Tag Archives: Valerie

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Tor Books (2020)

176 pages // 3 hours & 46 minutes on Audio

Link to the book in LFPL’s catalog

Riot Baby came out in January 2020 to much acclaim and nominations to many of the most respected science fiction awards (Nebula Award Nominee 2020, Goodreads Science Fiction Choice Award Nominee 2020, Hugo Award Nominee 2021, Locus Award Nominee 2021). But this book is so timely I had to triple check its release date as I was listening to the audiobook–its prescience for the summer of 2020 is as apt as the future sight of the protagonist, Ella.

Ella is only about 5 when her brother Kev is born during the Rodney King riots in 1992 Los Angeles, but she can already see flashes of the future. Ella and Kev grow up protecting each other, developing their skills, and trying to escape the effects of racism, but by adulthood Kev is incarcerated and Ella has to leave to find her full power. But how will she handle having that much power in the face of a system that’s hurting her brother and their community so much? At once hopeful and devastating, Riot Baby is strongly recommended, especially the wonderfully done audiobook version narrated by the author himself. This book is for readers who want to further explore the effect racism and the prison industrial complex has on families and individuals, including one who happens to have superpowers.

– Review by Valerie, Newburg Branch

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors by Nicole Glover
Murder and Magic, #1
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2021)
422 pages // 14 hours on Audio
Link to the book in LFPL’s catalog

An often overlooked time period, at least in my personal historical fiction reading habits, is the Reconstruction Era immediately following the end of the Civil War, especially as it was for formerly enslaved people living in the American North. Nicole Glover’s debut speculative mystery novel The Conductors is an interesting depiction of that time period, a slow-paced mystery set in a world where Black folks can work magic, and featuring chosen and found family.

Hetty and Benjy were Conductors on the Underground Railroad who are now trying to find their place in post-Civil War society in Philiadelphia’s Seventh Ward, along with some of the people they helped escape from slavery. They are married but it was a marriage of convenience, something they’ve fallen into to allow greater freedom of movement for each of them. Although the magic system isn’t as well explained as it could be at times, I was really enchanted with the use of constellations as the source of the magic’s power, both from a historical perspective as well as the striking imagery it brings to the world. Hetty and Benjy used their magic skills to help them guide other enslaved people to freedom, but magic can be used for evil here too.

When an acquaintance stumbles across the dead body of an old friend and comes to Hetty and Benjy for help, they know they can’t trust the police to pay attention to the murder, much less solve it or prevent others from happening. Hetty and Benjy quickly realize they’ve gotten into something more sinister than they had expected, and have to work together to learn things about their community that some would prefer remain hidden. For those interested in speculative historical mysteries with found family, I strongly recommend checking out The Conductors.

The Conductors includes mention, discussion, and/or portrayal of enslavement, physical restraint, scars, discrimination, bigotry, racism, colorism, murder, infertility, alcohol consumption, drug use as a coping mechanism, war, gun violence, injury, broken bones, drowning, explosions, torture, funerals, death, grave robbing, miscarriage, and crossdressing as a disguise.

The second book in the series, The Undertakers, is due out in November of 2021, but it can be read as a standalone if series aren’t your thing.

– Review by Valerie, Newburg Branch

Horsepower: Poems by Joy Priest

"Horsepower" is in large white block lettering stretching the width of the cover, with "Joy Priest" right aligned in much smaller mustard yellow text above it. The background picture is of a steering wheel covered with moss, the black Volvo dashboard in the background with a tree limb coming through where the windshield should be. There are wet brown leaves on the driver's seat at the very bottom of the frame.
Horsepower: Poems
Joy Priest University of Pittsburgh Press (Sept 2020)
68 pages
Link to Horsepower in LFPL’s collection

The poems in Joy Priest’s Horsepower speak powerfully of a Black girl’s experiences growing up in the South End of Louisville. The personal struggle with racism in a family gives way to the wider struggle of racism in society as the three movements of the collection reflect the growth of a racehorse from timid foal to wild filly throwing off her harness. Priest’s study of Louisville captures the push and pull that makes this city so hard to define — horse racing in an urban setting, southern traditions that range from harsh segregation and the KKK to the joys of cruising and muscle cars. This collection of poems is a must-read for any white Louisvillian working through their racism. Priest is uniquely suited for this examination as a Louisville-native herself, as it’s easy for any local reader to picture the old landmarks and streets mentioned, dripping with atmosphere unique to this Weird Louisville (TM).

While this might be her first published collection of poems, I have eagerly been following her work in Best New Poets and other places one wouldn’t expect poets to be published (like her piece for ESPN on “The Athleticism of Beyoncé” ) since 2014. While Priest writes more than poetry in verse, she has a strong poetic voice and sense of atmosphere that can be seen in many of her works, including “Denial is a Cliff We Are Driven Off Of”. Everything she writes is beautiful, something that inspires the reader to connect more directly with both the subject as well as the poet’s past and selfhood. The poems that are included in Priest’s Horsepower collection are no exception.

View Joy Priest’s full list of published works on her website, here

– Review by Valerie, Newburg Branch

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

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The University of Southern California recently released some astonishing statistics on the amount of information a person encounters every day.  Whether it comes from advertising, content on social media or bumper stickers seen on the drive home, a good deal of what we consume is riddled with faulty logic! If you’ve ever heard or read an argument that sounded wrong but you weren’t quite sure why, The Art of Thinking Clearly can help.

Dobelli’s book is a catalog of logical fallacies and everyday examples to illustrate them.  “Catalog of Logical Fallacies” is not a sexy title so Dobelli wisely chose something more accessible. A cheerleader for precision in thought and speech, he teaches his readers to identify fallacies so they can spot sloppy thinking and build sound arguments of their own.

While the web provides numerous free sites that explain fallacies, Dobelli adds value to the learning experience. A recurring theme in the book is how to overcome the human weaknesses that lead us to make bad decisions.  We struggle to understand exponential growth, which can affect our financial lives; believe that there is a balancing force in the universe, which can affect our success at the craps table; and over plan, which can lead to unrealistic expectations and a stack of unfulfilled to do lists.  For each fallacy, the author offers a next time component, advising readers how to change their response in order to achieve a better outcome.

Dobelli’s collection includes 99 brief chapters that are perfect to breeze through and contemplate one-by-one.  Even if you only read a dozen, it will change how you respond to information and ultimately make you a better decision maker.

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print), eBook

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch

Ghosts By Daylight: Love, War and Redemption

Until I read Janine Di Giovanni’Ghosts By Daylight: Love, War and Redemption, I never considered the emotional toll journalists endure to bring us stories from the world’s conflict zones.  It turns out that giving a voice to the voiceless, as Di Giovanni calls her work, carries a heavy price.

ghostsbydaylight

A veteran journalist who currently serves as Middle East editor at Newsweek, Di Giovanni routinely shares first person accounts of wartime suffering and violence that are often difficult to read. After reading her memoir I believe she would say that if she didn’t include details of the abuse the powerful inflict on the powerless, she wouldn’t be doing her job. If you’re hesitant to read about how humans torment other humans in wartime, be assured that Ghosts by Daylight is less about the atrocities of war than it is about how journalists cope with having witnessed them.

In her memoir, Di Giovanni describes her decision in her early 40s to leave her life in war zones behind, at least for awhile, to start a family in Paris with a French war photographer and love of her life. While one would expect her to experience relief at finally getting out of the insecurity of war and into a comfortable Parisian life, the reality is that human beings, like the conflicts we create with each other, are much more complicated. From her apartment in one of Paris’s quietest districts, she describes hoarding food, water, antibiotics and drafting an evacuation plan in case the city was ever under siege. When recounting her actions, she recalls that she never worried about being able to take care of herself, but the idea of being responsible for her infant son in a situation like the ones she has seen in the field gave her overwhelming anxiety.  Di Giovanni never felt afraid when she was dodging snipers in Sarajevo or negotiating with drugged and armed child soldiers in Cote d’Ivoire. Instead the realities and responsibilities of parenthood triggered the debilitating terror for which she had never gotten treatment.

Di Giovanni cites the disproportionate number of war correspondents who experience depression, substance abuse and suicide, all suggestive of untreated PTSD.  Whether symptoms strike at the work site or after returning home, the consequences can be deadly. She describes PTSD manifesting itself in reckless behavior, like her colleague who had once driven around Sniper Alley in Sarajevo with his car spray painted: Don’t waste your bullets; I am immortal.  Attributing her actions to the overconfidence of the survivor, she once argued with a soldier who had a weapon pointed at her heart to let her companion, a rebel who was surely to be executed, go free. After years of running into dangerous situations and not knowing where she would sleep each night, she came home to find that the danger she had evaded in the field felt as close and menacing as ever.

War correspondents make a career of helping us understand what it’s like to live in the absence of safety. Janine Di Giovanni’s memoir of living with PTSD offers a glimpse of how journalists experience that insecurity long after their assignment is over.

I first encountered Janine Di Giovanni’s work in Best American Travel Writing 2014. Her essay on covering the Bosnian War was so engrossing that I pursued her other works, including a piece about Syria in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014. To find her thought-provoking and candid coverage of conflict zones all over the world, search for her name in the library’s EbscoHost Academic Search Complete  database.

Her new book, Seven Days in Syria, is due out this summer.

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print)

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch

The Mockingbird Next Door

Interest piqued by the recent announcement that American literary legend Harper Lee will be publishing a new novel? Want to know what the author of one of the most widely read books in America has been doing for the past 50+ years? Marja MillsThe Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is just about the only option you have, but fortunately it’s an excellent one.

harperlee

Lee, who was last in the public eye in the mid-1960s, has eschewed numerous opportunities to be recognized for her literary masterpiece, a book that helped fuel the progress of Civil Rights era reforms and whose hero, small town attorney Atticus Finch, continues to inspire readers today. Her motivations, as outlined by Mills, are certainly relatable: a desire to protect her own privacy and of those she loves; a distrust of those wishing to capitalize on her opus; and a general distaste for constantly being in the spotlight.

When writing Harper Lee’s biography, journalist Mills had to work hard to gain the author’s trust. The Chicago Tribune writer moved to Monroeville, AL with the intention of getting a few interviews and slowly developed earnest friendships with both Lee and her sister. Why did Lee lift the veil on her life now, why not live the rest of her days enjoying her privacy? Mills offers a few explanations. First, she wanted to have the story of the Lee family told by someone she trusted. Second, she wanted to set the record straight on a few things, namely any controversy that remains over who actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird (Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend, had once claimed credit) and some allegations levied by Capote regarding Lee’s mother. Lee and Capote’s friendship had a long history and had even blossomed into a professional collaboration when she traveled to Kansas with him in the early 1960s to do research for what would later become In Cold Blood. The pain of betrayal Lee experienced with Capote is palpable in Mills’ pages.

So how does (Nelle) Harper Lee spend her days? For much of her adult life she spent half of her year in New York, where she enjoyed anonymity and the cultural offerings of a great city. The other half she spent in her hometown in Alabama, hanging out with friends and her beloved sister Alice, who in her 90s was still practicing law and being recognized for her work in social causes. Mills makes Lee’s days of fishing, storytelling and visiting cemeteries in her corner of Alabama sound as stimulating as her days in NYC must have been.

Mills’ unauthorized biography of Lee paints a picture of a woman true to herself and her values, who had to struggle against renown in order to live the life she wanted. The author maintains a professional detachment in reporting her story and spent enough time with Lee to know her as a person, not simply a literary legend.

Still, she confesses to occasionally feeling starstruck during those moments in Lee’s company when she realized, “Oh my god, I’m fishing/visiting/shopping for groceries with Harper Lee!” Dearest to the biographer’s heart were their morning coffee dates at Mills’ kitchen table, commenced by the phone ringing and Harper Lee’s voice on the other end saying, “Hi hon. You pourin’?”

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print and Large Type), eBook

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch

The Allied Invasion of Normandy and the Liberation of Paris

allthelightdoerr

This year was the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy and liberation of Paris. Writers have been busy marking the occasion!  Many readers have heard of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the story of a convergence of two lives on either side of the conflict: a Parisian girl and a German youth with a gift for electronics.   His beautifully written tale has earned spots on numerous best of lists for 2014.

whenpariswentdark

The only thing that can make a great piece of historical fiction better is a highly readable work of non-fiction to go with it.  To that end, I invite you to try When Paris Went Dark: the City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald Rosbottom.   He tells the story of the city’s occupation from a variety of perspectives: from its people (German commanders to Parisian street vendors) to its high schools (one in particular was a breeding ground for Resistance fighters—I’d watch that teen drama series) and apartments (the labyrinth of interweaving corridors and doorways of Parisian housing played a major role in hiding those at risk).  Rosbottom explores the effects of the Occupation on the French psyche as a nation ponders what it did to resist and if that was enough.

resistance

If Doerr and Rosbottom’s books sound appealing, I also encourage you to read Agnes Humbert’s wartime journal Résistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France (1946), the story of her years in the French Resistance and as a prisoner in a forced labor camp in Germany.  A curator at the Musée de L’Homme, Humbert was among the first group of organized opponents of the Occupation.  We share her sadness and fear as her beloved city is occupied, its museums violated and its citizens arrested. But like the heroine of a favorite work of fiction, she never loses her spirit. Determined to make her internment productive for the Resistance, she sabotages the parachutes she is forced to make for the German war effort, all the time recognizing the irony of being forced to make artificial silk, a new technology that her mother had invested in before the war.

Despite her circumstances, Humbert keeps her sense of humor and refuses to surrender her humanity.  At one point during her years in slave labor, she ponders what Descartes would think of the factory’s rayon-making machines and the thoughts one has as one is at them.   After her liberation she spends her time helping the American army bring Nazis to justice and coordinating efforts to feed and house residents of the village that enslaved her.  Humbert’s journal reads like an adventure story and I found myself cheering for its inspirational heroine throughout.

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print and Large Type), Audiobook (CD), eBook

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch