Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
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!
Author: A. J. Hackwith
Title: The Library of the Unwritten
Narrator: Lisa Flanagan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2019
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.
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Nepal
Author: Samrat Upadhyay
Title: Arresting God in Kathmandu
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Arresting God in Kathmandu is a collection of nine short stories set in Kathmandu, the capital and largest city of Nepal. Upadhyay, who emigrated to the United States and teaches creative writing at Indiana University, was the first Nepalese author writing in English to have his work published in the west. The stories deal with family relationships, generational dynamics of more traditional parents and their globalized youth, and the ever-present class consciousness.I struggled reading this book, because many of the characters and their relationships just seemed mean-spirited (there probably is a better word for what I’m feeling here) and unrelieved by joy or progress. But otherwise it does provide an unsentimental look at everyday life in contemporary Nepal.
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)
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.
Author: W. Jeffrey. Bolster
Title: Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail
Publication Info: Harvard University Press (2009)
I read this book with my co-workers to see if we can better reflect the experience of Black sailors in the archival records of ships and merchant mariners. It’s a broad overview of Black sailors in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. It traces the sailing traditions of Black Americans to their African roots. In some cases, enslaved Black men served as sailors and ship’s pilots at the behest of their enslavers. Free Black men found a greater level of freedom and equality in the maritime trades than in other areas of work available to them, although the practices of ship discipline were contradictorily some of the most restrictive to liberty. A great percentage of New England and New York Black men found work in the maritime trades in the 1800s although at the cost of separation of families and loss of community leadership.
There are numerous fascinating stories in this book about people I’d like to learn more about. These include Richard “King Dick Crafus who lead the Black US Navy sailors held prisoner at Dartmoor during and after the War of 1812, and who remained a revered member of Boston’s Black community decades later. Robert Smalls was a pilot who escaped from slavery in Charleston during the Civil War and turned a gunboat over to the Union Navy. David Walker distributed the abolitionist tract “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” while working at a second-hand clothing shop near the wharves of Boston. Honestly, these stories should be made into movies.
“Whereas white seamen were among the most marginalized men in white society, black seamen found access to privileges, worldliness, and wealth denied to most slaves.” – p. 36
Author: David Von Drehle
Title: Triangle:The Fire That Changed America
Narrator: Barrett Whitener
Publication Info: New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, 
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.
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]
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.
Author: Katherine V. Forrest
Title: Curious Wine
Narrator: Jane Merrow
Publication Info: Allure Audio (2009) [originally published in 1983]
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.
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:
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.
Author: Jeff Baham
Title: The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2016)
Like it says on the tin, this is a history of the legendary Disney Parks attraction, the Haunted Mansion. The story of its is one of competing ideas among the imagineers – some wanted it to be scary, some wanted it to be funny, and Walt mainly wanted it to be clean and well-maintained. The attraction opened after over a decade of planning and work, and despite – or perhaps because of – the lack of unity on what it should be, it became an instant classic. The book also carries us through on a virtual ride on a Doom Buggy exploring the different details and modifications made over the years. Would you believe they once had a live human performed in knight’s armor swinging a sword at passing guests? This is a fun and in-depth book about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it brilliant.