Monday, December 31, 2018

The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles) (by Amy Spalding)

Sneaking one in under the 2018 wire! I picked this up last night for a bit of light reading before bed and ended up staying up until three to finish it.  Such a charming girl-girl romance, set in my beloved Los Angeles, with great humor and a wonderful, plus-sized main character.  A wonderful way to end the year of reading. Year-end wrapup coming soon!

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Christmas Reads 2018

This may be the last batch of reviews before my annual year-end wrapup. Here are the books I finished while on Christmas vacation:

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful (by Arwen Elys)

I get so many science fiction book recommendations via John Scalzi's Big Idea series, and this was one of them. It's a series of six vignettes featuring teenage protagonists, each dealing with the implications of genetic engineering. It starts with the idea of reconstructing organs via stem cells, and by the final vignette, humans have almost evolved into a new species.  It's really great; I particularly loved Milla's story and the final story, either of which could have easily been a novel on its own. Loved the way this is grounded in real science and also in the realities of these characters. Highly recommended for science fiction fans.

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain (by James Fallon)

Premise: a neuroscientist is researching psychopathic brains as well as his family, and thinks he's gotten some scans mixed up. He hasn't: he has the brain of a psychopath. There's lots of scidency detail and not a strong sense of narrative. It's obvious Fallon is kind of a dick even if he's not a deranged murderer. And he mentions hiding some of his worst stories. But this is a completely unique perspective and he does attack it (seemingly) with candor.  As I said, definitely unique if you're interested in the science of psychopathy.

Census (by Jesse Ball)

A Tournament of Books entrant. It's a metaphorical novel about the author's relationship with his brother, told via the narrator, a father traveling with his son who has Downs Syndrome. (Although it's alluded to, not actually named -- neither are the other characters and places in the story.) They are conducting a mysterious census on behalf of a mysterious government with a dystopian feel to it. I was expecting some kind of revelatory ending about that, but instead the conclusion is as metaphorical as the rest of it, although quite moving. I didn't love it overall, honestly, but I'm still interested in reading discussions about it when the tournament begins. (When am I going to get to a Tournament book this year that blows me away? Still waiting...)

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Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Italian Teacher (by Tom Rachman)

I remember having hated The Imperfectionists, but looking back I seem to have kind of liked it? Apparently I was in the throes of new motherhood so really, who can say. (Also gift4gab recommended Kindle books through the library right there in the comments. Somehow it took me like six years to take her advice. Sorry, gift4gab, if you're still out there! You tried to tell me!)

Anyway, I ended up with a handful of ToB books to choose from once I dug into the list. I got about 75 pages or so into Call Me Zebra and disliked it very much, so I gave that one up and tried this one instead. This one I liked! It's kind of a tragicomedy about an incredibly frustrating sad sack named Pinch. (Yes, the names in this book are dumb: Pinch's father is named Bear.) Bear is a famous artist and womanizer who clearly doesn't care about Pinch; Pinch idolizes him.

The book is definitely about the art world and about Pinch (aka Charles) making his way through life mostly in the wake of his famous father. If you want likeable characters, do not read this; everyone is awful. But if you enjoy character sketches and don't need likeability, you may enjoy the story of Pinch: an ultimately poignant figure, very well-realized.

(Definitely does not unseat My Sister the Serial Killer for my zombie vote though.)

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Monday, December 17, 2018

So Lucky (by Nicola Griffith)

And so the Tournament of Books has begun! I have to say I'm surprised by the shortlist. I thought The Great Believers (which I have not read) and My Year of Rest and Relaxation (which I have read, and loved) were shoo-ins. I'm thrilled that My Sister the Serial Killer made it because I loved that one too, but that's the only tournament book, other than this one, I've read so far.

So Lucky is about a community organizer and activist named Mara who is diagnosed with MS at the same time as her wife leaves her. She writes about what it's like to become disabled and how differently she is seen, and she explores many raw and angry feelings about being victimized and fighting back. I gather many elements of the novel are autobiographical, as Griffith identifies as a queer writer and also has MS.

As far as the Tournament goes, although the book is excellently written and the emotion behind it is powerful and the viewpoint is unique, it didn't blow me away. I don't have a "good" reason for why not, but maybe one of the ToB judges will articulate it for me! Overall, this wouldn't change my Zombie vote* for My Sister the Serial Killer. 

*Wherein you vote for your favorite book in the tournament to come back as a zombie.

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The Spaceship Next Door (by Gene Doucette)

As fun as this book is -- about a town affected by the fact that a spaceship has landed in it, and a sixteen-year-old who might hold the key to everything -- there are a couple of off-putting elements. 

First, the sixteen-year-old in question, Annie, is a fun character but so preternaturally brilliant and mature that she comes off as a Mary Sue (or in this case a Gary Stu, I guess). There are parts where she's being snarky at the U.S government and somehow that's okay because Annie is just so amazing. This especially comes into focus at the end.

Second, the way the author harps on two characters being gay and using the adjective lesbian all the time (like "the angry lesbian was in the front seat" or similar) is off putting.  It comes across as an author awkwardly trying to shoehorn in some diversity by way of othering and vague misogyny.

Aside from these two issues I found this a generally entertaining story and a breezy read.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What If It’s Us (by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera)

Yep, still working my way through the Becky Albertalli ouvre! I hadn't ready anything by Silvera yet but I was interested to hear they'd teamed up to write a M/M romance in alternating perspectives.

I liked the full-on awkwardness of this romance. It captured the awkwardness of youth in the way that so many YA novels seem to gloss over.  But there were moments where it felt very co-authored -- not just that the characters' perspectives differed, but that one author made something happen, handed it over to the other who had to shoehorn in a new plot point, and it didn't quite work as seamlessly as I'd hoped. 

I enjoyed the boldness of the ending and it felt right for these particular characters in this particular romance. I have some quibbles but I will definitely check out Adam Silvera's work; I have a feeling I will prefer each of these writers as standalone authors more.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Nine Perfect Strangers (by Liane Moriarty)

I'll always read a good Liane Moriarty (usually on an airplane, but in this case it was just when my library hold popped up and said this book was available -- god I love the library).  This is not her best, I'll say that right away, despite a great concept -- nine strangers at an unorthodox holistic health resort.

Each of the characters is well drawn and has a great backstory that unfolds over the course of the book, Moriarty is great at creating vivid characters and making you care about them. But the ending goes off the rails into melodrama -- and it's not all that believable, at that. Still, a page turning and entertaining light read.

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Catherine, Called Birdy (by Karen Cushman)

A historical young adult novel set in the 1200s, in which Catherine narrates her fourteenth year.  She's rebellious (insomuch as she can be in the 13th century) and resisting being married off by her father, while commenting on feudal life and the people around her. 

The diary format and general charm and self-possession of Catherine reminds me a bit of Cassandra and I Capture the Castle. The well-researched historical details makes this immersive and fascinating. It gave me a glimpse into medieval life that managed not to be too anachronistic in a portrayal of a  young woman and her social world. Great read!

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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Gnomon (by Nick Harkaway)

Another pick from the ToB longlist, this is 700 pages of science fiction whose concept led me to put it on my library holds list and whose first few chapters reeled me in for good.  Here's the description:

In the world of Gnomon, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of "transparency." Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories—all in the name of providing the safest society in history. When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. 

And since this doesn't even cover the half of it, here is the rest of the description from Amazon:

Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn't Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter's psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future.

I would love to go back and read this all over again, given how much I'm certain I missed the first time, except for the whole "700 pages long" thing.  My favorite of the nested narratives is Neith's in the "real world," which helps ground the rest of them, but I enjoyed all of them.  I love the conclusion this builds to, and the very final chapter is killer.

I put all this description in here to help give you an idea of whether you want to invest in a story of this size and scope and experimental breadth. If it sounds at all up your alley, I definitely recommend it.

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