The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz: A Review

Prompt #46 on the 2018 Reading Challenge was to read an allegory. Since I had the goal to read books written by women, I had some difficulty in finding a book that qualified. The usual suspects – The Chronicles of Narnia or Animal Farm – weren’t going to work for me. So I did some searching and found The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz on a list of books claiming to be allegories. I had previously run across this author when I was searching for women authors from all over the world.

The Queue primarily tells the story of Yehya who must get permission from The Gate for a critical medical procedure. The Gate is the symbol for the authoritarian government where Yehya lives. The line of people waiting outside for one reason or another grows and grows, yet The Gate never opens.

Abdel Aziz presents Yehya’s story through various side characters, each with their own connections to Yehya. Some, like Amani and Nagy, have a close, personal relationship with Yehya. They are outside the Queue, trying to help Yehya get what he needs. Other characters have a rather tenuous connection to Yehya. They are seeking their own help from the Queue, or they are trying to avoid entanglement with the Queue. But through all of them, this story is drawn to its inevitable conclusion.

Yehya would never admit that he was just a single, powerless man in a society where rules and restrictions were stronger than everything else, stronger than the ruler himself, stronger than the Booth and even the Gate.

This book presents a terrifyingly real look at how a totalitarian government can and will manipulate its citizens through fear, force, greed, even promises (though these last are usually left dangling and unfulfilled). And how such a government is capable of rearranging the truth to its own benefit.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath: A Review

I chose to read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath for a book about mental health, #16 on the 2018 Reading Challenge. I came across Sylvia Plath when I began researching notable women authors. I’d heard her name before, but never read any of her work. I found this book on a list of novels about mental health. The premise intrigued me, so it joined my list.

The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented young college student on scholarship in an honors English program. As the novel opens, she’s participating in an internship program with eleven other young ladies. The story follows Esther’s descent into depression and madness.

Written from the first person perspective, this novel takes the reader along on a deeply personal journey. Esther struggles to define herself and her place in the world. When things begin to fall apart at the end of her internship and she isn’t accepted into the summer writing program she was counting on, Esther falls into a spiral of depression, suicidal thoughts and ultimately attempts to take her own life.

In this book, Plath not only took on the debilitating aspects of depression and mental illness, she also tackled issues facing many young women who struggle with their identity as a person and as a woman. There is a certain social weight that comes along with womanhood – the looming responsibility of parenthood that cannot be fully separated from the act of sex. Esther wrestles with this issue as she deals with the question of dating and marriage, a near rape and the idea of what sex should mean to her. Though this isn’t the central issue of the story, it contributes to Esther’s decline.

This is a well-written, compelling story. Written in 1962, this novel wasn’t published in the US until 1971, several years after Plath’s death by suicide. This novel has an autobiographical feel to it, especially in light of what transpired in Plath’s life and death.

While this book didn’t completely wow me, I did enjoy it. It made me think about how we all experience life from the limited perspective of our own minds. We’re locked up in our own heads, and nothing makes sense except within the framework of our flawed understanding.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler: A Review

When I set out to choose the books I would read for the 2018 Reading Challenge, I struggled to find just one book for some of the categories. I wanted to focus first on what I already had on my shelves but I also wanted to expand my reading experience. One category I particularly struggled with to choose just one book is a book by an author of a different ethnicity than myself.

So, although I’ve already filled this prompt with another book, there was no way I could not read Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler this year. I already had the book on my shelves, after all. Butler is on all the must read sci-fi author lists. This was my opportunity to finally make that happen.

Written in a sort of journal entry fashion, Lauren Olamina tells her story of survival in a future America ravaged by the effects of global warming, severe drought and government corruption. The world teeters on the edge of anarchy. More and more people are unemployed and uneducated. Clean drinking water is expensive and hard to come by. Police and firefighters only come when they’ll get paid for their services.

As unrest grows, it presses more and more into Lauren’s world, ultimately forcing her out of her home – one of the last, semi-safe walled communities outside Los Angeles. She flees north along with a handful of others seeking a better, safer way to live.

Butler’s writing is intelligent and powerful. This book is so deep and intense, so full of radical ideas, a single read through might not be enough. The story itself is so terrifyingly real, it’s easy to get caught up in the motion and miss some of the important ideas Butler is trying to convey. I know I found myself caught up in this book.

There are probably many quotable passages in this book, but one that stuck out for me was this one where Lauren is having a conversation with her friend and neighbor, Jo about what she would do if she found herself outside the walls of their neighborhood.

I realize I don’t know very much. None of us knows very much. But we can all learn more. Then we can teach one another. We can stop denying reality or hoping it will go away by magic.

Despite the difficult subject matter, I enjoyed this book immensely. I look forward to reading more by Octavia Butler, and quite likely re-reading this book at some point. I highly recommend this book.

Summer Reading Hiatus – Veering Off Course With Amazing Book Discoveries

I have been working my way through my 2018 Reading Challenge, and was doing well enough to be a few books ahead of schedule. Since summer began, however, I have slipped into reading anything but what’s on my list.

There are a number of reasons for this. One, it’s summer, I should be able to read whatever I want and not be locked into a rigid list. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still excited about the remaining books on my list, but I chose these books months ago. Summer is the time for adventure and discovery, and reading should be a part of that. I’ve found some great books I may have missed out on by sticking to my list.

A second reason is that I’ve allowed myself to get distracted with a few book series. It started when I read The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh, from my challenge list. I wanted to pick up the next book of the series immediately, but couldn’t get my hands on a copy right away. This led me to pick up a book at the library that I’ve wanted to read for some time – Something Strange and Deadly, by Susan Dennard. When that wasn’t immediately available, I picked up something else – The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater. So now I find myself embroiled in three different series that were not on my reading challenge list.

One other reason I’ve veered off course is that I’ve joined a group on Goodreads that selects one fantasy book and one science fiction book each month to read and discuss together. They also occasionally have a series read. They’ve recently started Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series and I decided to join in. I’ve wanted to read Robin Hobb’s books for a long time, so I couldn’t resist jumping on board with this. I’ve only read the first one so far, and I’m not sorry I picked this up.

I can’t be unhappy about my reading distractions. They have all been really fun discoveries. But as we wind back down into Fall, it is time to return to the challenge list and complete what I’ve already set out to complete. Besides, a list full of names like Ursula LeGuin, Tanya Huff, Sylvia Plath, Octavia Butler, Amy Tan, Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Atwood, I think I’ve got some great adventures still ahead of me.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger: A Review

For the 2018 Reading Challenge prompt #23, a book about time travel, I chose to read The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. I had this book on my shelves already, so it wasn’t a difficult choice for this prompt.

The concept behind this story is fascinating and original. Niffenegger has conceived of the idea of time travel as a genetic disorder. Henry can’t control his travels through time. This story tracks his love affair with Clare, who moves through time normally.

The narrative goes back and forth through time, telling the story of Henry and Clare in episodes from their childhoods on up through adulthood. Along the way, Niffenegger reveals bits about each of the characters, building up to a conclusion that feels inevitable.

The Time Traveler’s Wife has a complex plot, that in the wrong hands could have easily become convoluted and confusing. Niffenegger has masterfully moved a story forward in which time doesn’t behave the way it’s supposed to. And she’s done it in such a way that the storyline has a natural progression.

It isn’t without faults. There are places where the story drags a little, and elements I’m not convinced were completely necessary. Still, overall, this is an excellent book, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in quirky love stories.

Sun Storm, by Åsa Larsson: A Review

In Sun Storm, Rebecka Martinsson is a tax attorney in Stockholm, Sweden. She’s made good her escape from small town Kiruna, in northern Sweden. That is, until the gruesome murder of a local celebrity pulls her back in.

I chose this book for my 2018 Reading Challenge as book #5, Nordic noir. At first, I was stumped by this category. I had no idea what Nordic noir was. So I went searching, and found it’s only a fancy way of saying dark, murder mysteries set in Scandinavia.

As a tax attorney, Rebecka seems an unlikely heroine for a crime novel. But it turned out, I kind of liked her. As the story develops, the author includes little flash back scenes, Rebecka’s memories from her past that begin to tie the pieces of the story together.

The story isn’t written entirely from Rebecka’s point of view, however. There are passages from the detective, the prosecutor, and even the bad guy. Larsson has woven these perspectives into the story is such a way to drive suspense and compel the reader forward.

The language and descriptions in the story are often stunningly beautiful. I read the English edition translated by Marlaine Delargy. While I can’t speak for the original Swedish version, Delargy’s translation is wonderful. Considering the novel won Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel award, I’m confident the original is just as good.

While it was a truly beautiful and compelling book, it did feel as though the villain was revealed too early in the story. The entire scope of the evil plot wasn’t revealed all at once, but it seems to me that the suspense would have only increased by not knowing the killer’s identity quite so soon.

I would definitely recommend this book.

2018 Reading Challenge – The Year of the Woman

It’s time once again to announce my book choices for the coming year. Sometime during this past year I began looking at my TBR pile and noticed a certain disparity. More than half of my books are by men authors. Nearly all of my favorite authors are men. Now there isn’t anything wrong with this necessarily, but I thought I should try reading more women authors.

Consequently, I’ve declared 2018 to be The Year of the Woman. For my reading list then, I’ve deliberately tipped the scale in the other direction and chosen books only by women. I may or may not be able to keep to this plan, however, as many of the books I’ve been anxious to read aren’t by women.

For my 2018 reading list, I decided to go with the 2018 Popsugar Reading Challenge. I’ve run across this challenge before, but never felt I was capable of taking on a challenge of this size. Fifty books is a lot to commit to. It’s more than I ever thought I could possibly read in a year, nearly double what I set out to read in 2017.

Here then, is my 2018 Reading Challenge list:

A book made into a movie you’ve already seen – How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell
True crime – The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy The Shocking Inside Story, by Ann Rule
The next book in a series you started – City of Glass, by Cassandra Clare
A book involving a heist – Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo
Nordic noir – Sun Storm, by Åsa Larsson
A novel based on a real person – Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest
A book set in a country that fascinates you – Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, by Susanna Clarke
A book with a time of day in the title – The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh
A book about a villain or antihero – Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
A book about death or grief – The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard
A book with a female author who uses a male pseudonym – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr.
A book with a LGBTQ+ protagonist – The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
A book that is also a stage play or musical – The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
A book by an author of a different ethnicity than you – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou or The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
A book about feminism – Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
A book about mental health – The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
A book you borrowed or was given to you as a gift – City of Lost Souls, by Cassandra Clare
A book by two authors – Havemercy, by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett
A book about or involving a sport – Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand
A book by a local author – A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin
A book with your favorite color in the title – Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery
A book with alliteration in the title – Wings of Wrath, by C. S. Friedman
A book about time travel – The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
A book with a weather element in the title – Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
A book set at sea – Circle of Bones, by Christine Kling
A book with an animal in the title – Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
A book set on a different planet – Valor’s Choice, by Tanya Huff
A book with song lyrics in the title – Starcrossed, by Josephine Angelini
A book about or set on Halloween – Haunted Castle on Hallow’s Eve, by Mary Pope Osborn
A book with characters who are twins – Anne of Avonlea, by L. M. Montgomery
A book mentioned in another book – To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
A book from a celebrity book club – Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts
A childhood classic you’ve never read – Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, by Judy Blume
A book that’s published in 2018 – Sightwitch, by Susan Dennard
A past Goodreads Choice Awards winner – City of Fallen Angels, by Cassandra Clare
A book set in the decade you were born – Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
A book you meant to read in 2017 but didn’t get to – Boys Should Be Boys, by Dr. Meg Meeker
A book with an ugly cover – Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
A book that involves a bookstore or library – Voices, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Favorite prompt from Popsugar 2015, 2016 or 2017 challenge: a book based on a fairytale – Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles, by J. M. Sullivan
A bestseller from the year you graduated high school – The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
A cyberpunk book – Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
A book that was being read by a stranger in a public place – City of Heavenly Fire, by Cassandra Clare, or Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor
A book tied to your ancestry – House of Day, House of Night, by Olga Tokarczuk
A book with a fruit or vegetable in the title – Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg
An allegory – The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz
A book by an author with the same first or last name as you – Grace and Fury, by Tracy Banghart
A microhistory – Breaking Into the Current, by Louise Teal
A book about a problem facing society today – This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein
A book recommended by someone else taking the Popsugar Reading Challenge – The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

The Year of the Woman – Book Recommendations Wanted!

For my 2017 Reading Challenge, I chose to focus on book series. My core list included books from seventeen different series. It’s been an incredibly fun year so far, reading books by favorite authors, as well as discovering new authors. My favorite new discovery this year is probably Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy.

Though the year isn’t over yet, and I have a few books on my list still to read, I’ve begun looking ahead to 2018. In looking at the books I’ve read over the last few years, and the books currently waiting my my TBR list, I can’t help but notice a preponderance of male authors.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. Most of my favorite authors are men – Tad Williams, Brandon Sanderson, J. R. R. Tolkien, and many others. But my reading list feels a little one sided, and I’d like it to be more balanced.

Therefore, I’ve decided that my focus for 2018 will be on women authors. There are women writers I’ve never read, but feel like I should have – such as classic fantasy writers like Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K. Leguin. And there are books that have been on my list for way too long like The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

My hope is that I can broaden my reading experience and discover some amazing writers along the way. So along with focusing on women writers, I want to include books from various genres, writers from all walks of life, and as much diversity as I can pack into the year.

Here’s where I need your help. I have a huge stack of books on my shelf already to choose from, but most of these fall into one of two of my favorite genres – fantasy or suspense. There’s also a good representation of young adult fiction. What’s missing more than anything else are the non-fiction categories such as poetry, biography and essays. I’d also like to find more independent/self-published writers.

So I’m looking for recommendations. Particularly in non-fiction genres as well as translations into English. Who are your favorite women writers? Who should I consider adding to my reading list next year? Please, let me know!