Monday, July 15, 2024

Belize Books

I'm almost done with a sixth book, but here are the five books I finished while on my vacation to Belize:

Birding Under the Influence (by Dorian Anderson)

I avidly followed Dorian's blog about the Big Year he did on a bicycle. In this memoir, he tells the story of his journey while interspersed with the love story between him and his now-wife Sonia, and his problems with drinking and drugs and general addict behavior. I thought this memoir was terrific - well written, candid, structured well, and generally one of the better blog-to-book books I've ever read. Highly recommended if you're interested in reading about a Big Year!

Journey Under the Midnight Sun (by by Keigo Higashino) 

Another Japanese Mystery, and I think the third one I've read by Higashino. This one is pretty long (I would say overly long) and you figure out whodunit pretty early, but the whydunit and will-someone-ever-catch-them elements propel you to the end. Definitely a motive I should have, but did not, see coming, which made the ending hit hard. Not my favorite by him purely because of the overlength, but good nonetheless.

The Long Run (by James Acker)

Queer YA, you knew it was making it on this list somehow. I wasn't sure an athlete love story would be my jam as they've been hit or miss for me in the past, but this one has so much depth, the characters and their relationship are actually wonderful and lovely and I cried of course. Recommended!

Noah Frye Gets Crushed (by Maggie Horne)

This was, vis a vis the RHC, "a middle grade book with an LGBTQIA main character." Absolutely adorable, funny and charming. full of terrific characters, although I would have liked to see Jessa developed better. I'm actually not a middle grade fan (Baby-Sitters Club notwithstanding ) but this nails it. Horne has got a sapphic YA debut coming out next month, can't wait for that!

Annie LeBlanc Is Not Dead Yet (by Molly Morris) 

Love the premise - every 10 years, someone in this small town gets to come back from the dead - wrapped in a queer YA.  I enjoyed it enough to finish it to the end but was my least favorite of these - I found it to be overly quirkified and aggressively 90s (authors need to stop with this).  I was thrown off at the very beginning by the quirky names. The main characters, Wilson and Ryan, are both girls. Ryan's twin brother is Mark, which makes no sense whatsoever as a sibling set. Wilson calls her mother by her first name, Jody, and Jody's ex, a man, is named Cass.  Wilson is named after Wilson Phillips. I was so confused and also, like, why do all the names have to be quirky.  My biggest issue is that the romance didn't fully work and relationships felt inorganic.  I finished it, I guess, is the best I can say!

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Monday, June 24, 2024

Check & Mate (by Ali Hazelwood)

More college-age than truly young adult (I've heard this called "new adult") and a good read about a chess rivalry. This is one I kept checking out and letting lapse because the cover is juvenile and just not appealing.  But the book is much more sophisticated than the cover would suggest.

Mallory is a chess prodigy who quit the sport after some unspecified trauma with her deceased father. She now takes care of her mother (who is chronically ill) and her two younger sisters by working under the table as a car mechanic.  Until she is drafted to play in a chess competition and beats the #1 player in the world, who is of course a hot chess prodigy.

I enjoyed: the dialogue, the relationship of the sisters, the bisexual and sex-positive representation. Less effective: I felt the "best friend" owed her an apology at the end and that never got resolved, and I can see how the ending might feel a bit unsatisfying.  But overall I enjoyed it.

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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Dungeons and Drama (by Kristy Boyce)

I have a little backlog of YA novels on my library checkout list that I'm trying to read through before they expire. This was a cute one about a theater nerd who starts working in her dad's game store and learns about the theatrical joys of D&D (she is a bard who sings showtunes to inspire her fellow players).  

This does lean on the fake dating trope but honestly it's handled pretty well! At first I wasn't sure about the characters but I ended up loving them. There were a few weird moments (DMs do accents all the time! No self-respecting theater fan would call Les Miz a perfect movie!) but this was squarely in my wheelhouse and I enjoyed it a lot.

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Monday, June 10, 2024

Finally Fitz (by Marisa Kanter)

Just a queer YA that hits perfectly. Our main character is bisexual and an aspiring fashion designer and influencer in New York for the first time. She is dumped by her girlfriend and reconnects with an old friend from her youth. Fake relationship shenanigans ensue.

All that said, this doesn't really hit the cliche beats you'd expect, and I super appreciated that! There's a storyline about Fitz and her (much older) trio of sisters that is really beautiful, and I cried at the end because of All The Feels about Fitz, her relationships, her sisters, etc. etc.  Super well done and a home run for YA romcom fans.

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Sunday, June 02, 2024

A Pair of Mysteries

A friend and I got to talking about mysteries we like; we're both fans of Agatha Christie-style fair play mysteries and not so much modern thrillers.  I recommended some Japanese mysteries to him and he talked about some Golden Age writers I might enjoy, like Ellery Queen. So we exchanged recs.

The Greek Coffin Mystery (by Ellery Queen)

Like Agatha Christie, this has not aged well. Sexism, racism, some really awful ableism.  I also didn't much like the writing style. I kept reading because I wanted to give it a fair shake and hear the solution to the mystery, which is clever, and fooled me, which as you know I always enjoy.  But it's really hard to get past the writing, which is depressingly Of Its Time and like I said, not even that good. I think I'll move on from Queen (the nom de plume, by the way, of two cousins, who wrote these books) and try a different Golden Age writer next.

Malice (by Keigo Higashino)

Coincidentally, this popped up on my library holds list, by the author of The Devotion of Suspect X, which I enjoyed. Well Malice was even better! A Whydunit that manages to be so suspenseful, I finished it all in one day.  Now this one, I really recommend. Japanese mysteries are really a goldmine. I'm hoping my friend enjoys my rec, The Decagon House Murders, and if so, I'll tell him to read Malice next.

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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Act Your Age, Eve Brown (by Talia Hibbert)

Read for the category "a genre book (SFF, horror, mystery, romance) by a disabled author."  Hibbert has fibromyalgia. Also this is an #OwnVoices book for autism, as Hibbert is queer and autistic. 

I'm not a huge romance reader but I did enjoy this one, the third in Hibbert's series about the Brown sisters.  The immature Eve Brown is cut off from her trust fund by her parents and decides to go get a job, hits her interviewer with her car, and somehow is still hired? And they have instant chemistry, great communication, and frankly some really contrived conflict before living happily ever after.

If you're a fan of contemporary romance, it is cute and I recommend it.

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Thursday, May 16, 2024

Books Make Great Friends (by Jane Mount)

This seemed like a silly category, "a picture book published in the last five years." I can go to Barnes and Noble and leaf through a picture book in 5 minutes. But dutifully I did my research, and found out about this book, about a girl who loves to read.

It's beautifully and meticulously illustrated, with so many amazing books represented. I originally checked this out from the library and when I Couldn't zoom in to read all the titles, I ordered the hardcover so I could pore over every book. It had so many of my childhood favorites (Anne of Green Gables! Anastasia Krupnik!) and modern ones I love (Melissa! Planet Earth Is Blue!) And here's a picture of the adult bookshelf. It has some of my all-time favorites, most notably Cloud Atlas, Americanah, Crying in H Mart, and Circe. Jane Mount clearly has great taste, so I want to try and make out all the titles if I can and add them to my library list.

 
The story itself - about making friends when you are awkward and shy - is very sweet, and I think will resonate a lot with my child, even though she's "too old" (theoretically) for picture books.   I loved the experience of reading this, and thank you Read Harder Challenge for this lovely gift!

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The Final Season (by Andrew Gillsmith)

This was the most difficult RHC category for me this year, and still not sure if I nailed it, but I read this for a book that went under the radar in 2023." The question of course is what radar? Whose radar? Recommendations in the Goodreads group included a bunch of novels from the Tournament of Books short and longlist. They do find a lot of relatively niche books, but they are by definition on the ToB radar, so they're on the radar, so then they don't count! 

Someone suggested looking for books with a small number of reviews and ratings, and I think a random rec list had this book on it. Not only is it low on reviews and ratings, it isn't carried by any of my libraries, so I bought it. And as a humorous sci-fi book, I would fully expect it to show up on The Big Idea series on Scalzi's Whatever blog, which definitely counts as "the radar" for sci-fi, but it hasn't. (Dear Andrew Gillsmith: Scalzi readers would be so into this, you should get on The Big Idea when you publish the next one in the series.) 

Anyway, the book itself! It's a Douglas Adams-style book about a reality series that's been watching a doomed planet for 10,000 years. The planet's apocalypse is about to happen, and the showrunner has the opportunity to save the planet's inhabitants. But will she? A fun, funny read and really I do think it would be a hit with fans of Agent to the Stars or Hitchhiker's Guide.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2024

To Be Taught, if Fortunate (by Becky Chambers)

This book marks the halfway point in my Read Harder progress this year, a sci-fi novella. It's about a group of four astronauts who are exploring other planets in between rounds of "torpor" and being adapted for the next environment via enzyme patches, and is narrated by the engineer, Ariadne.

It's very creative about what kinds of other planets and life forms may exist, and I think hinges on a sort of "Choose Your Own Adventure" ending.  But ultimately I didn't really love the characters, could have done without all the bed-hopping, and wished for this to be better fleshed out as a story.  The ending could have hit better if it was better developed. Ultimately a meh for me.

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Monday, May 06, 2024

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up (by Naoko Kodama)

Read for the "manga" category in the RHC.  It's a short manga about a girl who marries her best friend "to shut her parents up" and then ends up developing romantic feelings for her.

There are a lot of flashbacks, which made this choppy and confusing to read. (This may partly be because I'm not used to reading manga, but I had no issues with My Brother's Husband.)  There is some weird sexual harassment going on, flashbacks that don't pay off, a weird focus on the main character's giant boobs?

I mean, it's cute - the grumpy/sunshine dynamic is there and this could have been adorable. But it lacked pacing and depth, for me.

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Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Ellie Haycock Is Totally Normal (by Gretchen Schreiber)

I thought this was a RHC book (a book by an author with a disability) but it didn't qualify (I was supposed to read a genre book by an author with a disability) but I still was glad to see the representation of a main character with a physical disability, in this case, VACTERLs, which the author also has.

The Goodreads detractors found the main character too unlikeable, which I understand, but I had different problems.  I thought the writing was really strange. Often I had to go back and try to re-read a conversation to figure out what people were responding to, because the dialogue didn't flow for me at times. And some of the metaphors are bizarre.   Her mother's blog is like noxious butter. The friends sit on the couch like lasagna.   Her reaction to a text message is like a boob-punch.  Also the mother's blog is called "VATERs Like Water" and I don't understand why it's VATER instead of VACTERLs or what that even means. I spent a lot of time confused!

I hesitate to say this because it's hardly #ownvoices rep, but "snarky girl with a life-threatening illness" was done better, I think, in The Fault in Our Stars.  Then again, a lot of readers loved it, so maybe this was just one that wasn't for me! It happens.



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Monday, April 29, 2024

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World (by Pénélope Bagieu)

For the RHC category "a comic that has been banned."  I'm so glad I got this on paper because the illustrations are absolutely stunning. This is an anthology of stories about brazen women around the world, from little known figures (like the woman who saved the Montuak lighthouse) to world-famous figures like Josephine Baker.

I'm guessing it's banned because it features at least one transgender woman and mentions sexual assault, murder, and other difficult topics in some of the (true) stories of these women's lives. But it's wonderful. Bagieu includes a list of more Brazen women at the end and it just made me long for another volume of this amazing book!

Get it for the Brazen women (and girls; my 12-year-old loved it) in your life.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Eclipse Books

We traveled to and from Dallas for the solar eclipse, and we know what that means: airplane reads! We also ended up with massive delays coming home, which meant I finished two books I already had in progress and read a bunch more, and knocked off three Read Harder Challenge categories.  Here's the wrapup:

This Day Changes Everything (by Edward Underhill) 

Young adult romance between two queer kids in marching bands, both in New York to march in the Macy's parade. Cute, although the characters saying "I love you" after one day just did not work for me. The author lampshaded it, but it was still extremely silly.  But otherwise very Dash & Lily vibes,  charming. RHC category: YA book by a trans author.

Just Another Epic Love Poem (by Parisa Akhbari) 

A bildungsroman about a girl in love with her best friend, with whom she has been writing an epic poem for years. The pacing is a bit off at the beginning but then plays out beautifully. There's a lot of poetry that's supposed to be good, and thank god it is good (and the book features a lot of wonderful world poetry as well, especially from the narrator's Persian culture). It goes beyond the YA romance into a beautiful ode to sisterhood and family and I wept on the plane for the entire conclusion. If your YA standards are high, this will meet them. 

Also introduced me to this piece by Kahlil Gibran:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful. How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic (by Jack Lowery) 

RHC category: a book about drag or queer artistry. After considering various books by and about drag queens, I went another direction and decided to read about Gran Fury, the artistic collective associated with ACT UP.  Lowery brings lessons from the height of the AIDS pandemic into today by focusing on the importance of art, collective action, and propaganda. I enjoyed the epilogue, where he traced a line  from Silence = Death to Black Lives Matter, showing that activism through art continues to be urgent and important.

The Core of the Sun (by Johanna Sinisalo) 

I'm guessing Goodreads somehow recommended this for the RHC category of "a work in translation from a country you haven't visited." This is translated from the Finnish and is referred to as "Finnish weird," which explains why it's about a dystopia where there's a black market for chili peppers, and our main character tests the spice level of one by sticking it in her vagina in the first paragraph of the book.  But the main thee of the book is the Finnish society presented here, which has undergone scarily plausible "domestication" of women.  A fascinating page-turner; the only issue was a rather abrupt ending that I wish had been a bit more fleshed out. But Finnish weird, who knew? I'm into it.

Daniel, Deconstructed (by James Ramos) 

Another young adult read (they're good for airplanes). This one is a celebration of all the spectrums: gender, sexual, romantic, neurodiverse, and I enjoyed the autistic MC and his hyper-empathetic lens on the world. The plot is a  bit meandering, but ultimately an enjoyable book, just sweet and hopeful. 

All the Lovers in the Night (by Mieko Kawakami) 

A Japanese novel in translation, by the author of Breasts and Eggs. Although I didn't enjoy it quite as much (a shame, since the narrator is a proofreader) I enjoyed the moody, meditative, slice of life exploration of memory and connection. (The "work in translation" category would have been so easy if I hadn't been to Japan; I love Japanese novels.) 

Phew! I also got halfway through a mystery (a conspicuously absent genre from this list) but that's definitely enough for now. Oh, and I saw totality!

ETA: Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect (by Benjamin Stevenson)

Already finished it and not worth a separate post. I like the concept of this one, the breaking of the fourth wall, and the ultimate resolution to the plotline was really good. The way it played out was just a bit too convoluted for me, and Ernest isn't really likeable nor does he seem smart enough to pull off all the deductions at the end. Plus everyone is really mean to him for no reason! Idk, as the kids say these days, it was mid. 

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Friday, March 29, 2024

The Devotion of Suspect X (by Keigo Higashino)

One of the Read Harder challenges this year is to read a "whydunit" or "howdunit" and this Japanese mystery was recommended in the "howdunit" category. And it definitely fits: you find out who is murdered, and by whom, at the very beginning. Then you follow the trail of the detectives investigating the case and the murderer as they try to cover their tracks.  The question isn't how did the murder occur, but how did the murderer cover their tracks and will the detective uncover the solution.

I thought it would be impossible for this novel to have some kind of twist, but it did anyway, and I loved it. The ending was abrupt (there is a sample of another book at the back, so partly it was that we were not at 100% yet in the Kindle progress meter when it ended) but really works. Another hit in my series of Japanese mystery novels!

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A Very Punchable Face (by Colin Jost)

I'm a huge SNL fan, but avoided Jost's memoir fr a long time because I heard there was a lot in there about pooping and I'm not really into scatological humor. But somehow I ended up reading it anyway, and that's really only one chapter. (It is definitely gross, though.)

Very tongue-in-cheek, but insightful as to the inner workings of SNL and Colin's experiences there. How he ended up hosting Weekend Update, why his favorite time was working as a staff writer, why he thinks he'll leave soon, what he thought about Donald Trump, it's all in here.  Highly recommend for Saturday Night Live fans.

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Monday, March 18, 2024

Two Light Reads

A Most Agreeable Murder (by Julia Seales)

I chose this for the Read Harder category "read a book based solely on the title." It turned out to be pretty delightful - a quite silly pastiche of Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie as told by Daniel Pinkwater.  One of the characters is named "Croaksworth" and the novel takes place at "Stabmort Park," if that gives you a sense of the style. The mystery and romance at the core are actually both very enjoyable, and what's not to love about the main character, a fine lady who longs to be a detective? Lots of Jane Austen easter eggs as well. If this sounds fun - it is! I very much hope there's a sequel.

The No-Girlfriend Rule (by Christin Randall) 

This was a young adult novel I picked up and then couldn't put down. It's told via a Dungeons & Dragons - excuse me, Secrets & Sorcery - campaign.  Hollis's boyfriend won't let her join his game, so she goes out and finds her own, among a bunch of awesome queer people.  Via the game, her character starts to have feelings for another character, and maybe Hollis doesn't realize how much of her own desires are in there too.  The boyfriend is truly awful from page one, and yeah it could have been a bit more subtle, but it makes the part where she finally figures out he is awful quite satisfying. I think if you are a D&D fan you will love it.  Oh! And amazing portrayal of a fat and neurodivergent heroine, both on the cover and on the page. It's done so, so well. Will definitely pick up Randall's future books!

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Friday, March 15, 2024

The Librarianist (by Patrick deWitt)

I did it - I read all the Tournament books except the two play-in-round losers.  So I'm almost a completist. (Also my two least favorite books made it through the first round, grr, argh.) 

This one is about a retired librarian named Bob, who lives a quiet life since his wife left him decades before, reading book. He decides to start visiting a neighborhood senior center. We then get flashbacks to his marriage and to his childhood, before a finale in the present.

The childhood flashback was a bit too whimsical and my least favorite part, but I enjoyed everything else and the character study of Bob. I don't think it's one of the top books in the tournament but I did enjoy it, which is not nothing, considering my feelings about SOME of the OTHER BOOKS. 

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Saturday, March 02, 2024

Monstrilio (by Gerardo Sámano Córdova)

Down to three books left and four days to go in the Tournament of Books (one is 658 pages so finishing is unlikely, but I'll make sure to read whenever wins the play-in.)

I was worried Monstrilio - whose premise is "grieving mother grows a monster out of part of her dead son's lung" - would be both too gross and too depressing for me, but I was bought in right away when I realized the narrator was extremely weird, and her relationships were bizarre, and it was not the book I was expecting at all.

The second part is told by her best friend - who is in love with her. The third part from her ex-husband. And the final part by Monstrilio himself, the lung-monster. It uses the monster as a trope to show the lengths that family will go to protect each other, the magic of found family, and it's even been read as a queer allegory. It's one of those books that I would never have picked up without the tournament, and I'm so glad I did.

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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Chain-Gang All-Stars (by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah)

Wow, I loved this. A near-future and extremely plausible dystopia, where prisoners are forced to fight to the death for corporate sponsorship and entertainment.  Woven throughout are statistics about real prison conditions, inequities, etc. And Adjei-Brenyah absolutely nails the ending, I won't say any more than that, except that it's unflinching and exactly right.

Going into it, knowing nothing except the descriptions of the books, this one was my vote for ToB winner. I think it might be the one I go for in my bracket.  It's bold, of-the-moment, and masterfully written. Loved it.

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Monday, February 26, 2024

Dayswork (by Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel)

Another Tournament of Books entry. (I have about a week and five books left, can I do it?!?) (Probably not; I'm saving the three play-ins for last and if I run out of time, I will just read the winner.) 

This is a unique novel that revolves around a married woman researching Herman Melville during the early months of the pandemic.  It has almost no plot, and I would have enjoyed a smidge more, but it's a delightful read with a lot of great tidbits about Melville.   (My favorite is this quote from Philip Hoare: "Melville would never have finished his book today - he'd be constantly Googling 'whale.'") 

Tournament-wise, it should win the first round (it's up against Cold People, which has no ending) but should lose the second round to either Blackouts or Boys Weekend.  Then again, my predictions are almost always wrong, so we shall see...

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The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store (by James McBride)

I'm still working my way through the Tournament of Books shortlist, including this one by James McBride. There's something about McBride's writing that I find kind of... I don't know... twee? Artificial?Oprah's book club?

<a pause while I go to Goodreads and try to find someone who articulated this vague feeling on my behalf>

Okay here's one: "we are introduced to character after character after character who all have adorable folksy names and charming, convoluted, 'hilarious' backstories that involve star crossed romance, traumatic family histories, or hair brained schemes that resulted in the weird nickname they now have or the strange limp they're walking with and it just goes on and on and on until I thought I was gonna scream."

Yes, thank you Sara the librarian! It's too cutesy, and I felt the same way about Deacon King Kong, which I DNF after a couple hundred pages of folksy meandering.  I enjoyed McBride's memoir and I understand the appeal of the novel, but it's definitely not my favorite. 

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Legends & Lattes (by Travis Baldree)

This book kicked off an entire genre - cozy fantasy - that is now a category in the Read Harder Challenge. My friend Gale also told me I must read this, even though fantasy is not my thing.  But between friendship and reading challenges, I made it happen.

It is of course delightfully cozy.  Our lead character, an orc named Val, dreams of retiring from battles and opening a coffee shop. Mild complications ensue, but mostly this is about the assembling of a charming cast of characters, a dash of romance, and general coziness.  There is a prequel which I will probably read, but mostly I want a sequel! I want more time in the world of these characters and their little coffee shop.

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Monday, February 12, 2024

My Fair Brady (by Brian D. Kennedy)

I have been starting and abandoning a lot of young adult novels; I think my standards have gotten higher. Which is why My Fair Brady was such a delight - good characters, excellent plot, well written, diverse without being try-hard, and featuring queer theater nerds and social anxiety. 

Wade is a theater star and Elijah joins the tech crew hoping to make friends. Elijah asks Wade to Henry Higgins him into a popular kid; Wade wants to impress his ex-boyfriend by taking on Elijah as a project. The way it evolves is naturalistic, has some surprising moments, and feels authentic. As a bonus, it's genuinely funny without, again, trying too hard.

If you're a queer YA fan, and especially if you're also a theater fan, this one is well worth your time. 

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The Lost Journals of Sacajewea (by Debra Magpie Earling)

This was a twofer, both a Tournament of Books contender and a historical fiction book by an Indigenous author for the RHC.

I'm going to call this one a me problem. It's a wonderful story and written in such a creative fashion, with Sacajawea's unique vocabulary and interesting conventions like sacred words being written in a lighter typeface and so forth. So I'm not saying it's in any way cliche or derivative. Bu unfortunately I just do not vibe with classic indigenous literature.  Like, the mighty Spirit, the great buffalo, the wolf god, the river spirit, blah blah blah.  It's like descriptions of scenery to me, and it bores me to death. Plus, like yes, white people are colonizers and are evil, and everyone suffered, and by the end the cumulative effect was moving, but I was boredddddddd.

It's also not an easy read, because you have to translate Sacajawea's experiences, and it helps to know a little bit of the history being covered because it's easy to miss certain characters and plot points. And again, I just kept bouncing off the language. The book is a real achievement and the atmosphere and the feeling of it stayed with me in a positive way and I'm sure I could have gotten more out of it if I'd tried harder.  What I'm trying to say in the end is that I think I failed this book, it did not fail me.

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Monday, January 22, 2024

Thesis and Antithesis

No, that's not a book title, just a way of describing this pair of books. 

Brainwyrms (by Alison Rumfitt)

I read this for the Tournament of Books and only because a friend and I are trying to be shortlist completionists this year.  It was truly one of the most unpleasant reading experiences I have ever had. I wanted the cover away from my Kindle as quickly as possible.  It's a body horror novel about anti-trans sentiment in the UK, and I admire the audacity, but boy, was this ever gross. Just like... so gross. Not poorly written. But.... very very gross.

A Family Affair (by Harper Bliss)

I needed something completely different, so immediately bought (yes, I actually purchased this one) a lesbian romance that was advertised to me on Facebook, about a woman who has an affair with her sister-in-law.  (If you don't like reading about cheating or forbidden romance, this is not for you, although it is handled sensitively.) This had one of my pet peeves, which is dialogue that doesn't sound like words anyone would actually say.  One character describes another by saying: "Although a touch distant, she was very nice."  I mean can you imagine anyone saying "Although a touch distant" in an actual spoken sentence?  But still, it is exactly what I needed to read and I enjoyed it, cheesiness and all.

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Friday, January 19, 2024

Blackouts (by Justin Torres)

This is a Tournament of Books entry that also qualifies for the RHC, which is a delightful little two-fer.  It won the National Book Award in 2023, and I can understand why.  I think this NPR review can give you a better sense of the book than I can.

I've been turning it over in my head a couple of days and I think I appreciated this book more intellectually than emotionally.  But its a hell of an intellectual achievement. The blackouts and historical ephemera themselves are fascinating, as are the endnotes about them from the point of view of the narrator. That lifted the whole work for me.  

I wasn't as compelled by the two main characters and wished there had been something more, a stronger emotional core, I guess? But this is the kind of book that's perfect for plenty of ToB discussion, and I'm already looking forward to it.

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Friday, January 12, 2024

Yes & I Love You (by Roni Loren)

Read for the RHC category "romance with neurodivergent characters." (I actually started The Heart Principle for this category but DNF when the plot changed halfway through and I did not want to read about someone being gaslit by their horrible family for hundreds of pages.) 

Yes & I love you is about Hollyn, who has Tourette's, and her neurodivergence is meaningfully incorporated into the plot and handled extremely well. I'm not a huge romance reader but this was enjoyable - instead of constant miscommunication, the leads communicated openly and the obstacles were real, not manufactured by the plot.  

There's also a throughline about improv (hence the title) and Hollyn using it to get our of her comfort zone (and also hook up with the hot improv instructor).  Recommended for romance fans!


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Tuesday, January 09, 2024

A Fatal Crossing (by Tom Hindle)

The downside of the library system (and it is a very tiny downside compared to all the many upsides) is that I can check out some books over and over again, not have time to read them, and by the time they pop up, I forgot who told me about them or why I was interested in the first place.  I've been trying to clear out my queue by reading (or at least starting and DNFing) books that I've accidentally checked out or delayed repeatedly. I'm running out of holds and virtual shelf space!

Anyway, this is another Agatha Christie homage, with a murder set on a gilded age, Titanic-like passenger ship. I thought the plot was well constructed, but the characters are not as vividly rendered as those in a Christie novel, so some of them blended together and I sometimes got confused about who was who. The narrator is the ship's officer sidekick to the main detective, who quite frankly was unpleasant to read about as he was kind of a dick. The book is also fairly long and a bit repetitive at times.

There is a Christie-like twist at the end that's well-executed but I'm still not fully sure how I feel about it.  I need to talk about it in full spoilery fashion, so if you read this, let me know!

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Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD: A Scientifically Proven Program for Parents (by Eli R. Lebowitz)

This book was super helpful. I'm not going to talk too much about it on a public blog, but I can tell you a friend and I strolled along the beach yesterday and had a long chat about everything I learned and have been thinking about. It helped alleviate a lot of that all-too-familiar parental guilt, too.

If your child has any type of anxiety, this is worth a read. As I work to implement some of the book's strategies, wish me luck!

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Tuesday, January 02, 2024

The Guest (by Emma Cline)

I love kicking off the year with a great read, don't you? This Tournament of Books entry is my first foray into Emma Cline and has a completely unsympathetic disaster of a main character and I absolutely loved every minute of it, including the ambiguous ending.

Alex is basically scamming her way across the Hamptons, trying to hang onto her rich boyfriend and ingratiating herself in other ways into the social scene there. She does not do a great job of this, but somehow we want her to keep coming out on top. Like the Talented Mr. Ripley, but with less murdering? 

This is not for everyone (the ending might be too ambigous for some) but if I were voting now for the ToB zombie, it would get my vote. Sorry Open Throat and Big Swiss, I still love you!

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Monday, January 01, 2024

Year-End Book Wrapup 2023

Once again, my goal this year was to read 75 books and complete the Read Harder Challenge.  I finished 88 books and completed the RHC; you can check out which book I read for each category and see links to reviews in last year's post.

One of the challenges was, like last year, to "repeat a challenge from any of the previous years.” Both this year and last I went back to 2015, since I wasn’t doing this challenge in 2015.   This year I read a microhistory; last year I read a self-help book.

However, a lot of the other books I read (excluding the ones I read for the challenge this year, since I don’t double dip) also covered challenges in 2015. Here’s a list:

A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people) - Forward
A book published before 1850 - Northanger Abbey
A book that was originally published in another language 
- The Aosawa Murders
A romance novel - Very Sincerely Yours
A book that someone else has recommended to you - Mercury Pictures Presents
A book by a person whose gender is different from your own - Madly, Deeply
A YA novel - 6 Times We Almost Kissed….
A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25 - Never Kiss Your Roommate 
A book published this year -  Friday I’m in Love
A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ - It’s Not Like It’s a Secret
A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure - A Pocket Full of Rye 
A book that takes place in Asia - Earthlings
A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65 - Endless Night
A book that is a retelling of a classic story - The Love Match
A sci-fi novel - Cold People
A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind  - Boys Weekend

So I have six remaining categories from 2015 that I’ve never done, which I can work my way through in the next couple of years.

Top five books of the year:

1. Against White Feminism

This was the most personally transformative book I read this year, about divesting feminism not from white people, but from white supremacy. A challenging and worthwhile read.

2. Boys Weekend

Another entry from later in the year, but just delightful, satirical, clever. I’m not usually a huge graphic novel fan, but I loved all the easter eggs in this one.

3. I Have Some Questions for You  

Rebecca Makkai is absolutely great. I think after I finished this I immediately went back to reread The Great Believers.

4. Life Ceremony  

I love Japanese literature, and actually this book and the next both fall in that category. This one (by the author of the incredible Convenience Store Woman)  is probably not for everyone, since it gets a bit gruesome, but I love her writing.  I’m not usually a short story fan at all, but I adored this.

5. The Decagon House Murders

I read quite a few Japanese murder mysteries this year, and this homage to And Then There Were None was my favorite.

Honorable mentions: Big Swiss, Open Throat, 6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did), The Anthropocene Reviewed, The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era, My Brother's Husband, Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist

Bottom three books:



1. You Can Go Your Own Way



I finished this because it was a YA and it was quick but man, I got so angry at this book. Barely a plot, and the summary was a huge lie.

2. Cold People



I only finished this for the sake of being a ToB completist.  It had potential but absolutely no ending whatsoever, and the worldbuilding doesn’t quite cohere. 

3. The Other Black Girl



Read for the RHC last year and it sounded great, but was disappointing.  I felt like it ultimately failed to come together.
 
2024 plans: 

For 2024 my goal will once again be 75 books, and the Read Harder Challenge. I will track my Read Harder Challenge books here throughout the year and use the tag 2024 rhc.   


Some initial thoughts: My friend loaned me Legends & Lattes so the first category is a gimme. I like the author event category although that could be a challenge. I don’t know how to determine “a book that went under the radar in 2023” (what counts as “the radar”) but I’ll give that one some thought.  

 For “previous year’s challenges” I think Blackouts by Justin Torres would count for “A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade” and it’s also in the Tournament of Books, so that's my plan there.  The others need some more thought! The full list of categories:

Total: 2/24


[_] Read a cozy fantasy book.
[_] Read a YA book by a trans author.
[_] Read a middle grade horror novel.
[_] Read a history book by a BIPOC author.
[_] Read a sci-fi novella.
[_] Read a middle grade book with an LGBTQIA main character.
[_] Read an indie published collection of poetry by a BIPOC or queer author.
[_] Read a book in translation from a country you’ve never visited.
[_] Read a book recommended by a librarian.
[_] Read a historical fiction book by an Indigenous author.
[_] Read a picture book published in the last five years.
[_] Read a genre book (SFF, horror, mystery, romance) by a disabled author.
[_] Read a comic that has been banned.
[_] Read a book by an author with an upcoming event (virtual or in person) and then attend the event.
[_] Read a YA nonfiction book.
[_] Read a book based solely on the title.
[_] Read a book about media literacy.
[_] Read a book about drag or queer artistry.
[X] Read a romance with neurodivergent characters: Yes & I Love You
[_] Read a book about books (fiction or nonfiction).
[_] Read a book that went under the radar in 2023.
[_] Read a manga or manhwa.
[_] Read a “howdunit” or “whydunit” mystery
[X] Pick a challenge from any of the previous years’ challenges to repeat! Blackouts (National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade)

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Sunday, December 31, 2023

American Mermaid (by Julia Langbein)

A Tournament of Books shortlist entry.  Two intertwining storylines: a screenwriter goes to L.A to make a version of her novel into the movie, and then excerpts from the novel. 

The L.A. satire was sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating. (Mostly the main character's terrible choices were frustrating.) The novel within the novel had the more exciting plot, although it doesn't really make much sense, and then everything tried to wrap itself up with magical realism?

I don't know, I didn't hate it and will enjoy discussing it in the Tournament of Books, but it wasn't my favorite.  I placed my zombie vote for Open Throat, and I still stand by that one so far.  Eleven books to go if I'm going to be a shortlist completist for the first time ever!

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Romantic Comedy (by Curtis Sittenfeld)

A creatively structured, above-average twist on the romcom genre. The main character is a writer for an extremely thinly veiled version of Saturday Night Live; the first third of the book goes through a week on the show in which she gets to know the host and musical guest, and they hit it off, only to end on a sour note of misunderstanding.

We pick up again in the midst of Covid lockdown, when the two characters become email pen pals and friends. She eventually drives out to visit him, they connect in person, complications ensue, yadda yadda yadda. 

The SNL stuff was fun (I too have read all the SNL memoirs in the world) and I enjoyed the epistolary secton, although the main character really seemed to lack growth and got a bit grating by the end. A fast read, for SNL and romcom fans who don't mind a whole lot of Covid flashbacks (also not my favorite).

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Friday, December 22, 2023

Boys Weekend (by Mattie Lubchansky)

Like Shamshine, this is a Tournament of Books entry; unlike Shamshine (in my opinion) this graphic novel has an undercurrent of real profundity.

It's about a trans-femme named Sammi who is invited to be the "best man" at their friend Adam's wedding, along with a truly horrifying group of tech bros, a cop, and one "not like the other girls" woman. The bachelor weekend is on a capitalist, libertarian hell island version of Las Vegas, with clone strippers, a party submarine, and an odd group that looks like it might be a cult. And as Sammie navigates dealing with their gender in this group, they are either seeing real monsters or having a psychotic break.

I loved everything about it, from the tiny world-building easter eggs to the central metaphors representing Sammi figuring out what vestiges of their old life are worth hanging onto and what may be worth leaving behind. A super quick read but I found myself going back to savor panels, and I think I will probably at least skim through it once more before I return it to the library.

Highly recommend! 

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The Shamshine Blind (by Paz Pardo)

Speculative fiction that's weirdly a cross between Shades of Gray by Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde. It's an alternative future where Argentina has achieved world domination by weaponizing color and most major American cities are in ruins. It is left to our hero, Kay Curdita, to unravel a conspiracy in Daly City, resolve her romantic problems, and save the day.

This is a Tournament of Books offering that feels, for the Tournament, relatively lightweight. It's definitely fun but more of a romp than a Serious Novel, and thus will probably not make it too far in the competition. But still, you never know. It's super enjoyable nonetheless, especially for Fforde Ffans.

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Friday, December 15, 2023

What You Are Looking For Is in the Library (by Michiko Aoyama, translated by Alison Watts)

This was one of my top picks from the ToB longlist and I was happy to see it make the shortlist.  It is billed as a novel but reads as interlocking short vignettes about people who go to a library and get magically recommended the perfect book by a mysterious librarian.

The only thing I didn't enjoy was that the librarian was described as so big it was shocking to people, and the narrators compared her to everything from Baymax to a giant panda to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Every time we started a new vignette I was bracing myself for the description of this woman.

Apart from that, I adored the characters, each and every one. Each vignette was delightful and I loved that the resolutions to their problems were realistic and represented that tiny shift in consciousness that is very Joycean.  I always love the matter-of-fact, minutia-laden style of Japanese authors.  Just as delightful as I anticipated.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Cold People (by Tom Rob Smith)

I was hoping this wouldn't make the shortlist so I could DNF it but alas, it made the shortlist and my friend and I are trying to read the whole list, so I persevered. 

The writing is good, but world building here makes no sense and contradicts itself multiple times. (Are they all overcrowded or has everyone died? Is there "only one stained glass window on the continent" or is Notre Dame there? Do they have no technology left or do they somehow have supercomputers? Are humans unrealistically peaceful or unrealistically stupid? So many questions.)

The ending is the most irritating part, because it is unsatisfying in and of itself, and clearly meant to set up a sequel. I might read the Wikipedia summary of any sequels that come out but there's no way I'm reading more of this.

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Monday, December 11, 2023

You Can Go Your Own Way (by Eric Smith)

In hindsight I'm really not sure why I kept reading this; I think because of the very delightful pinball arcade setting? But the pacing of this book is truly insane. Here's the blurb:

"A heartwarming and thoughtful enemies-to-lovers rom-com about two teens—one trying to save his family's failing pinball arcade, the other working for her tech genius dad who wants to take it over—who get trapped together in a snowstorm."

They do get trapped together in a snowstorm. Except it doesn't happen until about 70% into the book, when they have already solved their major conflict. They are trapped for, generously, three pages.  But then all these huge developments happen at the end (their big conflict, which is at like 90%) and is immediately solved with a time jump that makes it feel like multiple chapters are missing.

The writing of the "girls" makes it obvious that a man wrote this book. The characters are flat and feel like cardboard stand-ins. (Nick, in particular.) The chapters alternate POVs but the voice of each character is exactly the same (they both refer to people as "standing about" multiple times, which is awkward). The cultural references are all Gen X. Dear YA authors: you can't keep dropping these sentences - e.g., "like that old movie my mom likes, called Clueless" - throughout an entire book.

Anyway, sorry to that author, this was not a winner.

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Open Throat (by Henry Hoke)

A short but powerful novel from the point of view of a cougar who lives below the Hollywood sign, observing the people and sights of "ellay."  

Somehow this conceit completely works, giving a perspective on humanity that packs a punch. This is one of those "never in a million years without the Tournament of Books" discoveries.  I'm so happy the shortlist is out! 

If you're interested in dipping into the ToB this year, at only 176 pages, you can't do better.

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