Okay, so after all my big talk last month about how I might have to split up this month post’s into two because of all the books I was going to read, I actually had a pretty slow reading month. I got a just a wee small little bit obsessively hooked on a podcast (The Magnus Archives) and so instead of listening to audiobooks I found myself listening to the podcast, and instead of reading… I also found myself listening to the podcast. 90 episodes in means it was a quieter reading month than the last couple (and I still have half the podcast to go so May might have fewer than usual books in it as well). That said, I still got through a good few excellent books; read on for my reviews or check them all out on Goodreads.
A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo
In vignettes prefaced by snippets of conversation that appear within the scenes, a Chinese woman who has recently arrived to the UK for her PhD and a long-term British resident and architect with Australian and German roots meet, fall in love, and form a relationship. This is a soft and musing book, mainly focused on the unnamed narrator’s inner thoughts as she explores a new country, considers language—her own, English, and her partner’s German—and cultural, and works on her studies. Her thesis is regarding a Chinese city whose residents nearly all make a living from creating reproductions of famous paintings, and this motif of originals versus copies is a thread that appears throughout the story. I enjoyed the poetic, fragmented nature of the story, offering glimpses into a life and relationship that is at times unconventional but overall sensitive and tender.
How Long Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
NK Jemisin is probably one of the greatest living writers, and at the very least she is one of the greatest (if not *the* greatest) living SF/F writers. Everything she writes blows me away. This is a diverse set of short stories, some connected to her longer works (there is one that offers an early concept on what turned into The City We Became, and another obviously connected to the Broken Earth trilogy). There are stories that read like folk and fairy tales, stories with elements of romance, stories that both warn of and exalt futuristic technology, all woven through with threads of culture, history, humanity, and written with the most striking imagery and style. Because of the array of themes and styles of these stories, there were a few that didn’t hit as strongly for me as most (and just one that didn’t work for me at all and I had to skip halfway through), but overall it’s an incredibly strong collection written by a truly fantastic author.
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
I loved the first two thirds of this. It was subtle and insidious and twisty and fascinating. Sydney is a memorable protagonist at the start (although I felt her character falls away at the end in favour of the white, male, secondary protagonist which is… uh, ironic?), the setting is so complexly fleshed out, and the tension is palpable. Then, as many reviews suggested, the final third sort of fell apart. There’s somehow both too much exposition and too much action. I felt like Sydney’s POV fell by the wayside in comparison to Theo’s, who is fine, I guess, but not half as interesting. And the antagonists went from realistically sinister to cartoonish in their crowing (for the benefit of the audience’s understanding) about their evil plans. The concept is excellent and there are a lot of good, relevant points that are as horrifyingly true in real life as they are in the novel. But it just goes off the rails at the end in a way that doesn’t stick or match up to the quality of the bulk of the book.
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
A truly fascinating and important book about the pre-occupation culture of Aboriginal Australians. Often, erroneously according to Pascoe, thought to have been a simplistic, hunter-gatherer culture, Pascoe argues that there is actually extensive evidence of agriculture and settlement, and that the loose, nomadic interpretation of their lifestyle was one of the pretexts upon which European settlers justified their occupation and conquest. Although the book is not long and thorough enough to fully trace the 80,000 years Aboriginal peoples have lived in Australia, it provides a thoughtful overview of some of the major aspects of their stewardship of the land. Moreover, it shows how Australia may be able to take cues from this vast history to create a more sustainable culture to protect the environment—utilising native grains and animals rather than destroying the ecology with non-native farming and meat production.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe (audiobook, read by the author)
Patrick Radden Keefe is just an unbelievably good writer. This book gripped me from the moment I started and held my complete interest all the way through. A fascinating, and exhaustively-researched work that traces the breadth and depth of the Sackler family empire and their role in creating the opioid crisis, and the way corporations and the government have failed to protect the public in the name of profit. Keefe deftly shapes the story and raises questions about corporate responsibility, the pharmaceutical industry, and more, creating a strong, fascinating, and horrifying piece of incredible investigating journalism.
Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America by Stacey Abrams (audiobook, read by the author)
A seriously important book on the history and current status of voter rights and suppression—more paramount than ever given the recent voter suppression laws in Georgia and other states. Stacey Abrams is an expert on the topic as well as an expert on communicating about it, and here she lays out not only a clear and comprehensive report on the issue but also actionable steps to take to ensure fair voting and how to fight for voters’ rights in the United States. It’s a guidebook that everyone with an interest in and care for democracy would do well to read and internalise, then use as a roadmap for their activism.
Prairie Fires: The American Dream of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (audiobook, read by Christina Moore)
An extremely detailed, comprehensive look at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and the time periods through which she lived. For the so, so many of us who grew up reading the Little House books, it’s a real eye-opener to the reality of the stories she told in the series. The research and work the author has put into this biography is incredible; it’s so in-depth and thorough in exploring not only Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life but also the historical ongoings and eras of her time, the politics, the social movements, and so on. It’s long and dense but worthwhile for its full and multidimensional telling.
Also Rose Wilder Lane is The Worst.