Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers (2016)

As soon as possible after finishing The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, I picked up the next book in the series. I read it in just two days (and now I'm on hold for the third one, but it just came out so I'm going to have to sit tight and wait my turn.) This one is about a couple of side characters from the first book, but I'll describe it without spoilers so don't worry about that.

Pepper is an engineer who has befriend an AI (Artificial Intelligence) and put her in a body kit. This means that an AI designed to monitor a ship is now living in a very human-like body. So the AI goes to live with Pepper and her partner Blue and tries to get used to her new situation. She picks the name Sidra for herself, and she is completely disoriented and frustrated by the fact that she can't see behind her, that she isn't permanently attached to the Linkings (which is like the internet), and she just doesn't know what to do with herself. Plus it's illegal to house an AI in a body kit, so she needs to do a very convincing job of acting human.

The other story being told at the same time is Pepper's backstory, from back when she was known as Jane 23. Her early life was spent in a factory, where she sorted scrap, determining what could be useful and what wasn't. She slept in a dorm with other girls, sharing a bunk with Jane 64. Their meals were just liquid in a cup, referred to only as "meals" and Jane had no idea there were different kinds of foods. The girls were watched over by the Mothers, which were robots. Obviously she escaped and it's a really fantastic story that I loved reading about, but I'm not going to ruin things by telling you all about it here.

We don't see any of the other characters from the first book, but I'm ok with that because there's just so much good story here and I grew to love being with these characters just as I did my old friends from book one. There weren't as many different species introduced here, but we got to see more slices of life, and I'm starting to think Becky Chambers can just keep writing more and more books set in this universe and I will never grow tired of learning about these characters, their worlds, and their histories. I can't wait to get my hands on book three!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Dating You / Hating You

Dating You / Hating You by Christina Lauren (2017)

Evie and Carter are Hollywood talent agents, who meet by chance at a party and are very attracted to each other. They both hesitate, because dating another agent is potentially horrible. They work constantly and are always at the beck and call of their clients. One person like that in a relationship is bad enough, but both of them? They'd never see each other. Nevertheless, they can't keep their eyes (and hands) off each other, so they go for it. Then, without warning, their companies have merged and they are now coworkers. Even worse, their horrid boss Brad tells them he won't ultimately be able to keep them both, so now they're basically pitted against each other in a fight to keep a job.

Brad was with Evie's company before the merge so she's very familiar with his ways - his misogynistic, jerkbag ways. Now that she's in direct competition with a man for her job, it's even more glaring. She is clearly the more experienced one, but Brad continues focusing on her one failure, never mind that every agent has had failures, and treating her like more of an assistant than an actual agent. Even Carter is horrified. But that's not enough to keep Evie and Carter on good terms. No, their relationship is now a fight to the death and they begin playing awful (but kind of hilarious) pranks on each other while trying to resist the magnetic pull that won't go away, regardless of their professional situation.

Everything about this was pretty satisfying. The way Evie dealt with her sexist workplace, the dynamic between her and Carter, and the look into a world that I knew nothing about. I've probably spent about 4 seconds of my life thinking about talent agents before reading this book. It's a professional I've only been vaguely aware of. Are there even any other books or movies that focus on talent agents? I'll be honest, it's not something that actually appealed to me and I wouldn't have picked the book up based on the description. I read because I kept hearing how good it was from many different sources from blogs to book review journals. And I know that it's impossible to tell from a plot summary whether something is good or not, so I'm glad let my disinterest about the inner workings of Hollywood put me off.

I'm always happy to find a contemporary romance that works for me. It's not easy - there has to be something keeping people apart, and in the modern worlds that's difficult. The two-author team known as Christina Lauren found a very effective way to create a love/hate relationship that was a lot of fun to watch, and their writing style was clever, funny, and engaging. This book really lived up to the hype for me.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1) by Becky Chambers (2014)

Friends, I've just read the most wonderful book! I kept hearing that it was good, and I even checked it out of the library once before and returned it without reading it. But this time I took it on vacation with me and we had the best time together!

As the title suggests, this story is about a journey to a planet. Ashby is captain of the Wayfarer and its multispecies crew. He has finally hired a clerk, which he was totally overdue for, and which has now given his team a more professional air and helped secure a very exciting new job. They are to create a tunnel to a planet called Hedra Ka, which has long been unfriendly to everyone but has suddenly joined the Galactic Commons. (Nope, not suspicious at all. Nothing to be concerned about.)

The new clerk aboard the Wayfarer is Rosemary Harper, who is trying to flee some secrets of her own. She's more than happy to take on her new job with her interesting crewmates. Like Rosemary, some of them are human: Ashby, Kizzy, Corbin, and Jenks. But their doctor/chef who they call Dr. Chef is a Grum (his real name is unpronounceable by humans) and he's described as a cross between an otter and a gecko, and he walks like a caterpillar on a few sets of hand-feet. Sissix is the pilot and she's an Aandrisk, a reptilian being with feathers on her head and claws. Her people are very physically affectionate beings and have a lot of casual sex, which is not considered especially private. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, is Ohan. They are a Sianat Pair, which are all infected with a virus called the Whisperer that gives them a much deeper understanding of space and therefore great value as navigators. They think of themselves and their virus as a pair, so they are always referred to as "we" and "they" rather than a singular pronoun.

What makes or breaks my experience reading science fiction are the characters. Sometimes they're two-dimensional because the story is all about the plot and the world-building, and those books just don't do it for me at all. These characters are all fully realized and genuine and I had a fun time with them on their long journey. This wasn't at the price of other factors though; in fact, the world-building was great, and totally borne out of the characters, each of whom had a story that told us more about the universe in which it takes place.

But I think what I liked best about this novel was the way all these characters from very different cultures communicated and worked together. Most of them spoke a couple of languages, and they learned about the histories of other species and, at the very least, their customs and conventions. They were all super aware that their own way was not everyone's way. And when they didn't really understand another species' ways, they still respected them. They still went along with it and didn't try to convince them their way was silly or made no sense. It was pretty great. There's a point in the story when Corbin is talking to Ohan about how Jenks is in love with Lovey, their AI on the ship, who doesn't even have a body. He says "I don't pretend to understand. Frankly, I find the whole notion absurd...But it doesn't matter what I think. Jenks thinks something different, and his pain is very real right now. Me knowing how stupid this whole thing is doesn't make him hurt any less." And Corbin is an asshole. But even he has respect for others' differences.

The cultures were so inventive and well-thought out too. Aandrisks will give one of their feathers to someone who has touched their life, and keep the ones given to them as a reminder of everyone they've had an impact on, which I thought was a neat practice. More interestingly, they don't see children as fully-fledged people until they get their feathers. The death of hatchlings is fairly common and to be expected. Sissix doesn't understand why an infant would be considered of more value than an adult, saying "the idea that a loss of potential was somehow worse than a loss of achievement and knowledge was something she had never been able to wrap her brain around." Me too, Sissix. Me too. I've never understood why we consider babies and children to be more important and valuable than adults (although I still think they're people, and don't think they are necessarily of lesser value.) And the Sianat Pairs! To think that a virus is absolutely necessary to your identity, even though it is greatly reducing your lifespan. So many philosophical questions come up in relation to Ohan and their species and their relationship with this virus. And I haven't even mentioned the Aeluons, who don't speak or hear as we do, but communicate through colorful displays on their skin.

Look, I could go on at length here, and I guess I already have. There's just so much interesting stuff in this world, and it's populated with people I really want to get to know more. It was super creative and a lot of fun to read. Fortunately, there are two more books in this series (so far? I don't know if it is complete) so I may pick up the next one. I read the description and it's pretty intriguing, though I haven't heard if it's as good as this one. But I'm willing to find out.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1956)

A young American man named David is in the South of France, his girlfriend having just left to return to the US. David is about to return to Paris where Giovanni is being executed. He reveals the story of how he met Giovanni at a gay bar he visited with his friend Jacques, and how he began a relationship with Giovanni, eventually moving in with him. He knew it wouldn't last as his girlfriend Hella was in Spain only temporarily and would return, but Giovanni hoped otherwise. Eventually we learn what a huge mess David has made of everything and why Giovanni is being executed.

This is a very short book (my edition was 170 pages) but one packed with beautiful language and emotion. The atmosphere was one of a sort of tragic hedonism. David and his friends Jacques, Guillaume, and of course Giovanni drank a lot and drifted about aimlessly and hurt each other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. The language almost romanticized it at times, but also sharply conveyed the more sordid and ugly parts.

Considered a gay classic, Baldwin's publisher apparently initially balked at it because of the content. More recently, it has been acknowledged to be bisexual - it seems weird that it wouldn't have before, but I guess it took a while to accept that bisexuality is actually a thing. David had a relationship with a boy before when he was young, but he also loves Hella and does want to marry her. Even Giovanni also had a woman in his life before he and David met, and one with whom he shared a loving relationship before it ended with tragedy.

This is the cover of the edition I read and it's a little odd - I never understand occasionally an author's photo appears on the front cover. I would understand if the novel was more autobiographical, but I don't thing this one is. Also, from what I can tell, the characters are all white. (David is described as blond and Giovanni is Italian.) But of course this is just one of many editions, I just really enjoy a beautiful cover and this one doesn't do justice to the story within.

I can't believe I haven't read James Baldwin before. Why did nobody tell me how lovely his writing is, and how compellingly genuine his characters? I know he also wrote a lot of nonfiction in the form of essays, as well as short stories, plays, and poetry, so there's a lot to choose from. If you have suggestions about what I should try next, please let me know in the comments!

July Wrap-Up and Plans for August




Reading


I read THREE books from my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list, which is making me smug. This is what happens when I don't have any assigned reading for book groups or whatnot - I read things that I've been wanting to read for a while! Most notable was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which I think everyone in America should read.

Listening

Boston Harbor Island view

I listened to the audiobook of the new Alyssa Cole novel, A Princess in Theory, which was even better than I expected. Another audiobook I enjoyed this month was the teen book Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson.

In between audiobooks I'm continuing to listen to my regular podcasts, including the newest one in my rotation, Slow Russian. I don't know how much I'm picking up from this because I feel like there are so many new words and expressions in every episode, but if I keep listening regularly I'm sure I can't help but increase (or rebuild) my vocabulary.

This month I also got to listen to Janelle Monae live! This is the second time I've seen her perform and she is just fantastic. The first time was a few years ago when she opened to Prince, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you how great that show was.

Watching


I saw the RBG documentary, which was great. I really didn't know a ton about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so I was very happy to learn about all her early cases that she chose because they advanced the rights of women. I also learned that she survived pancreatic cancer, which I didn't even think was possible, and that gives me a lot of hope that she might be immortal.

This month I also finished watching The Handmaid's Tale season 2, and continued with Poldark and Parts Unknown. If you're interested in travel to unusual places and you like food, I highly recommend that show.

A while ago a friend recommended the movie Mudbound, and I also finally watched that. It's about two families in Mississippi - a black family and a white family - during World War II. It's very upsetting, but also very good.

Cooking

Corn Fritters

Very little, mostly fritters. I had a lot of social plans this month which means I didn't have a ton of time for cooking. I ate a lot of things like tacos and pasta with pesto. But I did make the Zucchini-Cornmeal cakes from Dinner by Melissa Clark, which were actually a lot of work but very tasty, and the Corn Fritters from the Smitten Kitchen website, which were also delicious but easier to make. It was nice to be able to buy fresh ingredients from the farmer's market that's near my work. The only thing I cooked that wasn't fritters was the 8-minute Pantry Dal from the Oh She Glows website. Don't be fooled by the title, it takes a lot longer than 8 minutes. But you can use up whatever vegetables you have on hand and it is very easy to throw together in a pot, and then you can relax while it simmers away. I'll be making this again. And probably the corn fritters too.

In addition to all my social plans I've been making a concerted effort to cut down on food. When I pulled out all my summer clothes this year I found that some of them didn't fit. I've been using an app called MyPlate to track calories, though I'm not restricting myself as much as the app suggested because that's just not sustainable. It worked out fine this month, but I had little cooking time anyhow. I'm not sure how it will go when I do have more time for cooking and baking, but I probably won't find that out until fall. At any rate, I have a lot of cookbooks with options for pretty healthy fare so I'm not very concerned.

Doing


As I mentioned, I had a lot of social activities. July 1 was an annual day trip with friends to the Boston Harbor Islands, followed by a delicious seafood dinner in Boston. The following weekend I went to a party, and then spent an afternoon with a friend I hadn't seen in a while and we did an escape room, which was WAY more fun than I thought it would be. I had evening dinner plans with various friends throughout the month and then this past weekend was a friend's birthday and we went to the Janelle Monae concert.

Sock in progress
After not having gone to a yoga class (or my gym at all) for a year or close to it, I went to yoga this month and it felt amazing. I'm hoping I can get back into the habit of going!

In knitting news, I finally finished that second sleeve! All I have to do now is sew in the sleeves, sew up the hems and cuffs, and make and attach the elbow patches.

I have also begun another project! First time in close to two years, so this is big news. I started a black sock, because I am in need of black socks. I've been working on it on the bus and while watching tv, so it's moving right along already. It's the Chain Rib pattern from my old friend, Sensational Knitted Socks.

Plans for August


I'm actually posting this a little early, because I'm ending July and beginning August with a trip to Prince Edward Island. I've never been there before and I'm really looking forward to relaxing, eating, and enjoying nature.

Later in the month we'll be going camping again since we were a bit shortchanged by the weather last time. And I have unspecified plans to take a day trip with a friend one Saturday, so I'm sure we'll end up doing something fun.

How was your July?

The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2016)

It's the end of the 19th century, Cora Seaborne has just been widowed, and she's never been happier. She takes her companion Martha and her son Francis to Essex to get away from it all and it is there she meets local vicar Will Ransome, with whom she becomes fast friends. This despite their very different outlooks on religion and the local fear of a deadly serpent said to be haunting the sea and causing all sorts of strange happenings. Cora is an amateur naturalist and wants to believe the fears are founded and there is an undiscovered species lurking in the waters. Will is just as convinced it's all in their heads, and they just need to strengthen their religious convictions and see that there's nothing there.

I read the first 100 pages - about a quarter of the book - and put it down in favor of something else. It didn't feel like it was going anywhere and I didn't think I'd finish it. But then I bored of the other book, and felt inclined to pick this back up again. I stayed home sick from work one day, and read the last 200 pages in one day. So I guess I liked it after all.

It was rather atmospheric, what with unexplained phenomena and a character with consumption and a missing teenage girl.  Cora's son was also very unusual - I think these days we'd say that he's on the spectrum - but in the context of this book, his behavior just added to the air of mystery. Will's daughter Joanna was a bright young girl just coming into her own and had been friendly for many years with Naomi, a fisherman's daughter. Together they played at casting spells, but Joanna was starting to outgrow this mysticism for more serious studies, creating a rift in their friendship. Then Naomi went missing.

Cora's friendship with Will was central, and complex. He was married and Cora loved Stella too, as did Will. But it was also clear that Cora and Will's friendship was special. Cora was also friendly with a doctor, Luke Garrett, whose feelings for her were much stronger and he was vexed at her new friendship with Will. Cora's companion Martha also seemed devoted to Cora beyond the usual way. Cora had a lot going on, and many of the people around her grew impatient with how she was handling her newfound freedom, dressing in ways unbecoming to a lady and tramping about England doing whatever she wanted. I was very happy for her. Her husband was an ass and she was finally free of him, and she wasn't about to start acting in accordance with everyone else's expectations now. Although this novel was set in the Victorian period, the characters' behavior and relationships aren't what I expected to encounter - for instance, there was some casual sex - and I found that refreshing.

This isn't a fast-moving story with a complicated plot, and I think the reason I put it aside for a while was that I wasn't in the mood for it. Which is what I suspected at the time, as I couldn't point to anything specific about I didn't like. As I said, it's atmospheric, and focused on relationships, and the writing was of a fairly literary caliber. When I began I felt like I needed to concentrate, but I think I've just read a lot of books in a row written in a much simpler style, so it was a bit of a shift. This has been on my To Read shelf on Goodreads for a while - well, it think it was the first thing I added when I started using that shelf again - and I am quite glad I finally got to it.

Sarah Perry's new novel, Melmoth, will be out in October. It takes place in Prague and involves a dark legend and a missing person and sounds like it might have a similar feel to The Essex Serpent.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Piecing Me Together

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson (2017), narrated by the author

Jade accepts every opportunity that comes to her way, because she wants to make sure she has every chance at success. She takes a bus across town to attend a private school on scholarship, and she is now asked to join a mentoring program called Woman To Woman. She joins, but is resentful that it's for "at-risk" kids and she's not at risk. She is, however, one of very few black kids at a mostly-white high school and can't help but think that's why she keeps being asked to take opportunities that are supposed to help her. Jade thinks she is completely capable of helping others, and what she wants most is to be asked to participate in the study abroad program and use the Spanish she studies so diligently while taking part in a volunteer project.

As if it wasn't enough she didn't want to join Woman To Woman in the first place, her mentor Maxine keeps standing her up, and taking long phone calls when they're together. At the same time she's very supportive of Jade's art, spectacular photo collages.

Jade has recently befriended a girl named Sam who takes the same bus across town to school. Sam is white, and sometimes doesn't understand the things that Jade complains about. When they're shopping together and a salesperson exhibits racist behavior toward Jade, Sam tries to explain it away. As much as Jade likes Sam, these interactions make her very uncomfortable.

A major theme in this book is Jade's unwillingness to speak up for herself. She internalizes unfairness, slights, and racism and doesn't ask for the things she wants. She's a smart creative person who has a lot to give to the world and I really liked seeing her grow stronger and begin to find her own voice and take the scary step of confronting people and asking for what she wanted. It felt so liberating!

Although her relationship with Maxine was sometimes strained, Maxine helped Jade to take this initiative. It was rough though. Maxine had to convince Jade she was worth spending time with, and had to convince Jade's mother that she wasn't overstepping her bounds. Jade's mom worked really hard but was also a great mother, and didn't appreciate being treated like she wasn't there for her daughter, who consequently needed another adult woman to help her out. But eventually mom and Maxine got to know each other more and the relationships all solidified a bit. It was an interesting dynamic to watch unfold.

The audiobook was narrator by the author, who doesn't sound like a professional narrator, but I liked listening to her. She had a casual, conversation tone that sounded appropriate for a teenage girl.

This was only about 5.5 hours long, so it only took me about a week. I usually just listen on my commute, but I found myself carving out time at home to listen while doing other things. Jade was a great character, and I loved seeing her come into her own and really start standing up for herself. She'll go far, and she doesn't need any more well-meaning help to do it.