Fiction · satire · Science Fiction

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising

a people's history
by: Raymond A. Villareal

I went to bookstore yesterday and this book caught my eye – well, actually, not this book, but the comment card next to it.  I don’t normally read books with both vampires and semi-creepy eyes on the cover, but the comment said it was following a CDC employee tracking a new viral breakout. So I picked it up, read a few pages, and decided I absolutely needed this book.

A People’s History is an accounting of the first known outbreak of the NOBI virus, starting with the CDC’s response to the patient zero, a dead woman who walks out of the morgue in Nogales, Arizona.  Told using a variety of viewpoints, interviews, and transcriptions, it details approximately the first four years of the vampires’ (known as Gloamings) emergence into the world.

This is a brilliant socio-political satire; it was an incredibly good book.  It feels real in a way most society-exploding novels don’t. Villareal is a lawyer and his familiarity with the inner workings of the legal and political systems shine. Things are creepier and funnier and more biting as satire when they feel possible, even probable, and that is where Villareal truly excelled as an author.

He also did very thorough research (he referenced a Nature paper!)  There’s a bit of hand waving going on with the science but unless you’re a molecular or cellular biologist (which I am) you’re unlikely to notice.

It’s “written by” a rogue historian and it is true to that voice; it feels very much like a slightly fictionalized take on non-fiction events. Villareal makes heavy use of footnotes (which I am a huge fan of!) and even some appendices (again, I am a huge fan!).  The constant switch in point of views was done well enough that I only had to flip back a few times to remind myself who was whom – but I also read this in one sitting.  (It’s so good! I just wanted to know what happened next.)

Villareal himself is an excellent storyteller and writer. I haven’t listened to the audiobook, but if the narrator is any good, I think it’ll shine (and it’s on a couple of best-of lists.) This is his first book and it shows in a few points; particularly, sometimes when it’s a character giving a deposition it slips into a third-party omniscient POV instead of keeping to a storyteller’s perspective. A few of his characters aren’t as sharply delineated from each other as they could be. Minor things, but he sets the bar really high, so you do notice.

I am a notorious scaredy-cat, and this book had me hiding in the bathroom with the lights on to finish it.  But it’s not actually horror or even that much of an action novel; certainly people are dying but there’s only a few scenes with high-stakes tension and on-stage deaths happening.  And while there were a few snippets that had me laughing, A People’s History was thought-provoking satire, not side-splitting parody.

Finally, I loved his choice of both characters and settings. Villareal doesn’t default to the NYC/LA/quaint small town America, but instead uses El Paso, Marfa, Austin, and Dallas from Texas; Nopales, AZ; and Atlanta as well a bit in D.C., Rome, and even Russia. His characters are incredibly diverse, from a bad-ass female adrenaline junkie veteran to a Latino political operative to a Catholic priest.  Everything and everyone is very well-integrated into the plot and the characters all drive the plot forward or add an important element to the book. They’re also all charismatic and/or likable; the book may be a satire but the characters feel like real people, not caricatures.

But let’s talk about what this book is not.  This book isn’t a genre novel; it’s neither horror nor post-apocalyptic.  It has all the elements at the beginning but that’s not where Villareal is taking the story at all.  In fact, there’s no clear resolution or response to the vampires at the end – there’s room for a sequel but I think the book would work equally well as a stand alone.  It is first and foremost a satire, using the NOBI virus and vampires as a vehicle to provoke critical thought.

If you’re looking for a genre vampire novel, a horror novel, or if you want to be swept away entirely into a fantasy world, then alas, this may not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for a smart, fresh take on vampires, a breakout new author whose been on everyone’s must-read list, or just excellent shade thrown on American society and politics, then absolutely pick up this book.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Teen Fiction · YA

Paper Towns

Paper towns
by: John Green

I borrowed Paper Towns from a friend yesterday; it’s actually the NZ/Aus version. So it was a little odd to read an American story with all those extra ‘u’s and Mum instead of Mom, not gonna lie.

Paper Towns is the story of Quentin – Q to his friends -, senior in high school whose neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, wakes him up one night for a crazy adventure.  The next morning, she gone, run away or disappeared, leaving behind a trail of clues Q, with the help of his friends, must figure out to find her.

Like all of John Green’s work that I’ve read so far (Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars), this story is a play on the manic pixie dream girl concept.
(Nathan Rabin: The manic pixie dream girl “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”)

His whole life, Q has had a crush on Margo, but in high school they ended up in very different social spheres.  Written in first person, this book is Q’s coming of age novel.  Much of it is Q learning about other people’s inner life: the realization that his friends and peers are the star of their own story as much as he is the star of his.  There are some lovely gems in Green’s writing – the moment when Q quietly notes his parents like each other and he likes that, even as they’re shown bickering several times; a policeman’s pretty fair assessment of Margo’s future; Ben’s insightful comments on the difference between having a crush on someone dating them.  Green is a talented YA author with a keen insight into what it is to be a teenager and Paper Towns is no exception.

Q hangs out with band nerds but isn’t unhappy with his social lot in life and appreciates his good friends without longing for a different “popular kid” life. This is probably the strongest point of the novel – the acknowledgment that you can be perfectly happy with your high school experience without being a popular kid. Q is well-liked by his group but not popular and even when he gets the chance to hang with the popular kids, he doesn’t even consider it a possibility.  It’s just not his scene.  I really like stories that take the middle space between popular kid and bullied underdog; it’s where most of us grow up but it often feels like it gets the least attention in YA.

That being said, the main lesson Q learns is that women are people too, and, honestly, I’m not terribly fond of that as a plot line.  Q is 18 and has both dated and had female friends before, as well as a respected and loving mother, but apparently the thought of a woman (Margo) having a rich inner life is just a total revelation from him.  It’s a little disheartening that Q literally had to go on a crazy, whirlwind adventure to learn something that should have been integrated into his worldview a long time ago.  I think it bothers me most because there’s no negative repercussions for his lack of understanding as women as people. His journey is all about self-growth and benefits only him; there’s nothing wrong with his previous views except that they limit him.  It’s really disheartening in a way.

If you like John Green or YA, you should definitely give this a try! If you’re a little tired of an overly-male-centered perspective or if you like your adventures dark and tense, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.

Contemporary Literature · Fantasy · Teen Fiction · YA

Ogre Enchanted

ogre enchanted
by: Gail Carson Levine

Ogre Enchanted is Levine’s prequel to Ella Enchanted, her breakout YA classic. It tells the story of Evie, a teenage healer who finds herself in the fairy Lucinda’s crosshairs after rejecting a proposal from a long-time friend.

Evie is turned into an ogre and given 60* days to accept a proposal of marriage or be stuck as an ogre forever.  She strikes out on an adventure to find either her true love or the skills and environment that will let her continue as a healer even as she must fight against her new ogre instincts.

I listened to Ogre Enchanted as an audiobook (instead of reading) and really enjoyed it. Normally I have trouble following books I haven’t read before but this one was no problem! I don’t know if my listening skills have matured or if it was my familiarity with the world (I’ve read Ella Enchanted numerous times) but I can absolutely recommend the audiobook if you’re an audioreader or if you like to listen to books with your kids.

OE is told in first person, and I have to say Evie is a fantastic main character.  Her main goals in life are to be with her family and friends and to work as a healer.  She’s passionate about her job without it being all-consuming, she has her head (more or less) on straight, and she is good people but not perfect by any means. Her transformation into an ogre is basically an extended metaphor for puberty and teenagehood – the mood swings, the never-ending hunger, the ‘tingles’ around anybody who is nice and/or attractive.  I was constantly thinking “I remember those days!” as I read.

Evie’s main journey was finding out what romantic love is, in the way that many teenagers do – exploring crushes, strong physical attraction, who you feel like you should love versus who you actually love, and learning the difference between charming and good. The reader can instantly see the compatibility (or not) between Evie and the various eligible bachelors she meets, but watching Evie figure things out on her own is fun and satisfying.

What I most enjoyed about the story, however, was that Evie always had a strong sense of self and it was the transformation into an ogre, not any male attention, that drove her adventure and character growth. Evie is never consumed  or defined by love; it’s always in balance with the rest of her life and interests. This is a definitely a love story, but it’s not a story that idolizes romantic love. Rather, Levine does an excellent job of placing it as one important piece of a life full of many important relationships and goals. Evie never entertains the idea that only love can give her life meaning, nor does she dismiss love out of hand. It’s a lovely and all-too-rare balance in YA literature.

Finally, this book ties in extremely well with Ella Enchanted; you meet many secondary characters and some puzzling things about EE make a great deal more sense.  And – I don’t think I’ve ever said this before – I think this book would have worked much better as a lesbian love story; I thought it was headed that way for a chapter or so and it would have been a much more satisfying ending.  But, alas, it was not meant to be.

If you loved Ella Enchanted, enjoy YA fairy tale works, or are looking for a strong female protagonist, I strongly recommend this book. If you’re looking for a swept-off-her-feet love story, aren’t interested in teenage angst, or want a story with strong personal growth, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

Cookbook · Nonfiction

Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook

texas eats
by: Robb Walsh

I don’t normally review cookbooks but I’ve been reaching for Robb Walsh’s Texas Eats and The Tex-Mex Cookbook a lot lately and I’d thought I’d give them a shout-out, particularly Texas Eats.

I’m originally a Texan, but I’ve spent the past nearly 6 years in Boston and New Zealand and food is one of the things I miss most about Texas. (That, and my nephews and niece, soon to be nieces!)  I miss Texas cuisine so much. It’s delicious.

But Walsh’s books have all the recipes I want – fried jumbo shrimp, chili con carne (without beans), kolaches, giant pretzels, salsa, tortillas, cornbread, chicken fried steak, pulled pork, Spanish rice… the list goes on and on.  Texas Eats also has some recipes I didn’t know, pulled from Vietnamese, Indian, and Pakistani* staples that have made their home in Houston (and Dallas and Austin) over the last few decades.

And the recipes are good.  Everything I’ve made has been delicious and it tastes like home. Many of the recipes are a commitment, time wise, but I find the end product more than worth it.

Walsh puts a lot of context in his book; he pulls a lot of recipes from restaurants and he does a lot of research to give credit where credit is due. I also like that he pulls from the wide variety of cultural traditions across Texas – Tex-Mex, African American, German, Czech, Cajun, French – as well as geographic cuisines – seafood, mayhew berries, green chilis… yum.

He makes a point to note who developed what and where, and I really appreciated that.  I love browsing through the book and reading the intros to the chapters while I’m deciding what to cook.

The actual writing of the recipes is a little difficult to parse – he doesn’t have an estimated time and servings neatly laid out on top, which I like.  It’s an intro with notes (notes up top is something I do appreciate), list of ingredients, and then instructions broken into paragraphs by broad steps.

Most of the recipes are intermediate level – if you’ve got enough confidence and you read the recipe in its entirety before you start cooking, you’ll end up about where you need to be. (Honestly, cooking is 90% confidence and 10% being willing to order pizza if everything falls apart.)

The one trouble I consistently run into is that Walsh apparently owns Texas-size cookware and I own normal sized ones.  If he says medium pan, I get my largest and it’s still not big enough! So just be prepared to split things if you don’t own particularly large cookware.

I can’t eat gluten and there are lots of recipes I can use as-is or easily modify; same if you have any of the most common allergies.  Vegetarians and vegans are going to have a lot less luck, though; Texans really love their meat.

If you’re interested in Texan cuisine (and you should be, it’s delicious) and you want a comprehensive, authentic, and delicious cookbook, definitely pick this up.  If you’re looking for fast or easy meals, than this probably isn’t the cookbook for you.  (But do check out The Homesick Texan if you’re looking for an easier version of Texan food.)

*Pakistani and Malaysian cuisines are criminally underrated.

Historical Fiction · Romance

Born to be Wilde

by: Eloisa James

Born to be Wilde is James’ newest addition to her Wilde series, which features a ‘celebrity’ family of aristocrats, the Wildes, whose exploits are widely gossiped about and followed in 18th century England.

This installment follows Parth Sterling, an orphaned cousin raised with the Wilde family who is now a wildly successful businessman and banker, and Lavinia Grey, a once-wealthy heiress whose laudanum-addicted mother has left in a bit of a financial pinch. Lavinia finds herself in need of a wealthy husband and though Parth has refused to marry her, he offers to find her a suitable husband.

I love James’ writing but I haven’t been terribly enamored with the Wilde series.  They’re a little more focused on main character drama, when what I’ve always most enjoyed about James’ work is her incorporation of friendships, particularly female friendships. This book was no exception – it was satisfactory but not a stand-out.

Lavinia and Parth had a fiery, annoyed-by-you-but-I-really-like-you relationship which was fun to follow; I definitely enjoyed the bantering between them.  I felt some of the conflict was a tad bit forced, but the chemistry was real and both of the characters were good people, the kind you’d want to hang out with. Lavinia was on a journey of learning to value herself and her talents, and I thought that was a really nice story line. I particularly liked the way it played out; it felt both very empowering and true to the time period.

It may have been that I was reading it just before bedtime but I found it hard to keep track of all the side characters – I kept on forgetting who was who and how they were connected to each other.  I’ve read all the books in this series and maybe I was just tired, but none of the side characters were on the pages long enough to be well-developed and they kept on slipping out of my mind.

One thing that James did really well was her treatment of Parth.  Parth is an Indian-Anglo character; his mother was Indian and his father was British.  He was sent to England when he was 5 and had lived there ever since. He’s very British culturally, but there is a definite acknowledgement that things are different for him because of his mixed heritage.  And it’s rare to find an Indian lead in Western media so clearly represented as sexy (which Parth definitely was! This is one of James’ steamier novels.)

James includes an afterword discussing the relatively accepting attitudes of British society towards Anglo-Indian children in the late 1700s*, which is reflected in the novel (Lord Liverpool, prime minister 1812-1827, was of Anglo-Indian descent.)  This was such a wise decision on her part – it gave her some space where she could include instances of Parth being treated differently, judged and a bit othered, but it didn’t need to be a focal point of his experience as a British citizen. And because she chose to make him culturally British, she didn’t have the opportunity to accidentally mangle Indian culture.

From James’  research, it sounds like Parth’s experience would have been fairly typical for an Anglo-Indian child aristocratic child in this time period. It was a really clever way of including a character of color that was both appropriate for the time period and for the author’s own experience.  I think James has deftly and sensitively added an Anglo-Indian character to the historical romance genre.

So I definitely recommend the book if you’re looking for a unique hero, if you’re a fan of a really nice personal growth journey for the heroine, or if you’d like a good bit of tension between the main characters.  If you’re looking for a supportive female friend group or if you’re not a fan of books that rely heavily on other books in their series, than alas, this may not be the book for you.

*Attitudes drastically changed during the Victorian period, for the worse.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Romance

First Star I See Tonight

first star I see tonight
by: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

First Star I See Tonight is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ latest addition to her Chicago Stars series, a contemporary romance series about the players and coaches of the fictional Chicago Stars football team.

I really enjoy Phillips’ writing and this was no exception.  It’s a light-hearted romp, with humor and spirited characters and just a touch of reality.  This installment follows Cooper Graham (who has either two first names or two last names), a retired quarterback breaking into the nightclub business and Piper Dove, the struggling PI who’s been hired to follow him.  It’s written in third person from both their perspectives.

Cooper was a nice, if lighthearted, take on a retired athlete – someone who hasn’t lost everything but still hasn’t found himself. He’s a great male lead: competitive, kind, and just a tad bit overbearing.  He’s definitely the kind of male hero it’s fun to daydream about without ever turning into the guy you’d never want to meet in real life. He actually listens to Piper and, even though the set up is ripe for it, Phillips never allows him to override Piper’s wishes with a

Piper is strong and confident and frustrated by the sexism of the world.  Her father raised her to be the toughest of women and then was unhappy when she wanted to use her skillset to make a living. Though this isn’t the conflict that’s driving Piper, it has clearly influenced her and I really appreciated Phillips’ inclusion of it. I think most women would can relate to a loving dad who wants to raise a tough little girl and then gets frustrated that she never turns into a dainty little lady.  She’s also a little impulsive in a way I didn’t always appreciate, just because she was generally so

Like a lot of Phillips’ work, the book has a bit of adventure and a dash of danger (which does work to push the characters into an “AHA!” moment). The plot moves really quickly without ever losing the fun of it all, something that Phillips particularly excels at. There’s a twist that I saw coming, but being able to see it didn’t take away from the pleasure of reading the book.

But there is a major element that I struggle with in Phillips’ writing that is really troubling for me.  She often includes characters of color as side characters and I feel like she often leans heavily on stereotypes to develop the characters.  They’re often developed characters just…they do feel based on stereotypes. And there’s often a hint of a white savior component.  In this book, she choose to include Muslim characters from an unnamed Middle Eastern…and the white main characters literally save one of the Muslim characters from a cartoonishly evil Middle Eastern Prince.

Now, Phillips does make a point to say not all rich Middle Eastern princes are villains, and she uses the opportunity to (a little clumsily) introduce several important components of Islam in a fairly positive and respectful light.  I do applaud that she clearly thinks bringing in more diverse characters in romance novels is important – it absolutely is. I believe Phillips had positive intentions. And at this point in time, there is certainly some benefit to even a clumsily done inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim woman into mainstream American romance.

But that doesn’t excuse it from its faults, either, or from the fact Muslim women, like all women, deserve to be developed as individual characters in novels, informed, but not defined, by their culture, religion, and/or heritage, and certainly not written based on stereotypes or brought in as a convenient plot point to prove how good the main (white) characters are.  And this isn’t the first time Phillips has handled inclusion of characters of color quite clumsily; she has several books with cringeworthy moments with black characters.  (Though this is certainly the most egregious example.)

So despite how much I enjoyed this book, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it. I don’t want to demonize Phillips for trying and failing, because honestly the genre as a whole is not inclusive and generally not trying. However, I’m also not comfortable recommending the book.

If you decide to read it, maybe pick up Huda Fahmy’s upcoming book Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth of Life in a Hijab as well.  Fahmy writes and draws amazingly funny comics about her own life and I am so excited about her book coming out!  (and, hey, pick it up if you’re not reading First Star I See Tonight, too.)