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Search tags: 4-stars-and-a-half
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review 2019-05-12 23:49
The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag
By Galsan Tschinag The Blue Sky (First Trade Paper Edition) [Paperback] - Galsan Tschinag

This is an interesting, evocatively-written short book about the life of a young shepherd boy belonging to a nomadic people in Mongolia. Set in the 1940s, the book is based on the author’s own life – the boy has his name, and in the author’s note (which puts the book in context) he refers to the character as himself; reading this alongside a memoir with numerous fictionalized elements highlighted the existence of that grey intermediate zone between fiction and nonfiction. The author – who grew up in a yurt, was educated in Europe, then returned to Mongolia and became a tribal leader and shaman – has certainly had a fascinating life, though this book focuses on the narrow world of a child, consisting of his family, the sheep and his dog. The boy faces a number of losses in his young life that leave him questioning the divinity of the sky, which his people worship.

It’s an interesting book, and while there’s no overarching plot, its relatively short length and the variety of its episodes carry it along fine. The translation is fluid and readable, and the glossary, author’s note and translator’s note at the end are all helpful. The book didn’t strike any deep chord with me, but it did expand my mental map a little bit further, which is exactly what my world books challenge is intended to do. The author himself discusses this in the afterword:

“Humankind, which for me in the beginning meant my small tribe of Tuvan people, has grown larger and richer in my heart with the addition of other peoples. Now, the publication of The Blue Sky extends it for me even further by including the peoples of North America. I am mightily pleased, not least for these peoples themselves, whose world, in turn, will now include the mountain steppe of Central Asia, and whose awareness of humankind will embrace the nomadic people from that corner.”


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review 2019-05-05 20:54
Review: "The Caller" (Robert Hunter, #8) by Chris Carter
The Caller - Chris Carter


~ 3.5 stars ~


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review 2019-04-30 02:36
The True Queen by Zen Cho
The True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) - Zen Cho

This is a light, fun fantasy very much in line with its prequel, Sorcerer to the Crown. I’d forgotten most of that one, which was fine because this is a new story with a new set of protagonists, though with some overlap in characters. It begins with sisters Muna and Sakti, who wake up on a beach in Malaysia with no idea who they are – but who soon learn that they’ve been cursed. Muna makes her way to Regency England, but Sakti is stolen away to the Fairy Court, leaving Muna responsible for rescuing her.

It’s a quick, entertaining, and at times humorous read, though the plot meanders a bit in the first half and only really picks up in the second. In a neat trick, all of the most important characters in the book, heroes, villains, and mentors alike, are female – a nice touch in a genre where female characters are still noticeably in the minority, and done without lampshading, so that I only realized this at the end. There’s also some racial and cultural diversity; in another nice touch, Muna and Sakti are clearly Muslim, without the author making a big deal of it. And yes, there's a lesbian subplot, but it's so understated that if you're reading just for that, you may be disappointed.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for deep and complex characterization, this is not your book. This is fun escapist reading, an unambitious novel that sets out to entertain and then does exactly that. Early on I found myself wanting more depth, but by the end I was happy with what it was and wished I could find more books like this – books that are lighthearted and enjoyable without being stupid. I’d recommend it, though best to start with the first book to avoid being spoiled.

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review 2019-04-22 04:33
Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo
Beyond the Rice Fields - Naivo,Allison M. Charette

This book is celebrated for being the first novel from Madagascar translated into English (though it was written in French originally, not a large or unusual gap to jump). It is also the author’s first novel, and I would be interested to see what he does next, though I wasn’t thrilled with this one.

Beyond the Rice Fields is, ultimately, a novel about the mass purges and killings carried out by the Imerina queen in Madagascar in the mid-19th century, though it takes a long time to get there. First we follow our two protagonists – Tsito, a boy who is sold as a slave at a young age, and Fara, a girl whose family buys him for household help – through their childhoods and much of their adult lives. We read about their childhood games, their schooling, Tsito’s career as a craftsman, Fara’s triumph as a dancer and anticlimactic life afterwards, their local lord and his downfall, and their interactions with various other people around them, all of which goes on without much plot for more than half the book. It’s only in the last third – a point at which many readers are likely to have given up – that it becomes intense. And suddenly it’s a page-turner, albeit a dark and tragic one. If it had handled all the setup more quickly, my rating would be a solid 4 stars.

But then, plotting issues often aren’t entirely about plot, and here I suspect someone from the culture would have a much better experience with the book. Tsito’s and Fara’s personalities don’t quite seem compelling to me, but I don’t know the cultural background behind them. And their narrative voices actually are somewhat distinct, which is impressive, especially in translation. The book certainly feels textured and authentic in a way that an outsider can’t entirely appreciate. You can tell it was written for a native audience, though it’s still comprehensible to an outsider (and I love the Malagasy names and words sprinkled throughout. Speaking of which, the translator and publishers did a fantastic job with not only a glossary of both words and names, but a quick chronology of relevant monarchs). And looking back, I can see how some things were set up, but I also no doubt missed a lot by not knowing how this history was treated before.

At any rate, this is a decent book, a great choice if you are interested in Madagascar, but not one I’m likely to recommend to a casual reader.

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review 2019-04-22 02:35
Intersex (for lack of a better word) by Thea Hillman
Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word) - Thea Hillman

I picked this up because I’m confused by the whole concept of nonbinary gender identities (don’t most people vary in some way from the stereotypes of their gender?), and so I’m trying to read about it. This book taught me something about intersex, though nobody in it uses non-standard pronouns, but more than that it’s about the author’s sexcapades, a bit about her childhood, and a platform for half-developed arguments.

This short book is a collection of very short (typically 2-3 pages) personal essays, from the perspective of a queer activist who lives in San Francisco and has a lot of sex. And I mean a lot. Sex parties, S&M, exhibitionism, threesomes – if you want a bunch of descriptions of an adventurous sex life, some of them graphic, this is your book. Attending sex parties seems to have been the author’s primary after-work activity for a good chunk of her life, and that chunk gets a lot of focus here.

She starts talking about intersex about halfway through the book, where it turns out the author is not in fact intersex by the most common definition: someone born with ambiguous genitalia. She is physically a woman, though as a child she developed a minor, borderline version of a hormone disorder (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia) that can cause intersex in girls, but she had hormone treatment that forestalled the most noticeable effects. As an adult and an activist, she was recruited into intersex activism, and reasoned that:

Here is a seemingly tailor-made issue for me: it’s about sex, it’s about breaking down boundaries, and it’s cutting edge – because who else do I know working on this issue?

So then she decides to start identifying as intersex and advocating for that group’s issues. Which I’m glad to have learned a bit about. Based on this book, intersex activism seems to be primarily focused around preventing doctors from performing medically unnecessary plastic surgery on the genitals of infants born intersex. Hillman’s opposition to this is based on first, her belief that people’s natural bodies and genitals are beautiful and that she feels cheated out of her natural body by the hormone treatment she received as a child, and second, the fact that many of her intersex friends lost feeling in their genitals, and/or the ability to experience orgasm, due to the surgery done to them as babies.

This is of course a terrible result, but I wanted to know more: how often do the surgeries go wrong in this way? (After all, lots of transgender people choose to have surgery on their genitals.) And I think the author, living in a queer enclave where having a threesome with her girlfriend and a transgender woman with a penis at a sex party is just your average Tuesday night, doesn’t recognize that for most people, there is significant value in being physically normal. Not everyone has either the opportunity or the desire to live a life like hers. And it’s easy for her to say – as an adult in her milieu, and having had childhood medical intervention – that she wishes she’d had her natural body. She might have felt very differently if she had in fact gone through puberty at age 6, grown body hair and had a maximum height of under five feet. Now even if the risks are low, it sounds like surgery should wait until the patient is old enough to weigh the risks and make an informed personal decision, but I don’t buy Hillman’s simple anti-medical-intervention stance.

Finally, while the writing is good and at first I felt it showed a generosity of spirit, at later points I questioned whether she was hiding pettiness behind a socially unassailable exterior. She uses one essay to settle scores with a woman who invited her to a party and then decided she didn’t want a date; another to insist that she made a thoughtless joke offending another conference attendee because “I simply just misunderstood” the situation, and not deliberately or just thoughtlessly; and she writes condescendingly about her parents, forever surprised when they understand her or do anything right.

At any rate, overall I did learn a bit from this book, which is well-written, short, and kept my attention pretty well for the most part. But it’s not one I would recommend.

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