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review 2017-02-18 20:19
City of Strife by Claudie Arseneault
City of Strife: (An Isandor Novel) (City of Spires Book 1) - Claudie Arseneault

City of Strife is set in the bustling city of Isandor and stars a huge cast of characters, each with intersecting storylines, histories, and paths. A few examples:

  • Arathiel, a human whose ill-fated journey to find a cure for his sick sister transformed him, dulling all his senses and giving him a much longer lifespan. It’s been over 130 years since he last set foot in Isandor, and he now feels like an unwelcome stranger there. The one place he feels comfortable: the Shelter, which provides food and a place to sleep to anyone who needs it. It’s there that he becomes friends with Larryn, the Shelter’s owner, Cal, a halfling, and Hasryan, a dark elf.
  • Nevian, an apprentice mage in the Myrian enclave. He lives in constant fear of Master Avenazar, who killed his previous tutor and now regularly abuses him. Nevian’s only ally is Varden, a High Priest of Keroth and former Myrian slave. Unfortunately, Varden, too, must tread carefully around Avenazar.
  • Lord Diel Dathirii, an elf and head of the Dathirii family. When he witnesses Avenazar publicly torturing Nevian, he decides that it’s time to finally take a stand against the Myrians, who have thus far been permitted to live by their own laws while in their enclave in Isandor. The rest of his family will stand by his decisions and support him, but that may not be enough if Isandor’s other noble families decide to abandon House Dathirii to face the Myrians alone.

 

City of Strife is one of the very few (perhaps only?) ARCs I’ve ever requested from an author. I was interested in the book’s LGBTQIA+ cast and “found family” aspect, and the author had a nice online form that, if I remember correctly, only asked for interested reviewers’ email addresses (easy! low stress! didn’t require NetGalley or a Twitter DM!). The long book description concerned me a little and made it difficult to tell what the book would be like, but I figured I’d give it a shot.

I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed it immensely, although I’m now unhappy that I’ll have to wait who knows how long for Book 2 to come out. A word of warning: City of Strife ends with lots of things still unresolved and several characters in peril. Crossing my fingers that none of the characters I care about get killed off in the next two books.

One thing that dismayed me when I first started reading: the many, many POVs. The book was written in third person, but chapters/sections focused on different characters’ perspectives. Almost every named character had a chapter or section written from their POV, and it wasn’t until I’d gotten 15% into the book that a POV repeated itself.

The POVs turned out to be both the book’s strength and its weakness. I loved gradually learning how the various characters’ stories were interrelated - what the stuff at the Shelter had to do with House Dathirii, who Nevian was secretly visiting for magic lessons, what would prompt Arathiel to reveal his noble blood to his friends at the Shelter and/or Isandor’s noble families, etc. However, all those POVs and complex and interrelated storylines meant that some of my favorite characters and storylines didn’t get as much page-time as I’d have liked. For example, Arathiel and, eventually, Hasryan ended up being my favorite characters, and I particularly looked forward to seeing Arathiel find a place for himself at the Shelter with Larryn, Cal, and Hasryan. Unfortunately, there wasn’t nearly as much on-page friendship-building as I expected, and one character’s actions near the end of the book destroyed my impression of the trio as an overall warm and welcoming group.

I much preferred House Dathirii, which, aside from a couple exceptions I’m hoping that one of the next couple books will cover in more detail, was largely just as warm and welcoming as it initially appeared to be. I particularly loved Camilla. Everyone could use someone like Camilla in their lives.

House Dathirii brings me to another aspect of the book I both loved and had problems with: the politics. I love fantasy and sci-fi books with lots of politics, and this one had House Dathirii clashing with the Myrian enclave and struggling to get support, a 10-year-old murder that was relevant to current politics, and more. Fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, I prefer when there’s at least one character who’s incredibly skilled at navigating politics, and this book didn’t have that, at least not front-and-center. Avenazar was so lacking in self-control that I was amazed he’d never done anything in Myria to earn himself an execution. Maybe he had really good family connections protecting him? And then there was Diel: principled, idealistic, and almost completely lacking in the ability to sit back, pick his battles, and maybe go at things a little more subtly and indirectly. At least he recognized that it was other members of his family who did the heavy lifting when it came to making sure the family survived whatever fight he’d chosen to involve them all in.

All in all, despite my complaints this was a riveting read, and I wish the next couple books were out already. In the meantime, I plan on getting myself a copy of Arseneault’s Viral Airwaves.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2017-02-16 21:23
Review: Craving Temptation (Just Desserts #2) by Deborah Fletcher Mello
Craving Temptation - Deborah Fletcher Mello

Romance Bingo - Eye shadow and Bosom square

 

This duology has been sitting on my NOOK for at least two years and I am now kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Also, D.F. Mello is a new-to-me author that I look forward to reading more from in the future. Okay, onto the review of this book:

 

Amina Salman is trying to understand her family and childhood religion (Islam) while taking on the job of her father's campaign manager for mayor of Memphis, TN. Amina gave up Islam when she moved in with her mother in Atlanta after her parents divorced when she was a kid.Troy Elliott is the older brother of the last book's hero and a lawyer who has his sights on a political career, starting with winning the mayoral race for Memphis, TN. They first met at the end of the first book, and it picks up several weeks later. This story was much more romantic suspense but still a strong romance. Amina and Troy's relationship was a little more insta-love, but they went through some serious ups and downs (thanks to the awfulness that was Amina's brother) that strengthen their love. There is a lot less sex in this book.

 

The side characters make several appearances in this book, continuing the world building and giving the reader a strong sense of place and community. This time, I like to point out the side character of Rachel; her lawyer skills are on point and when something/someone threatens her family, she is a major badass. Also Amina's younger sister, Rasheeda, was a stand out.

 

There was a little "How Muslims Live 101" conversations early in the book. Amina and Rasheeda show the variety within the religion and how they live their faith and maintain a lifestyle that feels comfortable for them (ex: Amina doesn't wear the hijab, Rasheeda does).  

 

I really recommend this book set!

 

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review 2017-02-13 16:11
The Emperor in Shadow
Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow - Richard Parks

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]

First, please note this is not a standalone novel, contrary to what I thought when I requested it, but part of a series (and very likely the last volume). However, I didn't find it difficult to follow the story and understand the characters: when the narrator alludes to events of the past or people he had previously met, he always adds a couple of sentences, nothing too long, just enough for a reader to understand the context. So this was good with me.

The setting here is that of feudal Japan (the Emperor and his court, bushi, military governors, geisha and courtesans) with a dash of supernatural: ghosts and youkai are common knowledge, and onmyôji and priestesses have actual power. In this world, Yamada and his faithful friend Kenji are confronted to attempted murder and political intrigue, from the Ise temple to the capital and the Emperor's court; I found the mystery decent enough, not too complicated (my guesses about a few things turned out to be right) yet not too easy either for the characters to understand, without convenient deus ex machina bringing the answers (Yamada deducted those).

It took me a couple of weeks to read, but it definitely wasn't boring (that was much more a matter of having lots of things to do and needing to prioritise other books in the meantime). The events made sense, the characters were likeable, and even though it's not my favourite novel ever, it was entertaining and believable.

On the downside, there were instances of Yamada 'hiding' things from the reader, which I don't particularly appreciate in mystery novels, and the female characters, while attaching, didn't have much to do apart from conveniently be here when a specific piece of information was needed, or wait in their palace for the men to do all the work. Granted, the setting itself doesn't lend itself to a lot of female freedom (aristocratic constraints, expectations placed on princesses, and so on), but it didn't help.

Conclusion: Still enjoyable in spite of these flaws.

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review 2017-02-08 09:47
Diverse voices skilfully captured and more relevant than ever
Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey - Kaya Genç

Thanks to Net Galley and to I.B. Tauris for offering me a free ARC copy of the book that I freely choose to review.

This is the first book by Kaya Genç I’ve read, and I hope it won’t be the last. He does a great job of collecting testimonies of many youths, from different social classes, religious backgrounds and political beliefs, and presenting a balanced account of the different points of views and how the interviewees developed their stance and thoughts. It is clear that the author is a great communicator, in sync with his subjects, and understands them well. He is also skilled at capturing the nuances and peculiarities of the youths he interviews, whose voices come across clear and distinctive.

The author does not take sides (if there’s such a thing as sides), but he provides his reflections on Turkey and Istanbul itself, in a language that is nostalgic and poetic at times. He does draw historical parallels (also mentioned by several of the participants) with previous movements in Turkey and in the introduction mentions recent events (that are not discussed in the body of the book, as it looks mostly at the period between 2013 and 2015). It is difficult to read the book and not to think about the historical moment we live in, and some of the comments made throughout the book (about the role of public protests in democracies, about banning headscarves and outward religious symbols, about imprisoning journalists and the influence of social media) are as relevant to the situation in other countries as they are to Turkey’s.

A couple of examples of some of the sentences that made me think:

Now, as cries for an east-west war echo throughout the world, I am afraid of the world turning into a place like Turkey, governed almost permanently by martial law.

**********

Once he concludes his story, Fettahoğlu seems calmer. ‘What I just told you about is not the result of politicization’, he says. ‘It is the result of a sort of void. People are radicalized and they act like hooligans. Politicization should be an intellectual process… To hate the other side’, Fettahoğlu says, ‘is not, cannot be, politicization. No.’ A final pause. ‘It is only hatred of ignorance.’

I enjoyed, in particular, the different voices and individual accounts, like glimpses into the young men and women’s lives, the clear links between the personal and the political (the book is about political ideas but mostly about people, who sometimes reach similar conclusions or feel similarly about certain issues even if they come at them from different political positions and outlooks are very different), the passion and the determination and the touching moments shared too (a mother who didn’t like her daughter’s political ideas sharing a picture of her signed book on Facebook, a young man surprised on seeing his father cry when he hears about the death of a journalist…)

I am not an expert in Turkish politics or history and enjoyed enormously the book, which is skilfully and beautifully written, and I’d recommend this book to anybody who has even a passing interest in the subject. I also look forward to reading more works by the author (and I’ve heard he’ll publish a novel soon. I’ll be on the lookout).

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-02-02 22:38
Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue - Maajid Nawaz,Sam Harris

'Liberals imagine that jihadists and islamists are acting as anyone else would given a similar history of unhappy encounters with the West. And they totally discount the role that religious beliefs play in inspiring a group like the Islamic State - to the point where it would be impossible for a jihadist to prove he was doing anything for religious reasons. Apparently it's not enough for an educated person with economic opportunities to devote himself to the most extreme and austere version of Islam, to articulate his religious reasons for doing so ad nauseam, and even to go as far as to confess his certainty about martyrdom on video before blowing himself up in a crowd. Such demonstrations of religious fanaticism are somehow considered rhetorically insufficient to prove that he really believed what he said he believed.' - Sam Harris page 47-48

 

I think that one paragraph sums up my frustrations with the debate on Islamic terrorism. Imagine if you went back in time to see the Knights Templar not give an inch in battle, driven by their religiously inspired, fervent belief in martyrdom. The conclusion you draw from this is that this was at root a frustration garnered from hundreds of years of eastern foreign policy in the form of Jihad and the knights' reaction has nothing to do with religion. Surely you'd have to be at least dishonest in that scenario to discount the role of religious conviction? And yet as Harris demonstrates, this has almost become a mainstream political opinion amongst so called liberals. Harris continues -

 

'The belief that a life of eternal pleasure awaits martyrs after death explains why certain people can honestly chant "we love death more than the infidels love life." They truly believe in martyrdom - as evidenced by the fact that they regularly sacrifice their lives, or watch their children do so, without a qualm. As we have been having this conversation there was an especially horrific attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, where members of the Taliban murdered 145 people, 132 of them children. Here's an except from an online conversation with a Taliban supporter in the aftermath of the massacre - Human life only has value among you worldly materialist thinkers. Death is not the end of life. It is the beginning of existence in a world much more beautiful than this. Paradise is for those pure of hearts. All children have pure hearts. They have not sinned yet... They have not been corrupted by their kafir parents. We did not end their lives. We gave them new ones in paradise, where they will be loved more than you can imagine. They will be rewarded for their martyrdom."

 

I think that speaks for itself. You would have to make the claim that the Taliban supporter is lying, in order to undermine the idea that extreme religious conviction plays some part in the terror debate and I personally think the weight of evidence rests against you if you do.

 

But anyway that's not even the debate that people should be having, the debate should be how do you deal with the tide of Islamist and jihadi groups around the globe? Maajid Nawaz argues that Islamism, the political belief of fundamentalism and the spreading of Islamic law and customs across all nations, must be defeated at grass roots levels within the Muslim community. They estimate that Islamist groups make up between 15 and 25% of the world's 1.6 billion strong Muslim population. He sees The Obama administrations refusal to name Islamism as being at the root of groups like IS as a failure. He believes that naming the problem instead of avoiding it, gives Muslims a choice to either 'reclaim our religion and its narrative, or allow thugs and demagogues to speak in its name and impose it on others. Calling it extremism is too relative and vague and sidesteps the responsibility to counter its scriptural justification.' He means scriptural justification here in the sense that one may interpret many things from the Qu'ran and ahadith and one of those readings is the skewed beliefs of Islamic State. He also mentions however that another essential thing that needs to happen is for there to be an acknowledgement that there are many different interpretations possible, each to the person who reads the scripture. Essentially if the Muslim community can get to the stage where the interpretations are personal to the person and there is no right answer, this is the first step on the way to pluralism and secularism. 

 

I've done rather a hatchet job here of what is a short, at 128 pages, yet valuable conversation in which the intricacies and problems of the debate are analysed in such greater depth. Despite its small length, it is definitely a worthy addition to the field and a good discussion between two respectful men, one a liberal Muslim, the other a liberal atheist. The more this is talked about and the less it is approached with apprehension and shame the better for our society. 

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