Saturday, December 8, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (2013)

Since this has been made into a popular movie, you probably know the basics. Nicholas Young is bringing his girlfriend Rachel Chu to Singapore for the summer because his best friend is getting married. But he hasn't told Rachel much about his family, who are extraordinarily wealthy and inhabit a social sphere that Rachel probably doesn't realize exists. He thinks there will be no problem with this. It's as though he's never actually met his own family or friends before.

His cousin Astrid - one of the two characters I like in this book (the other being Rachel) - tries to warn him, but Nick is pretty stupid and won't listen to her. So of course Rachel is caught completely by surprise, his family won't accept her, some of his acquaintances decide to try and sabotage their relationship, and basically it's like a terrible reality show with a tacked-on happy-ish ending that doesn't actually make sense.

These people are mostly all horrible and nobody actually learns anything during the course of the story. Nobody grows as a person or learns anything new. Perhaps Nick realizes he should have been more forthcoming with Rachel, but that's it. (Minor rant: he also "learns" that if a woman breaks up with you, you should continue to pursue her until you get her back, because obviously women do not know what they actually want and no probably doesn't mean no.) Everyone is completely self-centered, vapid, and uncaring about anyone not in their social sphere. It's hard for me to like anything about that.

The writing was a bit forced in parts, too. For one thing, grown women in this story are constantly giggling at odd times that don't make sense. Some of the dialogue was also a big unrealistic, such as when Rachel discovers a nasty prank in her room, a kind person asks if she's ok, and she says, "No, no, I'll be fine. I'm just shaking involuntarily." Hello, let me narrate my signs of distress right now.

Here's what I did like: I liked Rachel and Astrid and their stories. Astrid was having marital difficulties (spoiler: they were fabricated, which was a totally cheap plot point), and was the only wealthy character who was anything other than a collection of eccentricities slapped together on the page. Rachel, as a "regular person" was the only other one I could really relate to. She has this great boyfriend but he hasn't shared much about his life, keeping some pretty key information from her and then just setting her down into the middle of it all and leaving her to deal with it. I felt bad for her. Nick was ok, there just wasn't much to him and, as I said, he's kind of stupid.

I also liked the settings, which were mostly in parts of Singapore and Hong Kong. As you may know if you've been reading this blog for a while, I visited Hong Kong in 2012 and I really like reading books that are set there. That's probably one of the reasons I ended up reading this, and I did enjoy reading about parts of Hong Kong that I recognized.

I also like the cover design. Simple, yet eye-catching.

I don't even know what made me pick this book up, to be honest. I don't enjoy wealthy entitled people being horrible, but I guess I hoped there would be more to it. Especially given that it's over 500 pages long. Surely there would be some real substance here. There's not.

I almost put the book down several times in favor of something else (I had the new Liane Moriarty on deck!) but wanted to find out what would become of Astrid's marriage. It wasn't really worth it. And once again, I always find much more to say about a book I don't really like than one I do. I'm actually rather curious how the movie compares and I may still see it, since most of this is about the settings and clothing and I think it might be visually entertaining. Have you seen it? What did you think?

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Working Stiff

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell (2014), narrated by Tanya Eby

I bought this audiobook impulsively when Audible was having a sale and I was in the mood for memoirs. I had never heard of this one, but was intrigued by the description as it says she worked as a medical examiner in the wake of 9/11.

Judy Melinek intended to be a surgeon, but the grueling schedule wasn't for her (and, to be honest, didn't sound like it was very healthy for her patients either.) So she quit her residency and began working as a forensic pathologist in New York in the summer of 2001. Mostly, the book was more thematic than linear, with chapters focused on different types of deaths like homicides, suicides, accidents, and those from substance abuse. She talks about her experiences performing autopsies, the things she looked for, and what she learned.

It was about 3/4 of the way through the book when she talks about 9/11 and its aftermath. Although that was what reeled me in, and I was initially disappointed that it wasn't more of a focus of the book, I found everything about her job so fascinating that I'm glad she shared so much of it. Obviously 9/11 was a huge catastrophe, but what really set it apart from her other work was the scale, and the need to devise a different workflow. The actual work was similar, except that there were a lot of, um....incomplete bodies, which affected the organizational system. I'm not going to get more specific here because it goes into a territory that is not going to be comfortable for a lot of people.

So that's one important thing to know about this book. It's pretty graphic, and it has to be in order to get a feel for what Melinek's job is actually like. If you are easily grossed out or upset by things having to do with the human body, things that can happen to it, and vivid descriptions of horrific deaths, this is not the book for you. However, I find this kind of thing fascinating. And so does Judy Melinek. Of course she was affected by some of the things she saw. There was even one situation in which she paused over a body bag containing more than one small child (from a plane crash that happened just a couple of months after 9/11), and a coworker quickly volunteered to take that job. He knew she had young children.

Mostly though, she wasn't bothered, and it didn't make her worry more for her family. She saw a lot of death and knew that the more horrific accidents were actually pretty rare. She's just extremely interested in the human body and loves learning more about it, and happens to not be especially bothered by dead people. She talked a lot about her mentors and what she learned from them, and she also touched on her father's death when she was a teenager and how that has shaped her view of suicide and affected how she interacts with the families who are left behind.

It was a fairly short book (the hardcover edition is 258 pages) and the narrator was great, so I was pretty engrossed and flew through it. It was a great impulse buy and exactly what I wanted to listen to at the time. If you're interested in this kind of science, or just like learning about unusual jobs, I recommend it.

Friday, November 30, 2018

November Wrap-Up and Plans For December



Reading


I finished The Fifth Season in early November, which is the final title that I'm reading for my TBR Pile Challenge, and then plowed through the rest of the Broken Earth series. There's one more book on my challenge list but I'm not feeling inclined to read it so I'm done for the year.

This month I also finished Alisha Rai's excellent Forbidden Hearts series with Hurts To Love You. Rounding out the month, I read The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, which I loved, and started reading Crazy Rich Asians. The jury is still out on that one because sometimes reading about extremely wealthy, entitled people is just annoying but it's too early to really say yet.

In general it was a pretty good reading month!

Listening


Socks that I mention below.
While reading the Broken Earth series, I needed something less dark so I listened to The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, then started on Working Stiff by Judy Melinek which I impulsively bought on sale through Audible and had never heard of before. Melinek is a forensic pathologist, and this book is a glimpse inside a profession I know very little about.

I finished Last Seen, the podcast about the Gardener Heist. It was so fascinating, and now I want to learn more about art theft in general.

I also started listening to a podcast called Unlikeable Female Characters, which is SO up my alley. They talk about unlikeable female characters from books, movies, and TV so it sure to have wide appeal.


Watching


An early season of The Great British Baking Show appeared on Netflix and we watched that over the course of a week. It's listed on Netflix as The Great British Baking Show: The Beginning, though it's not actually the first season and I'm mystified as to why we're getting it in such a strange order. This was a good season except that they kept doing odd informational segments on things like the history of gingerbread houses and eel pie and it was not even always relevant (I really thought that technical challenge was going to be eel pie, but it wasn't. Why did we need to learn about the history of eel pie?) I really wish all the other seasons were available because watching this show greatly improves my quality of life. Please let me know if there's another happy-making food show out there because I need it.

Cooking


After making the Smitten Kitchen Blondies again for a get-together and the Peanut Butter Cheesecake Brownies for no reason, I decided I needed to stop the baking because it really does not fit in with my plans to eat a more healthy diet.

One-pot Mujadara
I made a couple of new things from Melissa Clark's Dinner, including Winter Vegetable Hash with Jalapenos and Fried Eggs, which didn't come out the way it was supposed to but was still tasty, and the One Pot Mujadara, a fairly easy meal of lentils, rice, spinach, and delicious crispy-fried leeks. I'll be making this one again, I'm sure.

For October's Cookbook Club at work we cooked from Smitten Kitchen Every Day, which I then purchased. Earlier this week I made the Wild Mushroom Shepherd's Pie and had serious issues with the recipe. You cook some mushrooms and then add a significant amount of liquid, then simmer it until the liquid reduces to a thick gravy, "about 10 minutes." Well, Deb Perelman apparently has no sense of time because I simmered for 35 minutes before giving up and throwing the Shepherd's Pie together and into the oven because I was starving. This monstrosity took me 3 hours to make and came out more like soup. The flavor was great though, and the leftovers thickened up a little. But seriously, can you please test all of your recipes? Thank you.

A couple of old favorites that I cooked include the Hot and Sour Braised Tempeh, a delicious noodle dish from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman, and the Gingered Winter Vegetables from Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I've never been vegan, but that cookbook is great and has been one of my go-to cookbooks for years!

Doing


Eric and I went with another friend to a fun event called Tavern Night, held at the Boston Tea Party Museum. We sat at a table with an actor portraying Sam Adams, and ate delicious foods, drank hot buttered rum, sang songs, and even learned a old-timey dance.

I celebrated an early Thanksgiving in Maine with family. They all work in health care and often work on holidays so we celebrate whenever they are available to get together. Have I mentioned that my sister has a llama? That's a photo of her on the right (the llama, not my sister.) The lighthouse in the photo below is at the end of the road I lived on growing up.

I spent real Thanksgiving watching episodes of The Great British Baking Show in my pajamas before going out to a restaurant in the evening. Which honestly was pretty great.

I finished TWO knitting projects! I posted about my sweater already, but I also finished a pair of socks. I've started more socks now, but in a much prettier colorway. (I mean, I love black, but sometimes you need to mix it up a bit.) Black is very hard to photograph, but nevertheless I've include a pic to the right.

Work has felt really busy, and I'm on the Social Committee this year which means planning the staff holiday party which is a total nightmare and I want to stab everyone. The end.

Plans for December


December is that very special time of year in which I try to remember what my goals were for the year, and then determine whether or not I fulfilled them. (Usually not.)

I need to set up my new bullet journal planner thingy, which I started planning ages ago, set it aside, and now I don't recall what I had in mind. I'll go back and look at my notes and drawings which I'm sure will be some combination of helpful and mystifying.

Traditionally, I don't do much for Christmas except decorate the house a little and watch lots of Christmas movies, then go out to eat on Christmas Day. There's only two of us and we used to cook, but it was a whole lot of effort and then we were just exhausted and cranky by the time we ate alone in our kitchen. Anyhow, I really want to plan some other festive activities as well, but I don't know what. Going to a show? Making fancy cookies? I have no idea.

We'll be having a New Year's Eve party though and that is basically planned at this point. It's just a matter of cleaning the house and buying some booze. I've got a few days off leading up to New Year's Eve so it shouldn't be a problem to have everything ready.


How was your November?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee (2018)

"I have just taken an overly large bite of iced bun when Callum slices his finger off."

From this very first line, I was enraptured by the new novel by Mackenzi Lee. It's a sequel to A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, but although I think you should read that one because it's great, it's not necessary to have read it first. The main character in the first book was Henry "Monty" Montague, and this second book is about his sister, Felicity.

Callum is the baker for whom Felicity works, and after she sews up his finger he proposes marriage. But Felicity has always wanted to be a doctor and is not interested in marriage or romance, so after a failed attempt at talking her way into medical school (which won't admit women) she follows a lead and dashes off to Austria in search of her long-time idol, Dr. Alexander Platt. Platt is about to marry Felicity's former best friend Johanna, with whom she parted under less-than-friendly circumstances. Felicity is only able to make the trip with the help of a third woman, a Muslim pirate named Sim, who is absolutely deserving of her own book. Sim has her own motivation for making this trip and, once revealed, the trip develops into a much different kind of adventure.

So I love Felicity: her determination, her intelligence, her sense of justice. I also love that she is not perfect. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the feminism, and it is just as complicated here as in real life. Felicity and Johanna grew up with a matching interest in science and the natural world, but when Johanna started to get interested in things like fancy dresses and social events, Felicity judged her for it. When they reconciled, they had some things to work through and had a great conversation about assumptions and how a person can like pretty dresses and science at the same time.

But she's not just smart and kind of judgmental; she's funny too. In one of my favorite passages, Felicity is trying to change out of her dress in a hurry without any help and it's a struggle.

"I can't even reach the damn buttons running up the back, let alone unfasten them. I keep turning in circles like a dog chasing its tail, trying each time to stretch my arm just a bit farther while holding on to the deranged hope that perhaps if I catch the buttons by surprise they won't dart away from me."

The other two women are also fantastic characters, complicated and imperfect, and this makes them very real and makes the story even more exciting.

A big part of The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue was the romance between Monty and Percy, but this follow-up is not a romance at all. Rather, it's an adventure story with strong themes about friendship and I am totally here for it. In fact, it's strongly suggested that Felicity is asexual/aromantic. Her disinterest in Callum's marriage proposal isn't about him specifically, but about her. She wants to live alone but be surrounded by friends as she pursues her work, and she says that kissing (people of any gender) really does nothing for her. As much as I love a good romance, it's refreshing to have a historical teen adventure novel that is just that. Not everything has to be about romantic love and not everybody has to have it in their life.

This was a super fun story that I enjoyed a lot, and really got me out of the bleak place that The Broken Earth Series took me (and I loved that series, but needed an antidote). It's a teen book so the writing style is light and fast-paced, but there's still a lot going on and lots to think about. It was also different enough from the first book that there's not that pressure to be as good at the same kind of story, if that makes sense. I'll definitely be looking out for whatever Mackenzi Lee shares with us next.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sunday Knitting

Way back when Barack Obama was president,* I started a sweater. That was in May of 2016. It is not insignificant that we had just gotten a dog the previous August, because my knitting has slowed down considerably since then. Time is a factor, sure, but the larger impediment to knitting these days is having a grabby many-toothed beast at my side at all times, wanting to know what the hell that thing in my hands is and needed to both smell and taste it. So these days, I need to steal away and do my knitting alone behind closed doors, usually while listening to podcasts or audiobooks rather than my old way of knitting while watching tv. This is all to say that it has taken me almost 2.5 years to knit this goddamn sweater.


And yes, the sweater is lying on the floor for these photos because if I were to wait until a good time to get modeled photos it would probably be another six months. The weather has been crappy, I don't have a picturesque background nearby, and my skin is a mess. So this is what you're getting.

I can tell you that the sweater fits okay, though it's a bit long and hugs my butt in a way that's not exactly flattering. But usually they end up stretching a bit width-wide, which shortens it length-wise so the final verdict on fit isn't in quite yet.



It came out pretty well, I think. It's a bit rumpled in the photos. I blocked it out all nicely, but then it was folded up and even shoved in a suitcase for a trip to Maine and back without even being taken out. I haven't worn it yet, I don't know why.

I picked this pattern because I love the interesting textures in ganseys, but this had the added challenge of a hood and a front pocket. I've been down that road before with my Rogue Sweater (pic to the right because it was pre-blog and I had photos on flick that now aren't showing up. Honestly I forgot I even had a flickr account.) I love the idea of a hoodie more than I love an actual hoodie. They look great, but are impractical to wear with a coat because what do you do with the hood? It always seems to get in the way. that's an awful lot of work to put into something that isn't practical.

However, I'm happy to say that both the hood and front pocket came out pretty well. The pocket is formed in a rather complicated way, and I had to go back and rip it out and re-do it because I attached in such a way that it didn't lie flat. I'm glad I took the time to fix it because I would not have been able to live with it like that. That was a hard lesson I've learn from the past - a lesson learned, in fact, from the above pictured Rogue. There's a cable pattern going around the hood, joining on the front neckline and I made a major mistake in the cable that is front and center on the sweater. I still wear it (I wore it a couple of days ago, in fact) but I see it EVERY TIME and it makes me so annoyed. But that was one of my first sweaters and remains one of the most complicated and I didn't know how to go back and fix it and then be able to continue without losing count of all the things I was doing at one time.

How did this turn into a post about a different sweater?

Here's a closer photo of the patterns on the front.



Oh, you'll notice it has a couple of buttonholes but no buttons. Well. For this I would have wanted buttons in the same color as the yarn, but how would I go about finding buttons in that exact shade of mustard yellow? I have no idea, but I'm sure I'd never actually button the neck so I decided not to even bother trying. I made buttonholes in case I ever changed my mind.

So there you go: my first finished knitted thing in quite a while. You know, I actually also recently finished a pair of socks and even took photos, but socks don't really need an entire post so I'll put those in my monthly wrap-up, which will come (hopefully) in less than a week.


*How I long for those days. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Hurts To Love You

Hurts To Love You by Alisha Rai (2018)

At this time last year I read the first book in this series, Hate To Want You, moved on to Wrong To Need You this past spring, and now I've finished the trilogy. I've been very good at finishing the series I've started recently!

The heroine of Hurts To Love You is Eve Chandler, the youngest of the Chandler siblings. She is often referred to as "Baby Chandler" which she likes as much as any grown woman would. Eve wants people to start taking her seriously and treating her as an adult, and that includes her long-time crush, older guy Gabe Hunter. When Eve was in college - not many years ago - she hit on him in a bar when she was drunk and he rebuffed her, but she is determined to try again with him. Now is the perfect opportunity, because they'll be together for a week as Livvy and Nicholas (from the first book) get married. The wedding party is meeting up to stay at a house together in the days leading up to the wedding, but for various reasons, most people are arriving late which means that Eve and Gabe have some time alone together.

Gabe is the son of the housekeeper for the Kane family, so he grew up very close with Livvy, Jackson, and especially the now-deceased Paul. Gabe is more of a one-night stand kind of guy than a relationship guy, but this is a romance novel so obviously that is going to change. He sees Eve for the first time in a while when they meet for a wedding cake tasting. Livvy is sick and can't taste anything and Nicholas is, I think, out of town on business so the two of them are standing in for them. This is the moment when Gabe realizes Eve is no longer inappropriately young for him.

Despite her wealth, Eve is driving for a ride-share company and has been making sure she is there to pick up Gabe when he needs it, but she does so in disguise. She's trying to make her own way now that she no longer works for the family business, but she's also doing market research for her own company, which will be a competitor for Ryde. She feels a little bad for stalking Gabe, but doesn't realize that Gabe may become attracted to his driver "Anne" and that might make him conflicted about Eve.

So the romance is all well and good, but as with the other books in this trilogy Rai has done such a great job with all the family drama and character development that is really what I'm here for. I love Eve. I love her imperfections and her determination to prove herself, and the way she gives herself pep talks because she is trying to be more confident and assertive. She grew up being bossed around and emotionally abused by her father, and she is no longer having it. Her brother Nicholas is over-protective and keeps treating her like a child and she will not take that anymore either. She is done trying to please everyone, and through the course of this book she is all about acknowledging what she wants and taking steps to get it. She gets some great sisterly advice from Livvy about this, too, which really bolsters her determination. I really love Livvy.

I'm less in love with the guys in this book. Nicholas really seems like an ass, even though I liked him in his own book (Hate To Want You). The way he treats Eve is really grating, but there's a fantastic conversation in which Livvy lectures him about how Eve is an adult and he needs to treat her like one. It was a really good feminist moment (and not the only one in the novel.)  Gabe is fine, but I find it hard to trust a guy who doesn't like sweets. He hates sweets. What is wrong with him?

Oh, but the family story! This has been a long arc through all of the books and I am very much here for it. I love a good family saga. The relationship between the Chandlers and Kanes began as a business partnership and friendship, weathered the imprisonment of one of the original partners in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and was essentially destroyed when Eve's mom and Livvy's dad were killed in a car accident together and there was a lot of fallout including the Kanes being robbed of their part of the business. The two families have been enemies since then, and this wedding between Livvy and Nicholas is the first official reconciliation between them. A lot is riding on this. Some members of the family want the old animosity put to rest, but some - like Nicholas and Eve's father - cannot bear the thought of the two families reuniting. In the course of the book, we learn even more about the fraught history of the Chandlers and Kanes as more secrets are revealed.

I'm actually a bit sad that the series is over because I've gotten really invested in these families. Alisha Rai is one of the better romance writers I've come across and I follow her on Twitter and I've really enjoyed her interviews on the Smart Bitches podcast. I'll be looking out for her next book, for sure!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3) by N.K. Jemisin (2017)

During the course of The Obelisk Gate, we learn that nobody in Essun's time knows that the Earth used to have a moon. Alabaster implores her to learn how to harness the power of the obelisks because the moon is in long orbit and rarely nears the Earth. But soon it will be near enough to the Earth that maybe it can be knocked back into the old trajectory. This is the crux of The Stone Sky - Essun needs to try to achieve this feat, which hopefully will end the Seasons once and for all.

But she is where we left her at the end of the last book: traveling from the destroyed community inside the geode to another place where they all hope to live. Unfortunately, they're going in the opposite direction of where Essun's daughter Nassun last was - not that it matters, because Nassun is traveling too. She is also learning to harness the power of the obelisks, but for a very different purpose. Also in this final volume, we get a really great back story - that of Hoa, the stone eater, back when he was....well, not a stone eater. This story reveals what caused the moon to be knocked out of its orbit in the first place.

There is so much great stuff in this book! I had been dying for the back story, and of course was anticipating the moment Essun would attempt to get the moon back to its rightful place. It was so tense though, since Nassun's plans were pretty opposed to Essun's and only one of them could be successful. Also, Essun was slowly turning to stone as Alabaster did in the last book, which is a side effect of harnessing the obelisks in this way. So she had to be very careful using her powers because each time she did, another part of her would turn to stone. She had to really pace herself here.

The relationships between characters in this series are complicated, and watching how they develop was one of my favorite aspects of the story. In a Season, many things are suspended and times are desperate, which means you really, really want your community as a whole to survive because your own life depends on it. Those who are commless don't last long. Survival is the most important thing, but it's a given that not everyone is going to survive. This necessarily affects interpersonal relationships and means that leaders often have to make very tough decisions for the good of their community. Essun was in rough shape while she was traveling, but knew she wasn't going to get much of a break. She also had a lot of tension with Ykka, the leader of the community Essun inadvertently helped to destroy. I also really loved the relationship between Essun and the stone eater Hoa. And of course, Essun and Nassun were headed for the same place at the end and they didn't really have an awesome mother-daughter relationship in the best of times. So, there was a lot going on here!

I may have mentioned this before, but this is the first time in a very, very long time that I have read a series start to finish, one right after the other. Surprisingly, I didn't feel like I needed a break at all (even though the story was so bleak!) and I didn't get tired of it or wish it would hurry up and be over. Generally I'm pretty impatient and always thinking about the next thing, but I was so invested in what was going on that I wasn't at all in a hurry to leave it. In fact, I'd love another visit to this place - after the things happened at the end of this book I really want to know what everything was like for everyone going forward.

N.K. Jemisin has a book of short stories coming out later this month called How Long 'til Black Future Month, which is one of the best titles I've heard in a while. Of course I'm already on hold for it, but I was very excited to learn yesterday that one of the stories takes place in the world of the Broken Earth series, so I will get to revisit it after all!