Category Archives: Review

Review: Between the World and Me

Between Me and the World
Ta-Nehisi Coates


Title: Between the World and Me
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0-8129-9354-7
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Hate gives identity.  (p. 60)

I rarely say this about any writer I read.  Clearly, I enjoy many authors and have learned quite a bit from reading.  But I rarely say I think their work is important to anyone but me.   Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is important, and it should be read by everyone.

Written in the form of a letter to his son, Coates explains what it means to be a black male in America.  The fragility of a black man’s body, based on the need to know how to navigate the physical world without incurring the wrath of anybody along the way.

It was hard to for me to imagine how fraught life could be for someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates.  How could I?  My experiences growing up white in mostly safe neighborhoods where I could concentrate on enriching my life would never have prepared me for understanding what it’s like to be black, and male, in America.

To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.  (p. 111)

There’s a lot to think about here, and Coates does it so elegantly and eloquently.  Between the World and Me changed my understanding .  Having to explain to his son what to it’s like to grow up black and male in America, to explain why his parents are hard on him, or why their reactions often seem overly harsh, is to be uncommonly self-aware.

Never have I read such a powerful work.  Never.  His description of navigating his Baltimore neighborhood was rife with literal boundaries and secret codes, any violation of which could get him beat up.  Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts to make sense of the senseless.   While explaining to his son, it becomes clear that there is a sort of sense in the chaos, but only to those who are so invested in making sure the “other” oppressed.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is important, his words are important.  They’re important because they point to the nonsensical and say, “How can this make sense?”

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate.  Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others.  It leads us to understanding.  It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change.  Join the resistance, read.











What’s Auntie Reading Now: Foy – The Road to Lost


“If there’s a sea turtle flapping around on the table you have to deal with it. (p. 150)”

Gordon Atkinson’s writing has always resonated with me. There’s such a deep honesty and thoughtfulness in his work. All of his books now reside in my library and I am so pleased to add Foy to it.

Truth is hard. It can be cold and jagged. Foy faces a truth which is similar to each of our truths in ways we may not expect. His struggle with the hard questions is a fascinating story which opened my heart more, both to myself and those who flail trying to find meaning in our lives.







Review: Lock In

Lock In by John Scalzi
Lock In
by John Scalzi

Title: Lock In
Author: John Scalzi
Published: 2014
ISBN-10: 978-0-7653-7586-5
Publisher: Tor

Lock in is what happens when a flu pandemic turns weird.  Some lucky survivors become carriers.  Even more lucky survivors have a paralyzed central nervous system, keeping their minds alive but unable to move.  Millions die from Haden’s Syndrome.

FBI agent Chris Shane is a Haden.  He’s also rich enough to be able to afford top of the line “threeps,” an outer shell which connects to a neural network in the brain and allows for movement.  A Haden’s body remains in a sling being taken care of.  Hadens don’t actually move their bodies, their brains move the threep, and can do other high tech wizardry.

This is a murder mystery, police procedural, sci-fi thriller.  With over tones of inequality (on several levels) and political maneuvering to give non-Haden sufferers access to the same high tech.  Then people can make even more money.

I have a running debate with a friend who does not read science fiction.  In this debate, she thinks things like threeps are just too weird.  She can’t relate.  And that’s okay.  My side of the debate is that none of this, of course, is weird.  It’s just different.  Neither of us can decide if it’s because I’ve read a lot of science fiction/fantasy, or if it’s just my easy-going nature.

Either way, John Scalzi’s world-building always seem real and credible to me.  Even if the bodies of old people are genetically re-engineered to be younger and more powerful (Old Man’s War), or it’s people adapting to being locked in to a body with no functioning central nervous system.

I wouldn’t mind if there was a series featuring agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann.  It would be very interesting to see what happens in this world created by John Scalzi as it evolves and adapts to new laws, and new attitudes.

Apparently, there was a big kerfuffle over something in the book I didn’t even notice until I read about it.  And when I thought about it, I spend more time thinking about the automatic assumption I had made, rather than the thing being kerfuffled.  But you’ll have to figure that out on your own.


What’s Auntie Reading Now? The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

What's Auntie reading now? The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin
What’s Auntie reading now?
The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

This was a fascinating read about the Supreme Court of the US before Rehquist died, when Scalia and Alito were the new judges on the bench.  Before Sandra Day O’Connor resigned.  Before so many things and yet, still we find the court fighting the things today that were fought then.  Abortion, immigration, affirmative action, abortion.  For the historian in me, a lot of fun reading and thinking, “Oh yes, I remember when that happened.”




Review: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility
by Jane Austen

Title: Sense and Sensibility
Author: Jane Austen
Published: 1811
ISBN-10: 0-141-43966-1
Publisher: Penguin Classics

Jane Austen’s tale of the family Dashwood, and their prospects after husband and father, Henry, dies is a commentary on the class system in England.

Austen really does not like the way in which the society she lives in sets expectations for each other, most especially, the young, unmarried women.

While first published in 1811, Austen’s themes resonate across two centuries.  Women are held to impossible standards, and always found wanting.  Austen’s main theme is that of sense vs. “sensitivity.”

Is it better to be sensible and logical where emotions, and love, are concerned?  Better to not show emotion and to explain hurt by others away by the use of logic?  Or is being sensitive to others’ feelings and wearing one’s heart on the sleeve a better approach?

While reading Sense and Sensibility, I kept wondering about “the middle path.”  One in which both sisters are allowed to be both logical and show their emotions, rather than this tug of war of trying to measure up to society’s expectations.

Which, of course, is the point.  There is no “middle path.”  Women must pick a path and stick with it in order to please both those of her class and any potential suitors.  Things are better in some ways now, but it’s still difficult for both men and women to live up to the expectations laid upon them by rigid societal mores.

Austen is worth reading, both for her commentary and for her sharp observations into human nature.

Review: Masculinity in Breaking Bad

Masculinity in Breaking Bad edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw
Masculinity in Breaking Bad
edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw

Title: Masculinity in Breaking Bad
Author: edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0-7864-9721-8
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers

Watching Breaking Bad was one of the most entertaining times in my life.  Such fantastic story-telling about a wimpy high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and needs to find a way to support his family after his death.

Walter White goes from chem teacher to badass drug kingpin in the course of the series.  There are no truly likable characters in Breaking Bad, but there are sympathetic characters.  Characters with which we can identify in some way because of their circumstances.  Sympathizing does not mean liking, it’s the simple recognition of, “Yep, been there.  Understand what you’re doing bro.  My choice was different, but you be you.”

Masculinity in Breaking Bad is what happens when a bunch of liberal arts Ph. D.s, each with a particularly granular specialty, look deeply at the male characters.  It can be a dense read.

This is not to say it’s not an interesting read.  There are multiple ways of exploring the themes of Breaking Bad, and masculinity is an obvious one since the story is male-driven, and centers on one man who is forced to redefine himself because of his diagnosis.

Eight essays, and two round table discussions, cover the topics from Walt’s fatherhood, manhood, business acumen, and legacy to my favorite, “Men in Control:  Panopticism and Performance.”  Basically, Jeffrey Reid Pettis uses French Philosopher Michel Foucault‘s theory of panopticism (in Discipline and Punishment) to the use of surveillance, and reactions to surveillance, in Breaking Bad.

Panopticism is a fascinating concept in which a prison is built in such a way that everyone (including staff) can be under surveillance at any time.  When there is no way to know when an individual is being watched, he begins to perform as though being watched.  Here, Pettis delves into the performance art which comes out of the knowledge each character has that he may be watched.

It is a rich essay, dense and chewy.  But the concept of always being watched is one of which none of us is completely unaware.  How does Walt react to knowing this?  What lengths does he go to show those he imagines watching that he is “the one who knocks?”

While I did find Masculinity in Breaking Bad interesting in many ways, I can only recommend this book to those truly interested in this type of close reading  and, who don’t mind working for their read.




Review: minor characters

Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
Minor Characters
by Joyce Johnson

Title: Minor Characters
Author: Joyce Johnson
Published: 1983
ISBN-10:  0-671-72790-7
Publisher: Washington Square Books

The women didn’t mind, or, if they did, they never said – not until years later.  (p. 218)

To be a woman is difficult in any era, but to be an independent, creative, curious woman is especially difficult.  In the 1950’s, after World War II, gender roles were supposed to be fairly well established.  But things were starting to rumble a little.  Change was stirring.

Really, the story of the Beat Generation begins in the late 1940s, when a confluence of personalities and talents converged at Columbia University in New York City.  It was there the big names began to meet and discuss a new way of writing, and of being.

A teenaged girl named Joyce Johnson lived in a “respectable” neighborhood with her “respectable” parents.  And, around the age of thirteen, this “respectable” girl rebelled.  She went to places young girls shouldn’t go, and met people who opened her mind.  These people led to the Beats; Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac among them

Minor Characters is Johnson’ memoir centered around the years 1957-58, when she was Kerouac’s sometime girlfriend.  She tells a story many can relate to, being attracted to someone who can’t reciprocate at the same level.

Much has been written about the Beat Generation writers.  The men, that is.  Not so much has been written about the women.  Especially not much about the way women were treated.  Johnson’s story about being in the middle of that maelstrom is fascinating.

She relates how women were discounted by the men.  The usual story; taken for granted, belittled, not taken seriously, etc. etc.  Her story could be the story of so many women, but what makes it stand out is that it happened with a group of men who are revered for their open-minded views about all sorts of things.  They were especially interested in changing the rules of writing, and literature.  But women were only for amusement, or housekeeping.

And as Joyce Johnson, reiterates, the women stood for it.  Because as many generations of women will say, “we thought that’s what we had to do.”  To find love, to find a life partner, meant a woman had to put up with the meanness of her beau’s foibles.

Here is a book in which the woman, after two years of evasion and half-truths, said, “No.  Go away” to Jack Kerouac.  Joyce Johnson told Jack Kerouac, she was tired of his crap and to leave her alone.  Brava!  and Well Done!

The pain of this decision is clear, as is the need for something healthier, something more equitable, more loving.  To be sure, the most famous names were men who were hard to love, under any circumstances.  Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady; all charismatic and difficult.  Horrible in their actions, negligent in their search for self-awareness.  Of them all, Ginsberg is the one who consistently appears to exert a great deal of effort to become familiar with himself.

While the Beats were changing the way America read and wrote, literature, Joyce Johnson was changing the way women looked at the men with whom they were in relationships.  Her story is well-told, and a fascinating look at the minor characters who also played a part in the Beat Generation.




Review: Butcher Bird

Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey
Butcher Bird
Richard Kadrey

Title: Butcher Bird
Author: Richard Kadrey
Published: 2007
ISBN-13:  978-1-59780-086-0
Publisher:   Night Shade Books

Be quiet.  It’s not necessary to fill every moment with your own voice.  Silence terrifies you.  You see your own existence as so tenuous that you’re afraid you’ll pop like a bubble if, at every opportunity, you don’t remind the world that you’re alive.  But wisdom begins in silence.  In learning to listen.  To words and to the world.  Trust me.  You won’t disappear.  And, in time, you might find that you’re grown into something unexpected.  (p. 126)

In Butcher Bird I read many of the themes which make the Sandman Slim series so interesting.

It’s more than “what is real”.  It’s about what happens when reality shifts and the way through is to accept things are scary different from our expectations.

One of the things I consistently enjoy in Kadrey’s work is the way he reconfigures religious myths.

in Butcher Bird, tattoo artist Spyder Lee lives a life he enjoys.  He hangs out with his best friend and tattoo partner at their favorite bar, getting drunk and being raucous.  He has a solid reputation for his tattoos and shop.  But one night, Spyder steps outside to relieve himself and a demon tries to bite his head off.

Yes, literally bite his head off.  And then a blind woman steps in and saves his life.  Now Spyder can see the demons and monsters humans aren’t supposed to notice.

The key to this particular fight is one of Spyder’s tattoos.  It’s a symbol he thought looked cool and didn’t know the meaning of, which calls the demon to him.

Then Spyder discovers that his best friend, Lulu, isn’t what she appears to be and he is really screwed.  And in order to put everything back into some semblance of order, Spyder goes on a quest with Shrike, the woman who saved him.

I love a good quest story, and this one has great payoffs.  Quests, on the surface, are about going from here to there in order to solve a problem, usually saving the world.  Quests are also about confronting ourselves, our beliefs and what we thought we knew about everything.

Butcher Bird has everything a good quest story should have; unexpected blessings and obstacles, fights (sword play or something similar), evil (in this case in the shape of demons and monsters), tricksters, love, and a drive to put things right.

Reading Butcher Bird while in the midst of the Sandman Slim series, gave me a richer experience, because I already knew what Kadrey was up to.  That appeals to the historian in me.


Review: A Thief of Time

A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman
A Thief of Time Tony Hillerman

Title: A Thief of Time
Author: Tony Hillerman
Series: Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee #8
Published: 1989
ISBN-10:  0060159383
Publisher: Harper & Row

Academic competition is fierce, especially when it’s between colleagues trying to get to the historic pottery remnants first to prove their theory and get published.  Oh, and recognition in their field.

A thief of time is someone who robs graves in order to take something.  In this case, it’s all about the Anasazi, a tribe which mysteriously disappeared around 1200CE.  The ruins left behind appear as though the people planned on coming back, but never did.

The black market for pottery is hot, people will pay exorbitant amounts to own a piece of “authentic” pottery with questionable provenance.  While Jim Chee is trying to chase down a stolen backhoe, Joe Leaphorn is trying to track down a missing anthropologist.

Personal baggage is heavy in this book.  Chee’s relationship with  teacher Mary Landon has hit the skids.  She’s gone back to the midwest to be with her family and go back to school.  In a letter to him, she expresses her deep love for him but sees no way around the white vs. Navajo conundrum they keep bumping against.

Joe Leaphorn is mourning the loss of beloved wife, Emma, who didn’t have Alzheimer’s after all but didn’t survive the surgery to remove a tumor.  My heart sank when I read of her death.  Interesting how easy it is to get caught up in the lives of fictional characters isn’t it?

While working their individual cases, Chee and Leaphorn eventually cross paths and discover they’re working the same case from different angles.  The stolen backhoe is being used to uncover pottery, while a different anthropologist is stealing jaw bones to prove his theory.

A hike to a nearly unknown, unreachable Anasazi ruin, two helicopters converging on the same spot, and the case is solved.  But this one seemed rather convoluted to me as it involved a decades old murder case Leaphorn had worked, a traveling tent show leading Navajos to the “Jesus Way,” and those using Chaco Culture National Historic Park as their base to study the Anasazi.  Too many moving pieces to keep track of, and an unbelievable ending involving the aforementioned helicopters.

But the thing I have always enjoyed about Hillerman’s books is his love of the Southwest and his use of Navajo culture to keep his mysteries from being just another murder/stolen object procedural.  His attention to the cultural differences pulls me in and keeps me there.

Review: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Jodi Taylor

Title: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Author: Jodi Taylor
Series: The Chronicles of St. Mary’s (#6)
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: eBook
Publisher: Accent Press

Max and those crazy historians of St. Mary’s are back. This installment is almost tame compared to the earlier books. Tame, that is, if you discount the baby mammoth poo all over one of the pods, five trainees being trained by Max, one of the trainees with an agenda of his own having to do with Richard III, and a not so unexpected twist at the end. I mean, I saw it coming from the first time Max complained of being sick.

Yup, I liked it very much and continue to be delighted with the attention Jodi Taylor gives to the history.