Book Review: The Power

I first heard of The Power thanks to the half-dozen book bloggers I follow. A while ago, I started using GoodReads’ “to-read” function as a storehouse for all of the books I heard about that sounded really cool but that I would otherwise forget after a couple days. Then the universe aligned: I received a free copy of The Power from a New Year’s book club exchange buddy, and then my feminist science fiction club decided on it for February’s book.

The UK edition of "The Power" by Naomi Alderman, featuring a geometric Art Deco design in black red, and white.

Author: Naomi Alderman

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.93

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: One day, women around the world develop the power to produce electricity out of nowhere. Everything changes.

Content warning: There are some gruesome scenes of violence and sexual assault throughout.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans

In-depth thoughts: The Power posits that if you gave women the ability to produce electricity out of nowhere thereby making them all walking weapons, within less than a decade you’ll see an entire global culture shift. That’s really the point that the book turns on, and how much you enjoy the book is probably based on how much you buy into Alderman’s thesis. Less central to the story is that it’s pure power (hah, hah) that drives sexual objectification and sexual entitlement. Still, if you disagree with Alderman’s implied stance on this, there will be moments of characterization that fall flat for you.

Speaking of characterization, this is another book with an ensemble cast, a total of five major perspective characters (plus asides here and there). I’m not entirely convinced that all of those characters were entirely necessary to the story. And while Alderman included a graceful nod to the complexities of biological sex with how inconsistently the physiological source of the power manifests (i.e. some men have semi-developed skeins, and some women don’t have skeins as developed as other women), the absence of any trans characters or an examination of what this development would mean for them is notable.

Despite these issues, The Power is a quick and snappy read with a lot to say about women, sex, and power (hah, hah) in society. Grounded as it is in real life (as opposed to distant post-apocalyptic futures or even more distant space-faring ones with dozens of new alien races and languages), The Power is a solid choice for EFL students who are also sci-fi fans.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

This was another selection from one of my three book clubs, this one based on Discord and more generally YA focused. The earlier book I read with them was Roar.


The cover of "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue" by Mackenzi Lee

Author: Mackenzi Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.17

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: On the eve of his entry into adulthood, Henry Montague is going on a tour of Europe with his sister and his best friend and love interest, Percy. What starts out as a sedate tour of arts and culture ends up being a cross-continental treasure hunt.

Recommended audience: 19th century adventure novel fans; those interested in GLBTQ+ literature

In-depth thoughts: This was a book that I was really excited about. I watch a couple of Booktubers now and again, and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had come up in a lot of their videos. The concept sounded interesting and these were people whose tastes I trusted, so when my Discord book club chose this book for February I was glad that, for once, I was going to read the new release I was interested in fairly close to release. (This doesn’t happen often! Too many books!)

Once, as a kid, I took a sip from a cup without looking and expected apple juice. It actually had milk. The moment of confusion where my brain tried to sort out expectations versus reality meant the drink didn’t really taste like anything, at least anything I was familiar with. It was just uncomfortable and disconcerting.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is that moment in book form. I think I was expecting a subtle, more character-driven slow burn romance; when it turned out to be a Return the MacGuffin adventure story I was disappointed and slightly uncomfortable for the remainder of the story.

Additionally, Henry (or “Monty,” as he’s known for most of the book) takes a breezy, ironic tone that feels anachronistic, too modern for a book taking place in pre-Revolutionary France. Confession: I love 19th century adventure novels, as racist and sexist and issue-laden as they are. And The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue doesn’t read like one of those at all. This wouldn’t be a problem except I think Lee wants this book to be a more inclusive version of exactly those books.

To her credit, Lee gives a very thorough accounting of all of her research and inspiration for a number of aspects of the books (the Grand Tour, European politics, queer history, race relations) at the end. When it comes to Henry, she cites the journals of James Boswell as inspiration. This has made me rather keen to read them. His diaries about his own Grand Tour are a little hard to come by, but his account of traveling to the Hebrides is available for free on Kindle.

While my expectations may have soured the book for me overall (apple juice and milk), it’s still a good book that, thanks to the narrator’s unusually modern voice, can be a great choice for EFL students.

Thoughts on Using Simbi to Find Tutors or Editors

Around Christmas last year, I stumbled on the website Simbi. The idea is simple: connecting people around the world to trade and exchange via bartering instead of money. Users list the services they can provide and the help that they need, and the rest is self-explanatory.

Lucky for the student of English (or, indeed, a lot of other languages), Skype sessions with native and fluent speakers are one of the most popular options available. If you feel that you need a tutor’s input to take your language study to the next level and haven’t had any luck with any other language exchange site, you can find someone on Simbi. Likewise, since the vast majority of Simbi’s user base is anglophone, this is a golden opportunity for native speakers of languages besides English to provide an in-demand service in their native language, whether it’s video lessons, writing correction, or translation. In this case, I’d recommend joining the group Language Learners to find other language students to exchange with right away.

Less the case in Sweden (where I might be the only member?!), Simbi also actively encourages members to meet and exchange goods and items in real life, fostering local communities and bringing neighbors back in touch with each other. (These events are called “Simbi Swaps.”) Students, visitors, and new arrivals to English-speaking countries might find it helpful in meeting new people who self-select to be open, sociable, and curious.

(And, of course, Simbi has a “currency” called the simbi, so if you can’t barter directly with another user, you can still pay them for their time and effort!)

The downside is that to get much use out of Simbi for studying English, you’ll need to be at an A2/B1 level of English already; there isn’t a native version of the site in any other language. And since Simbi is a general service- and goods-exchanging platform and not strictly an educational platform, caveat emptor. Check someone’s profile to get a feel for how professional and knowledgeable they seem, including any outgoing links they provide.

Writers will also get a lot out of Simbi. If you want editing or proofreading for your manuscript but don’t have much of a budget, critique and editing is another one of the most popular services available. Again, joining a group like Writer’s Club will make it easier to find like-minded members who are more likely to be able to help you out.

I hope you’ll join me on Simbi! Perhaps I can entice you with one of the services I offer: turning your notes into a custom Anki deck or providing short story feedback.

Book Review: The Sky is Yours

We should all know better than to judge a book by its cover, but when I saw The Sky is Yours in my NetGalley menu, with the neon dragons in the ouroboros pattern against a brick wall backdrop, I was instantly intrigued. The premise only further cemented my interest, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy.

The cover of The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith

Author: Chandler Klang Smith

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.53

Language scaling: C2

Summary: A estranged betrothed couple and a feral girl try to make sense of their lives in a post-apocalyptic New York, which ends up having city-wide ramifications.

Content warning: It’s a borderline anarchic apocalypse so there’s low-key brutal violence throughout that doesn’t happen entirely off page, plus some sex scenes here and there.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans, 19th century novel of manners fans

In-depth thoughts: Sometimes I read a book and even if it’s not entirely my cup of tea, I stand in awe of the craftsmanship. So it is with The Sky is Yours. Smith’s world building is par excellence and the way she incorporates elements of our present and past is seamless and, of course, entirely plausible. Small things like: one character happens to find a book of poetry by her father and notes in the copyright page that it was “print on demand.” Her immediate thought is that he must have been a writer of incredible renown, to have his book so constantly in demand. Or another character suffering “affluenza” that needs the occasional administrations of an inhaler.

What kept me from rating it any higher is how much of it there is. Smith includes a lot of asides and multiple perspectives, which results in a complex and gritty world that feels very real, even though there are a pair of dragons flying around and laying waste to New York City. The multiple voices are handled deftly, so that you can always tell which character with you’re with. It’s an altogether big project and Smith pulls it off well. Nothing wrong with any of that.

On the other hand, much of it doesn’t serve the plot in any significant way. I don’t think plot should be the be-all, end-all of novels, but there’s a fine line between complexity and getting lost in yourself. There are bits and asides here and there that mostly seem to be written for the sake of a gag or two, and whether the payoff is worth it will always be a subjective issue. Not all of the characters Smith chooses to develop in their own chapters are interesting enough to warrant the attention, either. (Spoiler alert: some of them end up dead pretty quickly, so there’s not much point in getting to know them.)

Serious students of writing will be interested in the pineapple-on-pizza quality of genre mash-up at work here: post-apocalyptic dystopia plus classic novel of manners sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does—and well, at that. Sci fi fans and 19th century literature fans might well enjoy it, to the extent they feel The Sky is Yours draws on their respective genres. EFL readers might want to approach with caution: there is a combination of faux-archaic English, portmanteaus, in-jokes, and puns that forms the bedrock of the book, so I would only recommend it for fairly advanced speakers.

Book Review: One Day in the Life of Denis Ivanovich

I’ve long been interested in Russian literature, so when this title came up in the comments section of my favorite writing blog, I added it to my towering GoodReads “to read” shelf. A book club buddy gifted me a copy earlier this year and so I immediately sat down to read it.

The Penguin Classics cover of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, featuring a black and white photograph of someone in a prison.

Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; H. T. Willetts, translator

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.95

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: One day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet gulag.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in hyper-realism; anyone interested in Russian literature from the Soviet era

In-depth thoughts: Nothing happens, which will either bother you or it won’t. I’ve long been a fan of the “slice of life” kind of stories, where small struggles gain epic proportions (television shows like The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Seinfeld, movies like Clerks), and that’s largely what One Day… is. It’s just that the backdrop is a prison camp instead of American suburban life. If your tastes overlap with mine, then you’ll get a lot out of it. But if “a book about nothing, set in a gulag” sounds tedious to you, then it probably won’t be a lot of fun to read. (Not that it was “fun,” exactly.)

Because of the specific setting, and because so much of it centers around very small details and very small, easily overlooked items, reading the English translation might be difficult for lower level readers. (Unless you want to look up a whole bunch of new words about army barracks and stonemasony and so on). But for those already familiar with the original, or with a higher level of English, this translation is of interest.

Var blev du av Bernadette

This review is maybe a first for the blog: a Swedish translation of a book originally published in English. But: doctor, heal thyself; teacher, teach thyself. My advice to students is always first and foremost to read as much as possible. Why shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

The Swedish cover of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" with a cartoon portrait of a white woman with brown hair, wearing a yellow scarf tied over her hair and oversized black sunglasses.
Image courtesy Wahström & Widstrand

Author: Maria Semple

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.91

Language scaling: ??? (best guess, based on the Swedish translation: B2+??)

Summary: Bee has just gotten top marks at her alternative school and as a reward, her family books a cruise to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. Everything goes topsy-turvy when Bee’s mother, Bernadette, goes missing.

Content warning: Bernadette clearly has a host of psychological conditions and I’m not in a position to judge if the book handles that well or not. I’m also not a fan of Semple’s treatment of the Asian characters.

Recommended audience: Anyone who needs a dose of whimsy and humor

In-depth thoughts: Semple does interesting things with form and switches between Bee’s own first-person perspective and an assemblage of documents to build this story, which could have gone wrong but didn’t. I had no problems switching back and forth from documents to Bee’s narration to documents again. Bee, especially, was fun to read and the best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It’s like adults who write for or about teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.

The transitions between sections feel sloppy sometimes, due to a jumbled-up timeline. The little blurb at the beginning of the story makes it sound like Bernadette has been missing for years, not mere weeks. I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that’s why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren’t that interesting!

The one thing I’m not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin’s secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!” meme is incredibly tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles” meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I’m sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that’s half a point.

It’s Soo-Lin’s gossip-y insufferability that’s more cringe-inducing than the Yoko Ono gag, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don’t add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That’s one point.

The other is that Soo-Lin’s partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just…there. Still kind of an awful-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by one of the other main characters.

Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.

Book Review: Dark Places

The Facebook book club I mentioned in my last review also organizes a yearly book swap around New Year’s. My book swap partner in 2016 (going into 2017) was incredibly gracious and sent me not one but two books! One was Both Flesh and Not, which they sent based on the prodigious amounts of David Foster Wallace in my GoodReads, and one book they had really enjoyed during the year: Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I tore into Both Flesh and Not right away, but kept on putting off Dark Places. I don’t normally read thrillers (though I love mysteries, so go figure) and everything I knew about Gone Girl was so unappealing that I was afraid Dark Places would be more of the same.

I put off reading Dark Places for so long that it became eligible for my annual goal of “read one book that you’ve owned for over a year but never read,” and so in the absence of anything else left on that list (which also included Journal of a SolitudeGösta Berling’s Saga, and Bödeln, among others), I finally picked it up on New Year’s and finished it within a few days.

The cover of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn. The title is in a lime green sans-serif font on a black back background, with a photo negative image of weeds in the bottom left corner.
Image courtesy Phoenix

Author: Gillian Flynn

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.92 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: As a child, Libby Day’s testimony helped put her brother away for the gruesome murders of her mother and sisters. Fresh out of money and still traumatized by the memory,  Libby finally takes it upon herself to investigate what really happened that night at the behest of a group of armchair detectives who are obsessed with her case.

Content warning: Descriptions of violent, gruesome murders appear throughout, as well as a few scenes of a sexual nature; there’s also (dry, clinical) discussion of childhood sex abuse.

Recommended audience: Mystery and thriller fans; true crime fans (though it’s not a true crime novel, much of the story is centered around true crime enthusiasts); people interested in the “Satanic panic” that swept the US during the 80s; aspiring crime and thriller writers.

In-depth thoughts: Ultimately, I’m glad that I finally got around to reading Dark Places. I’m still not much of a thriller fan, but there’s a neat symmetry to the way that Flynn builds the story as it alternates between present-day and the day of the murder. It’s worth reading just for the structure alone, to see the way things are set up and subverted, to see how clues are revealed, to see how even small things turn up again in the end when you least expect them, to see how people can interpret the same events or scenes or scrap of evidence completely differently (sometimes tragically so). Dark Places is an excellent book to dissect if you’re writing your own story in a similar genre.

Book Review: Stone Butch Blues

It’s the end of January and I still haven’t finished reviewing all the books I read in 2017! There’s just one more after this, and then I’m back on the level (at least, as of this writing; by the time this goes up I may have finished another couple of books).

I’m in a few book clubs and lots of the books I read last year, especially towards the end, were book club selections. One of them is a bunch of random nerds on Discord and the theme is vaguely YA and SFF; another is the Austin Feminist Science Fiction club; the last one is a Facebook book club co-founded by one of my blogger friends. This one has no particular genre or focus, and so we tackle a pretty wide variety of books. Past selections that I’ve mentioned here include Madonna in a Fur CoatThe Road to Mecca, and Passing.

A cover of "Stone Butch Blues" by Leslie Feinberg, featuring a black and white portrait of Feinberg with their left hand on the side of their face, looking thoughtful.

Author: Leslie Feinberg

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Jess Goldberg, a young butch lesbian growing up in the McCarthy-era US, navigates gender, sexuality, and the labor struggles from the 60s up until the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

Content warning: I’ll quote from the book’s introduction directly.

Dear reader:

I want to let you know that Stone Butch Blues is an anti-oppression/s novel. As a result, it contains scenes of rape and other violence. None of this violence is gratuitous or salacious.


Recommended audience: Anyone interested in the history of the labor movement in the US; anyone interested in the history of racial justice in the US; anyone who needs a “GLBTQ+ 101” reader

In-depth thoughts: This book was a heavy read, but somehow compelling. Even through the worst of what Jess experienced I felt pulled along; I needed to read more. Would she be okay? Would her friends, lovers, coworkers be okay? How would everything turn out? As we get to know Jess and her strength and determination, we also meet a wide variety of characters who move in and out of her life, from sympathetic union leaders to hostile coworkers to mentors and lovers and co-conspirators.

Centered as it is on the American gay and lesbian and black communities and the labor movement in the 60s and onward, the language includes slurs and slang that might not come up in EFL classrooms (or then again, they just might). Either way, Feinberg’s style is otherwise crisp and direct, so context should make things fairly clear. At the same time, to say that the book is centered only on social justice issues is unfair. Really, the book is centered on Jess. If it’s an activist novel, it’s also in at least equal measure a character-driven bildungsroman with the beating heart of a human being desperate for love, family, and contact.

If you’re interested, Feinberg made Stone Butch Blues available for free online. You can download a PDF from hir website at the previous link, or order a hard copy from

Book Review: Foxlowe

I finished Eleanor Wasserberg’s Foxlowe in September 2017 but somehow failed to write about it here until now. This is not because Foxlowe is a forgettable or unremarkable book; far from it. The lack speaks more to how busy I was (or how poorly I managed my time) and to the backlog of reviews I had to plow through.

The cover of Foxlowe, by Eleanor Wassberg. A crumbling estate is flanked by leafless trees while a large orange sun (or full moon) sets behind the house in a white sky. Orange leaves flutter around the edge, as if blown off the trees by the wind, and everything is surrounded by dark blue and gray clouds along the edges. Everything is done an art deco stylized vector graphics style.

 Author: Eleanor Wasserberg
My GoodReads rating: 5 Stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.38
Language scaling: C1+
Summary: The decline and fall of the commune (or cult?) known as Foxlowe, as told by the young woman Green.
Content warning: There is some pretty serious child neglect and endangerment implied throughout, but Green’s voice and perspective keeps it from being sensationalized.
Recommended audience: Gothic literature fans; people interested in cults and fringe religious movements
In-depth thoughts: I might have seen Foxlowe appear on other book blogs here and there, but the one that tipped me to really wanting to read it was Juli’s review at A Universe in Words. The best way to get me interested in a book is to give me a little taste test of it; if the best idea in the world is executed poorly, I won’t be bothered, but if I like what I read I won’t let it go until I find it. So to that end, I appreciate that Juli always includes a little blurb from the novels she reviewed.
I cannot emphasize enough how amazing Wasserberg’s prose is. How do you write someone who grew up removed from society, who doesn’t have the same cultural frame of reference as everyone else, who lives in a world with Solstices and The Bad and no schooling and Spike Walks? How will they sound when they finally have to join the rest of the world? The voice that Wasserberg gives Green is a perfect balance of cultural ignorance and personal insight. Green might be uneducated and only semi-literate, but she expresses herself precisely and eloquently (if, sometimes, somewhat disconcertingly). It’s perfect for who she is and what she’s experienced.

At Foxlowe everyone has two names. One is a secret, meant to be lost. For most, it worked like this: first they had the one they came to Foxlowe with peeled away like sunburnt skin. Then a new name, for a new life.

I used to get jealous of the Family with their secret outside names, while I only had the one, like half a person. Sometimes an old name would slip, strangled at a syllable with a blush. This was a sign to watch for, in case someone might wish to be become a Leaver.

Now I am doubled that way, named twice, but for me, it’s worked in reverse: my new name came later, on the outside, like putting on that crusty old skin that should be lying on the floor.

 Needless to say I loved this debut from Wasserberg and I look forward to what she has to offer in the future!

Take This MOOC: Inside IELTS: Preparing for the Test with the Experts

My schedule was fairly hectic in 2017, so while I found room in my schedule for a good MOOC (Mindshift, from the same people behind Learning How to Learn), I didn’t find time to review it here. This year I’m managing my time a little better, and so I can sit down and give you my thoughts about Inside IELTS: Preparing for the Test with the Experts.

This course is offered on another MOOC website, FutureLearn. Like Coursera, FutureLearn offers courses for free but provides the ability to “upgrade” your participation, which includes a certificate of completion. Unlike Coursera, standard FutureLearn MOOCs aren’t available after their time runs out, even if you successfully complete them; for that, you need to purchase the upgrade. So a FutureLearn course is a little more time-sensitive than a Coursera course.

Inside IELTS is a well-organized, easy-to-digest look at the IELTS Academic test, one of the premiere international ESL tests. Many universities and employers use an IELTS score as part of their evaluation. (If you’re studying English to get into a university, this probably isn’t news to you!) Inside IELTS is a five-week program featuring video interviews, lectures, reading, and practice question. The material includes an explanation of the different assessment criteria and bands that the test evaluators will use as well as going through the test structure itself. The actual lessons break down into:

  • Academic Writing
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Putting It All Together

Inside IELTS is presented only in English; the course organizers recommend an English level of B1 or so to be able to understand the bulk of the material. However, all the videos are subtitled, and transcripts are also provided. The target audience is obviously EFL students, but instructors might also find it useful to go through to familiarize themselves with the IELTS test structure and format (if they aren’t already). Inside IELTS also goes over some test-taking tips that can be applied generally to any English test, rather than just the IELTS.

There are quizzes throughout, but they are low-stakes and aren’t tied to your completion of the course. You’ll also have the opportunity to evaluate sample responses yourself to get a feel for what the standards are.

Inside IELTS is five weeks long and, including the practice assignments, consists of three hours of work per week for a total of fifteen hours of instruction. The first week is already up, but it shouldn’t take long to catch up! Otherwise FutureLearn will send you an email when the course is ready to repeat itself.