Wednesday, March 14, 2018

I’ll Be Gone In the Dark (by Michelle McNamara)

I made the mistake of reading this late at night, on vacation, while staying in a room with a glass sliding door.  Well, that was a miscalculation.

Michelle McNamara was the late wife of comedian Patton Oswalt. She also founded the True Crime Diary website, and was an amateur sleuth trying to find the identity of a never-caught California serial rapist and murderer, the Golden State Killer (aka EAR-ONS).   This book was in progress when she died, and does have sections pieced together from her notes.

What there is of her writing is wonderful. She writes with compassion and clarity, and draws you into the puzzle of who EAR-ONS is, or was, whether he's still alive somewhere, and of possible theories and evidence about who he may have been or how to find him.  It's a terrific true crime book about a killer I hadn't even known existed -- despite being from California.

It's a real loss that McNamara wasn't able to finish the book and write many more.

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Thursday, March 08, 2018

Catch Me If You Can (by Frank Abagnale)

Finally, a true one-sitting book! Read this in the terminal and on the flight back from Palm Springs to SFO. 

I've seen this movie many, many times (it's one of my old "rewatch" staples back when I used to rewatch movies and had no child) and so when this came up as available on my library app I thought, why not, would make a fun airplane read. And indeed it did.

It's a somewhat fictionalized version of Abagnale's escapades and is quite entertaining. It honestly doesn't give you much more than the film version does, and in some cases it gives you less, so if anything I recommend the movie. But it was still a fun and entertaining read, and another tick mark in my pursuit of the Read Harder Challenge.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

Goodbye, Vitamin (by Rachel Khong)

A super enjoyable novel. This is the story of Ruth, who has just gone through a breakup and moves back in with her parents to help care for her father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

It's not showy or flashy. It quietly explores Ruth's relationship with her father, her experience of her family and her breakup, and her general anchorlessness.  The writing style is captivating and subtle, the observations are wry and astute. All I can say is, a solid, excellent novel.

This is another one that I read in a day and could arguably fit the "read in one-sitting" category of Read Harder Challenge. But still holding out for something that I read through, uninterrupted. (Like on an airplane.)

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

White Tears (by Hari Kunzru)

A Tournament of Books book and this one is... well, it's weird. But the more I think about it, and the experimental course it takes, the more I like it.

It's definitely like side A and side B of a record, which is appropriate since it focuses on a lost blues record by Charles Shaw. Except it turns out the record (and Shaw) was an invention of our two young, white protagonists, Carter and Seth. Or was it? 

This is one to read with an open mind. I don't know how to fully describe it except that it's challenging and fascinating, and does definitely veer far, far away from the "privileged white kids appropriate black music" that it looks like at the beginning.

I can see people hating this book. I was like, "Wait, what is happening right now?"  But I ultimately ended up loving it.  Very interested in the Tournament discussion on this one. And happy to have been introduced to this weird, experimental, but ultimately satisfying novel.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L’Engle)

Read this for the first time at the urging of a colleague, in preparation for the upcoming movie. Also it filled a RHC category: "Children’s classic published before 1980. "

This probably would have worked better for me when I was a child. As it is, everything seemed to happen and be over really fast, and the whole "conquer evil with love" thing... I mean... sure. But again, it was resolved super quickly and with a lot of hand-waving. Like, Calvin is one of them after about five minutes and suddenly he and Meg are like, soulmates? Nothing is actually developed organically.

I gather that this is a part of a larger series, but I wanted this story itself to just be fleshed out more. I can imagine this will make a great movie, though!

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

So Much Blue (by Percival Everett)

Finally, a winner from this year's Tournament of Books! Percival Everett has apparently written dozens of novels, but I'd never heard of him. Where have I been?

This novel centers on an artist named Kevin Pace and opens with hi talking about his giant, secret piece of abstract artwork that he has shown to nobody.  It interweaves three stories: present-day, 30 years earlier in El Salvador, and 10 years earlier in Paris. Kevin has and keeps many secrets in addition to the painting, and as the novel unfolds, we find out what they are and how everything fits together.

I was least interested in the El Salvador storyline, as it seemed a bit less grounded in reality (to say the least). But I loved how the strands came together in the end; to me, it really worked. Kevin is an interesting narrator who I sympathized with in spite of myself. The writing itself is beautiful. I'm interested in checking out more from Percival Everett and seeing how this does in the ToB. 

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Wedding Date (by Jasmine Guillory)

Not only does The Wedding Date fit a Read Harder Challenge category ("Romance by or about a person of color") and not only has it been getting great reviews, it was also written by a friend of a friend.  Fortunately, it is also great!

This is a romance about Alexa and Drew, who meet cute in an elevator. Alexa is black and Drew is white -- this fact is not ignored but is also not the main focus of their love story. This novel is just the right amount of sexy, charming, romantic, sexy, fun, and sexy. 

A meta note: I read this in one day (as I did with Class Mom) but not sure this qualifies as a "one-sitting book" for challenge purposes since I did, you know, do other things in between.  I will hold off for now and plan to use this category for something I truly read in one sitting (say on an airplane) but reserve the right to retcon this.

Anyway, The Wedding Date! Read it! 

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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Idiot (by Elif Batuman)

I hate to say this because I loved The Possessed, but I almost didn't finish this. The only reason I powered through to the end was because it's in the Tournament of Books, and I always enjoy the discussion more when I have read the book.

I started out really into this. Batuman is a wonderful writer, and this book is full of amazingly observed, funny-sad moments.  However: nothing fucking happens.  I feel like if it had been 300 pages of nothing happening, I would have loved it. But stretched out to 425 pages, it got so tedious. Our main character goes here. She sees this thing. This other thing. More things. This person. This other person. She thinks about the boy she likes. She sees a thing. She eats some food. She sees another thing. She goes to another place. She eats some food...  I just didn't have the stamina for it.

It's clear why people love this. It has nuggets of truth and is super well written, with Batuman's trademark erudition and insight into culture and language. So I feel like a bit of a failure for having found it boring. But Pie Not Included is a place for brutal honesty and thus, here it is: reader, I was bored af.

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Class Mom (by Laurie Gelman)

A fun and slightly Semple-ish satire of a year in the life of a kindergarten class mom.  I was slogging my way through The Idiot (see next post) and a took a break to read some of this, and accidentally finished it in a day.

Books that are explicitly trying to be funny are always tricky -- they're never quite as funny as they are trying to be, and it can get annoying. But I found this more successful than most -- probably because my husband is the room parent coordinator for our kid's school, and it is all extremely relatable.

A fun, breezy read, recommended for my fellow parents.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Bright Hour (by Nina Riggs)

This is a posthumous memoir by a woman who died of metastatic breast cancer.  I first learned about her and her book because her widower is now dating Paul Kalaiathi's widow.

This is a beautiful memoir about Riggs dealing with her own cancer as well as her mother's illness and death. The writing is at times poetic, funny and endearing, and often profoundly thought-provoking. I feel like as I grow older and continue to grapple with mortality, this will be a book I return to.

“I am reminded of an image...that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more -- sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover.” 

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Artemis (by Andy Weir)

I enjoyed this just fine. As others have notied, the problem is that he made his lead a female Saudi Arabian Muslim without making her femaleness, Arabic-ness, or Muslim-ness really factor into her identity at all. She's basically Mark Watney, except not, because she's totally a female Saudi Arabian Muslim, you guys.

I absolutely appreciate the effort, and the fact that when the movie is made they will actually have to cast an Arab female in the lead, and not Matt Damon. I also think Jazz's father is somewhat successful as a devout Muslim character, and there are some nice character notes towards the end. But there are a lot of implausible moments, a lot of "a woman would never say that" moments. It reminds me of how the narrator of Lock In was supposed to be gender ambiguous but used a phrase like "I have to take a piss," which I literally have never heard from a female person in my entire life.

Anyway. Not trying to circumscribe how to be a woman, but merely saying I didn't buy Jazz as an authentic character. Other than that, it's a fun and lightweight, and Martian-y, Moon adventure.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The End of Eddy (by Edouard Louis)

Not exactly a memoir -- it's an autobiographical novel.  Picked this up for the Tournament of Books and this is the book I alluded to in my last post as a bit of a slog, although it's quite short.

I'm not sure why I never warmed to this book. It's the story of a gay boy growing up in rural France in roughly the present day (the author, whose life this is based on, is only 21) and dealing with extreme poverty and homophobia.

I had some issues with the verb tenses shifting (which, to be fair, may be a translation issue) but also I found the characterizations somewhat uneven, the plot at times stagnant, and the timeline slightly confusing.

This simply did not click for me, for whatever reason, and I feel like it's probably a better book than I'm making it out to be. Curious to see how the Tournament discussion shakes out. I probably wouldn't have finished it otherwise.

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Florence Gordon (by Brian Morton)

Recommended by aych for the Read Harder Challenge category "book with a female protagonist over the age of 60."  I loved this novel! The other book I'm reading is yet another slog from the Tournament of Books, so in comparison, this breezed on by and was simply a pleasure to read.

Florence Gordon is a prickly, 75-year-old feminist. (As soon as Frances McDormand turns 75, she's going to do a great job playing Florence Gordon in the miniseries.) The novel shifts between her point of view and those of her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. The novel deals with many themes -- among them, the gulf between the feelings of our loved ones and our assumptions about those feelings.  It's powerful and quiet and subtly moving.

I loved the minimalism of the writing and the emotional complexity of Florence Gordon, and I adored the prickly protagonist. Recommended!

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Homegoing (by Yaa Gyasi)

An early contender for best read of the year, for sure.  Homegoing absolutely blew me away.

If you aren't already familiar with it from the crazy hype last year, it starts on the African coast, in modern-day Ghana, with two separated sisters. One is forced to marry a slave owner and stays in Africa. The other is kidnapped and sold to America.  We follow each of their family histories, generation by generation, through the present day -- each chapter is a vignette focusing on a child of the previous protagonist.

The vignettes cover a large swath of the African and African-American experience, from the civil rights movement to slavery, Jim Crow to colonialism, tribal war in Africa and the Harlem of the renaissance.  Loss and separation is a constant theme. Each vignette is strongly character driven, each character is vivid and unique, and I formed an emotional connection with each one.

I can't say enough good things about this.  A must-read.

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Space Case (Moon Base Alpha #1) (by Stuart Gibbs)

I discovered this series when I was looking for a read for this Read Harder Challenge category: "The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series."

This incredibly fun book is "a murder mystery on the moon" starring a 12-year-old boy named Dashiell who is a member of the first moon colony in 2040.  Both his parents are scientists and his whole family is on the moon for three years. When a fellow colonist steps out of an airlock and dies, Dashiell becomes convinced it's murder -- and tries to investigate.

I actually was reading another book set on the moon, Artemis by Andy Weir, and put it down in favor of Space Case.  Then I immediately downloaded Space Case #2, which I'l probably also read before I get back to Artemis. Given how much I enjoy Weir, that's a compliment to Stuart Gibbs! Fun read.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Dear Cyborgs (by Eugene Lim)

Now that I have this library thing figured out, as soon as the Tournament of Books shortlist came out, I immediately added every book I could find to my library holds list (minus the ones I've already read: The Animators, Fever Dream, Lincoln in the Bardo, Manhattan Beach.) This is the first one that was available.

Unfortunately, Dear Cyborgs was an inauspicious beginning for me. Although there are some insightful passages and commentary that will probably lend themselves well to being quoted in Tournament of Books judgments, this did not hang together for me at all.  My notes merely say "hella pretentious and annoying."  The lack of narrative, the fragmentation, the experimentation -- just all felt like it went a bridge too far and I did not go along for this particular ride. 

Lots of people love this and it worked for them. But it didn't work for me.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Righteous (by Joe Ide)

The sequel to IQ and the year's first Read Harder Challenge book since it fits the "Mystery by a person of color" category -- although I would have read it regardless!

I didn't feel Righteous was as good as the first in the series -- jumping back and forth between the two storylines lost some momentum for me, and I found myself having to reorient myself with all the main players every time the timeline shifted.  I also didn't feel there were quite as many awesome Sherlock Holmesy "aha!" moments in this one.  But I still enjoyed it and love Isaiah as a character, and will likely stick with the series for now.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Year-End Book Wrapup '17

My goal this year was to read 50 books and to complete the Read Harder Challenge. Check and check — I finished the challenge and read 79 books this year: 50 by women and the remaining 29 by men.  The other thing I did was figure out how to check out ebooks from Amazon through my library (actually, through three libraries) and so I cut my book budget down to almost nothing.  Probably should have done it years ago, but better late than never.

Top five books of the year:

1.  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This edges into the top spot by virtue of its timeliness. So much more than an entertaining young adult novel, The Hate U Give also made me confront and consider my own lingering prejudices. And it’s fun to read, with a great and very real main character! Worth all the hype, and a must-read even if you only rarely read young adult.

2.  The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
I almost made this a tie for the first-place spot because it is so magnificent. My new favorite Wharton, maybe. I loved the lush writing and Undine Spragg, the anti-hero. Weirdly, it was also pretty timely — I enjoyed reading about a ruthless woman who just goes for what she wants.  It’s like the anti-House of Mirth.

3. Version Control by Dexter Palmer
I recommended this near-future sci-fi book to several friends and none of them loved it. It also was my sleeper pick for Tournament of Books winner, and it got some hate. In other words, I think this is a book that I might have loved more than most people! But it was still one of my favorite reads of the year so here it is at number three, damnit. 

4. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Shocked this did not make it into the Tournament of Books longlist, but I am seeing it on other best-of lists, so I think this one wasn’t just me. I thought the writing was excellent — my favorite straight-up litfic of the year.

5. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel
I always love Bechdel, and really enjoyed the collection of her strips. However, I could easily make an argument to swap out this spot with anything on the honorable mention list — I read a lot of great stuff this year, and recommend everything on the mentions list as well.

Honorable mentions: All the Birds in the Sky, Moonglow, The Handmaid’s Tale, Kindred, Big Little Lies, Wild, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Texts from Jane Eyre, 11/22/63, How to Murder Your Life, IQ, The Unit, Six Wakes, Holding Up the Universe, Magpie Murders, The Animators.  (I love how many genres are encompassed in this list — what a fun and eclectic reading year.)

Bottom five books:

1. Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Read it for book club and found it lacking in perspective and just irritating. I mean, of course a whiny, privileged white dude would show up in first place here. It is 2017, after all, and I have no patience for it anymore. NEXT.

2. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
I adore Rainbow Rowell so I’m sorry that I hated this. The premise was dumb and forced, and the character of the husband was so awful that you don’t root for a happy ending, so it doesn’t even work as enjoyable fluff. Sorry to say, I disliked this.

3. City of the Lost Monkey God (by Douglas Preston)
Read for the same book club as #1 — I think we need to pick better books.  (And also, I no longer feel compelled to finish a book if I dislike it unless I promised to read it for book club, so maybe that explains it.) Anyway, vaguely interesting, but needed more people eaten by snakes (i.e., some drama).

4. A Place of Execution (by Val McDermid)
Not terrible, but it really dragged as an audiobook.

5. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Here’s my totally unpopular pick, but as good as the audio production was, I had no patience for how penisy and white this was. Sorry about it.

Next year I will up my goal a tad: read 70 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, so keep checking back.

I like this year’s challenges better than last year’s —although still a bit repetitive. (I will probably triple up the comic ones. Or quadruple, since I tend to read comics all in one sitting. Maybe if I extend the challenge to graphic novels, I will get more out of it.)  I will probably read Huck Finn for the last category, but am tempted to re-read A Passage to India, which I loathed and is also colonial literature and set in India.  (I like to read something different for each category, but I also like thinking how I can game the system.)

Total: 9/24

[X] Published posthumously: The Bright Hour
[X] True crime: I'll Be Gone in the Dark
[  ] Classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance)
[  ] Comic written and illustrated by the same person
[  ] Set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa)
[  ] About nature
[  ] Western
[  ] Comic written or illustrated by a person of color
[X] Colonial or postcolonial literature: Homegoing
[X] Romance novel by or about a person of color: The Wedding Date
[X] Children’s classic published before 1980: A Wrinkle in Time
[  ] Celebrity memoir
[  ] Oprah Book Club selection
[  ] Book of social science
[X] A one-sitting book: Catch Me If You Can
[X] The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series: Space Case (Moon Base Alpha #1)
[  ] Sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author
[  ] A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image
[  ] Genre fiction in translation
[  ] Book with a cover you hate
[X] Mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author: Righteous
[  ] Essay anthology
[X] Book with a female protagonist over the age of 60: Florence Gordon
[  ] Assigned book you hated (or never finished)

I can’t wait to dive into more books for 2018! Happy new year, everyone.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Weekend Reads (Magpie Murders and Geekerella)

I read these two delightful genre books over the weekend.

The first is Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. It's actually a murder mystery inside a murder mystery -- the main character is an editor, who gets the latest manuscript from her star author, the final book in a murder mystery series he's been writing.  We get most of that manuscript, then... complications ensue. If you like old fashioned Agatha Christie mysteries crossed with some postmodernist shenanigans -- in other words, exactly my sweet spot -- you will enjoy this!

The second novel I read, Geekerella by Ashley Poston, is a super charming and adorable love letter to fandom. Reminded me of the equally charming Queens of Geek, as well as my unpublished young adult novel, which has one or two similar plotlines! The Cinderella formula just works, even though it is a bit odd that Cinderella apparently exists in the Geekerella world (it is referenced at the end) and yet the story is so on the nose  -- down to the glass slipper.  I also noticed moments that paid homage to that great Angelica Huston classic, Ever After.  (The main character's name, Danielle, seems like one.) This one is recommended for nerdy YA fans who enjoyed Queens of Geek.

It's always nice to have a fun page turner going over the weekend. This time I got two!

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Vacation Reads: Italy Edition

I just got back from two glorious weeks in Italy, and I read lots of books! (I also watched the entire miniseries of Big Little Lies on the flight home. Good, but the book is better.) Here are my brief reviews:

The Woman in Cabin 10 (by Ruth Ware) 

I had heard mixed reviews of this one, but took a chance on it since it was (you guessed it) a library book. I actually really enjoyed it, especially the setting (a mini-cruise ship). A fun page-turner!

Aurora (by Kim Stanley Robinson) 

After Six Wakes, I was looking for good generation ship stories, and I found this one on some recommendation lists. Thought-provoking and rich with detail; the ship itself was one of my favorite characters. I didn't love it, but I liked it.

The Dinner Party and Other Stories (by Joshua Ferris) 

Very male and white and heteronormative, but enjoyable nonetheless. There are some standout stories (like the title story, which was first published in the New Yorker and is findeable online) and some that didn't quite mesh for me thematically (like the one set in a trailer park).  A good read nonetheless.

The Animators (by Kayla Rae Whittaker) 

Really good, assured, impressive debut that I plucked off the Tournament of Books longlist and into my Kindle. It is a skoch MFA-ey. The character of Mel is a bit unrealistic, particularly her dialogue. But compulsively readable.

Sharp Objects (by Gillian Flynn) 

I feel like Flynn is an underrated writer. It's a good suspense thriller, but also has some excellent turns of phrase and some really solid writing. I enjoyed the creepy plot and the unreliable narrator. I did not enjoy the various swipes at fat people throughout.

Holding Up the Universe (by Jennifer Niven)

Speaking of fat people, this was my favorite of all these reads. It's a young adult novel about a boy with prosopagnosia (face-blindness) and a girl who once had to be cut out of her house; she has lost hundreds of pounds but is still obese.  It's painfully relatable and so well-written. This may be one I actually purchase so I can re-read it as much as I want to.

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies (by Michael Ausiello)

A moving and affectionate memoir of his late husband, written with raw honesty and humor. Includes am enjoyable dash of pop culture (I know Ausiello as a pop culture writer for Entertainment Weekly and online). I had been really looking forward to this one and it didn't disappoint.

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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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