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ARC REVIEW: Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity (3 Stars)

Cover of Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, with black and red text on a beige background

Rating: Three star rating represented by three bumblebees (3 out of 5)

What happens when your gender doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of male or female? Even mundane interactions like filling out a form or using a public bathroom can be a struggle when these designations prove inadequate. In this groundbreaking book, thirty authors highlight how our experiences are shaped by a deeply entrenched gender binary.

The powerful first-person narratives of this collection show us a world where gender exists along a spectrum, a web, a multidimensional space. Nuanced storytellers break away from mainstream portrayals of gender diversity, cutting across lines of age, race, ethnicity, ability, class, religion, family, and relationships. From Suzi, who wonders whether she’ll ever “feel” like a woman after living fifty years as a man, to Aubri, who grew up in a cash-strapped fundamentalist household, to Sand, who must reconcile the dual roles of trans advocate and therapist, the writers’ conceptions of gender are inextricably intertwined with broader systemic issues.

Labeled gender outlaws, gender rebels, genderqueer, or simply human, the voices in Nonbinary illustrate what life could be if we allowed the rigid categories of “man” and “woman” to loosen and bend. They speak to everyone who has questioned gender or has paused to wonder, What does it mean to be a man or a woman—and why do we care so much? — Goodreads

I’m agender. Sometimes I use the terms trans, genderqueer, or nonbinary for simplicity, to simply signal that I don’t want to be gendered as either male or female, and to emphasise that those are communities that I belong to. For the longest time of my life, I believed in the male-female binary and identified as a cis woman. It never sat quite right with me: I always felt a twinge of discomfort when people called me a woman, and I was upset at the changes my body went through during puberty. But I never wanted to be a boy, so surely I must be a cis woman, irksome and uncomfortable as that felt.

I can’t even tell you how mind-blowing it was for me to learn that gender wasn’t a binary, and that there were words for what I was experiencing. At first I struggled with a lot of doubt, but all of that dissipated the first time I came out as agender. It was euphoric to feel, for the first time, that I had found an accurate way to describe my gender and my experiences. So when I spotted Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity on NetGalley, I had to request it.

Nonbinary is a collection of autobiographical essays by nonbinary people writing about their individual gender journeys. I related very strongly to some of them, less so to others, but that was to be expected. Nonbinary people aren’t a monolith and we experience and navigate gender in myriad ways, not only depending on how we identify, but also on our individual surroundings, on age, class, race, disability, etc. Nonbinary takes this into account, making it a multi-faceted exploration of gender.

However, there are some things I wish would have been explored more deeply, in particular how disabled nonbinary people relate to their genders and bodies. As S. E. Smith notes in their essay, An Outsider in My Own Landscape: “Gender expression becomes a matter of cold cash realities.” But not only does it come down to money, it also comes down to having a certain body, an abled body that is relatively easy to clothe, that is able to undergo surgery or to bind, etc. For many of us who are both disabled and nonbinary, expressing our gender and presenting our bodies the way we want to is simply not possible by virtue of our particular disability, but this tends to be ignored by the community at large.

Additionally, some of the authors reproduced binarist and essentialist rhetoric, something that was rather disheartening to see in a collection specifically created by and for nonbinary people. I don’t mean to imply that people can’t identify the way they want to, like by reclaiming terms such as “transsexual” because that was the prevalent terminology at the beginning of their gender journey. Wrong and archaic as such terms may seem to a younger generation of nonbinary people, they have validity as individual labels.

What I cannot condone is the use of binarist phrases such as “male-/female-bodied”, “female hormones”, “female genitals” etc. Physical traits are not inherently gendered, and though my body may be perceived by many as a woman’s body, it is not. It’s an agender body. It was hurtful and upsetting to see such terminology from people who by all accounts should know better, and I wish the editor(s) had done a better job of catching and correcting this issue. The contribution by a parent to a nonbinary child was also wholly unnecessary. In a collection by and for nonbinary people, I don’t want to read about a parent grappling with their anti-trans convictions and their doubt in their own child’s assertions about their gender.

I was happy that a number of the contributors were POC, considering our community is often white-washed and racist. In that same vein, though, it made me uncomfortable that two white (I think?) contributors propagated Buddhism as a means to the end of understanding your gender. I would also be remiss not to add that this collection is overall quite US-centric and thus not always entirely relatable to those of us outside of the US.

In spite of these complaints, I still think Nonbinary is an important collection increasing the visibility of genderqueerness. It’s not the empowering statement I was expecting it to be, but there were moments when I felt deeply understood, or else felt a deep understanding for a nonbinary experience different from my own. And with that, I want to leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the collection.

We who identify as nonbinary spend so much time saying who we are not that we never get time to focus on ourselves, to celebrate and honor who we are. Nonbinary is only in relation to the colonizer, to White culture, to Western, mutually exclusive ideas of masculine and feminine. It still centers their experience as normal, typical, the true measure of gender. — Token Act, by Sand C. Chang

Even people who claim to be accepting of nonbinary gender still expect that our expression must deviate from the norms associated with our sex assigned at birth. — Token Act, by Sand C. Chang

I spent decades bouncing from identity to identity, looking for something that aligned with the real me. It’s almost impossible to form a sense of identity without the words to describe yourself. — What Am I?, by CK Combs

The problem is, “woman” has never fit me. I had bottomless depression as a teenager (…), plagued often by the idea of “woman” and adult womanhood. I could not understand who I would be in that context. — Coming Out As Your Nibling, by Sinclair Sexsmith

How could I explain that the woman in me doesn’t need me to perform gender for anyone, that she’s more than fulfilled to reside in this body just as it is? She says it’s her temple—she doesn’t need a knife to alter me. — Coatlicue, by Féi Hernandez

But I have transitioned. I have transitioned in the relationship with myself. — The Flight of the Magpie, by Adam “Picapica” Stevenson

I want to be alive. I want to live. And so this is my gender: a desire to live. — What Growing Up Punk Taught Me About Being Gender Nonconforming, by Christopher Soto

Please note that all quotes were taken from an eARC and might differ from the published version.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review.


Have you read Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity? What did you think? Do you have any recommendations for nonbinary books, fiction or non-fiction? Let’s chat in the comments below!

ARC REVIEW: Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen (4 Stars)

Cover of Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen, depicting a ship with furled sails over a compass rose and a sword

Rating: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5)

In a world divided by meddlesome gods and treacherous oceans, only the Maarin possess the knowledge to cross the Endless Seas. But they have one mandate: East must never meet West.

A PIRATE WITH A WILL OF IRON

Teriana is the second mate of the Quincense and heir to the Maarin Triumvirate. Her people are born of the seas and the keepers of its secrets, but when her closest friend is forced into an unwanted betrothal, Teriana breaks her people’s mandate so her friend might escape—a choice with devastating consequences.

A SOLDIER WITH A SECRET

Marcus is the commander of the Thirty-Seventh, the notorious legion that has led the Celendor Empire to conquer the entire East. The legion is his family, but even they don’t know the truth he’s been hiding since childhood. It’s a secret he’ll do anything to protect, no matter how much it costs him – and the world.

A DANGEROUS QUEST

When an Empire senator discovers the existence of the Dark Shores, he captures Teriana’s crew and threatens to reveal Marcus’s secret unless they sail in pursuit of conquest, forcing the two into an unlikely—and unwilling—alliance. They unite for the sake of their families, but both must decide how far they are willing to go, and how much they are willing to sacrifice. — Goodreads

Please see the end of this review for content notes.

This book has three things I’m a huge sucker for: a world inspired by Ancient Rome, pirate girls, and unlikely alliances. I was really excited to read this, and I loved the feel the author created, but though the Ancient Rome inspired setting was really cool, I almost wish we had spent more time sailing with the Maarin.

The main character, Teriana, was great. She belongs to the Maarin, black sea-faring folk with eyes the colour of the sea. She is loyal to her own people to a fault, funny, capabable, confident, and yet filled with self-doubt about her decisions. She was so relatable and I loved her a lot.

Her unlikely ally is Marcus, a legionnaire from a noble Celendrian family, who has a cruel and violent reputation as legatus of the Thirty-Seventh Legion, a reputation the reader quickly comes to doubt, but then perhaps to believe again. He harbours more than one dangerous secret, and is afflicted with asthma brought on by stress and allergies.

A relationship develops between these two unlikely allies, and I really enjoyed watching it bloom on the page. I do think that Marcus’s descriptions of Teriana occasionally bordered on fetishisation, but overall they had a great dynamic. I loved seeing a teenage girl in YA be sexually in charge, in charge of her body and her choices. There was also some background queer representation, but it only consisted of MLM relationships in the legion, and I would have liked to see more queer characters.

I also wish that the author had explored issues of imperialism a bit more deeply, and employed more nuance with regards to whether you can be good, whether your intentions matter, when you’re part of an evil machine. I think Teriana’s development and questioning of her choices was interesting and well done, but even though Marcus also grappled with his deeds, I found his development in that regard a little lacking.

However, I did really enjoy this book. The writing was engaging and the world-building was intricate. One thing I loved in particular was the religion and mysticism of the Western cultures, and I hope (and suspect) that those will be explored further in the series. If you love fantasy in Ancient Rome inspired settings, you should definitely give Dark Shores a read.

CONTENT NOTES: violence, gore, graphic torture, execution, child murder, slavery, mention of sexual violence

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Teen for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review!


Dark Shores is the first in a new YA series by Danielle L. Jensen and was out May 7. Have you read it yet? Are you planning to? What are your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

ARC REVIEW: The Perfect Assassin by K. A. Doore (4.5 Stars)

Cover of The Perfect Assassin by K. A. Doore, depicting a young man wearing a wrap and tagel who is captured mid-jump and holding a dagger

Rating: Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5)

Divine justice is written in blood.

Or so Amastan has been taught. As a new assassin in the Basbowen family, he’s already having second thoughts about taking a life. A scarcity of contracts ends up being just what he needs.

Until, unexpectedly, Amastan finds the body of a very important drum chief. Until, impossibly, Basbowen’s finest start showing up dead, with their murderous jaan running wild in the dusty streets of Ghadid. Until, inevitably, Amastan is ordered to solve these murders, before the family gets blamed.

Every life has its price, but when the tables are turned, Amastan must find this perfect assassin or be their next target. — Goodreads

I requested an eARC of The Perfect Assassin on NetGalley—I’m late reviewing this, I know!—because I’d heard about the queer and specifically asexual representation, and I’m so glad I finally managed to pick this up.

The Perfect Assassin is set in a world that draws inspiration from medieval Persia and Arabia. Ghadid is a city sitting on a platform raised high above the desert sands, with water being pumped up from aquifers that collect the rain water from the storms at the end of the dry season. I thought the world building was fascinating, but it wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have wished. I want to know more about the detailed workings of this world, its history, its technology…

The main character, Amastan, has just completed his training as an assassin belonging to a long line of assassins that supposedly keep the peace in the city of Ghadid. He’s also a historian, and I love historians. But most importantly, he is on the asexual and aromantic spectrum, and he also finds himself entangled in a complicated relationship with another man. Something I really like about Ghadid is that queerness appears to be casually accepted.

He didn’t like flirting. It made him uncomfortable. […] It all seemed a terribly messy ordeal, and to what end? Touching? Kissing? Sex? He didn’t want any of that.

I love this precious aro ace spectrum baby gay. Amastan’s relationship with Yufit isn’t without its complexities, but it was also really cute. It was the first time that Amastan experienced being attracted to someone, and he was left puzzling out his feelings as well as a murder investigation. I’m curious as to whether we’ll see more of Yufit in the sequel. (I hope so, so fingers crossed!)

I also really loved Amastan’s friend, Menna. A brash and brazen girl who trained alongside Amastan to become an assassin, she has the power to banish jaan and to wheedle Amastan incessantly. Though she likes to tease, she’s also a loyal friend and always has Amastan’s back.

Amastan’s narrative voice was very engaging, even though I didn’t always agree with his assessments. He seems invested in doing the right thing, which is something that I tend to appreciate in a character.

“We all think we’re right,” said Amastan, slowly and carefully. “Even the monsters. But how do you know when you’re the monster?”

The mystery and political intrigue were compellingly written and the author left me guessing who the mysterious assassin was for the majority of the book. Overall, this was a very enjoyable read, and I’m excited for the sequel. I would definitely recommend The Perfect Assassin to anyone who enjoys high fantasy in desert settings, religiously inspired magic, and assassins going bump in the night.

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Books for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review! All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof and might not match the published version.


Have you read The Perfect Assassin by K. A. Doore? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Fever King by Victoria Lee (5 Stars)

Cover of the Fever King by Victoria Lee, depicting a bright silhouetted figure from which lightning is forking out all over the dark purple and blue background

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.

Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good. (Goodreads)

Please see the end of the post for content warnings. 

The Fever King is Victoria Lee’s explosive debut and the first book in her dystopian YA series, Feverwake. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s hard to believe this is even a debut. The author’s narrative voice is strong and compelling, and I enjoyed The Fever King from beginning to end.

I’m not going to lie though, it took me a while to digest what I’d read after I finished the book. The plot unwinds as a layered exploration of right and wrong, and of how far you can go in the service of right before it becomes a wrong of its own. The author combines modern dystopia with elements of Jewish storytelling and a strong theme of seeking to repair the world.

The main character, Noam, brings a fresh gust of air to the dystopian genre. He is both Latinx and Jewish, and openly and explicitly bisexual. The cast overall is ethnically diverse. Noam’s mentor and minister of defense Calix Lehrer is also Jewish, and Noam’s love interest, Dara, is also brown—his name suggests a Persian background—and was raised Jewish.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam moonlights as a hacktivist for the immigrant cause. His affinity for technology causes him to become a technopath in the wake of surviving the magic virus, and while at times his abilities seemed maybe a little omnipotent, it was a fascinating take on magic.

But if Noam could use magic—Carolinia’s most treasured resource—for the Atlantian cause, then maybe being a witching wasn’t such a bad thing.

Noam is passionate about refugee rights. As a witching with access to the minister of defense Calix Lehrer, he plans to learn everything he can in his government training program and use it to bring the government down. But the closer he feels to achieving his goals, the more he starts to question whether he really is on the path to making the world a better place. He gets more and more caught up in Lehrer’s machinations until it becomes hard to distinguish between right and wrong.

GIF of Magneto saying
GIF of Magneto saying, “Peace was never an option.” Source.

Lehrer is a character that I felt and still feel very ambivalent about. He is, if not a clear-cut villain, definitely an antagonist. He certainly has some good intentions, but the methods he uses to achieve them are dubious at best. I was able to discuss some of the particulars about Lehrer’s character with some wonderful Jewish friends, whose perspective helped me contextualise Lehrer as a character, for which I am infinitely grateful. One of them compared Lehrer to Magneto, a very fitting analogy:

The cinematic Magneto was never a villain for villainy’s sake, along the lines of “Heh, heh, heh – and now for my malicious plan to take over the world!” He was a reasoned, charismatic villain; yes, he had an extreme agenda, but an understandable one. The new film – the prequel – further elaborates and buttresses Magneto’s backstory. Actually, he is the hero of the film; only later does he become the bad guy. (Source; CN: use of the g-slur)

This quote from the linked article in particular really helped me frame my feelings about Lehrer. He is not a villain for villainy’s sake either, and his villainy is borne of understandable and traumatic circumstances. I think he started out wanting to repair the world in his own way, but his view of the perfect world has become warped. While Noam wants to empower everyone through equal rights, Lehrer wants magic to dictate the distribution of power. (You know, kind of like Magneto wants to put the power in the hands of mutants only.) I’m a huge marshmallow, so I’m not usually very interested in villains, but I truly appreciate the way Lehrer’s character adds dimension to the story here and I’m so intrigued to see what direction the author will take him in the sequel.

A tarot card depicting Dara from The Fever King, captioned with the word
“He who holds firm to good.” Art by bbonbonss; source.

I cannot end this review without mentioning the romance between Noam and Dara, and that Dara owns my heart. He is what it says on the packaging: cruel, dangerous, and beautiful, but he is also so much more. In Persian, Dara means “He who holds firm to good”, and Dara has held firm to good through trauma and abuse as best he could. He is another complex character who, like Noam, is trying to work towards a better world while being tossed around by bigger political players. It’s heart-breaking to see him struggle and all I want to do is protect him.

I loved seeing him fall in love with Noam and Noam with him. They have a fraught relationship from the start because there are things that Noam doesn’t know and that Dara cannot tell him, but they start chipping away at each other’s defenses, opening up to each other in trickles. They are, underneath all of their protective armour, just two soft boys looking for love.

He exhaled softly, breath fogging the window glass. He looked so … happy, as if he’d swallowed one of those stars and it illuminated him from within. Noam was struck with the urge to capture this moment somehow, so Dara could relive it.

They had so many missed kissing opportunities that it made me want to scream, but the author definitely delivered on resolving that sexual tension. I don’t want to spoil too much, but they have a beautiful scene together. Of course, the ending tore my heart apart again—if Victoria Lee doesn’t let my boys be happy at some point in this series, I will have some strong words.

Either way, if you haven’t read The Fever King yet, you should run, not walk. But be warned: it’s not a light read and it will leave you reeling with emotion for a while.

CONTENT WARNINGS: parental death, suicide / hanging (past), substance abuse, physical and emotional child abuse, statutory rape (not explicit), mention of the Holocaust, mention of past medical experiments

All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof and might not match the published version.


Thank you to NetGalley and Skyscape for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.


Have you read The Fever King? What were your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK HAUL: Library Holds and eARCs

Being able to put ebooks on hold at the library so they’re automatically checked out to you when they become available is really convenient, but it can be a bit difficult getting the timing right, as I’ve become very aware these past few weeks! I’ve been waiting for some library holds to come through for ages, and suddenly they’re all coming through at the same time! Read on to see my most recent library check-outs, and click on the book titles to go to each book’s Goodreads page!

The Brilliant Death (The Brilliant Death #1) by Amy Rose Capetta

I’m super excited to finally be reading this book about a mafia don’s daughter who secretly turns her family’s enemies into decorative objects. It sounds very intriguing, and it has non-binary / genderfluid representation.

The Girl With the Red Balloon (The Balloonmakers #1) by Katherine Locke

Time-travelling Jewish girl sounds right up my alley, so fingers crossed this lives up to my expectations!

A Blade So Black (A Blade So Black #1) by L. L. McKinney

This is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland with a bi black protagonist! Retellings can be very hit and miss for me, but this sounds like it could be a hit!

The Queen’s Rising (The Queen’s Rising #1) by Rebecca Ross

I’m not 100% sold on this by the summary alone, but I’ve heard good things about it and the sequel, so we shall see!

Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

This sounds so interesting! A girl who has been training to become empress her entire life, harbouring the dangerous secret of a persecuted identity. I’m really looking forward to reading this.


I was also approved for three eARCs from NetGalley in February! They are:

Dark Shores (Dark Shores #1) by Danielle L. Jensen

Pirate girls! Unlikely alliances! A world inspired by Ancient Rome! Say no more, I’m in.

Once & Future (Once & Future #1) by Amy Rose Capetta, Cori McCarthy

This is a sci-fi retelling of the Arthurian legend, with Arthur being a girl. If the summary is anything to go by, it’s got all the ingredients I need in a book.

The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen, Adam Stemple

This sounds like Temeraire meets the Russian Revolution, and since I love both dragons and Russian history, I can’t wait to read this!


Keep an eye out for my thoughts on all of these exciting acquisitions!

Have you read any of the books mentioned in this post or are any of them on your TBR? Let’s chat in the comments below!

FEBRUARY WRAP-UP: The Importance of Mood Reading and DNF’ing

My February reading was supposed to be drawn mainly from my F/F February Reading Challenge TBR. However, I failed to predict all of the things that February was going to throw at me, from more financial issues, to severe depression, and chronic illness flare-ups.

I quickly lost steam for completing the reading challenge and felt myself sliding into a slump. I was miserable and all I wanted to do was to immerse myself in the comfort of rereading Kate Daniels. I fought it for a while, but in the end I realised that having a set TBR was too restrictive for me, and that mood reading is a huge part of what makes reading so good for my mental health.

So I quietly failed out of the F/F February Reading Challenge. I don’t really see it as a fail though because it taught me something valuable about my reading patterns. Another thing that really helped me this past month was rigorously DNF’ing books that weren’t doing it for me, and even though I can’t help but feel a sense of failure when I do, ultimately it always feels freeing. (ETA: I totally forgot to mention this, but this post about good reading habits by Kaleena @ Reader Voracious played a huge part in my realisation that I fare better with mood reading than with a set TBR.)

All in all, I read 9 books in February, compared to the 14 books I read in January, but to be fair, February is like, only half as long as January. I managed to finish a bunch of ARCs that needed reviewing and to cross a couple of books off my F/F February TBR after all, and given my mental health struggles, I’m honestly glad I managed to do any reading at all, let alone as much as I did. To see what I read in February, take a look at my Goodreads Challenge or read on below! Clicking the book titles will take you to each book’s Goodreads page.


READ

  1. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5, REVIEW)
  2. Gunmetal Magic (Kate Daniels #5.5) by Ilona Andrews Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5, Reread)
  3. Magic Gifts (Kate Daniels #5.4) by Ilona Andrews Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5, Reread)
  4. Ash by Malinda Lo Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5, REVIEW)
  5. Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5, REVIEW)
  6. Magic Rises (Kate Daniels #6) by Ilona Andrews Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5, Reread)
  7. Descendant of the Crane by Joan He Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5, REVIEW)
  8. Magic Breaks (Kate Daniels #7) by Ilona Andrews Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5, Reread)
  9. Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2) by Leigh Bardugo (2 out of 5, REVIEW)

DNF

  1. Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea Cameron (DNF @ 30%, REVIEW)
  2. Huntress by Malinda Lo (DNF @ 27%, REVIEW)
  3. Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility by Andrea Fekete, ed., Lara Lillibridge, ed. (DNF @ 50%, REVIEW)
  4. Mirage by Somaiya Daud (DNF @ 23%)

CURRENTLY READING

  1. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (43%)
  2. The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta (5%)

(Oops, I clearly need to work on making some progress with Hamilton.)


FRIDA OF THE MONTH

In order to make my blog a little more personal, I’m trying something new: monthly pictures of my dog Frida! Let me know if you like it so I know whether to make this a regular thing!

My small brown dog Frida curled up on a white shaggy rug, sleeping with eyes closed. She's bathed in sunlight and her long fur looks shiny and soft.


How was your February? What did you read? Let’s chat in the comments below!

ARC REVIEW: Descendant of the Crane by Joan He (4.5 Stars)

Cover of Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, depicting a woman looking up at a giant crane, surrounded by flowers

Rating: Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5)

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, dreaming of an unremarkable life. But when her beloved father is found dead, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of a surprisingly unstable kingdom. What’s more, Hesina believes that her father was murdered—and that the killer is someone close to her.

Hesina’s court is packed full of dissemblers and deceivers eager to use the king’s death for political gain, each as plausibly guilty as the next. Her advisers would like her to blame the neighboring kingdom of Kendi’a, whose ruler has been mustering for war. Determined to find her father’s actual killer, Hesina does something desperate: she enlists the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by
death, since magic was outlawed centuries ago.

Using the information provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of Yan at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high? (Goodreads)

Descendant of the Crane was completely different from what I expected, and at the same time so much more than what I could have imagined. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book prior to publication, as I was lucky enough to receive an eARC from the author.

Due to the eARC being a PDF with no way to change the font type or size, I was only able to read it for about an hour at a time before I had to rest my eyes, but all in all it only took me three-ish sittings to finish it and I feel like I might have been able to fly through this in one sitting if it had been in a more accessible format. I’m not bringing this up in order to complain, only to say that I read this at what for me was unusual speed. It always took me a couple of pages to get back into the book after taking a break, but as soon as I was drawn in again, I was utterly entranced.

Hesina, the main protagonist, is a no-nonsense, at times even brash character, but she is also kind, very human, and very relatable. I enjoyed her narrative voice, and the way she viewed the world around her. Descendant of the Crane takes place in a Chinese-inspired setting that Joan He brings to life with her lush world-building without ever overburdening the narration with detail.

For a book whose premise is primarily based on political intrigue, Descendant of the Crane is very accessibly written, which really surprised me. The plot is complex and full of unexpected twists and turns, but the author effortlessly guides the reader through the story without being patronising. There is a natural flow to everything which makes it hard to put this book down.

The only thing I was disappointed by was the final plot twist, as it felt a bit anticlimactic to me, but I don’t think it takes away much from the story. I would love to see a sequel in which the author gets to expand on the possibilities she opens up in the epilogue. As it is, Descendant of the Crane remains unique and engaging, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy with a dose of politics, and even to those who don’t because Joan He’s writing might just be your gateway drug.

Thank you so much to Joan He for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review!


Preorder or library request Descendant of the Crane by Joan He to receive some swag from the author! (Here’s how.) Also because you really want to, believe me. Have you read Descendant of the Crane yet or are you still eagerly awaiting the publication date? Let’s chat in the comments!

ARC REVIEW: Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian (4 Stars)

Cover of Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian depicting golden wings on a dark blue background with lightning bolts

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (4 out of 5)

In Sparks of Phoenix—Najwa Zebian’s third book of poetry—she takes her readers on a powerful journey of healing.

As the phoenix emerges from its ashes, Zebian emerges ablaze in these pages, not only as a survivor of abuse, but as a teacher and healer for all those who have struggled to understand, reclaim, and rise above a history of pain. The book is divided into six chapters, and six stages of healing: Falling, Burning to Ashes, Sparks of Phoenix, Rising, Soaring, and finally, A New Chapter, which demonstrates a healthy response to new love as the result of authentic healing. With her characteristic vulnerability, courage, and softness, Zebian seeks to empower those who have been made to feel ashamed, silenced, or afraid; she urges them, through gentle advice and personal revelation, to raise their voices, rise up, and soar. (Goodreads)

I only recently read and was rather disenchanted with Amanda Lovelace’s the mermaid’s voice returns in this one, and if I had to describe Sparks of Phoenix in one sentence, I would say it’s what the mermaid’s voice is trying to be. Najwa Zebian’s writing really spoke to me and my own experiences of emotional abuse, and it made my heart soar more than once.  The powerful theme of remaking yourself in the aftermath of abuse is matched by the author’s powerful voice.

For every broken soul,
there is a
once upon a happy soul.

Some of the pieces were a bit basic and formulaic for my taste, and I feel that the collection could have benefitted from cutting some of those pieces. However, I found myself bookmarking page after page, and there are enough pieces that show what Zebian can really do that I wasn’t too bothered by the more redundant pieces.

My hands melted into my face,
and all of my words transformed
into action.

One of my absolute favourite pieces was the poem Excuse me, sir. Zebian weaves her words into something stunning and defiant in this piece, and this was when I truly fell in love with her writing.

Excuse me, sir.
My body is not a place for your conquest.
(…)
I carry with my body
the cities of the world.
I have, carved, on my body
streets that you want me to hide
because you see them as scars.

Overall, the collection was beautiful, but just missing that last little bit of oomph and freshness. I would still recommend it if you want to be taken on a journey of burning and healing, and I think it would be accessible and enjoyable even to people who don’t usually read a lot of poetry.

All quotes are taken from the eARC and may not match the final release.

Thank you to NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

ARC REVIEWS: the mermaid’s voice returns in this one by Amanda Lovelace, and Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility

Rating: (2 out of 5) The mermaid is known for her siren song, luring bedroom-eyed sailors to their demise. However, beneath these misguided myths are tales of escapism and healing, which Lovelace weaves throughout this empowering collection of poetry, taking you on a journey from the sea to the stars. They tried to silence her … Continue reading “ARC REVIEWS: the mermaid’s voice returns in this one by Amanda Lovelace, and Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility”

Cover of the mermaid's voice returns in this one by Amanda Lovelace

Rating: Rating of two out of five stars represented by bumblebees (2 out of 5)

The mermaid is known for her siren song, luring bedroom-eyed sailors to their demise. However, beneath these misguided myths are tales of escapism and healing, which Lovelace weaves throughout this empowering collection of poetry, taking you on a journey from the sea to the stars. They tried to silence her once and for all, but the mermaid’s voice returns in this one. (Goodreads)

I was vaguely aware of Amanda Lovelace prior to reading this as the author of the princess saves herself in this one, which I hadn’t read but knew had received some raving reviews, so I thought I couldn’t go wrong. Unfortunately, this poetry collection fell quite short of my expectations.

I don’t begrudge Lovelace her premise (this collection is part of a poetry series called Women Are Some Kind of Magic) or her intention of female empowerment, especially for victims of sexual abuse, but her writing isn’t for me. Her poetry lacks a strong voice and a distinct style. The language is for the most part bland and unevocative, as well as void of stylistic devices. Most of her poems consist of texts with line breaks after every single word while others don’t have line breaks at all; both of these are absolutely valid stylistic choices, however here they don’t seem to serve a clear purpose, and the lack of craft leaves me questioning whether any of these texts are really poetry at all.

My favourite works in this collection were the guest contributions in the fourth part of the book, where Lovelace has curated some real gems, though sadly the comparison highlights the shortcomings in her own writing even more starkly.

Thank you to NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for providing an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Cover of Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility

DNF @ ~50%

Are there moments in your life when your femaleness is a source of power or hardship? When does your voice ring its clearest? When have you been silenced?

Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility brings together international poets and essayists, both award-winning and emergent, to answer these questions with raw, honest meditations that speak to women of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientations. It is an anthology of unforgettable stories both humorous and frightening, inspirational and sensual, employing traditional poetry and prose alongside exciting experimental forms. Feminine Rising celebrates women’s differences, while embracing the source of their sameness—the unique experience of womanhood. (Goodreads)

Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Visibility won’t be receiving a rating from me because I decided to put it aside at around the 50% mark, but I still wanted to share some thoughts on it.

The introductions by both of the editors, Andrea Fekete and Lara Lillibridge, as well as the foreword by Dr. Amy Hudock made me suspect the anthology would tend towards some trends in feminism that are anything but intersectional, but they were promising “to give a microphone to those who had never had a chance to have their voices heard”, so I wanted to give Feminine Rising a fair chance.

If you read the summary, you’ll see that something is notably absent from the equation here: disability. If you want to uplift the voices of women who have previously been silenced, it is unacceptable not to include disabled voices, considering disabled women have been some of the most disenfranchised, abused, and unheard, even in feminist circles. Additionally, any feminism that doesn’t even attempt to challenge the gender binary is far from revolutionary, and this anthology reeks of biological essentialism. I have to admit that I don’t know if there are any trans voices present, but I have my doubts, considering how strongly the relationship between womanhood and menstruation or childbearing keeps being drawn.

I think one of the pitfalls of Feminine Rising is that Fekete didn’t seek out a co-editor (or co-editors) who would have been able to cover some of her own blindspots. In her introduction, she details how the anthology came to be, and it sounds like she didn’t actively approach marginalised women for submissions, which is another issue. I also felt like one text in particular written by a white woman used people of colour, and specifically women of colour, as learning experiences. A more diverse editing team would almost certainly have balanced some of these issues, and it’s unfortunate that that doesn’t seem to have been a priority.

There were a select few pieces that stood out from the throng, but overall Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Visibility fails in what it set out to do.

Thank you to NetGalley and Cynren Press for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review.

WWW Wednesday: My First ARC, Poetry, and More

WWW Wednesday is a weekly book meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words wherein posters answer the three Ws:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

 

 

WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING:

Magic Slays (Kate Daniels #5) by Ilona Andrews

I’m still rereading the entire Kate Daniels series and I’m currently on book 5 aka the one where Kate and Curran are finally together and having lots of great sex and some not so great arguments. I love how the authors manage to raise the stakes in each installment, with the threat of Kate’s father looming closer and closer.


the mermaid’s voice returns in this one by amanda lovelace

I’ve been meaning to get back into reading poetry, so I picked this up as an eARC from NetGalley. Unfortunately, it’s falling a little flat, but I’m not regretting my decision to read poetry again.


 

 

WHAT I RECENTLY FINISHED READING:

Blood Heir (Blood Heir #1) by Amélie Wen Zhao

A fugitive princess with the power to control blood. A cunning conman with no past and no future. An Empire spiraling into darkness. A world worth saving.

Read my review.


We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I remember the hype around this book slash TED talk, but I feel that it’s a far cry from the “unique definition of feminism” the blurb promises. It is, at its essence, a very basic primer on feminism, with a binarist approach to gender, including a dash of biological essentialism. It was completely different from what I was expecting.

I’m sure this could be helpful to readers who are completely new to feminism; the writing is engaging and easy to understand, which is something I value highly in feminist texts. But as a long-time feminist, this was too basic for me, and as a disabled queer and genderqueer person, I found this approach to feminism allegedly “rooted in inclusion” to be severely lacking in that aspect.


Banner for the F/F February Challenge, depicting a white redheaded girl hugging a black girl with an afro, surrounded by stacks of books

WHAT I THINK I’LL READ NEXT:

My library hold of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo finally came through, so I will be delving into that one next! And then of course, I’ll be working on getting through my TBR for the F/F February Reading Challenge, which I’ll be making a separate post about. I’m very excited!


What are you reading at the moment? Let’s chat in the comments!