“George Michael: A Life” by James Gavin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


The definitive biography of George Michael, offering an expansive look at the troubled life of the legendary singer, songwriter, and pop superstar.

Goodreads


If you’ve been following us for a while, you’re probably aware that I love biographies. And a juicy celebrity biography is always welcome! But I have to be honest – this one is a bit of a slog. The finished hardcover is expected to be over 500 pages!

I grew up in the 80s, and don’t remember a time when George Michael wasn’t famous. So it did surprise me to learn that he was only 19 when Wham! signed their first record contract. But I do feel like that explains some of his later woes – the drug use, the hiding his sexuality (while singing songs like “I Want Your Sex”). He was in the public eye before he had really figured out who he was.

George Michael is his stage name; he was born in England as Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, to a working class Greek immigrant father and a British mother. His dad was always kind of a tough guy, which is one reason Michael hid his sexuality – he didn’t think his family would approve. He eventually did come out to one of his sisters, and his mom, before his public outing in the late 90s.

This sets up the ongoing dichotomy about him, which plays out many times over throughout this book: he wants public adoration and praise, but wants to keep everything about his own life “private.”

Michael had risen to the highest levels of fame and fortune very quickly and very early. Wham! had some big hits in the mid to late 80s, right at the time when music videos were becoming a mandatory part of getting a song up the pop charts. This meant that the band members’ images, clothes, hair, etc. were every bit as important as the songs themselves.

By all accounts (in this book, at least), George Michael could write and sing well, though. When he was young, at least, he had quite a wide vocal range. Some of his bandmates lament that he was so hung up on image, from the start. They also talk of him being a perfectionist and a control freak, however, who would tweak every aspect of a recording until he was totally happy with it. His work habits made him, at times, difficult to work with.

His solo career took off right after Wham! ended, but that star burned out quickly. This was another surprise to me… I guess I hadn’t realized that he was barely making new music past the mid 90s.

The biggest public scandal, which occurred in L.A. in 1998, is discussed around half way through this tome. The entire rest of his life was riddled with arrests and scandals, drugs and rehab, having his drivers license and US visa taken away, and so on. He did some recording, mostly at home. He did a few more tours, but eventually couldn’t leave Europe. He would often contribute songs to soundtracks or charity albums. He was largely considered a “has-been” by his forties.

On the other hand, he gave a lot away. He was constantly giving his “inner circle” lavish gifts, but he also gave a lot to charity. Some of his favorite causes were anti-war ones, LGBT ones, and ones that helped children. He also gave music away, often for use in albums or concerts helping these causes, and sometimes for soundtracks. He also liked to reach out and encourage up-and-coming young singers who were gay. He envied that they could be “out” from the beginning of their careers.*

Another fun tidbit: his appearance in a sketch in the 2011 Red Nose Day special was the inspiration for James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke!

This story was long, and its hero wasn’t always easy to empathize with. But that’s no fault of the author, James Gavin, who obviously amassed a ton of material and research here.

This book comes out today, June 28th. I was able to read an advance copy through NetGalley and the publisher, Abrams Books.

*According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. If you are struggling and need to talk to someone, their site has resources for you. If you are in Nashville, please see the Oasis Center for local support.


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“The Final Strife” by Saara El-Arifi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Sylah dreams of days growing up in the resistance, being told she would spark a revolution that would free the empire from the red-blooded ruling classes’ tyranny. That spark was extinguished the day she watched her family murdered before her eyes.

Goodreads


This is a thick fantasy book, and only the first in an intended trilogy. It reminds me a lot of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, with a little bit of The Hunger Games thrown in. When the book has a map in the front, you know you’ll be doing some work!

In this land, everyone looks mostly the same on the outside – they are brown people, but their tattoos, clothes, etc. might differentiate them as one of three classes. But the real difference is underneath the skin, as these three classes are determined by blood color. Red for Embers, the ruling class; Blue for Dusters, the working class; and Clear for Ghostings, the servant class.

The Embers rule through four Wardens – Strength, Knowledge, Duty, and Truth. Every ten years, the Disciples of these four Wardens are promoted to be the new Wardens. Then new Disciples are chosen to train under them for the next ten years. They are chosen by holding a competition, which lasts over the course of several months.

We open with a storyteller, telling the story of The Sandstorm. About 20 years ago, twelve Ember babies were stolen overnight, and replaced with Duster babies. Most had been found and killed, but some wonder if any remain.

And then we meet Sylah. She is one of the Stolen, raised by Dusters to one day compete in the trials to become the Warden of Strength. But the training grounds of the Sandstorm were found and raided six years ago, when she was fifteen, and the people she was raised with were mostly killed. Since then, Sylah gets through her days by keeping herself drugged. She makes quick cash by fighting in an underground ring.

One night, her adoptive mother tells her that her real baby is being raised as the Warden of Strength’s daughter. In a drunken haze, Sylah decides to break into her quarters and see this other girl for herself. Thanks to some booby traps, though, the daughter of the Warden, Anoor, captures Sylah. Recognizing that she is on drugs, Anoor keeps her locked in her closet while she goes through withdrawals. Anoor has decided she wants to compete for the Disciple of Strength position, and, thinking Sylah is a trained assassin, she wants her to train her for the competition.

And y’all, this is just the first quarter or so of the book. Obviously, there are trainings, more withdrawal symptoms, competitions, and revelations on both sides as these two slowly begin to trust each other. We learn that there may be a new Sandstorm out there, reviving the old dream of overthrowing the Wardens. But whose win would be more effective in that pursuit: an Ember raised by Dusters, or a Duster raised by Embers?

There’s a lot to sink your teeth into here. If you’re in the mood to visit a juicy, in-depth, and sometimes violent fantasy world based on African lore – this one’s for you. “The Final Strife” comes out today, June 21st. I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley.


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“Warda” by Warda Mohamed Abdullahi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Set in the rugged shrublands of rural Ethiopia, the contentious neighborhoods of South Africa, and the icy streets of Michigan, Warda is the story of a fierce young woman on a tireless quest to become the first member of her family to go to college.

-Goodreads


This book is so good! It’s not a long read, anyway, but the amazing tales within it makes it go fast.

Near the beginning, before we really get to know the main character, we learn about her family. Warda doesn’t even remember her mother, who died when she was just a baby. Because of financial woes and ethnic prejudices, her father was living away from Warda and her mom. But when baby Warda got sick, her mom was determined to take her back to where she was born to get medical help. While crossing the Red Sea, the boat they were in capsized. Her uncle was also aboard, and found Warda floating on a blanket. He also found her mom, but she was already deceased. Her father didn’t even know they were traveling.

And that’s only the beginning.

Her dad takes Warda to his father’s farm, where she is raised with many aunts, uncles, and cousins of all ages. She thinks of her grandpa as her father, and does not understand that he is not. She faces several dangers – often in the form of wild animals trying to attack their herd of sheep – but gets no formal schooling. When she is ten years old, her dad wants her to move to South Africa so she can start receiving an education. The trip there takes her a little over a year.

Of course, even after arriving there, Warda has a big challenge to her education: she speaks none of the languages that classes are held in in most of the schools around her.

After only a few years, her family has to move again. This time, they’re taking a big leap to come to the United States. When they land in Michigan, there is already snow on the ground – something Warda has zero experience with.

She also has another new language to learn. She wants to learn to drive. She needs to learn to navigate not only her American high school… but college applications, scholarship essays, SAT and ACT prep, and being away from others who share her culture and religion.

Thankfully, Warda is assigned a mentor who helps her immensely. With her mentor’s gift of keeping Warda organized, and her own passion for wanting to get to college, they come up with a plan to get Warda through high school in only a few years. To make up for lost time, she often has to take extra classes online and in the summer. She has to really push hard to get to her dream… which is to ultimately become a doctor.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d pick: triumphant. You’ll be hooked from the early scenes of Warda’s life, and you’ll want to cheer her on through so many more adventures and obstacles.

This book was independently published over a year ago, but the team at Books Forward is promoting it now to coincide with World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day is celebrated on June 20th, and you can learn more about it here.


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“Secrets of the Sprakkar” by Eliza Reid – Review

By: Angie Haddock


For the past twelve years, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has ranked Iceland number one on its list of countries closing the gap in equality between men and women. What is it about Iceland that enables its society to make such meaningful progress in this ongoing battle, from electing the world’s first female president to passing legislation specifically designed to help even the playing field at work and at home?

Goodreads


This non-fiction does have a lot of stats in it, but it still manages to be quite fun. It was written by the current First Lady, who is originally from Canada. So, her personal perspectives include those of a mother, public figure, and immigrant… aside from being a woman herself, obviously.

But Reid doesn’t rely solely on her own experiences and some easy-to-dig-up statistics – she interviews dozens of women from around the island, famous and not, on a variety of topics. She also intersperses these larger chapters with smaller stories from Icleland’s history.

The bigger topics include: parenting, networking, Iceland’s views on sex, women in corporate roles, the media, working outdoors, the arts (and sports), immigrant and minority women, and politics.

As Reid points out in the final pages, everyone she interviews can easily fit into multiple categories.

Obviously, the gender equality concept here intrigued me. But I have to admit, what made this book actually fun to read was learning about Iceland! The terrain, customs, and culture seem very different than those of the US.

For example, would we even need a whole chapter on working outdoors? But, much of their economy comes from agriculture and fishing, so it’s an important distinction for them that women can do these jobs, too. (Especially on fishing boats that don’t have bathrooms, where one is expected to “go over the edge.”)

I loved that, in the chapter on politics, one of Reid’s interviewees was heading up a student council at a large university. I think we tend to think of those sorts of things as opportunities to learn, or stepping stones to a future job (perhaps in politics, or not)… but we don’t treat our young people like they’re equals, already doing important work. So, even who was chosen to be interviewed shows how different their outlook on these topics are from our own.

If you’re up for a book with quite a few stats, and really long names, this is an interesting read. I realize, though, that those things aren’t going to appeal to everyone.

I was able to read this book for free through the Sourcebooks Early Reads program.


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“Coyote Gratitude” by Julie Haberstick – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Nearly thirty and disconnected, Julie Haberstick was staring at an endless loop of traffic and toxic relationships. Heeding a quiet intuition, she left her fiancé, packed her life into her car, and — on October 1st, 2019 — just started driving.

Goodreads


Happy June! Now that the summer months are here (in the US, anyway), how about a quick road trip book?

Julie Haberstick’s journey started in California, with the rebellious act of getting all her hair cut off. She then travels east, through the Southern United States. She’s a poet at heart, and finds a few open mics, where she shares her poems out loud and meets other like-minded people. Along the way, she also picks up a ukulele.

This book is a travel journal – edited, of course. While some entries tell of her adventures, others are merely a picture or a poem.

Haberstick finds herself entranced be New Orleans, and the artsy people she meets there. She continues her journey by making her way up and down the East Coast. She has friends and family in various states here, and also some events to attend for said friends and family, so she goes back and forth some. We get to meet some members of her family, and even get a poem by her mom!

All the while, she keeps thinking back on New Orleans, though. Her original travels are supposed to take her to the end of 2019, but she tacks on another month in NOLA in January, 2020.

She decides to stay, and then the pandemic hits. This makes it hard to meet new people in her new city, but she’s already made a few good contacts. By the time October rolls around again, she’s contemplating whether or not she’s ready for commitment. But her original road trip started the previous October, and she wants to celebrate that. So she decides that her next big adventure will be a commitment, after all – and she adopts a puppy.

(For those wondering, like I was… Julie and her pup are still together, and still in New Orleans.)

I think we’ve all has those moments when we fantasize about dropping everything and starting over… right? Whether you’ve done it, or just thought about it, this short read may be your cup of tea.

I was given a copy of this book by the author, and the kind folks at the Books Forward program.


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“Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Review

By: Angie Haddock


The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

Goodreads


This book starts out in the tiny village of Uukumil, in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, in the year 1927. Our heroine, Casiopea Tun, is a teenager living in her grandfather’s household, alongside her widowed mother and various members of her extended family.

Casiopea is practically a slave to her grandfather, and is looked down upon by other members of her family. She is darker, with partially indigenous heritage, and her mother came back home poor. Casiopea waits on her cranky old grandfather hand and foot. Her older cousin, Martín, is the rightful heir to the family homestead and reputation – he’s male, after all – and he is constantly mean to her. She dreams of getting out into the world someday, but assumes this will always be just a dream.

One day, while the rest of the family is away, she opens a trunk that has always sat near her grandfather’s bed. Shockingly, the bones inside reassemble themselves into a man – of sorts. He has a commanding presence, but does not look like most men she’s met before. He’s also missing a few parts.

Hun-Kamé, who claims he is the rightful ruler of the Underworld, Xibalba, was imprisoned decades ago in this trunk. He was disassembled by his brother, and left to Casiopea’s grandfather for safe keeping. But now that he’s free, he must travel to other regions to find all his missing parts, then face his brother to reclaim his throne. And Casiopea is going with him.

So, one fun aspect of this book is all the mythology involved. We also have a road trip aspect, which is great for our main character, because she has always wanted to get away. A lot of it is an ode to the landscapes, both within Mexico and along the Mexico-US border, and to the era – women cutting their hair short, riding in an automobile for the first time, etc.

The full description also mentions that it’s a love story, and that had me worried. Our main character is a young-seeming teen, and her travel companion is an immortal god. Of death. So, that seems creepy. But, Hun-Kamé has never had to live like a human before, so inevitably he comes away learning as much from Casiopea as she does from him (or, their travels overall). This aspect makes him a lot less intimidating, to both Casiopea and the reader.

Our big final battle takes shape as a race down the Black Road, the main road in Xibalba that leads to the palace. The usurper brother had chosen Martín as his proxy, and Hun-Kamé has Casiopea as his. This part of the story doesn’t really get started until about 80% in, so the traveling and getting close to the main characters are truly the bulk of the book.

No, I won’t tell you how it ends. But it’s surprisingly emotional.

If you’re into fantasy stories with some real world geography thrown in, this one might be for you.


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“The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School” by Sonora Reyes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Seventeen-year-old Yamilet Flores prefers drawing attention for her killer eyeliner, not for being the new kid at a mostly white, very rich, Catholic school. But at least here no one knows she’s gay, and Yami intends to keep it that way. After being outed by her crush and ex-best friend, she could use the fresh start.

Goodreads


This book has a lot going on, and it starts going in ways I didn’t expect at only about a third of the way into it! Per the author’s own note, though, there are trigger warnings for racism, homophobia, and suicidal ideation.

Our main character is Yamilet, who lives with her mom and her younger brother, Cesar. Her dad, who she was very close to, was deported to Mexico when she was ten years old.

When we meet them, Yami and Cesar are about to start a new school year at a new school. Obviously, this always comes with some nervousness… but moreso for Yami, who is gay but not out. In addition to that, she feels like she is poorer than most kids at the private school, and she’s one of very few non-white kids there. Her initial goal is to just stay out of trouble, but that doesn’t last long.

On her first day, she has a class with Bo, an Asian girl who is out and pretty bold about it. This confuses Yamilet, because on one hand she wants to befriend Bo and learn more about her… but on the other, can she do that without outing herself?

So, this brings up an interesting aspect of the book. In so many ways, it’s easier for people of all ages to be “out” now than in previous decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s equally easy for everyone. Of course, the religious nature of her new school is a deterrent, as is the fact that her mom is religious and makes gay jokes. With their dad already deported, Yami and Cesar also have a healthy fear of police or authorities of an “official” variety. There are a lot of reasons these kids want to protect the various identities that they see as being different from their classmates.

I don’t want to give away too much, but a lot happens during the course of the school year. Yamilet definitely gets closer to Bo, and learns that, even though she is more confident about her sexuality, she has her own struggles with her ethnic heritage. She also, unexpectedly, makes a friend of a popular jock who starts the year with a crush on her. She learns some unexpected things about her brother, clashes with a parent, and of course ends up becoming more confident in who she is.

This was such a good book. While I don’t share all of the heroine’s identities, I did switch from public to Catholic school – and that alone was intimidating! Yami and Cesar have so many other issues on their plates, and I really sympathized with them.

This YA novel comes out today, May 17th, from Harper Collins. I was able to read an advanced copy through Books Forward, and through Netgalley.

According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. If you are struggling and need to talk to someone, their site has resources for you. If you are in Nashville, please see the Oasis Center for local support.


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“Flappers and Philosophers” by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Review

By: Angie Haddock


By the Irish American Jazz Age novelist and short story writer regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. Flappers and Philosophers (1920) was his first collection of short stories.

Goodreads


F. Scott Fitzgerald is known now for his great novels – notably, “The Great Gatsby,” “This Side of Paradise,” or “The Beautiful and the Damned” – but in his own time, he was known largely for writing short stories. These were often published in weekly or monthly newspapers and magazines, but some were also compiled into books after they’d been published.

Such is the case with this tome, “Flappers and Philosophers,” which was first published in 1920. The individual stories would have all been written some time before that date – and it shows.

Some of the language here is downright cringe-worthy for people reading today, especially when he’s referring to people of color, foreigners, and women. But, as they say, it was a different time.

The other factor here that made me roll my eyes is that almost every story starred a girl of nineteen years, who was wise beyond her years and beautiful with one quirky factor – maybe gray or violet eyes, for example. That set-up got old fast.

But, if you can get past the biases of the time, the stories are all pretty good. There are eight in total, and most of them have a twist near the end. Fitzgerald’s writing is beautiful and poetic in places, which serves as a reminder of why his works are still read at all.

To give you an idea of what’s included, the stories here are titled: The Offshore Pirate, The Ice Palace, Head and Shoulders, The Cut-Glass Bowl, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Benediction, Dalyrimple Goes Wrong, and The Four Fists.

Some topics are classics of Fitzgerald’s writing, like the differences in ideas between people who have money and who don’t. He also pits other ideologies against each other, such as those of Northerners an Southerners. One character falls into a life of crime. Religion, war, and how flappers wear their hair are concerns of other characters. In one of my favorites, a husband gives up his writing career to better take care of his wife… only to see her start a writing career while staying home, and eventually make more than he does.

A book of eight short stories is easy to get through, but do go in knowing that these are over 100 years old.


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“True Crime Story” by Joseph Knox – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In the early hours of Saturday 17 December 2011, Zoe Nolan, a nineteen-year-old Manchester University student, walked out of a party taking place in the shared accommodation where she had been living for three months.

Seven years after her disappearance, struggling writer Evelyn Mitchell finds herself drawn into the mystery. Through interviews with Zoe’s closest friends and family, she begins piecing together what really happened in 2011.

Goodreads


If you’re a fan of true crime shows or podcasts, this one’s for you! But a note up front: this book is completely fictional. It just mimics true crime as a genre. Misleading, I know.

But, the format works. The story is told entirely through interviews and emails, with a few (also fake) “editor’s notes” along the way. It makes it fast and easy to read.

Overall, I liked the story here. We’re given a lot of random details, and a lot of twisted characters. Which details are actually important to the case? Which characters had enough of a motive to make someone disappear? And is Zoe dead, or just hiding out somewhere?

One core group of characters are her school mates. Zoe lived in a university flat with several other girls, including her twin sister, Kim. Kim has always lived in Zoe’s shadow, and resents being stuck with her at college. Other flatmates include Alex, who is battling depression, using drugs, and possibly juggling two boyfriends. And Liu Wai, who is kind of a suck up who thinks Zoe is perfect.

Zoe also has a boyfriend, Andrew, who comes from a rich family. They barely get along. His roommate, Jai, is a photographer and a drug dealer who is hard up for money.

There are various other characters introduced – parents, police, professors, etc. – but I think you can already see that everyone has kind of a messy life, which leaves no one’s motives and whereabouts totally “clear cut.”

There are also several mysteries within the bigger one of Zoe’s disappearance. One that comes up in a few different ways relates to the fact that people can sometimes mistake her for Kim, and vice versa. Kim comes out with a confession, years later, that she had been kidnapped a month before Zoe’s disappearance. So, had those kidnappers been after Zoe the whole time? Are the events linked?

If you like a good mystery with lots of tangled storylines, this one could be right up your alley.

I was able to read this book for free through the Sourcebooks Early Reads program.


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“The Mad Girls of New York” by Maya Rodale – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In 1887 New York City, Nellie Bly has ambitions beyond writing for the ladies pages, but all the editors on Newspaper Row think women are too emotional, respectable and delicate to do the job. But then the New York World challenges her to an assignment she’d be mad to accept and mad to refuse: go undercover as a patient at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women.

Goodreads


While I was reading this one, several friends added it to their “to read” list on Goodreads – so, I think the world is hungry for more great historical fiction based on real life badass women. (I’ll call that the “Marie Benedict effect.”) How exciting!

Nellie Bly had worked as a reporter for a few years already, in Pittsburgh, but she eventually moved to New York City with hopes to work for one of the bigger papers. But just getting in the doors to get an interview proves hard for a woman, because women weren’t considered good choices for reporter jobs.

She’s been in the city for four months, and she’s struggling to pay her rent. She is also very aware that women who are considered “inconvenient” often end up in insane asylums, with no way to prove their sanity. So she needs to land on her feet, soon.

Which is how she comes up with the crazy plan – to act crazy. To see how easy it is to get herself locked up, and to report on the actual conditions and practices inside the asylum, which does not open its doors to reporters. Specifically, she aims to get inside the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, which is rumored to be the most inhumane. She does this “stunt” with the cooperation of the deputy editor of the New York World, who promises to get her out in a week or so.

She does get in, and is there for about 10 days. She meets other women, and of course, most are not really crazy at all – some are heartbroken and/or depressed, sick and in need of medical care their families couldn’t provide, foreign and unable to understand English, or maybe just poor (and therefore a nuisance).

The conditions are deplorable, and they are given no reasons to hope for more. They have to sit on hard benches all day and not talk or move. Nelly reasons that some of them may become insane while there, because they are given no mental or physical stimulation. It’s also freezing cold (she is there in October), and they don’t get enough to eat.

The title – “The Mad Girls of New York” – refers to the women of the asylum. But the story also follows some of Nellie’s acquaintances in the city, as well as her time before and after this assignment. Women trying to support themselves financially, and not just depending on a man to take care of them. And these girls could also be considered “mad” for their time (the 1880’s).

This whole scenario is based on actual events, which Bly wrote her own book about at the time (“Ten Days in a Mad-House“). The author used info from that book, but also based characters on other people and stories from that era.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I’d definitely recommend this one. Even though we know Nellie will get out eventually, the stakes still seem high for her comrades in the asylum. And there’s one more fun twist after she gets out, too.

This book comes out today, April 26th. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher and Netgalley.


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