Thursday, May 24, 2018

Book 130: Die A Little

"The words, their whispery, insinuating tones, their voices blending together- I can't tell them apart, they seem the same, one long, slithery tail whipping back and forth. My head shakes with the sounds, the hard urgency, and my growing anxiety at being somehow involved in this, even if by accident, by gesture."

Dates read: March 2-6, 2017

Rating: 6/10

Ah, the American Dream. A loving spouse, 2.5 kids, a 4-bedroom 3-bathroom home with a white picket fence, and a Golden Retriever named Lucky. Baseball games, road trips, and family hikes with a picnic lunch brought along. There have been no shortage of movies and TV shows, from Twin Peaks to American Beauty, that try to roll back the curtain and show the dysfunction that lurks behind even those who seem to have what we're told to want. But the genre most dedicated to showing the seamy underbelly of America and our dream is noir.

When we think of noir, we usually think of a morally compromised cop at the center of the story, a femme fatale, and often some kind of good girl set against her. And Megan Abbott's debut novel, Die A Little, has all of these elements. But it's not a straightforward noir. The driver of the action is the good girl, schoolteacher Lora King, and her cop brother Bill is the one that she has to save from the clutches of the femme fatale: his wife, Alice.

Bill and Lora are a closely bonded sibling pair: their parents died when they were teenagers, and they've been all the other could really count on ever since. But their cozy life in Los Angeles sharing a home and serving as each other's support system is thrown into turmoil when Bill meets Alice, a lovely and charming wardrobe assistant at a movie studio. He's smitten and they marry and set up their own housekeeping fairly quickly. Alice is the perfect little wife, energetically keeping the home and throwing delightful parties for Bill's police coworkers and their wives. She soon becomes employed at Laura's school teaching home ec. But there are cracks in her shiny surface: she has a best friend who's always coming by with fresh bruises and dark insinuations, and questions about Alice's claimed teaching certification start to pop up, and soon Lora is wondering who her brother is really married to.

What exactly is in Alice's past? Lora's concern for her brother leads her down a twisty, winding path that draws her into drugs, prostitution, and Hollywood clean-up men. The way the story unravels is compelling and enjoyable, but the weakness is the characters. While Alice is drawn vividly (the villain is oftentimes the most interesting character in morality tales), Bill is a cipher, and Lora's development is honestly not especially believable. A naive teacher manages to take on an investigation of sophisticated underworld players and put nary a foot wrong? It seems Lora "just knows" how to react in situations which would have been terrifyingly alien to someone of her background a little too often for my taste. But if you don't think about the little shortcuts that Abbott takes too hard and let yourself get drawn into its well-created atmosphere, you'll enjoy it. I've got several other of Abbott's works on my TBR, and this book has me intrigued to get into her catalog.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite noir (book or movie)?

One year ago, I was reading: Migraine (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Devil In The White City

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Character Names

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at the characters with the best names. It would be so easy to go with just girl's names, since it seems like authors often get more creative with them, or stick to the realm of fantasy where there's even more flexibility, but I decided to try to limit myself to one name from any given series and included my favorite five for girls and five for boys!

Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games): Many fantasy-style novels use names that are similar to ones we know and use, but with a twist. This one falls right in line with that, but it's particularly well-done because the rhythm and balance of it is pleasing.

Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina): Maybe it's the repetition of the "n" sound and the "a" vowels that tie it together so well, but this one just flows beautifully.

Georgiana Darcy (Pride and Prejudice): She's only really a bit character, but I've just always loved the elegance of Georgiana as a name. It feels more sophisticated and unexpected than Georgina.

Vianne Rocher (Chocolat): I like the link to the famous Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and Vianne is lovely, and they work really well together.

Daenarys Targaryen (A Game of Thrones): A Song of Ice and Fire had to get in here somewhere, and the distinctive majesty of this name is instantly identifiable with the series.

Philip Pirrip (Great Expectations): Both names come close to being palindromes, and echo each other in a way that should sound cheesy but instead has a bright ring.

Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter): There are so many names from the Harry Potter universe that could have made it on here, but the soft consonants of the headmaster's name, its very old-fashioned first name and to my American ear, very British-sounding surname, make it my favorite.

Tristran Thorn (Stardust): Again with the "fantasy using slightly-changed normal names", but I like the stutter-step of "Tristran" instead of the familiar "Tristan", and both names sound enough alike but are still different that they hang together well.

Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit): This is just such a delightfully hobbit-y name.

Newland Archer (The Age of Innocence): This has the kind of moneyed, old-fashioned aura that fits this Old New York character perfectly.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Book 129: A Leg To Stand On

"And in that instant, I no longer knew it. In that instant, that very first encounter, I knew not my leg. It was utterly strange, not-mine, unfamiliar. I gazed upon it with absolute non-recognition...The more I gazed at that cylinder of chalk, the more alien and incomprehensible it appeared to me. It seemed to bear no relation whatever to me. It was absolutely not-me—and yet, impossibly it was attached to me—and even more impossibly, 'continuous' with me." 

Dates read: February 26-March 2, 2017

Rating: 7/10

When I was in college, I quite often used a shortcut to get back to my apartment after a night at the bars. It was a short, dark path than ran next to a parking garage. I almost never saw anyone back there. A few times I saw some homeless people, but no one ever tried to stop me or talk to me. Thinking back on it, it sounds like the beginning of a horror film: a young, drunk, small college student walks down a secluded path into the dark. But it never occurred to me to be afraid. And, obviously, nothing ever happened.

We often feel impervious to danger until something happens to frighten us. In his memoir A Leg To Stand On, Oliver Sacks recalls a time in his life that began with a hike on a solo trip to Norway. Sacks was an adult man who frequently traveled and was in excellent physical condition, so the idea of going for a hike alone didn't phase him in the least. It wasn't until a chance encounter with a bull during the hike lead to a fall that drastically injured one of his legs that he realized how very precarious his situation was. The leg was incapable of bearing any weight. No one knew where he was. It would get dangerously cold at night, and the path was little-traveled enough that he very well might not be found until it was too late. Somehow, miraculously, he managed to get himself back down the hill where he was discovered by locals. But that was just the beginning of his tale.

After surgery to repair the grave damage to his leg, he woke up to feel as though that leg wasn't really his. It was like the opposite of phantom limb syndrome: instead of feeling as though a limb that had been amputated was still there, Sacks felt like his existing limb wasn't a part of his body. His recovery, both from the underlying injury and the neurological symptoms, make him, for the first time since he'd become a doctor, a patient. He finds himself feeling meek and helpless, and even though his situation wasn't contagious, he's treated as though his suffering might be.

Eventually, he did recover, and continued to be physically active and practice neurology and write books. But it's not hard to imagine that this experience of being a patient helped inform the compassion in his work. Writing case studies is a delicate balance: there can be an exploitative edge to it, the feeling that the writer is mining suffering for their own pecuniary gain. But for my money, Sacks' works never come off that way. The things that come across clearly are his endless curiosity for how the brain works, how symptoms can be treated, and a respect for the fundamental humanity of the people he worked with and tried to help. Which is why I've been such a big fan of his books, and why I'm a little sad each time I finish one because I know it means there's one more that I'll never again get to experience for the first time. I found this one in particular a fascinating medical memoir, and a moving meditation on the experience of being a patient. I would definitely recommend it, especially for anyone who works in the medical field.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever realized how unsafe something you did unthinkingly was?

One year ago, I was reading: If We Were Villains (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Didn't Like But Am Glad I Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books we didn't actually enjoy but were nevertheless glad we've read. For me, this kind of reading generally means classics, because I do like bragging about getting through these (and honestly, many of them are better than you think before you actually crack them open). So here are ten that didn't do it for me but I appreciate having finished anyways.

Don Quixote: I know this is considered a delightful comedic classic, but I hate this kind of cringe comedy. For me, the "joke" played out quickly and then there were still hundreds of pages to struggle through and emphasis on the struggle.

Crime and Punishment: I thought I hated Russian literature until I read Tolstoy. It turned out I love Tolstoy, so I happily turned to Dostoevsky in the hopes that I would love him too. Nope. Just Tolstoy. I hated this book.

Hunger: I found this book on a list of under-rated classics, but the best thing about it was that it was short.

Gone With the Wind: The movie is an (admittedly problematic) fave, but the book? Scarlett O'Hara is a total grade-A asshole but Vivien Leigh makes it compelling on screen. I just rooted for the Scarlett in the book to get her comeuppance.

Of Mice and Men: This one is less on the braggy side and more on the pop-culture reference understanding side.

The Catcher in the Rye: This one even more on the pop-culture side. Why does popular culture think the world is so invested in the narratives of Sad Alienated Boys?

Heart of Darkness: Being able to drop a pretentious allusion to this Joseph Conrad classic is literally the only reward for reading it.

Into the Wild: I enjoy having read this so I can rant about how much I hate it to anyone who tries to tell me that Christopher McCandless was anything other than a dude who deserved exactly what he got.

The DaVinci Code: This was not a good book, for me, but it was a cultural phenomenon and I'm glad I read it at the same time everyone else was.

Butterfly Boy: This was a book club pick and while I really appreciated getting the perspective of a man who is both gay and Latino, because it's not a kind of voice I experience very often, I didn't actually like reading it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Book 128: The Bear and the Nightingale

"On and on she went, and then paused, frowning. Left at the gray alder, round the wicked old elm, and then she would see her father's fields. She had walked that path a thousand times. But now there was no alder and no elm, only a cluster of black-needled spruces and a little snowy meadow. Vasya swung round, tried a new direction. No, here were slender beeches, standing white as maidens, naked with winter and trembling. Vasya was suddenly uneasy. She would not be lost; she was never lost. Might as well be lost in her own house as lost in the woods. A wind picked up that set all the trees to shaking, but now they were trees she did not know."

Dates read: February 21-26, 2017

Rating: 9/10

Although my parents split up before I was born, I've never known my father to have a serious girlfriend. Or maybe he's had them but never introduced them to me. In any case, I never had a stepmother. My sister has. Although her father never remarried, he's been with the same woman for a long, long time. She's a lovely person and cares very much about my sister. Honestly, despite the stereotype of the "wicked stepmother", I've never personally heard about more than one or two really bad stepparents.

But it's a storytelling trope that has roots in reality. In times and places where resources were scarce and women often died (usually of childbirth-related complaints) by early middle adulthood, a new wife who had children of her own looked out for the best interests of her offspring above any others. The most famous literary example of a wicked stepmother? Probably Cinderella. It's a story that's remarkably common around the world: China has a version. Iran has a version. And of course, there's the European takes on the tale that inspired the brothers Grimm. It's this familiar territory that Katherine Arden mines for her debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale.

Arden gives us as our heroine Vasilisa, the youngest child of Pyotr and Marina. Vasya grows up with her four older siblings in a small village in Russia, bordering the kind of large and dark wood that a good fairy tale needs. After Marina dies in childbirth, the girl grows up half-wild, listening to old Slavic folk tales at the feet of her elderly nurse. But to Vasya, they're not just folk tales. She can see them, the spirits that populate Slavic mythology, and talk to them too. It's a trait she shares with her stepmother-to-be, Anna. But while rural-dwelling Vasya accepts this about herself, Anna, as a member of the urban nobility, is a devout Christian and thinks herself tormented by devils. Once she moves to the countryside after her marriage to Pyotr, the only place she can find peace is the church. She becomes obsessed with the handsome and vain priest, Father Konstantin, who is just as obsessed in turn with rooting out the local superstitions. There's a tinge of American Gods here, because the fading belief saps the strength of the spirits just when they're most needed in a battle brewing between the larger and more powerful forces of evil and of justice.

The characters that populate The Bear and the Nightingale are wonderful. Vasya is a delightfully high-spirited heroine, but what I enjoyed even more was that Arden didn't make Anna a simple bad stepmom. Instead, she's presented as scared, and her behavior towards Vasya is obviously rooted more in this fear than spitefulness. And even though the father in Cinderella stories often comes off as neglectful, Pyotr is a loving parent who has a hard time dealing with his first wife's death, his second wife's obvious mental health issues, and a daughter he doesn't know how to raise. And the world that Arden creates is rich and vivid. It's the first first-in-a-series that I've read in quite a while that's made me actually Google when the next entry is coming out because I want to continue along in the story Arden is beginning to unfold. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Witches of Eastwick

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With My Favorite Color On the Cover

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books with our favorite color on the cover. My favorite color is blue, but since we've got a topic coming up in a couple months that'll include books with blue covers, I'll move to my second favorite: purple!

The Color Purple: This one is obvious, no?

To Kill A Mockingbird: My own hardcover copy is prettier than this, but I think we all read the one with this lavender cover in school.

Pride and Prejudice: This is a blue-r purple but still a lovely cover for a delightful book.

The Stranger Beside Me: The mass market paperback of this true crime classic (which is the edition I own) features Bundy's stare from a purple background.

The Other Boleyn Girl: I feel like I'm talking about this book a lot lately, which I'm not necessarily trying to do, it just keeps coming up.

Dead Until Dark: The first in Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries features Sookie Stackhouse and her vampire lover Bill floating against a dark purple sky.

Stay With Me: This debut novel has, well, stayed with me in the months since I read it...and its orange and purple cover is striking.

A Brave New World: This classic of dystopian fiction has an unusual tone of grayish purple in the cover.

Exit West: Beautiful book, gorgeous cover.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: These books get redesigned covers pretty frequently (the originals that I grew up with are my favorites), and honestly I find most of the ones in this series uninspiring, but I love this moody purple-soaked one.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Book 127: Nefertiti

"I saw Kiya try to speak with the prince, to tear her husband's gaze away from my sister, but Amunhotep would not be distracted. I wondered what he thought of his future wife, and I studied the way Nefertiti held men in her power. She spoke softly, so they had to bend closer to hear, and she gave her smiles sparingly, so that when she laughed a man felt like he had been bathed in her light."

Dates read: February 16-21, 2017

Rating: 4/10

My sister and I did not get along growing up. She's four and a half years younger than me, and that's an uncomfortable age gap when you're young...she was always just far enough behind to be incredibly irritating. Once I went to college and we stopped being in each other's hair all the time, we got along much better, and by the time she got to college herself, we were close friends. Like all friends, we go through periods where our closeness ebbs and flows (my living on the other side of the country has been hard), but she's still one of my best friends.

Anyone who's ever been close to a sibling knows that sometimes relationships get dysfunctional. Michelle Moran's Nefertiti looks at the Egyptian queen, famous for her loveliness, through the lens of her relationship with her sister Muhmodnjet. As Sister of the King's Chief Wife, Muhmodnjet (who was an actual historical person, if not especially well-documented) is uniquely positioned to be the narrator of the story: Nefertiti may be a queen, but she's still just her big sister, and Muhmodnjet has a front row seat to all the action of courtly life.

While Moran tells the story of an interesting time in Egyptian history (Nefertiti's husband, Amunhotep, moved Egyptian worship away from its principal focus on Amun to Aten, and even constructed a new city in the desert to replace the capitol of Thebes), she forgets to give us interesting characters. Nefertiti, groomed by her parents to ensure their continued prominence at court, is spoiled and almost irredeemingly selfish, while Muhmodnjet is mostly passive and somehow naive despite being raised by one of the highest political officials at court, always gasping at something that really shouldn't be that surprising. The king, who renames himself Akhenaten to reflect his religious convictions, is almost a cartoon villain: he murders his own brother at the top of the book and apparently thinks of nothing but his own glorification. No one is compelling or more than two dimensional.

And while some of it is surely incidental, when I was reading it, I found myself constantly comparing it to the (better) The Other Boleyn Girl, with the personalities of and the dynamic between the sisters  echoing Gregory's book. Stories about the relationships between sisters don't have to be as rosy as, say, Jane Austen's work, and certainly plenty of real-life relationships of this kind are poisonous and frought, but this one feels derivative and doesn't have any special insight or twist to share. I love books about the relationships between people: families, friends, romantic partners because they are often complex and moving. But this one brings nothing to the table and I'd recommend skipping it.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite book about sisters?

One year ago, I was reading: The Highest Tide (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Enchanted Islands

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Books for the Second Half of 2018

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the books that have yet to come out (I included only releases from June onward, not anything in May) that we're super desperate to get our little hands on. As I always whine, these kinds of topics are a struggle because I read over 80% backlist, but here are ones I'm really looking forward too!

The Dean: This one I've actually pre-ordered, which I virtually never do because it's cheaper to wait for the paperback but I looooooooove John Dingell (who used to be my Congressman when I lived in Ann Arbor!) so much that I'm shelling out hardcover money.

Seduction: This one, from the lady who does the You Must Remember This podcast (which is amazing, if you haven't listened yet), is something I am genuinely super hyped to read but will wait for paper for and then devour.

The Book of Essie: This sounds so fascinating! It's about the daughter in a super religious reality TV family, who gets underage pregnant and has to figure out how to deal with it. Which basically checks all of my reading boxes and I want this so bad.

The Winter of the Witch: I have talked multiple times about how much I loved the first two books in the Winternight trilogy and this is the last one and my expectations are sky-high even though I know that is an excellent way to get burned hard.

There There: This book, about the intersecting lives of Native Americans headed for a pow wow, has gotten tons of hype and I always appreciate the chance to read a great book by an own voices author.

The Captives: As a former psych major, I'm a sucker for stories about psychologists/therapists, and the hook in this one (a disgraced psychologist working in a prison who, unethically, begins treatment for his high school crush when she appears in his prison) has definitely intrigued me.

The Completionist: I love a good speculative fiction, especially when there's a dystopian angle, and I am thrilled to have an advance review copy of this one to read!

If You Leave Me: Wartime love triangle and choosing the wrong guy and reverberating choices sounds like the kind of drama I enjoy, and somewhere (I honestly can't remember where), I read a short review that indicated this was fantastic. I am lucky here, too, to have a review copy to read!

The Bonanza King: This is a local interest choice, about the Comstock Lode (which was located just outside of Reno), and the man who ended up with control over it, John Mackey. I got approved for a review copy of this as well, so looking forward to get into it!

The Silence of the Girls: As much as I did not love reading the ancient Homer epic poems in college, I did love The Song of Achilles so I am also hopeful for this retelling that focuses on the women in the army camps.