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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