Monday, November 13, 2017

Six Wakes (by Mur Lafferty)

I kind of regret reading this over the weekend because I'm about to go on vacation, and it would have been such a fun vacation read!

This is about six clones who wake up on their generatonal starship. Their last memories are from when they boarded the ship -- except that happened 25 years ago.  Their latest "mind-maps" have been destroyed, and their previous bodies have all been murdered. So one (or more) of them is a murderer, but nobody knows which one -- some of them even suspect themselves.

All the characters have secrets, of course, all connected to the concept of cloning.  If your mind can be mapped onto a new body, what happens to the old one? Do clones have souls? What happens when mindmaps can be hacked? And what's up with the AI running the ship?

The unfolding of this mystery is super gripping and fun.  I enjoyed all the characters and the mind-twisty philosophy sprinkled throughout, too.  Very enthusiastic thumbs up for sci-fi fans!

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Genuine Fraud (by E. Lockhart)

A gender-swapped, reverse-chronological, young-adult version of The Talented Mr. Ripley.  (Lockhart cites it as one of her influences in the afterword, but that seems disingenuous at best -- it's pretty much the same story.)  The "young adult" part is arguable because the lead character is in her 20s and the book has some fairly violent moments and more mature themes. But it feels young-adulty to me.

The Ripley-esque setup is fun, and I enjoyed some of the revelations at the very end, but I had a couple of issues with it:

1. The Jule character feels really implausible. I was thinking we'd eventually get a stronger backstory that would make it all come together, but that never really happens.  I love a good unreliable narrator (obviously) but some elements of her character felt like a real stretch.

2. The "mystery" is really obvious from the beginning -- there are some minor twists at the end, as I said, but I was expecting to be much more surprised than I was.  I was interested, but not blown away. Maybe that was more of an expectations thing on my part.

3. The relationship between Jule and Imogen never makes any sense from Imogen's point of view, particularly as more is revealed. Paradoxically, Imogen as a character gets more confusing as we find out more about her. As with Jule, I never fully bought Immie as a real person.

All that said, Genuine Fraud has enough Ripley in it to be fun, and I would probably enjoy re-reading it now that I know the full story. It's cleverly constructed and I found some clever, more subtle aha moments; there are probably more to discover.  So maybe in the future I'll give it another try and see what I think upon a second reading.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Manhattan Beach (by Jennifer Egan)

I really enjoyed this historical novel from Jennifer Egan! It's set in the 1930s and 40s, in New York, and deals with a girl (later young woman) named Anna, whose father is an Irish gangster and whose ambition is to be a diver in the Navy Yard where she works. Even before getting to the acknowledgements where Egan discusses the depth and breadth of her sources, you can tell that she did her homework. The world she creates has flavor and realism to spare.

She does partake in one of my least favorite tropes, which is a huge spoiler, so please skip the rest of this paragraph if you are on RSS and my white-on-white spoiler text doesn't work.  I hate when a woman has unprotected sex one time and inevitably gets pregnant. It's such a cliche. The way it played out was compelling but ugh, hate that plot point.

I found Anna's story more compelling than Eddie or Dexter's, but I enjoyed the points of convergence of all three stories. Oh, and the brief moments from Lydia's point of view are just wrenchingly good.  Overall, I enjoyed spending time in the world of Manhattan Beach. I expect to see this in the 2018 Tournament of Books, and gets a thumbs up from me.

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Monday, November 06, 2017

Behold the Dreamers (by Imbolo Mbue)

This highly acclaimed novel has a highly acclaimed audiobook version, and fit the last category I needed to complete the 2017 Read Harder Challenge: By an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.   

Behold the Dreamers is about the Jonga family from Cameroon trying to make it in America, and the rich, white family they work for. (The husband works for Lehman Brothers in 2007, so you can imagine how well that works out.) Barack Obama's campaign and election also are in the background, influencing how the African characters think of America.  It's a meditation on, of course, the American Dream, and what it means to these two families -- and how that changes over the course of the novel.

The narrative is not as predictable (or, dare I say, as black-and-white) as the description maybe makes it out to be. The rich white family is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not. The poor immigrant family is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not. I appreciate the complexity of the ending, too -- this could have been so tricky and I feel like Mbue really nailed it.

The production of the audiobook is indeed outstanding. Prentice Onayemi does a wonderful job with all the voices and accents.  Overall a nice way to round out the Read Harder Challenge -- which, this year, was indeed challenging because it included Gabriel Garcia Marquez! Here is the final list:

Total: 24/24

[X] Book about sports: The End of the Perfect 10
[X] Debut novel: All the Birds in the Sky
[X] Book about books: Among the Janeites
[X] Set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author: 100 Years of Solitude
[X] By an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative: Behold the Dreamers
[X] All-ages comic: Princeless
[X] Published between 1900 and 1950: The Custom of the Country
[X] Travel memoir: Wild
[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
[X] Set more than 5000 miles from your location: The Three-Body Problem
[X] Fantasy novel: Carry On
[X] Nonfiction book about technology: Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime
[X] About war: The Fall of the House of Dixie
[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
[X] Classic by an author of color: Kindred
[X] Superhero comic with a female lead. Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1
[X] A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
[X] An LGBTQ+ romance novel: Treasure
[X] Published by a micropress: Joy
[X] Collection of stories by a woman: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
[X] Collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love: Anxiety of Words
[X] A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and many others

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Friday, November 03, 2017

The People We Hate at the Wedding (by Grant Ginder)

I think I got this recommendation from Entertainment Weekly (as I do so many of my book recs) and found it a really enjoyable read. It's a satirical look at a deeply dysfunctional family, kind of a Corrections-lite. I don't mind unlikeable characters (and they are all kind of unlikeable) and the Big Family Secret plot has just the right level of stakes.

I was surprised to see it getting so many mixed reviews on Goodreads, since I totally enjoyed this as a light, entertaining, funny read about these family members who are various levels of horrible -- who I rooted for anyway.

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The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built (by Jack Viertel)

After reading Showstoppers, I had a thirst to read more about Broadway so I picked up this one. And whaddaya know, Jack Viertel seems to enjoy many Broadway shows post-Rodgers and Hart, which made for a more read more in line with my own tastes.

I also loved the structure of this -- breaking down the classic structure of musicals: the introduction song, the love song, the villain song, etc. etc.  Viertel uses lots of examples from a variety of musicals to make his point, so each chapter talks about specific songs and how they function in the context of the musical, (And he gives "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" and Stubby Kaye their due.)  (Also he cites Lil' Abner as a guilty pleasure. Oh man, me too.)

At the end he does a long list of various musicals (both mentioned and not) and discusses which cast recordings are his favorite. If you're a musicals fan, this is a must-read.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, Lara Jean (by Jenny Han)

Books two and three in the delightful trilogy by Jenny Han. I felt no guilt scarfing them down like candy because they were, you guessed it, from the library.

This is a terrific trilogy, though. Well-drawn characters, organic conflicts, an unpredictable central romance. The main character is half-Korean and this informs the plot in an authentic way without dominating it. Everything I said about the previous one holds true here too.  And I absolutely loved the ending. Highly recommended for YA fans.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down (by John Green)

The Fault in Our Stars isn't perfect, but I love it anyway. It sits on my app and is a frequent re-read.  I am also a fan of John Green in general and I was happy to hear he was writing a book about anxiety issues. So my expectations were super high.

I'm still processing how I felt about this and may need to re-read it. For some reason, it was really difficult for me to read the main character as female. Possibly the Sherlock Holmes association (her irritating best friend, Daisy, calls her "Holmsey" approximately once per sentence) or possibly projection because I know it is based on Green? My own internalized sexism? I don't know. I didn't have this issue at all with Hazel, so not sure what's going on there.

The portrayal of anxiety is clearly, viscerally authentic. Aza's inner monologue and narrative voice work really well. On the other hand, the plotline that it's built around -- the storyline with the billionaire neighbor and the 100K reward and everything being left to a lizard -- seems very at odds with the realism of the novel, and I'm not sure it quite works. Half of it is very much grounded in reality; the other half is very much not.

So, not bad, but not my favorite John Green novel. As I said, I'd like to re-read it, but not sure I can handle a second helping of Daisy.  (She's annoying, y'all. She's annoying.)

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere (by Celeste Ng)

Absolutely wonderful. Marvelously written, expertly paced and plotted, with delicious characters.  I loved how the framing story of Mirabelle / May Ling almost seemed to comment on the other plotlines. I loved the narrative style, an omniscient narrator who towards the end of the novel starts to hint at the distant future.  I also loved the ambiguities of the ending, the descriptions of Mia's artwork, the character of Izzy and her fraught relationship with her mother, the exploration of adolescence...

And, especially being an adoptee, I really resonated with the stories of these two families and their secrets, as well as the meditations on motherhood and daughterhood throughout the novel.  Here's just one quote that hit me right in the solar plexus: 

To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place.

One of my favorite reads of the year, no doubt.

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The Unit (by Ninni Holmqvist)

Super enjoyed this one. I forget where I read about it, but was probably seduced by the premise, which is extremely similar to that of one of my favorite novels, Never Let Me Go.  In this version, women over 50 and men over 60 who have not yet had children are considered "dispensible," live their final years in an all-inclusive luxury resort prison, have a variety of experiments performed on them, and gradually donate their organs to the "needed," people with children and families of their own.

The main character (and unreliable narrator, everyone knows how much I love a good unreliable narrator) is Dorrit, and the book discusses her life in The Unit, the friendships she makes, the difficulty of leaving behind her life and her dog Jake, and what happens when (like Kath in Never Let Me Go) she falls in love.  The premise is similar and yet where the two novels end up is so different. I won't say more because I don't want to spoil it, but as a woman in her 40s who could easily see herself living Dorrit's solitary life and enjoying it, I found it thought provoking and moving.

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Monday, October 23, 2017

The Terranauts (by T.C. Boyle)

I loved the concept of this book; loosely based on Biosphere 2, a real experiment in the Arizona desert in the 1990s that I knew almost nothing about. (Like, I think I heard about it when Biodome came out. Not exactly a scientific deep-dive.) And I enjoyed the three narrators, particularly the unreliable and very unlikeable Linda. (My god, Linda is the worst.) But the execution left much to be desired:
  • The science is not detailed enough. I wanted The Martian-level nerdery about the science, and the novel never really delved into any of it that deeply -- it was more of a framework for the soap opera plot, mostly about who was sleeping with whom. Which is fine and all, but: nerdy science!
  • The characters are undeveloped. I mean not to compare it to The Martian again but allow me to compare it to the The Martian again: The Martian does a better job of sketching out its team of astronauts with a far smaller word count.  Plus, all eight of the Terranaut scientists are white, and the one character of color inside or out is (arguably) the villain.  I guess that was true to life but I would rather have read about a more diverse cast with more distinctive personalities. 
  •  The novel opens with Dawn and Linda both desperate to get inside E2, but I never quite understood why. Why were the stakes so high when there was another mission coming along in a couple of years? Why was Linda so psychologically devastated to miss out? I didn't quite get that.  And the motivations of the secondary characters are never explored.
  • The ending feels abrupt -- I would keep reading (gladly) a series that continued on to discuss Mission 3 and Mission 4. Who knows, maybe there are sequels planned. But as it stands, the ending is a bit unsatisfying.
Overall, this review is not a pan: I actually really enjoyed it and found it a page-turner -- I would love to read more! But I felt like a lot of potential was wasted here. I found myself looking for any other books on similar themes that might be, for me, more well-constructed.  Maybe there's a good non-fiction account out there that may scratch that itch.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women (by Ch'oe Sung-Ja, Kim Hyesoon, Yi Yon-ju, trans. Don Mee Choi)

This was one of the harder categories for the Read Harder Challenge: collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.  Based on recommendations on Goodreads I selected this volume of contemporary Korean poetry by women, and I'm glad I did.  It's been a while since I sat down and read a book of poetry cover-to-cover, and these poems churned up emotions around womanhood, depression, suicide (one of the poets ultimately killed herself), motherhood, and more. Here's one I particularly loved:

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Showstoppers!: The Surprising Backstage Stories of Broadway's Most Remarkable Songs (by Gerald Nachman)

Ooh, this one was fun -- even when I disagreed with Nachman it was fun. It's set up to discuss various "showstoppers," some of which are arguable.  ("Johnny One-Note"? "Mr. Cellophane"? "Adalaide's Lament" -- and not "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat"?). But it's so fun to read someone discuss each song and each show in depth, even the shows I don't know well. And fun to disagree!

(Sidebar: my most disagreed-with statement was this one: "Shows, let alone solos, rarely create overnight stars on today’s Broadway. Can anyone name the stars from The Lion King, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, Newsies, or Matilda?" I mean okay, maybe Andrew Rannells and Sutton Foster and Ben Platt and Cynthia Erivo aren't famous enough to count as stars, and those shows he lists aren't the best examples, but "today's Broadway" still produces plenty of stars. Lea Michele and Jon Groff in Spring Awakening? Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked? Lin-Manuel Miranda for the love of god?!??)

His biases come through loud and clear. He's a huge fan of Rodgers and Hart. He hates all movie musicals. He seems to be biased against every musical made after Rodgers hooked up with Hammerstein, except, inexplicably, Jersey Boys, which he loves and shoehorns into the book despite it being a jukebox musical. This book also has great interviews with everyone from Tommy Tune to Patty LuPone to Stephen Schwartz. (Oh, Wicked. He really lets loose on Wicked, and bashes teenage girls in the process.)  The LuPone one, discussing how she didn't know what the hell Evita was talking about in "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." is a standout.

The editing isn't perfect (some repeated sentences and people introduced twice; some confusion about who Gwen Verdon played in Chicago, some other factual errors) and there isn't an ending at all. He briefly bashes Phantom of the Opera and then it abruptly ends. I would have really enjoyed discussions of Rent and Hamilton (which get brief mentions) and more in-depth discussions of the more contemporary shows, which are the ones I grew up on. But as a Broadway fan, I really enjoyed this. Must be accompanied by YouTube clips of the performances he praises and pans, for full effect.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Vacation Reads

We've been dealing with crazy smoke from the fires here in Northern California, so we booked a last-minute house in the mountains for a weekend getaway with friends. There was no internet, but there was a yurt! And also, there were books. (By the way I now added a third library to my Overdrive app, and I now have a constant stream of free books on my phone, and it is amazing.) Here is what I read:

The Year of Magical Thinking (by Joan Didion)

I loved Play It As It Lays, but The Year of Magical Thinking left me cold. Didion's overwhelming New York privilege and pretension are presented in such an off-putting way, even while I feel for what she's experiencing (and, with the subsequent death of her daughter, about to experience). It's not that I think her wealth and power insulate her from grief in any way; it's not even that she intellectualizes her grief; it's something about the character of herself that she creates here that I simply, guiltily, did not like.

The most moving passage was actually an excerpt from C.S. Lewis's book on grieving his wife; it makes me think I should read that instead. Here's the quote:

I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through to H. I set out on one of them. But now there's an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once, now so many culs de sac.

Landline (by Rainbow Rowell)

The premise of this one is completely ridiculous. A couple has to split up for the holidays because of the woman's job, and then it turns out the landline phone at her mother's house allows her to call her husband's past self.  I could suspend my disbelief over the magic phone, I suppose, but the machinations to get this plot into place make no sense.  (Why would she completely disintegrate emotionally when she seems like a competent professional? Why would she not buy a phone charger? Why would she not just go back to her house? Why would Neal not call her from Omaha or answer her calls?)

Speaking of which, the main issue with this book is that the character of Neal is such an a-hole that you don't actually root for their love story. Georgie I found charming, if flawed, and I enjoyed reading about her showbiz career. I thought her rationale for not going to Omaha made sense and if Neal was supposedly so "supportive," ignoring her for a week belied that characterization. He's basically an a-hole the whole time, even early in their relationship, and Georgie admits she tends to fall for unavailable assholes. Yet we're supposed to root for them? Rowell's sheer charm as a writer almost carries it off, but in the end, this is... not her best.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (by Jenny Han) 

Great, great, young adult romance.  The characters are terrific, especially the main character, Lara Jean. The interactions among the three sisters and their father have complexity and realism. The plot is actually quite unpredictable -- I loved that moment where what you think is the obvious endgame might not be the endgame after all. But maybe it is? But maybe not? This was overall a sheer joy to read, and I was delighted to find out that there are two sequels. And I can get them all from the library!

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (by Joshua Foer)

A fun memoir! Joshua Foer covers the U.S. Memory World Championships as a journalist, and then dedicates a year to the study of memory,  seeing if he can be a contender in the following year's championship. He studies with memory experts, learns the tricks of the trade, and tells us all about the history of memory and his own experiences. Thoroughly enjoyable -- and incidentally, left me with a wonderful mnemonic device to remember my husband's new phone number.

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Friday, October 06, 2017

Even More Business Trip Reads

100 Years of Solitude (by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) 

I read this for the Read Harder Challenge (category: Set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author) and it was definitely a challenge. This is one classic that I've picked up many times over the years and have somehow never made it past the first few pages. It took real effort for me to finish it. So very much in keeping with the spirit of the RHC.  I also read it on paper because there doesn't seem to be an electronic version --which was another blocker, as most of my reading these days is on my Kindle app.

I enjoyed 100 Years of Solitude once I'd finished it, more academically or abstractly than anything else. It's like that feeling after going to the gym -- you enjoy the feeling of having done something more than the actual doing.  I enjoyed reading criticism about it, about the metaphors of Latin American colonialism and the ties to Garcia Marquez's own experiences in chidhood.  But it didn't quite touch me emotionally -- it was too symbolic, I suppose, to feel truly real to me. But intellectually, I appreciated it.

And I'm very glad I read it, as it was a major gap in my list of "must-read" classics. Frankly I'm not sure what's left after this.   (Oh, I do know! I don't think I've actually read Huck Finn all the way through. But after that I will be stumped. Ian will tell me to read The Magic Mountain, which I want to read, but I don't think of that as a "must-read" cultural touchstone in the same way that, say, War and Peace or Ulysses or Don Quixote is.)

Truly, Madly, Guilty (by Liane Moriarty)

And now for something completely different: Liane Moriarty! This was a great airplane read.  Like Big Little Lies, it's "women's contemporary fiction" with depth that tackles complex, well-rounded characters and packs many emotional punches. My eyes welled up with tears a few times when reading this.  I'm on the waiting list for several more of her novels, and I'm excited to read them.

It's a definite contrast to 100 Years of Solitude -- obviously it's not a literary masterpiece and didn't make me go seeking out literary criticism to help understand and appreciate it, but it did make me feel and kept me entertained.  And sometimes that's exactly what you want.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Place of Execution (by Val McDermid)

This is the audiobook I picked up right after reading her nonfiction Forensics. I think it was partly due to the audiobook format, and partly due to my expectations, but I found this disappointing. It has gotten amazing reviews everywhere so I am in the minority here. I will explain my feelings anyway.  (This review is slightly spoilery so if you think you might like this book, go read it instead of my review.  Just not on audiobook.)

This is divided into two halves. The first half is a crime and its investigation, the second half is 30 years later, when a woman is writing the story of the crime and some new truths are uncovered. First of all, the pace of that first half is glacial. The audiobook thing meant that I couldn't skim, and I think if I'd been able to skim over the endless descriptions of people smoking, or the pages where nothing happens, I would have enjoyed this more. I also knew there was going to be some kind of twist in the second half, and I wanted to  get to the payoff at the end, so that was frustrating.

Plus, Forensics made me think McDermid was going to get in depth into the forensic details of the crime, but as much as the detectives are supposedly "investigating," the few forensic clues that there are kind of seem to be ignored and aren't ever put together in a satisfying way. (There is never a plausible timeline presented for the crime, for example.) It makes sense at the end, because if anyone had put the clues together or paid attention to the plot holes earlier they would have figured out the true story. But I was desperately wishing for an intelligent investigator to show up and do some, like investigating, instead of smoking a million cigarettes while waiting for something to happen.

Did I enjoy the twist at the end? I did think it was interesting, although it strained credulity at points.  I would call it more satisfying than not.  So I don't exactly not recommend this, I just recommend, once again, you avoid the audio version. (The narrator was great though, for what it's worth.)

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Scrappy Little Nobody (by Anna Kendrick)

A quick read via my beloved Overdrive library app.  Funny, real, gossipy, very much in keeping with Kendrick's charming Twitter feed. I loved the behind-the-scenes views of awards shows and the like, and the reality of her life as a "movie star" not quite being an instant ticket to having it all figured out. It's hard to come out of this book not wanting Anna Kendrick to be your best friend.  Anna, call me!

(Oh, and apparently she was in a cult musical about a theater camp -- the movie is called Camp -- and clearly I am some kind of failure because I not already seen and fallen in love with this. I'll get on it immediately.)

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

More Business Trip Reads

This time, it was short trip to Los Angeles, but it did involve airports and flights, ergo, reading, ergo, here are my reviews:

Closed Casket (by Sophia Hannah)

Airplane fluff for sure. This is an "authorized by the estate of Agatha Christie" mystery with Hercule Poirot at the center.  I saw it in the airport bookstore and then checked to see if it was free via my library app. IT WAS. (Still not over it.) So it was easy to take a chance on, and a fun, breezy mystery. It doesn't approach classic Christie (obviously) and really reads more like really excellent Poirot fanfic (yes, it exists).  But I enjoyed it enough to download the other Hannah/Christie novel, The Monogram Murders (see below) for the flight back.

City of the Lost Monkey God (by Douglas Preston)

A non-fiction pick for my work book club. This is the story of the search for a lost city in Honduras, the titular city of the lost monkey god. The author's time spent at the site (on two occasions) was fairly brief and the story wouldn't really work chronologically, so the narrative was choppy as a result, lacking the  tension, depth, or pacing of Into Thin Air. (I immediately downloaded and reread Into Thin Air, one of my all-time favorite books to reread, as you may remember.) It's interesting nonetheless, if ultimately depressing, and I did learn a lot about Honduras and the inevitability of a global pandemic. So that was fun.

The Monogram Murders (by Sophia Hannah)

The other fake Agatha Christie, and equally fluffy and enjoyable. I thought this plot was way too complicated; the reveal didn't have a fun "aha" moment because I'd lost track of who was connected with whom and what, and there was a bit too much going on with the final denouement. But it was a fun library book I read on an airplane, so in that sense, it was perfect! I will definitely gobble up any other entries in this series.

Joy (by S. Kay)

An old online journal acquaintance posted about her novella in our Faebook group, and I noticed that it had been published by a micro-press (Maudlin House), which enabled me to check out the book, support a former journaler, and check off one of the categories of the Read Harder Challenge, all at the same time. This is an enjoyable little novella that reads like a prose poem, with anti-heroine Joy at the center of it all.  Texts, tweets, blog posts, poems, all play a part in this work. I would have enjoyed this if it was many times longer, as I loved Joy, but the small size makes it easy to digest, ponder, and re-read. Thumbs up!

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Fever Dream (by Samanta Schweblin)

I didn't participate in the Tournament of Books summer reading event, but I did pay attention to the final winner, which will automatically get a pass into next year's ToB. When it showed up on my library app* I grabbed it. Hooray, a head start!

Fever Dream is not an exact translation of the original title, but it's an excellent description of what this book is. A woman is in an unknown location, recounting a story in which something bad may or may not have happened to her child, and another child (who is talking her through the story) may or may not have had his soul moved out of his body. Also, this novella may or may not be (but probably is) an allegory for the real-life use in Argentina of a carcinogenic pesticide called glyphosate.

This is a novella, not a novel -- it really can be read in one sitting and I believe is fewer than 100 pages long. It reminded me a bit of Annihilation, in terms of the vague creeping horror.  As a mother to a small daughter, it was a tense experience; I had to keep reading to find out how things would turn out. I'm looking forward to the discussion of this during the Tournament of Books. If you don't mind experimental literature that reads like a prose poem of creeping dread, you may want to give it a go.

*After reading The To-Do List, I made a long to-do list. One of the items was "figure out how to borrow library books on my Kindle." Since the last time I'd tried it, Amazon has built an integration, so it means I can use the Overload app to reserve books via my local library, and then download them right from my Kindle app, which is how I read everything anyway. This is going to save me a fortune on books! I did have to stop by my local branch to renew my library card but it was super easy. That's my PSA for the day for fellow Kindle lovers.

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Friday, September 08, 2017

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime (by Val McDermid)

This was my latest audiobook, read by a female narrator who had a deep Scottish accent, presumably echoing McDermid's, and whose American accent was not bad but also not great. (Do we really sound like that?) So that was fairly amusing and added a layer of entertainment to the experience. 

I enjoyed the deep dive into forensic science, particularly the chapter on forensic psychology (which could have been even longer; forensic psychology is fascinating).  Some chapters were more compelling than others, some of the crimes were more compelling (or harrowing, or tragic) than others, but it was consistently interesting and a good selection for the "book about science" category of the Read Harder Challenge.

I've moved straight from this audiobook to one of McDermid's mysteries. I enjoyed her writing and she clearly knows her stuff, so I'm hoping there is more forensic goodness to be found in her fiction.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

IQ (by Joe Ide)

The second selection for the book group we started at work. The genre we chose for this round was mystery and this was the book I put in the hat. There's a lot of pressure when your blind recommendation gets chosen! Happily, I thought this was terrific; I hope my fellow clubbies agree.

Joe Ide grew up in South Central Los Angeles and loved Sherlock Holmes. So he's created a character, Isaiah Quintabe, or IQ, who is the South Central version of Sherlock.  The central case here involves a rapper who is afraid someone is trying to kill him, but there are side cases here and there as well, a backstory that unfolds throughout the book, and a nice sense of closure at the end while still setting up for a sequel.

I loved Isaiah (and by the end Dodgson -- his Watson -- as well). Such a likeable hero, a well-drawn setting, a fun mystery, a sprinkling of humor, and an emotional journey for the main character. If you like contemporary mysteries, I highly recommend this one and will be first in (virtual) line for the next one.

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Friday, September 01, 2017

The To-Do List (by Mike Gayle)

Mike Gayle writes a 1200-item to-do list and spends a year trying to check everything off.  You may have noticed how much I love lists -- daily, weekly, monthly to-dos, reading lists, life lists, short-term and long term lists.  So this was the book for me.

As soon as I got to the appendix (where he publishes the full list) I broke out a notebook and pen. I think I ended up with 125 new items to add to my various and sundry lists, and one of my items is "consolidate to-do lists."

I mean this was entertaining, funny, and well-written, but mostly it was inspirational and hit me right in the sweet spot. How much do I love a to-do list? So, so much.  I can't wait to start crossing stuff off!

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score ― from Nadia to Now (by Dvora Meyers)

The "sports" category in the RHC was a tricky one, but I enjoy gymnastics and decided to go with this one.  It was overall a fairly light, enjoyable read. I would have liked a little more inside baseball (er, gymnastics) about scoring data, the specifics of the new system, etc. I could tell the author knew her stuff, but missed the hardcore data nerd stuff.  I would have liked fewer awkward pop culture references (sample quote: "[N]o one was going to hop on the podium like Kanye to protest your medal: 'Imma let your national anthem finish, but Dominique Dawes had the best floor routine of the meet'").  But overall, a fairly enjoyable way to check another item off the list for the year.

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How to Murder Your Life (by Cat Marnell)

I used to be a devout xoJane reader and found Cat Marnell to be equal parts fascinating trainwreck and talented writer, so naturally when this memoir went on sale for Kindle, I snatched it up.

Cat and I probably have literally zero in common -- I don't care about beauty or fashion, certainly don't think it should be aspirational at all costs, and neither have a trust fund nor enjoy snorting angel dust. But the woman can write. I'm not even sure how she does it -- there's a spark to her writing that I can't pin down.

And so, despite disagreeing with her worldview on almost every page, and completely in spite of myself, I devoured and loved this book.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Vacation Reads

We spent last week traveling to and around Boston for a family vacation. I read seven books on the trip (gotta love airplane reads) and it was a nice mix of stuff. Here are my reviews:

Punch Escrow (by Tal M. Klein)

Fun, hard sci-fi. It doesn't quite stick the landing, but I will definitely read the sequel that Klein sets up in the epilogue. I'm picky about sci-fi but all three of my vacation reads in this genre were good! This one was found via Scalzi.

Half a Life (by Darin Strauss)

Memoir that I read for a new book group I'm in at work. This is the story of a guy who, "half-a-life ago" when he was eighteen, hit a classmate with his car and killed her.  Great hook, but this memoir  feels half-baked. (He doesn't address how the accident impacted his passengers, for example.) He's also way too defensive about his own past emotions and apologizes for them a lot, even though there's no need for him to. I got the feeling he might actually not have enough distance yet. Some really excellent writing, and I thought the ending was powerful, but overall this didn't move me the way it should.

Sugar (by Kimberly Stuart)

Super cute rom-com about a pastry chef who takes a new job and ends up on a restaurant reality show with her ex-boyfriend.  Has a couple of "people don't talk like that" dialogue moments (my pet peeve) but only a couple. Sprinkled throughout are some unfortunate anti-fat moments also. But mostly very charming and light, good vacation read, with a fun plot and a good main character.

Texts from Jane Eyre (by Mallory Ortberg)

I wanted an excuse to buy this, and vacation became my excuse. Mallory Ortberg is hilarious and this little book is a gem.

The Custom of the Country (by Edith Wharton)

I needed a book for the "published between 1900 and 1950" category of the Read Harder Challenge, and somehow I had never read this before. How can that even be considering how much I love The Age of Innocence? This was amazing. I love Wharton's anti-heroine, Undine Spragg. I love the classic Whartonian social machinations. I love the subtle, rich writing. This is spectacular in every way. 

The Three-Body Problem (by Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu)

I'm going to swap this out as my "set at least 5000 miles away from your house" pick, because this is set in China and translated from the Chinese, and I think meets the spirit of the challenge better.  I love both the storyline and the style of the translation. Great, Hugo-award-winning sci-fi novel, and the beginning of a trilogy.  Also delves into the Cultural Revolution and that part is interesting as well -- although the virtual reality parts may have been my favorite. Thumbs up!

11/22/63 (by Stephen King)

An excellent pick for the airplane ride home, I have to say, as it is a classic Stephen King doorstoppy page-turner. I was a huge IT fangirl when I was younger, and I loved the Derry side-plot here.  The time travel into the 60s allows King to indulge all his most folksy folksiness (the "Land of Ago" for example) but overall this is a gripping and detailed time-traveling love story. King at the top of his form.

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Friday, August 04, 2017

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X and Alex Haley)

I really do fantasize about creating a syllabus out of the books I've read lately, both fiction and non, that cover the spectrum of the African-American experience in somewhat chronological order. The Autobiography of Malcolm X would spark some amazing student essays, I'm sure.

The best way to describe this book is thought-provoking. I only had a very surface idea of Malcolm X and what he stood for, not even having seen the film about him, and I found him brilliant and surprisingly sympathetic.  His "militant" viewpoints (such as "all white people are the devil") are frankly understandable, especially when you've just finished reading about the history of slavery or you see around you how its effects persist to the present day.  I was far more sympathetic to him, even at his most extreme, than I expected to be, and I enjoyed hearing his viewpoints in his own voice, unfiltered.

You also see his ideas evolve and become more moderate towards the end of his life, which he seems to know is around the corner -- by the end of the book, the Nation of Islam basically has a price on his head, and not long after, he was assassinated. (I should note that his attitudes towards women evolve from "terrible" to "also terrible" but you can't have everything.) It would have been interesting to see how they would evolve further, and how he would have responded to today's movements such as Black Lives Matter. (He also would have approved of white folks getting involved in SURJ, I'm positive.)

I think this was a really worthwhile read. Also, Starr's father in The Hate U Give has a framed picture of Malcolm X on his wall, so my syllabus really has come full circle.  If anyone wants a suggested reading list and essay topics, do let me know! It would be a great class. :)

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Carry On (by Rainbow Rowell)

If the words Drarry, Johnlock, and slashfic mean nothing to you, you may want to skip this review.

This is a Fangirl spinoff -- it's basically the story that Cath was writing fic about in Fangirl, Rowell's novel about fanfiction -- very meta.  And at the time I read Fangirl, Cath's fic read like Potterlock, aka John/Sherlock fanfic set in the world of Harry Potter.  Carry On still feels very much like Potterlock, except the world is fleshed out more, and so is the relationship between Harry and Draco John and Sherlock Simon and Baz.

The world is still a blatant Harry Potter ripoff, except with some twists on the rules of magic.  Plus, the identity of the bad guy is super obvious, lacking the classic Rowling twist where it's always the person you least suspect! And yet, I enjoyed reading about this world and these characters, especially Penelope and Baz.  Plus, the central relationship and romance was done well.

As a standalone, it works less well. It's like jumping into Harry Potter in book seven, where Rowell kind of handwaves a whole bunch of backstory that would have made this far more satisfying to actually read.  (I feel like actual fanfic writers need to get on this, since they could probably write books 1-6 pretty satisfyingly. And what's a few more extra layers of meta.)

So, I think this is pretty specifically for people who love Harry Potter and don't mind that this is basically a reimagining, but also with slashy versions of John and Sherlock plunked into it somehow.  This is a niche audience, for sure, but I'm definitely one of those people!

(Oh, and in case you think I'm reading too much into this with the Johnlock thing, I present Exhibit A, the cover. Also Exhibit B, Rowell reads both Drarry and Johnlock fic, as she has confirmed on Twitter. I rest my case.)

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Treasure (by Rebekah Weatherspoon)

A quick read for the "LGBTQ romance" category of the Read Harder Challenge.* A lot of the Goodreads group recommendations were books that were not quite romance, more literary fiction (like Sarah Waters's work or The Price of Salt). But I wanted to challenge myself to read actual romance, which is not a genre I normally read.

*I also think this might qualify for the "micropress" category, as this seems to be from a small press specializing in LGBTQ romance. (Also all the POV characters were characters of color, but I've fulfilled that category already.)

This was a fast, enjoyable read. I loved the main characters (Treasure/Tricia and Alexis) and their romance. The sex scenes were sexy. I loved the sex-positive attitude towards stripping. My only problem is that it ended too quickly; it could easily have been twice as long, as I think the central relationship could have been explored in more depth and I wanted to spend more time with the characters. 

Although romance is generally not my thing, Weatherspoon is extremely talented and I would happily read her work again!

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (by Cheryl Strayed)

This was such a bizarre reading experience -- having nothing to do with the book itself, but with the various formats I tried to read it in. First, I read Strayed's piece in The Sun Magazine about the death of her mother and was completely blown away. I found her writing as "Dear Sugar" overly mannered and precious at times, so I had always resisted reading Wild thinking her style was maybe not for me. But I loved that essay so much, I decided to dive in and read Wild.

I was also looking for a new audiobook, and this seemed like a perfect story to listen to. I was hoping Strayed had narrated herself, because I heard her speak at a Hillary Clinton campaign event (sigh) and enjoyed her way of telling a story. But it was a different narrator. And I can't even put my finger on why, exactly, but a few commute-lengths into the book and I was done. I hated the narrator's voice so much that I dreaded pressing play, and it was actually ruining a wonderful book. So then I bought it on Kindle instead.

Except then the Kindle version was the "Oprah edition," so every so often a paragraph would be underlined in blue text and there would be a "note from Oprah" telling you some banal thing like "oh, I would have been so scared of the frogs!" or "I really loved this sentence!"  Nothing against Oprah but who gives a rat's ass if Oprah is scared of frogs, I just wanted to read Wild. And it pulled me out of the actual words and story every single time

So I pushed through a lot of irritation, I'm saying, to get to the end of Wild. But it's worth it, because indeed it is wonderful, as wonderful as the essay that kicked off this thing. I returned the stupid Oprah edition on my Kindle though. Whenever I want to re-read it, I'm going back to nature, and buying myself a good old paperback.

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Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom Novel (by Deborah Yaffe)

I enjoyed this exploration of the fandom around Jane Austen -- it reminded me for the 100th time how much I want to do a Jane Austen-themed driving tour around England, because I was extremely jealous that she got to see Jane's cottage, a lock of her hair, and even Norland Park from the wonderful Ang Lee Sense & Sensibility. It also made me realize how long it's been since I've reread Northanger Abbey.  In addition to all the envy she inspires, Yaffe writes with erudition, intellect, and humor about one of my favorite authors ever. What's not to like?

"Austen’s work is not just a Rorschach test, a collection of inkblots with no meaning beyond the mind of the viewer. The rich diversity of responses to Austen captures something real about her—the depth and complexity of her writings, which, like diamonds held up to sunlight, reflect something different from every angle. Her stories are not blank canvases onto which we project ourselves; they are complicated, ambiguous pictures of lived reality. We all find ourselves in her because, in a sense, she contains us all."

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Big Little Lies (by Liane Moriarty)

I thought I was going to have a couple more books finished by the end of my trip because I'm halfway through them, but I picked up a paperback of Big Little Lies in the airport and of course I devoured it on the plane and train rides back home. Perfect airplane read, very juicy, twisty and satisfying. I knew some of the twists, saw others coming, and was completely surprised by a couple. Now I'm excited to see how the miniseries turned out.

(Also, by coincidence, this is set in Australia, over 5,000 miles from my home, and so qualifies for the RHC. Bonus!) 

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Business Trip Reads

I am halfway through my business trip but have already finished reading quite a few things, and I wanted to post about them before I get hopelessly behind.

Unnaturally Green (by Felicia Ricci) 

None of my theater-loving friends called to tell me this memoir existed and I am not sure I forgive them! This is a memoir of Felicia Ricci's time playing Elphaba as a standby in the San Francisco company of Wicked.  Tons of inside theater (and Wicked-specific) detail, and very well-written and edited. This was self-published but Ricci apparently majored in English at Yale, which may explain why she manages to be a talented actor and singer but also an outstanding, funny, engaging writer. Highly recommended for theater fans. 

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South (by Bruce Levine) 

I was interested in reading about the Civil War after finishing Kindred, so I picked this one up. There are so many Civil War books, but I liked that this one focused on the disintegration of the antebellum south, specifically about the ending of slavery. It's a perspective on that war that I haven't read before, and I learned a lot from it. It is a bit too editorial for my taste -- Levine quotes some contemporary Civil War diaries from plantation owners and they are often described as "sniffing" or "sneering" their words. I prefer my non-fiction bone dry. But this lens on history was illuminating.  I'm moving on to the Autobiography of Malcolm X next, and fantasizing about teaching a literature class including these three books and The Hate U Give. Oh, the essays I could assign!

Also, this is yet another book I've read this year that makes Lincoln in the Bardo feel toothless.

Finally, two Read Harder Challenge books, an all-ages comic and a superhero comic with a female lead:

Princeless: Save Yourself (by Jeremy Whitley) 

This one was the all-ages comic. I don’t think I really “get” comic books. Graphic novels, I get -- they have a beginning, middle, and end. But comic books have a beginning and that’s it. Plus, I find them unsatisfying because it takes me maybe 15 minutes to read one. Is the idea that you spend some time appreciating the artwork and not just reading the words? Because mostly, comic art doesn’t really do it for me. (I did love the art in Fray, the Buffy spinoff comic.) So, I don’t know. I'm glad this exists and has a great message, and I will definitely save it for Mina. But I'll probably wait until there's a collection and not a single issue.  Such as...

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal (by G. Willow Wilson)

This is a collection of the first five Ms. Marvel comics. Right away I found this more my speed, as the main character, a Muslim girl named Kamala Khan, has more complexity and and there is more of an overarching narrative. It does leave in a "to be continued" moment though, and it did read extremely quickly even though I tried to spend more time appreciating the artwork. Anyway, I really am glad Ms. Marvel exists, but I probably won't continue with the series until, again, there's a collected volume that actually has a complete story in it.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Upside of Unrequited (by Becky Albertalli)

Super charming YA novel seemingly designed to push all my buttons -- a witty chubby girl heroine,  nerdy love interest, lesbian interracial moms, an exploration of the bonds of sisterhood, progressive politics, a fun plot, an ending that resonated emotionally. Recommended to me by Jenfu, who knew it would be Mo-nip. Definitely loved it.


Monday, July 03, 2017

Kindred (by Octavia Butler)

My "classic by a person of color" pick for the Read Harder Challenge.  The premise is that Dana, a black woman living in modern-day 1978, is somehow pulled back into the past of her ancestors by Rufus, a boy whose life is in danger.  (Whenever he is near death, Dana is "summoned" from the future to save him.) Rufus is the son of a slaveowner, and lives on a plantation, and as he grows up, Dana returns to him over and over again, trying to navigate life as a slave and among slaves, adjust to her changing relationship with Rufus, and not lose her modern sense of self or her relationship with her (white) husband.

Having read a lot of painful narratives of slavery lately, what surprised me most is what a fast read this was and how little Butler deals with the modern-day narrative. I expected much more about Kevin's and Dana's contrasting experiences in the past, and how it might pull them apart in various ways.  It definitely feels like a book written decades ago, in that sense -- it does not grapple with issues of race the way I feel like we are in 2017 grappling with those issues. Instead, it focuses on telling Dana's story of her experience in a complex and painful past.

Overall, it's a riveting story, well-told. Dana is a great character and the pace is unrelenting (she spends hours or days at home while in Rufus's world, years pass.) I couldn't put this one down, and really enjoyed it.

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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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