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!