stuff I read

Zika: The Emerging Epidemic by Donald G. McNeil

Summary from Goodreads:
Until recently, Zika—once considered a mild disease—was hardly a cause for global panic. But as early as August 2015, doctors in northeast Brazil began to notice a trend: many mothers who had recently experienced symptoms of the Zika virus were giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a serious disorder characterized by unusually small heads and brain damage.

By early 2016, Zika was making headlines as evidence mounted—and eventually confirmed—that microcephaly is caused by the virus, which can be contracted through mosquito bites or sexually transmitted.

The first death on American soil, in February 2016, was confirmed in Puerto Rico in April. The first case of microcephaly in Puerto Rico was confirmed on May 13, 2016. The virus has been known to be transmitted by the Aedes aegypti or Yellow Fever mosquito, but now Aedes albopictus, the Asian Tiger mosquito, has been found to carry it as well, which means it might affect regions as far north as New England and the Great Lakes. Right now, at least 298 million people in the Americas live in areas “conducive to Zika transmission,” according to a recent study. Over the next year, more than 5 million babies will be born.

In Zika: The Emerging Epidemic, Donald G. McNeil Jr. sets the facts straight in a fascinating exploration of Zika’s origins, how it’s spreading, the race for a cure, and what we can do to protect ourselves now.

“The chapter titled Delaying Pregnancy is so paternalistic I want to set it on fire.”

From a strict compiling of information and reportage, this is a pretty good book. However, there are some information gaps he doesn’t address. What are the age and gender breakdown of known Zika cases (or if there are sero-surveys, those as well)? If those numbers are not known, why not? What is the symptomology of Zika in infants (bc if adults are getting bitten you know children of all ages are getting mosquito bites)? Is that information available?

Where the book breaks down is in a late chapter titled “Delaying Pregnancy”. He lays out a paternalistic diatribe against the CDC and other agencies for not strictly recommending women avoid getting pregnant if they live in Zika-prone areas. And then he makes a “not all men” statement. I almost ripped those pages out of the book. He even quotes a respected ID physician who says everyone should just watch TV for six months. Crass, dudes, really crass. Guess what, guys? A statement that says WOMEN shouldn’t get pregnant really ignores a lot of larger social issues. There are no health alerts that tell men they should be actively discussing the possibility of pregnancy with their heterosexual partners and why they should be equally responsible for providing birth control or understanding the wish for abstinence.  And now that there is evidence coming out that Zika can be transmitted sexually (and sometimes for months after acute symptoms have cleared up), all sexual partners need to be talking about condom use for STD prevention, not just for pregnancy prevention in heterosexual couples (this should just be good sexual education anyway…).

The last chapter “The Future” has a sum up that touches on the 2009 swine flu media panic but ignores the 2014 Ebola panic. It then closes with a sad case story about a woman who lost her pregnancy (and nearly died) during the 2009 swine flu epidemic and asks us all to be empathic. What? Try more objectivity, less opinion.

Dear FTC: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher.

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mini-review · stuff I read

The Bourbon Thief by Tiffany Reisz

Summary from Goodreads:
From the internationally celebrated author of the Original Sinners series comes a brand-new tale of betrayal, revenge and a family scandal that bore a 150-year-old mystery

When Cooper McQueen wakes up from a night with a beautiful stranger, it’s to discover he’s been robbed. The only item stolen—a million-dollar bottle of bourbon. The thief, a mysterious woman named Paris, claims the bottle is rightfully hers. After all, the label itself says it’s property of the Maddox family who owned and operated Red Thread Bourbon distillery since the last days of the Civil War until the company went out of business for reasons no one knows… No one except Paris.

In the small hours of a Louisville morning, Paris unspools the lurid tale of Tamara Maddox, heiress to the distillery that became an empire. But the family tree is rooted in tainted soil and has borne rotten fruit. Theirs is a legacy of wealth and power, but also of lies, secrets and sins of omission. The Maddoxes have bourbon in their blood—and blood in their bourbon. Why Paris wants the bottle of Red Thread remains a secret until the truth of her identity is at last revealed, and the century-old vengeance Tamara vowed against her family can finally be completed.

An actual Goodreads status update I made while reading The Bourbon Thief: “Ho, that took a left then a few switchbacks, a right and finally that left I was expecting. Well played, Tiffany.”

Tiffany Reisz couldn’t write a boring book if she tried. Southern Gothic plus crazy relatives plus social justice plus a drop of Scheherazade. And bourbon.  And a dash of historical fiction set both pre-Civil War and in the 1980s.  Reisz uses her frame story of Paris and Cooper and a night-long story to perfection.  I could hardly put this down, even to get work done during the day.  The plotting is just right – every time I thought I could predict where the story was going I was completely surprised.  So fun!

Now, for those who are regular readers of Tiffany Reisz and are used to books like The Original Sinners series, this isn’t an erotic novel.  There is a fair amount of enthusiastic sex, especially at the beginning, but it isn’t written as a play-by-play and there aren’t BDSM elements.  However, there is some squickiness, much expected with Southern Gothics.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads

How Not to Fall by Emily Foster

Summary from Goodreads:

In her witty and breathtakingly sexy novel, Emily Foster introduces a story of lust, friendship, and other unpredictable experiments. . .

Data, research, scientific formulae–Annabelle Coffey is completely at ease with all of them. Men, not so much. But that’s all going to change after she asks Dr. Charles Douglas, the postdoctoral fellow in her lab, to have sex with her. Charles is not only beautiful, he is also adorably awkward, British, brilliant, and nice. What are the odds he’d turn her down?

Very high, as it happens. Something to do with that whole student/teacher/ethics thing. But in a few weeks, Annie will graduate. As soon as she does, the unlikely friendship that’s developing between them can turn physical–just until Annie leaves for graduate school. Yet nothing could have prepared either Annie or Charles for chemistry like this, or for what happens when a simple exercise in mutual pleasure turns into something as exhilarating and infernally complicated as love.

I don’t read very many contemporary romances and even fewer New Adult romances (historicals are my jam).  However.  A few weeks ago, I was listening to a Smart Bitches podcast where the sex educator and researcher Emily Nagoski was talking about her book Come as You Are (which is EXCELLENT, of course, go read it) and women’s sexual health, and oh yes, by the way her New Adult contemporary coming out in June, How Not to Fall, under the pseudonym Emily Foster.

Which was written partly as a counter to the problematic aspects regarding consent and sexual experiences in the 50 Shades series.
Whose main character is a super-smart neuroscience Indiana University undergrad who is going to the MD/PhD program at MIT.
Who is also a dancer.
Who has decided that before she graduates and leaves Bloomington she is going to proposition the smoking hot, adorkable, English postdoc in her lab.

GIVE IT TO ME NOW

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This. Book. Is. SO. GOOD.  Annie is one of the smartest, sweetest, strongest, and most vulnerable heroines I have ever come across.  She’s vulnerable precisely because she gives of herself wholeheartedly, whether it is her research or her dancing or her heart.  The book is narrated entirely from Annie’s perspective, in the first person, and she’s such a fascinating character.  (I identify with Annie so much for various reasons I won’t go into here, but if you think she seems a bit much I can attest to the fact that she is basically me and this is the story of my junior/senior year of college with a few alterations.)

The absolute best, best part of this book is the wonderful exploration of the sexual relationship (and the intertwining personal feelings) between Annie and Charles.  Although Charles is the one who clearly has all the sexual experience – that Annie would like to benefit from – he is explicit in demanding that Annie must give him consent for any activity they undertake.  He is firm in abiding by the letter of the University rules about relationships between students and supervisors.  He takes Annie climbing at the gym (I had never thought of that as a sexy activity but whoa).  Everything is extremely sex-positive and consent-positive and Annie trusts him implicitly.  And that is how Charles breaks her heart – he holds himself back from her.

Emily Foster has a gift. I have never ugly-cried over a romance novel and this one made me do just that – this is raw and sweet and honest and too real. And Jesus, did that ending just twist the knife. This is possibly the most-real relationship I have ever read in a romance. And even though the sex is spectacular, even though I’d really like to know if Charles has a real-life counterpart, the nuts and bolts making up this couple are outstanding. And then there’s all the science stuff and neurobiology and dancing and Wodehouse and the rest of this book is basically one giant epic nerd purr.

 I tweeted Emily BECAUSE FEELINGS.  And she told me there’s a sequel!!!!!  So all is not lost! We’ll get more Annie and Charles (and, apparently, Charles’s perspective as well for some chapters)!

How Not to Fall is out June 28, next Tuesday – you know you want this!!

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via NetGalley.

BEA · mini-review · music notes · stuff I read

Florence Foster Jenkins: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer by Darryl W. Bullock

Summary from Goodreads:
“Probably the most complete and absolute lack of talent ever publicly displayed.” —Life Magazine

Madame Jenkins couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket: despite that, in 1944 at the age of 76, she played Carnegie Hall to a capacity audience and had celebrity fans by the score. Her infamous 1940s recordings are still highly-prized today. In his well-researched and thoroughly entertaining biography, Darryl W. Bullock tells of Florence Foster Jenkins meteoric rise to success and the man who stood beside her, through every sharp note.

Florence was ridiculed for her poor control of timing, pitch, and tone, and terrible pronunciation of foreign lyrics, but the sheer entertainment value of her caterwauling packed out theatres around the United States, with the ‘singer’ firmly convinced of her own talent, partly thanks to the devoted attention for her husband and manager St Clair Bayfield. Her story is one of triumph in the face of adversity, courage, conviction and of the belief that with dedication and commitment a true artist can achieve anything.

*Note: This is not the movie tie-in book, which can be found here and which I have not read.

I knew of Florence Foster Jenkins back when I was still singing (read: before I ruined my voice in college).  My voice teacher brought her up whenever she thought my singing was too “wooden” – Madame had a terrible voice, but so was very entertaining.  But I had never actually heard a recording of her voice.

Florence Foster Jenkins came out to somewhere between “good” and “ok.” The actual book construction feels a little uneven and jumps around which gives the biography a “soapy” feel (he quotes the wretchedly bitchy Simon Doonan – in a soundbite that should just die and I’m not going to repeat it here – who wasn’t even born when Madame died in 1944). However, what Bullock did do was evoke a lot of sympathy for his subject.  Florence Foster Jenkins was a moneyed Society lady who clearly LOVED classical music, had once been a talented classical pianist, and had the wherewithal to indulge her passion despite (or because of) her lack of voice.

You can still purchase Madame’s recordings (just search “Florence Foster Jenkins” on iTunes and it appears they are being reissues on vinyl/CD). I can only take listening to the iTunes samples because it’s just too awful. The recordings were made when she was in her 60s/70s and if she ever had a decent voice it is long gone. It’s too cruel to laugh at her for merely being an eccentric elderly lady.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher at Book Expo America.

BEA · mini-review · stuff I read

Constellation by Adrien Bosc (transl. Willard Wood)

Summary from Goodreads:
This best-selling debut novel from one of France’s most exciting young writers is based on the true story of the 1949 disappearance of Air France’s Lockheed Constellation and its famous passengers

On October 27, 1949, Air France’s new plane, the Constellation, launched by the extravagant Howard Hughes, welcomed thirty-eight passengers aboard. On October 28, no longer responding to air traffic controllers, the plane disappeared while trying to land on the island of Santa Maria, in the Azores. No one survived.

The question Adrien Bosc’s novel asks is not so much how, but why? What were the series of tiny incidents that, in sequence, propelled the plane toward Redondo Mountain? And who were the passengers? As we recognize Marcel Cerdan, the famous boxer and lover of Edith Piaf, and we remember the musical prodigy Ginette Neveu, whose tattered violin would be found years later, the author ties together their destinies: “Hear the dead, write their small legend, and offer to these thirty-eight men and women, like so many constellations, a life and a story.”

Constellation was the book that I almost grabbed straight out the publishing rep’s hands during the Book Club Speed Dating event at BEA.  The Venn diagram was almost a circle….

It is a lovely, spare, and almost plotless novel. Bosc created a meditation not only on why this particular airplane crashed but what incremental mistakes led to the crash and who lost their lives.  He also went beyond the crash itself to look at those lives tangentially connected with the flight and strange intersections of fate. I felt the novel was a little autobiographical, too, but who was commenting: the author or a fictional first-person narrator?  This translation is excellent.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book during an event at Book Expo America.

mini-review · stuff I read

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

Summary from Goodreads:
Furo Wariboko, a young Nigerian, awakes the morning before a job interview to find that he’s been transformed into a white man. In this condition he plunges into the bustle of Lagos to make his fortune. With his red hair, green eyes, and pale skin, it seems he’s been completely changed. Well, almost. There is the matter of his family, his accent, his name. Oh, and his black ass. Furo must quickly learn to navigate a world made unfamiliar and deal with those who would use him for their own purposes. Taken in by a young woman called Syreeta and pursued by a writer named Igoni, Furo lands his first-ever job, adopts a new name, and soon finds himself evolving in unanticipated ways.

A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass is a fierce comic satire that touches on everything from race to social media while at the same time questioning the values society places on us simply by virtue of the way we look. As he did in Love Is Power, or Something Like That, Barrett brilliantly depicts life in contemporary Nigeria and details the double-dealing and code-switching that are implicit in everyday business. But it’s Furo’s search for an identity–one deeper than skin–that leads to the final unraveling of his own carefully constructed story.

I was really looking forward to Blackass and, unfortunately, I wanted to like it more than I did.  Primarily, I think the disappointment is due to the likelihood that this book fell at the wrong time for me.  I just wasn’t in the mood to read it. I really liked the writing, in particular the idea of using themes from Kafka’s Metamorphosis to look at race and culture in contemporary Nigeria, but something just wasn’t clicking for me. Perhaps I was expecting more biting satire (it is pitched as a “fierce comic satire” and I wasn’t getting a particularly fierce vibe) or I was missing some social cues (although Lagos and the culture of the city didn’t feel any more “alien” to me than Teju Cole’s or Johwor Ile’s Lagos) or if I just didn’t have the patience for this right now. Furo just made me feel frustrated, particularly at the end of the book.  Which, now that I think more on it, is actually a feeling that I have when thinking about Gregor Samsa and his less savory predicament.  Hmmm.

I’d like to revisit Blackass in the future, to see if it reads better at a different time. Barrett does have an excellent style so I’ll definitely keep an eye out for his next book.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from Graywolf Press.

mini-review · stuff I read

Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Summary from Goodreads:

In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness.

In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow – antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This self-described sentimental bird is attracted to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and physical pain of loss gives way to memories, this little unit of three begin to heal.

In this extraordinary debut – part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief, Max Porter’s compassion and bravura style combine to dazzling effect. Full of unexpected humour and profound emotional truth, Grief is the Thing with Feathers marks the arrival of a thrilling new talent.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers basically destroyed me, so I’ll try and write something coherent.  Because this book is amazing.

A small family is devastated after the sudden death of their mother/wife.  One evening Crow – the trickster bird of myth – appears on their doorstep and says that he will stay until he is no longer needed.  Until the family has worked through their grief.  So Crow helps put the children to bed and makes their school lunches and fights of evil characters who try to impersonate the dead mother.

This book is beautiful, mind-bending, and heartbreaking.  The narrative is shared out between the father, Crow, and the two boys.  The grief on the page is raw and sharp and just heart-wrenching. I cannot do justice to Porter’s writing by writing about it.  So here’s a snap of one page:

I did not break until about page 92.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers is out now from Graywolf Press.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.  Bonus Points to the person at Graywolf who sent out the packages because there were crow-sized footprints on the envelope:

Romantic Reads

Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt (Maiden Lane #10)

Summary from Goodreads:
A MAN OF SIN

Devastatingly handsome. Vain. Unscrupulous. Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, is the man London whispers about in boudoirs and back alleys. A notorious rake and blackmailer, Montgomery has returned from exile, intent on seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. But what he finds in his own bedroom may lay waste to all his plans.

A WOMAN OF HONOR

Born a bastard, housekeeper Bridget Crumb is clever, bold, and fiercely loyal. When her aristocratic mother becomes the target of extortion, Bridget joins the Duke of Montgomery’s household to search for the incriminating evidence-and uncovers something far more dangerous.

A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY THEM BOTH

Astonished by the deceptively prim-and surprisingly witty-domestic spy in his chambers, Montgomery is intrigued. And try as she might, Bridget can’t resist the slyly charming duke. Now as the two begin their treacherous game of cat and mouse, they soon realize that they both have secrets-and neither may be as nefarious-or as innocent-as they appear . . .

In previous Maiden Lane installments, the Duke of Montgomery has been largely an enigma.  A brilliant, bloodthirsty, and amoral enigma.  He shot the villain (for fun, more or less) in Darling Beast but then turned around and had the heroine of Dearest Rogue kidnapped to get back at her brother.  In his own book, Val is hiding out in his own house, a wanted man, until he works a rather dishonest scheme – blackmail.  He is a bored cat, playing with his prey before skewering it with his claws.

One of his prey being his new, mysterious – and extremely efficient – housekeeper, Bridget Crumb  (Hands up – who remembers Mrs. Crumb from Lord of Darkness?).  Bridget started working for the duke in the previous book Sweetest Scoundrel …. and also for several aristocratic ladies who are also victims of Val’s bored schemes.  When Val catches Bridget snooping through his bedroom, the game of cat and mouse begins.  There are spies, and counterspies, and murder, and another kidnapping, and an actual cult.  This romance is one wild ride from London to York and back again.

I have been looking forward to Duke of Sin because I wanted to see what Hoyt would do with a character who has been a) enigmatic and b) the villainous antagonist in several previous books (redemption arcs are a thing that can work really well cf. The Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas). Now, there is no way to make Val “nice” – he can’t just fall in love and then decide to have a normal moral/psychological code, that wouldn’t work because Val is sociopathic, occasionally murderous, and power-mad (riffing off the old “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Byron trope). So Hoyt made Val emotionally damaged, really messed up, to the point that Bridget does the only thing that could possibly save him: love him for himself because he has dug himself a really deep trench of “basically, he should be in jail” (in my opinion, some of the previous heroes need to punch him harder and many more times).

There’s also really nice textual handoffs for the upcoming novella Once Upon a Moonlit Night and the next full novel Duke of Pleasure (which is the Duke of Kyle’s book and I want it now) that don’t get in the way of this story.

So go out and get your hands on Duke of Sin and get ready to relish Val’s exploits.  (And yes, I realize that certain plot points in this book might be super squicky for some readers. I think they work well in this specific instance.)

Dear FTC: I received a digital advance copy of this book from Netgalley.