These are young adult historical novels written in a diary format, clearly intended to teach history in an entertaining manner. My local library has pretty much all of them. I like being amused by history, I like faux diaries, and I already like some of the authors (Joseph Bruchac, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Laurence Yep, Walter Dean Myers), so I thought I'd give some a try.

My Name Is America: The Journal Of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy, by the usually reliable Walter Dean Myers, was a bit disappointing. While it was well-researched (as far as I could tell) and had some good comic bits, it felt even more like "one thing happened and then another thing happened" than I expected given the diary format, and the overall effect fell flat.

Has anyone read any of these? Are any worth checking out? And while I'm at it, does anyone know of any diaries by actual historical black cowboys?

I already know to avoid the books in this series about Indians (Native Americans) written by white people. But some of the Royal Diaries look pretty interesting: Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595 (The Royal Diaries), Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 (The Royal Diaries) (Royal Diaries), Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, Southern China A.D. 531 (The Royal Diaries)...

ETA: Hey! Looks like Scholastic India has a "Dear India" series! I wonder if I can get my hands on any of those. Not at my library, that's for sure...
A fascinating, easily readable history of cancer, how people conceived of it, how they tried to cure it, and how all that changed society and science. Mukherjee is an oncologist, and salts the text with anecdotes about his own patients. (Those were great and I would have liked more of them.)

If you like pop science at all, this is a great example of it: educational, clearly written, both explaining things you always wondered about (why is there so much cancer nowadays?) and delving into issues it never occurred to you wonder about (how did we get from a time when the New York Times refused to print the words “breast” and “cancer” to marathons for a cure?) Mukherjee takes us from bone tumors found in ancient mummies, to the Persian queen Atossa who had a slave perform a mastectomy on her, to the genesis of “wars on diseases” and campaigning for funds and cures, to the beginnings of chemotherapy, to cutting edge genetic research. He brings all the personalities of the scientists, the politicians, the patients, and the (evil! evil!) tobacco company executives to vivid life.

I probably don’t need to mention that this book can be gross, upsetting, and disturbing, given the subject matter. (The section on radical mastectomies was especially nightmarish.) But if you can either deal with that or skim a bit, I highly recommend this.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Visually stunning, mythic, disturbing comic about a tiny, brave little black girl named Lee, who descends into the underworld beneath the swamp to save her father from a lynch mob, and her best friend from a swamp monster. Volume two continues her quest in a world in which spirits, monsters, and adorable anthropomorphized animals enact American myths and American history.

Jeremy Love said in an interview, "I’ve always been interested in the mythology of America. The south, in particular, seems like a haunted place. You have this region that is covered with blood but produces so much beauty. I never really felt connected to African mythology until I started reading Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales. Seeing how elements of African mythology were interwoven with American folklore was the spark. What led me to the Uncle Remus tales was Disney’s Song of the South, a film I’ve always had mixed feelings about. I felt I as an African American creator could reclaim that mythology.

I thought this world would be the perfect place to stage an epic fantasy tale. I could mash up elements of the Civil War, blues, African mythology, Southern Gothic and American folklore and show how they form a tapestry that is the American South."

If you can deal with the sometimes horrific and violent content, made about ten times more disturbing because so much of it deals with real history, not to mention real racist imagery, this is an extremely powerful and satisfying work.

I especially recommend it if you're even passingly familiar with African-American history, folklore, and folk songs. I don't think you have to catch all the references to appreciate this, but it adds a lot if you do. In volume two, for instance, a character is introduced early on, and then named a little later. He works as a character even if you've never heard of him before, but I actually exclaimed aloud with delight when his identity was revealed.

Bayou Vol. 2

In case this may sway someone to read this, the mystery character is below the cut. (CAPS not mine - that represents a huge font.)

Read more... )
This begins as a sweet, fluffy YA novel about Lainey, a shy, socially awkward teenage girl who wants to become the first African-American vegetarian female celebrity chef, but gains unexpected emotional force as it goes along.

Lainey has been content for years to hang out in the kitchen of her mother’s restaurant, chopping vegetables and bringing in her own recipes for the staff to try, and dreaming about leaving roses at Julia Child’s kitchen in the Smithsonian. But then her long-time friend and secret crush, a popular boy with just enough angst to make him irresistible, starts stirring up messy, uncomfortable feelings in her, and finally gets her to help him run away - a favor that disrupts her life and even her relationship with her mother.

This is one of the more realistic depictions of teenage emotions, relationships, and sometimes terrible decision-making I’ve come across in a YA novel. (But don’t worry, it ends happily.) While the basic story has been told many times, it’s still worth telling and this is a good version of it. Many of you may identify a lot with Lainey’s social difficulties and determination to pursue her own quirky interests - I know I did. Plus, it has a number of tasty-sounding recipes included.

While Lainey is nearly 18, this novel is suitable for preteen readers as well as teenagers: the prose style is fairly simple, and the concerns aren’t ones limited to older teens. It’s definitely the sort of thing I would have enjoyed at nine or ten, and still enjoyed now.

A la Carte
In a voice mellifluous as a gentle shower of honey, without faltering, without throwing in filler words, very gracefully, the goose made a highly learned presentation. […] She also demonstrated her proficiency in poetry, dramaturgy, poetics, music, and erotic science.

The goose Sucimukhi was taught by Saraswati, Goddess of Learning and Speech, and given the title “Mother of Similes and Hyperbole.” In this gorgeous, witty, sensual fifteenth-century novel from south India, she helps resolve a war in Heaven by match-making between Pradyumna, Krishna’s son, and Prabhavati, the daughter of a demon king.

If you skim the genealogies at the very beginning, you don’t need to already have a background in Indian myth and religion to appreciate this short novel, which can be enjoyed on many levels: as a love story told in luscious, Song of Solomon-like metaphors; as a love story punctuated by metafictional commentary and sly parodies of the overblown conventions of love stories; as myth; as a small taste of a literary culture that I suspect most of you haven’t encountered before. (I mean fifteenth century Telegu literature, not Indian literature in general.)

Unlike a lot of literature which was clearly hot at the time but not to modern readers’ erotic tastes… this is still hot. At least, I thought so. There are many more explicit passages, but I was particularly taken with this one, in which Prabhvati’s girlfriend helps her arrange her hair for her first meeting with her beloved, and breaks into spontaneous poetry:

If you let your hair down, you look beautiful.
When you let it hang halfway, you look beautiful, too.
If it gets tangled, you’re beautiful in a different way.
If you comb it down, even more so.
You can braid it, roll it into a bun, or better still
tie it into a knot on the side.
You’re beautiful with that hair every which way.

It’s long, black, and so thick
you can’t hold it in one hand.
No matter how you wear it,
you’ll trap your husband with your hair.

Translated and with notes by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman.

The Demon's Daughter: A Love Story from South India (S U N Y Series in Hindu Studies)
Sponsored by [personal profile] tool_of_satan. Great rec, thank you!

And what of Paama herself? She said little about the husband she had left almost two years ago, barely enough to fend off the village gossips and deflect her sister’s sneers. She didn’t need to. There was something else about Paama that distracted people’s attention from any potentially juicy titbits of her past. She could cook.

An inadequate statement. Anyone can cook, but the true talent belongs to those who are capable of gently ensnaring with their delicacies, winning compliance with the mere suggestion that there might not be any goodies for a caller who persisted in prying. Such was Paama.

An adult fantasy novel loosely based on a folktale from Senegal. When a spirit called a djombi gives Paama a probability-altering Chaos Stick, a series of events spin out to change her life, the lives of her family, the lives of a great many innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders, and even the undying lives of several djombi.

I loved this book. LOVED it. The absolutely wonderful prose and the humor kept me reading with a huge smile on my face, and occasionally laughing aloud. I could pull quotes from every single page that would make people who enjoy this sort of thing rush out to buy it, though the funniest bits are best read in context. (The bit where a trickster spirit cleverly disguised as a very large talking spider has a deadpan conversation with two men in a bar was one of my very favorite scenes.) The very knowing and slightly defensive narrator cracked me up, and the more serious second half, while not quite as purely enjoyable as the first, is poignant and lovely.

If you enjoyed the elegantly mannered prose, metafictional commentary, and sly humor of Michael Chabon’s The Gentlemen of the Road or William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, you are almost certain to like Redemption in Indigo.

The plot falls apart for about twenty pages or so after Paama confronts the indigo-skinned djombi, but it picks up after that (so don’t give up.)

The ending was moving (which is not a code-word for “sad”), and very satisfying. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that we get a touching psychological explanation for her ex-husband’s compulsive gluttony, so I’ll say so here for the benefit of anyone who might find the very beginning, which is based on a folktale about a man who gets in comic trouble by eating everything in sight, fat-phobic or anti-eating. I loved the way Lord preserved the non-realistic qualities of the original folktale, while the narrator invented realistic justification until it became impossible, and then resignedly advised the readers to just go with it.

Highly recommended. This is the kind of book where I feel constrained in reviewing lest I over-sell, but if you like this sort of thing at all, go out and get it.

Redemption in Indigo: a novel
A gorgeous, haunting comic book with echoes of everything from the very best bits of Stephen King to some of the very worst bits of American history, with detours into a very creepy take on Alice in Wonderland, not to mention Br’er Rabbit.

Lee is a tiny but very determined little black girl living in Charon, Mississippi, 1933, on the banks of a bayou full of strange beings whom no one but she sees, or at least no one but she acknowledges. When her white friend Lily is taken by a folk song-humming monster, Lee’s father is jailed for kidnapping Lily (basically because he’s black) and is under threat of being lynched.

Lee ventures into the bayou to save her father and her friend, and so begins her journey into a twisted Wonderland in which the racism and weight of history that exists above the bayou also plays out below, enacted by monsters and giants, butterfly-winged spirits and talking dogs.

This is one of the most purely American works I’ve read in a while, and it gains a lot if you can catch at least some of the passing references to history and folklore. I’ve heard the argument that so much American fantasy is set elsewhere because America doesn’t have enough history and folklore to draw on. Apart from that this leaves out most of America's actual (Indian) history and folklore, this brief book alone proves that even recent history and folklore is sufficient for fantasy: though this volume is short, it’s the start of a series with a distinctly epic feel.

The art is gorgeous, often with a pastoral, children’s book illustration feel, which only makes a lot of the often-horrific images even more disturbing. Some panels, like one of Lee standing against the sunrise with the silhouette of a crow flying overhead, are simply beautiful. The colors are almost translucent, like watercolors.

I liked this a lot, and will definitely be following it. It’s beautiful to look at, deals with a lot of folklore and history that’s very close to my heart, and Lee is exactly the sort of heroine I adore, a prickly, real-feeling person who ventures into completely unknown and dangerous territory armed with nothing but love, courage, and a big historic axe. (And, eventually, a shotgun she borrowed from a swamp monster.)


Volume 2, which is available for pre-order now, comes out in January. Bayou Vol. 2
According to his bio, Chadda was raised Muslim and married a vicar’s daughter, with whom he had two daughters, and he wrote this book for them so they could read about a believable, bad-ass, biracial heroine from a Muslim-Christian marriage.

Billi SanGreal, daughter of a white and unenthusiastically Christian father and a Pakistani Muslim woman who died protecting the young Billi from ghuls, is now the only girl in the modern version of the Knights Templar. The Templars protect the world from supernatural evil; though only Christians can officially be knights, they have a number of active allies from other religions. Billi’s group is down to nine Templars, and they train and fight like maniacs to make up for their small numbers. But Billi is tired of constantly training under her distant father’s harsh supervision, and wants to have a normal life. Good luck with that!

What I liked best about this book was the treatment of religion and religious myth. Though Christianity is central to the Templars, Jewish and Muslim myth, culture, and characters play significant roles that aren’t just window-dressing. The religious and racial diversity is handled in a matter-of-fact way, which I appreciated.

I liked Billi a lot — despite carrying a lot of weight on her shoulders, she mostly avoids whining, and she’s both pleasingly kick-ass and believably prone to making mistakes and getting beat-down by fallen angels. And I liked the grubby, believable London setting.

What I did not like was the prose, which varied from passable to absolutely terrible. Billi describes her own eyes as “black orbs” at least twice, giving me flashbacks to “The Eye of Argon.” And that’s not the only turn of phrase which is Argon-esque. (I should note that Billi never describes how pretty she is - it's all stuff like "My black orbs met my father's blue ones as I gasped in horror.")

Recommended if you like the premise and can tolerate some seriously bad prose and a lot of gross horror imagery. Also note that though there's some humor, the story is more dark and less fluffy than it sounds. (No sexual abuse or assault - it's dark in other ways, including but not limited to endangered children.)

Devil's Kiss
Surgeon and science writer Atul Gawande’s previous books, Complications (on the role of intuition, the unknown, and other hard to quantify things in the practice of medicine) and Better (on the pursuit of excellence and why we often don’t reach it, focused on by not exclusive to medicine), are two of my favorite nonfiction books. I’ve read them both several times over and highly recommend them. Better in particular has wide-reaching implications and requires no independent interest in medicine.

The Checklist Manifesto, about why checklists are a good idea which can be used in many endeavors, makes an extremely convincing and well-documented case in favor of checklists. But unlike his previous books, which used specific cases to make larger points, this really is a book about checklists.

It would have been of far more general interest if it had been a book about the tension between set routines and individualism, and used checklists as an example of that. Instead, it’s the other way around. By the end of the book I had read the word checklist so often that it reminded me of my experience reading the book about Toni Bentley's ass.

Worth checking out from the library, but not something you’re likely to want to re-read.

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
Sponsored by [personal profile] gwyneira.

A completely adorable children's science-fantasy set on an Africa-derived planet in which Earth is a legend and most of the technology is biological. I am a complete sucker for biotech, not to mention science-fantasy, and the extravagant invention and playfulness of the world gives the novel enormous charm.

All the best books about plants are written by northeasterners, be they about pruning your office building or growing and maintaining the perfect personal computer from CPU seed to adult PC.

Zahrah Tsami is born with dadalocks - dreadlocks with vines growing in them. This marks her as potential trouble in her conformist culture, so she grows up quiet and shy, keeping her head down and trying to ignore the teasing from other kids. She gains the ability to levitate with menarche, but since she's afraid of heights she's reluctant to explore it.

But her best friend, the young radical Dari, persuades her to venture with him into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, where he can explore and she can, maybe, learn to fly. He promptly gets bitten by a deadly snake, and the only antidote is the egg of the scariest creature in the very scary scary jungle... into which Zahrah ventures, armed only with a grumpy compass, a malfunctioning digi-book, and a talent she's afraid to use.

Though the prose is overly simplistic and sometimes clunky, the setting is so great, and the tone is so sweet and playful, that I read this with a huge smile on my face. It's also one of the few American children's fantasy novels with an African (ish) heroine, written by an African-American author, AND with a black girl on the cover, so it could probably use some support. If you know any little girls (or boys) who liked Coraline, they would probably like this.

Zahrah the Windseeker
”A Native vampire! That is so cool!”

An enjoyably quirky vampire novel by an Anishinabe (Ojibwa) writer. Anishinabe teenager Tiffany Hunter has normal teenage problems: her mother took off a year ago, her father hates the white boy she’s dating (and the white boy, unbeknownst to Tiffany, is a real jerk), and she’s flunking all her classes. And one not-so-normal problem: the bed-and-breakfast tenant in the basement is a vampire.

Despite the very YA premise, I’m not sure this is really a YA novel. A lot of the humor comes from the adult writer’s recollection of how absurd it is to be a teenager; it’s not mean humor, but it is based on distance. It’s also, interestingly, in omniscient point of view and even has a section from the perspective of an owl.

I enjoyed the offbeat voice and sense of humor of this novel, though there was some clunky prose and the occasional overheated metaphor that may not have been funny in the way the author intended it to be. Or maybe it was! The deadpan style made it hard to tell. The vampire is not sparkly or glamorous, but creepy and sad, bearing the weight of history. He has a weakness for truly terrible vampiric double entendres, which, again, may or may not have been intended to be hilariously over the top. (“I have a lot of different types of blood flowing through my veins.”) Thankfully, the possibility of romance between him and Tiffany is not even raised.

The ending, though a bit anvillicious at points, also had moments of true beauty and power.

Uneven but worth reading, particularly if you’re tired of white vampires.

The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel
An urban fantasy/paranormal romance set during Prohibition in an America in which supernatural beings called “Others” exist and are known to the public, but lack civil rights. Thankfully, they are not just stand-ins for real-life oppressed groups, as those groups also exist (and are oppressed) in the world of the novel.

New York City teacher and full-time activist Zephyr Hollis, who becomes widely known during the book as “the singing vampire suffragette,” is the daughter of a demon-hunter, but unlike her bigoted father, she has never met a social justice cause she doesn’t like. Zephyr is a little over the top – she gives her rent money to the poor, she belongs to thirty-one separate political organizations, and at one point she forgets to eat because she was too busy feeding the hungry – but she’s definitely a unique heroine, and the sometimes absurd lengths to which she takes her convictions make her plausibly obsessive rather than obnoxiously self-righteous.

The book is fast-paced and fun. Within the first few chapters, Zephyr rescues a boy in the process of turning into a vampire, gives her rent money to a student with a hard-luck story, teaches a class to immigrants and Others, is hired by the handsome and mysterious djinn Amir to investigate a local crime lord, crushes on Amir, and attends a rally. I enjoyed the convincing grass-roots politics and the amusing takes on the various supernatural beings, from the disgusting way that vampires die to how Amir, the romantic lead, has ears that sometimes billow smoke and eyeballs that sometimes burst into flames. I repeat: the romantic lead has flaming eyeballs!

Amir, despite a rather more interesting dark side than is common in the genre, is not the alpha asshole who so often appears in romances, and Zephyr, while naïve in some ways, is completely capable of rescuing herself. Amir and Zephyr’s relationship, however, didn’t quite work for me – she was attracted to him so quickly that the relationship didn’t seem based on anything other than that she’s the heroine and he’s the romantic lead, especially since she had such strong feelings for him long before we’d seen enough of them interacting to justify them. I would have liked it better if the romance had developed more slowly, as they were both fun characters individually and had genuine conflicts based on opposing worldviews, which is always interesting in a romance.

I would be curious to hear from someone who actually knows something about the period how accurate the historic details are – the language and attitudes about sex often seemed anachronistically modern to me, but I might be projecting my own preconceptions on the time.

Overall, I enjoyed this. (My favorite bit, for those who have already read it, was the egg whites.) If you like paranormal romance but are tired of heroines who do nothing but have sex and the asshole men who dominate them, this is definitely the book for you.

Note that this is the same author as YA fantasy writer Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Moonshine: A Novel
I hate to oversell books, since fulsome praise makes some people dig in their heels and decide to avoid it, and others to dislike it if it isn’t the absolute best thing they’ve ever read. I mention this because my instinct, upon sitting down to write up this book, was to try to grab you all by the collars and force you to read it.

The Arrival is a completely wordless story (except for some writing in a language which doesn’t exist), conveyed in gorgeous sepia art reminiscent of old photographs of Ellis Island. A man leaves his family and homeland, which is ominously shadowed by dragons, and immigrates to a place like turn-of-the-century New York City re-imagined as a city of fantasy, half steampunk and half Dr. Seuss. (If you ever read Chris Van Allsburg’s black and white The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, the art also reminds me a bit of that.) He finds lodging and a peculiar pet, struggles with unfamiliar food and writing, looks for work, and hears stories from other immigrants.

By creating a completely lived-in city which will be strange to every reader, Tan puts us all in the shoes of the immigrant who looks at his or her new world with bewilderment and wonder. Careful attention and analysis clears up some mysteries, while others resolve themselves with time and experience; still others remain baffling. All the time, we recall the family left behind. Will they ever see each other again?

Gorgeous, emotional, and clever. I could go on, but I’m trying not to oversell.

The Arrival
An Asian-American surgeon’s memoir on the theme of the difficulty doctors, patients, and society have in coming to grips with death, and how this results in a lot of unnecessarily painful and unpleasant deaths for patients, trauma for their loved ones, and psychological unhealthiness in doctors.

The parts which I found most interesting were when she looked at attempts made to correct this, and tried to analyze why, so far, they have tended to be spectacularly ineffective. (One all-out effort, sustained for two years, produced no measurable results.) There’s no one reason for this, apparently, but contributing factors include doctors feeling that they’re already too busy and not seeing classes in relating to patients as a priority, no one wanting to think about death (patients included), the feeling that death is an admission of failure causing even less desire to think about it, and fear of lawsuits.

I read this book out of interest in the subject matter; it’s reasonably well-written but not so superbly so that I’d recommend it whether you’re interested in the topic or not. If you do have a prior interest or if you haven’t already read a lot of memoirs by doctors, this is a perfectly good book, meticulously researched, thoughtful, and honest. I was a little underwhelmed, but I’ve already read quite a few similar books and at this point it would take something pretty stellar to stand out from the pack. Atul Gawande is the gold standard as far as I’m concerned.
This fantasy novel by [ profile] nojojojo is the beginning of a series, but stands perfectly well on its own as a complete novel which comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Though some elements will be familiar to fantasy readers, others are strikingly original. I was particularly impressed by the vivid and unusual worldbuilding, and by Jemisin’s daring attempt – which largely succeeds - to create a novel which genuinely reads like an ancient myth written in a modern idiom.

Yeine, the young chieftain of her own small kingdom, is summoned to Sky, a magical palace supported by a mile-high pillar, whose ruling family exerts extraordinary power by means of the four gods they have enslaved. To her shock, she is named one of three possible heirs to the throne – an honor which seems certain to result in her death at the hands of the other two heirs. But she can’t leave without bringing their wrath down upon her beloved kingdom.

While Yeine explores the bizarre palace, meets the gods and servants and family members who inhabit it, and schemes to save her kingdom (first) and herself (second), she also discovers the secrets of her own family history and of her world, which was created by a battle within a family of gods – a battle which, we slowly realize, continues to the present day.

What’s most striking about the novel, apart from the excellent worldbuilding, is how it takes the stuff of myth – gods and the creation of the world – and, rather than demystify it and bring it down to earth as most fantasy writers do, resolutely keeps it mythic. The gods are limited in power due to being magically enslaved, but they still feel like gods, not like human beings with special powers. The sexual tension between Yeine and the chaos god Nahadoth sometimes reads like a familiar romance between a woman and a supernatural being, but sometimes evokes the power of older stories of women and gods. Another element which adds to the sense of an ancient tale retold and re-enacted is the (consensual) incest which so frequently pops up in myth. Who else is a god supposed to have sex with, if all that exists is his or her creations?

The first person who comments to ask for my ARC of this book will get it. If you ask for it, you must agree to review it and then pass it on to someone else who will review it. The content of the review is up to you. Taken!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book 1 (The Inheritance Trilogy)
You need the soul of Chengiz Khan to survive a June afternoon in Delhi.

The streets are empty save a few hard-core urban warriors.

I am hunting for a book… Life seems to depend on it.

In this graphic novel in which precisely observed sketches of city scenes mix with indie-style caricatures and the occasional and hilarious bit of colored clip-art, a set of hapless intellectuals, one-theory-to-explain-everything fanatics, and vaguely alienated young people wander through Delhi, searching for used books, a cooler persona, true love, enlightenment, sexual potency, and a cup of tea.

There’s very little plot – it’s basically Slacker: Delhi - but I didn’t miss it, I was so charmed by the meticulous detail of the setting, Banerjee’s hipster sense of humor, and all the shout-outs to places and things I recall from my childhood: Phantom (The Ghost Who Walks) comics, used bookshops selling beat-up Perry Mason mysteries, mutton biriyani, Connaught Place, hippies (That morning Angrez Bosch arrived from Rishikesh, armed with advanced knowledge of energy pyramids), the call to prayer broadcast on loudspeakers, outdoor tooth-pullers, mango shakes: every page held a new hit of familiarity.

Corridor: A Graphic Novel

Thanks Sunil!
In this Indian children’s book, a very young Muslim girl named Zuni hides with her family from the violence of Partition inside the walled garden of a mosque, and finds not merely a refuge but a whole new world, just the right size for a little girl to explore. She lines the ceiling of their hut with peacock feathers, picks fresh chilies and oranges, watches a peahen raise her family, and finally ventures out to see how the world outside has changed.

Though terrible things happen in the background, this is not remotely an awesomely depressing book. Zuni focuses, as children often do when they’re not personally suffering, on the beauty and freshness of her new surroundings and on the adventure of living a completely different life. Because the story is told from her point of view, it’s rewarding reading for both a child, who can see the whole story as she sees it, and for an adult, who will catch the ironies and the perspectives of her family that Zuni is far too young to understand.

I suppose the book could be criticized for not being dark enough, given the premise – people die, but no one Zuni knows well, and she’s more excited over getting laddoos after spending months without a single sweet – but I thought it was a plausible depiction of a child's point of view. (I also liked Hope and Glory, in which an English boy experiences the Blitz as a grand adventure.) When I read it, I was only a little older than Zuni and identified with her completely.

This was one of my favorite books when I was a child living in India, but I lost it when I moved back to the USA. I finally located a copy and re-read it, twenty-five years later. It was just as lovely and evocative as I recalled, full of sentences so simple and perfect that even as a ten-year-old, I understood that it was beautifully written. Desai’s images – earth baked by the sun into shiny pink tiles, a friend’s precious toy (a set of chipped clay mangoes), a glass of warm sugared water scented with roses - stayed with me for many years.

My original copy either didn’t have illustrations or had different ones, but I liked the realistic drawings by Mei-Yim Low in this edition. Used copies are available here: The Peacock Garden
Mourning his mother’s death and suffering from midlife crisis, food fanatic Simon Majumdar decides to eat his way around the world for a year. The result is an uneven but always entertaining episodic memoir of his adventures. At worst, it’s perfunctorily written and peppered with national stereotyping (“with typical Latin-American machismo...”) At best, as when he writes about his food-obsessed Welsh-Bengali family or provides precisely detailed snapshots of people he meets on the way, it’s funny and sweet.

He visited a number of places I’m familiar with, giving me that “HI BOB!” feeling one gets when one sees a movie shot in one’s hometown, though he usually went off on some path that didn’t touch on what I expected him to write about: in Santa Cruz he spends the entire trip having Thanksgiving dinner at someone’s house, and in Hong Kong he seeks out obscure restaurants only to invariably find that Anthony Bourdain got there first. (Hate to tell you, Simon, but Anthony Bourdain also visited the yakitori joints in Ueno that you enjoyed so much.) I was amused to note that in Xi’an he too was dragged to the touristy dumpling restaurant that shapes the dumplings into walnuts, geese, goldfish, etc – and since he did not say one word about their flavor, I assume he too was underwhelmed.

It’s not a great food memoir, but it is a fun one.

Eat My Globe: One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything
A gorgeously illustrated and lively picture book retelling of the beginning of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. (One version of the latter here: The Monkey and the Monk: An Abridgment of The Journey to the West).

Given that it’s a picture book, it concludes once the companions are all assembled, with a note that the real story has only just begun. But it stands well on its own as a playful adventure with tons of action.

I shamefully confess that I haven’t yet read the original, though I have obtained the version I linked above, so I don’t know how accurate this version is. But it tells a good story and might be an easy introduction to the premise and the main characters.

Illustrated by L. K. Tay-Audouard.

Monkey: The Classic Chinese Adventure Tale
Oh, Nalini Singh, you are so fond of horrendous gender roles and controlling alpha males controlling women and clichéd descriptions and the word “possessive” as the ultimate accolade for a man, and yet I can’t seem to quit you. Especially when I need something light to read on a plane, which is where I read this one.

In this book, the seventh in the Psy-Changeling series though all the ones I’ve read stand on their own, Singh is obsessed with the hero’s smell. This would make more sense if the heroine was a shapeshifter and had a wolf’s nose (I mean, when she shifts), but no, she’s a Psy. I don’t have the book with me, but from memory, Dev Santos smells like heat, cinnamon, steel, and an exotic wind of Asia, and also urgently male, unstoppably male, and relentlessly male. And a lot more things I forget. Many of them male.

Dev has the usual gem-colored or metallic eyes: Those eyes, the ones looking back at her, they were brown, but it was a brown unlike any she’d ever seen. There was gold in there. Flecks of amber. And bronze. So many colors.

There’s an accidentally hilarious line in there somewhere which I hope someone with the book will dig up and quote, but it goes something like, “His cock was harder than it had ever been. If she touched it, it would snap.” OW.

Dev Santos is a man who can control metal. Katya Haas is a telepathic amnesiac assassin sent to kill him. Together, they… hang out, fall in love, have sex, have more sex, angst, have more sex, and oh-yeah-that-assassin-thing-quick-get-in-an-action-sequence!

I wanted more assassinating and action and metal-controlling and worldbuilding, as those parts were really good. Though I enjoyed reading all the hanging out and angsting, and Dev (who is part Indian and speaks Hindi) is less of a jerk than most of Singh’s heroes. Unfortunately Katya does very little assassinating and spends most of the conclusion of the book dying from PsyNet deprivation (same as the heroine of some other Singh book, come to think of it.)

Not terribly good and surprisingly little happens for the first two-thirds, and yet I read the whole thing. If you haven’t yet encountered the evilly addictive Nalini Singh, this is a reasonable place to start.

Blaze of Memory (Psy-Changelings, Book 7)


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