Monday, June 30, 2014

Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (2013)

1989 saw the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion in China, an uprising against "foreign devils" who brought Christianity to China. Boxers is the story of Little Bao, who leaves home with a band of villagers trained in kung fu. They take on the forms of ancient gods when they fight, and this strength helps them fight the foreigners and the Chinese who have converted to Christianity. One such converted Christian is Vibiana, whose story is told through the accompanying volume, Saints. Known only as Four-Girl by her family, she becomes acquainted with Christians and is further encouraged by her visions of Joan of Arc, ultimately becoming just as enmeshed in the violent rebellion as Little Bao. These two graphic novels come together in a boxed set and though they are technically two separate books I'll consider them together.

Before I heard about these books, I hadn't even heard of the Boxer Rebellion. Reading Boxers first, I think I got the basic idea of what it was about. When I began reading the parts about the men turning into ancient gods, I ended up reading the Wikipedia entry about the Boxer Rebellion because I couldn't trust this book as fact. Turns out, the Boxers actually did believe that spirit possession helped them to fight better. I really enjoyed Little Bao's story and the vibrant art.

Saints was a little different. Vibiana was pretty unconvincing as a Christian so I didn't feel like she represented the Christian side of the story the way that Little Bao represented the Boxers. When she began hanging out with Christians, it was to get out of her house and because they gave her cookies. I never felt like she actually believed in the religion. But is that what the author is trying to say? That the Chinese people who adopted Christianity never embraced it fully? This volume was much shorter than the other and there was simply less story. It was disappointing after reading Boxers.

I looked forward to reading these as I enjoyed Yang's American Born Chinese so much, but only Boxers lived up to my expectations. Although collectively far from perfect, they tackle an interesting and overlooked historical topic and would be great for discussion.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Girls Standing on Lawns

Girls Standing on Lawns by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman (2014)

In this most recent collaboration between Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman, they also partner with the Museum of Modern Art. Taking their inspiration from anonymous old photos of girls standing on lawns (as the title suggests), Kalman interprets some of them through vibrant illustrations - others appear in their original form - while Handler supplies pithy prose. There's not a story so much as a meandering path through the unknown lives of these lawn-standing girls.

This is more about style than substance, but I enjoyed this short diversion - and it is short, under 60 pages, with only a few words scattered here and there.

Though stylistically different from anything else he's written, Daniel Handler's voice was still recognizable even in these short snippets, which captured the sorts of things we think when looking at old photographs.

"We are all gone from here.
None of this is there,
not anymore.
And yet we are still standing."

As always, Maira Kalman's illustrations are vibrant, inviting, and quirky. If you're not familiar with her, I urge you to look at her beautiful photo essays here. They are visually delightful and, often, quietly patriotic.

Girls Standing on Lawns is essentially a picture book for adults, which, why isn't that a thing? Fortunately, this is first in a series from MoMA, Handler, and Kalman and I am looking forward to what lies ahead. I hope others take inspiration and make this a genre because I could certainly do with some more age-appropriate picture books in my life.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Farm

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith (2014)

Daniel's parents have retired to a farm in Sweden, and he has yet to leave London to visit them but imagines them having a relaxed, idyllic life there. One day Daniel's father calls to tell him the sad news that his mother has been committed to a mental hospital. She has been having delusions of persecution and is accusing everyone around her of terrible things. Immediately, Daniel books a flight to Sweden, but before he can leave he receives a second call. It's his mother, telling him she's been released and is on her way to Heathrow, and that everything Daniel's father is saying is a lie. Caught between his parents, Daniel now must decide who to believe and what is the truth.

Most of this novel took place over just a few days, the bulk of it one long conversation between Daniel and his mother as she told the story of everything that happened in the several months since they bought their farm. She has a satchel of evidence, and pulls out each object one by one as she tells Daniel her story. Awkwardly, they are at Daniel's apartment where he lives with another man and he knows it's time to finally reveal this part of his life, but how can he in the midst of such a dramatic, urgent situation? Although Daniel's relationship isn't quite pertinent to the story, it adds an extra layer of tension.

The construction somehow made it easy to just keep going and going - one doesn't want to stop in the middle of a conversation - and I just couldn't put it down. I stayed up past midnight on a work night reading, and that is little short of miraculous because when I read in bed I usually fall asleep after about 5 pages. I also kept expecting things to become clear enough to decide whether or not I believed her story, but Smith didn't make it that easy for me, and that, too, propelled me along. Ultimately, I consumed this book in less than two days.

The descriptions I had read of The Farm were pretty vague, basically what I told you above, and I think it's best to keep it that way. It's all about experiencing the story as Daniel experiences it. I found it completely compelling and satisfying. It would be great for a book group - I'm dying to discuss it with somebody else who has read it!

Tom Rob Smith is an incredibly talented writer, and I've extolled his virtues previously as I read the Child 44 series. While this is a complete departure from that series in both style and content, it only illustrates the range of his talent. I'm eagerly awaiting what he has in store next.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (2003)

One day in 1984 a young woman and her baby were murdered in their home. The two men responsible were her husband's brothers, Fundamentalist Mormons who claim they were directed by God to commit the murders. Jon Krakauer takes a close look at this family, and at the short, bloody history of the LDS church and its off-shoots of Mormon Fundamentalism.

Honestly, I don't even know where to start with this. There is so much information packed into this book and a lot of it is so fucked up that it kind of makes my head spin. Predictably, I've come out of this reading experience thinking that Mormon Fundamentalists are crazy. What I didn't expect was that I'd come to believe that even the mainstream LDS church is pretty misguided, if not also crazy. Reading about the origins of that religion, I can't imagine why anyone would choose to follow it. (Granted, I am an atheist and find all religion unbelievable, but this one seems especially far-fetched.)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the LDS church, it was founded by a guy named Joseph Smith who was led to some special gold tablets by an angel named Moroni but then wasn't allowed to read what was on them so he put his face into a hat containing a magic rock and saw lots of visions which, clearly, were from these tablets and he wrote them down and that, my friends, is the Book of Mormon. Smith then went on to have many grand "revelations" including the one about plural marriage, which was a hard sell even in the 1830s. But he was quite intent on being able to have sex with any woman (or girl) he wanted, so he was determined to spread that part of God's plan especially.

There's a lot else that happened between then and the murders, but it's not hard to see how the Lafferty brothers found it so reasonable to believe that God ordered them to murder their brother's wife and child. Because, you know, God works in mysterious ways.

Here is a sampling of things I learned about fundamentalist Mormons that are horrifying:
  • They believe that homosexuality and racial intermarriage are both punishable by death
  • Welfare fraud is rampant and encouraged
  • Many of these men rape girls as young as thirteen
  • Some of them even impregnate their own daughters
Let's review:
Having sex with a consulting adult of your own gender is punishable by death.
Raping your own child is condoned by God.

In this context, the murders don't seem like such a huge anomaly. Ron Lafferty was the one held most culpable, receiving the death penalty, though his brother Dan was convicted also. Ron has appealed over and over again and although the murders occurred 30 years ago he is apparently still alive. What I found most interesting about his trial was the debate surrounding whether or not he was insane. Using the insanity defense would be like saying that anyone who prays to God for guidance is mentally ill, and nobody wanted to make that argument. Even the sort of revelations that Ron Lafferty received are an integral part of the mainstream LDS church.

There is always this idea that one's beliefs are the true beliefs and those who think differently are wrong and with religion that is an argument that will never be solved. Dan Lafferty is quoted in the book comparing their crime with those of the September 11th terrorists. He says, "I have to admit, the terrorists were following their prophet. They were willing to do essentially what I did. I see the parallel. But the difference between those guys and me is, they were following a false prophet, and I'm not." And that is one of the reasons why I feel that religion is inherently dangerous.

It bothered me a little that Krakauer relayed so many of the religious parts of the story as though they were fact. He would say that someone received a revelation, or that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel, as though it was a fact. It seemed obvious to me that these people were hearing and seeing exactly what they wanted. Of course Joseph Smith would be told he should have many wives, and of course Ron Lafferty would be told to kill someone he hated. Perhaps Krakauer just didn't think he needed to insert a note of skepticism as the stories speak for themselves. I suppose it's also a bit telling that the book ends with a former fundamentalist talking about how he is now an atheist.

On the whole, Krakauer's research and writing was pretty top-notch, as far as I can tell. Perhaps Mormons feel differently, but it felt quite thorough as I was reading it. I got a bit bogged down in the middle in a historical part, but have to admit it was all valuable information. Anyhow, it picked up again quite soon and I was engrossed once more until I finished. Included at the end are a bibliography and (so helpfully!) a glossary that I used several times.

So if you are interested at all in what makes people do crazy, violent things, or in religion, or in taking a close look at a specific culture, I would definitely recommend Under the Banner of Heaven.

Do you have suggestions of other books that take an interesting look at religion? Does Going Clear live up to all the hype? And if you've read Under the Banner of Heaven, what was your take?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

We Were Liars

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (2014), narrated by Ariadne Meyers

Cadence Sinclair Eastman has grown up in a wealthy family and spends her summers on their private island off the coast of Massachusetts. She is close to her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and two summers ago was beginning a romance with Gat, the nephew of her aunt's boyfriend. But something happened that summer that Cady can't remember. There was an accident from which she still hasn't recovered, and this summer she returns to the island and through the haze of her migraines she tries to piece it together.

On the surface, Cady's life is pretty sweet. I mean, her family owns an entire island. Cady's mother and both of her aunts each have their own large house on the island, while her grandfather, the patriarch, rules over this domain from his own large house. They all come to the island every summer, their regular lives fading off into the background for those few, magical months.

But just like any family, they have their share of unhappinesses. Cady's father left them, an event she describes as him shooting her through the heart (and indeed, her narration is filled with bloody metaphors). And of course, this mysterious accident that nobody will talk about, but which seems to have changed her family somehow. Even her cousins and Gat aren't as bright and fun-loving this summer as they have been in the past.

Whenever I read fiction in which somebody has memory problems after a traumatic event, I wonder how realistic it is. I know that our minds do strange things, but I'm never sure if it's the kinds of things portrayed in fiction. Nevertheless, the mystery and Cady's determination to figure it out propelled me through the story.

Despite her head injury, Cady was a recognizable teenager. She was desperately in love with Gat and upset that he didn't contact her after her accident (never mind that she didn't try to contact him either.) She argued with her grandfather when she learned that the small animal statues in each of their houses were made from ivory, lecturing him about the evils of hunting elephants. She also remained so wrapped up in her own life that it was hard for her to see what was going on with everyone else.

I like the relationship between Cady and her grandpa. It wasn't a great relationship in many ways, but he still came across kind of positively. His problems with dementia mirrored her own memory problems and I found it quite sweet the day they took the boat to Edgartown for fudge though neither of them were supposed to be boating. It was like their own tiny little conspiracy.

This was probably the quickest I've ever raced through an audiobook, because I just had to find out what was going on. Then I just wanted to talk to everyone I knew who had read it - it's just that kind of book. It's very different than the one other book I've read by E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. This one is clearly more successful, but I think I prefer Frankie Landau-Banks, just out of my deep admiration of her character. Still, there is good reason this book is hot right now, so readers of YA fiction will not want to miss it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Wildthorn by Jane Eagland (2009)

Louisa Cosgrove wants more than anything to be a doctor. Her father always encouraged her in her studies, even while her mother tried to turn her into a proper Victorian young lady. But Louisa's father is dead now, and she is being sent away to stay with the Woodville's. When she steps out of the carriage, however, she finds herself at Wildthorn Hall, an insane asylum, and the staff all call her Lucy Childs. Who has played such an awful trick on her? And how will she ever get out of this place?

Everything in the description of this book sounded up my alley, but somehow when I began reading I initially felt like I had heard it all before. I've read a number of oppressed-Victorian-girl novels, including some wrongly-imprisoned-Victorian-girl variations and I love them, but will admit that for a while at the beginning of this book I thought "Oh, another one of those," and inwardly rolled my eyes a bit. But then I kept reading, and became ever more engrossed in this story, forgetting all about those other books entirely.

It begins with the ride to Wildthorn Hall, and continues with Louisa's time there, but interspersed with the present are chapters beginning early in her life and jumping ever closer to the present so we can see the chain of events that brought her here. Helpfully, the chapters in the past appear in a different font, a style which I suddenly wish every book written with this construction would use. In these chapters, we get snippets of Louisa's life as a child, but much more from the past year when events conspired to bring her to her unfortunate present.

It was easy to see from the start that Louisa's nonconformity would be a problem for her. As a child she was a tomboy, and in desperation her mother once invited over a family with a proper little girl in hopes they would become friends and, presumably, Louisa would learn from her. Instead, Louisa showed off her collection of specimens, which included a dead mouse, and then offered to test the other child's green stockings for arsenic. That was pretty much the end of the friendship, but it only made me like Louisa more.

When she finds herself at Wildthorn she initially assumes it was all a horrible mistake, but slowly grows to realize she was committed intentionally. At this point the story only gets more interesting, as Louisa shows just how strong and capable she really is.

Wildthorn is a very satisfying historical novel about a young woman who refuses to conform. Anyone who enjoys a strong female lead in their Victorian novels will find a lot to like here.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Belated Goodbye

Way back in April I posted about some technical issues I was having, and as an aside mentioned that my cat was nearing the end of his days. He died about a month later in early May at the age of 18 1/2. I considered posting something, because I've posted any time one of my other pets have died, but I didn't know what to say. I kept putting it off and it's just been feeling more and more awkward.

How can I summarize the 14 years that Clarence and I spent together? It's not even possible. My life has changed in so many ways over that time, and I've moved from job to job, apartment to apartment, and then finally to a house, and he was always there.

Meowing and shedding, shedding and meowing. Following me around, begging to be petted, pawing my face, chasing his tail, eating the plants, puking in the hallway in the wee hours of the morning.

It's been about a month and a half and I've mostly gotten used to him not being here, but every now and then I catch myself looking around for him.

Here's one of the earliest pictures I have of him. Goodbye, Clarence!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Love the One You're With

Love the One You're With by Emily Giffin (2008), narrated by Kathleen McInerney

Ellen is married to a perfect man from a perfect family, the brother of her college best friend. Ellen is happy with Andy and with her budding career as a photographer. But one day on the streets of New York she runs into Leo, her ex-boyfriend, the one who got away. Leo is a journalist now and hooks Ellen up with a project-of-a-lifetime on which they work together. Even as Ellen and Andy decide to move to Atlanta to be near his family, she questions whether the life she chose is the one she should have.

As in her other novels, Giffin has created a likable protagonist who struggles with very real problems. The tone is light - this is chick lit after all - but her struggles are complex and potentially life-changing. What I always like about Giffin's novels is that they aren't predictable. I really did not know whether Ellen would end up leaving her husband or not. Part of this is because Giffin creates characters who are so realistic. There are no good guys or bad guys here. Leo and Andy are both good people and they both have flaws. Just like Ellen, her sister Suzanne, and her best friend Margo.

I love the audio versions of Giffin's novels because they are light enough to listen to on audio without missing a lot, but compelling enough to hold my interest. I recognized Kathleen McInerney from at least one other Emily Giffin audiobook, and I found her performance struck just the right tone for this first-person narrator.

I've read or listened to all of Emily Giffin's novels now (except the new one that came out just as I was listening to this one). While Love the One You're With maybe wasn't my favorite, it still compared favorably with her other books and made my daily commute much more enjoyable.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Silhouette of a Sparrow

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin (2012)

In the summer of 1926, Garnet Richardson is sent to stay at a resort with distant relatives to avoid a polio outbreak at home. She has looked forward to visiting a nearby amusement park and indulging in her interest in ornithology but her guardian, Mrs. Harrington, has very particular ideas about what activities are suitable for a young lady. Garnet already dreads what awaits her in adulthood - marrying and settling down to a dull life as a wife and mother - and she wants to enjoy this last summer of freedom. When she meets a flapper named Isabella, she feels she's finally found someone who understands her, but she must keep her new friendship a secret from her family who certainly wouldn't approve.

Garnet is fascinated by birds, and everywhere she goes she carries papers and scissors to cut out silhouettes of each type of bird she sees. Although she is quite interested in the scientific aspects of birds, this craft is a more acceptable way to express her interest. Each chapter begins with a common and scientific name, along with a little silhouette, of a bird that appears somewhere in the chapter. Frequently, she compares people in her life to different kinds of birds, as though they are the only context through which she can understand the world.

This short book is simple and spare in style, rather breezy, but still conveys the longings Garnet feels for a life she cannot have. She is weighed down by worry over her father, who is not recovering well from his experiences in the war, and the unwanted proposal she is expecting from a boy when she returns from her summer. Her dissatisfaction with her life only intensifies when her friendship with Isabella grows into something more.

I liked that the the expectations Garnet was being held to by her family were not even based on reality. Many books in which young women are forced into a mold portray everyone around them as being perfect and the protagonist is the only one who doesn't fit. Here, Garnet could see just how unrealistic the expectations for her life were. Her father had mental health issues and her favorite aunt lived with a woman presumed to be her romantic partner. Garnet could see that some people around her didn't fit the sort of life that was expected, and I think this is a more truthful way to tell this kind of story.

Silhouette of a Sparrow was a pleasant, quick read and though it probably won't really stick with me - even now my memories of its details are fading - I enjoyed the short time I spent with it.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Wool (Silo #1) by Hugh Howey (2012)

Hugh Howey self-published Wool a few years back and it got very popular by word-of-mouth until Simon & Schuster bought it and published all 5 parts together in one volume. And we all realized that publishing had changed. It's an interesting and inspiring story that got my attention, but ultimately that's not why I read it.

Wool is probably my favorite kind of dystopia. An apocalyptic event has happened, society as we know it has transformed and adapted, and the book introduces us to this new society just when things are maybe about to change again. In this world, everyone lives in a huge underground silo, with well over a hundred levels of apartments, gardens, factories, and a big IT department. Screens on the top levels show the outside, a brown and barren landscape that is inhospitable to humans. When someone has committed the most serious crimes they are sent to "cleaning." This means they are sent outside in a suit that will only protect them for a brief time, and they clean the sensors to afford a better view before perishing in the toxic environment. Curiously, nobody has ever refused to clean when they are sent outside.

The story begins with Holston, a sheriff whose wife was sent to cleaning a few years ago after she comes across some information she wasn't supposed to see. It made her raise some dangerous questions, and infected Holston with doubts. He now, in turn, has requested to go outside, convinced that there is more out there than they are being told. He's right, of course, but not in the way he believes. When seeds of doubt are planted, people revolt, and those in power need to quash any uprising before it destroys them all. But does that mean keeping the status quo, and keeping everyone in the dark about the world? A young woman named Juliette may have the answer.

Wool was gripping from the very beginning and I read the entire 500-page novel in just a few days. I frequently struggle with science fiction because of poor character development or technical talk that I can't follow easily, but this was ideal. Howey created a vivid, detailed world that I was able to visualize and imagine myself in, and filled it with people who were recognizable and real and who I rooted for (well, in most cases.) It was about individuals and their actions, but also about how just a small bit of doubt can spread and cause huge societal upheaval. I think I loved everything about this book.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Read What You Like

By now, you've probably all seen the Slate article "Against YA" which maintains that adults should only read books written for adults. The tagline of the article is "Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children."

This article was clearly meant to provoke. It's the usual formula: the author proposes an idea they know will be unpopular so we'll all react to it, and we do. It's almost not worth even responding to. But as a librarian I feel a particular responsibility to emphasize what this author is so dismissive of: that we should all read whatever we want. I was going to respond to some of her points, but realized none of them matter. All that matters is that this person seems to think we should be ashamed of our reading tastes. So all I'm going to address is why that is simply wrong.

Reading by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy, 1863
Why do we read in the first place? Maybe to learn something new, to broaden our horizons, to step outside of our experiences, or to validate them. We read for fun, for pleasure, for entertainment. We all get something different from books, and if you're like me, you probably get something a little different from each book you read.

I think most of us at this point believe that we shouldn't tell others how to live their lives. We're becoming more accepting every day of people having relationships different from ours, choosing whether or not to have kids, whether or not to go back to work if you do have kids, loving whoever you want of whatever gender, or identifying with a different gender than you've been assigned to. So why in the world would we think it's ok to judge people on something so minor as what sort of books they like to read?

Nobody - especially not a stranger - can tell you what sort of book you'll get something out of. I've read young adult books that have made me look at life in different ways, and adult books that I found so utterly pretentious I couldn't get through them. Adult books that were completely trite and meaningless and poorly written - though, if you like those very same books I didn't, by all means go ahead and read them. That's why they're there. I've read picture books written for children that I found beautifully artistic and which reveal simple truths about our lives. Every book is a surprise and often you don't know if it's for you until you open it and begin reading.

To me, reading only literary fiction written for adults is confining. Doing it only because that's what you think you should read means cutting yourself off from experiences that could be enriching, powerful, or transformative. In our lives we rarely walk such a straight and narrow path that we exclude anything that is simply enjoyable or piques our interests without adding some sort of educational or cultural value. (I mean, you've watched tv, right?) Why would it be any different with reading?

If you truly enjoy reading your way through lists of books that have won literary prizes, then by all means carry on. But if you do so only because you think that's what you should do then you, my friend, are wasting your time. Don't be the person lying on a bed at the end of your life thinking, I should have traveled to Europe, I should have married that other person, and by god, I should have read the Harry Potter series. It is so easy to read what you want. Why deny yourself that pleasure?

The truth is, even those of us who don't read young adult novels aren't all sitting around reading Proust. This article doesn't speak to different genres, but many have been maligned over the years. Chick lit and romance are big ones. Science fiction isn't taken seriously either, which is why those which are well-reviewed are rarely categorized as sci-fi even when they clearly are. Mysteries can be totally formulaic, and writers like James Patterson hire people churn out books like a factory. I can think of some young adult novels that I think are more worth my time than many of these, but it doesn't matter.

All that matters is that you're getting out of it what you want. I'll continue to keep reading YA, and chick lit, and romance, and literary fiction. (But probably not Proust.)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Panopticon

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (2012)

A panopticon, as I learned from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, is a type of prison designed so that one watchman can see the all the inmates, who can't tell whether or not they are being watched. Consequently, they always feel - and act - like they're being watched. It is into this sort of institution that Anais Hendricks finds herself.

Anais has been in and out of foster homes and group homes for most of her life. She was adopted once, but her mother died and back into care she went. This is a messed-up kid. Only fifteen, she is already deeply into drugs and all sorts of other trouble. Most recently she has been accused of putting a cop into a coma, and she's been sent to the Panopticon to await the outcome of the situation.

I couldn't help but feel for this screwed-up kid, whose attempts at survival just put her further along on a path of destruction. She has a fairly narrow view of her options, as many people her age do, but she seems to have an inkling of how much better things could be. Anais dreams of living in Paris and having a better life, but she considers this not so much a goal to strive for, but an alternative universe that could have been.

What makes this book so unique and heart-wrenching is our heroine's voice. This is Scotland, and her language is peppered with "dinnae" and "cannae" and other regional linguistic touches that make it a little difficult at first until you get the rhythm. But beyond the dialect, her voice comes through as a very touching combination of jaded and naive. She has suffered abuse, and more pain than anyone her age should experience, yet describes a very sweet relationship with her girlfriend. Because Anais's reality is so often altered by drugs, Fagan alters the narration as well. When taking speed, what Anais experiences becomes choppy and stream-of-consciousness: "Everything accelerates. There is a bicycle ride. A coffee cup. A bus. A boat. A train...Chug chug chug chug. Train station, ooh, be quiet, breathe quiet." Anais is also quite paranoid, convinced her whole life has been the subject of an experiment, and that they are always watching her and manipulating her.

Anais and her friends are sexually fluid and pretty non-judgmental. It's as though they've been stripped of so much they have come to realize, at an unusually young age, what is really important and they appreciate real affection wherever they can get it. Anais refers to her most recent foster mother as "beardy weirdy" but goes on to say, "She doesnae shave her beard; it's a totally obvious one, but she isnae bothered how it looks. Me neither, it's kind of debonair on her. Why should women have to shave?" Anais does, however, set pretty high fashion standards for herself. Her outfits are carefully put together, and she spends most of her limited income on clothes. She appears very put-together for someone who is so torn apart on the inside.

From an adult perspective, it's easy to see when Anais is only making things worse for herself. But because Fagan has done such an exquisite job of crafting her into someone real and expressive, we can see how and why it happens and how easy it is to muck things up and how hard to fix them.

I'm so glad we read this unique book for our book group because I might not have read it otherwise. I had heard of it through The Readers podcast, on which it has been mentioned it again and again, but it took this nudge from a friend to actually get me to read it. If you enjoy a truly unique narrative voice and painful story (and don't mind a lot of rough language) I urge you to give The Panopticon a chance too.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A to Z Bookish Survey

I came across the A to Z Survey over at Roof Beam Reader (though it originated at Perpetual Page Turner.) It's kind of a fun little meme so I thought I'd participate.

Author you’ve read the most books from:

Probably Stephen King. Even though I've still not read several of his books, he's incredibly prolific and I've been reading him since I was old enough to read entire novels.

Best Sequel Ever:

This is difficult. I may have to go with the best recently read sequel, because otherwise my memory gets a little sketchy. I'd have to say Insurgent (and Allegiant was quite a satisfying conclusion.) That series was consistently very good in a way that most aren't. 

Currently Reading:

Wool by Hugh Howey

Drink of Choice While Reading:

Depending on the time of day, either coffee or a Manhattan.

E-reader or Physical Book?

Physical. I'm over ebooks.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School:

Maybe Cameron Quick from Sweethearts or Marcus Flutie from Sloppy Firsts. I'm a sucker for the mysterious loner dude.

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance:

Mostly recently, probably The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. I heard mixed things and probably wouldn't have read it if my book group hadn't picked it. In my blog post about it, I predicted that it wouldn't stick with me, but it has.

Hidden Gem Book:

Anything by Sam Savage. I love all of his books and he is not well known, but should be. He's just brilliant.

Important Moment in your Reading Life:

When I went to college and roomed with English majors. They introduced me to all sorts of great books and authors it would have otherwise taken me a long time to discover on my own.

Just Finished:

The Panopticon by Jenny Fagan, which you should all totally read.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read:

I won't complete rule out any genre but am probably least likely to read Christian fiction.

Longest Book You’ve Read:

I believe that would be Stephen King's The Stand. So far.

Major book hangover because of:

I had to look up the definition of book hangover to answer this. It's been a long time since I've been that engrossed in anything because my attention span isn't what it used to be. I did get really into The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (and everything else of hers, for that matter.)

Number of Bookcases You Own:

Three, for two people. It's not enough.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, four times (though not recently enough to include on my blog apparently.) (And no, I haven't seen the movie. Because that's not what Patrick looks like in my head.)

Preferred Place To Read:

The big purple armchair in my living room.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read:

Oh, so many quotes, and I don't keep track of them in any organized way. Here's one: "I have unpacked my soul and there is nothing in it." From one of my favorite books, The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage.

Reading Regret:

Reading Wolf Hall when what I actually wanted to read was Bring Up the Bodies. I could have skipped the first book, I knew what happened (I've watched The Tudors, after all). But I am allergic to reading the second in a series before reading the first. I know Bring Up the Bodies is supposed to be superior, which is why I wanted to read it, but after putting myself through Wolf Hall I'm unlikely to read anything else by Hilary Mantel ever again.

Series You Started And Need To Finish(all books are out in series):

I read The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly and have the other two sitting in a pile, still unread almost a year later. Several people in my family loved the entire series and I don't know why I'm putting off finishing it. Also, Perpetual Page Turner's post reminded me that Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty is the first in a series. I only ever read the first book and I keep wanting to read it again, but I should also read the rest of the series.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books:

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Firmin by Sam Savage, The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken. It's really hard to keep it to just three.

Unapologetic Fangirl For:

Sam Savage, Elizabeth McCracken, Chris Bohjalian, Rainbow Rowell, Justin Cronin....I guess I'm a pretty unapologetic fangirl all around.

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others:

The new Chris Bohjalian, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. His last two were historical novels, and though they were very good, I'm really looking forward to his return to contemporary fiction. 

Worst Bookish Habit:

I've recently started dog-earing pages, even in library books. I have no idea why this started and I feel both guilty and powerless to stop it.

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book:

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones.

Your latest book purchase:

I hardly ever buy books, except as gifts, but last week I inexplicably bought Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon and Wild by Cheryl Strayed, both of which I've already read.

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late):

Wool by Hugh Howey. This is the first book I've read in a while that has actually kept me up. It's quite a page-turner.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Perils of Pleasure

The Perils of Pleasure (Pennyroyal Green #1) by Julie Ann Long (2008)

Colin Eversea is about to hang for a murder he did not commit. At the very last moment, he is rescued by the beautiful mercenary Madeleine Greenway. Now he must race against time to clear his name and stop his brother from marrying the woman who is really meant for him. But when it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill Madeleine, the two become a stronger team than ever as they try to prove his innocence. As you might expect, this is all complicated by a growing passion both Colin and Madeleine are powerless to resist.

The danger and intrigue set this apart from many period romances, and added needed tension and action. Otherwise, it was only ok. I have no major complaints but I wasn't especially invested in the romance between Colin and Madeleine.

The main barrier between the two characters was his stubborn love for his brother's bride-to-be Louisa, and Colin remained convinced of his love much longer than I think he should have. He at least should have had some doubts when it became obvious that passion was brewing between he and Madeleine. He just kept assuming he still loved Louisa and was going to marry her. His romantic feelings remained too compartmentalized, even for me.  

Madeleine Greenway could have been more interesting than she was. She is a widow, having lost her family to smallpox and then lose their business as well, so she became a mercenary. The story of how she lost everything and then turned to this dark business would have made a great story, but we got only bits of it. As she began falling for Colin, she was just as resistant as he was, but her reasons were more unclear and possibly a bit neurotic.

Perhaps this is better for people who are more into romance than I am, but it didn't measure up to some of the others I've read, like the two by Julia Quinn, or Texas Destiny, or A Lady Awakened. Romance is pretty hit-or-miss for me it seems, and for every one I find that I like I read another that I don't like very much. I wish I could figure out the pattern so I could make consistently wiser choices.