“The Defiant Middle” by Kaya Oakes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Women are expected to be many things. They should be young enough, but not too young; old enough, but not too old; creative, but not crazy; passionate, but not angry. They should be fertile and feminine and self-reliant, not barren or butch or solitary. Women, in other words, are caught between social expectations and a much more complicated reality.

Goodreads


I had read one of Oakes’ books before (“Radical Reinvention”) and loved it, so I was excited to get on the advanced reader list for her newest book! The title refers to both being middle-aged, and also being caught in between society’s expectations of a woman and the life choices you want to make.

There are so many juicy bits in here, I found myself highlighting a LOT. But it’s bad form to quote an ARC directly, so this will be a challenge.

Each chapter examines an idea that society holds about women: they may be seen as too young, old, crazy, barren, butch, angry, or alone. She weaves in stories of her own life and ones from history. She examines how women of a certain ilk may have been treated in different times, religious sects, or in pop culture.

Also of note, Oakes writes with religion in mind – specifically Roman Catholicism. I think that the stories will appeal to anyone interested in women’s issues, though, even if they are not of this (or any) religion, because this is only one lens she uses to examine the issues at hand.

To offer one example that might appeal to my writer friends: in the chapter on women being labeled as crazy, Oakes laments that, as a student, most women authors she had to study in school carried that label (Dickinson, Plath, Shelley). She argues that some of them may have had other legitimate issues, but nevertheless, even as an MFA student in writing, she was told over and over again that women writers were all crazy.

She spends some time on trans women, and even offers a couple examples of trans women in history – women I definitely had not learned about before. (Like the Universal Friend.) She also discusses the idea that you do not have to have kids – or even the ability to carry them – to be a woman (as anyone with a hysterectomy can attest to).

I think this book would appeal to women of all stripes – women with or without kids, women in or not in relationships, women with or without an interest in religion. I have definitely already recommended it to multiple friends!

This book hits shelves today, November 30th. I was able to read in advance thanks to the author, Kaya Oakes.


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The LitenVerse by Nino Cipri – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When an elderly customer at a big box furniture store slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but our two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

-“Finna,” on Goodreads

To test his commitment to the job, Derek is assigned to a special inventory shift, hunting through the store to find defective products. Toy chests with pincers and eye stalks, ambulatory sleeper sofas, killer mutant toilets, that kind of thing. Helping him is the inventory team — four strangers who look and sound almost exactly like him. Are five Dereks better than one?

-“Defekt,” on Goodreads


This is actually a series of two (so far) novellas, “Finna” and “Defekt.” They both take place in the same root location, which is a fictionalized/surrealist version of Ikea. Specifically, these stories take place at a store – LitenVarld – outside of Chicago. They also take place on overlapping days. But we’ll get to that…

“Finna” was released in 2020, and centers on Ava and Jules. Ava, much like the famous line from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” “wasn’t even supposed to be here today.” She had arranged her schedule specifically to avoid seeing her recent ex, Jules, at work. But, a character we don’t meet in this book named Derek has called out, and so Ava heads through the cold MidWestern February to do a job she hates.

A customer comes to the service desk saying she can’t find her grandma, and Ava inexplicably feels for the young lady. Then things get weirder, as she learns that it is not entirely uncommon for wormholes (maskhals) to open in LitenVarld. It happens frequently enough that there are policies in place – and Ava, as the employee with the least seniority, has to go into the wormhole to find the missing grandma. Unfortunately for her, Jules volunteers to go with her.

The two go into various parallel universes looking for the missing grandma. In some, they are in different versions of the store. But they also find themselves in a jungle, and in the water. They encounter threats from other beings, as well as from things that should be inanimate objects (in our own universe, at least).

I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say… different people return than the ones who went in.

“Defekt” allows us to finally meet Derek, and we even learn why he called out on the day Ava came in for him. He spends most of his day off asleep, but then comes back to work the next day – the day after the wormholes had opened – to find a whole new slew of issues at the store.

Specifically, a specialized team has been called in to eliminate defective merchandise – furniture that has come alive – and Derek is chosen to work with them. What’s even crazier is that everyone on the team is a different version of Derek. Are they clones? Is he manufactured to be a “company man?”

Both stories explore the ideas of belonging, finding your “people,” and sacrificing your life – or deciding NOT to sacrifice your life – to your job. Overall, it’s a zany surrealist satire that does not hold back on its disdain for minimum wage corporate jobs that demand assimilation to the corporate culture.


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“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

-Goodreads


This was a book that had been on my radar for a while, and I finally put myself on the wait list for it at my library. It was well worth the wait!

The facts of William Shakespeare’s son’s death are not known. The author, having dug up what little info she could find, started ruminating on a thought she had… Shakespeare lived during the time of the plague, yet never mentioned it in his plays. (It had to affect him, at least in the professional sense, as theatres would sometimes have to close when outbreaks were high.) So, she contemplated.. what if he avoided the topic because it was too personal?

From this one thought, and the other scant information she found on his wife and family, she built a whole novel.

While we are introduced to Hamnet and his siblings right away, the real focus of the book is Agnes (William’s wife and Hamnet’s mother). The story shifts between two eras of Agnes’ life – the time of Hamnet’s sickness and dying, and the one of her meeting and marrying her husband.

Agnes came from a farm family, and was adept at making medicinal concoctions from herbs and plants. While many sought out her help, there were also some who thought she was extremely odd (maybe even a witch?).

Because she is so often called on to help others cure their ills, it crushes her even more that she could not save her own son. We sit through her mourning and contemplations, both during his death and burial and in the years after. There is so much sadness, as the reader is going through this from Agnes’ perspective. In the time after, it is obvious to a modern reader that Agnes is dealing with severe depression. In her own time, some of her family members grow tired of her inability to move on.

William and Agnes basically lead separate lives, with him in London or touring with his players and her raising the kids in Stratford. His parents make their home feel unsafe and claustrophobic for him, which is part of why he wanted to leave. Eventually, when he is making good money, he buys her a house away from his parents. Thankfully, she can rely on her oldest brother to have a level head. He is always willing to help her, and William sometimes goes through the brother to get to Agnes when she is being distant.

In the last section of the book, her brother actually goes with Agnes to London to confront William about writing a play with their dead son’s name in it – Hamlet. This is her first time seeing London, and his work.

This is a sad and beautiful story. Read it if you’re in the mood to be faced with big feelings.


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“The Watchers: The Tomb” by Carl Novakovich – Review

By: Angie Haddock


John Gideon, a former homicide detective turned P.I., has dug too deep and discovered the truth about the world while searching for the only family he has left. John and his new partner, Beth May – a spell-wielding demon who has turned her back on Hell – are humanity’s last hope to stop a collective of Fallen Angels known as The Watchers and a hierarchy of demons from breaking the first of the Seven Seals of Revelation.

-Goodreads


This was a quick and easy-to-read romp through an alternate version of current day Chicago – a version that includes a few demons and fallen angels, and the havoc that they can create.

Chicago P.D. detective John and his partner, Walter, are initially working on a missing persons case. There are a bunch of them from the past few years, and they have something in common – the missing person seems to have little to no history. So, finding leads has been hard. They finally catch a break, and bring in a suspect linked to one of the victims – but then Walter starts acting funny. Before that night is through, both Walter and the suspect are nowhere to be found.

John quits the force, and opens his own private investigation firm. But it’s mostly an excuse for him to spend all his time looking for Walter. A friend who still works at the P.D. gives him a lead that allows John to find the missing suspect again. He ends up finding a lot more, including people who seem to wield inhuman/magical powers.

Enter Beth, who has secretly been keeping an eye on John for years. She is actually over 100 years old, and first started protecting the city with the help of John’s great-great-great grandfather. His family line is important to protecting the demons from unleashing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are imprisoned underneath a city water pumping station.

The POV shifts around within the book, which I found a bit odd. But, not hard to follow. The action is quick and keeps the story moving at a good pace.

This book is the start of a series, which the author intends to eventually be seven books long. He independently published this one in January, and then re-released it with Next Chapter Publishing in September. Currently, he is writing the third book while the second one is being edited.

You can find this book on Amazon, in both digital and paperback.


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“The Guncle” by Steven Rowley – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Patrick, or Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP, for short), has always loved his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. But in terms of caretaking and relating to two children, no matter how adorable, Patrick is honestly a bit out of his league… when tragedy strikes, Patrick finds himself suddenly taking on the role of primary guardian. Quickly realizing that parenting—even if temporary—isn’t solved with treats and jokes, Patrick’s eyes are opened to a new sense of responsibility, and the realization that, sometimes, even being larger than life means you’re unfailingly human.

Goodreads


This is the third novel by Steven Rowley, and it came out this spring. His first, “Lily and the Octopus,” had me bawling in my car at the end. (Hint: it’s great on audio, but maybe not while driving a car.) After that, I considered myself a dedicated fan.

This one did not disappoint. Patrick is a former TV star who has been out of the limelight – and LA – for a handful of years now. He’s suddenly thrust into the role of caretaker for his niece and nephew while their dad is in rehab. It’s their summer break, so there’s no school or anything like that to distract them. What a perfect time for them to spend 3 months at Patrick’s house, right? With his pool, maid, and gay neighbors.

The kids are already reeling from the recent loss of their mother, and not totally understanding where their dad had to run off to. So, initially, Patrick just tries to keep them distracted with fun. He orders pool floats and bikes, introduces them to the wonder of brunch, and eventually even gets a dog.

People sometimes question why Patrick is “hiding” in Palm Springs, and not pursuing new work in LA. Patrick has also suffered a major loss – although it was years ago – and perhaps he isn’t really over it. Eventually, he and the kids learn to face their grief together.

And yes, I cried again. (For those who’ve read it – it was the cake scene.)

The kids also teach him about Youtube. And start a little spark in him that eventually leads him back into the world of a working actor.

Since it takes place in the summer – and a lot of it takes place poolside – I’d consider this a great summer read. But the heart of the story can be appreciated anytime.


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“Small Changes” by Alicia Witt – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Alicia Witt isn’t here to dole out lists of dos and don’ts. But she is here to share her own journey to forming better habits and show the ways that adopting the small changes philosophy has allowed her to find balance, eat better, and feel better physically and emotionally.

Goodreads


Many years ago, I wrote for a blog about independent music. During that time, I interviewed Alicia Witt, who is both an actress and a musician. She was coming to Nashville to play a show at the time – but now, she lives here.

So of course I was interested to see that Witt was putting out her first book! The full title is “Small Changes: The Easy, No-Rules Way to Include More Plant-Based Foods, Peace, and Positivity in Your Life,” – which is a lot.

There are only a handful of chapters here, but they are each pretty substantial. In the first one, she recounts her history and career. That part was fun, honestly, even though I knew parts of it already. She also gets into her philosophy of making small changes over time.

As the full title implies, Witt is vegan – or, as she admits, mostly vegan. But she comes back often to the idea that if you do have a thing that you love, or can’t give up – don’t live in constant guilt over it. It’s not worth beating yourself up over. I like this part of her philosophy.

This book has a lot about food in it, but it also touches on other subjects including exercise, beauty products, having pets, journaling, and just going with the flow in general.

While I do like her approach from a mental standpoint, there are some things that didn’t sit right with me. For example, she repeatedly recommends gluten-free alternatives – but really, no one needs to be gluten-free unless they have an allergy. (I get the feeling that, for Witt, it’s more about cutting the carbs in general than the actual gluten in them.) She also advocates giving your pets “human grade” pet food. If you are into getting high-end pet food because your dog or cat likes it, go for it. But human-grade has always felt like one of those marketing/labeling ploys to me. (Here’s a brief piece on it.)

There are a bevy of recipes in the back, and gorgeous pictures of the finished products. (I feel like there is a zero percent chance my attempts would come out looking like these – but if you love ogling food pictures, these are worthy!)

This book comes out today from Harper Horizon, and I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley. Also, as part of the book launch, Witt will be doing a virtual panel at the Southern Festival of Books later this week.


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“Love in Any Language” by Evelyn Kohl LaTorre – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Love across cultures is tested when Antonio, a penniless university student, and Evelyn, a strong-willed Peace Corps volunteer, succumb to their attraction to one another at the end of her two-year commitment in Peru and Evelyn gets pregnant. Deeply in love, the twenty-three-year-olds marry in Cusco—and decide to begin their married life in Northern California.

Goodreads


From reading the synopsis, I thought I would love this book. I did like this book, and it’s interesting for several reasons. But I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I was struggling to put my finger on why, when the book itself answered my question for me in its last pages. And the reason was, admittedly, a little selfish. More on that later.

Obviously, the book is told from Evelyn’s perspective. She was born in Montana, as 1 of 6 kids in a blue collar, Roman Catholic family. Her parents moved to California as their kids got older, because they wanted them to have easier access to institutions of higher learning.

Right away we can see that, while Evelyn was raised in a pretty traditional manner, she and her family embrace a few more modern values. Not only did she expect to get a college education, but she also had her eyes on traveling internationally, and joined the Peace Corps. Not bad for a young woman in the early 1960s.

And this brings me to one of the key things I liked about this book: Evelyn was pretty ahead of her time in a lot of things. She was often juggling work and kids, and was sometimes even the breadwinner of the house. She continuously pursued higher degrees, additional certifications, more challenging jobs, and opportunities to travel – with or without her husband! She comes across as a strong woman – especially mentally.

Another interesting aspect is seeing how her work – and various things that intersect with it – evolved over the years. She started out in social work, and added psychology to the mix. She spent most of her career working within various school systems. She started out administering tests to determine students’ ability levels, and was later in charge of innovating ways to accommodate students who had different abilities. This book spans the 60s – 90s, mostly, and during that time we see new laws introduced that protect differently-abled students, and ensure their access to a public education. We also see the advent of computers, the introduction of the Meyers-Briggs personality test, and other concepts that affect Evelyn’s work.

While I found these aspects – and the international travels – fascinating, I still had a kind of “meh” feeling about some of the story. In thinking about it, I felt like every time she encountered a problem, it was solved within a page. I felt like the book lacked real conflict, basically. I’ve seen other reviewers applaud her “straightforward” writing style, so I thought maybe it was just that – she didn’t oversell or dwell on the issues. That made them feel a bit like non-issues to me, but I just kept rolling with it.

In the last pages, Evelyn puts out a thought that I hadn’t considered while in the midst of the story – but it definitely hit a chord with me, and I think it’s part of why I had trouble sympathizing with her “quick solutions.” Since the copy I read was an advanced copy, I won’t quote it directly. But the idea is that she benefited from many social nets that aren’t as easily available today – from low-cost childcare and subsidized housing to flexible work schedules and bosses that often gave her freedom to pursue what opportunities she wanted to.

Dr. Evelyn LaTorre accomplished a lot – and continues to do so, as this isn’t her first book! She was also helped by her family, and the many opportunities that were available to an educated woman at the time. If you have any interests in education or social work, I would definitely recommend her story.

“Love in Any Language” comes out today, September 28th. I was able to read an advanced copy through Books Forward.


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“America Calling” by Rajika Bhandari – Review

By: Angie Haddock


International students and immigrants have been the secret ingredient in America’s recipe for global success. America Calling shares one immigrant’s story, a tale that reflects millions more, and shows us why preventing the world’s best and brightest from seeking the American Dream will put this country’s future in jeopardy.

-Goodreads


This book was “right up my alley,” as the saying goes, and I almost missed out on reading it! I was approved for the advanced reader copy, but never saw that email – spam folder, maybe? – and didn’t find out until a few days before it came out! This is why I’m posting my review a week late – the book actually came out on September 14th.

The author came to the US as a grad student in the early 90s, and studied at a state school in North Carolina. Initially, she came because that is where her boyfriend was studying.

Later in life, though, she starts working for the Institute of International Education, which compiles data and research on exchange students in the US and elsewhere. So the first two-thirds of the book is her own story and experiences as a student first, then as an immigrant seeking a work visa. The last third of the book is other stories she’s compiled through her current job, as well as stats and figures from the world of international education.


Some statistics that struck me:

International students add $45 billion to the economy yearly. (Most pay their own way, or are awarded scholarships from their own countries to study abroad. Then, they still have to buy furniture and groceries here, like the rest of us.)

Only one out of ten US students studies abroad. (Meaning that an international student on their campus here may be their only exposure to other cultures.)

One out of four founders of start-ups valued at $1 billion first came to the US as an international student.

Then there are the softer stats, like how so many students who study here and return to their home countries become advocates for US universities, or the US at large. They offer a large and vast network of unofficial diplomats in all areas of the globe. Bhandari mentions the Fulbright scholarship program as a shining example of this. The program offers both scholarships for international students to study in the US, and ones for US students to study elsewhere. Over its history, it has sponsored 400,000 students. 39 of those have gone on to become heads of state in their home countries, 60 have won Nobel prizes, and 88 have won Pulitzer prizes.

Her own experiences are no less interesting, of course, although not as easy to break down into small bites. A few things she touches on, though, include reckoning with how Asians are considered the “model minority” here. Realizing that the freedoms she enjoyed as a woman in America made her unfit to return to her home country. Having to push hard to get through her masters and doctorate programs in 6 years, because being here on a visa meant she had strict time limits and couldn’t take any breaks.

I did study abroad when I was in college, albeit for only one semester. When I returned to my home campus, though, I joined a group whose members acted as unofficial ambassadors to the international students there. There were debates about food, music, and soccer – as would be expected – but there were also instances of giving rides to the grocery store or the mall. It was fun to have these conversations, and be able to pitch in on things like getting Christmas presents for their families back home. These experiences are why I said at the top that this book was “right up my alley,” of course. I had some exposure to international students when I was college-aged, and I appreciate knowing a little more about the issues surrounding studying internationally.

Thanks to Books Forward for introducing me to this one!

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“Yume” by Sifton Tracey Anipare – Review

By: Angie Haddock

A modern-day fantasy novel about demons, dreams, and a young woman teaching English in Japan.

Goodreads


This was a pretty hefty read – the paperback is expected to come in at 536 pages – with twisty and sometimes intense story lines. I am also not very well-versed in Japanese mythology, so I definitely took a while getting through this one. But it was certainly a wild and colorful ride!

Our main characters are Cybelle and Zaniel, although they don’t officially meet each other until the middle of the book. Cybelle is a black woman, originally from Canada, who has been teaching English in Japan for a handful of years now. Zaniel has a day job that is unimportant to the story… but by night, he finds human women for his boss, a demanding yokai named Akki.

How gorgeous is this cover?!

The world of yokai (mythical creatures of all shapes, sizes, and abilities) has been rocked recently by the arrival of a new creature. She grows larger and more powerful by eating – and she can also turn anything she wants into food to eat. At one point this includes Akki’s house, which puts her immediately at odds with the hot-tempered elder yokai.

Meanwhile, Cybelle is struggling to decide whether or not to renew her contract at the English school. The kids and parents are mostly ok, but she only gets along with one of her co-workers. She still feels like an outsider, at work and out in the world, even though she’s lived in Japan for over five years.

SEMI-SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!

The new yokai eating her way through the dream world is Cybelle, when she’s asleep. I say this is a semi-spoiler because I felt like it was fairly evident from early on… but Cybelle herself doesn’t understand it until the end of the story.

Zaniel, being well-versed in yokai, figures out the new yokai’s identity much earlier. This is what brings him to Cybelle’s school, acting like he’s applying for a job. He really wants to get to know her real life persona, and thinks that they can help each other.

Their adventures together are wild – both the ones they take in person, and in the mythical dream world. This is where the book really starts gaining speed, in my opinion. As Akki comes after them, and they need to fight to save themselves, things also start to get pretty gruesome.

One of the interesting things to ponder throughout this story is how Cybelle’s feelings – being an outsider, being different, being tired and hungry – seem like intangibles in the real world, but are then very real in the dream world. How much of her transforming into a yokai directly came from these feelings? Or was it something else entirely – a cursed object or apartment?

This was a fun read, although not a quick one. It is the author’s first novel, and the part about teaching English in Japan is autobiographical. This book comes out today, but I was able to read an advanced copy through Netgalley and Dundurn Press.


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“Beautiful Country: A Memoir” by Qian Julie Wang – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.

Goodreads


This was a good, albeit sometimes heartbreaking, read. Because the main character is only a handful of years younger than I am, I could identify with some of her memories that related to pop culture – the clothes, toys, books, and TV shows of the nineties make many appearances.

Qian tells first of her life in China – or, what little she remembers of it, since she was fairly young. But overall, her life there was pretty good. Like most kids, she didn’t really think about it or worry too much – it just was what it was.

And then, her dad left to come to America. She began to fear that he wouldn’t come back. A year later, she and her mom joined him in New York City.

She had previously only known of America through TV and movies, and she had heard that everyone there was rich. So it boggled her mind that her family had to live the way they did while there.

They often shared one room, in houses where other rooms were rented to other families, and they all shared one bathroom and kitchen. There were sometimes rats. Her parents worked long hours in miserable conditions, in places like sweatshops and fish factories. They garbage-picked their furniture.

Qian herself was first put into special education classes, because she couldn’t speak English. It seemed no one at her school was entirely prepared to help her with that. But, with a library card and a love of reading, she soon taught herself. Kids are both smart and resilient.

Even when she started doing better in school, though, she couldn’t quite shake her “outsider” status. Mostly because her parents couldn’t afford the clothes, shoes, and toys that the other kids thought were cool year after year.

Her parents had both been professors in China. Her dad seemed resigned to his fate – that they’d just have to be poor in America. He was probably depressed. Her mom was not ready to give up so easily. She put herself through some additional schooling, with the hopes of getting better jobs someday. Her mom also got very ill for a while, however. After her recovery, she was determined to get herself and Qian out of their miserable conditions – even if Qian’s dad didn’t want to come along.

If you want to know what happens, pick up a copy – “Beautiful Country” comes out today! I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley and Doubleday Books.


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