Thursday, April 28, 2016

Throwback Thursday: He, She and It


In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

Back in my early or mid twenties, I started running out of Margaret Atwood books to read and a friend suggested Marge Piercy. It turned out to be a great suggestion and I happily read my way through many of Piercy's books. Like Atwood, many of her novels have science fiction elements.

He, She and It (which really needs an Oxford comma) is a novel of a dystopian future centered around a woman named Shira who has lost her family and left her corporate-controlled area to live in a Jewish free town. Here she meets and falls in love with a cyborg man. That love story is what I most remember about the novel - the details are lost to me, but there are interesting ideas here about freedom, love, and what it means to be a person.

As I read about it now to refresh my memory, I get the distinct feeling that this novel would hold up now. Piercy's writing is strongly feminist and character-driven and I hope to someday go back and read her books again.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Kind Worth Killing

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson (2015)

While waiting for a flight back home to Boston, two strangers meet in a London airport bar. After several martinis Ted admits that his wife, Miranda, has been cheating on him, and jokes that he wants to kill her. Lily casually agrees that she deserves to die and offers to help. From here, the two get more involved as they form their plan, but there's a lot that Ted doesn't know about Lily and that neither of them know about Miranda.

I was first struck by the idea that murdering a spouse was somehow preferable to just getting a divorce. It's an awful lot of trouble to go through, and you might end up in jail because of someone you hate. But Ted was rich and his wealth was at stake, and it seems like money can be a huge motivator in crime. In the beginning, I was also rather taken aback by how casually Ted and Lily were discussing this murder they were planning. It seemed sort of unreal, but also disturbing real. (The night I started reading the book I had an upsetting dream that I killed someone and couldn't figure out how to hide the body.)

So at the outset I wasn't sure how I felt about this book and was not especially excited about it, and then...then, the first half ended and the second part began. Here, there was a game change and that is when things got really interesting and it became a whole different kind of book. The least said about this the better, but I just want you to know that if you start reading this and you're not sure whether to keep going, you should because it gets really good about halfway through.

The narrative viewpoint switches from chapter to chapter, sticking with Ted and Lily for the first half of the book. As it progresses, though, the narration shifts around to different characters and, oh, it is not at all what I thought when I started. I'm sorry for doubting you, Peter Swanson.

Once things really got going I couldn't put the book down, and I really didn't know how it would all turn out. It kept me guessing until the very end. I hate to make direct comparisons, but I think those who like dark, psychological crime novels like Gone Girl or Eileen will likely find this one as satisfying as I did.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Firebird

The Firebird (Slains #2) by Susanna Kearsley (2013)

A woman with a small carved bird arrives at the gallery where Nicola Marter works, and although the object is appraised and considered to be without value, Nicola knows this isn't true. She has a gift and when she touched the carving she saw far into the past and knew it was a gift from Catherine I of Russia. With the help of her ex-boyfriend Rob, who is also gifted in a similar way, they set out on a journey to prove that what they know is true. Along the way they learn more about Anna, the young woman who received the gift, and also began to reconnect to each other.

This is the second in the series that began with The Winter Sea. The only connection I could see is that Slains Castle appears in both books, as do Jacobites. But in reading the author's note at the end, I found that one of the characters from this book was also in the last one, I just didn't remember because I read it a year or so ago. At any rate, this could definitely be read as a stand-alone.

The psychic abilities of the main characters in the present-day part of the story sets it apart from the other books I've read by Susanna Kearsley. In those the more paranormal elements are related to a place as opposed to being powers the characters have. At first I was a bit put off by the psychic aspect as I consider it to be complete nonsense, but somehow I came round pretty quickly. Kearsley's writing has such a dreamlike quality to it that I can more easily suspend my disbelief and get into the story, and it is fiction after all.

The main conflict between Nicola and Rob is their differing approaches to their abilities. Rob, who works as a cop in Scotland, is completely open about what he can do and doesn't pretend to be anything other than who he really is. Nicola, like a sensible person, keeps her abilities to herself because she lives in the actual real world where you can't just tell people you're psychic and expect to be treated like a sane person. (Not that I'm taking sides here, nope.) But of course in the world of this book, they do have these powers so I was a bit conflicted and a little tense about how it was going to all work out (because it has to work out between them, right?) I really liked Rob a lot. Aside from his unfailing honesty, he is considerate and generous and kind. Plus his Scottish accent was quite charming in my head.

Part of what made me want to read this (besides being the only book of hers available on Overdrive when I looked) is that the back story takes place partly in Imperial Russia. One of the characters is the Empress Catherine I - not the famous Catherine, but the one before that who was married to Peter the Great. Many parts of the story take place at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, which was very cool since I have been there.

Through much of the book I thought it wasn't as good as The Winter Sea, but it got very interesting late on in the story and I was so satisfied by the end that now I no longer feel like I can compare the two with any sort of accuracy. I think I hit a slump at one point which is related less to the book and more to the fact that I was reading it near the end of my vacation and first part of being home. If I had kept up my reading pace I think it would have been a more consistent experience. I really liked all the characters here, the Russian setting, and both the present day and past romance stories.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009)

Adichie is the author of Americanah, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Purple Hibiscus, as well as the TED talk turned mini-book We Should All Be Feminists. This collection of short stories was the only remaining book of hers I hadn't read, until I just devoured it in the course of two days on my vacation.

Each of the twelve stories has a pretty strong emotional impact, and in non-vacation circumstances I might have taken a bit of a break between each story. They were about families, lovers, immigrants new to America, or Nigerians living in their own country. In "The American Embassy" a woman whose child has died recently stands in a long line seeking asylum to the United States. "Jumping Monkey Hill" takes place at a writer's retreat in South Africa. In "The Arrangers of Marriage" a woman comes to the US to marry a Nigerian man, who immediately begins instructing her how to act more like an American. "Tomorrow Is Too Far" recounts a family tragedy in an almost eerie second person voice.

They were such distinct experiences that it's difficult to talk about the book as a whole, but I can say that all the way through it felt similar to reading other books by Adichie. Though these were only snippets compared to reading a novel, I felt thrust into the characters' lives and minds and surroundings in the same way I do in her novels. I don't know how she accomplished this in so few pages. They were not uplifting stories, and most left me feeling some level of despair for the characters, but somehow the experience was so colorful and full of feeling that reading it was still a positive experience.

Is Adichie even capable of writing anything that is subpar? It seems like even the best authors have one crappy book or story or something, but apparently she does not. I'd be annoyed at how unfairly perfect she is if I didn't love her writing so much.

This is the sixth book I've read for my TBR Pile Challenge, which means I only have four left for the year. I think my next choice will also be the last unread book from a favorite author, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, and I'm hoping to read it in the next month or so to keep up my momentum for this challenge.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Panama Vacation

Last week I went on a vacation to Panama. This isn't a place I would have chosen, but the opportunity came up to stay several nights for free on Isla Bastimentos, so we thought why not?

First we went to Panama City. Here's a photo of downtown from the neighborhood where we were staying.


We stayed in an area called Casco Viejo, which is the historic district. It's very cute.



We visited the Panama Canel. Here's a boat making its way through the locks.

This lady's arm kept getting in my photos.
Then we took a small terrifying propeller plane to the Bocas del Toro province, and a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos. There is only one street on the island, and it is more of a paved walkway.

The tan blob is a napping dog.
Here's a view of part of the town from a water taxi.


It is very beautiful and laid-back on the island and we spent a lot of time just sitting and reading and looking at the ocean views.


This whole region is known for its beaches, and they are quite lovely.


Surfing is popular here, and Eric took a lesson, though I did not. The ocean there is so warm though!

What I most wanted to do was visit the bat caves and we did so on our last day on the island. A tour guide takes you on a boat through the mangroves where you might see sloths or monkeys, and we saw one of each. I didn't get a good picture though, so you'll have to take my word for it. Then you dock the boat and hike to the cave. It's very dark inside but I did get a photo along our short hike there.

Thatched hut among lush green vegetation.
This was far more relaxing than most of our vacations where we're running around seeing sights and visiting museums. There was not a lot to do here so we spent a great deal of time relaxing, as one should do on vacation.

I got sunburned and came back with a ton of bug bites. There are some nasty mosquito-borne diseases, but it seems that even Deep Woods Off can't keep me from being irresistible to insects. We were also warned against eating fruit or raw vegetables or drinks with ice cubes but that was almost impossible. Luckily these areas depend on tourists so I think they used filtered water in all their food preparation.

Although this wasn't my favorite place I've visited, I'm glad I finally experienced this part of the world. I could do without all the mangy stray dogs everywhere (they made me so sad!) and the food wasn't spectacular, but I'll admit I loved traveling by water taxi, and you can't beat the natural beauty of this place.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Suffragette Scandal

The Suffragette Scandal (Brothers Sinister #4) by Courtney Milan (2014)

Frederica "Free" Marshall runs a newspaper called the Women's Free Press and is an outspoken proponent of women's rights. Naturally, this garners outrage from those threatened by the idea of female power. She finds an unlikely alley in the mysterious Edward Clark. Abandoned by his family and presumed dead, he has returned to town to find that his brother is trying to bring down Free Marshall and her newspaper. Of course they are working together in business only because Free can't stand such a rogue as Edward, and Edward basically doesn't have feelings. Right? As it turns out, they may be perfect for each other.

Free really was different from other romance heroines. Historical novels always star a fiesty forward-thinking woman, but this is the first I've encountered to do things like get herself checked into a government lock hospital for prostitutes (which existed to stop the spread of syphilis) in order to get a story about how terribly women there are treated. She is absolutely fearless and dedicated. Neither was she a blushing flower when it came to sex. She talked about it quite frankly and when the time came to get sexy with Edward she was unapologetically passionate. Edward was a bit irritating in his angst, and some of his decisions were questionable to me, but I could definitely see why he and Free were drawn to each other.

One of my favorite parts about this book was a subplot romance between two women. How I wish they got their own novel! I'd love to read a historical lesbian romance. Free's friend Amanda was outcast from her family for choosing not to marry and when she met and became attracted to Genevieve she kept questioning whether Genevieve was also attracted to her, or just really really friendly. Opening up about their affections to each other was especially risky at this time.

It's no secret that I love humor in my romance and Milan apparently excels at this. I loved the banter between Free and Edward! Early on, Free tells Edward that he's pronouncing "suffragette" incorrectly and explains, "Suffragette is pronounced with an exclamation point at the end. Like this: 'Huzzah! Suffragettes!'" To which he replies "I don't pronounce anything with exclamation points." This becomes a running joke, she occasionally accusing him of using an exclamation point, he making some excuse ("I just borrowed it from you!") They also joke about Edward having a puppy-cannon (until he sadly explains that he doesn't actually, because it would be so unkind for the puppies.) They also write some amazingly hysterical letters to each other. But the funniest part has to be the Ask a Man advice column in Free's paper. The questions are things like "Dear Man, I have heard that women are capable of rational thought. Is this true?" The replies, written by another favorite character, Stephen Shaughnessy, are witty and biting and I could probably read an entire book of these columns.

If you read it, don't miss the author's note in the back (at least in the ebook version) where Milan describes the amazing women on which she based her characters, and discusses just how realistic Free is. She also talks a bit about her use of the word "suffragette," which may or may not have actually been used at the time this book takes place. Courtney Milan does her homework!

I loved all the suffragette/newspaper aspects of the story, and was hooked from the very beginning. The relationships, the dialogue, and the nasty villain kept me turning (virtual) pages until I reached the very satisfying end. Despite being a series finale, it's the first book I've read by Courtney Milan, but I imagine it won't be my last.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ten Books/Authors That Will Make You Laugh


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today is all about funny books.

I thought of so many that I have two lists. One of the first 10 specific books I thought of, and another of authors I generally consider funny.

Books

1. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
I rarely laugh out loud, but I do when reading her comics. My favorite is "Adventures in Depression," which is still just as funny the 20th time as it was the first.

2. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
I really need to read this one again. It's wacky and satirical, and I totally loved it.

3. Bossypants by Tina Fey
I read this when it first came out, and later listened to the audio. Not many people are funnier than Tina Fey.

4. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
The audio version is even better, and I've listened to it about 4 times and haven't gotten sick of it yet. The sequels are hilarious too, and this could have gone on my author list, but then I wouldn't have had 10 of each, so.

5. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Quite possibly the funniest book for teens that I've read. It's satirical and celebrates diversity and is one of my favorite audiobooks.

6. How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Not for the faint of heart, this one is a hilarious book about serious issues. I admire Caitlin Moran so much for writing it.

7. They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads From the London Review of Books
I don't know if I'd want to date any of these people, but boy are they clever and hilarious!

8. American Housewife by Helen Ellis
These short stories are darkly comic and might appeal to fans of Where'd You Go Bernadette or Jenny Lawson.

9. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I liked Moriarty's book The Husband's Secret, but I loved this one. Who knew a book about murder and domestic abuse could be so funny?

10. The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage
Oh, The Cry of the Sloth! Will I ever stop recommending you? Will I ever refrain from putting you on my Staff Picks shelf at work? I think not. This book about one man's downward spiral, told through his collected writings, is dark and kind of sad but I laughed all the way through.

Authors:

1. Jenny Lawson: Let's Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy, and of course her blog.

2. Laurie Perry: Drunk, Divorced, and Covered in Cat Hair and Home is Where the Wine Is

3. Jennifer Weiner: It all started with Good in Bed, but she is funny all the time. If you ever get a chance to attend a reading, do so! She didn't even read at the last one I went to, she just spoke, and it was hilarious.

4. Kristan Higgins: The Best Man, The Perfect Match, and Waiting On You are the first three in the Blue Heron Winery series of contemporary romances and nothing makes romance more palatable to me than humor.

5. Mary Roach: Packing for Mars, Stiff, and Bonk are the ones I've read so far.

6. Nick Hornby: He's written a ton, but I almost think my favorites are his books about books, such as Shakespeare Wrote for Money and More Baths, Less Talking

7. Julia Quinn: The first romance author I tried and it was her humor that sucked me in. Just Like Heaven, A Night Like This, and The Sum of All Kisses are the ones I've read.

8. Daniel Handler: He's written a lot of great stuff, but the best and funniest are the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events, written under his pen name Lemony Snicket. He's also hilarious in person, so if you get the opportunity to hear him speak, don't miss it.

9. David Sedaris: I've read Holidays on Ice and When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

10. Andrew Smith: Winger, Stand-Off, Grasshopper Jungle, 100 Sideways Miles, and more.

I know I'm forgetting something or somebody. What did I miss? And what other funny books should I read? Tell me in the comments!