Thursday, April 20, 2017

Nation

Nation by Terry Pratchett (2008)

A while back my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at work read The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, and now we've read another Pratchett book, Nation. It begins with a wave, so huge that it wipes out everyone on Mau's island leaving him the only survivor. The same wave washed up a ship called the Sweet Judy, with only a young girl left alive. Mau and Daphne don't speak the same language and come from very different backgrounds, but together they help other refugees from the storm and make some remarkable discoveries.

I can see why so many people love this book. Young people rebuilding a society after catastrophe, people from very different cultures trying to understand each other, rejection of colonialism, a colorful cast of characters, and Terry Pratchett's particular brand of humor. The role of religion is a big theme, and lots of other interesting ideas are also touched upon. My book group members had a lot to talk about.

The coming together of religion and science made for some clever little bits and, without spoiling too much, I'll share just one small part. Mau's village had a tradition of making beer from roots, but when it's first made it's referred to as "mother-of-beer" and it's poisonous. Only after spitting into it and singing a song does it transform into something safe (and delicious) to drink. Daphne figures out that the song itself isn't significant, but the time it takes to sing the song. The islanders used the song to measure the time they had to wait between spitting and drinking, and over time began to believe it was the song that made it safe to drink. They had a lot of knowledge that was masqueraded as myth or ritual, and I found this quite inventive.

When the story began, Mau was in the midst of a rite-of-passage that was interrupted and throughout the book he kept saying that he still wasn't a man, and referring to not having a soul. At the same time, he was proving quite the opposite about both of those things. He had major epiphanies and I liked watching his character grow. Similarly, Daphne really came into her own during this situation. Growing up in England (I presume, though it wasn't explicitly stated) she was taught very proper manners and subject to all sorts of expectations and it all went flying over the window as soon as her ship crashed on this island. She clearly didn't fit the mold that girls were supposed to at that time, and it was so great that she had the opportunity to grow and learn as she did in this very different environment.

All that said, I found the book a bit of a slog to get through. It seemed slow, taking me an entire week to read, and while I liked the characters and the plot and some of the themes, somehow I just couldn't really get into it.  It was actually rather well-crafted and I don't feel like I have any legitimate criticisms, but somehow it just wasn't for me.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Top Things That Will Make Me Instantly Want To Read a Book


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. I thought of a few things right away that make me immediately want to read a book, but to refresh my memory further I did a search on my blog for the phrase "I'm a sucker for." My conclusion is that I really need to stop using that phrase because I got a lot of results! Interestingly, some of them aren't true anymore (Scandinavia, boarding schools, etc.) probably because I just read so many books with those elements for a while. But here are some (fewer than ten) things that still make me want to instantly read a book:

1. Cold climates
Alaska? Antarctica? Count me in! I don't actually like being cold, but for some mysterious reason love reading stories set in cold, harsh climates. I jump right on books like Bleaker House, To the Bright Edge of the World, The Smell of Other People's Houses, Above All Things, The Snow Child, Ada Blackjack, and too many others to list here.

2. Russia
My love for Russia is well-documented and I've read a ton of books that place there including
A Gentleman in Moscow, The Family Romanov, City of Thieves, War and Peace, Child 44, and many others.

3. The Victorian Era
I've been slowly reading a series of mysteries by Anne Perry although it's been more than a year since I finished Death of a Stranger, but anything that takes place in the Victorian Era catches my eyes. Obviously, How To Be A Victorian and Unmentionable, but also novels such as The Victorian Chaise-Longue, My Notorious Life, Tipping the Velvet, and The Tea Rose.

4. Post-catastrophe
I always think of post-apocalypse, but I was recently reminded that I enjoy the aftermath of other catastrophes as well, such as the nuclear meltdown in Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Some of my favorite post-apocalypse novels include Station Eleven, Riddley Walker, Wool, and The Dog Stars.

5. Colonial New England
But with magic usually. The Cahill Witch ChroniclesThe Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, The Witch, which I realize is a movie and not a book (and also I keep wanting to call it The Goat.)

6. Feminist and/or gay themes in historical fiction
Because I love historical fiction and I need it to contain people that we don't think of as existing at that time because they weren't accepted by mainstream society and therefore are underrepresented. The Suffragette Scandal, The Miniaturist, My Notorious Life, Tipping the Velvet (both of which I already mentioned but they bear repeating), and I cannot wait to get my hands on the forthcoming novel The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue.

I feel like there's something important that I'm forgetting, but I'm pretty sure these are the primary ones. What topics or themes make you instantly want to read a book?

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Wanderers

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (2017)

Prime Space will be sending humans to Mars in four years, so they are conducting an extensive training simulation. They've chosen three astronauts to participate in the 17-month simulation and hopefully eventually travel to Mars. Chapters are narrated by the three astronauts as well as their immediate family members: Helen and her daughter Mireille, Yoshi and his wife Makoda, and Sergei and his son Dmitri; and one Prime employee named Luke. This is an extremely realistic and challenging simulation and as it progresses, the participants begin questioning their understanding of what they're experiencing.

Very much character-driven, this is exactly my kind of science fiction. We get to know the characters through their own narration, as well the perspectives of the other characters. Their relationships were all complicated, but due to the nature of being an astronaut, everyone tried hard to be even-keeled and unemotional (but not too unemotional.) Sergei is in the process of a divorce, which I think was as amicable as he says. Helen's relationship with her daughter is a bit strained and her daughter obviously rather troubled, but they tried to project a healthy image of their relationship. I never really got a handle on Yoshi's wife, but she was fascinating, constantly trying on different personas as a sort of performance art, hiding her real self from everyone including Yoshi. And then there was the Prime employee Luke, whose role in this whole story I was quite unsure of for a while. His perspective was important, but in a way I don't want to reveal too much about.

The writing is a tiny bit uneven. For instance, there's a sentence near the beginning that doesn't make sense: "Boone holds up his hands, more callused than you might expect from a person who made his first billion in networking routers, and is wearing a cardigan." Yet there's a brilliant scene in which Madoko is blindfolded in her apartment, and the scene begins with a description of a photo in front of her that she cannot see. And there were other clever little descriptions, such as a poodle who was "absurdly dignified, like an old man who has been forced to wear a poodle costume but refuses to let it diminish him." Another passage that struck me was during an emotionally wrought conversation between Luke and Mireille, in which he observes: "After seven months of watching astronauts, it is literally stunning to watch someone fall to disorganized pieces, and then deliberately present rage and resentment, hand it to him on a silver platter, fully cooked, like it's a gift."

It's really hard to explain why I loved this book so much, especially without giving too much away. It made me think a lot about reality and our perceptions, and whether or not it matters if something is actually real as long as it feels real. I hate to compare it to The Martian because they're nothing alike, but they are both examples of character-driven science fiction written in an accessible style, which is worth mentioning since that's not especially common. I'd definitely consider the two read-alikes and recommend The Wanderers to anyone who enjoyed The Martian.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Top 10 Most Unique Books I've Read


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is all about unique books. Fun! Here's a list of the most unusual books I could think of that I've read:

1. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Tops pretty much every list of weird, bizarre, unusual books. I didn't love it, but it was definitely a unique experience that I won't forget anytime soon.

2. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
So bizarre and dark, dark, dark. I loved it.

3. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
A favorite post-apocalyptic novel, it's written in a pidgin English that takes a bit to get into but is absolutely worth it.

4. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
As letters fall from a statue they are banned from use by the council of the island of Nollop, and also disappear from this book. I thought it would be gimmicky, but it's actually pretty clever.

5. The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin
A book that feels more like a documentary and a piece of art.

6. I2 by James Bannon
So weird. Hardly anyone has heard of this I think, probably because it was self-published. It's totally worth reading though.

7. 14 by Peter Clines
One of the best horror novels I've read. I can't believe I still haven't read his other book (though it's on my Personal Reading Challenge for this year.)

8. Beyond the Dark Veil edited by Sue Henger
Unlike everything else on this list, this one isn't a novel. It's a collection of post-mortem and mourning photography from the Victorian era. Such a fascinating glimpse of life and death at that time.

9. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Weird, bizarre, and really really good.

10. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
The apocalypse is brought to us by giant praying mantises in this crazy teen novel that is really hard to describe in a way that doesn't elicit raised eyebrows of doubt. But trust me - it's really good.

When you read as much as I do, sometimes books start feeling a bit samey. This can be good - we all love a good comfort read now and then. But I do love have a reading experience that's different from any I've had before. What have you read that stands out to you as unique? I'd love more suggestions!

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017), narrated by Bahni Turpin

You've probably already heard about this hot new teen book that was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, in which a teenaged girl witnesses her friend - a young unarmed black man - get shot and killed by a police officer. Honestly, I was a bit hesitant about it at first because of the whole "inspired by" bit. I worried that it would be gimmicky or just capitalizing on a hot-button issue, but I can assure you that is not the case and this is an incredibly thoughtful, well-written book that will give you not just a lot of feelings, but a lot to think about.

Starr Carter grew up in Garden Heights, a rough neighborhood that her mother has been wanting to get out of for quite a while. But her dad is resistant. A former gang member and ex-con, he feels like the neighborhood is more real than the "nice" neighborhoods, and he'd rather stay there and try to make it better than flee to the suburbs. When she was 10, Starr witnessed her best friend Natasha get killed in a drive-by shooting, and now at 16 she is in the car with her friend Khalil when he is pulled over for a broken taillight in a situation that quickly escalates until he's shot multiple times and killed. Of course there is an outcry for justice in the neighborhood, but will the cop actually be convicted of what is so clearly murder? As the media reports that Khalil may have been a drug dealer and gang member, Starr wonders how well she really knew him. At the same time, she has to come to terms with how little she has allowed some of her friends to know her.

There are SO many interesting aspects to this story. Starr is very close to her uncle Carlos, a cop who works with the guy who shot Kahlil. Starr also attends a shmancy school that is very white - there's only one other black kid in her class and people seem to think they should be a couple. Jokingly, they call each other "black boyfriend" and "black girlfriend." Her actual boyfriend is white and therefore a secret from her father, who would not approve. Her two best friends at this school are white and Chinese-American and Starr knows that she shows a different part of herself to them than she does to her neighborhood best friend Kenya. This is already a lot of pressure, but after the shooting she tries to keep quiet about the fact that she is "the witness" the media keeps referring to, not telling anyone outside her immediate family. But she begins to wonder if it's possible for justice to be served if she doesn't speak out.

In addition to all the thought-provoking issues that come up, it works on the more basic level of being a great story to read. Starr and her friends are regular teenagers who act like teenagers, complete with slang and pop culture references. Her parents are great, too! In many teen books the parents are either absent or two-dimensional or completely screwed up, but Starr's parents are nuanced characters with their own lives and personalities and it's clear they care about her very much.

I'm amazed that this is a debut novel, and will definitely look for more from Angie Thomas. I can't think of one criticism about this book. (Even on Goodreads the poor reviews dwell only on the fact that there's swearing in the book.) Unsurprisingly, the film rights have already been optioned.

Bahni Turpin narrates the audiobook perfectly, bringing the characters alive and, man, she does an excellent scolding parent voice!  She also narrates Allegedly by Tiffany Jackson, another book I'm interested in. I was already considering it on audio, but this definitely seals the deal for me. Seriously, she's one of the best narrators I've heard.

I could go on at length about this book. There's just so much to talk about! But you should just go read it immediately and see for yourself.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories From a South Africa Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)

You may know Trevor Noah as host of The Daily Show, a job he took over from Jon Stewart in 2015. I hardly ever watch tv so I've only seen clips here and there. The reason I picked this book up, though, is because it's all about Noah's life growing up in South Africa in the waning days of apartheid. The title refers to the fact that his mother is black and his father is white, and that sort of racial mixing was illegal at the time. His status as "colored" - the South African term for a racially mixed person - had huge consequences for his childhood.

Noah talks a lot about race in this book, as you might expect. As a kid, his mother wouldn't hold his hand in public and if an authority figure was nearby, she'd pretend she didn't know him. Growing up, he had a tough time fitting in with any of the racial groups. He mentions the way apartheid was taught in South Africa and compares it how racism is taught in America, contrasting it with the way the Holocaust is taught in Germany: "Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it." In America, we learn about slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and that's it. I find that so strange and I'm glad he brings it up. I have to wonder what it is about our culture and South African culture that result in a similarly incomplete way of teaching history. He also discusses privilege in the context of making CDs and DJ-ing, which he was able to become successful at only when his white friend gave him a CD writer. You know the saying "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." Noah adds his own caveat to it, which is "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod." Another really interesting thing he mentioned is that people in South Africa don't view the Holocaust the same way we do and aren't as familiar with Hitler as villain. Hitler is part of the white world with which they are unfamiliar, but the people of Africa have their own villains in the colonial powers that divided up the continent and exploited its people.

It's not all serious discussion about race. There are also funny stories, like the time as a kid when he burned down some white people's house, and the time he ended up in jail. It's not as funny as listening to him on The Daily Show, but memoirs by comedians are always less funny than their performances because it's not an act, it's real life. I really liked hearing about his everyday life and family. Despite his status as an outsider, and despite his family's poverty, he sounds like he was pretty happy. His life was the only life he knew and it wasn't really worse than anyone around him.

I should also mention that Noah's mom is pretty awesome. This book is as much about her as about him, I think (and in fact it's dedicated to her.) She's a smart, strong woman who never let her son feel like he was less than others because he was of two different races. She played by her own rules too, going wherever she liked and doing what she wanted, even if some of it was understood to be for white people. She prepared her son for the freedom from apartheid that they had no way of knowing would come so soon. She wanted him to know that the circumstances of their lives weren't all there is, that more was out there. Plus she taught him how to be respectful towards women, though she herself was unfortunately in a relationship with someone who did not treat her as she deserved.

At one point I got a little distracted by language, as he mentioned speaking a couple of different African languages, and ended up down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos in the Xhosa language. If you're curious, this one has a bit of Noah speaking Xhosa, which is very cool-sounding.

I knew almost nothing about South Africa before reading this book, and still need to learn more, but I really enjoyed hearing about what it was like to live there during this time, and his perspective on the world was refreshing and different from what I'm used to reading. I'm very glad I picked up this book.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Bleaker House

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens (2017)

When choosing where to go for her writing fellowship, Nell Stevens took the opposite tack as many of her peers. Rather than going to a European or Asian city bustling with activity, she picked a remote island in the Falklands where she would be the only inhabitant for most of the time she was there. Her goal was to focus on her novel with no distractions. Of course, what we got was this memoir about her experience so obviously the result of her time on Bleaker Island wasn't what she was aiming for.

Chapters about her time on the island alternate with experiences from her past and bits of her writing. Snippets of the novel she's working on were to be expected (and I might have been disappointed without a taste of the work around which her whole trip centered) but she also included some short stories, presumably also written while she was there though she doesn't really talk about working on projects other than her novel. I got the feeling these were included because she couldn't publish them elsewhere, or because she needed filler; after all, there wasn't much to write about on this lonely island. Still, I didn't dislike the stories (or novel snippets) and if she does eventually publish a fiction book I may well read it. I like her style.

Her trip was planned carefully and mostly went smoothly, except that she really screwed up with food. She had to carry all her food to the island with her and because of weight restrictions on the tiny plane, she had to measure and weigh everything ahead of time. After arriving in the Falklands she learns she could have arranged for supplies to be delivered to her while she was there, but this would have to have been set up far in advance. I can absolutely understand not having this bit of information ahead of time; if nobody told her, it probably wouldn't occur to her to ask. What I can't understand is why she thought it was adequate to allot herself just over 1000 calories per day. A simple Google search or, I don't know, asking a friend, could have easily disabused her of the idea that it was enough calories for anything but temporary survival. So she was hungry a lot, and as we know from learning about the importance of school lunch programs, it's very difficult to concentrate when you're hungry.

This is not the first trip Stevens has taken in service to her writing. She's a bit apologetic about it, but to me it seems like having a lot of experiences in different places is a good way to learn things about the world you wouldn't otherwise know, and would expand the breadth of writing fodder. At the same time, it's completely obvious from the outset that her novel became a memoir so when she writes about her epiphany - that what she really needs to be writing is not a novel but a memoir about herself - it is both a little too meta (writing a book about writing the book) but also, yeah, we know you ended up writing a memoir. There's no need to point it out as though it's a shocking plot twist. I am also reminded of the passage in her piece of fiction "Character Study" in which a student consider's her teacher's autobiographical book of poetry: "Her marriage was not as interesting as she seemed to think it was. Why did she imagine her life merited so much scrutiny, so much attention? It was an ordinary life." It's as though Stevens knows she doesn't quite have enough for a real memoir (hence all the pieces of fiction woven in) but she needed something to show for her time there, if not the novel she set out to write.

Yet, I enjoyed the book most of the time I was reading it. Sure it fell a bit flat at the end, and there weren't nearly as many penguins as I had hoped for based on the cover art, but I'm glad I read it. Although there wasn't much to talk about regarding her experiences on the island, I still quite enjoyed the parts about her trip and her stay there. I also think someone interested in the writing process might benefit from some of her insights regarding success and failure and the way she integrated her life experiences into fiction.

I'm also - as always - interested in other books in which people travel to cold, remote settings so if you have any suggestions please let me know in the comments!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (2005), narrated by Jim Dale

Due to a painful and lingering eye infection, I've had to greatly reduce my reading time (and screen time and work) recently, and a side effect of that is that I just listened to a 19-hour audiobook in just a week. This really was the perfect time to take on the 6th book in the Harry Potter series!

Notable in this volume is a whole lot of back story about the young Voldemort, and it's the book in which we first learn about horcruxes. Persisting throughout the book is Harry's obsession with Draco Malfoy who he thinks is now a Death Eater, but nobody else will believe him. So he goes to great lengths to spy on Draco, even at the expense of very important things such as tasks assigned him by Dumbledore. Snape is now teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, and has been replaced in Potions by the new Professor Slughorn. Harry ends up using an old Advanced Potions textbooks that used to belong to someone who called himself the Half-Blood Prince, and it's full of helpful notes that assist Harry in acing the class. Harry is also becoming attracted to Ginny Weasley in this book, and there's lots of tensions between Ron and Hermione that also appear symptomatic of a growing attraction between them.

The romantic bits are kind of fun, as are subplots like their Apparition class, but this part of the story also comes with some pretty heavy serious stuff. A couple of students barely escape death, including one of our main characters, and there's a very significant and sad death late in the book. So it's fairly dark, but story-wise it's clearly building up to the final volume and I'm a little antsy to forge ahead soon because the anticipation is a bit too much, even though I've read all these books before and know how they end.

You know, I always think that I don't like fantasy. I don't know why that is because I really love this series and I love His Dark Materials and I loved The Mists of Avalon, and I can't actually think of a fantasy book I've read that I didn't like. I wonder why I continue to hold this prejudice? More importantly, what fantasy should I read next?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (2016)

Shockingly, I have finished a 500-page biography about Shirley Jackson. Biography is a category on my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge because in theory I'd like to know more about the lives of famous and important people. I've read a few biographies in the past that I really liked, such as The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll and Personal History by Katherine Graham, and a couple about Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe, and I think that is the sum total of biographies that I've read in my life. I liked all of those but somehow I still find biographies too daunting to read. I heard about this Shirley Jackson biography when it came out in the fall and was intrigued, because I loved both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but didn't actually think I'd read it until I impulsively picked it up one day.

As it turns out, even at 500 pages this wasn't difficult. I found Franklin's style totally accessible and enjoyed reading about Jackson's life and career. The chapters coordinated with time periods, in most cases the period of writing and publication of a book. Sometimes there was brief discussion of something that hadn't happened yet chronologically, and that was confusing because I had a hard time keeping the timeline straight. But that's my only criticism. Some Goodreads readers didn't like the amount of information they saw as peripheral to her life, such as family history covered at the beginning as it related to architecture in California, but I actually found that all pretty interesting and it did come up later so it made sense to me. Perhaps there was a bit too much discussion of Jackson's husband's work for my taste, but that might be because I didn't really understand it. Had his research been on a topic that I was more interested in, I definitely would have liked reading about it. But most of this peripheral information provided a context that I enjoyed because I had a better understanding of this particular era.

Jackson's relationship with her husband, Stanley Hyman, was fascinating but sad. They seemed perfect for each other in many ways, but Hyman was a chronic womanizer who remained more interested in his classes (and his young female students) than his family. They had four children together and Jackson identified both as a housewife and a writer. Her emotional struggles were partly, though I imagine not entirely, due to her husband's infidelity and although she considered leaving him, she never did. Franklin was able to gather a lot about Jackson's thoughts and feelings as she was a regular letter-writer throughout her life which are a trove of information.

Because of the time period (roughly 1930s-1960s) I was very interested in some of the social issues of the time. For instance, Stanley Hyman was Jewish and the couple faced a great deal of opposition to their marriage. They were pretty socially progressive for their time, closely befriend the African-American writer Ralph Ellison, and they also counted a couple of gay men among their friends. There's speculation that the character Theodora from The Haunting of Hill House is a lesbian, and that is pretty much confirmed here, Franklin revealing that Theodora was written as a lesbian in an early draft of the novel. Interestingly, Jackson wrote several lesbian characters but also found the idea of lesbianism a bit horrifying. Franklin points out that this was typical of people in her era and class, but I found it an interesting and confusing dichotomy.

There's so much more I'd love to talk about, but this is getting long and I've had to greatly reduce my screen time this week because of an eye issue. So I'll just wrap up by saying how glad I am that I took the plunge into this somewhat lengthy but fascinating book about an author I just haven't read enough of. I want to read more of her short stories and her novel The Sundial. If you're interested in Shirley Jackson, or just enjoy a good biography, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Breathless

Breathless by Beverly Jenkins (2017), narrated by Kim Staunton

At the end of the Beverly Jenkins novel Forbidden, Eddy's little nieces came to live with her and Rhine. Now the girls are grown up and the older one, Portia, is the heroine of this new installment of the Old West series.

The family now lives in Arizona Territory and Portia manages the hotel they own. Although some local men try to romance her, Portia's experience as the daughter of a whore makes her shy away from involvement with men. As much as her little sister Regan hopes for a fairytale romance, Portia is completely uninterested. But then an old family friend returns after a stint in a Mexican prison, and signs on to manage a local ranch, and the two can't deny their attraction.

As far as romances go, there was little keeping these two apart. Portia was resistant at first, of course, but she is happy to befriend Kent, who she hasn't seen since she was quite young. He's obviously trustworthy and kind and cares about her, so it doesn't take much to kindle the sparks between them. This is unusual for a romance, but honestly I'm happy to do without the self-generated angst that the characters need to overcome. Theirs was just a nice story about two people who really deserve each other getting together.

So what is there to keep interest in this story, if not the tension between potential romantic partners? A lot, as it turns out. This is the old west, and there are threats from every direction. When the elderly neighbor died, Rhine bought his ranch and put Kent in charge of it. One of the guys who had been working there was very unhappy about this and did some very bad things. Everyone wanted to form a posse to go after him, but these plans were complicated because Geronimo was on the loose and all the local law enforcement was being used in his search. Meanwhile, some city folk came to stay and witnessed the very bad things that happened, and there was a bit of a brouhaha about that (plus these people were just extremely difficult.) And, Kent's dad decided to try and fix him up with someone who is not Portia. So there's a whole lot going on here that kept me going!

What I like most about these books, I think, are just experiencing this particular time and place. I don't read westerns, but stick in some strong women having romances and I'm more than happy to read about this unfamiliar setting. (See also: Texas Destiny) I'm also learning a lot about the lives of African-Americans in American history, which we just don't get nearly enough of. We learn about slavery, but not what it's like for former slaves and their families just trying to live afterward. In fact, the next story we usually get in black history is the civil rights movement in the 60s. It's nice to get some insight into the lives of black people outside of these two specific eras.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was read by Kim Staunton, also the narrator of Forbidden. Again she did a nice job. During this book, she unfortunately did a couple of non-American accents and that did not go well, but those were short passages that only happened a couple of times. I like her narration enough to listen to her read the next one in the series as well.

Just after finishing this I listened to an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books in which Jenkins was interviewed about her next book. Portia's little sister Regan will start and I am so excited because she is going to Wyoming as a mail-order bride and that is exactly the sort of setup that I love. Can't wait!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

Lily Bart is accustomed to a lavish lifestyle among the highest of New York society. Maintaining it will require a good marriage though, and she is already in her late 20s and getting desperate. It's clear that she is depending very much on others to maintain her place in society and her attempts to secure that place permanently are what contribute to her downfall.

Lily is clearly attracted to Lawrence Selden, and he to her, but he is not rich enough to keep her in the lifestyle which she insists is necessary. So she looks elsewhere for marriage prospects, pursuing Percy Gryce and then Simon Rosedale, neither of whom she actually likes and both of whom she fails to secure. In an attempt to invest what money she has, she seeks help from Gus Trenor, which turns out to be a huge mistake.

Gerty Farish was Lily's most stalwart friend, though ironically everything Lily did was to ensure that she didn't end up like Gerty, who was unmarried and lived alone in a small, modest flat and was excluded from fashionable social circles. I actually really liked Gerty who was probably the most genuine person in the book - being excluded from society means not being beholden to its requirements.

If Lily has a nemesis, it is surely Bertha Dorset, who contributes mightily to Lily's downfall. Bertha is notoriously unfaithful to her husband but deflects attention by spreading rumors and gossip about other people. She uses those around her for personal gain, manipulating them to serve her purposes. Lily comes into some evidence of one of Bertha's affairs and could have used it against her to help secure her place back in society, but in doing so would have also implicated Selden. As much as Lily could have been seen as being shallow and self-serving, she was definitely true to Selden.

I have no idea if high-falutin' New York society was actually anything like this during the Gilded Age, but if so I'm extremely glad I was not a part of it. Navigating one's life required the most intricate military precision, and I don't care how shallow and ridiculous you think these women were, they had to be smart and strategic in a way that I would completely fail at. I would have been eaten alive. At one point Lily laments: "All Jack has to do to get everything he wants is to keep quiet and let that girl marry him; whereas I have to calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance, as if I were going through an intricate dance, where one misstep would throw me hopelessly out of time." The language throughout the book reflected this strategic approach; for instance, when Lily doubts that Bertha Dorset's behavior towards a man will be sufficient to "effect his capture."

I've read three other books by Wharton and I don't recall the writing being so dense, but this took me a full week to read, which is unusual for me. I really enjoyed it until late in the story, and I'm trying not to let the ending color my impression of the whole thing. It did at first, but thinking back on it all to write this post has actually made me feel a bit better about the book as a whole. (It's a totally legit way to end, but just wasn't what I wanted to happen.) The social commentary was excellent and it was absolutely worth reading it just for that.

The House of Mirth was the March selection for the Classic Book a Month Club, and the first that I read for the year. I'll also be participating next month by reading Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which has been on my To Read list since I first had one, and which I managed to not read during my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. This will finally be the year, folks!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is the top 10 books I'm hoping to read this spring.

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This teen book inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement has been getting a ton of buzz. It just came out and I'm on hold for it at the library and hopefully will get it soon. I've heard so many great things about it!

2. The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
I don't even remember where I heard about this, but I immediately put it on hold at the library. It's about three astronauts preparing for a journey to Mars, and one review calls it Station Eleven meets The Martian. Sign me up!

3. American War by Omar El Akkad
In 2074 there is a Second American Civil War and a plague and that is all I need to know. Get in my eyeballs now!

4. The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking
I'm a bit late to the hygge craze but I do enjoy coziness, so better late than never.

5. Bleaker House by Nell Stevens
In this memoir, the author wins a writing fellowship that will allow her to spend three months anywhere in the world she wants to go to research and write a book. Desperate to be free of distractions, she chose a remote island in the Falklands. There's a penguin on the cover. Sold.

6. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I'm suddenly realizing that I'm on hold at the library for all of these books and if I don't get them all at once it will be a miracle. Noah (of The Daily Show) was born in South Africa to a white father and black mother which, at the time, was a crime punishable by prison. This means he had to kept inside and hidden as much as possible until the laws changed. I didn't use to be much of a fan of memoirs, but I'm very intrigued by lives different from my own.

7. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I will finally read this book in April for the Classic Book a Month Club if it's the last thing I do. Seriously, have been wanting to read this book forever and have failed at making it happen.

8. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
I have this on my Personal Reading Challenge for this year. Indeed, I've had a copy out of the library for long enough that I've already renewed it.

9. Alive by Piers Paul Read
One of the categories on my reading challenge is travel/adventure and when looking for likely contenders I was reminded about this story of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes back in the 70s. I've barely read anything set in South America, never mind actual nonfiction.

10. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury
The May selection for the Classic Book a Month Club is a play about working-class African-Americans in Chicago, published in 1959. I think the only other non-Shakespeare play I've ever read was The Cherry Orchard, so this should be an interesting change from my usual reading.

What are you looking forward to reading this spring?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Smell of Other People's Houses

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (2016)

This teen book is told from the perspective of four different kids in Alaska in 1970 as their lives intersect in unexpected ways. First we meet Ruth, who lives with her Gran and her little sister Lily. She has a boyfriend, with whom she makes a very stupid mistake. Dora is Inupiat (Eskimo, not to be confused with Indian, like her Athabascan friend Dumpling) and stays with Dumpling's family because it's not safe at home. Alyce wants to be a ballerina, but her summer fishing trip with her dad may get in the way of a very important audition and she's afraid to ask permission to go. The final narrator is Hank, who stows away on a ferry with his two brothers in an attempt to escape their mother's horrible boyfriend. But their escape doesn't go as planned, which sends their story in a slightly different trajectory.

Ruth's story is most prominent, beginning and ending the novel. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, and the repercussions lead to her learning much more about her family, especially her stern Catholic grandmother. She becomes friendly with Dumpling, not a narrator but still important, and Dora is jealous of their friendship because she considers Dumpling her best friend. I like that the characters are enough in the same circles that we get bits of their stories from each other's narration, because it adds a slightly different perspective and gives them each more depth.

I loved that the story represented native people and families who fish and hunt. It wasn't made a big deal of either. When Alyce casually mentions to Sam that a particular spot was where she shot her first deer, he doesn't act surprised or shocked because he is part of that culture too. And it's a culture that we don't often (ever?) see in teen fiction. We talk a lot about diversity in literature, but I think sometimes we forget how many different kinds of diversity there are; it's not just about race and religion. There are plenty of teens for whom hunting and fishing are a regular part of their lives, and I really liked reading about Alyce's expertise helping aboard her dad's fishing boat.

Considering all that's going on, this is a surprisingly short book. There's nothing I didn't like about it, but I did want more. I know it's a teen book and I was initially pleasantly surprised that it's only 220-ish pages, but in the end I could have been happy with the level of detail usually found in adult fiction. I wanted more about Ruth's time with the nuns, more details about Alyce's family's fishing trips, more background about Sam, Jack, and Hank's troubles with their father, and just more about the time and place in which they lived. This isn't a complaint though, it's really a compliment!

But the short length doesn't mean that Hitchcock skimped on language. Her imagery is simple, but perfectly vivid. Selma has "enormous brown eyes like a seal," and Dora stays with Dumpling's family, where "the whole house smells like it's smothered in gravy." Alyce contrasts the lush greenery of Southeast Alaska with home: "Up north the skinny black spruce trees like like they're constantly trying to fill their lungs, their roots suffocating in permafrost." I also enjoyed unfamiliar details of Alaskan life, like the frequent snacking on pilot bread, which I hadn't heard of before, but is apparently similar to hardtack.

Reading two books in a row set in Alaska really just strengthens my desire to visit, even though they were both set in earlier times and I imagine things have changed. I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult book group and I'm really looking forward to our discussion and learning what they all thought of it. If you like teen fiction and want something a little different from the usual fare, I recommend picking this one up!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (2016)

In the 1800s, the Wolverine River in Alaska was still uncharted and impassible. Colonel Allen Forrester is tasked with navigating the Wolverine with a very small group of men, in hopes of making Alaska more accessible for mining. At their small cabin in a military barracks in Washington, he leaves behind his new wife Sophie, a budding naturalist who is pregnant with their first child. The story is told primarily through journal entries, moving back and forth between Allen and Sophie. In another layer to the story, a present-day elderly man named Walt donates some artifacts belonging to Allen and Sophie to a small museum in Alaska, prompting letters between himself and a young man named Josh, who is the museum caretaker.

The basic setup reminds me a lot of Above All Things by Tanis Rideout, the dual story of George Mallory's Everest expedition and the day-to-day life of his wife waiting at home with their children. But the similarities end there. Allen's story is one of exploration and hardship in an extreme climate, but his group has a lot of contact with indigenous people and they witness some extraordinary sights they cannot explain. Meanwhile, Sophie has a story all of her own. While she misses Allen deeply, she is having some adventures of her own. Enthralled with birds, she has been keeping a field journal for quite some time, but she doesn't feel like her drawings do them justice. She sets out to learn photography, and becomes completely engrossed in her new passion. It is, of course, not seemly for a young woman to turn her pantry into a darkroom, leaving all her flour and other supplies out on a table in plain sight, but it is clear that Sophie is unlike other young women.

Indeed, she had been planning to accompany Allen on the first, and less dangerous, leg of his journey. But when she learned she was pregnant, her doctor insisted she stay behind. He was an insufferably paternalistic man who chose to conceal facts of her own health from her because women are too delicate to handle anything the least bit upsetting. Sophie has already endured at least one horrific episode on her life, which we learn later on in the book, so she is much stronger than many would assume. Still, she must endure the gossip of local ladies who disapprove of her new hobby and like to question her, "What would Allen think?" Rightly, she feels Allen would be fully supportive of her interest in photography, because theirs is a love based on really understanding what is unique about each other.

 Their relationship may have been my favorite aspect of this story, and I'm sorry that they were separated throughout most of it. I loved all of Sophie's story though, and the way she navigated her social circle and ignored their disapproval in favor of following her own path. Allen's story of exploration in Alaska was also good, of course, though I'm not enraptured enough by indigenous tales of magical phenomena to be as interested in that part. But that's just my own preference. It was still a good story all around.

Ivey is also the author of The Snow Child, which I absolutely loved. It's hard to compare the two since they're pretty different stories and I read them several years apart, but I think I loved her first book best. Still, To the Bright Edge of the World was captivating and beautifully written and you shouldn't miss it if you enjoyed The Snow Child. I know I'll be looking forward to whatever she writes next.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (2003), narrated by Jim Dale

I have spent the last solid month listening to the longest volume in the Harry Potter series. (And honestly, I thought it was more than a month, but not according to my record on Goodreads.) It begins, as usual, at the Dursley's in the summer while Harry bides his time before getting to go back to Hogwarts. He ends up using magic (for a very good reason!) and going on trial, then learns that many of his professors are part of a group called the Order of the Phoenix. The activities surrounding the return of He Who Shall Not Be Named are putting everyone on guard, and the Ministry of Magic has responded by sending Dolores Umbridge to Hogwart's to oversee activities at school. She is horrible and makes everyone miserable, and some of the regulars (like Hagrid) are away on Order of the Phoenix business and are unable to help.

New faces in this book include the aforementioned Dolores Umbridge as well as Tonks and Luna Lovegood. We are also introduced to the Room of Requirement, one of my favorite magical items. Harry is having very strange dreams about visiting the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic. Meanwhile, he is forced to study Occlumency with Professor Snape, and in the process learns some unsavory things about his father. There were some great subplots, such as Hagrid's trip to see the giants, the story of Neville Longbottom's parents, and Harry's romantic pursuit of Cho Chang. There's a lot in this book and it's all quite wonderful (except for the death of a major character).

The whole thing is oddly relevant to current events: radical groups mobilizing in secret against evil, fake news (that Rita Skeeter!), and a horrible troll wrecking the education system. (Maybe if we're lucky Betsy DeVos will also be carried away by centaurs in the end.) So it was actually great timing that I was listening to this when I was. It was a comfort.

I was quite hesitant to listen to such a long audiobook - indeed, it's more than twice the length of any other book I've listened to. But I never got bored because the story was so action-packed and of course Rowling's style is just so easy to get engrossed in. I've only got two books left in the series, both of which are much shorter, and I'm very much looking forward to finishing the series (again!)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Buddhism Without Beliefs

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor (1997)

Last year I read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and the author included some recommended titles for people wanting to read more about meditation. I added "self-help/meditation" as a category for my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge and decided to read one of the titles recommended by Harris to fulfill that category.

Buddhism Without Beliefs is a very short book (115 pages) that is rather self-explanatory from the title. It's basically an introduction to Buddhism from a non-religious perspective. Batchelor presents the origins of Buddhism from the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his teachings and argues that he was never a mystic who claimed to have information about the universe or life after or death or any of the other things that would qualify his teachings as a religion. The book lays out some of his teachings, pointing out that they aren't things to believe in, but things to do. Short chapters cover various aspects of these teachings and provide some specific meditation instructions.

The only other thing I've read about Buddhism was also nonreligious (The Wise Heart) so I'm afraid I'm unsure what a religious version of Buddhism would look like. Batchelor goes into that a little bit here when he talks about the ways others have taught Buddhism, just to differentiate it from the way he sees it. But I am not at all a religious person, so I prefer to take the Buddha's teachings as a philosophy, a way to view and live in the world.

Despite how short it is, I found the book a bit difficult to get into. At the beginning there was a lot of abstract discussion, such as "In the cessation of craving, we touch that dimension of experience that is timeless: the playful, unimpeded contingency of things emerging from conditions only to become conditions for something else." Every sentence is pretty much like that, and I really need to be alert to read this sort of thing. But I got the gist of it, and the writing became more accessible to me later on.

I kind of feel like books about Buddhism and meditation should be read very slowly in order to contemplate it all fully. Unfortunately, that's not the way I read. I do take notes though, so I've gone back and re-read parts that resonated with me or that I wanted to remind myself of. It definitely covers some of the same ground as The Wise Heart, (i.e. feelings are fleeting, our unhappiness comes from craving what we do not have, etc.) but of course it always bears repeating and reminding. I just wish I could remember these things at times when I'm not reading a book about it. It would come in handy during my daily life, which I suppose is just reason to read more books like this.

I know there's a lot here but it felt unsubstantial and I couldn't remember much by the time I finished. This is no fault of the book, but of the way that I read and the sorts of books I enjoy. This is why nonfiction is a challenge to me. I do want to continue learning more about meditation though. If you have suggestions of other ways to do so (blogs? podcasts?) let me know in the comments!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Miss Jane

Miss Jane by Brad Watson (2016)

In Mississippi in 1915, Jane Chisolm was born with a genital abnormality that left her incontinent and unable to do what a woman was meant to do: get married and have children. She grows up knowing that she is different, her parents keeping her out of school and, therefore, away from other children. Jane doesn't make friends with other kids her own age, though she maintains a close relationship with the doctor who delivered her and continues to monitor medical developments in hopes of corrective surgery for her one day. Spanning Jane's entire life, this novel illustrates all the ways big and small that an accident of birth can affect someone.

Jane's father is a decent guy, but drinks too much of his own home brew. Her mother is unhappy and cold, and her older sister, Grace, just wants to get away from them all and live her own life in town. Jane is not surrounded by a warm, loving family but Dr. Thompson fulfills the role of a caring adult who does as much for her upbringing as any parent. He is so thoughtful and caring and open-minded, carefully choosing his words when giving her advice or breaking bad news to her. It was clear that he cared a lot for her and wanted her to live the best possible life. I loved Dr. Thompson.

Jane mostly shied away from getting to know anyone outside of her family. Her foray into the local school was short-lived due to the inconveniences and embarrassment of her incontinence. She wouldn't eat or drink anything until lunchtime, and then just a tiny bit to hold her over until dinner. She became very thin and still anxious about having an accident at school. Ultimately, it just wasn't worth it. She did make a friend once, a boy from a neighboring farm, but it was clear their feelings went beyond friendship and that relationship had to be nipped in the bud.

Mostly, Jane enjoyed living on her family's farm, helping out as much as she could while observing the beauty and harshness of the natural world all around her. She may have lacked eroticism in her own life, but she saw it everywhere else. Watson's descriptions of farm life and the natural world are worth the price of the book alone (though, admittedly, I got it for free from the library.) The lively, complex natural world comes alive beautifully in these pages and added vibrancy to a life that otherwise seemed a bit limited. I couldn't feel bad for Jane living in such a lush, wonderful world.

This novel is driven by character, not plot, and getting to know Jane throughout her life was a pleasure. She suffered hardships and loss, but she also experienced much that was pleasant and satisfying, and she was quite content with who she was. Miss Jane was a beautiful and satisfying reading experience, and one I highly recommend.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sugar Changed the World

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (2010)

In this nonfiction book for teens, two authors who discovered they both had sugar in their family history attempt to tell the story of sugar - tracing its history and examining its relationship to slavery. The scope spans the globe and a very large portion of human history, condensing it all into just 125 pages, including photos and illustrations.

I've wanted to read this book for quite a while. It's been on the local high school summer reading list for several years, so there are always lots of copies at my library in the summer. My Not-So-Young Adult book group at work often enjoys non-fiction, so we finally picked it.

Although I was drawn in by the stories of sugar production and the lives of the slaves transported in order to work on the plantations, only parts of the book were as compelling as I had hoped. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same problems as many textbooks I had to read in school, which is that it often lays out principles and events in an abstract way that is very difficult, if not possible, to visualize.

For instance, geopolitical events were mentioned but not really explained, like "...the Roman Empire began to crumble," which is the sort of thing that used to drive me nuts as a kid (and, if I'm being honest, now) because what does that actually mean? What does it look like? There's a section late on in the book describing those who ruled the sugar colonies saying "...they often used the courts to maintain control, not to administer justice." As an adult who has learned a fair amount over the years, I can imagine what this might mean, but I think a teenager would maybe read this sentence and just sort of shrug and keep going. Other pieces of information were just left out. We learn about how thousands of people were brought from Africa to the Caribbean islands to work on the sugar plantations, but I really wanted to know who was there before the Europeans and the Africans. Were there natives, or were these islands uninhabited?

This was all frustrating, but at the same time I understand that the scope of this book was enormous and if everything I felt was missing was to be added, it would probably be 400 pages long and I'd never read it. Some omissions, however, were less excusable. There was a decent amount about indentured workers, but what that meant was never clearly explained. A simple, clear definition would have sufficed. The Haitian Revolution was described, but never named. If I read this as a kid and was later asked if I knew anything about the Haitian Revolution, I'd probably think that well, I read something about a revolution in Haiti, but was it THE revolution?

I had other minor quibbles with it as well. The authors set out to pull their own family histories into the story, but didn't follow through. In a couple of parts the text would promise that this is where Marc or Marina's family would come into the story, but then never mentioned them again. There was also some jumping around in time and geography that I thought was a little confusing. They presented sugar as being extremely central to things like the industrial revolution and the Louisiana Purchase (which they suggested should have been called the Sugar Purchase) and maybe it had an important role, but I wonder if it was really as central as they were making it out to be.

At the same time, I really like that the authors wrote about the history of slavery and abolition (and various other things) by focusing on the production of sugar. Sugar is something we're all familiar with and descriptions of its production and role are easily described and give us something concrete with which to surround all of these more abstract concepts. I think this book would be great in a classroom where there's lot of discussion and many of the concepts that are only touched upon could be more fully explained and discussed to help everyone understand the larger concept. Upon reading it, I'm very disappointed at its inclusion on the summer reading list, since that means it's meant to be read independently over the summer without any discussion or context.

My overall feeling was that the book was only ok. However, I'm guessing my view isn't a popular one, especially since this book has won awards including a Best Book of the Year Award from School Library Journal. I learned some things from it, but it wasn't the pleasurable or exciting read that I had hoped for.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Wild Rose

The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly (2011)

The third and final book of the Tea Rose trilogy follows Seamus Finnegan, brother of the two subjects of the previous books, and Willa Alden, the daring adventurer and love of his life. Previously, they had been hiking Kilimanjaro together when Willa became badly injured. Seamus managed to get her to safety, but her leg could not be saved. Though Willa begged Seamus to let her die, he insisted the doctor operate, and Willa was so upset she didn't want to see him again. Except that she's just as madly in love with him as he is with her, so in this book they continue to come together and separate, come together and separate, like some sort of tidal movement.

The Great War is upon us now, which gives this book a slightly different tenor from the others. A large part of the novel is also set in Arabia, where Willa is traveling with her friend Tom Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia. There is a great deal of drama, anguish, and near death for both Seamus and Willa, as well as those around them. Things keep happening that seem like they will be kept apart forever, but based on the first two books I knew that was not a real possibility. The fun, though, is figuring out how they'll get around the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Oh, and there's a whole subplot involving spies blackmailing others into helping them out.

The characters we got to know in the last two books are here again, too. Fiona and Joe have a whole batch of kids now, and India and Sid travel from California to London and are around for much of the story too. The family runs a hospital in England for soldiers returning to the war. Fiona and Joe's oldest daughter, Katie, has begun a political newspaper and hopes to follow in her father's footsteps by running for office. Oddly, a woman could run for office before she being old enough to vote during this time.

There's over 600 pages just packed with all these people (and more!) and their lives over the course of several years, but I read it in just 6 days. It's not only an immersive reading experience, but one that's very easy to jump right into every time I sat down with it. Sometimes it takes me a while to get into a book when I sit down with it, but every time I picked this up the very first words would draw me right in.

One of the things I like the most about this series is that it doesn't matter how long it's been since reading the last one. Each one is about different characters, and though characters from previous books are present and their stories still relevant, Donnelly gently reminds us of those stories without huge info dumps.

Through much of the book, I felt that it was probably my least favorite of the series because of the wartime setting. But there's a spy story here which, even though I'm not into spy stories, got really really good and by the end, I liked this one every bit as much as the others.

I can't believe these books haven't not yet been adapted for the screen. They'd make an excellent series, with each book providing enough story for a whole season. There's so much fodder here, what with all the relationship drama, secrets, war, travel, adventure, and dangerous villains. I really loved this series from beginning to end.

This is the third book I've finished for my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge, which normally would make me feel like I'm ahead of the game. However, since I added more to my reading challenge this year I'm only feeling like I'm not quite behind. The part of the challenge that involves specific titles is going fine, but the categories all feel very uncertain so I may need to buckle down soon and make some decisions about what books I want to read for each.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The One Hundred Nights of Hero

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (2016)

This inventive graphic novel begins with a creation story of Early Earth. From there, it becomes a tale about two men and a bet. A husband will be leaving his wife, Cherry, for 100 nights and when his friend doubts her loyalty and obedience, they make a bet: if he can seduce her while her husband is away, he will win her and her husband's castle. But he doesn't count on her cleverness or her devotion to her true love, a woman named Hero. Cherry knows if she doesn't submit to this guy he'll just take her by force, but when she requests they hear a story told by Hero before going to bed, he relents. Hero begins storytelling and one story leads to another and the man is captivated. So, of course, is the reader.

Like Scheherazade saving her own life by telling tales in One Thousand and One Nights, Hero tries to spare the life of her love, Cherry. But although I'm not very familiar with that story, I'm fairly certain this one is much more feminist. These stories are primarily about women protecting each other, usually from men, and many are about sisters.

I really enjoyed the art work a lot. Color is used sparingly but boldly, and I really liked the visual style of the writing. Small panels are interspersed with larger and full-page artwork that was quite striking.

I've not read anything else by this author, but she has apparently written other books that take place in Early Earth. The Goodreads description says it can be read as a standalone, though it doesn't say much else.

I probably wouldn't have picked up this book based on a description of the plot. As I said, I'm not terribly familiar with One Thousand and One Nights and I'm not especially drawn to it. But I read about this on a book blog somewhere and whatever the blogger said about it made me immediately request it from the library. When it came, I couldn't remember why I wanted it, but trusted it was for a good reason. It was!

If you like feminist retellings of classics in graphic novel form, you should definitely check this out!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Her Every Fear

Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson (2017)

Kate Priddy has always been anxious, but a few years ago a traumatic experience with an ex-boyfriend put her over the edge. She is finally ready to leave the safety of her parents' house and agrees to apartment-swap with a second cousin she's never met. He'll come to London for work and stay her flat; she'll travel to Boston and stay in his Beacon Hill apartment and take classes. But the day after she arrives, the next-door neighbor is found murdered. Did her cousin Corbin have something to do with it? And what of the kind but somewhat-creepy neighbor Alan, whose apartment gives him a perfect view through the murdered woman's windows? Kate doesn't know who to trust, and neither do we.

Everything about Kate's experiences were tinged with creepiness. Because she had been subject to violence in the past and was still haunted by it, she often doubted her instincts. She would hear a sound or find something out-of-place in the apartment and grow suspicious, but then assume she was just being paranoid. She also had compulsions whereby as soon as a thought entered her head - like when she found a key to Corbin's basement storage unit and wondered if it contained clues - she had to check on it. If she didn't, she would be convinced something dark was lurking there. The whole setup just added to it: she's staying in a cousin's apartment but has never met him, there's a cat that comes and goes throughout the building, sneaking into apartments whenever he feels like it, Alan Cherney across the way admits he used to watch the murdered woman through her window, and a mysterious man who claimed to be a good friend of the victim starts hanging around, chumming up to the building's residents. So many things add to the creepy atmosphere and the feelings of uncertainty experienced by more than just Kate.

I really want to talk about Corbin and his story, but I'll have to reserve that conversation to have with someone who's read the book because it's too good to spoil. Let's just say I had some conflicting feelings about this cleverly-crafted character.

This plot involved a lot of violence against women, the sort we sometimes hear about in the news. A man is spurned or humiliated by a woman and lashes out, maybe at that woman or just women in general (because we are all the same.) It's especially sickening because it's so real. But it goes even farther. There is more than one murder in this novel, and we get parts of the story from the perspective of a murderer and I found it incredibly disturbing. It was worth it in the end, but be warned if your tolerance for vileness has limits.

I was very tense the entire time I was reading this suspenseful story. Kate was a fantastic protagonist who I rooted for. I didn't know who else to trust. Alan seemed nice enough so I hoped that he was a good guy, despite being a little off. The whole premise of the story was great, and it was executed very well. If you can stand a lot of violence and creepiness, I highly recommend it. I'd also encourage you to check out Swanson's last novel, The Kind Worth Killing.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Compartment No. 6

Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom (2011)

A young, unnamed Finnish woman leaves Moscow on a train heading for Mongolia. She is most unfortunately joined in her compartment by a boorish man who discusses women and sex openly and crudely. The woman is put off by him, but as time passes they slowly form an unlikely friendship of sorts.

Slowly over the course of the novel we learn about why the woman is taking this trip, what it is she's getting away from, and eventually feels ready to face. But at first we hear only her stated reason for travel, which is to see some petroglyphs, and learn that she has recently been in a relationship that maybe hasn't been going so well.

She hardly speaks at all during the novel. She doesn't have to, as her crude compartment partner talks a lot in between drinking vodka, which he chases with bites of raw onion. He tells a lot of stories, as do others she meets on her journey. But the woman is mostly silent, looking out the train windows at the landscapes and towns they pass.

These descriptions were, for me, the primary beauty of the novel. It all feels so real. For a while I've fantasized about doing just this - taking a train all across the vast expanse of Russia - and Liksom brought this experience vividly to life. The images of broken down equipment, maimed and dead animals, and the harsh landscapes were startling and beautiful. Adding to this tableau was the ever-present soundtrack of classical music by Russian composers being piped through the train.

The girl looked out of the icy, windblown rear window at Russia's wild beauty. A sparkling, violet-yellow cloud of snow covered the entire landscape as they passed, sometimes forming a wake of snow and flakes of ice that trailed behind them like a veil. A frosty field of thistles glittered and gazed darkly from the edge of the forest. Far off on the horizon a pink powdery smoke drifted, thick clouds broke up and flapped like a child's sheets in the sky.

Whenever I read such lovely writing in a translated work, it makes me wish I knew how it compared to the original. But, alas, I don't read Finnish so I'll trust that what I'm reading is true in tone and style to what the author created.

But it's not just 200 pages of a woman staring out of a train window while a man tells her stories of the debaucheries of his youth. There were stops along the way, the train breaking down or needing to stop for a couple of days so the engine could cool. During these times the woman went into the towns, even taking a hotel room now and again, meeting a few people and stocking up on provisions. This is the Soviet Union though, so these excursions meant standing in long lines and buying not necessarily what she needed, but what was available.

This novel is not plot-driven by any means. The bits of conversation or visits in various towns are broken up by long stretches of quiet descriptions of what the woman sees as she travels. I loved experiencing the journey vicariously through this young woman and I was, in turn, disgusted and amused by the man she was forced to share it with. If you too would like to take a train journey across Russia, you might well enjoy this novel.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Grandville

Grandville by Bryan Talbot (2009)

In this alternate history graphic novel, Britain lost the Napoleonic War and fell under French rule for decades. When it was finally cut free, it remained a minor nation connected to France by a bridge. The relationship between the two nations was strained. The story begins with the death of a diplomat, which brings Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard into the story to investigate.

It's not just the political history that is different here. This is a steampunk world with flying dirigibles, steam carriages, automatons, and anthropomorphic animals. The only humans in the story are menial workers referred to as "doughfaces." They're described as "a hairless breed of chimpanzee that evolved in the town of Angouleme, near Bordeaux. Never granted citizens' rights." The other characters are various animals, all dressed up in clothes. Weirdly though, there are anthropomorphic dog characters, but then other dogs that just look like regular dogs on leashes, being walked by clothes-wearing animals in top hats. It's kind of strange.

DI LeBrock, a badger, was accompanied by Detective Ratzi, a very dapper rat with a monocle and a cane, who I was rather fond of. There's much character development though; this is a more plot-driven story. As the pair investigates the diplomat's death, reported as a suicide but most assuredly not, they begin to uncover more suspicious deaths that had been reported as suicides and which were all connected to a political plot. It was a pretty good story and I liked this strange world of animals and steam power and robots.

The art is similar to Talbot's other books and I quite like it a lot. It's detailed and vibrant and pleasing to the eye.

Note the crocodile walking his dog. As one does.


Talbot also designed the endpapers, which are gorgeous as you can see on the right.

I've had this book on my shelf since impulsively buying it several years ago at a local comic book store. I loved his books The Tale of One Bad Rat and Alice in Sunderland, and he even co-authored the informative Sally Heathcote: Suffragette. So I had reason to snatch it up when I did. I can't explain, however, why it has languished on my shelf for so long. For a while there I had completely forgotten that I owned it. Luckily, I came across it while planning what to put on my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge and made a commitment to read it this year. Mission accomplished!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Good Braider

The Good Braider by Terry Farish (2012)

Growing up in war-torn Sudan, Viola lived in fear for her life and dreamed of going away to someplace safe. Her family had a cousin in Portland, Maine who promised to try and help them come to the US. Viola and her mother and little brother start their difficult and long journey and eventually they do make it to Maine. But now they face difficulties of another kind: fitting in to this new and very different world.

I'm always intrigued by stories of immigrants trying to make a home in a new and different country, though I don't come by them often. I've been wanting to read this for a couple of years, but kept putting it off because it's written in verse. I had imagined it would be like reading a very long, dense poem. But it's not at all. Here's a sample:

Women come to our courtyard for my mother's braids.
When I was young my little fingers
rode on her long narrow ones.
Her fingers danced over my cousins' hair like feathers,
shaping twists and lines with a single tiny bead
slipped on the end.
I learned to braid by feel more than sight.
My mother calls me by two names, Viola, for Jesus,
and Keji, for firstborn girl.
"All men in Sudan will want to marry you," she used to say.
"You are a girl from Juba."

That is much easier and more pleasant to read than I had expected and I now feel more encouraged to read books written in verse. They aren't common, but another I've been putting off despite my interest is A Time To Dance by Padma Venkatraman which I now feel much more likely to read.

Although she uses very spare prose, Farish somehow manages to convey the sights, sounds, and feelings quite intensely in just over 200 pages. I read this book in a day, but the images will most definitely stay with me for much longer.

The reader isn't spared from the violence of war in Sudan, though it's also not described in graphic detail. It's not necessary; we know what happened and it's still upsetting. When the family arrives in the U.S., they face a quite different set of struggles. Viola is relieved to be safe and to have a large apartment and a job and school. But when she tries to make friends with Americans and learn their ways, she comes up against her mother's strict rules and adherence to African traditions. Those traditions even conflict with the law at times. This cultural clash is reflective of many newcomers to this country, though we generally just expect everyone to assimilate immediately. This story illustrates how difficult that can be.

When I learned that the author is a white American woman, I was a little disappointed. On the other hand, she did an impressive job of creating a voice that is surely very different from her own. According to the acknowledgements, she has spent a lot of time with Sudanese refugees in Portland so it's clear this wasn't a project she took on lightly. I don't know of any other books for teens on this topic so I'm definitely glad she wrote it!

Anyone who enjoys teen books and wants to read more about other cultures should definitely give this book a chance.