Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2) by N.K. Jemisin (2016)

Since this is the second book in a series, there need to be spoilers for the first book, The Fifth Season.

For one thing, Damaya and Syenite are names that Essun used during different periods in her life, so the three stories are really all one story. I didn't talk much about the plot of that book, but it begins with a huge rift in the Earth that is bringing on a Fifth Season. At the very end, Essun is reunited with Alabaster, who is slowly turning to stone, and he asks her if she's able to call the obelisks to herself yet, and if she's ever heard of a moon. The Obelisk Gate picks up during this same conversation, and Alabaster explains that she needs to find out if she can control the obelisks, and it's very important and related to the moon.

The book moves back and forth between Essun's story and that of her 8-year-old daughter Nassun, who disappeared along with her father at the beginning of The Fifth Season. Nassun has pretty powerful powers of her own and her relationship with her father is strained at best. He's taking her to a place he's heard of where they may be able to "cure" her, but that's not what this place turns out to be all about. Nassun meets her mother's old Guardian, Schaffa, though she does not know that he knew her mother. Schaffa has changed since those days and he and Nassun work together to train her and she continues to discover new ways her powers work.

There were some very cool things in this story, such as a whole community that lives inside a geode. I kind of hope this is made into a movie someday so I can see it because it sounds spectacular. Plus everything involving the obelisks was kind of cool, though I admit I'm still a little unsure about the role they play - we see ways in which they are used, but I'm wondering how they will relate to the larger picture. I also liked everything about the stone eaters - I have a hard time not picturing them like the weeping angels from Doctor Who, but I find them so delightfully creepy.

In a way, I think this books suffers a little from being the second book in that I didn't feel like the plot was furthered as much as I would like, but there was a lot going on and many new elements introduced, so I ended up liking it as much as the first. Last weekend I decided to grab The Stone Sky from the library when I went into work on Monday, but I ended up being out sick and someone else got our copy before I returned. I requested a copy from another library and was afraid I wouldn't get it before this long weekend. But I got it just in time, which is great because I need to start on it immediately! I'm really, really looking forward to seeing where this story goes in the final book!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Kiss Quotient

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018), narrated by Carly Robins

Stella Lang is an econometrician, developing algorithms to predict customer purchases, and makes a ton of money doing it. She works seven days a week because she has no social life. Her parents want her to settle down and get married and have some kids, but she doesn't even like kissing. She has Asperger's and many parts of dating are distasteful to her, and her past experiences have been terrible. She decides she needs help from a professional, and hires escort Michael Phan.

Michael works as a tailor in his family business so he can be near his mother who has cancer. He dreams of being a fashion designer, but first he needs to get out from the debt he's accrued because of his mother's illness. So he started escorting to make extra money to put towards these expenses.

Predictably, Stella and Michael develop a relationship that goes beyond one of escort and client. But of course neither wants to admit that they've developed real feelings for the other, and they both have secrets they're keeping from the other. Michael doesn't usually see a client more than once, to guard against the possibility of an attachment, but Stella manages to talk him into having a fake relationship with her so she can practice that. While they both start having feelings, neither thinks the other will reciprocate. Michael sees Stella as socio-economically far above him, and Stella thinks Michael is so attractive and sexy he could have any woman he wants, so why would he want someone so awkward?

So, there's a trope in romance that I hate, when the heroine dislikes or is uninterested in sex until she meets the hero and his magical penis and she's suddenly having multiple orgasms. It's not because she has gained experience or worked through her issues or learned more about her own body, it's tied explicitly to the guy who, quite frankly, isn't doing anything super special. It irks me to no end. In this case, I know the reason things went so well with Michael is because he's so patient with her sensory issues. He doesn't know for quite a while that she's on the spectrum, but he's just a considerate lover. It's his job, after all. It makes sense in the context. It still annoyed me.

Otherwise, I found this story delightful. I especially like Michael's Vietnamese family and how they embraced Stella even though she committed a major faux pas the first time she ate with them. (They were microwaving food in plastic containers and she refused to eat it and said they shouldn't either because it's poison.) They saw past her inadequate social skills and got to know her as a person, and when they realized that having so many people in the house and the tv on and someone playing the piano was sensory overload, they toned things down a bit.

I found Stella's quirks pretty charming. She owned the exact number of outfits she needed to get through the week and they were all variations on the same thing, she owned only one kind of underwear, she had an unwavering bedtime routine, and was just super practical about everything. She was practical and logical and I am a big fan of those things. I also loved Michael - he was so thoughtful and kind and would do anything in the world for his mother. He and Stella were both interesting people and I really enjoyed getting to know them and was rooting for their relationship to work (and yes, of course I knew it would work out in the end!)

I listened to the audio version and it's exactly what I needed as a counterpoint to The Fifth Season, which was excellent, but so dark. The narrator had a bright, upbeat tone that was perfect for the book. I should also mention that the author is on the autism spectrum herself, which I wondered about as I was reading. There were a couple of moments where I wondered if things were realistic, but I'm guessing they were. I know authors usually do research but when it comes down to how the characters actually think and the things going on inside their heads, I believe it more if I know the author has a shared experience with that character.

The Kiss Quotient has been getting a lot of buzz, and I can see why. If you like cute, quirky contemporary romances, give it a try!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin (2015)

As far as I can tell, this book takes place in our world but far, far in the future. There is one big land mass called the Stillness, ironically, because it is unstable, shifting and moving and filled with geological cataclysms. Every now and then one is catastrophic enough to cause a Fifth Season, during which the sun will be blocked out for months or years, and civilization dies leaving only enough people to begin again when the Season is over. The people live in a constant state of disaster preparedness.

There are people in this world called orogenes or, disparagingly, roggas. They can sense and control movement within the earth, stopping or causing earthquakes, and moving the earth's plates. There are three stories about orogenes in this book. One is about Essun, a woman who's toddler son has just been murdered by her husband. One is about Damaya, whose parents have just reported her and she is removed by a Guardian who watch over people like her, keeping her under control while teaching her how to effectively use her powers. The third story is about Syenite, paired with a man named Alabaster to hopefully breed and create another person with the same powers. Although orogenes are powerful, that power can be controlled by Guardians and orogenes are basically treated as slaves.

It took me quite a while to get into this book. I was initially rather disoriented and confused, but also intrigued. The world-building was pretty amazing even if I didn't quite understand it. After finishing I went back and read the prologue again and it made much more sense this time - I sort of wish I had done so earlier in the book. There are still things I'm a little unclear about, like the role of the obelisks that hover in the air, but I expect some of this will become more clear in the next book, The Obelisk Gate.

It's very dark, and an unpleasant world to be in, but nonetheless compelling. Getting to know the characters and their motivations is a big part of what I like about this book, particularly since they're all in such desperate situations. It's also kind of a tough book to say much about without spoiling it.

I'm very grateful to a coworker who told me I should be sure to have the second book on hand because I would want it when it finished. Initially I wasn't sure I'd move on to the second book, or maybe not right away (this is an unpleasant world and I thought I might want to read something light and funny between books) but I'm glad I heeded my coworker's advice. I went home on Friday with close to 100 pages left, thinking I might finish it over the weekend and instead finished that evening.

I've already moved on to The Obelisk Gate and should have a post about that one before too long!

This was on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and is probably the final one that I'll read. The remaining title is NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, but my interest has waned in favor of some of his other work. But since I read both of my alternate titles, I can consider the challenge completed.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October Wrap-Up and Plans for November



I've been having a thematically fall month: baking, reading horror novels, waking up in the dead of night by a spider crawling across my face...I wish that last one was a joke. It's not.

Reading


I've finished eight books if you count the two I finished at the very beginning of the month, Catherine the Great and The Arrangement. After I finished those, I really wanted to read some horror because it's October and that feels like I thing I should do. I went with Slade House by David Mitchell, which was already on my To Read list, and was excellent. So creepy! Then I impulsively grabbed The Girl With All the Gifts which has been on my radar for a while, though I didn't realize it was going to be about zombies. Still, it was pretty good.

Shoutout to the new novel by John Green's brother Hank which I enjoyed a lot. I also finished the Wayfarers trilogy finally. I wanted to finish that before starting on the Broken Earth series, and I needed to do that soon since The Fifth Season is on my TBR Pile Challenge for this year. The Fifth Season has taken me a bit to get into - it was hard to even orient myself - but the world-building is pretty stellar and I'm really liking it now. I grabbed the second one from the library because I was warned that I'll want to have it on hand when I finish the first.

Listening


I only listened to one audiobook this month, Can't Nothing Bring Me Down, though I did just start The Kiss Quotient at the very end of the month and like it so far.

I'm still chugging along with all of my usual podcasts, which is partly why I didn't listen to many audiobooks. I was sad to hear that Panoply is no longer producing podcasts which means that By the Book is looking for a new home. I'm confident they'll find it though because they've gotten a lot of attention and seem pretty popular.

Watching


Pretty sky over my neighborhood.
I watched Pride and Prejudice when I was home for Columbus Day (which is actually called Indigenous Peoples' Day in my city and I'm a fan of the change, but old habits die hard.)

One Saturday I was sick and watched To All the Boys I've Loved Before on Netflix, which was good but I don't love it as much as many people apparently do. Honestly, I couldn't get over the wealth of everyone in the movie. The lacrosse, the ski trips, the gigantic house the main family lives in. That same day I also began the newest season of Call the Midwife.

I think I've mentioned listening to the Slow Russian podcast, but this month I started watching some of their YouTube videos, which I like a lot, especially since they're very short. It's fun to actually see things in Russia, like a typical apartment and also the host Daria's grandmother's dacha (country house.)

Cooking



I can't believe how much I baked this month. I made two more bundt cakes: the lemon version of the America's Test Kitchen Classic Bundt Cake (I made the regular version last month) for a work party, and the Marble Bundt Cake from Smitten Kitchen Every Day for Cookbook Club at work. I divided the batter SO unevenly on the marble cake that it was mostly chocolate, but you know, not one person who ate it complained about that. Also, it came out of the pan beautifully, as you can see, but then you melt chocolate and creme and pour it over the top and it looks rather messy (yet delicious.) But I think it would also be delicious without the extra chocolate.

I also made the Moosewood Fudge Brownies from Moosewood Cooks at Home (twice, I think), Peanut Butter Cream Cheese Brownies from a recipe on the package of baking chocolate, and Blondies from Smitten Kitchen. I used only chocolate chips as add-ins in the blondies and I swear there were more chips than batter. They came out very well, I think - gooey and butterscotchy and I may have to make them again sometime soon. In less sweet baking, I made the Whole Wheat Quinoa Bread from America's Test Kitchen Bread Illustrated. I love this bread, though it's kind of a pain to make since you have to cook the quinoa first.

Smitten Kitchen Blondies
I cooked some actual food too! After the Beef Stroganoff Disaster of last March I wanted to try this dish again. The recipe has you add sour cream to a hot bubbling pot and didn't mention tempering it first so it didn't separate, so it ended up looking rather ugly (though it tasted fine.) This time I was more careful but, alas, the results were similar. This led to an obsessive search for different Beef Stroganoff recipes and I'm very surprised to see how wildly they differ. It was overwhelming. I may just let it go for now.

Years ago when I had a book group that met for brunch, I often made Strata from a recipe I found online somewhere. I think I got tired of it, but recently decided to try it again one weekend when I had a lot going on. It was delicious! I need to get that back in my meal rotation. (But not too often or I'll get tired of it again.)

Doing


I don't think I had many social plans this month. The aforementioned Beef Stroganoff was a dinner I cooked with a friend at my house. I also went to another friend's house to watch a Red Sox game and have drinks and snacks. It was that game that lasted about 17 hours, but I had left by 10 anyhow since I had to work the next morning.

I think all I've been doing at work is training new people, and at home the dog has been misbehaving a lot, which I think is due to the sudden drop in temperature. Plus I was sick one weekend, which is always a bummer (why can't it be a work day?) So it's been rather a mixed bag, I guess.

Oh! My sweater - the one I began knitting back when Obama was president? I finished it. I finished it! I just need to wash and block it and get some good photos. I'll share more soon but here's a little preview on the right, taken right after I sewed in the first sleeve.

Plans for November


My plans primarily involve drinking tea and reading books while snuggled up under an afghan and I hope to continue this until approximately April. And the mid-term elections are something to look forward to, at least I certainly hope they go the way I want them to. I'm getting together with friends and it will hopefully be more fun than the last time we got together on an election night, which actually was fun until the results started coming in. Also Thanksgiving, I guess. I'm heading to Maine for what I call Fake Thanksgiving since we often do it on a different weekend, like this year, depending on when everyone has to work.

How was your October?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3) by Becky Chambers (2018)

This third and final book from the Wayfarers series is set among the Exodus Fleet: the last humans on a dying Earth who left to seek a better life elsewhere in the universe. It's hundreds of years later, they've made contact with other planets, and many Exodans have left the Fleet to make lives for themselves on planets, as planned. But many remain aboard the huge self-sustaining ships, continuing the only way of life they've ever known.

We meet the Fleet's Archivist, Isabel, who is happy aboard the fleet with her wife Tamsin, both of whom are getting older now. Eyas is a Caretaker, the Exodan equivalent of a funeral director, devoted to her work but also thinking about what more she wants from her life. Kip is still a teenager and longs to leave the Fleet. Sawyer, on the other hand, grew up on the planet of Mushtello but comes to the Fleet seeking a change. Tessa has two young kids, and the novel opens with a prologue, set five years earlier, when her youngest is witness to the largest tragedy ever to befall the Fleet. One of the ships has an accident resulting in its destruction and, along with it, the death of more than 43,000 people.

I was about halfway into this book and really struck by the lack of plot. It was more slice-of-life than anything, and it took me a while to get to know the characters since it moved back and forth between them. When all was said and done, some things did happen and lives were changed and huge decisions made, but it was definitely not an action-packed story. This may be why I didn't love it as much as the other books in the trilogy. Don't get me wrong, it was still 4 stars on Goodreads, just not 5.

Becky Chambers really has a knack for building worlds and characters, and it's pleasurable just getting to know them. The Exodans are in such an interesting position: they no longer have a home planet, as we are currently many generations beyond those who first boarded the Fleet, yet the Fleet wasn't planned to be a permanent home for humans. There is so much hesitation and disquiet among the Exodans because of the tension surrounding those who have left the Fleet and want to leave and those who want to stay. For instance, Tessa has had no plans to leave, but her daughter Aya really wants to go to a planet. And then there are those like Sawyer who grew up human on a non-human planet and then move to the Fleet but don't know how to fit in. The Fleet is dwindling in numbers and they need to plan for their future. They've also depended a lot on technology from other species, and they are well aware of ways they've benefitted from the Galactic Commons and the fact that they haven't given back. It's still a pretty insular community too - Tessa has an alien visitor come stay with her to observe how their community works, and it's very novel for a non-human to be aboard. It's all really very interesting to think about.

If you haven't read any Becky Chambers yet, I highly suggest giving this series a try! I'm very much looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Mercies in Disguise

Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them by Gina Kolata (2017)

Well, I was not expecting this book to be such a page-turner. I heard about it pretty recently - I don't remember where, but the premise sounded interesting. It's about a family with a genetic disease and a young woman in the family who decides to get a test to learn what her fate will be. It's also about the research behind this whole group of diseases of a previously-undiscovered type, known as prion diseases. I thought it would be interesting, but I was surprised to find that I couldn't put it down.

It wasn't very long, and the story moved between the scientists trying to understand what caused a condition called kuru that affected a particular village in New Guinea, and the Baxley family who was dealing with another disease on a very personal level. It turns out that kuru is a prion disease, as is Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD), as is Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker disease (GSS), which is what the Baxley family suffered from. It was a whole new type of disease caused by misfolded proteins (I think?) and this was a pretty major scientific discovery.

For the Baxley family, it was a very scary family inheritance. Tim Baxley's father Bill developed a degenerative condition that was never adequately diagnosed and which killed him within several years of first showing symptoms. At the funeral a woman off-handedly remarked to Tim that she remembered his grandfather stumbling through the factory where he worked. It was only then that Tim realized the disease might be hereditary and this began the family's earnest search for answers. Then it began to affect Tim's generation of the family. Amanda is of the next generation and she is the one who decides to get genetic testing.

Many members of the Baxley family are pretty religious and there are some interesting discussions where their faith intersects with science. This especially comes to the fore when two sisters feel the opposite about being genetically tested to find out if they'd pass it on to their kids. Amanda is determined not to pass such a horrible disease on to her future kids, but her sister Holly decides to let nature take it's course (or God, I guess. She is probably the most devout person in the family.) After reading about both of these sisters, decisions to get tested or not, and how those decisions affect their lives, it's honestly hard to fault either of them for their approach. The fact is, there are many things that can kill us (or our kids) and at some point you have to just enjoy your life and do the best you can without feeling a pressure to make the right decisions all the time. Sometimes it's not a matter of right or wrong.

I was just so absorbed by this story. Reading about all the different members of this family and the different ways in which they dealt with this disease and their fear of getting it offered fascinating insights into human nature. This is not a case where testing positive for a gene means you have a chance of getting a disease - it means you will get it. Being tested for GSS means knowing your future, knowing that you will die a slow, painful death when you are likely only in your forties. How do you decide whether to find out? It's heartbreaking.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I don't recall where I heard about this. But the topic really caught my eye, as did the author. She wrote a book called Flu which is all about the 1918 flu epidemic which I read many years ago. I don't remember anything about it, but I do remember liking it a lot. This was exactly the kind of nonfiction I like - not too long, with a compelling story, and interesting people. If you like narrative nonfiction, especially about medical or scientific topics, I'd suggest trying this one.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (2018)

Late one evening, April May finds a weird art installation in the middle of New York. It looks like some sort of futuristic robot. She immediately calls her friend Andy and gets him out of bed so he can come make a video with her and the statue, which they call Carl. It goes viral. Turns out there are many Carls, in cities all over the world, and they all appeared mysteriously at the exact same time. No surveillance footage caught how they arrived - where there were cameras, they cut out for a bit. In the static, though, a song could be detected: "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen. As one mystery leads to another, April and Andy become famous for getting the scoop and are propelled to stardom.

Of course it comes with a price. April is 23 and lives with a roommate, Maya, who is also kind of her girlfriend. April is a terrible relationship partner and the distraction of fame only makes it worse. She becomes obsessed with social media and creating her brand. Soon she has an agent and an assistant, as well as the help of a scientist named Miranda who had emailed her out of the blue with some interesting insights regarding New York Carl, and now she's running around with all of these people and ignoring Maya at home.

Although April makes terrible life decisions and often doesn't treat people well, she's not a bad person. She recognizes her mistakes and owns them. There are lessons here about being addicted to fame and how that can ruin your life. But through it all, her message is for everyone to come together. That's what she thinks the Carls want. But her message isn't the only one out there. A guy named Peter Petrawicki has a very different message, and that is one of caution. He thinks April is being reckless by trying to figure out what the Carls want and giving it to them without question. His followers are known as the Defenders and they are pretty extremely opposed to April. They are extreme in general - angry, hateful, and some of them violent.

There are several compelling themes in this story. One is about fame, particularly internet fame, and how it changes you. It's also about polarization and how we let fear of the unknown divide us and pit us against each other. There's a lot to think about and it would be a great book for discussion. It's so relevant to life today.

I found this book fast-paced and conversational, and although bad things happen it all felt pretty light and fun and uplifting. Mostly. This is Hank Green's debut, and unlike his brother John Green's books, this is considered an adult book. However, the writing style and content would totally appeal to teens. I found it a breeze to get through and would totally read another book by Hank Green if he writes one.