. First is the world where this story takes place. It is a world that has many towns and cities connected by a Road. The world is divided into Here and Not Here, two sort of parallel universes that connect or overlap in certain places, one of them being this Road that connects everything. There are artifacts from the Ancients (which seem to be today’s world since there are references to umbrellas, projectors, and weapons) that only certain people are able to fix and make work again, these people are called Makers.

“Since I’d come away from Beune, everything I’d seen was people in pyramids, somebody at the top and everybody else scrambling to get on top instead. Or at least to get off the bottom” — Pal

So, Pal is our main character, he’s a young man from a small town that’s not exactly governed by the Commonwealth but Pal’s dream is to become a Champion of Humanity (Pal’s also a Maker!). The Champions are selected at Dun Add, a city where King Jon rules the Commonwealth. The story begins as Pal arrives at Dun Add after traveling through the Road with the help of his dog Buck (people can’t see well in the Road and must see through the eyes of their animal companions in order to travel safely).

Truthfully, the part that I was dreading the most was that of the romance. Of course there must be a maiden in distress that needs saving! However, even though there was a woman who needed help finding her sister, there was no romantic love there! Even the one who might be Pal’s main love interest is not even considered so by him until perhaps the end of the novel. I liked this because it wasn’t the usual “Oh, they saw each other for the first time and now they are in love and will get married tomorrow after they slay the dragon” deal. Women are portrayed as individuals with purpose and their own dreams and desires. They aren’t always nice and pretty and princess-like, they are raw and real and troublesome too.

Then there was the violence. There are certainly deaths and some gory parts that stand out in my mind even days after reading them. Drake is really good at describing the battles and the fighting, he gives us enough detail to know what’s happening but not too much that we are overwhelmed.

“You can’t spend all the time thinking about how to stay safe and still live what I’d call a life” — Pal

So all in all, this book had a variety of interesting characters, three different adventures all rolled into one, and it was entertaining!

I don’t know if I’ll like other books by David Drake, but I now know that he can tell a story without going for the usual tropes and cliches that one tends to find in this genre. If I come across another of his books, I’ll likely give it a try.

Have you read any of Drake’s books? Which one should I read next?

Book Review — An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon was a book that challenged me for the better. I got to see through the eyes of a woman who lives in a society that treats people like objects and who is missing the knowledge of her family history. She feels like she is missing something but she doesn’t dwell on it since there are no clear and quantifiable answers.

“A part of each person lay in their past, in their parentage and grandparentage, and if that history was missing, were said people incomplete?
–Aster

As part of the lack of history that she feels, she seeks knowledge of her surroundings, she immerses herself in studying the world around her, from growing plants to synthesizing chemicals to aid her in her work as a healer. She’s a crucial part of her community, going around and healing those who don’t have access to doctors, but soon all that will change when she gets some clear information on what led to her mother’s death.

“Chemicals plus chemicals makes magic”
— Aster

Although this book is a science fiction novel, it was not what I expected, it’s not just a voyage in space. It is a novel that gives an immensely important voice to social and cultural issues that are not represented in many forms of media, from film to books and everything in between. Among these issues is gender. In Matilda, the ship that carries what’s left of humanity through space, people live in different levels depending on their social status, skin color, and gender. It is explained that humanity has developed a third gender “they”, which was a result of a hormonal condition that made it so that people of this gender didn’t fit biologically into male or female.

“…said Flick as she–he–no, they–shook the starjar. Aster regretted her error.”

The third gender uses the “they” pronoun and it’s the first time that I even read a book where this pronoun is implemented. Such a book can be very powerful for people who use this pronoun and for those who don’t know or don’t understand why or how to use it.

The world that Solomon creates in this book is slowly built up through Aster’s eyes. At first this was frustrating to me because I wanted a clear picture right away, but I learned to be patient and see things as Aster did. Aster only sees specific details that are important to her. It was frustrating to have a very meaningful and emotional encounter happening and have Aster focus on a seemingly trivial thing that leads to the sudden end of that encounter. This is actually very important because not everyone sees the world in the same way, some may only pay attention to the details and others may focus on the bigger picture. This book taught me to be open to the way that others see the world, even if at times it can be hard and frustrating to stop and see a situation from the other person’s point of view to realize that we might both want the same thing and that it will just take a bit of understanding from both parties to reach the objective.

This book really did leave me thinking, it was really well written and it gave me something that no other book has given me: a perspective that was very difficult to connect to, but which taught me how to be understanding of those who don’t express themselves the same way that I do.

What’s a book that you’ve read that had a difficult perspective but which was valuable and worth reading?