Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

This was another book club read! July’s genre was Cyberpunk and of the options presented we chose Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.

This was the first (and so far only) cyberpunk novel I’ve read and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel but I’ll do my best to suss it out as I go here. Another quick note is that this is also the first novel by a nonbinary author I’ve ever read (to the best of my knowledge). I mention that here because representation is important and so no one tries to correct my use of “they” when I reference the author.

Falling back on the Amazon synopsis for this one:

“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

The overall genre has never interested me but this synopsis did because the question of autonomy, what is it and who can have it, etc., is one that intrigues the moody philosopher in me. I also enjoy a Robin Hood angle anytime, in space or earth. The book takes on some very big concepts beyond autonomy.

One prevalent issue is that of patents and freedom of information. I appreciated the way Newitz recognized this topic’s nuances. It would have been easy for them to push Jack as an uncomplicated hero and being anti-patent as a clear, moral victory. However, they acknowledge the issues that can come from unchecked patent freedom including the costs if medications aren’t peer reviewed and checked for side effects. A distinct difference between Jack and the anti-patent people and the patent companies is that Jack feels remorse and tries to make things better whereas the patent companies are truly soulless, faceless corporations that don’t care about human cost as much as literal, financial cost. I also appreciated the discussion of productivity and quality of life. I think pretty much everyone in the book club was concerned by how wistful we were at the idea of a medication that makes you incredibly productive and happy about it. But that also isn’t something we could easily discount as evil because there will always be people who have to take on these jobs no one else wants and if there is something that can make it easier for them, is it cruel to deprive them of it? Then again, if they are always content, won’t that lead to further human rights violations because there won’t even be the pressure of people raising issues over the conditions they work in.

As I said, Newitz does a great job of presenting these issues without pushing the reader too hard in either direction. They just present a set of societal concerns and let their characters work in this world, their choices shaped by their unique values and goals.

At times, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the genre, I felt that the language grew needlessly complicated and “techy” as though the author were trying to really hammer home that this is a Sci Fi Futuristic Setting. At the same time the actual changes or signs of futurism in the novel were fairly realistic.

Perhaps the true main character is the robot Paladin. The discussion surrounding gender identity was just as prevalent as the discussion surrounding autonomy with this character. Newitz makes it clear that robots are genderless and that even the gender or sex of the brain that is used in their development does not implant a gender on the robot themselves. Paladin is very clear about this with their partner, Eliasz, and yet when Paladin discovers that their brain was from a woman, Eliasz uses this information as a justification for the sexual feelings he is having for Paladin. Paladin chooses to use female pronouns at this point because she sees that it helps Eliasz feel better and she feels drawn to Eliasz so she is willing to live with that label. This is an especially poignant and somewhat distressing choice based on the gender identity of the author. I wondered as I read it if the author was sharing some real life experience there from past relationships and what was expected from them.

The relationship between Paladin and Eliasz is a difficult one. First of all it’s difficult because Eliasz is a bigoted prick whose tragic backstory is some children saw him on his knees by a robot and accused him of being a “f****t” and now he is hyper afraid of people thinking he’s gay.

Side Note: I took real issue with the use of the F-slur. Both because it’s an ugly word but also because surely in the future there would be a slur specific to fucking robots.

The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is very much the story of one man projecting desire and even gender identity onto a character so it fulfills his needs and justifies his choices. Paladin never rejects the advances or the identity, but they also very clearly go along with it for Eliasz’s sake. In their very relationship, Paladin is stripped of autonomy. In the end Eliasz buys Paladin to set her/them free but I couldn’t help but read this as a man buying his partner for himself. This might be too harsh but I just couldn’t get on board with the relationship, nor could I decide where Newitz landed on it.

There is a lot of interesting plot material in here including run-ins with other robots who have very strong, clear opinions on autonomy and Jack’s plotline is also interesting. In the end, as I write this review, I think I enjoyed the book more than I realized at the time. I appreciate that it still has me thinking about it and that Newitz was able to avoid infodumping which would have been easy based on the worldbuilding they developed alone. There is also a couple of side characters I find fascinating and would have read an entire book about but I hope you’ll find out more about them if you pick up the book yourself.

Review: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

I read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel with my book club in our second meeting in June where the genre was LGBTQ+ authors. I have not heard or seen the musical and my knowledge of Bechdel was limited to her creation of The Bechdel Test.

Fun Home was a searing memoir about discovering yourself, discovering the truth, and trying to reconcile grief, disappointment, and empathy. It would be too simplistic to say that it’s a story of a woman recounting her journey into adulthood and discovering her sexual identity as a lesbian in the 80s. It is also too simplistic to say that it is about a woman discovering her father’s own closeted sexuality and how it shaped and informed her own relationship with homosexuality and herself. It’s hard for me to really put into words what this book does or communicates because it manages to share so much in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel overwhelmed, even while reading through the author feeling that way. There were aspects of the story that resonated for me and aspects that I could only appreciate from the outside looking in. This book didn’t feel like it was written for me, or for you, or for anyone. It felt like it was written for Bechdel as a way of processing her grief and confusion and pain and the reader is the lucky witness, all the luckier if there is something that they can share and feel seen by.

The graphic novel is visually captivating and the words and images matched in tone. There were references to literary works by Proust and Joyce and this also felt like a way in for the reader if they could connect with those works. I knew on a surface level about some of the themes and how they related to the overarching story but I’m sure it was just another aspect that would have hit home harder if I had a familiarity with them.

This is not a light read, though it was at times humorous. I remember distinctly that once I finished reading it I sat in silence for a moment, walked to the kitchen and squirted a bunch of reddiwhip in my mouth, and then continued sitting in silence for a bit longer. I want to read Bechdel’s sequel graphic novel about her mother, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, but I decided to wait after reading this before taking that on one so I could read something lighter to space the two out. I think one of my reading goals for next year will be to read that one and we’ll see how it goes. In the end, I do recommend this book, but be aware that even if you don’t feel that you hit any of the traditional boxes to connect with or be deeply affected by this book, the themes of family secrets and fraught parent-child relationships are widely applicable so don’t go retraumatizing yourself willy nilly.

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been planning on starting a book club since I was in undergrad and am so proud to announce that this year I finally jumped in and started one! I tried googling to find advice about how to run a book club but didn’t find much that was helpful so I ended up making something that has worked so far for us. Each month, going in alphabetical order, someone gets to choose the genre for the month and then everyone can submit choices of novels for us to read in that genre. We then vote for the book we want to read and whichever one wins, we read. The only set rule is that the books have to be no more than 300 pages to accommodate people’s schedules. It’s an imperfect system but we’re seven months in and it’s going ok! The genre for our first book club was Fantasy and the book we ended up reading was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was the second of Ishiguro’s works I’ve read, having been introduced to him in undergrad when we read The Remains of the Day. This is a very different novel, however, and I think I ended up liking this one better than the other.

Though it is genuinely a fantasy novel it is not the typical dragons and swords book that comes to mind (though both a dragon and swords are in this novel). It is set post-Arthurian Britain and the main characters in the novel are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who find themselves losing their memories at an alarming rate and choose to try and go in search of their son who they can hardly remember and have been filling in the gaps with their own projected desires or beliefs. There is a mist that has spread throughout Britain complicating matters and we follow the couple as they journey to find answers and companions on their quest including a former Knight for King Arthur and a boy determined to find and save his mother.

This book left me feeling deeply, deeply, sad. But not in a bad way. In a reflective way that sort of feels good in its own strange, aching way. I related to Axl a great deal and his quest to make everything be ok and fight hard to refuse change. The novel also brings into question what being a hero is and who you can trust, including yourself, in times of chaos. I enjoyed the choice Ishiguro made to have the main characters be elderly because so often, especially in fantasy, the protagonists are in their prime and at the start of their journey, looking forward more than they look back.

Not everyone was affected by The Buried Giant in the same way I was though it still caused a good conversation and everyone took something away from it.

Review: The Rose by Tiffany Reisz

Y’all.

This book.

Tiffany Reisz truly never disappoints.

The Rose is a sequel to The Red though in this instance it takes its inspiration from Greek mythology instead of classic art. The basic premise is that the daughter of the heroine from The Rose, Lia, is all grown up and is gifted an artifact, a Rose Kylix, which one of the guests at her party, August, informs her is a sacred relic that will make her life out her deepest fantasies if she drinks from it. Lia (obviously) chooses to try it, not believing it will work, and finds herself throughout the course of the novel living through various erotic fantasies based in and around Greek mythology with August by her side. There is also a really great friendship and lady love based subplot as well as a getting closure on a shitty ex subplot.

As with The Rose, I appreciated the sheer creativity and quality of storytelling in this novel. There was the risk of the heroine being overshadowed by the presence of her parents but Reisz does a great job of incorporating the former characters to provide context while also giving this heroine a unique journey of her own. She also gives her unique sexual encounters similar to (though perhaps tamer than) the first novel. The book felt like a much quicker read than its 400 pages so if you’re looking for a quick read, don’t be turned off by the page count. As with all of Reisz’s works I’ve read so far, I found it creative, well-written, and over with far too soon.

Review: Becoming A Counselor by Samuel T. Gladding

Alright you guys this is gonna be quick.

This is a series of vignettes by renowned Wake Forest University professor who has worked in the counseling field for years. In this book he recounts different events from his life and in the last two sentences relates it to counseling. Reading this book was like sitting through a holiday dinner with your grandfather who tells you meandering stories that he finds hilarious and poignant and you find a speed bump between dinner and going home. Except in this instance I had to pay $30 for it because it was required reading in a class for a university that already took enough of my money that it felt especially rude to make me buy one of their professor’s publications.

Review: Slouch Witch by Helen Harper

I chose this book because I needed something to fulfill the Because Witches category in the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace. Before this one I DNF’d Witches of East End by Melissa de la Cruz. In all honesty, I almost DNF’d this one and still read another witchy romance because I didn’t feel this could actually fulfill that category.

First of all, here’s the Amazon synopsis:

“Let’s get one thing straight – Ivy Wilde is not a heroine. In fact, she’s probably the last witch in the world who you’d call if you needed a magical helping hand. If it were down to Ivy, she’d spend all day every day on her sofa where she could watch TV, munch junk food and talk to her feline familiar to her heart’s content.

However, when a bureaucratic disaster ends up with Ivy as the victim of a case of mistaken identity, she’s yanked very unwillingly into Arcane Branch, the investigative department of the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment. Her problems are quadrupled when a valuable object is stolen right from under the Order’s noses.

It doesn’t exactly help that she’s been magically bound to Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter. He might have piercing sapphire eyes and a body which a cover model would be proud of but, as far as Ivy’s concerned, he’s a walking advertisement for the joyless perils of too much witch-work.

And if he makes her go to the gym again, she’s definitely going to turn him into a frog.”

Here’s the thing, I had some misgivings right from the jump with this synopsis. Some HB’s had highly recommended it to me so I pushed past it but I got a real meh vibe from this summary. Whenever a character’s voice starts with “let’s get one thing straight” I have a knee jerk eye roll reaction. It just feels like that kind of high school not-like-other-girls tone that really irks me because I was 100% that girl. I could appreciate that she wants to relax and hang out with her cat because I am 100% that grown woman. Through reading the book I found the mystery compelling but the heroine and hero irritating in different ways. She gives too few fucks, he gives too many, and I understand they’re going for an opposites attract vibe but it didn’t play for me as it was supposed to. Also the romance felt thoroughly unnecessary and unrealistic. There were some side characters I felt they could have done more with and by the end of it I didn’t feel compelled to read further into the series. I think my biggest concern was that it felt sometimes like the author was trying too hard to impress upon the reader that this character was Too Above It All To Care and I can appreciate that in a character to an extent but it became a bit repetitive. The book was also written in first person so the author ended up telling more than showing which is a common problem I have with first person narration (both writing and reading).

Ultimately I don’t regret reading it but I don’t intend to keep going and as I said I did end up reading another witch-based book that was actually a romance to fulfill this category.

Review: Tikka Chance On Me by Suleikha Snyder

Hello reader! it’s been almost a year but it was my last year of grad school so there was a lot going on to distract me from this blog. Luckily, it did not (entirely) distract me from my reading! Also, I finished and can now say that I have graduated with my Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling!

But this blog is about books so let’s refocus on that. These next batch of reviews will be shorter because I’m trying to get them all in before the end of the year. Historically if I fall behind in a project I just abandon it, but I don’t want to do that with this blog. So even if the posts are shorter, I am determined to get something down on this blog to track my reading.

I read Suleikha Snyder’s romance novella Tikka Chance On Me and it hit me in so many catnip places. It had a character based on bearded Chris Evans (√), had a unique and likeable heroine (√√), references to Captain America (√√√), a genuine conflict and not just talk-to-each-other-already tension (√√√√) and very well written sex (√√√√√√√√√√).

In the words of the Amazon synopsis:

He’s the bad-boy biker. She’s the good girl working in her family’s Indian restaurant. On the surface, nothing about Trucker Carrigan and Pinky Grover’s instant, incendiary, attraction makes sense. But when they peel away the layers and the assumptions—and their clothes—everything falls into place. The need. The want. The light. The laughter. But is it enough? In this steamy contemporary romance that Entertainment Weekly calls “so flaming-hot it might just burn you,” Trucker and Pinky won’t find out until they take a chance on each other—and on love.

On the surface this premise wouldn’t necessarily appeal to me because I typically read historicals. What sold me on it was 1) a glowing recommendation from the Heaving Bosoms Podcast and 2) this tweet from Suleikha Snyder.

I’m a simple woman. I know what I like and I liked what I saw and I definitely liked what I read. If you’re looking for a quick read that will make you feel multiple (if not all) the feelings, I highly recommend this novella. Plus it’s only $2.99 on Amazon and well worth the investment.

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Snowmaggedon has hit my small desert corner of the world and practicum continues to impress upon me that becoming a counselor is not for the faint of heart or mind. But nevertheless, I am behind in this blog, and in my reading, and that is unacceptable.

The Underground Railroad was my choice for the alternate history category in the BRRRHC because I did not want to read one of the 7,000 what-if-Hitler-won books. The premise of the novel is that the underground railroad is an actual series of trains that runs underground to secret slaves away from their plantations.

The novel follows three generations of slave women; Ajary who was taken from her home to America, her daughter Mabel who is one of the very few to escape the plantation she was born in, and the primary focus of the narrative,  Mabel’s daughter Cora, the child she left behind in her quest for freedom.

This is a brutal novel. It does not shy away from the barbaric dehumanization of slave men and women, the cruelty of all who put money above humanity, and the tyranny of white people both North and South. While most novels covering this era keep their lens focused on Southern slave owners and the like, Whitehead also exposes some of the practices of the “good” white people who did not own slaves but still believed that they were less than and needed to be eliminated via sterilization or acculturation.

Through the novel I found myself desperate for a happy ending which made me realize how incredibly privileged I am. I was looking for catharsis through a character whose existence offered no peace. Why, in the years forward where the impact of slavery is still salient, should I expect some comfort at the end of this novel? This novel runs you ragged emotionally but it is not without its moments of light, which makes it all the more devastating when that light is snuffed out.

I am incredibly glad I read it. I would absolutely recommend it. But I would also warn that it is graphic and upsetting.

TW: rape, violence, torture, murder, forced sterilization, animal abuse, racial slurs

Review: Priest by Sierra Simone

Disclaimer: This book deals with suicide, molestation, and has many scenes of a sacrilegious nature involving a priest breaking his vow of chastity. If any of those are things you cannot handle or are uncomfortable with, you have my full blessing to scroll on by til the next review.

Continue reading “Review: Priest by Sierra Simone”

Review: Gmorning, Gnight by Lin-Manuel Miranda

This book was truly everything that I needed in a very busy week.

For anyone who doesn’t know, this book is a collection of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s good morning and good night tweets which he started to reach out and inspire his fans and himself in turn. Some people might consider some of them saccharine but I think we could all stand a little sweetness in our lives right now.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the illustrations but that’s just personal taste in art. I don’t deny the talent of the artist, it was just a little busy sometimes.

Nevertheless, the messages that Miranda shares are so incredibly simple but the simplicity does not diminish their impact. One of the reasons it resonated was because, as Miranda explains in the prologue poem, the messages he writes are just as much for himself as they are for the reader. When he writes about feeling lonely, it is because he was feeling lonely. Knowing that the words I read which are causing this emotional resonance is not just connecting to words but the emotions of the author made it feel personal despite knowing that he is an incredibly public figure.

I was recently set up in an office space for my practicum and the first thing I knew had to be on my desk was this and honestly that’s about the biggest compliment I can give a book. Definitely check it out, regardless of your feelings about Hamilton or any of Miranda’s other works.