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: ****

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


Author: A. J. Hackwith
Title: The Library of the Unwritten
Narrator: Lisa Flanagan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2019
Summary/Review:

I typically don’t include an official publisher’s description in my book reviews, but I can’t find the words to sum up this book any better:

Sounds quirky, doesn’t it? The premise also feels like a crossover of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series with Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.  But the similarities are superficial.  This is a creative and beautifully strange book.  And while the characters are mostly demons, angels, muses, fictional beings and, well, the dead, it is also a very human story.

I’ve learned that this is the first book in a series, and while I won’t be rushing out to read the next book, I will definitely read it at some point.
Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Memory Librarian by Janelle Monáe


Author: Janelle Monáe with Alaya Dawn, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas
Title: The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer
Narrator: Janelle Monáe, Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2022)
Summary/Review:

Musician, actor, and fashion icon Janelle Monáe adds author to her many skills with this collection of stories rooted in the dystopian future world previously explored in her music.  Each story is co-written with another talented Black author.  The stories are set in a near-future authoritarian state called New Dawn where people live under constant surveillance, have their memories harvested, and those who don’t conform – especially LGBTQ people and people of color – are classified as “Dirty Computers.”

These stories include that of Seshet the memory librarian, a high ranking official in New Dawn, who begins to explore life on the “wrong side of town” with a new transgender partner.  A commune of women who’ve found refuge from New Dawn at a place called Pynk Hotel discover a traitor in their midst.  A lesbian couple discover a room in their house outside of time with each responding to it differently.  And a family are able to travel one by one into a future where they find they’ve been liberated giving them hope to make it a reality.

It’s an interesting collection of sci-fi/Afrofuturist stories that very much parallels our real world struggles.  The stories can be didactic in their messaging but honestly sometimes need to be told bluntly.  While this type of fiction is not typically something I would enjoy – and I’ll confess that some elements went over my head – I am glad that I read this book and would recommend it to people who like this genre and fans of Monáe.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Related Posts:

Book Review: Triangle The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle


Author: David Von Drehle
Title: Triangle:The Fire That Changed America
Narrator: Barrett Whitener
Publication Info: New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, [2003]
Summary/Review:

At closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York’s Greenwich Village.  146 people – mostly young women and girls – died as result of the fire, many of them jumping to their deaths because locked doorways prevented their exit.  The fire proved pivotal in leading to legislation for factory safety and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), a union that lives on today in UNITE HERE.

Von Drehle provides a thorough but concise history of the fire, with all the grim details, and the ensuing trial which failed to find the company owners guilty of manslaughter. There’s also a lot of background before the fire.  This includes the history of the factory owners, themselves immigrant strivers who rose to wealth and prominence.  The stories of many of the garment workers are also included, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy, who had survived pogroms in Poland and volcanic eruptions in Italy before seemingly finding stability in New York.  A massive strike lead by the ILGWU in 1909 is also covered in some detail.

If there’s any flaw in this book it is that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s subtitle “The Fire That Changed America.”  For the aftereffects of the fire, Von Drehle emphasizes the rise of progressive Tammany Hall politicians Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and how they brought about an urban liberalism that lead to the New Deal.  I wouldn’t say this is a stretch but I think it’s a more high-level approach to history than it would be to detail what women and immigrant communities did in response to the fire.  Nevertheless, I did find the book to be very interesting and informative.  The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still stands and I paid my respects to the workers killed in the fire on a visit to New York in 2007.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore


Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2021) [Originally published in 1998]
Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore explores the history of King Philip’s War, fought in New England from 1675 to 1678 between an alliance of several Algonquian-speaking indigenous tribes under the leadership of Wampanoag Chief Metacomet, a.k.a. King Philip, and the English of the New England colonies and their Mohegan, Pequot, and Mohawk allies.  The war is poorly defined in American history with even the name controversial.  Was Philip a King? Was his name even Philip? Was it really a war or an exchange of atrocities?

Lepore investigates how the war changed the way the English colonists identified themselves.  She also examines the historical resources to find the Native perspective on the war that’s not often directly recorded in Western literature. A large part of the book focuses on the captivity narratives that became one of the major forms of literature that arose from the war.   She also details the lasting legacy of the war, particularly how Metacomet became a romanticized figure in American drama in the mid-1800s at the same time that Andrew Jackson is forcibly removing the Cherokee from the Southeastern states.

It is a very interesting historical account of a significant but forgotten war and a historiology of the study of war itself.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest


Author: Katherine V. Forrest
Title: Curious Wine
Narrator: Jane Merrow
Publication Info:  Allure Audio (2009) [originally published in 1983]
Summary/Review:

Someday I need to start keeping track of where I find out about the books I put on my reading list, because this is definitely not the typical book for me to read.  Which is a good thing, so thank you random person who recommended it to me.

Curious Wine is the story of a women’s retreat at a cabin at a Lake Tahoe ski resort, and through encounter games and various intimate conversations share a lot about themselves.  Two of the women, Diane and Lane, form a bond that leads to a sexual relationship.  The problem is that up to that point they had considered themselves straight and have a lot of things to navigate in order to continue the relationship.

This was one of the first mainstream romance novels about a lesbian relationship by a lesbian author.  The novel goes to great lengths to add “respectability” to the relationship by having two white, professional women who’ve previously had relationships with men as the protagonists who then put a lot of effort into making sure no one can consider their love “just a phase.”  This was certainly necessary in the early 1980s but feels awkward now.  Nevertheless it is a sweet and honest story with well-developed characters.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2021

Other Books Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Lesser Evil completes the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy of books that deal with our favorite Chiss military tactician’s early career. Thrawn must defend the Chiss Ascendency from dangerous outside threats as well as civil war breaking out among the ruling families. Jixtus, an agent of a mysterious people called the Grysk Hegemony, was behind the attacks on the Chiss described in the earlier books, but now is ready to face Thrawn in battle.  Thrawn must ally with an alien race and work against his own military, political, and family leaders to find a way to defend the Ascendancy against the more powerful Grysky warships.

The great thing about Zahn’s books is that they long ago stopped being about just Thrawn.  There are a rich collection of characters her including Thrawn’s mentor General Ar’alani, ship captain Samakro (who Marc Thompson voices to sound like Jack Nicholson), the young “sky-walker” or ship’s navigator Che’ri and her caregiver Thalias (both of whom have Force sensitivity which is key to the plot), an alien navigator-for-hire named Qilori (drink everytime that Qilore’s winglets twitch!), and in flashbacks, Thrawn’s friend Thrass who has the political acumen that Thrawn lacks.  I confess that I lose track of the many characters and plots, but nevertheless I do find it incredibly engaging to read.  And the book ends perfectly setting up the events at the beginning of Thrawn.

Rating: ****

 

Book Review: Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald


Author: Lisa Grunwald 
Title: Time After Time
Narrator: Erin Bennett
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This charming historical romance takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.  The adventurous 23-year-old flapper girl Nora and a hardworking railroad employee, Joe, who is a decade her senior, meet at Grand Central in 1937 and fall in love.  The only problem is that Nora is dead.  Killed in a subway crash in 1925, Nora returns every year on the anniversary of her death to Grand Central.  With Joe’s help, Nora learns that she can maintain her bodily form only if she stays within 900 feet of the terminal.

Thus begins a strange romance, where the couple try to make a normal life, taking advantage all of the things a mid-century railroad terminal provides.  This includes the Biltmore Hotel, where the couple lives in hotel rooms, work for Nora, and even an education for Nora at the Grand Central Academy of Art!  There are problems, of courses, mainly that Joe can never bring Nora to Queens to visit his family and that Nora remains forever young while Joe continues to age.  It’s a clever and sweet narrative and it has a twist ending that I enjoyed.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward


Author: Catriona Ward
Title: The Last House on Needless Street
Narrator: Christopher Ragland
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

The Last House on Needless Street is a strange and unsettling horror/mystery where it’s clear that something is very wrong, but one doesn’t know what it is. The story is told from the point of view of four different characters:

  • Ted Bannerman is a man who lives in a ramshackle house with boarded up windows, is haunted by the memory of his authoritarian mother, and has frequent blackouts.
  • His teenage daughter Lauren visits from time to time, but Ted doesn’t allow her to go out of the house, and its unclear where she goes when she’s not at Ted’s.
  • Ted’s pet cat Olivia (yes, part of this book is narrated by a cat) who is deeply religious and, well, catty.
  • Dee, a woman who moves in next door.  Her little sister was abducted a decade earlier and she’s been looking for her ever since.  The police searched Ted’s house at the time of the crime but have since cleared him.  Nevertheless, Dee suspects Ted to be the kidnapper.

The book slowly unravels the mysteries in a story where no one is who they appear to be.  I have to admit that I got frustrated in the early going and had to look online for plot summaries to get through it (which are hard to find since no one wants to spoil the book).  But I did find that later parts of the book to be satisfying and it has a more positive, upbeat ending than I imagined was possible for a book like this.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson


Author: Bill Bryson
Title: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Narrator: Rob McQuay
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 1997
Summary/Review:

My fondness for Bill Bryson’s travel writing was shaken by revisiting The Lost Continent and discovering that it wasn’t anywhere as good as I recalled. So I’m happy to say that my favorite Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods, is still very, very good.  Granted Bryson’s misanthropic crankiness is still off-putting and there’s way too many fat jokes.  But Bryson’s memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail is enriched by his research into the trail’s history, nature, and various anecdotes of hikers’ experiences.  His narrative is also improved by Bryson sharing the experience with his old friend Stephen Katz, who is endearing as much as he is the total opposite of the type of person you’d expect to hike the AT.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****