Thursday, July 16, 2020

Book 242: Sloppy Firsts

"I told my parents not to even dare throwing me a Sweet Sixteen party. The very thought of ice-cream cake and pink crepe paper makes me want to hurl. Not to mention the fact that I can’t even imagine who would be on the guest list since I hate all my other friends. I know my parents think I’m being ridiculous. But if the one person I want to be there can’t be there, I’d rather just stay home. And mope. Or sleep." 

Dates read: June 16-19, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I have to admit I'm a little jealous of today's bookish teenagers. The absolute explosion in the number of books targeted toward young adults, which seemed to start to grow in the wake of Harry Potter and then skyrocket after The Hunger Games, means that they have so many books meant to appeal to them to chose from! I remember the YA section of the library when I was growing up having a lot of Sweet Valley High, and Fear Street, and Louise Duncan (all of which I read, of course) and not a ton else, so I started reading more adult literary fiction early. As much as that's been a good thing for me, by and large, I wish I'd gotten to experience the kind of peak YA that seems to be happening now.

Since I did like to read quality YA when I got my hands on it, I'm astonished that I managed to miss Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts until now! The first in a five-book series, it focuses on New Jersey teenager Jessica Darling, deeply miserable now that her best friend Hope has moved away. Jessica's left with the rest of her honors-classes friend group, none of whom she actually likes very much and who she refers to as the Clueless Crew in her head. Her dad drives her crazy trying to home coach her through track, and her mother and older sister Bethany are too wrapped up in planning Bethany's wedding to pay Jessica too much mind (not that she wants them to anyways). She's nursing a desperate crush on a senior who probably doesn't even know she exists. How is a girl to deal with her sophomore year in high school like this?

With snark, of course. She writes to Hope every month, filling her in on all the new drama...the girl from Manhattan who moves to town but isn't quite who she seems to be, the pressure she feels to date a guy friend that she doesn't like that way just to have a boyfriend, how torn she feels when she finds out someone's boyfriend is cheating on her but she's supposed to keep it secret. What Jessica doesn't tell Hope about is the growing connection she has with Marcus Flutie, who'd been best friends and drug buddies with Hope's brother before his death by overdose prompted Hope's family to leave town. The closer Jessica and Marcus get, the worse she feels about hiding it from Hope, and the more confused she is by what she wants out of it at all. Add in the family conflicts and it's no wonder Jessica's overwhelmed.

Jessica is the kind of character I would have loved as a teenager, and looking back someone who reminds me of myself at that age. She's smart enough to know that she should buy into "the game" if she wants to fit in more (not to mention please her mother), but too stubborn to actually do it. She wants desperately to feel understood even though she doesn't even really understand herself. She feels trapped in high school, but the taste of the more adult world she gets working at the Shore during the summer doesn't exactly thrill her. The life McCafferty gives her, and the issues she presents her with, feel pitch-perfect for a sixteen year-old in the year 2000, which, given that I was myself just a year or two younger, also took me back on a wave of nostalgia. I was worried I would be a little too old for this book at literally twice the age of the main character, but I was completely charmed.

I wonder if the cultural references, which hit home for me, will read as hopelessly dated to today's teens. They probably do, but we all have easy access to Google these days so I won't let that stop me from giving a wholehearted recommendation, for adults both young and well, not-young, and particularly of the lady variety (though don't think there's any reason a guy couldn't enjoy this, let's be real, it's written for a female audience). It's easy to read, written with wit and verve, but doesn't shy away from the heavier issues that high schoolers deal with, like sex and drugs. It neither treats these with kid gloves like Very Special Episodes nor glosses over them entirely, but presents them as just very much a part of life about which decisions need to be made. If the interior lives of teenage girls aren't compelling to you for whatever reason, this likely won't be for you. Otherwise, though, it's an enjoyable read!

One year ago, I was reading: The Man in the High Castle (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: My Own Words (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Crazy Rich Asians

Four years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Make Me Smile

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This is a challenging one for me! The prompt isn't books that made me laugh (which I would also probably struggle with to be honest), but books that make me smile, which to me means heartwarming. Books that tend to get described as "heartwarming" are books I really do not tend to respond to. But even my cold dead heart responds to some books, so here are ten that did actually make me smile.

Persuasion: If you don't break out into a big grin when the couple gets together at the end (this is not a spoiler in any Jane Austen novel), you probably don't like happiness.

The Red Tent: I really find the depictions of relationships between women in this book so realistic and touching.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Francie's life is hard in so many ways, which makes her victories that much sweeter when they do happen.

The Giver: The love Jonas grows to feel for the baby his family takes in, and the bravery he shows in taking the steps he needs to for the baby's protection, gets me in the feelings.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Seeing the wizarding world through Harry's eyes, and reading along as he makes his first friends, is honestly magical.

Ella Enchanted: The sweetness of the first love in this book is quite lovely.

The Wind in the Door: The purity of Meg's love for her little brother Charles Wallace and the measures she's willing to take for him are so moving.

About A Boy: I know, liking books about overgrown white man-children finally maturing makes me part of the problem, but this book has the kind of soft Hornby humor that makes me smile.

Eat Pray Love: It's not really the journey Cheryl Strayed takes after her marriage ends that gets me, its her strong, insightful prose.

My Antonia: Antonia is just such a winning character.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Book 241: Love Medicine

"You see, I thought love got easier over the years so it didn't hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash."

Dates read: June 12-16, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: American Book Award, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

I've lived in Nevada since the summer of 2012. It'll officially be eight years at the end of this month! This is where I've spent more of my adult life than any single other place, and where (assuming nothing major changes) I'll spend the rest of it. But if you ask me where "home" is, I'd still tell you it was Pinckney. My relationship with the place I grew up is complicated, and I am not upset that it's not where I've ended up, but there's just something that it has marked on me indelibly, in a way that no place else has ever really been able to replace it in my mind as my home.

The instinct to turn towards home, to seek refuge there in times of strife, kicks off Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. June Morrissey, drunk and struggling in Williston, North Dakota, decides to head back to the reservation when she was born and raised. The problem is that she doesn't have proper winter clothes and there's an enormous blizzard. She dies on her journey, and the book moves both forward and backward in time to tell the story of June, her quasi-adoptive parents Nestor and Marie Kashpaw, Nestor's childhood sweetheart Lulu Lamartine, June's children and cousins and nieces and nephews and a whole sprawling cast of others. It's classified as a novel, but honestly is much more a collection of short stories about a common set of characters. The placement of the stories is obviously deliberate, revealing information about the subjects bit by bit, but the book as a whole doesn't really have a defined narrative arc.

I think, for a lot of people who grew up far from reservations and didn't really know many (or any) Native Americans, it can easy to think about them as almost preserved in amber...our idea of what "an Indian" looks like and what their experiences are is rooted in black and white photos and/or stereotypes. Even though some might think it's less damaging because of its romantic (in the larger sense of the world), it's still a prejudiced and honestly racist way of thinking. Native Americans still exist. They live in the world. They talk on cell phones. But they remain mysterious to many other Americans, which is why this book isn't just good, it's also important, in that it presents a realistic portrait of Indian life on a reservation, showing it to be full of people: some better, some worse, some smart, some dumb, some kind, some harsh. It has its own challenges and experiences just like any other community, but it's made up of the same kinds of humans we find everywhere.

As might be expected for a book with the word "love" in the title, the bonds we form with others, both those rooted in blood and those created by the body and the heart, is the central through-line connecting the pieces of the story together. Though no one's story is presented in a straightforward, neatly chronological way, Erdrich creates vibrant characters who resonate with emotional truth over the course of the narrative. She gives us little snapshots of their lives at points in time, pieces that begin to cohere into a whole. That this book spawned multiple sequels doesn't surprise me at all: the people she creates clearly have long histories that bear further exploration.

This is a book that strongly favors characters over plot. While all of the individual stories have their own little dramas, there's not a lot of narrative flow over the course of the book. The real interest is in seeing the characters over the course of their lives, meeting a woman when she's a grandmother and then getting a look at the young woman she was before the rest of her life happened, figuring out how she might get from there to here, getting little glimpses along the way. Erdrich's writing is beautiful: it tends towards the lush without veering into purple prose territory. I will say, though, that effectively as she does wield her chosen episodic format, the lack of tension or drive to the book was a bit of quibble for me and it was hard to get "sucked in" because of it. Even so, this is a very good book and I would recommend it widely. It might not quite be your cup of tea in the end, but it's very much worth reading.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Looming Tower (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Four years ago, I was reading: Under the Tuscan Sun

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I’ve Read the Most Books By

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about our most-read authors. This was actually kind of challenging to put together since Goodreads took their "most read authors" feature away, but here are the authors I'm pretty sure I've read the most, in descending order.

Charlaine Harris: All of the books of the Southern Vampire Mysteries put her firmly on top of my list.

J.K. Rowling: This feels cringey right now, to be honest. Trans women are women, and her transphobia doesn't change that fact. Also unchanged is the fact that I've read all the Harry Potter books, The Casual Vacancy, and the first two Galbraith books. I do not intend to read her work any further beyond books I've already purchased, she doesn't need any more of my money.

Louise Rennison: The Georgia Nicolson series were great favorites of mine as a teenager. Such silly fun!

Philippa Gregory: I will never quit her Plantangenet/Tudor series, they are entertaining trash and I love them. 

Oliver Sacks: He's the reason I became a psychology major in college! I still have books of his I haven't read yet, and not all of his books are especially strong if I'm being honest, but I'm going to read all of them anyways. 

Nick Hornby: The more of his work I read, the more I find it hit and miss, but there's warmth and humor even in his lesser efforts that I always appreciate.

Alison Weir: I haven't responded well to her fiction efforts, but her non-fiction histories are very readable and I highly recommend them. 

Jane Austen: I've still got one more of hers to read!

George RR Martin: I would like The Winds of Winter now please and thank you!

Phillip Pullman: I extremely loved the three books of His Dark Materials, was only so-so on the first of the Book of Dust series and am hesitant to start the next because of the bad reviews!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Book 240: The Girl With All The Gifts

"In most stories she knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia had Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus. Sometimes they have teachers too, but not always, and they never seem to have sergeants. So this is a quetion that gets to the very roots of the world, and Melanie asks it with some trepidation."

Dates read: June 8-12, 2018

Rating: 8/10

My husband plays a lot of video games. When I tell people this, they often make a vaguely sympathetic face, but as far as I'm concerned, he's an adult and he can get entertainment however he'd like. I like books and movies. He likes sports and video games. Neither one has more inherent merit than the other. Anyways, the point here is that since I'm around when he's playing games, I often watch and while not all of it particularly interests me, some of the games tell really interesting, multilayered stories, like Mass Effect or The Last of Us. The latter, in particular, is a really engrossing experience centered in the bond that develops between a young woman and a parental figure during a post-zombie apocalypse scenario. It's honestly a great piece of media and I see frequent requests on book recommendation sites looking for a book like it.

Zombie apocalypse stories are, at their heart, about the fear of social breakdown. A zombie doesn't have the internal struggle to contain their own demons that a vampire or werewolf does. At least not traditionally. But M.R. Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts isn't a usual zombie story. I guess it's technically a spoiler to say it's about zombies at all, but it's been out for long enough that most people are already familiar with the idea. It introduces us to Melanie, a girl undergoing a strange sort of schooling. Some of it is familiar: there's a class, a rotating group of teachers (Ms. Justineau is Melanie's particular favorite), lessons. But the children, when not in school, are locked in cells and collected for class by armed guards (like the harsh Sgt. Parks) who move them into special wheelchairs that restrict their movements at gunpoint. And the members of the class are sometimes wheeled into a medical lab, run by the ruthlessly efficient Dr. Caldwell, never to return.

That Melanie and her classmates are zombies (or "hungries", as they're called in the world of the book) is obvious fairly early on. But they aren't the typical kind: more like the vampire or werewolf, they're conscious, self-aware, capable of learning and some level of restraint. Obviously this isn't normal zombie behavior, not even in this world, and the lives of the students are being studied in the desperate hope that finding what makes them different could help lead to a vaccine for the fungal infection underlying the transformation into brainless and violent automatons. All of that is interrupted when the base is attacked by the regular kind of zombies, along with renegade humans that roam the wilderness because they refused to quarantine themselves in cities like most people. Melanie, Justineau, Parks, Caldwell, and a young soldier escape the chaos and set off for the city, but the world outside has dangers they might not be fully prepared for.

The heart of the story is the bond that forms between Melanie and Helen Justineau over the course of the book. Justineau is fond of Melanie from her time in the classroom, and Melanie all but worships the only person she's ever met who treats her with the slightest bit of kindness. As they're forced into closer quarters and more dire circumstances, that connection deepens and they become fiercely protective of each other in their own ways. The ways that Caldwell and Parks change (or don't, significantly) in their feelings about her in their turn reveals their true characters as well. There's an interesting, compelling adventure story with some quality world-building, but the book is really based in the relationships between people, how they view others, how they cope with the tremendous strain of living in a world so completely decimated by the unexpected.

My criticisms are mostly fairly minor: I think the book is a bit too long, some of the exposition is a bit too clunky, I wanted more of the past life of the characters to fill them out even further. I did appreciate that while the suspense level gets pretty tense, the gore level is relatively minimal for a zombie book (I'm not a fan of gore but found that what was there felt un-gratuitous). That being said, I don't know that I think this is a book that would be a match for everyone...if you're not into post-apocalyptic narratives, really can't deal with any gore at all, or want a super thriller, this probably won't be your preferred reading experience. But if you're willing to experiment a little with a book that might be outside your usual comfort zone and think a smart, character-driven take on zombies could be interesting, I'd definitely encourage you to read it. I liked it much more than I thought I would!

One year ago, I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Disgrace (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: My Antonia

Four years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking forward to the rest of the year. I've said a million times before that I'm not a big frontlist/new release reader, but here are ten books that I have been lucky enough to get my hands on advance copies of that I am looking forward to reading!

Axiom's End: I love Lindsay Ellis's Youtube videos (she's more or less the only Youtuber I regularly watch, it is not a format that appeals much to me) and am very excited for her debut novel, about what would happen if we found out aliens had been around for a while now.

The Mall: This YA novel is set slightly before my time (in 1991, when I was 6), but I remember whiling away many an hour at the mall as a teen so this looks like a delight.

Afterland: Sometimes women joke about how a world without men would be paradise, but of course the reality is that it would be bad for any number of reasons. This is a story about a woman whose teenage son is one of the last men alive and who goes on the run to protect him from those who would take him away: including her other child, a daughter. This seems like an intriguing twist on gender relations!

Must I Go: This is about an old woman who get ahold of the diary of a man with whom she had a brief affair and annotating it with her own memories, which sounds like it will either be something that does not work at all for me or will be amazing.

A Saint From Texas: Twin sisters from Texas go on to wildly different becomes the star of Parisian society and the other heads to Colombia as a nun. This seems like extremely my jam.

White Ivy: This story about a Chinese-American young woman who manipulates her way into the life of the scion of a powerful political family promises a compelling anti-heroine at its core and I am ready for it.

Can't Even: I really love Anne Helen Petersen's writing and so I am very much ready for her second book, especially since it's about millennial burnout and boy do I have feelings about that!

Snow: I am not always into mysteries, but the plot of this one (a detective investigates when a priest turns up dead in the ancestral estate of a secretive noble family) seems like it might be one I would like!

The Preserve: A future in which the robots take over and herd the humans onto reservations does sound like the kind of speculative fiction/sci-fi that I enjoy

The Orchard: People discovering the wider world after having been isolated for whatever reason is a storyline I like, so this one about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenage boy plunged into the world of elite private schools is definitely up my alley.

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Month In The Life: June 2020

Congrats, y'all, we've made it halfway through 2020! I don't think any of us had any idea what this year would bring when it started, and it's been a doozy. I should be writing this after a fun girls long weekend in Charleston, and instead I haven't had a day off (besides Memorial Day) in months! Things in Nevada are trending in a not-great way, virus-wise, so it's hard to imagine living a life that resembles normal anytime soon unfortunately.

In Books...
  • Year of Wonders: This is the second epidemic book I've read during this time of actual real-world disease crisis, but I think being a little more removed from the height of the issue helped this one work better for me. Based on a real-life story of an English village which had an outbreak of plague in the 1600s and closed itself off entirely to prevent spread to other towns, it's mostly a sensitive and realistic look at what the twin pressures of isolation and illness can do to social structure until a WILD turn at the end that I did not love.
  • The Moor's Account: My book club read for the month! Another based-on-reality historical fiction, this one imagines the life and times of a Moorish slave who was one of only four men to survive an early Spanish expedition to Florida. I found Mustafa a sometimes irritatingly passive protagonist, and I felt like Lalami hammered her theme of the power of storytelling a little too hard at times, but her writing is gorgeous and this was an enjoyable reading experience.
  • A Dirty Job: I loved Christopher Moore's Lamb when I read it in high school, but I did not find his humor charming this time around. I found myself unable to ignore the weird gender politics of both the main character being constantly described as a Beta Male and the way young women working out at the gym are blithely, repeatedly referred to as "fuck puppets". There were some funny moments, and even some touching ones, but as a whole it fell flat for me.
  • A Perfect Explanation: Based on a truly bananas story of the author's own grandmother, who sold her own son (the author's father), the heir to an enormous fortune, to her sister for 500 pounds after a decade-long custody battle. You would think it would be fascinating, but the characters are never really rounded out and the plot just kind of plods along. The prose and style is pleasant enough but it never captured my attention. 
  • Daughter of Fortune: I'd somehow never read Isabel Allende before, and I enjoyed my first experience with her work. I do love a coming-of-age story, and this one about a young Chilean orphan raised by British expats in Valparaiso who follows her lover to California during the Gold Rush was a well-told one. Never knocked me out, but kept my attention and I found it entertaining and informative. 
  • The Queen of the Tearling: In a time when my mental energy reserves are running low, a plot-heavy young adult fantasy book seemed like it might do the trick. While it did keep my attention, I found it pretty lacking in a lot of ways: it left too many unanswered questions to be addressed in a sequel, and the character work was spotty at best. I'm unlikely to pick up the sequels.

In Life...
  • I celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary: While it seems like just yesterday that I was suffering through wedding planning, it's been four years since my husband and I got married now! There's nothing like sheltering in place and both working from home during a global pandemic to made it clear whether you've married someone you can really make it work with in the long term, so I'm even more happy to have married such a wonderful guy lately. Since neither of us is comfortable eating out right now, we didn't do much, but we got champagne and watched a movie and hope to enjoy a nice restaurant (or maybe even trip!) whenever it's safe again.

One Thing:

I've never been big into sci-fi, but my husband and I have been slowly making our way through Star Trek: The Original Series on Netflix for the past couple months. It's often silly (the fight choreography is just straight up terrible) but very fun to watch. I'd definitely recommend it if you're looking for something light to keep you entertained!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Book 239: Motherless Brooklyn

"Minna Agency errands mostly stuck us in Brooklyn, rarely far from Court Street, in fact. Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill together made a crisscrossed board game of Frank Minna's alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers- like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)- to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland- or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard."

Dates read: June 5-8, 2018

Rating: 3/10

One of the things that writing this blog over the years has done is help me get a better sense of who I am as a reader. Thinking about my reactions to a book in a critical way has really done a lot towards making sense of what appeals to me and what doesn't. Even writing out the plot summaries that I do helps me figure out what aspects of the stories were most salient and important in my memory (as well as trying to give anyone that reads here enough of a preview that they can figure out if the book might be right for them). I used to comb through lists of what other people were reading and add to my own list books that they liked, but now I usually skim, looking for key words (like "character-driven", "spellbinding", "beautifully written") that usually correlate with my own tastes. I still take chances on things that are outside my usual wheelhouse, but I know my own preferences much better.

Jonathan Letham's Motherless Brooklyn was a book that I'd originally added to my list because I'd seen something positive about it on the internet. Then I came across a copy when I was browsing for a buy and reading the back and skimming the text, decided it might not actually be for me. A couple years later, it was selected as a book club read, so this felt like a good test of my own ability to predict whether or not a book would work for me. And it turns out I do know myself: this subversive take on a noir detective story fell completely and totally flat for me. Part of it, I think, is due to my own lack of depth in the mystery/detective genre (the enjoyment in watching tropes get undermined is best enjoyed when you're already familiar with the tropes), but part of it was just that I didn't think it was very good.

The story centers on Lionel Essrog, one of four men who grew up in an orphanage taken under the wing of Frank Minna, a small-time gangster in (pre-gentrification) Brooklyn. Despite the criminal acts into which Frank draws him beginning when he's just a teenager, Lionel is deeply loyal to Frank, one of the only people who has ever shown compassion for and understanding of his severe case of Tourette's Syndrome. When Frank is murdered at the beginning of the book, Lionel puts all his sleuthing skills to work to find the killer: could it be Frank's mysterious wife, Julia? Could it be "the clients", the old Italians who dole out tasks to the team? Could it even be another member of the team looking to create a leadership vacancy? And how does the Zen Buddhist center where Frank was last seen alive tie into everything, if it does at all?

I'll start with the positive, as I often like to. Even with a relatively limited reference point for the cliches of noir, I could understand the way that Lethem was playing with them: the silent, repressed detective hero is completely turned on its head with Lionel's Tourette's making him fidgety and unable to keep quiet. The femme fetale, Frank's wife Julia, instead of tempting Lionel with her sensuality, reveals she's slept with every member of the team besides him and doesn't intend to change that. Lionel at one point gets bounced from a Buddhist meditation session by obvious criminals and no one lifts a finger to stop it because they're too absorbed in their practice. It's over the top and ridiculous in a way that's clever and meant to be funny.

But for me, all of that humor failed to land. I didn't get involved at all in the story because I didn't care for a second about any of the characters. I couldn't have cared less who killed Frank or even Lionel's journey, because Lethem didn't bother to write Lionel (or anyone else) as remotely compelling. The entire book felt like an exercise in intellectual masturbation, in which Lethem decided he wanted to engage in wordplay and wrote the Tourette's into the story to give him the opportunity to do so. After a while I found myself skimming virtually all of the dialogue because it got tiresome to read. And don't even get me started on the sex scene, one of the most cringeworthy ones I've ever read and that I dearly wish I could un-read so as to never think of again. Y'all, I hated this (though I was definitely in the minority of my book club in so doing) and I recommend avoiding it at all costs.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Spook

Four years ago, I was reading: Zero K

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Celebrating TTT’s 10th Birthday!

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week marks ten years of Top Ten Tuesday! I've only been doing it for about 3-4 years myself, but it's become a favorite part of my book blogging experience...I love putting the lists together, and then seeing what other readers have chosen for theirs! This week, we're celebrating by looking through the archives to either re-do a topic or chose a topic we hadn't done before! I'm doing a twist on a topic I did before. Just about two years ago, I told you about series I'd given up on. So here are ten series I have not yet finished but intend to!

Foundation: A nonfiction series! This one is about the history of England, and I liked the first well enough to keep going through the five volumes.

Shatter Me: I am not usually a YA fantasy-type person, but this one hooked me enough that I'm interested in reading at least the next two to see how I feel about continuing through all...six, I think?

Oryx and Crake: Margaret Atwood + post-apocolyptic series = something I am into. Only read the first, but have the other two already!

In The Woods: Lots of people have told me that this series about Irish police detectives doesn't necessarily have to be read in order but I am a traditionalist and will only read them that way. Only read the first so far but have heard the second is the best so I'm looking forward to that one!

The Tudor and Plantangent Novels: I've read several of these books about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty but not all of them! They're not actually like high-quality literature but they're cheesy reading fun.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: The movie version is enjoyable so I don't know why my expectations were so low for the original book. Turns out the book is great too and I want to read more about Ripley!

Wolf Hall: I found the first one a little sloggy but the second excellent and have heard rave reviews on the third (which just came out and I have not yet read).

Sloppy Firsts: I'm definitely too old for these books, but loved this diary of a cynical New Jersey teenager and am very much interested in the four following books!

Sabriel: I've read the original trilogy repeatedly, but I haven't yet read the two new books!

Gilead: I was spellbound by this lovely book, which has three sequels that I'm eager to read.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Book 238: Boy, Snow, Bird

"I looked into his eyes. He couldn't return the gaze steadily, kept focusing on my left eye, then on my right. I could guess what he was thinking: that there were two of me, that was the explanation, that was why I was acting like this. I had applied this rationale to the rat-catcher the first time he punched me. First you try to find a reason, try to understand what you've done wrong so you can be sure not to do it anymore. After that you look for signs of a Jekyll and Hyde situation, the good and the bad in a person sifted into separate compartments by some weird accident. Then, gradually, you realize that there isn't a reason, and it isn't two people you're dealing with, just one. The same one every time." 

Dates read: June 1-5, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I've always thought that being a step-parent would be a complicated situation to deal with. There are the complicated feelings people have about their exes getting into new relationships, and then on top of that there are the feelings of territoriality about one's children. If one tries to form a close bond with the kids, there are accusations of trying to "replace" the parent. But if one doesn't take an active interest in the kids, then you get the mean/bad step-parent label. It's a very fine line to walk, and it takes work and love by everyone involved to balance it out.

The wicked stepmother is one of the most fundamental tropes of the fairy tale genre, probably most famously exemplified in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White. It is the latter that is subtly retold in Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird. Boy Novak grows up in New York City with a mercurial, abusive father that she calls only "the rat-catcher", and as soon as she can figure out how, runs away as far as the bus line will take her...which turns out to be small-town Massachusetts. Having left behind her childhood sweetheart, she finds herself drawn to Arturo Whitman, a metal smith and widower with a lovely little daughter named Snow. They marry, and things look promising for a while: Boy finds her stepdaughter charming and delightful and soon falls pregnant herself. But when she gives birth, it changes everything. Her own daughter, Bird, is unmistakably of mixed race, revealing that the Whitman family are actually light-skinned African-Americans passing as white.

Arturo's mysterious sister appears, having been sent away as a child when she turned out dark and threatened the family's secret, and offers to take Bird. But Boy doesn't want to part from her own child. Instead, she finds herself increasingly haunted by the adoration lavished on fair-complected Snow by everyone, including the Whitman family, compared to the treatment Bird Snow is sent away instead. As Bird grows up, she and her sister begin a correspondence, and a piece of Boy's past, long since left behind, draws nearer with revelations which could threaten the life she's built for herself.

I'd previously read Oyeyemi's short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and very much enjoyed the way she played with themes, the multiple levels she was operating on at the same time, her richly evocative language. I found many of the same qualities in this novel, and thought Oyeyemi's take on the pervasive issue of race in America was interesting, as she's a black woman but not American. I appreciated the way she subverted expectations by building to what you think is going to be the moment where Boy turns against her stepdaughter by having her inflict the emotional cruelty of exile rather than the usual depiction of verbal and physical abuse. Oyeyemi is a skilled storyteller, and ably walks the line between a story that's interesting and pleasurable to read without sacrificing richer layers of meaning that push you to think. But that ending was...woah.

I'll usually drop some minor spoilers in my reviews if it's critical to my reaction to the book, but even though the ending of this one had a huge impact on my response to it as a whole, I don't feel like it's appropriate to reveal it. But I also can't avoid talking about it, because it honestly made me think less of the book as a whole because of the way it played out. Oyeyemi places a huge, game-changing detail about a character in the last 5-10 pages of the book, barely giving the others time to react to it. The elicited reaction by the other characters doesn't feel quite earned, but the way that this reveal is made, and the details surrounding it are what really bothered me. In particular, I thought it played into some problematic stereotypes about a marginalized community (though I doubt that was the intention). Either way it was a major plot development and placing it where she did in the book was not effective. I thought I'd be able to recommend this book enthusiastically, but while I do still think it's a good book and worth reading, I'm not quite as sure about it as I might have been.

One year ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Sloppy Firsts (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Spoiled

Four years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Summer 2020 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It's summer as of next week, and that means it's time for a seasonal update on my reading plans! There will be book club additions to this list, but here are the next ten books I'm planning on reading!

Daughter of Fortune: I can't believe I've never read Allende before!

Queen of the Tearling: My sister actually recommended this one and I think YA fantasy epic might be the kind of thing my brain would respond to really well right now.

The Borgias and their Enemies: I love drama, and the Borgias were a VERY dramatic family.

Tampa: This book about a teacher-student relationship was very buzzy several years ago, so I am very late to it but am quite curious about it.

Hidden Valley Road: I am a big psychology nerd so super excited to read this one!

Cat's Eye: I love Atwood and stories about the ups and downs of female friendship so this is something I really think I'm going to sink my teeth into.

Pope Joan: This book provides a fictional backstory for the rumored woman pope during the Dark Ages, which sounds interesting!

A Luminous Republic: A group of wild children arrive in an Argentinean city from the jungle and refuse to play by their social rules. Chaos ensues. I'm intrigued.

The Thirteenth Tale: I am a sucker for a story about storytelling and loved Setterfield's Once Upon A River.

Ivanhoe: I do like to work some classics into the rotation and I've never read this!

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Book 237: The Sky Is Yours


"Swanny breathes in deeply. Perhaps the room brings back memories because of its scent, loam and toffee mixed together—which in fact smells nothing like Swanny's home, but which is the scent of nostalgia itself: sweetness shot through with corrupting experience."

Dates read: May 27- June 1, 2018

Rating: 7/10

As hard as it seems to be to believe, there is still unexplored territory in our world. We've pretty much seen all the land parts, but our oceans are vast and deep and we've experienced only a tiny fraction of them. Some of the weirdest life forms that exist are the ones that live near the bottom, and we don't even really know what all of them are! New discoveries of very unpleasant-looking things are constantly being made! It's half exciting, half kind of one of those things where you wonder if we should be disturbing things that have clearly evolved to be perfectly happy without us, thanks.

Of all the horrifying things that could come up from the seas, it's two dragons that have arisen to menace the skies of what was once something like New York City in Chandler Klang Smith's The Sky Is Yours. It's never explicitly stated whether it's an alternate world or set far in the future, but the echoes of our own world are strong. About 50 years before the book begins, the dragons came out of the sea and began to circle the skies...never stopping, never resting, never eating, just breathing flame. The city tries to hang on for a while, but the middle classes eventually empty out, leaving behind only the incarcerated, those too poor to leave, and the extremely wealthy, who refuse to abandon their land holdings. As one can imagine, this situation is tense and ripe for conflict.

Teenagers Duncan Ripple and Baroness Swan Dahlberg belong to the uber-rich classes of the city. Duncan is a YouTube-style star who has been endlessly indulged for his whole life. Swan has been raised mostly in isolation, with a steady diet of Austen-esque novels which have given her a love for witty repartee, propriety, and the idea of a passionately consuming relationship. Their marriage is being negotiated, corporate merger-style, when Duncan goes out for a spin in his flying machine and crash-lands on an island of trash, where he meets Abracadabra, or Abby for short. That's not really her name, but it's the closest thing she knows from the woman who took her to the island and raised her there before she died, leaving Abby all alone. She and Duncan start sleeping together, and she becomes devoted to him...which he finds so enjoyable he brings her back with him to the city (a development that causes his ostensible fiancee Swan significant distress). The marriage does go through, but almost immediately thereafter the Ripple home is attacked by a marauding gang, driving the three teens into the streets and a world none of them has ever known.

This book is weird. Not garden-variety weird either, really weird. So much so that even quite a while after reading it, I'm not quite able to say whether or not I liked it. I found it undeniably compelling and interesting and loved the character work it does. I also found it alienating and often hard to follow or buy into even if I could follow it. Although it's a debut, it's a very assured book, with Smith seemingly feeling little need to engage in anything resembling explanation. It doesn't feel hostile to the reader, per se, so much as content to be enjoyed by those willing to go along with it and leave in the dust those who want to understand. Understanding isn't what it's trying to offer. Nor does its ending, which feels organic and earned, feel compelled to tie everything up in a nice neat little bow. There's a general sort of message, but what it seems to want, mostly, is get the reader to think about it rather than present an answer.

It's hard to know who (or who not) to recommend this book to. I wouldn't have recommended it to myself but I more or less enjoyed reading it, mostly, once I got into the flow of it. It's a fantasy/sci-fi novel in some ways, literary fiction in others, with elements that will likely be off-putting to those who particularly gravitate to either of those genres. It is very odd. I will say that if anything I've written about it has intrigued you, it's worth giving it a go. You might find that it works for you!

One year ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Girl With All The Gifts

Three years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Four years ago, I was reading: The Name of the Rose

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’ve Added to my TBR and Forgotten Why

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the books we look at in our to-be-read lists and can't seem to recall how they ended up there. My list won't be strictly like that, as I usually have pretty good recall of why I added a book to my list, but I'm going to talk about books that I remember adding, but am not quite sure why I thought I was going to like them. Hopefully when I get to them, I find out that past me had good taste!

The Long and Faraway Gone: This was on sale for the Kindle, and sounds like it's a mystery that centers on two people looking for revenge and also for ways inside each other's pants, which does not sound like the kind of thing that will speak to me.

Wild: I definitely know why I added this, it was everywhere a couple years ago and Reese Witherspoon made the movie. But I have come to understand that I really don't tend to like outdoors-y memoirs, so I have doubts that this is going to work for me.

The Hundred Year Flood: This was a Kindle First Reads selection, I believe, which I have not had a ton of luck with. It's also described as "dreamlike", which is often book-description-ese for "doesn't have a plot" and that can be a tricky one to pull off.

Emmy & Oliver: This sounds like a sweet, harmless YA romance. I don't actually like YA romance, though.

The Legend of Sheba: I have gotten to the point where I would generally rather read well-told nonfiction history than historical fiction. I've also soured a bit on Biblical fiction.

Bookends: I can be down for some entertaining fluff, but it's something I tend to be picky about because I don't like it to be too fluffy and a lot of "chick lit" is, so here's hoping this one hits the mark.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: I should really just avoid books that are supposed to be funny because chances are high I will not find them amusing.

Daughter of Sand and Stone: Ancient history-type books that want me to believe in their plucky heroine bucking gender expectations annoy me more often than not unless the character work is REALLY good.

Order of Seven: Female-centered YA paranormal adventure probably sounded entertaining when I bought it on sale and just sounds exhausting now.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: When a book is described as "darkly comic", that as often as not means "edgy" humor of the sort I don't actually tend to find very funny.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Book 236: How To Love Wine

"It bears repeating: The primary purpose of wine is to provide pleasure and refreshments. It can do much more than that, but it should never do less."

Dates read: May 23-27, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Like many college students, when it was time to do some underage drinking, I usually went with either whatever cheap beer the party was handing out, or just went for the liquor drinks. But I started to get into wine when I went to Italy for the first time, and by the time I got to law school I was a wine drinker. There's something about being in your early 20s that makes wine really feels like a step up in adulting from taking shots or beer pong. Even if it's the cheap stuff from the bottom shelf of the supermarket.

Even if you enjoy drinking wine, though, there's a feeling of uncertainty, a compulsive need to clarify that you're not really a "wine person". A "wine person" can stick their nose into a glass and identify smells like pepper and starfruit, or take a sip and taste dried leather or mushroom. Eric Asimov's How To Love Wine seeks to push back against that perception. As the Chief Wine Critic of the New York Times, Asimov uses his book to try to de-mystify and remove barriers to the enjoyment of wine by advocating a simple, straightforward message: the best way to enjoy wine is with good food and good friends.

In fact, this message is so simple and straightforward that the book ultimately feels padded. Even as he takes on various aspects of the wine-industrial complex, like tasting notes that seem to pride themselves on evoking obscure flavors usually based on just a few sips of the wine in question, often influenced by the tasting of several other wines at the same time, he returns again and again to his central thesis: the way to love wine is to drink it with people you love while sharing a meal. There are certain basic characteristics like acidity and tannins that, if you're willing to experiment and try a bunch of varieties, you'll eventually be able to pick up on, and the only ones that matter are the ones you discover for yourself actually impact your enjoyment of the wine in question. People often feel like they "have to" like wines with high scores from magazines and insiders, that if that wine doesn't work for them that they're the ones who are wrong, but not everyone likes the same flavors. Feeling this kind of pressure, to like the types of wines that are in fashion at any given moment, to like highly-rated wines, is one of the reasons people are afraid to really embrace wine.

There's a reason that Asimov has spent much of his career writing for one of the foremost newspapers in the country: he's a talented writer. That the book doesn't feel painfully repetitive (though the padding is impossible to miss) is a testament to his skills. He really loves the way drinking wine feels, and his enthusiasm about trying to make it easier for everyone to have that same kind of enjoyment is contagious. I've mostly become a craft beer drinker these days, but by the time I ended this book I found myself wanting to pop open a bottle of red and make some pasta and hang out eating and drinking with my husband...which was exactly the intention of the book. If you're curious about wine but have found yourself frightened off by snooty wine culture, this is a solid book to read. If you're not really that into it, though, it's skippable.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Boy, Snow, Bird

Three years ago, I was reading: In the Skin of a Lion

Four years ago, I was reading: Spinster

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Summer Reading

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about summery reads. Since it's been a while since I put together a collection of beachy reads as I am not generally into the kind lighthearted fiction that gets marketed that way, but here are ten books you could definitely enjoy at the beach/laying out in at your local park!

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires: This is not as frivolous as you might think based on the title. It IS a treat to read, but there's real heart and substance as well in a story about, well, southern ladies taking on a vampire.

Shatter Me: I am not big into young adult books, in part because I'm not a young adult anymore. But though many of the tropes I've come to find bothersome about YA are here in force, Mafi's story about a teenage girl whose very touch is lethal grabbed me and didn't let go!

Funny Girl: Nick Hornby books are definition of a beach read for me...they're humorous and not especially deep but almost always enjoyable to read (and then hard to remember later). This is one of his better recent works, about a comedienne in London in the 60s and her co-stars on a hit sitcom.

Sin in the Second City: Nonfiction is not often light enough to be fun summer reading, but this is dishy stuff. It's about Chicago's most famous whorehouse and the madams who ran it, and how their empire wound up crashing down around them, and it's a delight.

Death Prefers Blondes: What if a teenage heiress and her drag queen best friends were cat burglars? This isn't a spectacular book, and is maybe a little overlong, but it's sure fun to read!

Calypso: David Sedaris is one of America's most popular authors for a reason! His autobiographical short stories are witty and sharp and entertaining, and this (his most recent collection) is no different. These ones, though, feel a little more poignant than usual without losing the trademark humor.

The Last Romantics: A little deeper than many might be into for beach reading, this does fall into the family drama subgenre so popular for summer reading.

Daisy Jones and the Six: An oral history of a fictional 70s rock band who made a perfect album and then abruptly broke up on tour, you'll want to hear the band's music from their smash hit Aurora along with reading their story!

Bad Blood: This exposee of Elizabeth Holmes and her compant Theranos isn't really a light read, but it's attention-grabbing enough to keep you from falling asleep in the sunshine.

Astonish Me: A ballerina has an intense affair with a celebrity dancer, then retires into family life without ever really leaving her days of dance behind her. It's told out of chronological order, and while at least one twist is fairly predictable, if you like a dramatic ballet story, this will be a fantastic way to pass time outdoors!

Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: May 2020

And we're tentatively moving towards something that at least sort of resembles normalcy. It was just three months ago that my mom came out to visit for the weekend, and now the idea of traveling from Michigan to Nevada (or the other way around) feels almost reckless. But stores are starting to open up again with masks and social distancing, as are restaurants, though we're still sticking to takeout for now. Plans that I'd made for the future got canceled, and it remains to be seen where we are three months from now, much less next year. But we can only go forward, one day at a time, so on we go!

In Books...
  • Foundation: For all the books I read about British royalty, I figured I should get a firmer grounding in full extent of British history. This is the first in a five-book set and it was exactly what I was looking's oriented towards popular rather than scholarly consumption, so it's straightforward to read. It jams quite a bit into one book so it does feel like it's moving a little quickly at times.
  • Bird Box: I am a jumpy person, which means horror is a genre I'm not especially drawn to. This one had enough buzz that I gave it a try. I thought it was good, it was unnerving enough that I couldn't read it before bed if I wanted to fall asleep easily. The plot drew me in, but I found a climactic scene too be a little ridiculous and it didn't really stick with me after I finished it. 
  • The Son: In this stressful time, when I've sometimes had trouble focusing on my books, I thought maybe a plot-driven Nordic crime thriller would grab my attention. Another one might have, but this one did not. There were too many characters, and the plot was well-paced but often ludicrous. It wasn't god-awful, but it certainly wasn't good. 
  • The Weight of Silence: This is just...really bad. A multiple-perspective story about two little girls who go missing one morning in rural Iowa, it's supposed to be suspenseful but fails to ever generate any suspense. The narrative voices, ranging from a seven year-old child to an adult university professor, are essentially all the same and the domestic violence drama at the heart of the story does not at all come together.
  • The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires: What an entertaining book! This story, about a woman who slowly becomes convinced that her handsome new neighbor is in fact a vampire, and who bands together with the other women of her book club in order to devise a plan to drive him away, is a delight. It deftly balances elements of comedy, drama, and real suspense and was completely charming. 
  • Howards End: I'd hated A Passage to India when I read it a few years back, so was a little reluctant to read another Forster book (even though I'd seen and liked the movie of this one). This is why I always give authors a second chance, though...I quite enjoyed this story of the entanglement of three families representing various aspects of the English class system. I particularly appreciated the richness of the characters and the bond between sisters Margaret and Helen. 
  • The Space Between Us: This was another book that had reviews highlighting strong relationships between women and deep engagement with issues of class, but woof. Just endless female suffering (to the point where it basically feels like trauma porn), a stale and predictable plot, stereotypical characters, and uninspired prose. It could not have left me colder.

In Life...
  • Back to work: I've been back in the office (on reduced in-person hours) for the past two weeks, and it's kind of strange getting back into a different routine. It was also quite jarring when I started working from home every day, but I got kind of used to it and now getting used to something else is an adjustment. I'm appreciating the flexibility to work from home as I'm not quite comfortable yet spending full days "at work".

One Thing:

As the reaction to George Floyd's murder at the hands of the police in Minneapolis continues to resonate, it seems (I hope) like we're ready to have a conversation about the fundamental injustices that people of color in the United States are forced to reckon with every single day. As a white person, it's my job to listen and amplify the voices of those with less privilege than I have, and be an ally to them in my own community even when the conversations are difficult. To that end, I recommend reading this piece about the ways in which the myth of the "perfect victim" allows those with power to stick their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the ways in which people of color find themselves trapped in a situation where there's no way to win.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Book 235: Landline

"Sometimes she lost her place when she was arguing with Neal. The argument would shift into something else—into somewhere more dangerous—and Georgie wouldn't even realize it. Sometimes Neal would end the conversation or abandon it while she was still making her point, and she'd just go on arguing long after he had checked out."

Dates read: May 21-23, 2018

Rating: 6/10

My husband and I didn't meet until our late 20s. While obviously that's worked out, sometimes I'm a little jealous of people who meet the person they end up with early on in life. Knowing someone in that way you only really can when you watch them grow up and come into themselves is special. On the other hand, though, the 20s can be such a turbulent decade that the person we are near the end of it is very different than the person that began it. And for me, that's a good thing. I honestly don't know that my husband and I would have found each other especially interesting if we'd met in college.

Growing together really lies at the heart of what makes a long-term relationship work. In Rainbow Rowell's Landline, Georgie and Neal meet while working at their campus humor magazine in college, marry when they're 23, and by the time they're in their late 30s, they have what looks like on the outside to be a cozy little setup. Georgie writes for a cheesy sitcom, and Neal is a stay-at-home dad to their two little girls. But Georgie and her long-time writing partner, Seth, have dreamed of their own show for ages and they finally get the chance to pitch it to someone who could make it happen. In order to give it their best shot, though, Georgie will need to miss the annual family trip to Nebraska to spend Christmas with Neal's parents. Her decision to do so, combined with her husband's growing dissatisfaction, puts her marriage in jeopardy.

Desperate to get ahold of her husband and with a dying cellphone, she drags out an old landline phone to connect with him. Georgie slowly comes to realize, though, that while the voice on the other end of the line is her husband, it's not him now. It's him on Christmas break their senior year in college, when he broke up with her but then suddenly showed up on her doorstep with a ring. As she remembers the early days of their love story, and the versions of themselves they used to be, she finds herself thinking about how things have changed over the years and re-evaluating what it actually is that she wants and needs from her life.

Rainbow Rowell is a writer who is constantly recommended on the internet for her sweet, compelling love stories. This one will strike a chord for many women who work and feel stuck between their home/family life and their career. Although Georgie's probably the more relatable character simply because the story's told from her perspective, I really appreciated that both she and Neal are painted in shades of grey. She's not demonized for wanting to be successful in her chosen field, but neither is he for feeling neglected and put-upon. The characters Rowell builds feel real, and so do the situations she puts them in. And, crucial in a book about being on the phone, she's got a great knack for dialogue.

Now on to the less good. Landline was Rowell's first adult novel (most of her work falls into YA), and I'd heard it was not one of her stronger efforts. I'm glad I had that warning ahead of time, because while I thought there were a lot of flaws here I wasn't crushingly disappointed. In order to really buy into the book, you have to be emotionally invested in Georgie and Neal's love story, and I just wasn't. I didn't understand what brought them together in the first place, much less what kept them together. And the tone of the whole thing just felt wonky. On the one hand, Rowell clearly wanted to write something light-hearted and charming, with quirky side characters all over the place to keep the mood up (her mom breeds pugs AND has a much younger husband! And her younger daughter insists on being called Noomi instead of Naomi AND talks like a cat!). But on the other, she's trying to write something heartfelt about the challenges of making sure you and your spouse/partner are growing together and not apart, and the stresses of trying to keep your family happy and achieve your professional goals. That's a much more serious book, and in trying to toe the line between them it fails more often than it succeeds. But I liked the quality of her writing, and while I ultimately wasn't wow-ed by this book, I'm definitely interested in reading her YA.

One year ago, I was reading: Midnight's Children (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Sky Is Yours

Three years ago, I was reading: The Panopticon

Four years ago, I was reading: Shylock Is My Name

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Opening Lines

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the very first words with which an author tries to snag you. That's right, it's time for favorite opening lines. You only get one chance at a first sentence, and here are ten of my favorites!

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." (The Hobbit)

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." (1984)

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." (Pride and Prejudice)

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." (Lolita)

"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." (Mrs. Dalloway)

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." (The Bell Jar)

"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation." (The Secret History)

"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope." (The Virgin Suicides)

"In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini." (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Book 234: The Heart of Everything That Is

"The more circumspect Red Cloud also recognized that the white man’s war had finally arrived on his doorstep, first from the east following the troubles in Minnesota, and now from the south. There was nowhere to run. Nor, he reasoned, should his people have to run. It was time, once and for all, to fight the mighty United States and expel the Americans from the High Plains. He had long planned how to do this. The only question had been when. Sand Creek had answered that: Now." 

Dates read: May 16-21, 2018

Rating: 6/10

At some point, it seems, most American kids end up playing "cowboys and Indians" (I know, I know, problematic). And at least when I was growing up, it seemed like you got more takers for the former than the latter. Everyone knew the Indians were going to lose. That's how history worked, after all. It's not just in the United States. The history of the world is rife with examples of indigenous people being treated like garbage by dominant cultures: the Maori in Australia, the Ainu in Japan, the Sami in's a sadly familiar story.

As hard as the Native Americans fought to retain their land against white settlers, their military victories were few and far between. Most of us have at least vaguely heard of Custer's Last Stand, but before that, a battle in Wyoming called Fetterman's Fight led to the deaths of 81 soldiers of the US Army and the (temporary) withdrawal of troops from Indian territory. Bob Drury and Tom Clavin's The Heart of Everything That Is takes a deep dive the battle, from its roots in the inter-tribal warfare among the Plains Indians to the rise of Red Cloud as a leader among the Lakota to his (ultimately short-lived) martial triumph. It has significant biographical detail about Red Cloud, but it's not trying to be a comprehensive look at him in particular. Rather, it uses Fetterman's Fight as a microcosm of the greater struggle of the Plains and Western tribes against the changes to their lifestyles wrought by white Americans driving further and further west.

Drury and Clavin strive to present a straightforward, unvarnished look at their subjects and push back against the idea that before protracted contact with whites, Native Americans lived as idyllic pacifists. Tribes had allies and enemies and some of them were very comfortable inflicting brutal violence against the latter. Red Cloud was brought up among his mother's people, the Oglala Lakota, one of the more aggressive branches of the greater Lakota nation, and was groomed for leadership by his mother's uncle. As he grew up, his people were pushed farther and farther from their traditional territory and he fought against enemy tribes in his youth, gaining renown, before turning his attention to the threats posed by the continually promise-breaking whites.

After a series of skirmishes, things came to a head at Fort Phil Kearney. It was a perfect storm: angry at yet another incursion into their land, the Lakota were able to ally with other tribes. The leadership at the fort was both arrogant and foolhardy. Red Cloud was a smarter tactician than his opponents. And the United States was forced to retreat, to abandon its forts. But it lasted less than a decade. The book covers the immediate aftermath of the battle, but only touches on the long run: Red Cloud, taking a trip to Washington, DC, realized the scale of the threat to his people and the ultimate hopelessness of continuing the fight, and led those that would follow him onto the reservation.

Pretty much any book about Native American history is inevitably compared to Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee simply because of that book's prominence. And I'd say this book is an excellent companion. It doesn't have, and honestly doesn't try for, the scope of Bury of My Heart, which covers more tribes over a longer time period. Instead, it takes a little known episode (I'd never heard of the Fetterman Fight) and explains it, placing its people and events into a larger context. And the book succeeds at this task, developing not only Red Cloud and to a lesser extent, his young protege Crazy Horse, as compelling and sympathetic characters, but also presenting the life of the Army fort, populated not just with soldiers but with families. No one is a cardboard cutout villain.

That being said, this book does occasionally get a little dry. I know some people are fascinated with military history and can happily read about tactics and battles for hours, but I am not one of those people. I find it deeply boring to read about attack techniques, and so I did experience waning interest when I think I was supposed to be the most engaged, during the climactic battle itself. I also found myself wanting more of the aftermath, more of Red Cloud's long life after this particular point. Overall, though, it's an interesting look at a part of history that's not well-understood by most potential readers, and I'd definitely recommend it as a way of broadening one's knowledge base about the formation of the United States as we know it today.

One year ago, I was reading: Midnight's Children (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Landline

Three years ago, I was reading: Migraine

Four years ago, I was reading: Devil in the White City

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Reasons Why I Love Classics

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about why we love our favorite genres. I try to read pretty broadly across genres, but one that I really enjoy doesn't seem to get much love: the classics! People are quick to dismiss them as boring and irrelevant, and while there is certainly fair criticism about the literary "canon", many of these books are great, y'all! I could not quite come up with ten, so here are eight reasons I love the classics (and you should try reading them too!).

People are impressed by it: I'm shallow, I admit it. When people are impressed that I've read War and Peace, I get to feel very intellectual. Here's the secret: it's not a difficult read at all, it's actually very straightforward and engaging. It's just really long. But people who haven't read it don't know that!

They're often more modern than you think: We might have iPhones and streaming music now, but it turns out many of the struggles people face (dealing with family, finding and sustaining love, connecting with other people) are universal and once you get past the more formal language and horse-drawn carriages, these books are really applicable to life!

They help you understand references: I won't pretend that I don't feel smug when I can spot allusions to the classics in newer books, movies, and television shows.

They teach you history: History can feel like a dry collection of names and dates when you're trying to learn it, but stories like Vanity Fair (the Napoleonic Wars) and Les Miserables (the French Revolution of 1830) can make those times come to life!

They've stood the test of time: I think we've all watched the hype machine build up a book only to have seen it all but disappear a few years later. These books have been read for decades or sometimes even hundreds of years, so there's definitely something there.

There's something for everyone: There are long books! There are short books! There are horror and romance and science fiction and fantasy! It's an umbrella category that covers a lot of different kinds of things so there is almost certainly something you'd enjoy.

You can find them secondhand very cheap, or free for many e-readers: There are a bajillion copies of Great Expectations out there, you absolutely do not need to spend more than a few dollars on it or many other classics. And for those books in the public domain, you can usually get them free on your e-reader of choice!

They can be challenging: We all like things that are fun and easy to read, but there's a sense of accomplishment that comes with wrestling with something that pushes you outside of your comfort zone, and classics can definitely give you that extra intellectual stimulation.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Book 233: Far From The Madding Crowd

"She was the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises."

Dates read: May 11-16, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

Most people will say that they appreciate a "strong female character", but what exactly do we mean by that? What makes a woman strong? Often it seems like it gets interpreted as literal physical strength, a la Buffy Summers, or else a kind of "tough girls don't cry" emotional repression. As a reaction to the stereotypical depiction of women as delicate flowers prone to wailing or running away when faced with challenges, or as objects to be rescued and therefore earned at the end, there is strength in presenting women as having physical and/or emotional toughness. The idea, though, that the way for women to be strong is to be more like men doesn't feel like it encompasses enough about women's strength.

As a woman, I think what I most gravitate towards when I'm looking for a "strong female character" is agency. The ability to make her own choices, knowing the consequences, and then continue to make them for better or worse in a way that feels like they're actually real choices a person would make. There are a surprising number of these kinds of characters in the classics (though they have a not-unfair reputation for being dominated by men's stories), and some of my favorite have been found in the work of Thomas Hardy. In his Far From The Madding Crowd, our central character is Bathsheba Everdene, who we watch grow from an inexperienced but capable young woman to owning and running her own farm and learning some brutally hard lessons about relationships, through her own effort and largely by her own hand. Bathsheba isn't without flaws, and some of the choices she makes are bad ones, but you never lose the sense that she's in control of her own destiny.

Bathsheba catches the eye of young farmer Gabriel Oak when she's on her way to live with a cousin to help out on the farm, and he soon grows besotted with her beauty. He proposes, but through they've built a friendly acquaintance, she shoots him down because she doesn't love him. She leaves when she inherits a farm of her own, and after financial disaster strikes and Gabriel loses his own toehold in the landed class, he winds up working for her as a shepherd. Unlike many owners (particularly female ones), she insists on being an active part of the operation of her land, and she and Gabriel become trusted allies to each other. When a silly joke with an older, eligible bachelor neighbor, Boldwood, leads to the other man's obsession with her, Bathsheba resists making a marriage with him as well but is under tremendous pressure to accept his suit. And then Sergeant Troy happens...he's young and hot and even though his heart belongs to his childhood sweetheart, he and Bathsheba have a whirlwind fling that ends in holy matrimony. Drama ensues.

If you can read Hardy without feeling a passionate longing to go spend some time out in the middle of nowhere for a while, you're a stronger person than I am. He doesn't gloss over the very real toil of rural life, but he presents it so persuasively as the most harmonious way to live that it makes you think about what it would be like to chuck it all and go buy a little piece of land and work it yourself. I would never do that, I know I'd hate it about 48 hours in, but Hardy was very concerned with growing industrialization and his preference to maintain traditional pastoral lifestyles is obvious. But his real strength lies in his complicated, multifaceted characters. While Gabriel Oak is a little on the idealized side, Bethsheba, Boldwood, and Troy are all painted in shades of grey that give them nuance and interest, and the drama derives from circumstances that mostly feel organic, giving real weight to their choices and interactions.

The more classics I've read in my late 20s and beyond, the more convinced I am that we do young readers a disservice by insisting on reading them in high school. While there's nothing going on here at a conceptual level that a reasonably intelligent teenager couldn't grasp, there's also so much more that you can bring into the novel of your own experience once you have some under your belt that gives it so much more life. If I'd tried to read this at 16, I doubt I would have cared for it, but at 32 (which is how old I was when I read it) it's got full layers of meaning that I really responded to. It's lengthy, but it moves along pretty well, and I would definitely recommend giving it a read!

One year ago, I was reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: This!

Three years ago, I was reading: The Skies Belong to Us

Four years ago, I was reading: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Should Have Abandoned

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I'm doing a twist on this week's topic, which was supposed to be the last ten books we abandoned. While I judge no one else for not wasting their reading time on something they're not enjoying, I am a never-DNF type. Even I, though, will admit that sometimes I probably would have been better off throwing in the towel. Here are ten books that I found so bad I should have just put them down forever.

The Perfect Son: I did not know it was possible to have so many cliches in one book.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: Turns out I just really don't like reading about people having feelings about nature/the outdoors.

Whores of the Devil: This survey of accused witches and heretics throughout history seemed like the kind of thing that I would enjoy but the author wrote in such a lurid fashion based on sketchy details and it was incredibly off-putting.

Catch-22: I often don't care for satires, and this was no exception. It has one joke (war is ridiculous!) and doesn't go anywhere for hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Soon the Light Will be Perfect: This book is pretty short but tries to balance way too many plots and feels like a draft that needed real work.

Empire Falls: I had high hopes for this Pultizer-winning family drama but it was just awful. Misogyny and lots of feelings about "real America" and a sensationalized school shooting subplot...just a mess.

The Man in the High Castle: I wanted a story and got mostly a thought experiment. It wasn't completely without interest, but I did not care about any of the characters or what happened to them.

Good Riddance: This was supposed to be a light-hearted comedy but was just offensivelydumb.

Ready Player One: This book had such hype, and was so mediocre and boring.

Shantaram: I hated this book almost immediately, and unfortunately it's pretty lengthy. I eventually got into a kind of hate-reading groove that let me finish it, but I wish I had just stopped reading it.