Friday, June 23, 2017

My (Not So) Perfect Life (by Sophie Kinsella)

"Women's contemporary fiction" (aka chick lit) is one of my favorite genres to listen to in audio format, as it is breezy and fun, and not too mentally taxing while driving. It made my commute much more pleasant when I was listening to the story of Cat/Katie, aspiring branding genius who idolizes but also resents her boss's glamorous, seemingly perfect life.

Katie is quite a sympathetic character throughout and is intelligent and funny. (In other words, she is not a vain nitwit like the Shopaholic protagonist.) Her relationships are developed well and feel plausible (except a bit of the Demeter relationship didn't feel quite earned, but I enjoyed it so I'll let it slide). Her emotional life is complex. Demeter, the boss who is more than what she appears on the surface, is a fabulous character too.  I particularly like how this book, although it does contain a romance, really focuses on the relationship between Cat and Demeter, and the romance is very cute, but secondary.

As for the audiobook format, the narrator is excellent as well. Overall a fun lady fic pick.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Startup (by Doree Shafrir)

A fun read that would work great on an airplane or on the beach. It's a lightly satirical look at tech culture in New York, and as someone who works in tech, albeit in SF, it hits way too close to home way too much of the time.  (Douchey tech-bro Mack goes into a meeting repeating be the change... be the change.... I have a banner over my desk with the same slogan on it.)

I was a bit disappointed that what started out as a somewhat morally ambiguous plot coalesced into an obvious good vs evil showdown at the end, turning Mack into a caricature in the process.  Plus the ending is way too abrupt (is it trying to be "literary" in quotation marks all of a sudden) for the relative straightforwardness of the rest of the plot.

But, of course, I tore through this in a day and was wildly entertained. Shafrir got the details so right, I love-hated the window into my life. Very fun.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo (by George Saunders)*

Buzzy novel about the death of Willie Lincoln, his father’s grief, and a chorus of spirits in the graveyard where he is laid to rest.  I listened to this on audiobook.

I have to say the audiobook is simply spectacular. The main narrators are Saunders, David Sedaris, and the delightful Nick Offerman. I also recognized the voices of Susan Sarandon, Ben Stiller, Bill Hader, Jeffery Tambor, and Rainn Wilson.  But there is a cast of 166, both very famous and very not. Reminded me of The Graveyard Book, another chorus-of-spirits novel with an excellent audiobook. But of course, this is much darker and deals with more adult themes.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the main characters are male: Abraham Lincoln and the three main spirits who narrate the story  Mary Lincoln is barely touched on, and although some of the stories involve female spirits, and some of those are very good, most don’t; men are really central here, and by the end I came to find that that irritating. There is also an awkward ending where an African-American spirit kind of “influences” Lincoln to free the slaves or something? It felt like a concession to the fact that this book focuses on the sadz of Lincoln and the experiences of white men at the expense of a lot of other voices.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the sadz when the novel focuses on the grief of a losing a son, and the realization that the Civil War is leading to many more deaths of many other parents’ sons. That was quite powerful. But otherwise this novel felt discursive and unresolved. (Of course, death is always unresolved and that's part of the point. But I was really hoping to learn the Reverend’s ultimate fate, and more of the “rules” of the bardo.)  Anyway, if I did star ratings, I'd give it three stars.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Hate U Give (by Angie Thomas)

A young adult novel highly recommended to me, and now highly recommended by me.  Salon called it "required reading for clueless white people" and although I don't consider myself totally clueless, and live in a diverse community, it did challenge some of my preconceptions and my comfortable ideas about contemporary black life.

It's also entertaining. The protagonist, Starr, is a wonderful, relatable character with an authentic voice. But a friend of hers from her neighborhood is killed in a routine police stop, and Thomas delves deeply into what this means for Starr herself, for her neighborhood, and for her as a black girl. She's also dating a white boy from her fancy private school, and Thomas delves into what it means for Starr to be caught between two worlds.

Excellent -- even if you're not typically a young adult fan, The Hate U Give is well worth your time.


Sunday, May 07, 2017

Queens of Geek (by Jen Wilde)

A fun YA that is very much a love letter to geek culture. Three best friends attend the ComiCon-esque SupaCon and have various adventures. One is an out bisexual YouTube star trying to avoid her ex-boyfriend and dealing with a crush on a fellow YouTuber. One is a "big name fan" who is socially anxious in real life (and also in love with her best friend). The third is the aforementioned best friend, who is supportive and nerdy and kind of dreamy.

I loved the feminist sensibility, the diversity, the focus on the female characters.  (Only Tay and Charlie, the two female characters, get point of view chapters.) (All three main characters also have gender-neutral names, which I found interesting.) Clearly Jen Wilde is intimately familiar with fandom and fandom culture, and it shows. Highly recommended for YA fans and nerds!


Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale (by Margaret Atwood)

Another way-too-plausible present-day dystopia; in fact, I was surprised by a reference to cassette tapes as current technology. Like, oh yeah, this was written in the 80s!  The characters are also compelling, particularly Offred herself, whose voice and story are so compelling. I loved the richness of the world of Gilead as well as Offred's understated but tragic backstory. The ambiguity of the ending was powerful.

I wanted to watch this before seeing the miniseries (which I hear resolves some of the ambiguity, which is a bit disappointing), but it also qualifies for the Read Harder Challenge as a banned book. Though soon it will be the GOP's how-to manual.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

The Princess Diarist (by Carrie Fisher)

Carrie Fisher's Star Wars memoir that actually is more a meditation on celebrity, with an emphasis on her affair with Harrison Ford. (I had imagined this was more of  a casual mention, but it's really a huge part of the book).  She narrates the book herself and her daughter, Billie Lourde, narrates the diary excerpts.

The diary excerpts mostly qualify as emo poetry and are heavy on wordplay and very light on actual concrete detail and gossip.  I was hoping for more details about the movies themselves. The memoir that frames the diary is also heavy on wordplay and wit (in the classic Carrie Fisher style) and is honest, funny, and sometimes sadly ironic (references to her eventual demise).  I was disappointed in the diary parts, and really enjoyed the other parts.

RIP Carrie Fisher. You are missed.

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Wonder (by R. J. Palacio)

Recommended by Ian, who has this in hardcover. This is a multi-point-of-view novel chronicling a school year in the life of Auggie, a kid with a severe cranio-facial abnormality. The book addresses how the other kids relate to him, and how he navigates his first-ever foray into school. It's funny, touching, and very real.

I found this book compelling. The multiple points of view = unreliable narrators which I always love. I definitely fell in love with the characters, and enjoyed the special bonus "villain chapter" that was originally a bonus ebook (though it seemed a little too-dramatic-to-be-true in terms of the plot). I'm not sure whether to call this middle grade because of the age level or YA because it has a lot of sophistication and depth. I went with both! 

Thumbs up!

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Dykes to Watch Out For (by Alison Bechdel)

This was a birthday gift! Written during the George W years, it's so politically relevant and so prescient it's scary. It's partly comforting -- we've been in this state of panic before -- and partly terrifying -- little did we know what was coming. (At least on the gay marriage front, it illuminates what a long way we've come. At least in this country.)

The characters are also great -- I loved the soap opera elements of following the characters and their various tribulations and love life complications.   The complete lack of male gaze is also incredibly refreshing -- different body types and gender presentations are treated matter-of-factly and it is liberating in that sense. So great, and exactly what I needed to read this month.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Arrangement (by Sarah Dunn)

A suburban satire that straddles the line between litfic and chicklit; not sure which side I would place this on. Lucy and Owen, our main characters, decide to try having an open marriage for six months. Complications ensue.

The part of this that really didn't work for me is the ending. (Spoilers ahead.) There are hints throughout that The Arrangement will blow up in their faces and lead to tragic consequences. And it kind of does. Then we immediately flash forward by 15 months and the reset button has been totally hit on all the consequences, and now everything's fine again. Stakes completely undermined. It soured me on the entire rest of the book.  Also I did not enjoy the little epigraphs that began each chapter. On the nose and added nothing.

As a suburban satire it works, and is at times amusingly recognizeable, but doesn't hold a candle to Maria Semple's recent novel. Still, it's an entertaining and naughty novel that goes down easy. So to speak.

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Nix (by Nathan Hill)

I read this for (what else) the Tournament of Books, and I read it alongside Moonglow.

A lot of the ToB judges and commentators this year seem to have strongly preferred The Nix, but it was an interesting experience for me. Moonglow, despite being almost entirely fictional, is presented with this sheen of verisimilitude that, for me, The Nix lacks.  The ending went a ways towards mitigating this issue, but still -- Moonglow felt true for me; The Nix did not.

That's not to say it was anything less than a pleasure to read. It was deeply enjoyable, sometimes going off on tangents with side characters, most of whom are delightful. (I don't know that I needed Allan Ginsberg's point of view on the Chicago riots, but Pwnage's story is great.)  There's a chapter between Samuel, a professor, and his cheating student, presented in the form of logical fallacies, that is masterful. (And rings so completely true. We've all taught Laura Pottsdam at one point or another.)  There's a Choose Your Own Adventure chapter where the end of each chapter is only one choice. And so forth.

Overall, it's experimental in some ways, an impressive achievement, and very fun to read. I won't be mad to see it advance further in the tournament, and to discuss it more in the comments. But for me in terms of emotional resonance and a sense of authenticity, it falls a bit short.

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Sunday, March 05, 2017

Moonglow (by Michael Chabon)

The last Chabon book I tried to read was Telegraph Avenue, and I thought the writing was so horrible that I got barely half a chapter into it.  I am very curious to dig it up and see why I hated it so much, given my enjoyment of Moonglow.  Maybe it's a return to Kavalier and Clay form, or maybe Telegraph Avenue caught me on a bad day.

At any rate, this is an account of the life of Chabon's paternal grandfather, and the history he imparted to his grandson in the final days of his life.  Chabon jumps around in time to cover his grandmother's and mother's history as well. And of course, in all the interweaving stories, all the revelations of family secrets, the moon serves as a central theme.  It's assured, well-paced, wonderfully written, funny at times, authentic -- just a classic literary fiction delight.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Version Control (by Dexter Palmer)

As I mentioned in my last post, I loved Version Control! I've already recommended it to half a dozen people.  It's a wonderfully absorbing near-future story about not-quite time travel.  Setting it ten years in the future is so clever -- I'm reading about my daughter's generation, only when they are my age. It's a trippy experience! And that's before you even get to the world-building details -- the self-driving cars and the dining tables with embedded touchscreens and the personalized messages from the president.*

*Amusingly, or "amusingly," the dystopian touches do not go nearly far enough given our current political situation. Like, women still are treated as people and everything! That's how you know it's science fiction.

You also know I'm a sucker for an unreliable narrator. This narrator, Rebecca, is a quasi-functional alcoholic whose husband is a scentist working on a not-quite-time-travel-device. And she keeps getting hints that something about the world is not quite right. She's a great character, and the world is so interesting to read about, you really don't want this book to end. Or at least I didn't.

My only quibble -- actually my only two quibbles. One is that the character of Alicia (sexually voracious, brilliant, emotionally cold scientist) could only have been written by a man.  The other is that the ending didn't quite land for me -- maybe because I didn't fully understand what... a certain character did.  I am being intentionally vague but maybe will head over to Goodreads to see what others have to say.

Highly recommend this novel, and indeed I have slept on my opinions of both of the books in the bracket, and I'm giving the nod to Version Control. 

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Friday, February 10, 2017

My Name Is Lucy Barton (by Elizabeth Strout)

I've been reading two ToB books simultaneously, this one and Version Control.  This was the one I've had to put on my to-do list every day to get through; Version Control has been my fun reward book.  Not that Lucy Barton is at all long, or in any way bad. But being in Lucy's world is being seeped in melancholy. 

The plot of the novel, such as it is, is that Lucy is in the hospital, being visited by her mother and reminiscing. We see flashes of her painful childhood, marked by extreme poverty and abuse, and her own deep emotional damage as a result.  Yet it's written in an understated, spare, meditative way.  Lucy and Lucy (both the character and the book itself) wring your heart as you read.

Let me put it this way: Version Control includes the death of a child and is way less depressing.  These two books are going head-to-head in the first round of the ToB. I can't wait to see how that turns out; when I finish Version Control, I'll let you know how I would vote.

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Saturday, February 04, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky (by Charlie Jane Anders)

I loved this book.  Read for the Tournament of Books and then realized it is set in San Francisco, so qualifies for the RHC as well. (In a category I already completed, but oh well.) (Hey, it's a debut novel! It counts after all.)

This is about two kids who meet in middle school and eventually end up embroiled in a potentially apocalyptic war of science vs. magic: Laurence on the side of science, and Patricia on the side of magic. I loved the magic stuff -- it is reminiscent of The Magicians, if The Magicians actually had good characters and pacing and a plot. And the sci-fi elements are fabulous too -- I loved the world-building of the near-future San Francisco.

The resolution is smart and feels completely earned.  I appreciated the casual queerness that Anders includes, as well as the flashes of humor.  A page-turner, and my favorite read of the year so far!

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Underground Railroad (by Colson Whitehead)

I read and loved Underground Airlines last year, but Underground Railroad is the one that has been getting all the accolades and is of course on the Tournament of Books shortlist. I decided as a point of comparison, I would read it.

I hesitate to use the word "entertaining" to describe a book about slavery, or to imply that I need "entertainment" in my books about slavery. But Underground Airlines was entertaining and a bit of a page-turner -- although I don't think it shied away from the implications of its premise. Underground Railroad was more of a painful experience, so more difficult to read. That's not a criticism, by the way -- but a difference in my experience of each. 

Both of them are slightly alternate histories, though Railroad's is more subtle -- the only change is that the railroad is a literal railroad, with tracks and trains and tunnels, that aids Cora on her attempt to run away from plantation life and find freedom in the South.

It wasn't until the end of the book that I actually got why there was a literal railroad, and it was at that point that my mind was totally blown: Cora herself is a metaphor for the bridge between slavery and present-day America, showing that the damage of slavery is clearly alive and well in the black experience today. That is not a huge surprise, thematically, but the final chapter made both Cora and the railroad more overtly metaphorical than at any point earlier in the book.  And of course, then you know how Cora's story turns out, and it's the story of black America. Cora's life becomes all black lives. It is a brilliant conclusion.

However, I would still rank this below some of the other recent books I've read on the same theme, notably The Good Lord Bird, The Sellout, and yes, Underground Airlines.  For me, the brilliant ending was not enough brilliance to carry me through the painful, and somewhat predictable, and somewhat underdeveloped meat of the story. I expect this to go far in the Tournament of Books, but maybe not win. I'll be interested in the commentary, however!

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (by Benjamin Alire Saenz)

Recommended by the Goodreads RHC group in the category of "YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+."

I really enjoyed this. The writing is sparse and dialogue-heavy, and reminds me of Paula Danzinger.  It's not my favorite style, and it's a little odd when letters are presented in the same style as Aristotle's internal narration, but I went with it and ultimately it worked for me. Ari is a wonderful, complex character. I enjoyed the exploration of sexuality and of culture (the boys are both Mexican-American, and they each grapple with what that means).  And I found the ending very moving. 


I'm still pondering the significance of setting this in the late 1980s and not addressing AIDS at all with any of the characters. In fact, all four parents are pretty accepting, even encouraging, of their sons potentially being gay.  I found each character individually persuasive, but it struck me as anachronistic.  Then I wondered why not just set it in the present-day and avoid the anachronism. And then I thought maybe Saenz had a reason for approaching it this way.  I'm curious to know what others who read it thought about it.  (A quick Google search shows me that it's not just me.)

Anyway, overall, thumbs up on this!

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (by Mona Awad)

This linked set of short stories was on the Tournament of Books longlist, but didn't make the shortlist.  But as a linked collection of short stories, it qualifies as a Read Harder Challenge book. And regardless of what list it's on or not on, I am so glad I read it!

If you've ever been a fat girl, you will relate to these stories so hard.  Unflinchingly honest and unafraid of portraying Lizzie as an object of attraction as well as ridicule, the stories delve into her deep insecurities as well as her deep strengths.  The early stories (before there is a weight loss narrative) resonated the most deeply with me,  but the later stories reminded me wonderfully of Jen Larsen's Stranger Here, equally honest and well-written, and equally resistant to the narrative of fat = bad, skinny = good that Awad is grappling with here.

My only criticism is that the ending seemed abrupt -- the stories do form an overall narrative, and it seemed to end with more of Lizzie's story to be told.  I didn't need 100% pat resolution, but a tiny bit more than what we got would have been satisfying. But that's a quibble. I really enjoyed this.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tales of the City (by Armistead Maupin)

My first selection for the Read Harder Challenge*, this book fits the category of "Set within 100 miles of your location."

I enjoyed finally getting a chance to read this groundbreaking novel, and I can see why its frank portrayal of gay life was such a revelation at the time.  As a novel, it's really dialogue heavy and very short on description -- which made me want to see the famed miniseries version, more than anything else. It's a fast, breezy read filled with terrific characters whose lives overlap in a string of implausible coincidences. Entertaining and charming.

In keeping with the RHC category, I also adored all the references to towns all over the Bay Area, not just locations in SF, but all over. I'm not sure if I'll delve into the rest of the series, although this was written and published in the '70s, so I am curious how and when the AIDS crisis impacts our cast of characters.  But I'm going to turn my attention to the Tournament of Books longlist (and soon, I hope, the shortlist) and keep further Tales of the City for future reading enjoyment.

*As a side note, if I re-read Go Tell It on the Mountain, it would check off five categories on this list.  I feel like I can find one that does even better, though. (Not that I want to knock off the list that easily.) 

[ ] Debut novel
[ ] Book you’ve read before
[ ] Classic by an author of color.
[ ] A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
[ ] A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

As You Wish (by Cary Elwes)

As you may suspect, this is a memoir of the filming of The Princess Bride by Westley himself. I got this in hardcover last Christmas and mostly wanted to get it off my bookshelf! But it was an enjoyable holiday read. 

The intro starts off a little shaky (the overuse of adverbs is truly astonishing) but I think the ghostwriting kicked in, and then it was an enjoyable and quick read. It includes reminiscences from the rest of the cast, which I loved.  Bill Goldman and Wallace Shawn are apparently completely neurotic. Andre the Giant drank wine by the case. Mandy Patinkin and Elwes went through an astonishing amount of training for that incredible swordfight. And there are strong hints that Westley and Buttercup got it on in their trailers between takes.

Definitely a fun read if you enjoy this film!

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year-End Book Wrapup '16

My goal this year was to read 50 books; I achieved this goal and read 57 books this year. 32 were by women, 17 were by men, and 1 was co-authored by both.

Top five books of the year:

1. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
I think this was the last book I read for the Read Harder challenge, for the "Set in the Middle East" category. This novel was a wonderful discovery. A quiet, pensive, thoughtful meditation on what literature brings to our lives. I also loved experiencing the life of the Beiruti narrator. My favorite read of the year.

2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another Read Harder Challenge book, and also a Tournament of Books finalist. This book changed my perception of the Vietnam War profoundly -- I had been so used to seeing it exclusively through an American lens that I didn't even realize I was doing it. Another highly recommended novel.

3. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
The memoir of a brilliant neurologist who is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and writes up until the end. Profoundly moving and beautifully written.

4. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This comedic exploration of race set in Los Angeles won the Tournament of Books, and deservedly so. Hilarious and urgent. An absolute highlight this year.

5. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
This is Ruth Reichl's first memoir, and it was simply delightful in every way. I must read more from her this year.

Honorable mentions: A Little Life, Slade House, The Good Lord Bird, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Signature of All Things, Underground Airlines, The Last Policeman

Bottom five books:

1. Mislaid by Nell Zink
It's kind of a tossup between my first two "worsts" for which I truly disliked more. I finished this only because it was a book club choice. I did not enjoy it or find it plausible at all.

2. The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak
Finished this out of loyalty to the Tournament of Books but really disliked this one too. Mediocre and irritating.

3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I ranted about this in my previous entry, so I won't belabor the point. I didn't like it though!

4. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Some interesting insights, but torpedoed by casual sexism throughout.

5. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Enjoyable fluff until it completely failed to wrap up its plotlines, much less wrap them up satisfyingly.

Next year I will stick with the same two goals I achieved this year: read at at least 50 books and complete the Read Harder Challenge. I'll be updating this post as the year goes on, as I did last year, with my selections for the challenge.  I'll dig into the Goodreads suggestions soon too; they are how I found An Unnecessary Woman last year! Some good categories this time around, too.

Total: 7/24

[ ] Book about sports
[X] Debut novel: All the Birds in the Sky
[ ] Book about books
[ ] Set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author
[ ] By an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative
[ ] All-ages comic
[ ] Published between 1900 and 1950
[ ] Travel memoir
[X] Book you’ve read before: I re-read, but did not blog about, Murder on the Orient Express
[X] Set within 100 miles of your location: Tales of the City and All the Birds in the Sky
[ ] Set more than 5000 miles from your location
[ ] Fantasy novel
[ ] Nonfiction book about technology
[ ] About war
[X] YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+:  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
[X] Book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country The Handmaid's Tale
[ ] Classic by an author of color.
[ ] Superhero comic with a female lead.
[ ] A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
[ ] An LGBTQ+ romance novel
[ ] Published by a micropress
[X] Collection of stories by a woman: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
[ ] Collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love
[X] A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe counts, but surprisingly Underground Railroad does not, since there is a chapter from a white character's perspective

Happy new (book) year, everyone!

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Friday, December 30, 2016

The Magicians (by Lev Grossman)

I finished this one out of spite.

I'm not sure what I'm missing here, exactly, since tons of people love these books. But this did not work for me at all. My issues:

For much of the book, there is absolutely no plot. There are some interesting scenes, a cool world, and things start to come together by the end, but by the time the characters had gotten all the way through magic school and graduated and still no plot had appeared, I was over it.

Brakebills= Hogwarts. Fillory = Narnia. So far, so obvious. However, the Harry Potter books are name-checked in the story and exist in this world.  Fillory novels also exist in this world, but once they characters encounter Fillory, they take it for granted that the world is real and not fictional.Why? Why do they take this for granted when clearly fictional magic exists? Why is Harry Potter treated as 100% fictional even though they go to magic school? Why do they accept the Fillory books as 100% accurate rather than a possibly fictionalized version of a real place? No internal logic here!

Also why does everyone love Fillory so much? It is awful. But characters talk about wanting to stay there forever....?

Quentin is a dick. He's supposed to be a dick, I grant you, and part of the point of this novel is to have the main character fail to learn and grow and basically just be a dick the whole time. But once the plot appears, he is kind of just along for the ride, fails to learn and grow but also fails to do anything that impacts anything. What is the point of following him around in the first place?

Female characters are often described in terms of their breasts. I should have highlighted all the gratuitous breast references.

tl;dr: dislike button.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Vacation Reads

I prepared for vacation with a ton of books, and did get through two full books and half of two other ones, but mostly I came down with pneumonia and was too sick to read. Now the next two books that I am halfway through, The Mummy Case and The Magicians, just remind me of how sick I felt. It's the same reason I can't yet look at my vacation photos. Maybe when I'm well again.

Anyway, these are the two I did finish:

The Curse of the Pharaohs (by Elizabeth Peters)

The second book in the Amelia Peabody series. I enjoyed it, I think, but I remember almost nothing about it. I still enjoy Amelia and Emerson, even though they seem to do nothing but have sex. That's all I can remember about this book: lots of fade-to-black sex.  In Egypt.

Cruel Beautiful World (by Caroline Leavitt)

The premise of this is that a young girl named Lucy runs away with her creepo high school teacher in the 1970s. He's a controlling creepo, and the novel follows Lucy's story as well as those of her sister and adoptive mother, who are left behind. I liked the plot structure, the writing was fine, some of the characters were interesting, but I don''t know. I felt meh about it all in the end. 

And sidebar, I will probably finish it eventually, but can I just point out that The Magicians has no plot? I enjoy the whole Hogwarts vibe, but seriously, where is the plot? Anyone?

Addendum: I finished The Mummy Case (the climax at the end was hilarious, and I love the precocious character of Ramses).  I read a bit further into TheMagicians and now not only does it lack plot, but the protagonist is a total dick. Do I give up at this point?

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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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