Review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2016)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Year Release: 2016
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Discussions of violence and rape

The depth of my knowledge of ancient Rome starts with a loose understanding of Romulus and Remus, and ends with Shakespeare’s plays.

Beard’s account of Rome’s first millennia is full of colorful characters, dissections of different accounts, and touches on the myriad relics that continue to be found to this day. This book is so easy to listen to. The stories flow into each other and each chapter builds on what came before it. SPQR manages to hold the story of early Rome, while managing to go into depth on certain stories. The fact that this is not a Cliffs notes account of all the politics, intrigue, and conflict is really something to behold.

What really endeared me was how funny it was in places. Perhaps it was my own ignorance, but the dead pan way Beard presents the tales really worked to tickle me. My personal favorites include the truth about the assassination of Julius Caesar and several attempted murders on collapsible boats.

In terms of minor gripes, if you enjoy a plethora of rhetorical questions, this is the nonfiction work for you. Some of them do eventually get answered, if only tangentially. But there is enough material proposed to fill another 500+ page book. In addition, my favorite chapter was the one about the haves and the have-nots. It covers unseen aspects of culture that get overshadowed by the nigh-legendary political stories. This discussion, however, can also cover another 500+ page book.

A fantastic, easy-to-read primer on early Rome with enough material to encompass further exploration and learning.

Review: THE LAST SMILE IN SUNDER CITY (The Fetch Phillips Archives #1) by Luke Arnold (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Audible

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Violence, drug use, fantasy gore, arson
I saw that Long John Silver from Black Sails had written a fantasy novel, and I was immediately interested. In this fantasy noir, Fetch Phillips is a human detective who doesn’t work for humans, investigating disappearances around town.

This city felt so alive. There is a deep sense of history and a contemporary culture. It manifests most obviously in the presence of a private school which teaches both magical and human students, and the various types of bars and tea shops. It feels modern in a way I don’t see too often, especially given the presence of cars and other non-magical technology. I found it interesting that perspective of the city came from a feeling of recent-history, not so much ongoing conflict. There is healing, there is trauma, and Arnold doesn’t flinch from any of it.

Fetch is also a compelling narrator. A depressed PI consumed by his regrets, he has insights into the city that ring true given its history. There’s a very self-inflicted kind of bitterness, and that kind of introspection lent the voice an authenticity. He doesn’t seem to feel that the world did him any wrong, but his view of things isn’t at all optimistic. Fetch, however, is also a bit of a disaster. He’s so nervous about repeating the mindset that set off his mistakes, at the expense of his own better judgment and safety.

The plot, however, is a bit slow, with not many action pieces until the very end. It meanders through the different worldbuilding pieces which help us get to know Fetch and Sunder, plus the things that ail both of them. It’s windy, but the bitter, darkly humorous voice helps bring it to life.

A fantasy noir about a city with as many regrets as our main characters, drenched in the aftermath of conflict.

Review: RAYBEARER (Raybearer #1) by Jordan Ifueko (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Parental emotional abuse, blood magic, child death

Having to pause this book as I was listening to it brought me a reader’s pain that I hadn’t felt in a while. In this West-African-inspired fantasy, Tarisai has been sent to the capital by her absent mother, the Lady, to join the prince’s Council of 11 and kill him once she gains his trust.

The world of this novel feels so lived in. There are glimpses and snippets of all twelve nations within the Aritsar empire. Their shared histories make them feel like characters. The craft that went into highlighting and exploring generational grievances and traumas, connecting them to the choices the characters have to make as part of their own arcs.

Throughout the story, Tarisai navigates friendships and first loves in a political setting. Watching her try to wrangle her agency and identity from the task assigned her by her manipulative mother. The way her relationship (or lack there of) with her mother was handled with all its complexities. My heart ached for Tarisai because all she wanted was a family. Most of the emotional journey of this book is watching her navigate her found family versus her legacy. It’s an emotional and a very interior journey which shine through the action and magic through all the big events and major plot points.

In addition, magic plays a very big role. The king and his council, as well as the prince and his council, are all connected by the Ray. It causes sickness when council members are too far apart, and allows them to communicate across great distances otherwise. Moreover, each member represents a way the Raybearer can die. The way this weaves through the plot is masterful and never feels like a deus ex machina, especially during pivotal decision points both for Tarisai and Aritsar as a whole.

Speaking of relationships, the way this made-family comes together for each other. There is so much compassion among them all, even throughout betrayals and misunderstandings. The love triangle is also impeccably set-up, providing two possible avenues of Tarisai’s choices. You’ll have to read the book for yourself to see how those play out.

In terms of other delights, the storytelling traditions featured throughout include songs and new-to-me sounds. The audiobook narrator clearly had fun bringing these to life throughout my listening experience—I highly recommend listening-as-reading.

Raybearer is an ownvoices Black fantasy with impeccable plot twists and complex characters, an utter delight from start to finish.

Review: THE SUN DOWN MOTEL by Simone St. James (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Supernatural Thriller
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Content warnings: Stalking, violence against women, murder

The book’s dedication is to muderinos, and it truly feels like it was written by and for a true crime junkie. In Fell, New York, the Sun Down Motel has a checkered past, which include mysterious murders and hauntings. Viv Delaney ran away from home and settled in upstate New York in 1982. Thirty-five years later, her 20-year-old niece, Carly, searches for the truth behind her disappearance.

The pacing is impeccable. I had such a hard time putting this one down. Reveals and scares were perfectly balanced against each other. What St. James does so well in this one is also bringing attention to more everyday fears and considerations, like being wary of walking by yourself at night and the unsettlement of men getting too close.

One of the main highlights for me were the friendships between all the women. The balance between genuine care, tough love, and no-nonsense approaches to the terrors of Fell, New York felt authentic. Everyone had a sense of a life beyond the immediate problems. Carly felt a little flat, but she also had been through much grief before we meet her in this story (her mother recently died and she had no leads on who her aunt was). That being said, there were some wonderful male supporting characters.

It’s a true crime, small town spin on “1408” by Stephen King, with driven female characters, eerie hauntings, and a satisfying mystery.

 

Review: THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown (2009)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Year Release: 2009
Source: Libro.fm

Trigger warnings: Cannibalism, starvation, suicidal ideation, gore, dog eating

I read The Hunger earlier this year, and the story of the Donner party has fascinated me since. This book was also used for a bulk of the Last Podcast of the Left’s research.

While Katsu’s story gets up close and personal with some of the key players in the party, Brown’s account loosely follows the key players. He structures the account around Sarah Graves and her survival, and it is novelesque. There is hope, there is fear, there are terrible decisions, and battles happening both among members of the camp and against individual physiology. The fact that he visited the trail to see what winter was like and gave in sensory details maintained the illusion of fiction, until grounded contexts gently reminded the reader that, yes, all of this really happened in 1846.

What really makes this book stand out is the level of contextualization. Whenever a new roadblock met the Donner and Reed parties, he paused to go into more detail, providing some scientific evidence that only could have been discovered from more contemporary research. Examples include the general dangers posed to children on the wagon train regardless of ill-fated detours, discussing if the weather had been particularly deadly the year they spent at Truckee lake, the physiology behind starving, and more. The focus never left the actual humans who underwent this truly harrowing ordeal. What I also found interesting was that he would zoom out to discuss life in the U.S. as a contrast. It’s something I hadn’t encountered in my nonfiction, and I would love to see more.

An epic read that contextualizes what was happening to and around the tragic members of the Donner and Reed parties.

 

Review: A CERTAIN HUNGER by Chelsea G. Summers (2019)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: 2020
Source: Audible Exclusive

Trigger warnings: Rape, cannibalism, butchering of humans, car accident, arson, prison

Books with detestably unlikable female characters hold a special place in my heart. Dorothy Daniels is in prison and recounts her midlife crisis in which she murdered and ate a few of her exes. It is Eat, Pray, Love as narrated by Amy from Gone Girl with cannibalism.

This book does not blink at any of its details. Seeing that Dorothy is a food critic and thus the description of every meal are absolutely top notch, including the ones that would be frowned upon in polite company. The way Daniels unabashedly asserts her power and autonomy, using a variety of tools. No one is safe, until you remember that the narrator is in prison. Summers fantastically teases the answers, a hypnotic ebb and flow between posing questions and delivering responses.

The part that I found most fascinating was the interlude that explored Daniels’ childhood. Some of the choices her parents made definitely influenced her career. But the way that the strength of teen friendship and the unique ways women can harness power through sexuality and information-gathering. These themes continue throughout the story, book-ended with indulgence and violence.

Like a deadly car wreck, you simply cannot look away from the horrors, indulgences, and hungers found within. I read this in basically one sitting, glued to the twists and reveals chapter after chapter after chapter.

 

Review: LABYRINTH OF ICE: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition by Buddy Levy (2019)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Year Release: 2019
Source: Libro.fm Audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

This book must have been recommended to me by a friend, because it showed up on my libro.fm wishlist and wow. I do not regret a single minute of this harrowing tale about an expedition to reach the new “furthest north” where only five members survived in the end.

The way Levy takes the reader through the promise of adventure and the light-hearted before times to the places where disaster loomed and the aftermath and the brave rescue. Like other reads, this one never fails to bring forth the wonder and prestige of partaking in such expeditions. There is an allure to the land of groaning ice floes, unpredictable weather, and creatures which can’t be seen anywhere else on earth. It really helps mitigate the “why would anyone do this” factor of this tragic expedition. Terrifying to think that this is one of the more successful excursions (yes, there are mentions of cannibalism towards the end).

Plus, the ending does a fantastic job of connecting the expedition to the realities of climate change endangering those arctic lands. An absolute must-read for those interested in immersing themselves in the wonders and dangers of the arctic.

 

Review: THE GUEST LIST by Lucy Foley (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Thriller
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library Audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Trigger warnings: self-harm, emetophobia, revenge porn (mentions), suicide, blood, drug use

Weddings bring people together who haven’t talked in a while. It can also bring together people who have unexpected connections. And then a murder happens and anyone could be a suspect.

I really enjoyed the tight web of connections Foley had woven together, from the bride to the wedding planner to the plus one to the best man to the bridesmaid. If you’re a fan of the subgenre of rich people shenanigans and intricate family drama, this book hits all those buttons. As it went on, the tension became less about who got murdered and why, to “wow, I hope all those involved find the help and healing they need.”

The ending is super satisfying and makes the suggestion of healing for many of the character. The sense of catharsis was incredible and really lifted my spirits, despite the harrowing road to get there.

A must-read a fan for murder mysteries, taking justice into your own hands, and tensions reminiscent of HBO’s Succession.

 

Review: FEVER DREAM by Samanta Schweblin (2014)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: 2014
Source: Library Audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

A short, psychologically twisty novel about a mother at death’s door talking to a child which may or may not be hers.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere. It takes place in the country, and the lengths the descriptions go on to depict it as a respite from the city crank the unsettling. The fact that it is told entirely in dialogue with none of the tenses matching in a cause-and-effect way increases the dread. Many different types of fear are tackled in this one, especially around parenthood and acceptance, but also of mortality and the things not done yet.

The pacing and tensions are also superb, which makes this book really live up to its title.

 

Review: THE CITY WE BECAME by N.K. Jemisin (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library Audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

This urban fantasy-horror novel will only come off as weird if you haven’t seen a magical girl anime before. In New York City, six individuals are chosen to be avatars of the five boroughs and the city itself. They must come together to protect NYC from a trans-dimensional new city hell-bent on stopping its growth.

Right off the bat, Jemisin takes such care in choosing these avatars. The cast is a diverse mix nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, and experience with living in the city. It almost perfectly mirrors the variety of perspectives from all angles of life in New York. The way the different facets of the five boroughs manifest in the avatars feels so true to the spirit of the boroughs. It’s also presented, however, in a way that can be accessible to those who have never lived in NYC.

But more than that, the characters are so incredibly nuanced and human. They’re frustrating in very real ways and have entire lives outside and around their identities as avatars. I definitely gravitated to Manny (Manhattan) the most, but the journey on which Jemisin takes Aislyn is handled with such finesse. The subplots in general are incredible. It was a joy to see how they all came together during the final confrontation with the enemy.

While there is clearly a lot of love for the city, Jemisin also does not hold back any of her punches when it comes to critiquing the gentrification, bad cops, territorial prejudices, and the things people do to survive. They’re all very real elements of that particular urban environment, and the novel treats as another essential layer of world-building.

I’ve heard this novel called a cosmic horror and while the elements are certainly there, the reality is that this novel is a giant “fuck you” to H.P. Lovecraft. From starring characters he would have been afraid of to the well-placed nods to some of the creature designs come from the mythos, it’s clearly an influence, but there is a scathing hatred of the author which permeates from scene to scene. And it is absolutely wonderful.

Another fantastic entry into the list of “most New York City books ever,” this one does not hold back any of its sharp critiques and excellent dialogue that are steeped in so much love for the city that never sleeps.