Book Reviews: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Malaysia

Author: Zen Cho
Title: Black Water Sister
Narrator: Catherine Ho
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Incorporated, 2021.
Summary/Review:

Jessamyn Teoh, a recent college graduate who grew up in the United States after her family emigrated there from Malaysia during her early childhood, faces an uncertain future.  She is moving back to Malaysia with her parents where she has to adjust to an unfamiliar culture, find work, and maintain a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend while hiding that she’s lesbian from her parents.  Things grow more complicated when Jess begins hearing the voice of her deceased grandmother Ah Ma.  Soon Jess finds herself plunged into an adventure featuring a powerful real estate developer, gangsters, and gods.  To put things right, and to find justice for Ah Ma, Jess must become a medium for a vengeful goddess known as Black Water Sister.

Black Water Sister is a unique novel that blends elements of fantasy, mystery, and fish out of water story to tell a story of contemporary Malaysia.  Facets of Malaysian culture such as tradition, religion, and family are woven into the narrative.  Unfortunately for Jess (and others like her), homophobia is also a part of the Malaysian culture.  It’s an interesting and well-written story that I enjoyed.
 
Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Wales

Author: How Green Was My Valley
Title: Richard Llewellyn
Narrator: Ralph Cosham
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2011. [originally published in 1939]
Summary/Review:

This novel is a coming-of-age story set in the Welsh coal mining region of the late 19th century that blends sentimental nostalgia with gritty reality.  The narrator is Huw Morgan, the 8th of 9 children and the youngest son in a family of coal miners.  An accident in Huw’s childhood makes him unable to walk for several years and during that time he develops a passion for reading that leads to him going on to higher levels of education than the rest of his family.

Through the novel Huw observes the conflicts between the miners and the companies that own the mines that leads to union organizing and strikes.  Huw’s father Gwilym and some of his brothers are opposed to activism while other brother are labor organizers.  Over time the declining fortunes in the valley lead to Huw’s siblings leaving Wales to try their luck elsewhere.  Huw also observes the environmental degradation to the valley by the mining operations.  The novel also deals with gossip and scandals in the valley such as affairs and unplanned pregnancy.  While Gwilym supports Huw’s education, his mother Beth is firmly against it, especially when Huw’s teacher only speaks in English and discriminates against the Welsh.

There are apparently a whole series of books about Huw Morgan, but I think I’ve had my fill of Huw.  The style of writing is too old-fashioned for my taste although I can see why it’s considered a classic novel.  I once watched the film adaptation of How Green Was My Valley as a teenager (mainly because I had a crush on Maureen O’Hara) but I don’t remember it at all.  I will have to rewatch the movie and see how faithful it is to the book.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique


Around the World for a Good Book selection for the United States Virgin Islands

Author: Tiphanie Yanique
Title: Land of Love and Drowning
Narrator: Cherise Boothe, Korey Jackson, Rachel Leslie, and Myra Lucretia Taylor
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, [2014]
Summary/Review:

This historical novel is a multi-generational saga about the Bradshaw family of the United States Virgin Islands.  The story begins in 1917 with the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States and the ongoing theme of the narrative is how the Virgin Islands are American but treated as something tangential.  Events withing the story include the enlistment of V.I. men to World War II and the Korean War, the rise of tourism and resort hotels, Hollywood using the islands as a filming locale, and the Civil Rights movement which inspires a movement to occupy the beaches that are being privatized by white American property owners and hotels.

The Bradshaw’s story starts with Owen Arthur Bradshaw, a ship’s captain, and his wife Antoinette, who are part of highly-respectable family on St. Thomas.  They have two daughters, Eona and Anette.  Owen also  fathers a son named Jacob Esau with his mistress. When their parents die (Owen in a traumatic shipwreck), Eona is forced to put aside her desires to raise Anette.  The novel alternates among the three children’s points of view as it follows their story up until the 1970s.  Yanique’s writing feels inspired by Toni Morrison and has touches of magical realism.  There’s also a lot of incest, both knowing and unknowing.

There are parts of this book that are very interesting but also some parts I found quite absurd (the Hollywood movie ends up being a pornographic film, in the 1950s?) and other times that I just wished that Yanique would get on with the story instead of circling around a point.  So, consider this a mixed review.

Recommended books:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey


Author: Sarah Gailey
Title: Upright Women Wanted
Narrator: Romy Nordlinger
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2020)
Summary/Review:

This novella has a western vibe while actually set in a dystopian future in which the United States has crumbled under autocratic rule that discriminates against LGBTQ people (ok, maybe not so far in the future?).  Esther hides in a wagon belonging to The Librarians after the execution of her lover Beatriz.  The Librarians officially travel the southwest distributing “approved” reading material but in fact are gun-slinging lesbian women and enby people with ties to pockets of resistance. It seems like a very short story for all of its ambition, but has some great moments, and can be disarmingly sweet and hopeful.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia


Author: Kate Racculia
Title: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Publication Info: HMH Adult Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Tuesday Mooney is a researcher at a hospital in Boston who looks into the backgrounds of prospective donors.  When an eccentric millionaire, Vincent Pryce, dies at a fundraiser, it kicks off a city-wide treasure hunt for the deceased’s fortune.  Tuesday teams up with her best friend Dex, her teenage neighbor and mentee Dorry, and Arches, the charming son of another first family of Boston.

There is a lot going on in this book with the treasure hunt a fun main plot around which various subplots orbit.  For one thing, Tuesday is dealing with her best friend Abby going missing (and presumably dead) when they were teenagers.  She can still hear Abby’s voice talking with her and advising her as an adult.  Arches, meanwhile, has famously had his wealthy father go missing in a boating incident 6 years earlier, the truth of which is something he is grappling with.  And that’s just scratching the surface.

I think the many stories going on within the novel make it needlessly complicated.  But it’s still a fun mystery/adventure/paranormal/romance novel with a lot of great Boston details.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Time Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford


Author: Ross Welford 
Title: Time Traveling with a Hamster 
Narrator: Bruce Mann
Publication Info: Listening Library (2016)
Summary/Review:

“My dad died twice. Once when he was thirty-nine, and again four years later when he was twelve. (He’s going to die a third time as well, which seems a bit rough on him, but I can’t help that.)”

Al Chaudhury is a nerdy 12-year-old growing up in the North of England who is off Indian and Welsh heritage.  He lives with his mom, her boyfriend Steve with whom he doesn’t connect well, his goth half-sister Carly with whom he does not get along, and his genius Grandpa Byron.  On his twelfth birthday, Al is given a letter written by his father Pye before his death four years earlier.

Al is tasked with finding his father’s time machine and traveling back to 1984 when the young Pye suffered an accident that would contribute to his early death decades later.  Pye was unable to do it himself because the rules of time travel prevent the same person from appearing twice at the same time.  In this very sweet story, Al makes several attempts to figure out the time machine and how to fix the past, while forming a bond with his father as a boy his own age.  And yes, he travels with Alan Shearer, a pet hamster that was also a birthday gift.

I love time travel stories and really enjoyed this messy, heartfelt adventure even if it makes me feel old that traveling to 1984 is treated as the distant past.  Grandpa Byron is a great character and reminds me of my own grandfather who tried to get me to read a book about learning memorization skills. And this is a light spoiler but I love that this is the only time travel story other than Back to the Future where changes in the past lead to a more positive future for the protagonist.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Bangladesh

Author: Tahmima Anam
Title: The Startup Wife 
Narrator: Tanha Dil
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Asha Ray, the child of immigrants grows up feeling like an outsider in the United States, but blossom into adulthood as a talented computer scientist.  While working on her PhD, she is reunited with her high school crush, a white American named Cyrus.  They fall in love, get married, and begin working on an app built on Cyrus’ idea of creating rituals around non-religious things that people are passionate about.  Working in a startup incubator in New York City, Cyrus begins to emerge as a charismatic celebrity tech guru, while Asha and her work are pushed to the side.

I have to say I waited too long after finishing reading to write this review because I’m forgetting the details.  But I do recall initially enjoying the book but losing interest as it went along.  Nevertheless it is an interesting take on “bro culture” in the tech world that discriminates against women and people of color as well as the immigrant experience.  There are also parts of it that oddly reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  I suspect that my engagement problems with this book were more my fault than the authors so your mileage may vary.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison


Author: Katherine Addison
Title: The Goblin Emperor
Narrator: Kyle McCarley
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2021) [Originally published in 2014]
Summary/Review:

Maia is the half-goblin son of an elvish emperor who grows up in exile as the result of his parents being married for political expediency rather than love. When his father and half-brothers are all killed in an airship crash, Maia unexpectedly ascends to the throne.  For a high fantasy, the novel deals with more down to earth details of palace intrigue. Maia has to deal with prejudice, a coup attempt, and even and attempted assassination.  And yet, despite his inexperience, Maia’s compassion is able to win over supporters and make new friends.  The book functions as an excellent character study and an uplifting story of a basically decent character persevering.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Singapore
AuthorNeon Yang
Title:The Black Tides of Heaven
Narrator: Nancy Wu
Publication Info: ©2017 Neon Yang (P)2019 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

Akeha and Mokoya are the twin youngest children of the cruel and dictatorial Protector.  In The Protector’s empire, people called Tensors are able to control elemental forces using a magical skill known as slackcraft.The Protector’s control of the Tensors enables her absolute rule.  Children in the Tensorate are raised without gender with physical differences suppressed by slackcraft. When they come of age they can confirm their gender.

The twins are initially raised at a monastery until The Protector learns that Mokoya has developed a gift of prophecy and forces them to return to the empire.  Akeha flees to aid a nascent revolutionary moment while Mokoya tries to avoid having their mother abuse their gift.  All of this builds to a final confrontation with the lingering question, can Akeha and Moyoka defeat their mother without succumbing to her dependence on violence.

This book falls into a genre called silkpunk, fantasy fiction that draws on aspects of Asian antiquity with more modern technological elements.  I can’t say that I quite “get” it but it is a unique and interesting novella.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki


Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success.  She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.

Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.

Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos.  She also plays the violin.

Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.

And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****