Sunday, November 20, 2016

Crocodile on the Sandbank (by Elizabeth Peters)

I jumped the gun on my vacation reading by finishing the first book in the Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank.  I was downloading Kindle samples as per usual, trying to find something to read on vacation. Given my current mood, some light genre fiction sounded good. I decided to sample this one a little further. And further. And further. And then, oops, I finished it.

This book fit the bill perfectly. Elizabeth Peters is an Egyptologist, so her setting (a trip down the Nile and an archaeological dig of Akhnaten 's palace) is fully realized and detailed. Plus, Akhnaten is my favorite pharaoh! The unspooling of the mystery is fun, but secondary to the wonderful main characters, starting with Amelia herself, a smart, independent, feminist, independently wealthy Englishwoman in 1880. But all four main characters are delightful.

This is the first novel in a 15-book series -- I wonder how many of these I will burn through while on vacation! I'm assiduously saving the second one, which I just downloaded, for the first leg of our trip.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Beauty (by Robin McKinley)

Sorry to drag my election depression over here to my beloved book blog, but I have to say that it is making it really difficult to find something to read. This retelling of Beauty and the Beast hit the sweet spot, though. Genre, nothing political, and decent from a feminist perspective. I really enjoyed it.

McKinley did a second, different retelling of the same fairy tale but the opening didn't grab me.  I may try her Sleeping Beauty retelling next.  But further suggestions welcome, because I honestly have no idea what to read next. (I am listening to the audibook of Scalzi's The Dispatcher, and it is also hitting the spot. So maybe sci-fi/fantasy is where I should be looking.)


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Business Trip Reading Roundup

I'm putting these books in the "vacation" category because I read them on airplanes and in airports, but really it was a business trip. I had six hours of flight delays and traveled cross-country, though, so I did get quite a bit of reading in.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters 

I downloaded a lot of samples on my Kindle while waiting to board my flight, and it was this one, recommended seemingly at random by Amazon, that sucked me in right away with the premise and the writing. This is speculative fiction about a roughly present-day America where the Civil War never happened.  Thanks to some constitutional amendments, there is legal slavery in four states known as the "Hard Four." The main narrator is an undercover U.S. Marshal who hunts escaped slaves and sends them back to the Hard Four. The twist? He's black, and grew up as a slave himself.

This book has some great world-building, with the alternate history sprinkled organically throughout the story. The plot itself is exciting and propulsive, with more than one twist to come. The narrator is flawed and interesting. Of course it speaks to current day issues with race and identity, but also is just plain a good read.  I had been assuming it was written by a black author, and then got all the way to the end and realized it was by Ben H. Winters, the (white) author of the Last Policeman series. So the recommendation wasn't random after all! 

Apart from one development towards the end that did not seem plausible, and apart from the slight cognitive dissonance of having a white guy write this, I really enjoyed it.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari 

This was my obligatory airplane paperback, purchased at good old Hudson News along with my water and gum and what have you.  I flipped through it and it looked very funny and entertaining. Indeed, it is very funny and entertaining! Even though I haven't been in the dating world in well over a decade, it's still fun to read about the Tindering and the texting and everything else the kids are up to these days. It's well-researched (it was co-written by a sociologist) and very often laugh-out-loud funny. It's also not devoid of emotion, as Ansari discusses his own romantic foibles and neuroses along the way. A fast, fun read.

The Likeness by Tana French

The second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, with mostly positive reviews, but a lot of people have issues with the premise. The premise: a murder victim named Lexie looks exactly like detective Cassie Maddox, who goes undercover and moves in with Lexie's roommates in an attempt to figure out who killed her. Yes, they supposedly look so much alike that she's able to fool Lexie's closest friends into thinking they are the same person. No, they are not long-lost twins. Also, despite the fact that they only lived a short distance apart, nobody ever ran across one and said "holy crap, there's someone who looks exactly like you up the road!"

Okay, maybe I had some issues with the premise. 

The writing is very good, and I was interested in Cassie from the previous book, and I definitely was invested in figuring out the mystery, but I do feel like the premise is too absurd to really make it hang together.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

In the Woods (by Tana French)

This novel, the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is oft-recommended in discussions about excellent mysteries.  I decided to give it a try and then, of course, couldn't put it down until it was finished.

It's very well-written. Three kids go into the woods, and only one comes out -- bloody and traumatized, with no memory of what happened.  Twenty years later, that kid is a murder detective, investigating a murder of a child in the same council estate in Ireland where his friends disappeared. (I was hesitant about the whole "child murder" theme, but it was compelling enough based on the sample that I went for it anyway.)

This book is indeed very well written and compelling all the way through. There are some definite frustrations, though -- and spoilers in the next couple of paragraphs, so avert your eyes, RSS readers.

First of all, the relationship between Rob and Cassie was just weird. I liked their closeness and their friendship, but it was so over-the-top at times to be almost unbelievable. I mean, would he really be rubbing her feet while hanging out with another colleague? Cassie seemed like a manic pixie dream detective, doing cartwheels on the beach and also being the best detective and amateur profiler ever.  And Rob's behavior at the end of the book makes very little sense either. It's not nuanced; he's just an enormous asshole for no reason.

Secondly, only one of the two central mysteries is solved. I actually didn't need the other one to be solved completely, but French takes us right up to the edge of it and then leaves us with nothing -- really, not even a vague clue (unless I missed something). Of course I was expecting something to be discovered in the dig at the end, to set up the sequel. I knew this was a series. But nothing is discovered, and then it turns out the next five books focus on completely different characters, and the cliffhangers (both the mystery and Rob's relationship with Cassie) are (forever?) unresolved.

So, it is good but it's ultimately frustrating. I'm getting on a plane tomorrow though, and I have to say I will at least give the second book a shot. Seems like it could make a really great airplane read.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Nao of Brown (by Glyn Dillon)

This graphic novel also could have served as an entry in the Read Harder Challenge; it was released around the same time as my beloved Building Stories.

The Nao of Brown is about a half-English, half-Japanese resident of London who suffers from the "bad thoughts" version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. We experience her inner life as she works in her friend Steve's shop, interacts with her roommate, meets a washing-maching repairman she's drawn to, and explores Buddhism -- all the while dealing with her mental illness.

I will start with the things that work less well: an extremely overly pat ending, the fact that Gregory's narrative is centered over Nao's in the end, and the interstitial comic about the half-man, half-tree, which doesn't really work for me thematically or visually.

But there is more here that really works: the wonderful visuals, the off-kilter authenticity of the story, the secondary characters, and most of all Nao herself, who is so endearing and vulnerable even as she is convinced she is a monster.

I don't know how I stumbled across this book -- almost certainly a recommendation on Goodreads -- but I'm glad I did. If you like more adult-flavored graphic novels, give it a look.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Today Will Be Different (Maria Semple)

I no longer have the Read Harder Challenge looming, so now I get to read at random, for fun! What a novelty.  Today Will Be Different is Maria Semple's follow-up to Where'd You Go Bernadette? and in my opinion, it's better.

It's also set in Seattle and has a frisson of satire aimed at Seattle parenthood and family life. Mostly it's about a somewhat unsympathetic mom, Eleanor, who vows to "be different" but who largely fails and fumbles her way through one particular day. In between vignettes we get some backstory about Eleanor's history and relationship with her estranged sister, and even a wonderful mini-graphic novel tucked into one of the chapters. I don't mind unsympathetic characters; I loved the art; I was on board with Eleanor's urban Seattle adventures; I enjoyed this novel.

Side note: One of my weird pet peeves is names that are like made-up versions of traditional names. (For example one of our local traffic newscasters is named Kiffany.)  I realize this is an unfair pet peeve and people don't choose their own names. But in this case Maria Semple did choose the name "Timby" for Eleanor's son and it annoyed me to read it every single time. Sorry 'bout it.  


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Read Harder Challenge 2016

And with that, I've officially completed the 2016 Read Harder Challenge. This was really fun, and I will almost certainly do it again in 2017.  Below is the final list of what I read for each category, with a link back to the review.

Total: 24/24

[X] A horror book: Slade House 
[X] A nonfiction book about science: Come as You Are
[X] A collection of essays: Men Explain Things to Me, Gratitude
[X] Out loud to someone else: King of the Cats (read; not reviewed)
[X] Middle grade novel: The Graveyard Book
[X] Biography (not memoir): Into the Wild
[X] Dystopian or post-apocalyptic: Find Me 
[X] Published in the 1970s: The Dog of the South
[X] Audie-award-winning audiobook: The Graveyard Book
[X] Over 500 pages: A Little Life           
[X] Under 100 pages: Gratitude
[X] By or about a transgender person: If I Was Your Girl

[X] Set in Middle East: An Unnecessary Woman
[X] Author from Southeast Asia: The Sympathizer
[X] Historical fiction set before 1900: The Signature of All Things
[X] First book in series by person of color: Blanche on the Lam
[X] Non-superhero comic in last three years: Lumberjanes, Vol. 1
[X] Book adapted into movie (then see movie): Olive Kitteridge.
[X] Nonfiction about feminism:  Men Explain Things to Me  
[X] About religion: Uncovered
[X] About politics: Double Down  
[X] Food memoir: Tender at the Bone
[X] A play: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
[X] Main character has mental illness: Let's Pretend this Never Happened

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Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Brooke A. Allen)

I needed to read a comic from the last few years to finish off the Read Harder Challenge, so I went with Lumberjanes, Volume 1.  Much to my surprise, this was not a book about a bunch of camping lesbians, but instead a Buffy-esque story about supernatural goings on at a camp for Girls Hardcore Lady Types.

The good: Shoutouts to feminist icons. Awesome and diverse characters. Written and illustrated by women. Funny and witty, with clever dialogue -- hence the Buffy comparisons.

The less-than-good: Disclaimer: I am not a comics person. I read this entire volume in half an hour because it goes so fast. I love some of the alternate concept art much more than the final artwork (especially how Molly and Mal are plus-sized girls). This volume read like midway through the story -- the characters, the setting, and the world are not established at all, so it is a bit disjointed, and the supernatural business isn't really smoothly introduced.  The characters overuse "What the junk?" a lot. A lot. And the excerpts from the "Lumberjanes Guide" are in desperate need of proofreading.

The verdict: If I could get these at the library, I'd keep reading them. In a couple of years I'd be happy to read them to Mina. They seem fun, feminist, accessible, clever.  As far as comics go, they seem to be a worthy entry into the canon.

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We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (by Yael Kohen)

Another book in the "insidery books about comedy" genre.  Also the "I am laid up with a bad foot and have taken some Percoset so I need something easy to digest."  This is an interesting and very detailed oral history of woman in comedy, from Elaine May to Mitzi Shore to Roseanne to Sarah Silverman.  The author interviews dozens of female (and a few male) comedians, club owners, improv artists, and classic comediennes, and crafts it into a very solid history of the form.

Most conspicuously missing interview: Tina Fey. (She came up a lot, of course, but was not interviewed.)  Most egregious oversight: no mention of Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin of SCTV fame.  Most unfortunate timing: the final chapter kind of treats Chelsea Handler as the present-day culmination of all of this wonderful comedy. Chelsea Handler. And she comes off as a brat, to boot. Unfortunately this book pre-dates the rise of Amy Schumer, who would have been a better choice. Maybe it's just my dislike of Chelsea Handler talking here. But you could also make a case for Kate McKinnon, the other women of SNL, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones if you were writing it today. In fact, this would be a great candidate for a follow-up book in a couple of years, since it's been such a terrific time for women in comedy!

Anyway, thumbs up -- I enjoyed this a lot. And hopefully it wasn't just because I was high on Percoset.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Home Land (by Sam Lipsyte)

I won this as a prize in our Tournament of Books pool this year, and started reading it on vacation. It's loosely epistolary, in the form of letters from the narrator, Lewis "Teabag" Miner, to his alumni association. The letters are crude, filthy, and honest to a fault, so they remain unpublished.

This book is entertaining as hell, a Bukowski-esque and very funny exploration of failed masculinity.  I dog eared half the book because it kept making me laugh out loud. I feel like it's probably not for everyone -- it's only very loosely plotted and it's very penisy.  (Focuses on men, lots of masturbation references, you know how it is.) But for sheer amusement factor, it's a lot of fun.

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Monday, October 03, 2016

Into the Wild (by Jon Krakauer)

You may recall that one of my most frequently re-read books of all time is Into Thin Air. I don't know why I never had much of an interest in Into the Wild and then suddenly I did, but when I was looking for a new "gym book" (the books I read while exercising) I decided to give in to my Krakauer love and give it a shot.

Krakauer's writing is never less than great, but the story to me is less compelling than Into Thin Air. In fact, the best part of this memoir is Krakauer's own account of his ascent of the Devil's Thumb. He includes this to show why he empathizes so strongly with the somewhat foolhardy Chris McCandless, but it is by far the most compelling and exhilarating part of the book.

The problem is, there isn't much to McCandless's story. He meets some people on the road, hikes into the Alaska wilderness, finds a bus, moves in, kills some animals, eats some poison berries (or seeds, or mold, or potatoes -- this part has some controversy surrounding it) and doesn't make it out again.  It's more about whether you think McCandless was young, reckless, and noble, or young, reckless, and dumb. 

I felt for the kid, in the end -- Krakauer makes a good argument about the folly of youth in general and about what McCandless did manage to achieve -- but I was left not really getting why this one dumb adventure was worthy of a whole book. And McCandless came across as a somewhat stereotypically pretentious twentysomething. No shade: we've all been pretentous twentysomethings. But he's not exactly a figure to admire.

It did make me eager to read Eiger Dreams, however -- a book of essays about Krakauer's own experiences climbing. I don't know why I, voted Least Likely to Climb a Mountain by the award committee of me, am so fascinated by the climbing stories, but I am!

Oh, and halfway through this book I realized it counts as a biography for the Read Harder Challenge. Yay! A freebie!

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

If I Was Your Girl (by Meredith Russo)

I was researching possibilities for my next Read Harder Challenge book, and stumbled upon this YA novel that is both about a trans girl, and by a trans author. (One category is "by a trans author or about a trans character" -- this has both, and as a bonus, uses a trans model on the cover.) Instead of clicking "download sample" I accidentally clicked "buy" and after reading the first chapter, I was sucked in and decided to go with it.

This is the story of Amanda, a girl who moves in with her father after a Difficult Past and starts over at a new school.  And the story hangs largely on her narration and characterization, as Russo explores her inner conflicts and her negotiation of relationships while learning to live as herself for the first time in her life. What Russo has done here is not only make Amanda a wonderful character you really root for, but also has given all the secondary characters -- who sometimes get short shrift in YA novels -- full inner lives and story arcs of their own. I loved that.

At heart it's a YA romance -- Amanda falls in love with a boy at school, but will he still love her once he learns her secret? But it's a nuanced examination of what it means to be a trans girl, the good the bad and the ugly. I read this book in a day (could not put it down) and cried through the entire denouement.

I particularly appreciated Russo's author note (where she mentions she herself is trans) because she acknowledges some of the more "fairy tale" aspects of Amanda's character and explains why she made those choices. It completely worked for me, as a cisgender reader -- although if I were a trans reader or the parent of a trans child, it might work less well, I can't speak for those audiences. From where I'm sitting though, I think this is not only an Important book for teens to read, but also a very well-written one. Really, really great YA.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Tender at the Bone (by Ruth Reichl)

Oh, I loved this. I needed a "food memoir" for the Read Harder Challenge and was familiar with Ruth Reichl from Top Chef Masters, but I did not anticipate her writing to be so delightful, wry, honest, witty, and charming, or her life to be so fascinating.

From hanging out with hangers on of Andy Warhol, to inviting herself to France with Kermit Lynch, to telling stories about her manic-depressive mother poisoning an entire party with rotten crab, every page of this is delightful. An excellent food memoir.

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Mislaid (by Nell Zink)

I feel like I cannot improve upon this review. But I will try, because panning a book is fun!

I truly disliked this book. The writing is precious and mannered -- I kept visualizing the author as an MFA student who was very pleased with herself -- and the characters behave in zero ways that are recognizably human. The "satire" of race is completely nonexistent -- compare to something like The Sellout or The Good Lord Bird and you see how it fails. I care about the teenage characters marginally more than the adult characters, but they all seem like shadow puppets of people. There is no authenticity here.

My notes: "Characters and their choices seem implausible." "Do not care for writing style." "Ending fun but way too pat and again, implausible." "Dislike button."

 tl;dr: hated it.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

An Unnecessary Woman (by Rabih Alameddine)

I read this for the Read Harder Challenge category "book set in Middle East." This was a tricky category considering I did not feel like reading about terrorism and war, and a lot of Middle East-set books cover those topics. However, someone in the Goodreads group recommended this one, set in Beirut in the (roughly) present-day.

It's the narrative of a 72-yeard-old woman who translates literature into Arabic -- but she translates only translations in French and English. So for example rather than translating Tolstoy directly, she translates Constance Garnett's translation of Tolstoy. This is a quiet character study that takes place all in one day, like Mrs Dalloway (which of course is referenced).  It's not about what "happens" so much as it is what Aaliyah, our main character, is thinking: about literature, about her life, about whether she -- a reclusive widow -- is in fact "unnecessary."

About halfway through I wrote a note: "This novel is an erudite character study about the culmination of a life of reading." That held through to the end. The shoutouts to literature are like wonderful little gifts -- mentions of everything from Pale Fire to The Ashley Book of Knots, from James Joyce to Proust. But they are often subverted.  I highlighted so many quotes but here is just one. (Also: read this book. It's wonderful.)

If you think that Marcello of The Conformist becomes a porcine fascist because he killed lizards when he was a boy, then you assure yourself that you can never be so. If you think Madame Bovary commits adultery because she’s trying to escape the banality of Pleistocene morals, then her betrayals are not yours. If you read about hunger in Ethiopia or violence in Kazakhstan, it isn’t about you.

We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you’re the one person who wouldn’t have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.

When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.

I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.

I am you.

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Friday, September 02, 2016

The Dog of the South (by Charles Portis)

This was the latest selection for our long-distance book club, the League of Unreliable Narrators. This is one that Chris had already read and loved, but I had never read. (I'd never read any Portis.) It also qualifies for the Read Harder Challenge in the category of "book published in the decade you were born," since it was published in 1979. 

This book is hilarious, with some pitch-perfect dialogue and one of the best closing paragraphs of all time. It's a bit of a shaggy dog story with -- appropriately enough -- a slightly unreliable narrator. Ray Midge's wife runs off with another man, and Midge heads down to Honduras to track them down. He runs into many interesting characters. Adventures ensue.

The Dog of the South really is a book that is about the experience and not the destination. It's about the many lines that I underlined -- for example, when Midge sees a pelican get hit by lightning and says, "I was astonished. I knew I would tell this pelican story over and over again and that it would be met with widespread disbelief but I thought I might as well get started and so I turned to the woman and the boy and told them what I had seen." These funny run-on sentences and strange moments are what The Dog of the South is all about.

One question we pondered at our meeting: metaphorically, who is the dog of the south? Is it Midge? Reo Symes? Is it a literal dog, with booties on its feet? Is it the marriage of Norma and Midge? Is it a dead pelican? All or none of the above? A question for the ages.

Thumbs up!

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Crazy Rich Asians (by Kevin Kwan)

This is by a guy, but I'm still giving it the "women's contemporary fiction" label because this falls into that category. It's the story of a regular New Yorker named Rachel Chu, engaged to a man named Nick Young who invites her back to Singapore to meet his family. Little does she know, they are rich. Not just rich, but filthy rich. Not just filthy rich, but crazy rich.

Kwan is familiar with this subculture of extreme wealth (where everyone has billions and one wedding costs $40 million) and the descriptions are extremely detailed, with conspicuous consumption and cutting-edge brand names everywhere. It's satirical and entertaining. For the first two thirds, I enjoyed it as a fluffy and fun vacation read. Then it went downhill for me.

The last third switches from each chapter being from the point of view of a single character to being scenes set in various places that jump around into various characters' points of view, often gratuitously. This leads to a lot of akward showing instead of telling. "He wondered what he could do to reassure her in this moment. He stroked her back."  We don't need to go into his point of view for this, we can just see him stroking her back and understand it's meant to be reassuring. Lots of weird awkward writing like that.

There's also the issue that Rachel Chu, our "fish out of water" character, is not that well developed. She is supposedly an economist with a Ph.D. but comes across as bland and generic, albeit sympathetic. I wanted a bit more intelligence, a bit more Elizabeth Bennet out of her.

The biggest issue is that almost no plotlines get resolved. It's 500 pages long! It's fun and fluffy! Where is my ending? Where is my resolution? Where is the comeuppance for the bad guys?  Of course, as soon as I finished it I learned there was a sequel. But even if that's the case, and threads are left dangling, at least one or two main plotlines should be resolved, shouldn't they?

Anyway, meh. Fun, but could have been much better. I will not be picking up the sequel.  

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything (by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong)

This history of Seinfeld seemed right up my alley as soon as I first heard about it, and I preordered it immediately. It's the classic fun book that I like to parcel out to myself at the gym, and I do love insidery books about the comedy scene (see also: the SNL oral history).

I was not the world's biggest Seinfeld fan, but I really grew to appreciate it as time went on, it appeared in syndication, and I realized how many real-life situations bring to mind this or that episode of Seinfeld. Also: it is a crime that Jason Alexander never won an Emmy for playing George Costanza. It's not quite Steve Carell levels of egregious but it's close, Jerry! It's close!

I would have enjoyed a book twice as long and with twice as much depth. This book is really great when it talks about the minutia of individual scripts and episodes, or even the stories of individual writers, but the title "Seinfeldia" is a reference to the fandom around Seinfeld, and this is interesting at first, but wears a bit thin and comes across at times as a bit of a stretch. (For example, much of the final chapter of the book is devoted to dueling parody Seinfeld Twitter accounts. Did we really need the inside story of @Seinfeld2000? Not really. Or certainly not to this extent.)

Also the photos at the end are interesting but it weirdly over-emphasizes writer Andy Robin's extended family. (There is a picture of his grandmother-in-law at one point.) This seems like Seinfeldian nitpicking but it is odd: there are seven pictures of Andy Robin and his family members, and only two of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.)

This is absolutely a fun read though, and I recommend it to Seinfeld fans. I also did immediately fire up Amazon Video so I could watch, not Seinfeld, but the Seinfeld reunion episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Pretty pretty pretty pretty good.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Countdown City and World of Trouble (by Ben H. Winters)

I'm putting these together because after finishing Countdown City, I didn't have enough to say to fill out a whole post. Now I've finished World of Trouble and with it, completed the Last Policeman trilogy, so I figured I'd post them both together.

Countdown City is the second book in the trilogy.  I liked it less than the first one -- feels a little bit like marking time, and the central mystery (revolving around a missing person) is not that interesting, whereas the mystery in the first one is terrific. I did enjoy the background apocalypse stuff, though, particularly the chilling scene with the boats.

World of Trouble is the third book and in my opinion much stronger than the second. It wraps up the trilogy nicely. No spoilers, but I will says I especially loved the twists towards the end and the extremely moving final scene. It's a bit gruesome at points but, you know. Apocalypse and all.

Did I already mention Last Night in my previous review? It's a Canadian film about the end of the world that I kept being strongly reminded of as I read this.  I recommend this trilogy (even with the slow second installment) but I recommend Last Night even more.

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Monday, August 01, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (by Jack Thorne)

Quite convenient that the Read Harder Challenge includes "a play" in the same year that the new Harry Potter play comes out, hmm?

I have no idea how the Harry Potter fandom feels about this play. (Actually I do have one idea: I guarantee they are 'shipping Albus and Scorpius hardcore -- that relationship is pure romance.)  But I enjoyed it! After a bit of a blip at the beginning with the use of some ableist language that bothered me. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It actually fixes a lot of the things that bugged me about the series -- Ron and Hermione's marriage is shown as bringing out the best in each of them, which I was not convinced of fully by the novels. The trope of "all Slytherins are evil" is finally subverted. The Albus/Scorpius friendship is what I wanted from Draco/Harry, so I loved it. Snape's motivations are fleshed out in a way that makes more sense to me.

Other good stuff: Scorpius is a wonderful character. There is some nicely progressive gender stuff: Hermione has massive career success, Ron is a stay-at-home-dad, and Harry does all the cooking.  And Hermione is black (at least the stage version of Hermione is played by a black actress) which I effing love. And I enjoyed the story (a clever time-travel story) even if it didn't feel quite in line with how time travel worked in the past. It was just so satisfying to be back in that world. The twists were good and very Rowlingesque.

I'm not sure about the retcon of the whole Bellatrix thing, and of course I would much rather have read this in insanely detailed novel form. I also wish we had gotten a glimpse of Fred, too. #NotOverIt. But other than that, it's pure joy to be at Hogwarts again!

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Good Lord Bird (by James McBride)

This had been on my "to-read" list for a long time, since it won the 2014 Tournament of Books! I sometimes have to gear myself up to read something that tackles the subject of oppression, though -- even in a satirical way, as this one does. 

This is the story of a boy named Henry Shakelford, who is freed from slavery (somewhat accidentally) by John Brown, who thinks he is a girl and nicknames him Onion and brings him along on his adventures. And I have to say that it was something I had to push myself to read all the way through -- not because it is grim in any way, but because it's a little discursive and does not always have a clear forward momentum. It's kind of biding time for 2/3 of it leading up to the raid on Harpers Ferry. We even lose track of John Brown for like 100 pages.

But again, it's not grim! The tone of it is humorous and relatively light, considering that it's about -- you know -- slavery. Historical characters and events are woven in but in a less-than reverential way. And in many places it's funny as hell:

"'Tell me. Which books in the Bible do you favor?'
'Oh, I favors 'em all,' Pa said. 'But I mostly like Hezekiel, Ahab, Trotter, and Pontiff the Emperor.'
The Old Man frowned. 'I don't recollect I have read those.'" 

"She wore a flowered blue dress of the type whores naturally favored, and that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas."

"I joined a choir in a Pentecostal church after taking a liking to a minister’s wife who slept around to save the wear and tear on her holy husband. I runned behind her several weeks till one morning the pastor gived a rousing sermon ’bout how the truth will set you free, and a feller stood up in the congregation and blurted out, 'Pastor! I got Jesus in my heart! I’m confessing! Three of us in here has porked your wife!'”

So it's funny and entertaining. But then McBride pulls a masterful bait and switch as the book nears its climax, the famous raid on Harpers Ferry. You aren't necessarily expecting it to pack such an emotional punch, and although Onion's narration doesn't lose its satirical tone, the emotion hits you anyway as the tragedy and import of the event starts to hit him, and us at the same time. McBride sticks the landing wonderfully.

The portrayal of John Brown in this novel reminded me forcefully of Don Quixote, and in fact the structure of the book reminded me of Don Quixote as well. It's about a religious lunatic on a crusade that's doomed to fail. He is skinny and looks older than his years, he wanders the desert, he inspires half-hearted adulation, he makes promises he can't keep, he barely eats. I mean, he's Don Quixote!  And at the end, you realize hat for all his insanity and all his failures, his raid on Harpers Ferry did ultimately kick off the civil war and John Brown did, ultimately, end slavery. The figure of amusement becomes a tragic hero.

“Some things in this world just ain't mean to be, not in the times we want 'em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that's to come. There's a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that's a heavy load to bear.”

Also, the title is a reference to a bird that makes you say "Good Lord!," the now-most-likely-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I loved that theme too.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Men Explain Things To Me (by Rebecca Solnit)

This is a book of essays about contemporary feminism by Rebecca Solnit, and it's wonderful. It talks about the ways in which feminism is currently evolving, in part by putting names to things like mansplaining and rape culture.  (The story from the title is a classic -- Solnit brings up the topic of a book she has recently written, only to have someone condescendingly "mansplain" an important book that just came out on that same topic. Of course, the important book is hers, the guy hasn't even read it, and she can't get a word in edgewise to tell him it's her book.)

It's ultimately very hopeful -- it's easy to get caught up in the shittiness of the patriarchy with things like Leslie Jones being driven off of Twitter or the Stanford rape case. But Solnit talks about how revolutions -- even those that don't necessarily "succeed" in obvious or immediate ways -- can still effect change:

"[Susan Sontag] was making the case that we should resist on principle, even though it might be futile. I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile; that you don’t have the memory of the future; that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be; and that, in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death."

And speaking of writers and thinkers who have had an impact long after their death, there is a whole chapter about Virginia Woolf that is just amazing and introduced me to "Professions for Women" which is a piece of writing you must read immediately.

At any rate, I loved this -- highly recommended for anyone who is interested in present-day feminism.

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The Last Policeman (by Ben H. Winters)

The Last Policeman trilogy is a series I've seen recommended in many an Ask Metafilter thread. With the current state of politics, I decided to take a bit of a break from obsessively reading Facebook and Daily Kos and Hillary HQ and 538, and dive into some apocalyptic detective fiction.

The premise of the series is that humanity has just found out an asteroid is going to collide with earth in six months, wiping out most life on earth and ushering in a period of ash in the air and food chain extinction for the survivors. In terms of the apocalypse, it's basically a prequel to The Road.  

In the meantime, we have conscientious cop Henry Palace, who believes there is still value in methodically investigating a murder even when he's not certain it actually is a murder, and everyone on earth is doomed anyway.

The two most enjoyable elements of this very enjoyable book are the character of Henry Palace and the slow worldbuilding of this pre-apocalyptic New England (the novel is set in Massachusetts).  I love how society slowly disintegrates in the background as the investigation continues, and I love Henry's narration and his slightly naive, forthright way of dealing with the world.

Luckily, there are two more books in the trilogy for me to get through. Maybe by that time, the real-life apocalypse will have been averted.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life (by Emily Nagoski)

This was my "science" selection for the Read Harder Challenge this year. It's a well-reviewed book about the science of women's sexuality.

The science is interesting and I definitely got a lot of knowledge out of this book. But the tone is so not my style at all.  The only word for it is condescending. It starts off with every other page waxing rhapsodic about how our genitals are all perfect and normal and beautiful and did I mention beautiful? (Actual quote: "not just normal, but amazing and beautiful and captivating and delicious and enticing, on down the alphabet, all the way to zesty.") Sure, that's a good message, but at one point I was like, "lady, if you tell me how beautiful my vulva is one more time..." 

The science is also, quite frankly, dumbed down. Another choice quote: "I want to warn you ahead of time: This is the nerdiest, scienciest chapter in the book. Dust off your thinking cap." [Some extremely intelligible science.] "Did you make it? Phew! That was the hard part." There are also a whole lot of irritating metaphors. Our sexuality is a garden, a sleepy hedgehog, the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, we have Feels.... oh my god stop. Please stop.

This book has almost five stars on Amazon and clearly it is landing with its intended audience. I'm glad it's accessible, I'm glad people find it useful, and again -- the science is worth reading about! But I could not handle the sleepy hedgehog and zesty vulva business.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Modern Lovers (by Emma Straub)

In preparation for 10 hours of driving, I picked up Modern Lovers on audiobook. I'd read a review in Entertainment Weekly that made it seem like a good summer read that might be light enough for an audiobook, and I had enjoyed The Vacationers immensely, so figured it would be a good bet. And indeed, this novel filled the drive time nicely.

The narration by Jen Tullock is terrific. The story kept me entertained for 10 hours -- at least mostly. It is flawed though, especially as I've had some time to think about it -- some spoilers follow.

When I said "mostly" enjoyed it -- the Andrew plotline dragged the most; I was never interested in his man-child problems or the cult he joined, and his "secret" was so obvious that I was bored waiting for it to be revealed.

And the ending is definitely disappointing -- we never find out what Zoe and Jane's marriage issues are, or what causes anything to change. Andrew's loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the end means nothing. The fire barely causes an issue. I wanted to know more about Jane in particular, but never found out more. And I sat through that whole dumb Evolvement plotline for no actual payoff.

I'm actually glad Straub steers away from melodrama and more towards real, subtle developments. But it somehow leaves the reader a bit unsatisfied. I would actually kind of recommend this -- again, the audiobook narration is terrific --  but it's definitely no Vacationers.

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Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Story of the Lost Child (by Elena Ferrante)

I finished the Neapolitan series!

I am a bit pressed for time so I will give my brief review: feels unresolved -- after so many novels, it comes to an end so abruptly and with many, many loose threads -- but that un-resolution is in a way beautiful and in keeping with the theme of "dissolving boundaries" that is set up in book one. I lovedhow everything but the central friendship is, in the end, an afterthought. And indeed, that friendship is complex, somewhat poisonous (on both sides) but also sustaining.

Mostly I want a book five.  

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Monday, May 23, 2016

The Signature of All Things (by Elizabeth Gilbert)

My friend Chris said he was reading and enjoying this, plus I was on the lookout for a book set before 1900 for the Read Harder Challenge, so I did my patented get-a-Kindle-sample-on-my-phone-and-start-reading maneuver. I was immediately hooked, and did the patented must-keep-reading-buy-now-click, as well as the patented tear-through-this-book-in-one-weekend speed read. All patents pending.

It's a sprawling novel that tells the story of Alma, born in 1800, unpretty and brilliant, a botanist with a searing curiosity about the world, who grows up in Philadelphia in the era between the Revolution and the Civil War. It tells the (very compelling) backstory of her father's history. Then some stuff happens -- I don't want to give away where the action takes us or what happens to her, but we follow her into old age and yes, along the way, a lot of stuff happens. 

I was surprised at the quality of the writing from Elizabeth Gilbert -- since she wrote Eat, Pray, Love,  I had preconceived notions of her as more of a "women's contemporary fiction" author rather than a writer of literary fiction. But this novel is really well done, captures the time period well, and if Alma's ambitions and confidence seem a bit anachronistic at times, well, it's not competely preposterous. 

However, one thing is preposterous, and I'm mentioning it in this paragraph so RSS readers avert your eyes, and browser readers highlight to read. Kurt Vonnegut's famous saying is that every character you write should want something, even if it's just a glass of water. Alma's "glass of water" is... frankly ludicrous. If this book had been written by a man, I would have thrown it across the room. Because her life's ambition is to give someone a blowjob. I am not even kidding.

Anyway. I went back to read the discussion during the Tournament of Books 2013, where this book competed. (It got knocked out fairly early. Americanah wasn't on the shortlist. The whole thing was a travesty.)  A lot of people loved it, a lot of people hated it, even on the sentence level -- maybe it was that I read it quickly or that my expectations were low, but none of that bothered me.  Overall, I found it to be a good read and it gets a thumbs up from me!

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (by Elena Ferrante)


My friend aych, Ferrante-enabler, gave me the next volume of the Neapolitain novels and of course, once again, I devoured it. For her, the third was her favorite -- I think I still prefer the second, although the ending of this one is killer and being me, I did enjoy the explicit feminist themes throughout.

I love what Ferrante does with titles -- there is always a twist, where you think the title refers to one thing but at the end it refers to something else. She's good, that Elena Ferrante. And of course, as usual, the end of this one leaves me dying to know what happens next. Aych, where is the fourth volume please.

I feel like I don't want to say too much about this one because spoilers. But I will say that so far I'm really enjoying the series and recommend it to those on the fence about it.

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Monday, May 02, 2016

The Story of a New Name (by Elena Ferrante)

You may remember my opinion of the first book in this series was mixed.  I wasn't going to read the second one, and then my friend aych insisted that the series gets way better, book three is the best one, and here's a copy of book two for you to read. Okay, okay, I said. I'll give it a try.

About halfway through this book I was completely sucked in. I had been setting aside a little time to read at the end of each day, reading 20 pages here and 20 pages there, until I hit that middle section and suddenly couldn't put it down. It's a soap opera, yes, but a completely compelling one, and I loved all the soapy developments and again the complicated relationship between Elena and Lila.*

The ending here is less of a cliffhanger and more of a complete non-ending -- this is clearly part of a larger whole. I told aych I need the third installment as soon as possible.

I also loved this quote about reading: In [Lila's] notebooks I found notes on how she was reading the difficult texts: she struggled to advance, page by page, but after a while she lost the thread, she thought of something else; yet she forced her eye to keep gliding along the lines, her fingers turned the pages automatically, and by the end she had the impression that, even though she hadn't understood, the words had nevertheless entered her brain and inspired thoughts. Starting there, she reread the book and, reading, corrected her thoughts or amplified them, until the text was no longer useful, she looked for others.

*The names though. There's Lena and Lenu and Lina and Lila, Rino, Pino and Nino, and Antonio/Alfonso/Armando, and I keep thinking there's an Adolfo and an Alonzo but there's not. Have mercy, Elena Ferrante!

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Boobies, Peckers & Tits: One Man's Naked Perspective (by Olaf Danielson)

Olaf Danielson is currently doing a Big Year. (In birding, that's when you try to see as many birds as possible in the ABA area in one year.)  This isn't his first Big Year though -- he did one in 2013, and he saw 594 birds. The twist is, he saw them all in the nude. Boobies, Peckers & Tits (referring to the birds, of course) is his memoir of the experience.

Olaf is quite a character, and it comes through in his writing voice. His style includes lots of jokes, rambling, discursive storytelling, an over-fondness for the passive voice, and a propensity to dangle his participles. (And that's not the only thing he dangled in 2013.... oh yeah, he loves ellipses too.) It's conversational, grammatically messy, frankly in desperate need of an editor, but quite entertaining nonetheless.

Olaf is a businessman, a medical doctor, an author of fantasy novels, a fisherman, a Swede, and an enthusiastic nudist, as well as a world-class birder. So he's got stories galore, and he stuffs many of them into this book. I was also amused at how many ways he found to say that he was naked -- nude, au natural, in the buff, textile-free... the list goes on, and I enjoyed them all,

I'm following his quest this year with great interest. He is looking to break the record (which I think is something like 750 species, seen by Neil Hayward a few years ago). Like I said, Olaf saw 594 in 2013. This year we're only four months in, and he's already at 598. The birds get harder and harder and harder to see as the year goes on, but I like his chances!

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Friday, April 15, 2016

The Sellout (by Paul Beatty)

The Sellout was the winner of this year's Tournament of Books! All the discussions of it throughout the tournament completely sold me on this novel, many times over, so of course I had to read it.

Broadly, it's a satirical novel about race relations in America. The main character, known only by his nickname of Bonbon, becomes an involuntary slaveowner and then reinstitutes segregation, which turns out to have a positive impact on the black community in his Los Angeles neighborhood. And I could quote it all day long.

“Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I'd have been better off. I wouldn't have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn't have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it. Plus, I'm left-handed.” 
“I'm so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren't there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That's why black literature sucks!” 

I'm a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I'm not Rudolf Hess, P. W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I'm a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.”

I actually have a hard time figuring out how to write about this. It feels very urgent and very current. It captures Los Angeles so incredibly well. It's funny but the kind of funny that makes your heart clench. And it's especially hard to write about it as a white person -- I feel like the two white people who go to the black comedy club towards the end of the novel, when the comedian yells at them:

“What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? . . . Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

Googling for that quote got me to this reviewer, who had the same experience and who actually articulates a lot of what I thought about this novel. So go there and read her very thoughtful analysis. And definitely read The Sellout.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Reread: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (by Carson McCullers)

I read this book over a decade ago and hated it. I thought the Jesus metaphor was ham-handed and I hated everyone in the book. But in the years since, I'd basically forgotten almost everything about it, and kept being reminded how much people loved and admired it. I figured it was at least worth a revisit. And so it was that it became the latest selection of my virtual book group, the League of Unreliable Narrators.

I'm happy to report I appreciated it much more the second time around! The Jesus metaphor stuff was fun to rediscover -- I realized it is not ham-handed, because of the way McCullers twists it. It's more of a critique of how humans project their own needs onto God and religion. (My reading this time: Singer is still Jesus, Antonapoulos is God, and faith is illusory but possibly valuable anyway.) Probably the best part is what McCullers dows with the resurrection/redemption coda -- in that there is no clear redemption or resurrection at all, for any of the characters. Neither is it hopeless. It just... is.

I cared far more about Mick and Dr. Copeland (and Portia) than any of the other characters. I really didn't care about Blount at all, for example. (And I kind of wish there had been three "disciples" instead of four -- I needed a Trinity to really hammer home my interpretation. You are the worst, Blount.) (Yes, that was a Hamilton reference. I can't help it.) 

An interesting side note about McCullers: she was a raging alcoholic who drank from morning until night. Puts a little spin on the fact that all her characters seem to find solace in alcohol, doesn't it?

(As for the book group discussion, which was delightful as always -- Chris made a great comparison to The Old Man and the Sea, which I also hated. Now there is a ham-handed Jesus metaphor.)

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble (by Dan Lyons)

I got sucked into this one on the basis of this excerpt.  I lived in San Francisco during the first dot-com bubble, I have worked in "creative" environments at various ad agencies, and now I (and many of my friends) are working in tech and trying to live in the Bay Area in this current, even more insane tech bubble. So this all hits very close to home.

In this memoir, Lyons recounts his stint working at a "fun" startup named Hubspot. He's fiftysomething, pretty much everyone he works with is in their 20s and many of them are fresh out of college. They have a candy wall and rooms furnished exclusively with beanbags. It's such an extreme environment that it reads as satire, even if everything is true. And it provided fodder, no doubt, for Lyons' stint as a writer on Silicon Valley.  (I watch and really enjoy that show, but I would like to see at least one normal, geeky, tech-oriented woman on there.)

I have to say it's not actually that close to my current experience -- I work at a big, established company that sells actual products, on a team with a lot of women on it, where there is only one millennial. But I go to tech conferences, I am steeped in the culture, and everything is familiar anyway. Some of the jargon that he mocks is jargon that I read (and even use) every day. It's a funny book -- but also convincingly argues that there is a ton of money flowing in the Valley to companies who don't actually make anything, not even a profit. The bubble is going to burst. I completely agree.

So it's entertaining, familiar, and smart. Also well-written and a fast read. But Dan Lyons also comes across at various points like kind of an asshole -- his colleagues do art projects at one point and Lyons flat out says he "pretends to like them," takes pictures of them, and then mocks them in the book (and at home with his children).  He gets a paycheck for a long time after he has seemingly ceased to work -- the company even gives him a leave of absence to go write for HBO while he waits to cash in on his vested stock. And he is incredibly dismissive of everyone in their 20s -- there are a lot of snap judgments and a lot of "I am better than this" while at the same time he's drawing a (presumably) generous paycheck and hanging on for an IPO that ultimately nets him tens of thousands of dollars.  My Silicon Valley pet peeve may have something to do with this, but I also noticed that while Lyons does address issues of gender and racial diversity, he perhaps does not acknowledge his own privilege as directly as one would hope. I came away liking him, but feeling slightly guilty about it.

That said, if you're interested in startup culture or the insanity and inanity of the tech bubble, you should definitely read this. Or at least read that excerpt!

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Graveyard Book (by Neil Gaiman)

One of the assignments for the Read Harder Challenge this year was to read an audiobook that has won an Audie award. The Graveyard Book won three in 2015 (Distinguished Achievement in Production, Children's Titles Ages 8-12, and Multi-Voiced Performance) and as a bonus, is shorter than Double Down, the last audiobook I read, which was sixteen disks long. (This one was only seven.)

The premise of The Graveyard Book is that a family is murdered in the night for unknown reasons by a very creepy man called Jack; the youngest of the family, the little boy, wanders off by happenstance and ends up in a nearby cemetery, where he is promptly adopted by a cemetery's worth of ghosts and christened Nobody (known as Bod) Owens.

The book is episodic, and the main plotline (why did Jack kill Bod's family? why is he still after Bod?) mostly disappears in favor of a series of vignettes. Bod makes a (living) friend, tries to go to school, makes a (dead, witch) friend, becomes familiar with werewolves and ghouls and other creatures, etc. It's Harry Potter-eseque in that way. The audiobook is narrated by a cast of characters, not just one narrator doing different voices.

(A side note probably only of interest to Sherlock fans: Bod's guardian, a vampire named Silas, is voiced by someone who sounds a little bit like Benedict Cumberbatch. I enjoyed picturing Cumberbatch in the part -- Silas is described as tall, dark-haired, pale, very Cumberbatchy -- so I didn't look at the cast list, just pretended it was him. Turns out it's not him, and I completely missed that the villain of the book is narrated by Andrew Scott, who plays Moriarty.)

The narration is mostly excellent, although I did not love Derek Jacobi as the main narrator. He over-narrates (with added pauses for effect in many, many sentences) and his r's sometimes sound like w's, like Corin Redgrave in Persuasion. Small vocal issues like that can get very irritating over the course of seven disks. I recognize that he actually does do a very good job, I'm just nitpicking.

I did enjoy the story, although the main plotline is extremely thin. (The answer to "why did Jack kill the family" actually [spoilers in white, avert your eyes RSS readers] makes no sense and again is basically stolen from Harry Potter. But if he's trying to kill the boy who is the subject of this prophecy, why would he kill the rest of the family first and give the boy enough time to wander off? Makes no sense.) I also found the ghoul section interminable -- if only I'd had the print version so I could skim. But I did like getting back to Jack, finally -- the finale was really well done.

So: overall, a memorable production of a divertingly entertaining book. 

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