[REVIEW] The Ballad of Perilous Graves, by Alex Jennings

(Buy this book here.)

(Disclosure: I met Alex aka @magicknegro at Under The Volcano 2022 and have been known to message him whiny existential writer complaints on occasion. This is still an honest review and I bought my own copy of this book because Paying Writers Cures Foolishness.)

The publisher blurbs for this book all say something about magical NOLA, nine songs of power, and a little boy named Perry who goes on a quest with his sister Brendy to recapture those songs in a magic piano and save the city. If you dig a little deeper, they might mention a trans man with a gift and a secret, a coming storm and a big bad Haint.

That’s totally what this book is about. It’s also totally not what this book is about.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this but I want to read many, many more books in this vein. The lore here is deep, the themes expansive, and the callbacks legion. Ancient Central Asian myths rub elbows with hoodoo. Talking catfish and nutria go on side quests with Black American history. Jazz lives!–and hangs out regularly with Afro-Pippi Longstocking. Jennings isn’t afraid to get weird, and fortunately for us, he has the writing chops to make it work. I enjoyed not just the story and the creativity but the words themselves.

The quest itself is weird and wild. It takes a while to set up the story but once the building blocks are laid, I knew that it would go more or less where all good stories go. However, I had no idea how it would get there, which made for a sometimes confusing trip but one that held my attention relentlessly.

That said, I’m not sure I picked up everything that this was putting down. So much is woven through this that there were a few moments when even my nerd trivia brain had to stop and say–what?! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Even without getting everything, I still wanted to see the characters through to the end.

I don’t star writers I know, but I liked this and recommend reading it. After all, where else can you get jazz, Phonecian deities, Phantom Tollbooth references, and the mother of all mojo bags all at once?

Check out The Ballad of Perilous Graves.

(Beautiful people and fellow readers! I enjoyed this book, but it’s one of those where you can’t say a lot unless you want to spoil big surprises–and I’m not that person, not today. If you want to see more fantasy from global majority perspectives, take a look at this global fantasy booklist. If you want to purchase a copy of the book in this review, find it HERE. Please be aware that if you click and purchase anything from a link you find on this website, I may earn a commission from your purchase. I use it to buy more books, and somehow I doubt that’s a surprise. Peace!)

[READING CHALLENGE] Read Some Real American History

(If you’re just here for the booklist, click HERE. Thanks! )

So I’ve been back in the US for a year now.

There’s a lot going on here at the moment, and a lot of America’s current problems are directly related to history. This isn’t a surprise to any thinking person. Our current hot button issues are not new. None of this fell out of the sky and little of it is solely due to individual choice, despite our cultural mythology. Our current systemic issues have their roots in history, and far too many of us don’t know the details of the past.

Worse, we don’t know how they affect us or those we know on an individual basis.

Take, for example, me, pictured above. On paper, I am a respectability politician’s dream. Well-educated, widely traveled, professional job, mostly responsible, hard working, etc. According to The Rules, I should be extremely successful.

Yet, I’m not. I don’t have access to wealth. I sound “foreign”. And I made the critical mistake of living outside of the system(abroad) for a long time.

As a result, I’ve been dealing with housing insecurity since I got back. I’ve gone from sublet to sublet, all ironically overpriced. Nobody will rent to me long-term, because in the current system I don’t exist in the right way, even if I have the income.

Now before we continue, I’m fine. I don’t mind subletting too much, although I really hope my next spot is mine. I’m also very aware that if I had kids or a different job or owned more things or was less able-bodied, I would not be fine. I’m even more aware that if I was connected to certain places, certain people, certain streams of finance, or looked and sounded a certain way, things would be very different.

My housing situation is not just my own, however. It has its roots in history. Residential segregation, credit invisibility, “soft” landlord prejudices–all of these have their roots in history that remains unaddressed. I’m fine because I have some small access to money. Countless others are not, and the situation is worsening because no one wants to admit its roots are deep.

And it’s like that for nearly every issue that is burning up America right now. The roots are deep and cannot be ignored when you try to pull the weeds.

So this month, read some real history.

To reiterate, I’m fine. I really hesitate to share personal issues online because a) internet strangers can be scary and b)a lot of very well-meaning people will pop up to offer very basic advice that assumes a certain level of ignorance and I cannot be bothered explaining myself to them, or anyone I don’t know in real life, to be honest. I didn’t post this to get attention about my housing situation–it’s not ideal, but I’m safe and housed, albeit annoyed at having to pack and move every 4 months or so.

I posted this to point out that the consequences of history on present systems are personal, not just intellectual. I posted it to hopefully encourage people to look at the roots, not just the weed, and to have grace with people living in the weeds because many of the inequities in the US have personal consequences, but impersonal causes that nobody is addressing. Read some real history. Find out what legacies may be affecting you, and those you know, without your knowledge.

If you need some suggestions, as always there is a booklist on my Bookshop page. Here’s where I usually make a jokey disclaimer about how I earn a commission off of any books bought at that link and use it to buy more books, but this time, it’ll be used to pay for my next move. TIA. Now, go read something good!

[REVIEW] Fevered Star, by Rebecca Roanhorse

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Let me just rip the band-aid off; meh.

I wanted to love this book because of what it is. I love fantasy that steps away from the hoary old medieval Europe tropes. This series, set in a world based on pre-Columbian South American cultures, follows a clash between age-old forces of light and dark and should be right up my alley.

And it is, in a way. The first installment, Black Sun, established the characters, displayed some truly brilliant, epic world-building, but the story was just okay. This, the second in the series, didn’t really ring any bells no matter how hard I mentally begged it to.

Part of it is that middles of trilogies are tricky. It’s hard to fit them in that sweet spot where they keep the story going and introduce just enough newness while reinforcing everything the first book did. This book tries to do all of that, but mostly it had me asking “why” a lot.

mild spoilers coming

WHY would you take a magical singing semi-mermaid sea captain and have her trek overland for the whole book only to deus ex gambit her back into the sea right at the end of the book?

WHY would you take the Sun Priestess, return her to her slum origins to rediscover her humanity, then have her realize her true power is magic and deus ex gambit her off into a random point of lore right at the end?

WHY would you take the living embodiment of the shadowy Crow God, last seen assassinating everybody out here so hide your kids hide your wife, have him mope around being lonely, pitiful and lost for the whole book, only to deus ex gambit him into Supreme Evil Mwahaha territory right at the end?

WHY would you take a mysterious third-gender assassin and–no. Wait. Scratch that. Iktan is perfect. Best character in the book. May xe live forever.

There was too much wandering and not enough happening in this book, and the characters and world-building suffered due to the plot being too diffuse.

It’s not that I didn’t like it, exactly. It’s just that the ending had better hit a major home run to bring this all together, otherwise these magical characters and their world will all feel a bit wasted.

3 stars and some plot armor to Fevered Star.

(Beautiful people, this one was a bit disappointing but Indigenous writers are still consistently killing the game and you should check out this booklist for more. Don’t forget that we have an affiliate relationship with Bookshop, and if you purchase anything there after clicking a link from here, we’ll earn a commission. Now, go read something good!)

[REVIEW] Making A Scene, by Constance Wu

(Pre-order this book!)

I’m not really into celebrity culture and I’m not sure I would have read this if Scribner Books hadn’t kindly sent me an ARC. But I’m SO glad they did.

What I thought about Constance Wu before reading this: Um…she was good in Crazy Rich Asians I guess. She was the mom on Fresh Off the Boat, too, right? She was funny in that.

What I thought about Constance Wu after reading this: OMG she seems like such cool people. I wish her all the success in the world even though she seems too sincere and honest and self-aware for Hollywood. I’m glad she’s made it, and I hope her star keeps rising because she has a gift, and a story, and also I’d just love to get coffee with this lady and swap big city dating horror stories with her for a while.

Part of the love I have for this book comes from the fact that Wu is…just a person. She’s a normal, likable person who puts a lot of effort into understanding her own emotions and explaining them honestly even when they’re not flattering. She’s a person with a job that other people think is really cool, but still has to grapple with family, romance, work, money, and even herself. There’s something beautifully sincere in how everything in her life seems to be on the same level, no matter how glamorous or banal. She talks hating a girl in middle school right next to an explanation of troubles on the Fresh Off The Boat set. right next to an ode to her pet bunny, right next to a remarkably technical analysis of her first community theatre audition.

Wu isn’t always loveable in this book, but she’s eminently likable. She reminds me of people I know, people who are entirely products and makers of America even though that’s not how we’re always perceived. We’ve all been conditioned to expect certain stories from women, from the children of immigrants, from Asian people, from artists. Wu tells none of those stories because they aren’t hers. Instead, she tells her stories. She talks about growing up Taiwanese-American in the South with laid-back, supportive parents. She talks about navigating the minefields of New York romance and the hard work of auditions. She talks about the harder work of staying whole and present when you start to make money from your passions but to be clear, Wu is not her career and this book is not about that. There’s industry tea here, but not what you’d expect. There’s talk of race and racism, but again, it’s not what you’d expect. There’s talk of abuse and harassment and it’s also not what you’d expect but it IS really real. So real, in fact, that it reminded me that someday, I’ll have to tell a story about a podcast, but it will be okay when I do.

Five stars and big feelings to Making A Scene, out in October 2022.

(First of all, beautiful people, my thanks to Scribner Books for sending an ARC of this very good book that you should totally pre-order and cherish once it’s released in October. I get a lot of ARCs. I don’t publicly review them all because some of them are…not good. This one is good! Check it out, and also check out some of the other books I’ve highlighted in the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. If you buy anything from that link, we do earn a commission, which is used to buy more books. We look forward to your enabling of our very benign word addiction. Peace! )

[READING CHALLENGE] Kill Your #TBR!

Holy crap, how it is already August? I moved back to America ELEVEN MONTHS AGO and I honestly have no idea what’s going on here, still.

What I do know is that I’ve amassed and imported an astonishing number of books that I intend to read. I haven’t made a big deal of it, but this year so far I’ve made a point of sticking to the backlist(with the exception of the new TJ Young book). I’m always trying to balance book blogging in a way that doesn’t encourage or pretend consumption over enjoyment, and for me, focusing on books I want to read whether or not they’re hot and new is how I do that.

Even so, the list of books I want to read is much, much, longer than the list of books I’ve read. Since this is the bookish Internet, I have a sneaky feeling that you might be in the same boat, so here’s our August challenge–let’s try and beat back some of our #tbr overgrowth. This month, try to read one or two books that have been lurking in the shadows next to your promises to read them next.

Personally, I’m going to venture off of the backlist for the first time this year and read some of the new books I’ve managed to pick up recently. This means the second installment in Rebecca Roanhorse’s pre-Columbian fantasy trilogy, Fevered Star. It also means I’m finally going to read Hanya Yanagihara’s latest, To Paradise. What I’m most excited about, however, is getting my eyeballs locked on the rest of Alex Jenning’s debut novel The Ballad of Perilous Graves, which is currently burning up in the fantasy world and I cannot wait to get into for myself.

How about you, fellow readers? What are you hoping to get off your #tbr and out of its misery this month? Let me know in the comments.

(As always, thanks for reading, beautiful people. This is the obligatory reminder that if you click and purchase anything from a link here, we’ll earn a commission as part of the Bookshop affiliate program and use it to buy more books. Peace!)

[REVIEW] Tender Is The Flesh, by Agustina Bazterrica, translated by Susan Moses

(Buy this book here.)

(This book is one long content warning. If you’re sensitive to violence or gore, don’t read it or this review.)

This book is disgusting. Let’s just start there.

No, really. This Argentinian dystopian horror takes place in a very near future where it’s become impossible to eat animal meat due to a mysterious virus. Instead of turning to veggies and seitan, humanity instead creates systems in which some people are bred and consumed for their meat, with all of the attendant inhumanity that factory farming entails.

That’s the book. That’s the whole grim, eye-stretching, horribly gory, and disgusting book. There is a protagonist in the form of morally conflicted processing plant boss Marcos, but really he’s just a vehicle to ride around this vile world in. Even when he’s gifted a young woman, prized for her expensive, delicate meat(yuck) there’s not much but constant exposition here. The ending is clearly meant to shock (and it does), but in the current climate, social cynicism keeps it from being big, if not from being nasty.

So, what’s the point? And why am I, your resident lily-livered joy-reader reviewing this awful, awful book?

I’ve seen complaints about how the meat system in the book doesn’t interrogate real-life inequity enough. However, the writer is Argentinian, not from the US. I think she drops plenty of South American inequity bread crumbs. Also, making the simple observation that it is startlingly easy for people to commodify each other when we adopt mindsets that only acknowledge individual needs is much more effective when the details are in the continual horror of the premise rather than in hamhanded attempts to shoehorn present real-life politics into a cheap shock device.

What shook me most about this book wasn’t that it’s about legal consumer cannibalism. It was that the author immerses you so deeply in the horror that eventually, the reader is desensitized to it. It made me wonder–what are we actually becoming numb to in the real world?

Or the whole thing could just be very dramatic vegan propaganda 🤷🏿‍♀️ Hell if I know.

4 stars and Soylent Green sprinkles to Tender Is The Flesh.

(This is a gross one, fellow readers, right up there with Tampa. I can’t say I’d recommend buying it in all good conscious, but it is available, along with many other diverse titles, in the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. Quick reminder; if you click through and purchase anything on Bookshop from a link you find here, we will earn a commission, which is usually used to buy more books and write more reviews. Tidy little cycle, that. Peace!)

[REVIEW] The Brown Sisters Trilogy, by Talia Hibbert

(Buy these books!)

I love a British rom-com. I also love an #ownnormal story, and I have a special place in my heart for hot summer beach reads.

The Brown Sisters’ romances(Get A Life, Chloe Brown; Take A Hint, Dani Brown; and Act Your Age, Eve Brown) deliver all of the above and more.

All 3 books have the same basic story. Grumpy guy meets rich, seemingly carefree Black girl. Shenanigans ensue only to be solved by the power of intense attraction and obvious misunderstandings, which leads to realizations of deep feelings and dramatic confessions leading to adorable happily-ever-afters. Along the way there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud funny banter(I was surprised at how funny these were!) and some of the steamiest steam to ever fog up a nerdy reader’s glasses–these books are boiling hot.

Unexpectedly, these stories take a welcome look at love with invisible disabilities, mental illness, and neuroatypicity, perhaps because the author is neuroatypical and disabled herself. Chloe’s story includes fibromyalgia and PTSD. In Dani’s romance, generalized anxiety disorder comes into play. In Eve’s tale, autism is key for several characters. In all three books, these things are treated as parts of life that make love and romance different but not impossible or strange. The fear and worry that comes from being seen as abnormal is included candidly but people are loved and romanced because of their differences, not despite them.

There have been grumbles about how the sisters are rich, quirky, and date non-black men, which for some people affects their perceived Blackness. As a soft and squishy mostly carefree Black woman who is constantly dodging the dread pirates Strong Black Projection and Misogynoirist Thought, I think that’s a bit unfair. The way that the Browns are allowed to be smart, safe, and sensitive and have their emotional, material and sexuak needs met is affirming, not inauthentic. For me, they don’t read as any less Black because they are disabled, or because they feel deeply and openly, and are loved and cared for just as deeply and openly in their stories. If anything, I think they tell a story of Blackness that is often neglected, and I’m glad to see women who are so personally relatable on the page in romance novels.

Also– where does one find a man like Zafir? Asking for myself…

5 stars and a smile to The Brown Sisters.

(Beautiful people! This review is short and sweet because after three years and lots of social distancing, hygiene and my own body weight in N-95 masks, I’ve finally managed to get COVID. Therefore, I’m exhausted and will just end this quickly by saying; legal reasons. Affiliate relationships. Bookshop. Commissions. Read something good! Peace!)

[REVIEW] Girl’s Weekend, by C.M. Nascosta

(Buy this book.)

Yo…what did I just read?

What the hell did I just read?

…and why did I enjoy it so much?

Lurielle, Silva and Ris are elves. Not the type who wield magic and go on quests, though–no, these elvin lasses have good degrees, engineering jobs and nice condos in a comfortable, progressive, multispecies community. They’re all also very unlucky in love. Instead of downloading a dating app, the ladies book a girl’s trip to a — wait for it — an all-nude, orcish swinger’s resort. Sexy shenanigans ensue, and surprisingly, the ladies find exactly what they need, not just what they think they want.

Y’all know I am a connoisseur of the unusual and far-out, but I really didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. I thought it’d be a fun-to-hate read to clear out the cobwebs between more serious books but it’s enjoyable in its own right. The three elves have really sympathetic emotional arcs and the encounters and relationships they have are sweetly rendered.

Monster romance is a thing now (I had no idea) and in a way, it’s quite clever. Casting elves, orcs, and goblins(ew) in a story like this makes the polyam/sex positive/nude resort aspects of this unremarkable by default. There’s no room to be judgemental once you’ve read a few paragraphs describing fangy kisses and all the different shades of green on giant swinging orc bits.

I’ve seen a few reviews of monster romance that theorize that the genre is a social response to attempts to reinstitute control over feminine sexuality in some places. I don’t know that it’s entirely that deep, but if the whole genre embraces both weirdness and genuine emotion like this book, I can definitely see why it’s gaining in popularity.

That said, there is an unfortunate (and I think unintentional) bit of ethnic coding here. While they’re called elves and orcs, let’s be real–the elves are pretty much just stand-ins for suburban white women trying to get a little wild and crazy interracial action for the weekend because the corporate types back home aren’t cutting it. While the orcs are given Celtic cultural markers, the way they’re described–big, brutish, impossibly well-endowed, and hypersexual while also besotted with these very (white-coded) classy, socially desirable but slightly too fat or independent or whatever for their own polite society ladies who clearly fetishize them was…kinda uncomfortable.

But then there’d be a paragraph about somebody [redacted] with their giant technicolor [redacted] while [redacted] and I’d realize that this is a book about a nude orc resort and move on. Romantic books often do this to tap into our socially installed wiring regarding attraction because it can be comforting, just like the love-by-the-numbers stories. It’s a convention of the genre, but I never like it when I notice it. I noticed it big time here.

Also, the steam level is extremely high in this book, sometimes veering towards ridiculous. Some of the characters are literal monsters and sudden mentions of fangs, wings, or purple skin make some of the scenes (unintentionally?) hilarious.

This was a silly summer read with some unexpected depth. Four stars and a fanged kiss to Girl’s Weekend.

(This would probably make a great beach reach, beautiful people. If you’re interested in this or other unusual romance novels, check out the lists on the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. We have an affiliate relationship with Bookshop, so any purchases made there from clicks you make here will result in a commission being paid. Now go read something good. Peace!)

[REVIEW] The Windweaver’s Storm(TJ Young and the Orishas Book 2), by Antoine Bandele

(Buy this book!)

One of my most anticipated new reads for 2022 is finally here and let me say the important part first– it did not disappoint!

When we last saw teenaged magic student Tomori Jomiloju Young, he had survived remedial magic summer camp, traveled to the spirit realm, made a bargain with Olokun himself at the bottom of the sea, and gained admission to the premier magic school for practitioners of the African diaspora. He’d also managed to take all the YA magic school tropes made famous by the likes of Percy Jackson and Harry Potter and make them blackity-black and much more fun.

whew

This time around, it’s just as wild. TJ and his friends Manny and Ayo have to figure out how to keep their promise to Olokun, avoid the sinister Keepers, and pass all their exams. There’s also the problem of a love triangle(not the one you’d think) and the Orisha themselves. Divine beings can be tricksy, and TJ and crew have to stay on their toes to keep up.

Like the first, this installment of TJ’s story is a lot of fun. Nigerian international magic school is an absolute joy (once again, I wanted to eat in the cafeteria). I love how West African mythology and ancestral religions are integrated into the story, and once the action starts it never stops. TJ is such a nice kid that the reader really feels his wins and losses. His community is also great–ever wondered how a magical Black mom would handle attacks on her son? (Let’s just say Molly Weasley could never.)

The stakes are much higher than before, and the crew is much more mature. The level of violence and danger made me uncomfortable for a moment until I realized it was art imitating life, in a way. Black kids all over the world have to grow up fast more often than not. They’re still kids but sometimes the stakes are higher than they should be, even if it’s unfair. In the end, I liked that the kids in this book were young but also took on heavy responsibilities, with the adults supporting them every step of the way.

Two final thoughts: the ending of this book shocked me. TJ’s world is about to get a LOT bigger and I really want to see where the story goes next.

Also: (redacted for spoiler) and Shango. Yooooo….!

Go buy and read this series. Five stars, a plate of puff-puff, and some cloud-stepping kicks to The Windweaver’s Storm.

(Fellow readers! The first book in the series was one of my favorite reads and biggest surprises of 2021. The second book keeps the momentum going, so get your hands on it if you can. The book is only available through the author’s Amazon portal at the moment, and like all amazing indie books by authors of color, I invoke a temporary retraction of my Amazon clause. As always, you can support this blog by buying from the Equal Opportunity Bookshop, and most of the links to books on the rest of this site will lead you there. Peace!)

[READING CHALLENGE] Read Disabled Writers!

(To skip straight to a booklist, click here.)

I’m super late with this month’s reading challenge, but it’s here, fellow readers!

First of all, how are you all doing? I took last week off from reading and blogging because I am TIRED. I’m also in that lovely part of reverse culture shock where I absolutely do not want to be in my own country but also can’t be bothered packing to move somewhere else again, and so I complain constantly, read sporadically, and make everyone who doesn’t know basic geography absolutely miserable with my sneering know-it-all-ism.

*ahem* But anyway, hope y’all are fine.

This month’s reading challenge is inspired by the fact that July is Disability Pride Month and my recent decision to take a course on audio description for the blind and visually impaired. If all goes well, I’ll be assisting blind theater patrons during shows next year.

Meanwhile, disability remains a pretty large blind spot for me. I’d venture to say that if you are not disabled, it’s probably a big blind spot for you as well–even if you don’t realize it. So, for this month’s challenge, let’s read something by a disabled author.

Disability is a broad term. It ranges across physical differences to mental impairments, sensory processing differences, and invisible illnesses. There are so many experiences, and therefore stories of disability that whatever you read will just give you the beginnings of understanding.

I also want to point out that not all books by disabled authors are about disability. Two of the most popular diverse romance novel authors–Helen Hoang and Talia Hibbert–are both neurodivergent and disabled. Science fiction writer(and amazing renaissance woman) Day Al-Mohamed is visually impaired and writes about space libraries. Humor essayist Samantha Irby writes about her disabilities but she also writes about how much she does not want to go outside when it’s hot out and that’s far more interesting.

Of course, plenty of people write about their disabilities too, and those books should also be read. There’s a booklist in the Equal Opportunity Bookshop if you need a place to start.

As always, tell me what you read in the comments. Peace!

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