Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

"Eighty-seven days after setting out to post a letter, Harold arrived at the gates of St. Bernadine's Hospice. Including mistakes and diversions, his journey had amounted to six hundred and twenty-seven miles." Harold, a retiree, had made the trip from the south of England to the east coast of Scotland on foot, wearing the same clothes and yachting shoes (many times repaired) he had on from the start.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce made me weep, because as he neared the end of his journey, Harold faced painful truths that he had long buried. It also left me feeling uplifted, because at the end, Harold learned that it is possible to have a second chance, to forgive and to be forgiven.

I'm not giving away the story by revealing the ending. The appeal is in the slow disclosure of Harold's past as he travels, and in getting to know the many people that he encounters along the way, and the wife he left behind at home.

I highly recommend this heart-warming story. We can all use a little grace in our lives.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Heaven is Small by Emily Schultz

If there is such a thing as warm-hearted satire, then that is the category for Canadian author Emily Schultz's quirky novel, Heaven is Small. The opening sentences reveal that readers are in for a treat:

"Moments after his death, an event he had failed to notice, Gordon Small sought new employment.
Welcome to Heaven. If you know the extension you wish to reach, enter it now."

Heaven, as experienced by newly-deceased Gordon, is more like purgatory. It's a publishing house specializing in trashy romance novels. Gordon, a failed fiction writer, gets a job in the editorial department.

Office politics in the afterlife... I loved it.

Readalikes: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman retells the legend of the siege at Masada, using the voices of four women who were among the 900 or so rebels and refugees making a final stand against the Romans when the rest of Judea had been conquered. All four women worked together in the dovecotes that provided eggs, meat (occasionally), and, most importantly, manure that enriched the gardens supplying fresh fruit and vegetables.

Yael, the assassin's daughter; Revka, the baker's wife; Aziza, the warrior's beloved; and Shirah, the witch of Moab -- in their society, women were defined chiefly through their relationship to men, but these four defied tradition, each in their own way. Getting to know these fierce and sorrowful characters was what I liked best about The Dovekeepers. I also enjoyed the glimpse into daily life in an inhospitable environment of 2000 years ago, and was equally intrigued by the descriptions of exotic folk traditions and arcane rituals.

Hoffman contrasts the attitudes towards women's folk wisdom and that of the men. Shirah is denounced as a witch for doing such things as dabbing hyssop nectar on her wrist to ward off evil. She "chanted Abra k'dabra." The men have better methods: "Abba presented my father with a fever charm, a prayer slipped inside a metal tube that was to be attached to the arms of the afflicted. He offered a length of blessed rope, to tie into knots in the children's tunics and bind them to good health." Abba was a leader of the Essene, followers of "a teacher from Galilee who taught that peace was the only hope for mankind."

Life was not peaceful for the folk gathered at the desert fortress of Masada, however. Their leaders were the brutal Sicarii -- warrior assassins. Aziza, having been raised as a boy in a different tribe, felt particularly constrained by the gender divide at Masada. She wanted to take up arms against the Romans too. Aziza's lover is Amram, Yael's brother. "He called me his sheep, his dove, his darling girl, but I was none of those things." Aziza realizes "He was not the one for me, for he would never accept the hidden part of me." In her old life, Aziza had the opposite problem, hiding her female nature. "I thought of my old friend Nouri, and how I had betrayed him, pretending to be something I wasn't, a creature cast from sinew and muscle rather than a woman of flesh and blood." This last sentence bothers my sensibilities, since I don't view men as 'creatures' and they are just as much made of flesh and blood as women. But I guess it is Aziza's way of explaining the mask she used when living as a boy. At Masada, Aziza found a way to slip back into an approximation of her true self by impersonating her younger brother.

If you are already familiar with the ending of the legend of the siege at Masada, you'll be glad to know that Hoffman has found a way to end The Dovekeepers with hope.

Readalikes: The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley); Theodora (Stella Duffy) and The Red Tent (Anita Diamant).

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Whenever David Levithan releases a new book, it's always interesting to see what kind of style he has chosen. His groundbreaking first novel, Boy Meets Boy, is not only an upbeat gay YA romance, but also features a high school where nobody blinks an eye at a flamboyant drag queen being both homecoming queen and quarterback of the football team. The Lover's Dictionary is a novel told in vignettes. Love Is the Higher Law is a 9/11 story told in three voices. Levithan's collaborative work with other authors (Rachel Cohn -- Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist and others; and John Green -- Will Grayson, Will Grayson) can be counted on for memorable voices in YA literature.

In Every You, Every Me, Levithan collaborated with photographer Jonathan Farmer, using each new photo Farmer supplied as a prompt to direct where he would go next in his suspenseful story about teens dealing with mental illness. In addition to the artwork, the novel contains words and entire passages that are crossed out. The strikethrough text allows readers to follow the narrator's thought process as he sorts out what he wants to say:

"They looked like they were happy vulnerable flirting together."

"Your life is inescapable. Unless you decide to escape it."

Evan was Ariel's best friend. Jack was Ariel's boyfriend. Ariel is "gone" (where?) and someone is leaving mysterious photo clues for Evan and Jack. Something sinister seems to be going on. Who can Evan trust? How well did he really know Ariel? Or Jack?

Unusually for Levithan, there's no queer content in this one. It's the format that is the biggest attraction. In fact, the style initially seemed to trump the story itself, but it's a quick read. Even though I didn't get emotionally involved with the characters, I felt intellectually stimulated. I'm still thinking about it, several days later.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Everything Is Illuminated, take 2: style and content

After posting my review of Everything Is Illuminated yesterday, I've thought a lot more about why I had a negative reaction to the book. Ali Smith, in her recent column in the Guardian about style vs. content, helped clarify my thoughts. 

"For a style may not be to your taste. It may not be your style. But that's an important issue, one that marks style's power. The last thing literary style is is a matter of indifference; that's why it's so powerful a stirrer of love and passion, anger and argument. That's why it can really trouble us. That's why a style you don't take to can feel so like a personal assault."

The personal assault I felt was on two fronts. I mentioned one yesterday, that Foer's use of slapstick humour clashed with the specific depictions of genocide. Smith addresses this very thing, mentioning novels that "clarify historic foulness yet masquerade as, and are, comedic entertainments." Reacting to comedy is deeply personal. Why did I enjoy Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil and not Everything Is Illuminated? Both revisit the Holocaust using humour, an element of fable, and even include the author as a fictional character in their own work. It's simply a matter of taste.

The other thing that I might have taken too personally was the way Alex used English incorrectly in Everything Is Illuminated. Since I'm soon to be immersed in a foreign language environment and my Slovak skills are rudimentary, I know that I will make mistakes. I'll use the wrong words. And maybe I'm a little sensitive about that.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

It's disappointing to finally get to a book that I've been meaning to read for a long time... and then feel pretty meh about it. Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated has lots of the elements that I like, including:

  • A writing style that switches back and forth between contemporary times and a fable about generations of Jewish inhabitants in a shtetl in Ukraine, plus a few odd bits of letters and old book excerpts thrown in. 
  • People searching for their roots
  • Family secrets revealed
  • Jewish experience in the Holocaust
  • Eastern European setting
  • Dialogue in nonstandard English
  • Humour 

But somehow, it just didn't work for me. Sometimes, when a book flips back and forth between narratives, one captures my interest more than the other. In this case, I found annoying elements in both of the main story strands. Alex, the modern Ukrainian guide and translator, uses English in a way that manufactures sense, so it isn't rigid to know what he signifies, but it spleened me anyway. It was tiresome. And I found the historical fable unpleasantly preposterous, rather than whimsical. A husband and wife, for example, "fought so much to remind ourselves that we were in love and not in hate." Both the family violence and the rampant sex were too much for me.

There were parts that made me smile, like: "Jews are those things that God loves. Since roses are beautiful we must assume that God loves them. Therefore we must assume that roses are Jewish."

Even though I usually like a combination of humour and pathos, in this case the horrors were jarring against the slapstick. If it would have been the print book instead of an audiobook, I don't think I even would have got to the end. I kept thinking, just one more CD, maybe it will get better. 11.45 hours later, I did appreciate the conclusion as well as the overall way the novel was constructed. I also liked the two narrators of the Recorded Books edition, Jeff Woodman and Scott Shina, who helped pull me through when I found the story itself a slog. 

This is a rare case where I might like the movie better than the book... if I ever get around to watching it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bratislava by Lucy Mallows

Travel writer Lucy Mallows shows some personality in Bratislava: A City Guide, published by Bradt. Most travel guides are so bland that it's refreshing to come across odd statements like "Slovak mineral water is delicious and contains many life-enhancing properties" -- even when I don't believe her. I'm a fan of water, truly, but "delicious" is going a bit far.

Mallow pays attention to small, but important, details, like where to find the best public toilets. She gives advice about how to get small denominations of money to make it easier to pay bus fare, even going so far as to mention "The girl at the exchange booth on Rybárska brána is very helpful." (The guidebook was published in 2009. I wonder if that woman still works there.)

Me in traditional dress, Slovakia 2002
Twenty-five pages at the beginning give just the right amount of the history, politics and economics for context. Unusual facts are what I like best, like this list of names that the city has had over a succession of occupants and occupiers:
805 - Wratislaburgum
907 - Braslavespurch
1038 - Breslava Civitas
1042 - Brezeburg
1050 - Brezalauspurch
1052 - Preslawaspurch
1108 - Bresburg, Bresburch
1146 - Bosonium
1300s-1400s - Poson, Posonium
1465 - Istropolis
1500s - Posonium Pressburg
1848 - Pozsony, Pressburg, Presporok, Bratislava
1918 - "Following many centuries of Austro-Hungarian domination, Czechs and Slovaks were so thankful to American President Woodrow Wilson for supporting the establishment of their independent common state, Czechoslovakia, that they renamed Bratislava 'Wilsonovo Mesto'; the new name didn't last for very long."
1919 - Bratislava

Former American president George W. Bush was not held in the same regard as Wilson. "'The only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned first-hand from your foreign minister who came to Texas,' Bush told a Slovak journalist, shortly after meeting the prime minister of Slovenia."

I'll be in Slovakia in two weeks.  I'm looking forward to seeing my cousins and talking like a pirate with every hello and goodbye: Ahoj!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Singapore garden frog
"On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him.

He did not apologise for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did."

These are the two opening paragraphs of Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists, which is currently on the Man Booker Prize longlist. Teoh Yun Ling, only survivor of a secret Japanese labour camp, is the narrator. Yun Ling comes from an Anglophile Chinese family in Kuala Lumpur. She asks Nakamura Aritomo, the Japanese master gardener, if he will design a garden in memory of her older sister who died in the brutal camp. He refuses, offering instead to teach Yun Ling how to create one herself.

The story moves back and forth in time, mostly between the period of the Malayan Emergency after WWII, which is when Yun Ling is apprenticed to Aritomo, and present day, when Yun Ling has retired from her legal career as a justice, where she was known for her work in prosecuting war criminals.
A Malaysian family took my photo in a garden in
Singapore when I was travelling on my own in 2002.

The Garden of Evening Mists is an atmospheric novel that immersed me in another place and time. I was intrigued by the large cast of characters and enjoyed the slow reveal of their complexities. I also enjoyed expanding my existing knowledge about Japanese gardens and learning a little about such things as the gathering of swifts' nests for soup; the connections between Japanese tattoo art and woodblock prints; and mid-twentieth century life on a tea plantation.

It seems that I cannot escape my attraction to novels that deal with the fallout from war. This is a powerful and poetic story about how we learn to move on, even from the most terrible circumstances imaginable.

Readalikes: The Harmony Silk Factory (Tash Aw) and, for more from the viewpoint of Japanese soldiers, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (Shigaru Mizuki).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

We can't help wanting what we want... and what we want is usually a car wreck. That's the message in Jess Walter's latest novel, Beautiful Ruins. Multiple story threads come together over a span of more than half a century. I like this sort of narrative style, switching between time periods, places, and characters at different stages in their lives.

It starts in a tiny village in Cinque Terre, Italy, where a movie actress stays for a few days in 1962. Then in modern day USA, the aging Italian hotel keeper travels to Hollywood to find out what happened to the actress. In between, there are babies born out of wedlock, a soldier in World War II whose greatest trouble is with his feet, actor Richard Burton drinking nonstop, and plenty of betrayals. Also the bonds of love, friendship and family that sustain us. What a great book!

I listened to the Recorded Books audiobook [13 hours] narrated in a lively way by Edoardo Ballerini, who could perform both the fluent Italian and butchered Italian, as required by the text. There's also a bit with the author answering a few questions at the end of the recording, which is a nice addition. Walter talks about researching the book by spending time in Cinque Terre and I was envious. I spent a few days hiking that coast in 2007 and it is breathtaking.

The contradictions that are inherent in the choices we make are highlighted in Beautiful Ruins. (And in the title, come to think of it.) So now I've started listening to Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, which is nonfiction about the hidden forces that shape our decisions.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Claire Nivola

Author / illustrator Claire Nivola, in her picture book biography of Sylvia Earle, writes: "We have explored only 5 percent of the ocean. We know more about the planets in outer space than we know about the sea on our very home planet!" Life in the Ocean introduces a woman of uncommon passion for studying, and saving from extinction, the living beings with whom we share this planet. Earle was born in 1935. She was among the first to explore the depths of the ocean, discovering the beauty that exists thousands of feet below the surface. Her awe and appreciation for the natural world is beautifully rendered in Nivola's detailed artwork. It's an inspiring story for readers of all ages. The simple text has whetted my appetite to learn more about Earle, a remarkable scientist.

Picture book readalikes: Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau (Jennifer Berne); One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin (Kathryn Lasky); Nobody Particular: One Woman's Fight to Save the Bays (Molly Bang); and Me-- Jane (Patrick McDonnell).

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

Even someone as uninterested in Hollywood celebrities as I am is familiar with Ellen Degeneres, who might be the most famous lesbian in North America right now. So a decade ago, when Ellen got together with actress Portia de Rossi, and later married her, of course I paid some attention. Still, when I listened to de Rossi's memoir, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, I had to search Google images. I only had a vague idea of what she looked like: tall with long, blonde hair.

Evidence of de Rossi's battle with anorexia and bulimia is there in the images online. In some, she looks almost skeletal. In Unbearable Lightness, de Rossi documents her dieting extremes. She subsisted on 300 calories a day for a long time, collapsing from starvation while filming Who Is Cletis Tout?. She went from 82 pounds to 168 pounds in 10 months.

When de Rossi was 12, she began modelling professionally in Australia. That is also when her problematic relationship with food began. She came to the US for an acting role in Sirens and ended up staying in California, where she could further her acting career. In addition to taking control over her body with extreme dieting and exercise, she changed her accent and was careful to remain deeply in the closet. She narrates her own story in the Simon & Schuster audiobook with no remaining trace of an Australian accent.

I was struck by the hateful force of the drill sergeant in de Rossi's head, the internal voice berating her for being a fat, lazy dyke. The voice ordering her to run up seven flights of stairs again and again in order to burn off the extra calories from a pack of no-sugar gum. It was painful, at times, to feel what it was like to be inside of de Rossi's illness. She had such a fear of consuming any fat, for example, that she hand washed fresh-out-of-the-dishwasher dishes before eating off them because they felt greasy to her.

The final CD, disc 8, is mostly epilogue; the long healing process. De Rossi gets rather mushy talking about Ellen, the love of her life. It is good to learn, however, that de Rossi is now accepting of her own self, not trying to be someone she is not.

Whether you are interested in lesbian lives, celebrity memoirs, or insight into eating disorders, I recommend Unbearable Lightness.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Half Empty by David Rakoff

I'm sad to learn today that David Rakoff has died. I've enjoyed his arch humour since an earlier collection of essays, Don't Get Too Comfortable, was published in 2005, but his most recent collection, Half Empty, is my favourite. In it, he is at his most personal; candid about being gay, his shortcomings, and about his battles with cancer.

I listened to Rakoff narrate Half Empty in the Random House audiobook [6 hr, 49 min] back in January, so my memory retains only impressions, rather than details. Rakoff's social commentary is charming, observant and literary. He is funny enough to make me laugh out loud. Last year, Rakoff was awarded the Thurber prize for American humour.

Canadians can view a clip of Rakoff being interviewed in 2005 on the Jon Stewart Daily Show here. He talks about why he finally applied for US citizenship after more than 20 years of living in New York. Rakoff maintained dual citizenship, however, so I'll add a Canadian tag to this post. He will be missed on both sides of the border.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The day after I began making travel arrangements to add Geneva to my upcoming European trip, I started reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story collection, Strange Pilgrims. The very first story, Bon Voyage, Mr. President, is set in Geneva. Don't you love it when that happens? (The serendipity, I mean. Receiving an invitation to visit a cousin in Geneva is also nice.)

I don't even remember who recommended this book, only that it was a man who said two of his most favourite stories are in Strange Pilgrims. I don't know which two, but I now have my own. "I Only Came to Use the Phone" is about a woman whose rental car breaks down on a remote road in Spain and ends up trapped in a mental hospital. The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow has a distraught Caribbean bridegroom unable to negotiate French bureaucracy while his bride lies in a Parisian hospital.

I read the edition translated by Edith Grossman and published in Canada by Knopf in 1993. The jacket summarizes thus: "These twelve extraordinary stories by South America's preeminent man of letters are set in contemporary Europe and recount the peculiar and amazing experiences that befall Latin Americans visiting or living abroad." Sublimely surreal.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

Language and character are the two doorways into Roddy Doyle's A Greyhound of a Girl. Mary is twelve, as cheeky as can be. Her mother, Scarlett, speaks in exclamations. Emer, Mary's grandmother, is close to death in hospital, but still cracking jokes. Mary's great-grandmother, Tansey, has decided to show up... even though she died when Emer was a wee girl. The older three are as tall and lean as greyhounds, and Mary shares the family resemblance. They embark on a road trip that is both literal and figurative, strengthening connections across generations.

The viewpoint shifts between the four. Tansey as a young wife lived in a farmhouse with a traditional thatched roof. "There were mice up in that thatch that had never seen the light of day. One of them fell onto Tansey's lap one night, and her sitting at the fire, trying to see the hole in a sock that she was darning. A tiny little lad, but all the same, it gave her a great big fright. The scream was out of her before she could call it back."

Tansey is a hoot, but my favourite is Mary. When she wants to show her anger but can't get a door to slam properly, she yells out the word "SLAM!" She visited her granny in hospital daily, even though the place frightened her. "Even the name, Sacred Heart Hospital, scared her a bit. The Sacred Heart, people called it. She's in the Sacred Heart. Mary imagined a huge bloody heart with a squelchy door that you had to squeeze through, and blood dripping from the ceiling."

The story is set in Dublin and on a farm near Enniscorthy. Funny that I'd never heard of Enniscorthy until recently, in Colm Toibin's Brooklyn. The Amulet Books edition of A Greyhound of a Girl has helpful maps on the endpapers.

A Greyhound of a Girl is a nonspooky ghost story about family relationships. The dialogue makes it especially attractive for an all-ages read-aloud.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Kishwar Desai's Witness the Night won the Costa First Novel Award two years ago but, somehow, this murder mystery set in India wasn't on my radar until I heard Desai interviewed by Simon Savidge some time ago on The Readers podcast. Desai talked about the real-life unsolved crime that was the inspiration for her novel, as well as her desire to bring attention to the plight of women and girls in India.

All thirteen members of a wealthy and influential Sikh family in a Punjab village have been murdered, except for 14-year-old Durga. The police find her tied to a bed, abused, but alive. Durga is the prime -- and only -- suspect. Social worker Simran Singh has been asked if she can get the traumatized girl to speak.

Forty-five years old and never married, Simran is not a typical Sikh woman. She drinks and smokes. A lot. Her search for justice is fueled by deep anger.

"The headlines on television announced that saplings were being planted in memory of all the 'disappeared daughters.' Punjab is known for murdering its daughters. The sex ratio here is the lowest in the country -- less than 850 girls per 1,000 men -- and despite all sorts of dire warnings from social scientists and demographers, girls are still considered inauspicious. In Chandigarh, the uber urban capital that Punjab shares with Haryana, it is now 777 per thousand males. In some villages of Haryana it is a miserable 370. Delhi is also fast reaching those dismal figures. I thought of trees being planted all over the concrete mass of the city -- and all the cities of the country. The bright life-affirming green against the dead grey of the cityscape. Trees pushing out of windows, bedrooms, school rooms, offices, toy shops, bridal parlours, empty cradles... green leaves left like tiny footprints everywhere the girls would have been had they lived."

The police are obviously concealing evidence regarding the murders, so Simran doesn't trust the justice system to treat Durga fairly. Her own investigation into the web of secrets alternates with Durga's journal entries.

"[My sister and I] had just learnt that next door, the girl who had gone away as a bride had come back as a corpse within a month, she had been burnt because her dowry had been insufficient. We cried to Amla that we did not want to be paraya dhan. Couldn't we become boys? Boys were safe, they got shares, did not have to leave their homes."

Durga loved to wear trousers and a turban when she was young. She has had a sexual relationship with her beloved older sister. Durga is possibly a lesbian, although her psyche has been so warped by her family that it's hard to tell. Simran, meanwhile, has quite a puzzle on her hands.

I'm very glad to have read Witness the Night, and now I want to discuss the ending with someone. Please comment below.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

A lesbian blacksmith in Seattle, a black sword whose provenance goes all the way back to Norse mythology, dragons who shapeshift into modern investment bankers -- Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts has the ingredients that appeal to me. But that's not enough when the writing style is not to my taste. I was intrigued enough to get halfway through, then I skimmed, and then read the last few chapters.

Sarah Beauhall, the young blacksmith, is consumed with self-loathing. She has fallen in love with a woman for the first time and the sex is great but internalized homophobia is really messing up her relationship with Katie, a teacher. Among Katie's lesbian friends, Sarah "felt like a fish out of water. When the nagging voices in my head started up -- you know, those old teachers or cranky relatives that live in your skull and tell you how much you suck, or what an abomination you are -- those voices rose loud and clear when I thought about the public aspect of it all."

Sarah finds Katie "stunning in her teacher outfit -- black mid-length skirt and white short-sleeved top. Hell, she was stunning in nothing at all, but that's beside the point." Another day: "Katie had gone off to catch her bus decked out in her cute schoolteacher accoutrement." I found Sarah's schoolmarm fetish supremely annoying in the way it demeaned her lover's profession. Pitts' whole approach to lesbianism screamed straight male author, so I checked, and his first name is John. (Some men do write convincing lesbian characters, but not in this case.)

Continuity errors and inconsistencies abound, but it was the writing style that was the deal-breaker for me: "'Cut!' Carl called. Carl was the director." (Duh, who else would call "Cut!" on a movie set?) And this: "I woke at the butt crack of dawn."

If none of the above dissuades you, you'll be glad to know that there are sequels: Honeyed Words and Forged in Fire.

Rather than readalikes, I'll suggest alternatives.

Fantasy with a blade-wielding lesbian: Huntress (Malinda Lo)
Urban fantasy starring a lesbian: Santa Olivia (Jacqueline Carey)
Urban fantasy with a strong female lead (a car mechanic) and also shapeshifting: the Mercy Thompson books (Patricia Briggs)
Human who was once a dragon: Tea with the Black Dragon (R.A. MacAvoy)
Norse mythology brought into contemporary times: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Douglas Adams)
and a graphic novel send-up of the found-an-ancient-powerful-artifact-and-now-the-baddies-are-after-it plotline: The Helm (Jim Hardison and others).