My last few book lists ended up a little bit long. Whoops! Hopefully this shorter list of 10 books is easier for everyone. I hope you like dragons and ghosts, though.

If you missed them here's:

Let's see how it goes with monthly posts instead!

As always, I want to disclose that I use Amazon affiliate links and get a few cents per purchase made if you click through and buy something. Most of my books I get from the library, so no judgment if you do the same!

My July 2021 Reads -- 10 books to try if you like dragons and ghosts

The Two Non-Fiction Books I Read in July

Non-fiction takes me much longer to read since I can usually find a good spot to pause, or need to sit and digest the material. With novels, I hate stopping because I want to know what happens with the plot. These were very different books, but both good.

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
I've been following Ashley Ford on Twitter for a long time, so I was excited to read her new memoir (fun fact: it came out the same day as my book). Memoirs are so interesting to me because reading them gives me a chance to get insight into experiences I can't have, or the chance to find common experiences with people with different lives than me. This book offered both.

Ashley Ford grew up poor and Black in Indiana, raised by a single mother with her grandmother's help as her father was incarcerated. The only thing I have in common with her is being vaguely Midwestern. Some of her childhood was relatively carefree, but as she gets older, her relationship with her mother gets more difficult. Her recounting of her adolescence has intersectional layers, but will resonate with anyone who has felt conflicted about their growing body. And though her relationship with her parents was fraught for reasons made obvious in the book, I think all children have moments of reckoning as they get older with the contradictory feelings of wanting your parents' approval, but also starting to see them as human beings with flaws and faults.

It was hard to read about some of the terrible events of her childhood, but it made her successes that much sweeter. If you want to read it, I'd like to add a content warning for sexual assault and for lack of a better term, "mild" child abuse.

NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman
NeuroTribes is subtitled, "The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity." The book traces autism through history, from suspected autists of the past, to the first use of the term "autism," and the evolution of research, science, ableism, and egos surrounding how people understand autism today. Like any history, bad things happen, so if you're sensitive to references of inhumane treatment of people, take care.

The book could have been dry, but the author creates narratives using personal vignettes. It certainly makes for better storytelling, though occasionally it made some people look a little more sympathetic than they might deserve. He does acknowledge the inconsistency of some scientists - for example a doctor who helped saved many Jewish people during the Holocaust by helping them emigrate to the United States, but who was also a misogynist who called his patients' mothers "hysterical" and worse.

The book outlines how ideas about autism developed in parallel, then eventually merged, and what ideas survived. It's incredible how long some ideas of "curing" autism or blaming "frigid mothers" still persist decades after being debunked. There's also a section devoted to the development of ABA, or applied behavioral analysis, which I cannot imagine anyone finding acceptable after reading it.

I was interested in how the founder of the method and another man, neither of whom were actually researching autism, went around the scientific community to market ABA as a solution directly to parents. I also appreciated learning more about the movement for autistic self-advocacy, and the honesty about organizations that focus on raising money for vague goals like "awareness" and "research" that don't actually benefit autistic people.

If you have or work with autistic people of any age, I think it's a worthwhile book. Again just be mindful that the history of what amounts to torture of the so-called "feebleminded" is covered and can be very painful to read.

Fiction Books - Hope You Like Dragons and Ghosts!

I have apparently emerged from my witch kick and have moved onto fantasy wars featuring dragons, and ghosts. So if you like non-European-centered fantasy with anti-heroes who fight a lot, you're in luck!

The Poppy Wars Trilogy

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
If you read fantasy novels, you know that most of them are based on some imaginary version of northern Europe. It's sort of like how all evil empires in the movies are British. There's imaginary England, imaginary France, imaginary Scandinavia, and maybe some mysterious imaginary Middle Eastern army of tan shirtless guys. Not this time.

If you haven't studied much 20th century Asian history, it might just seem like imaginary Asia. If you have, it's pretty clearly based on China and Japan during World War II. Runin (Rin, for short) is a teenage girl living with a foster family in the south as one of many war orphans. Her foster parents run a shop that's a front for opium smuggling, and Rin can help, or starve. When her foster mother arranges a marriage for Rin to a much older man to benefit their opium trade, Rin is desperate for a way out. The only path she can see is to win a place at the elite military academy in the capital city which only accepts a handful of students from the entire country.

Clearly she succeeds, because that's just chapter 1, friends. Rin travels north to the capital and learns that despite her massive efforts to earn a place at the academy, not everyone feels that she deserves her seat. Rin thought that getting into the academy was her goal, but it's a whole new beginning. Introduced to the rest of her class, most of whom have trained since birth for this opportunity, she's still at a disadvantage. When she's kicked out of the most important class in the school (combat), she learns that she may have other skills she didn't know existed, and she may not be as alone as she thought. When war breaks out, they all have to make hard choices about who their friends and allies are in order to survive.

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
The second book of The Poppy War trilogy opens in the aftermath of book 1 - Rin struggles in the aftermath of the atrocities witnessed and committed during the war, a haze of opium her only respite. The first book showed Rin coming into her power and navigating a society she wasn't trained to be a part of, but the second book leaves her unsure of who to trust. She has massive amounts of power, but does that give her actual control, or is she being used as a tool of destruction?

Shifting alliances and goals keep the book unpredictable, and there are plenty of twists up until the end. The books can be intense, but wartime should generate strong feelings. Just know that it's not a "fluffy" read.

The Burning God by R.F. Kuang
The final installment of The Poppy War trilogy manages to feel modern as Rin attempts to unify massive numbers of oppressed darker-skinned peasants in the south against the aristocrats and their missionary colonizer allies. It was a challenging read for me at times since Rin can be a hard protagonist to love and makes some terrible decisions. However, it's easy to forget how young she is, and her power doesn't cancel out her lack of experience in many areas. It's probably more realistic in a sense, but that can be frustrating as well.

The end of a complex and gripping story like this is always fraught. Without spoilers, the ending upset me, but I don't think it was wrong. It's a testament to how invested I was, and makes clear that there is no happy ending tied up with a bow when an ongoing war for power has killed so many people. How can anyone "win" a war when millions have died? Can massive amounts of power in the hands of a few actually help people, or is it by nature destructive? There are a lot of good questions raised.

The Burning Series

The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter
My husband actually suggested this book to me, and again, I trusted him instead of looking to see that it's a series of 4 books, only 2 of which are published. Never again! So if you hate waiting, don't read these yet. You're welcome.

This was another one that was interesting to read after The Poppy War trilogy, since there are some definite parallels between them. Evan Winter is British of African descent, and as a fantasy fan, he realized that there weren't many books written by or about people who looked like him. So he wrote one (and hopefully 3 more of them).

The Rage of Dragons starts with a queen leading her people to colonize a new land in order to ensure their survival. We then skip a few centuries into the future to follow Tau, a lower caste teen training for the military—the only avenue available for him to raise his status in society. We learn about the massive power imbalance between the rigid social classes of Nobles and "Lessers," and what happens when people like Tau don't act according to those rules. (Hint: bad things. Very very bad.)

When said Very Bad Things do happen, Tau vows to take his revenge. Due to his low social status, this means he has to work many times harder for every scrap he gets, but he's willing to sacrifice everything. He means it. But will it be worth it? And can a Lesser really overcome his status to achieve his goals? There will be a lot of injuries and death before we find out.

And dragons, of course. It's in the title!

The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter
In book 2 of The Burning, Queen Tsiora's sister is being propped up by the Nobles as the true queen. Can Tau stay on track to get his revenge and support the queen at the same time, or are these goals at odds? And will they change when Tau learns the truth about the actual differences between Nobles and Lessers?

Like Rin in The Poppy War books, Tau is young, angry, and single-minded to the point of obsession. He also risks manipulation by those who would use his power for their own gains. The books are casualty-heavy because that's what happens in a war where dragons incinerate groups of people, but there's a good mix of character development, political maneuvering, and driving plot. I'm slightly impatient for the next installment, The Lord of Demons, to come out in 2022.

Lockwood & Co.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
My friend, Brandi, suggested this 5-book series of magical realism young adult books, and I'm hooked!

For the last 50 years, England has been dealing with The Problem — ghosts, called "Visitors" — are wreaking havoc. There are various types of ghosts with different behaviors and abilities, but "ghost touch" can cause death. The only way to get rid of the Visitors is to locate their Source, usually their remains, or an object that was important to them.

Oh, and only kids can see them. At night, of course.

After being the sole survivor of a mission gone wrong, Lucy Carlyle arrives in London and joins a small agency of psychic investigators led by fellow teen Anthony Lockwood, assisted by George Cubbins. The trio have complementary skill sets which they use to not only eliminate pesky ghosts, but also investigate why the specter returned. Armed with salt and iron, they take a huge, dangerous job to save the agency from financial ruin—if they survive the night.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud
Six months after The Screaming Staircase, Lockwood & Co. are ready for another big case. An increase in Visitors has prompted pre-emptive actions such as excavating graveyards to minimize the number of remains that might attract their ghosts. A mysterious coffin containing a dangerous artifact is discovered, but then the artifact is stolen.

Can Lockwood & Co. locate the artifact and determine its terrifying purpose before it can kill anyone else? Or will a rival team find it first? And is Lucy talking to herself, or is she actually able to communicate with a rare type 3 ghost trapped in a jar?

Each book has a standalone plot, but they're chronological with a through-line as well. The combination of teen sleuths and whodunit feel gives me Scooby Doo vibes at times since they've been pretty predictable to me, but I'm still enjoying the action and seeing how the story unfolds.

I finished the last 3 in August, so check back if you want to see what I thought of those.

Single Novels

The Push by Ashley Audrain
This was not a fantasy book, though it was more of a creepy thriller than I had expected. Blythe Connor did not have a warm maternal figure growing up. When she and her husband, Fox, decide to have a baby, she is determined to do better for her child. But then Violet is born, and she worries that something is wrong—but is the problem the baby, or her?

So much of her postpartum experience will resonate with mothers, from the rollercoaster of emotions to the shift in relationship with your partner. When their second baby, Sam, is born, it's a different experience entirely, and Blythe immediately feels connected to him. That's when everything goes wrong.

My feelings were mixed about the book as a whole. The author started writing it when her first child was 6 months old, and kudos to her for being able to form sentences at all. I couldn't stop reading it because I felt like I knew what happened, but I wanted it confirmed. And clearly it's fiction, but some of the plot felt very contrived as well. (Who hosts a new mothers' group without babies in the evening?) I didn't feel especially connected to any of the characters, either. They all felt like plot devices without much depth. The end was also a little too abstract for me to be satisfying.

That said, it spurred some really interesting discussions about motherhood and the book with some friends. It wasn't one of my favorite books to read lately, but it made me think, and I enjoyed talking about it with other readers.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
This is another read that I had mixed feelings about. It's a little more futuristic sci-fi than I normally read, but my friend who suggested it described it as "amazing world-building and writing even though I didn't quite know what was going on." She was not wrong.

Red and Blue are rival agents in a war between two factions who travel through time and make small changes to impact the future. And that's just the setting, not the plot. What begins with a secret message left out of respect for the skill of an enemy is the start of an elaborate correspondence that transcends time, language, and enmity.

In some ways it fits well with The Poppy War and the questions about what makes someone your ally or enemy, and who benefits and suffers during a war. But Red and Blue's efforts to keep their missives a secret, and their growing relationship are almost as challenging as their missions. It was very abstract, and confusing at times, but the language was really lovely. If you liked The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (my review is here), but shorter and with robots, give it a read.

What Are You Reading?

I've been sharing my current reads on my Instagram Stories, and I also started monthly book posts in my group on Mighty Networks. I'd love to hear your suggestions, or if you want to see if I'll read a book to review before you commit — I read fast. 😉

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