Black Man in a White Coat

Cover image for Black Man in a White Coat by Damon Tweedyby Damon Tweedy

ISBN 978-1-250-10504-2

“When I started medical school and learned about the adverse health outcomes that afflicted black people, I had assumed these disparities were chiefly due to genetics. To be sure, there are diseases like sickle-cell anemia, lupus, and sarcoidosis, which appear to preferentially target black patients at a biological level. But what had become abundantly clear to me during my years in medical school and as a doctor, however, were the many ways that social and economic factors influence health, and, more than anything else, account for the sickness and suffering that I have seen.”

The son of a working class African-American family from Maryland, in 1996 Damon Tweedy accepted a scholarship to Duke University Medical School. As he began learning about various diseases and conditions, he was soon bombarded by a familiar refrain: “more common in blacks than in whites.” Tweedy initially assumed these problems were genetic vulnerabilities, but his experiences soon led him to realize that social and economic factors were, in most cases, much more significant, and in turn these factors play out “along racial lines.” Initially intent on avoiding drawing any attention to his race, Tweedy instead becomes interested in reducing these disparities.

Tweedy divides his books into three parts, proceeding chronologically, first from his medical training at Duke, onto his internship, and then into his practice as a psychiatrist. Each stage presents new challenges. As a student, one of his professors mistakes him for a maintenance worker come to change the lights in the lecture hall, then tries to pretend that the error never occurred. In medical school, Tweedy must balance the well-being of his black patients against the problems that might be caused if he confronts his superiors. He is relieved, in one case, when the supervising doctor is the one to challenge a white nurse who asserts that a nineteen-year-old black woman who suffered a placental abruption after smoking crack cocaine should be sterilized. Later, in his own practice, he confronts new challenges, such as treating a biracial woman who is afraid of black men because of how her black father treated her white mother.

As a scholarship student, Tweedy starts out with an inferiority complex, afraid that people will think he does not deserve to be in medical school. He fears anything that will draw attention to his race, and cringes at every mention of racial medical statistics. This initial fear tempers somewhat, but it leads to his very cautious and measured approach in this book. Tweedy largely skirts around more controversial topics such as the war on drugs and discriminatory policing, both factors which contribute to the shortening of black lives.

Through a more personal lens, Tweedy also examines his own health problems. He discovered his high blood pressure when he and a classmate were practicing taking vital signs in their first year of medical school. A follow-up visit to the doctor also revealed early signs of kidney failure, prompting Tweedy to rethink his diet and exercise routines. This helps him relate very personally to the difficulty patients have making lifestyle changes for the sake of their health. But while he realizes that his own blood pressure and blood sugar are more important health metrics than his weight, since he remains naturally thin throughout, he doesn’t seem to extend this insight to patients, often remarking on their weight. He also fails to stand up for a black patient who wants to try lifestyle changes before going on blood pressure medication, afraid that he will be considered a racial agitator if he challenges the other doctors.

This book felt particularly relevant at the time of reading, as news went viral of a Delta flight attendant refusing to believe that Tamika Cross, a Texas obstetrician and gynecologist, was a doctor. Tweedy’s experience makes it abundantly clear that there are disparities for black doctors and patients alike, and that they play out in subtle ways throughout the medical system, but add up to a large gap in care. What is less clear is the path forward. The Affordable Care Act is acknowledged as something that may help some patients, but not enough. Nor does Tweedy feel that every black patient needs a black doctor; he more than once trips over his own assumptions about black patients, and encounters skepticism of his credentials among both black and white patients. But his stories provide a window for issues that deserve broader consideration.


You might also like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2)

Cover image for A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahirby Sabaa Tahir

ISBN 9781101998878

“Failure doesn’t define you. It’s what you do after you fail that determines whether you are a leader or a waste of perfectly good air.”

The Trials are over, and Marcus has been crowned the new Emperor of the Martials, with Helene Aquilla sworn to serve as his Blood Shrike despite her reservations. Elias and Laia flee the capital on a mission to free her brother, Darin, who is being held in Kauf prison. With the knowledge of how to forge Serric steel, he has the potential to change the course of the Scholar rebellion. They must figure out how to outwit Kauf’s sadistic Warden to free Darin, assuming he is still alive. But first they will need traverse half the Empire to get to him, and Helene Aquilla is on their heels. Now sworn as Blood Shrike, and with her family as hostages, she is charged with killing the traitor Elias Veturius in order to secure Marcus’ rule.

A Torch Against the Night picks up right from where An Ember in the Ashes left off, with Elias and Laia trying to flee Blackcliff in the aftermath of the Trials. There is no second-book lag here, but an immediate plunge into a high-stakes mission. The action is fast-paced, and I raced through the entire volume in twenty-four hours. Sabaa Tahir puts an additional clock on the action when Elias is poisoned, giving further urgency to their journey. Scholar rebel Keenan and escaped slave Izzi rejoin the action, forming an uneasy alliance as the group disagrees about how best to effect Darin’s rescue from the supposedly impenetrable Kauf. Keenan remains a somewhat uninspiring rival for Laia’s affections, but Izzi’s return was welcome, even if Tahir does not put her to particularly good use.

In An Ember in the Ashes, Elias and Laia alternated narration. But Helene Aquilla was one of the more intriguing secondary characters as Elias’s long-time friend and companion in arms, and the sole female student at Blackcliff. Newly sworn into her role as the Emperor’s enforcer, she must now take up the duty of hunting Elias down. Happily, this also means that Helene becomes one of the three point-of-view characters in A Torch Against the Night, and indeed she is the torch of the title. Alone in her new role, she turns to the Augurs for reassurance that she is making the right choices for her future and the future of the empire. The augur Cain assures her that she will be “no swift-burning spark” but rather, “a torch against the night.” And the only cost is that she must let herself burn. Her role as narrator provides a deeper look into her character as she is faced with these difficult decisions.

The magical elements of Tahir’s world are also coming more into evidence in this volume. Both Laia and Helene must call upon the powers they gained through their contact with the supernatural in An Ember in the Ashes. The Augurs continue to be a presence, and the nature of the Commandant’s elusive Master becomes evident. But most fascinating of all is the Soul Catcher, a creature who watches over the Waiting Place where souls cross over to the other side. As Elias fights the effects of the slow-acting poison, every time he becomes unconscious he slips into the Waiting Place where the Soul Catcher bides her time.

A Torch Against the Night proves to be a fast-pasted continuation of An Ember in the Ashes, and it continues to develop Tahir’s intriguing world and a characters. A third volume is expected in 2018.


You might also like Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Labyrinth Lost

Cover image for Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdovaby Zoraida Córdova

ISBN 978-1-4926-2094-5

“When we were children, they would scare us to sleep with stories of maloscuros under the bed. But we aren’t like normal families. Our monsters are real. Sometimes we are the monsters.”

Alejandra Mortiz is a powerful bruja, or she would be if she hadn’t been supressing her power ever since her father’s disappearance several years earlier. But when events cause her to lose control, her power is revealed to her family, and generations of brujas and brujos begin planning her Deathday. There she will receive the blessing of her family, living and dead, and her power will be cemented. But Alex doesn’t want to be a bruja. She sees the price her mother and sisters pay for their powers, and wants no part of it. But what if giving up her power comes with a price even greater than using it?

Alex’s story begins in Brooklyn, where she lives with her mother, her older sister, Lula, and her younger sister, Rose. Her mother and Lula are healers, and Rose is a psychic. Their father has been missing for several years, disappearing shortly after their cat, Miluna, was possessed by a demon, and attacked Alex. Alex is a generally a bit of an outsider; she doesn’t fit in well with her family, because she rejects their magic, and at school most people find her a bit odd, save for her best friend, Rishi. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the family’s Book of Cantos, helping to establish the tradition she has grown up within but failed to embrace.

Diverse-SFF-book-clubI picked up this book for the Diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club, knowing little about it except that it was about brujas in Brooklyn. If I had read the description more closely, I would have known that it was not an urban fantasy. When Alex’s canto to denounce her power backfires, her entire family is pulled into the in-between realm of Los Lagos and trapped there. Los Lagos was created by the Deos, but it has been taken over by a creature called the Devourer, who has slowly been sucking all life out of the realm. The remainder of the book consists of Alex’s journey to save her family. While Los Lagos was an interesting setting, I nevertheless hope that future installments in the series will spend more time in our world.

The main drawback of Labyrinth Lost for me was a somewhat plodding plot arch through Los Lagos, where Alex, Rishi, and Nova have to face a series of challenges in order to get across the realm to where the Mortiz family is being held captive by the Devourer. I was engaged by the characters and the mythos that Cordova was building, but tended to lose interest in the obstacles that they faced. I was much more interested in the dynamic between the characters. While Alex’s reluctant attraction to Nova is evident immediately, the other half of the book’s love triangle develops a little bit more slowly. Whereas the problem with Nova is that while she is attracted to him, she doesn’t trust him, on the other hand Alex does not yet seem to be aware of her own bisexuality, so it takes her a while to realize her feelings for what they are.

With promising characters and a fascinating mythos, I will be interested to see how the Brooklyn Brujas series continues to develop.

Book Talk: Etiquette and Espionage


A book talk is a short presentation that is neither a book review or a plot summary. Rather, the intention is to entice the potential reader with just enough information to convince them to pick up the book. This talk was designed to be given to a classroom of high school students.

Good morning young ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard our airship, home to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. And it is our pleasure to host the young men of Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys Polytechnique for Evil Geniuses.  I am Professor Lefoux, Deputy Headmistress. Now, some of you, like Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott, are legacy students. But for those of you, like Miss Temminnick, who are covert recruits, I would like to impress upon you that this is not your average finishing school. Do not mistake me; by the time you are finished, your curtsies will be impeccable, and your etiquette unparalleled. But we shall also be training you in the fine art of espionage. As young ladies of quality, you will be uniquely positioned to manipulate London society.

Some of you will find yourselves in service to Queen and Country, be it Queen Victoria’s Shadow Council, or the Bureau of Unnatural Registry. Many of you will go as drones to the vampire hives, or clavigers to the werewolf packs. If you are technically minded, or perhaps do not care for the supernatural, you might even throw in with the Picklemen. One day you shall have to declare your loyalties, but for now, please be assured we will prepare you for all of these eventualities.

As for the gentlemen of Bunson and Lacroix’s, welcome. I hope you are enjoying your sojourn aboard our dirigible. I know that as budding young inventors and evil geniuses, you will take this opportunity to study such a unique example of modern air transportation. And I am pleased to announce that after tea, I have arranged a special tour of the boiler rooms and furnaces with one of our sooties, Mr. Phineas Crow. This section is, at all other times, off limits to students.

But a word of caution before we begin our social event. Do not get too comfortable there next to Miss Temminnick, young Lord Mersey. I would remind you all that the relationship between our two schools exists purely for the purpose of practicing social graces. There will be no fraternizing. Am I understood?

Excellent. Now, I understand you may have experienced some excitement on your journey here today. I will not abide wild tales about flywaymen, or stolen prototype devices, or any other such nonsense. I urge you to leave this matter to your professors, and focus on your studies. If you do not apply yourselves, you may find yourselves in the shoes of Miss Pelouse, who has been sent down to rejoin the debut class after failing to pass her finishing exam. Take care not to repeat her mistakes.

And now, I believe tea is served. Do mind your table manners.


Also by Gail Carriger:

Prudence (Young Adult)


More Steampunk:

Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson


The Fire Next Time

Cover image for The Fire Next Time by James Baldwinby James Baldwin

ISBN 978-0-679-74472-6

“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”

Originally published in 1963, The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays, the relatively short “My Dungeon Shook,” and the longer “Down at the Cross,” which makes up most of the volume. By the time it was published, Baldwin was an expatriate, living abroad in France, both a product of America, and apart from it.  “My Dungeon Shook” takes the form of a letter to Baldwin’s nephew and namesake, in which he addresses what it means to be a black man in the United States. “Down at the Cross” recounts Baldwin’s ardent conversion to Christianity as a teenager, and his subsequent exit from the church, using his own journey to examine the role of faith in the black community.

“My Dungeon Shook” is a heart-rending piece that is all the more powerful for its brevity. Baldwin addresses his young nephew with such unadorned directness. It is an honesty that seems desperate to impart anything he can that will help the younger James understand and navigate his experience. What is most startling is perhaps how relevant it still feels today. Some of the specifics have changed—there are no more colored bathrooms or water fountains, no dividing line on the bus—but black families are still having these conversations with their children every day.

Baldwin has an eloquent and unique style that makes me imagine him as a powerful orator. I can certainly picture him as a young lay-preacher, given ecstatic sermons in “Down at the Cross.” He has a startling clarity about what pushed him into the church, and what held him there, even as he describes it as like “being in the theatre. I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.” He later turns his attention on the Nation of Islam, arguing that the movement’s appeal among black people stemmed from a similar fear and lack of control. This second piece is looser than “My Dungeon Shook”, and sprawls much more broadly towards the end.

The Fire Next Time is a classic work that I picked up less to review, and more to add context to my recent reading, including Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward. I can certainly see more clearly the roots of Coates’ work, and how Baldwin’s style informed his own. They share a skepticism about religion, but interestingly I think that Coates is perhaps the more pessimistic of the two. Works that are deemed classics always seem to gather a certain aura of gravitas and inaccessibility, but Baldwin pulled me right in, and I can see why his writing possesses an enduring appeal.


You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Q3 Challenge Report 2016

The mornings are dark, the evenings are rainy, and autumn has arrived. Just like that, another quarter gone, and it is time to dig into the numbers!

2016 Goodreads Challenge

2016 Goodreads reading challenge image.Back in January, I set my sights on reading 130 books this year. I’m now up to 113, or 87%, so even though September was a bit of a slow reading month, I should finish the challenge comfortably. I like to go into the last quarter strong, because holidays and travel do have a way of messing up routines. However, I did a terrible job of logging these to Goodreads throughout the quarter, so I spent a good part of Sunday going through my reading notebook and inputting missed entries. Apologies to the newsfeeds of my Goodreads followers!

Maintain Diversity Awareness

Diversity was the focus of my 2015 reading challenge, and while I set some new goals for 2016, I didn’t want to lose that thread entirely. So while I didn’t set a formal target, I kept tracking the stats. I noticed my numbers had dipped from Q1 to Q2, so I made a quick and dirty tracking sheet in my reading notebook to fill in throughout the quarter. Sure enough, actively watching the numbers caused me to rally, and 21 of the 45 books I read this quarter qualified, or about 47%. I reviewed 15 of these 21 titles on my blog, so I’m not just reading these books, I’m talking about them, too.

Even out my fiction to non-fiction ration

I have a tendency to list towards reading purely fiction if I don’t push myself to pick up non-fiction, even though I really enjoy it. Fiction books are also often quicker to read, so when I am planning my time poorly, it is easier to fit one in to get out a review. This quarter, 23 of the 45 books I read were non-fiction, which I think is the first time the scales have tipped even slightly the other way. However, this wasn’t quite as evident on the blog, where only 10 of the 26 reviews this quarter were about non-fiction titles. So there is still some room for improvement here.

Read more Canadian Literature

Flag_of_Canada.svgLast year I only read 11 Canadian books, five of which were for Canada Reads. I wanted to do better than that this year, and at the end of Q2 I had equaled that number. This quarter, I can consider the goal officially met, as I read another five, bringing my total for 2016 so far up to 16. From where I am sitting, I can see a pile of eight unread Canadian books, so I will aim to knock off a few more before the year is out.

Update Blog

I did most of my work on this goal in the first quarter of the year, but I still have two items outstanding. I want to update my photo, which was taken almost five years ago, and launch a new feature. I didn’t complete either item in Q3, but I did build the page for the feature. You can consider this my public commitment to publish it by the end of the of the month. While the page is done, this feature is going to require a few guinea pigs, who have not yet been lined up. Leave a comment if you want to volunteer! And while it was not on my list of planned updates at the beginning of the year, this quarter I created a Top Picks category and menu to make it easier to find my most recommended books.

So it looks like there is still work to do before the year is out. Stay tuned! How are your reading challenges coming along?


Cover image for Uprooted by Naomi Novikby Naomi Novik

ISBN 978-0-8041-7905-8

“Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible.”

Agnieszka and Kasia have been best friends throughout their childhood in the village of Dvernik, bonded by the fact that they are both Dragon-born girls. Every ten years, the Dragon—the sorcerer who protects the valley from the dark magic of the Wood—takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live with him in the Tower, and both Agnieszka and Kasia will be seventeen the year his next servant is chosen. Everyone knows that it is Kasia, beautiful, and graceful, and competent, who will be chosen. And after ten years, she will emerge from the tower rich and educated, and leave the valley forever. But when the Dragon comes to make his choice, it is not Kasia who attracts his attention.

Uprooted has definite flavours of Beauty and the Beast, where a young woman is taken into the castle of a monster—or in this case a man with a monstrous reputation—and held there alone. The Dragon employs no other servants, and entertains no guests, unless called upon by the Crown, which he is bound to serve. Though it takes her time to admit it to herself, there is a reason Agnieszka attracted the Dragon’s attention despite being less beautiful than Kasia. She is a witch, and magical talent is too valuable in Polnya to be squandered. So expecting a role as servant, Agnieszka instead finds herself apprenticed, and drafted into the war against the Wood.

In most stories, Kasia would have disappeared after Agnieszka was taken, having served her part in the tale. But Uprooted continues to turn on their friendship, even eventually forcing them to confront and move past the hidden resentment that existed between them by virtue of being Dragon-born. While not destined for the life she had expected—riches and education and freedom in exchange for ten years of her youth and unquestioning service—Kasia still has an exceptional path before her, which is entwined with Agnieszka’s.

Uprooted is full of complex characters with individual motivations. Sarkan is determined to hold the Wood at bay, whatever the cost. Prince Marek is determined to somehow save his mother, Queen Hanna, from the Wood, even though she disappeared twenty years ago. Meanwhile his father, the King of Polnya, has his eyes set on a new international alliance that will help protect Polnya against Rosya. The wizards Alosha and Solya are caught up in politics and war due to their lives at court, and the monk-wizard Brother Ballo is consumed by his quest for knowledge. All these warring motivations come to bear on the question of how to fight the Wood, and prevent it from swallowing the valley, or corrupting the kingdom. The Wood is a terrifying arch-villain, but it is the smaller antagonists that add depth to the tale.

I started Uprooted listening to the audiobook, narrated by Julia Emelin, a Russian-born voice actress.  It took me a while to settle into the accent she used to perform the book, but within an hour I was absolutely hooked into the tale. I was enjoying the story so much three quarters of the way through, that I decided to go ahead and buy the paperback before I reached the end. Fortunately, it did not disappoint! This is a dark, lushly imagined fantasy that hits all the sweet-spots for a fairy tale retelling. I’m tempted to pick it back up and start again from the beginning.


You might also like:

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Hidden Figures

Cover image for Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterlyby Margot Lee Shetterly

ISBN 978-0-06-236359-6

“Unless an engineer was given a compelling reason to evaluate a woman as a peer, she remained in his blind spot, her usefulness measured against the limited task at hand, any additional talents undiscovered.”

The quick marketing description of Hidden Figures touts this book as the story of the black women mathematicians of NASA, who helped put men on the moon. But Margot Lee Shetterly’s narrative begins long before that. During World War II, women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, pulled into the vacuum left by men departing to serve in the military. Many of the black women who would go on to play significant roles in the space race began their careers in the segregated West Computing department of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on the Virginia Peninsula. In those days, computers were people, not machines, and the insatiable demand for bright mathematical minds cracked the door for black women to enter the agency that would one day become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Author Margot Lee Shetterly grew up on the Virginia Peninsula, her father one of the many African Americans who worked for NASA’s Langley Research Center. This was so common in the area that during her childhood, Shetterly took it for granted that “the face of science was brown like mine.” But on a return trip home to visit her parents during adulthood, she began to realize how remarkable her community really was. She peppered her father with questions about his early days at Langley, and began interviewing women from their church who had worked as computers in the early days. By the time she finished Hidden Figures, Shetterly could “put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980.”

Shetterly focuses on three main figures, including Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson. For most people, the last name is the only one that might be familiar, particularly after she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Shetterly touches briefly on many other women who worked for NACA and NASA, and in the later part of the book, brings in Dr. Christine Darden, representing the next generation of black women who were able to take advantage of the advances made by their predecessors. She follows Dorothy Vaughn from being a member of the West Computing pool, to head of that department, to overseeing its dissolution when the creation of NASA finally desegregated the computers. After beginning her career as a teacher, Katherine Johnson joined the computers in 1953, before going on to calculate launch windows and trajectories for several of America’s first space flights.

Meanwhile, Mary Jackson’s story in Hidden Figures always seemed to be building but never quite as centered as it could be. This made a great deal more sense when I arrived at the epilogue, and learned that Shetterly had to cut the section she had intended to include about Jackson’s later career. After notably achieving the title of engineer, in 1981 Jackson took a pay cut to move across to human resources, where she focused on ensuring equal employment opportunities for women and minorities at the agency. Shetterly recounts some of this in the epilogue, but I very much wished to read the complete chapter on the subject that was cut from the manuscript.

Throughout the narrative, Shetterly balances the math and science with the personal stories of the women. But she is also adept at counterpointing the developments at Langley and the career trajectories of the women with events in the United States at large, particularly as it pertains to the Civil Rights movement. In the space race against the USSR, the continued segregation and inequality of African Americans was on international display, undermining America’s stated ideals. While activists were being dragged off buses and beaten at lunch counters, the black computers were quietly fighting against segregated cafeterias, colored bathrooms, and the difficulty of achieving titles and paygrades commensurate with their education, acknowledgements that were automatically granted to their white or male peers. Shetterly deftly places all of this in context with the larger movements of history.

Shetterly has a writing style that leans more towards the academic than to narrative non-fiction. The documentation includes hundreds of notes, and ten pages of bibliography. Hidden Figures is as much science as anthropology. For that reason, I also look forward to the release of the film that will help bring these amazing women to life for those who might not be as interested in reading the in-depth details of math and engineering, but who still need to hear this story.


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Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel