Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Top Ten Series I've Been Meaning to Start

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is series we haven't yet read but want to.

1. The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemisin

The first book, The Fifth Season, sounded so great when I first heard about it but I wanted to wait for the whole series to be out before starting it. Otherwise I run into that problem where a new book is released but I can't remember what happened in the last book. But I can't wait to finally read this apocalyptic story. N.K. Jemisin is one of very few black women who write science fiction and I hear she's really really good at it.

2. Cormoran Strike by Robert Galbraith

I love J.K. Rowling and I've heard great reviews of her mystery series, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Her style is so friendly and humorous I'll read anything she writes. I've had Cuckoo's Calling on my radar since it came out, but somehow it just never seems quite the right time to start it.

3. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I'll be honest: part of the reason I've been wanting to read this series is because of the covers. The series of 4 books is both science fiction and fantasy with fairy tale elements - basically, it's everything. I've been trying to decide if I want to tackle it on audio. I hear it's great, but the books are pretty long and I do prefer shorter audiobooks. It's a conundrum.

4. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

There was a lot of hype when this first came out, but I heard the series was consistently good from beginning to end. I put it off so all the books would be released and then by the time they all were, I had moved on. But every time I see it mentioned I think I should pick it up (someday!)

5. Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

I feel like everyone was reading this series at the same time as Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The first book of this fantasy is Shadow and Bone, which I came really close to reading a couple of times but somehow still haven't.

6. Bill Hodges Trilogy by Stephen King

I've honestly never heard it called that - it's always the Mr. Mercedes series when people talk about it. At any rate, I can't keep up with Stephen King so here I am, having missed this entire mystery series.

These next three I've actually started by reading one book a long, long time ago and then not continuing.

7. The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Speaking of not being able to keep up with Stephen King! I read The Gunslinger back in high school and I think maybe it wasn't as much my sort of thing as King's other books so I didn't keep going. I had in my head that this was a long series, though I just looked it up and there are only 8 books. My vague plan for this series has been that someday Stephen King will die and I will feel very sad, and then I'll remember there's a whole long series of his that I haven't yet read.

8. MadAddam by Margaret Atwood

I read the first book, Oryx and Crake, when it first came out and always meant to get to the second. But, as often happens, I couldn't even remember the first one by then so I just stopped. I've actually been planning to read the whole thing in the next year or so.

9. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Of course I've read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe multiples times. Who hasn't? But it's ridiculous that I never read any other book in the series.

I guess I only have nine. Or, if you count the two series I've read but really want to read again, eleven:

Jessica Darling by Megan McCafferty

For years I've suffered under the delusion that I only ever read the first book and I kept thinking I should finally get around to reading the rest of it. Then I was looking through the little notebook where I've been listing every book I've read since mid-2000 and saw that I've read the whole series. Anyhow, I went to my local bookstore and bought all three books with plans to reread the series sometime in the definite future.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I loved this series on audiobook! According to my aforementioned book-tracking notebook I read the whole thing a second time, which I didn't remember doing. But kind of. I think I read it in print that time. Anyhow, now that Pullman has announced another series related to that series I want to read it all again in preparation. I think I'll listen to the audio again because it was really wonderful.

Are there any series that you keep meaning to read but haven't? Share in the comments!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Freedom Summer Murders

The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell (2014)

In the summer of 1964, three young men who were in Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer effort to register African-Americans to vote. While there, they were killed by the Ku Klux Klan, with the help of local police. This book, written for teens, introduces readers to the three young men, the terrible events of that summer day, and the long journey to try and bring those responsible to justice.

The book begins with an overview of conditions for blacks in the South in the 1960s, Mississippi's resistance of compliance with integration, and the rise of the KKK. Then the facts of the murders are recounted. The next three chapters focus on the lives of each victim: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The rest of the book recounts the efforts to find and punish the people responsible.

This book reads like a typical nonfiction book for young people. It's a horrifying story, and pretty shocking when you think about how recent it actually was, but it wasn't especially thrilling to read. Honestly, I just wanted to be reading a novel. But we picked this for my book group at work and I did actually want to learn about this dark event in our history.

While I was reading this book, the verdict in Philando Castile's murder was announced. Calling the verdict a miscarriage of justice is putting it really, really mildly and I think my rage was compounded by the fact that I was reading a book in which a cop helped murder civil rights workers because he was horribly racist. I mean, seriously, United States, will you ever learn? It's as though nothing has changed. Of course, today's killings of black men by police aren't intentional, they are "misunderstandings," and somehow that makes it totally fine for these killers to remain unaccountable.

All that to say that this book is still really relevant today, sadly. I'd be surprised if something this blatantly racist happened and the perpetrators got away with it (though maybe not in Mississippi, based on what I've heard) but we've still got a long, long way to go before we achieve racial equality. The author does a good job of relaying that as well, and putting this story in a larger context.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Summer Before the War

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)

Beatrice Nash arrives at the small town of Rye in the summer of 1914, where she will be working as a Latin teacher. She is still getting over the recent death of her father, and her new independence - and conviction never to marry - are what has made her so determined to secure full-time employment. Her champion in securing this job is Agatha Kent, and Beatrice quickly befriends Agatha and her nephews, Daniel and Hugh. Over the summer, Beatrice tutors some youngsters, including a very intellectually promising Gypsy boy known as Snout. She also becomes closer with Hugh, though just as friends (obviously!) as he is sort of engaged to the daughter of his mentor. But as the months go on, war looms ever closer and the pleasant summer must come to an end.

The first effects of the war on the town of Rye are felt with the arrival of refugees from Belgium. Everyone is behind the war effort and wants to look patriotic, and many offer to take in refugees. But they want children, and many are disappointed that refugees often are entire families, which goes to show just how much of this generosity is genuine. This is symptomatic of the small-minded people in this town, who are constantly insinuating, manipulating others, and trying to keep in company of those who have secure, respectful positions in society.

Beatrice is far too practical for all of this, and we get to see over and over the way she bucks society's views of what is appropriate. She takes in a refugee, and then defends her when she is suddenly looked upon less favorably. She also supports young Snout for a scholarship, although he is viewed as an inappropriate candidate - despite his intelligence and interest in academia - simply because of his Romani background. Beatrice is also continually frustrated at the way men make decisions for women, and are completely allowed to do so. For a single woman like herself, this is especially difficult and even dangerous. I really loved Beatrice, for her intelligence, sense of justice, practical mind, and boundless compassion.

After last fall's U.S. presidential election I put up a display in the library about kindness and compassion, which had seemed in short supply for the entire interminable campaign season. This book was recommended to me as a candidate for that display, and now I can see why. Beatrice was welcomed to Rye so kindly by Agatha and her family, and then several of them took in refugees out of a genuine sense of compassion for those fleeing war. Agatha maintained a friendly relationship with Snout's Gypsy grandmother, despite the fact that she was ostracized by a large portion of the town. Many of the characters put their personal interests aside to take care of each other when needed, and became distraught when they were unable to successfully champion another's interest. A man leaving to go to war asked Beatrice to write to him, clearly insinuating feelings she didn't reciprocate, but although she was taken aback at his assumption, she softened when thinking about the dangers he faced and relented to write him some friendly words from home. It was all wonderfully heartwarming without being over sentimental or trite.

The story progressed at a rather slow pace - and it was long so it took me over a week to read - but I didn't mind at all because I so enjoyed spending time with these characters. I honestly don't know why it took me so long to get to this book, because I loved Simonson's last book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. But I can thank my Personal Reading Challenge for finally pushing me to read it.

Monday, June 12, 2017

If I Was Your Girl

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (2016), narrated by Samia Mounts

Amanda Hardy has just moved in with her dad in Lambertville, Tennesse. She is hoping to start over after being badly beaten by some kids at her whole school. Just a few years ago Amanda was known as Andrew, but now that she is finally living as her true self she needs to be free of her past and away from people who know what she's been through and don't understand her. In her new school, Amanda quickly makes friends and catches the eye of a boy named Grant who she soon starts dating. But no matter how many times her trans mentor, Virginia, tells her that she doesn't owe anyone the truth of her past, Amanda can't help feeling like she can't keep her secret forever.

I listened to most of this book while driving back from Maine last weekend, so I wasn't able to take notes to remind myself about details. But I got so wrapped up in this story, and really felt for Amanda. Aside from the narrow-minded people who made her life miserable because she was trans, the characters were very realistic and flawed and less simple than they may seem on the surface. One of Amanda's friends was a fundamentalist Christian (or at least her family was), but she wasn't especially bigoted. Another friend was bisexual (or maybe pansexual?) and an obvious ally, but maybe not as much of an ally as Amanda thinks. Amanda's parents, too, were pretty sympathetic figures. Her father had especially struggled to understand what it means to be Amanda, but despite this he still loved her and defended her. One of my favorite passages in the book was when Amanda catches her mother crying over photos of her as a child - back when she was known as Andrew - and her mother talks to her about how kids are always changing into someone new. She cried over infant photos when Amanda was a toddler, and toddler photos when she was older. This was a surprise to Amanda who assumed her mother was crying because she wasn't Andrew anymore, and in a way it was, but not the way that Amanda expected.

Her relationship with Grant had me worried throughout much of the book. Her secret was totally hanging over her the whole time, which is completely understandable, and she didn't know if she could trust him. In many ways he was a typical small-town guy, but there was something she knew about him that made her think maybe she could count on him to try and be understanding. When everything finally came out (because of course it did, and in a painful way) the reaction from people around her was both upsetting and heartening. In short, it was complicated. But ultimately I felt quite satisfied with the resolution and with (most of) Amanda's friends. She definitely had some true friends in Lambertville, even though she hadn't been living there very long.

This was the second teen book in a row that I listened to which took place in a rural area, and that made me quite happy. Being trans in the rural South is probably not easy, but the thing about small towns is that there aren't a ton of people there so when you become someone's friend it's really worth it to remain their friend, even when they turn out to be different than you thought. You're going to just keep seeing the same people all the time and it's really in your interest to get along with them as much as possible. In a city, it's easy to discard friends and not care about strangers but in a rural area there aren't any strangers.

I was very happy to earn that the author is trans herself. At the end of the book, she includes some notes about why the wrote the story the way she did, pointing out that it was very different from her own life. She admits that many aspects of the book were perhaps unrealistic for many trans people, but she wanted to make the story as relatable as possible to as many people as possible. Some of the reviewers on Goodreads take issue with this, and with the fact they don't think she confronts enough issues in the book.  I respect their opinions but also think there is real value in creating a character and story that can be sort of a gateway book for people who aren't as open to the trans experience. Not to mention, a book about a trans character that contains more positive experiences than negative ones is a great (and necessary!) way to show that being trans is normal, and we really really need that, especially for teens. I really enjoyed the story a lot and would be totally happy if Meredith Russo wrote a follow-up about Amanda's experiences in college. (Hint hint.)

Friday, June 9, 2017

Ramona Blue

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy (2017), narrated by Therese Plummer

In the small town of Eulogy, Mississippi Ramona stood out in many ways: a lesbian with blue hair who stood at more than six feet tall, she ....confident that she needed to take care of her pregnant sister, Hattie, and that she was outgoing the crowded trailer where the girls lived with their father and, now, Hattie's boyfriend. Yet this was her life and always would be. College is out of the picture with the coming responsibility of her new niece or nephew. When her childhood friend Freddie returns, they're both happy to leap back into their friendship. But soon it turns into something more, and Ramona begins questioning a lot that she has always taken for granted.

First of all, I'm so glad to see a new teen book set in a small town in the South. Teen books set in rural areas was on my recent reading wishlist. Thank you, Julie Murphy, for making my reading wishes come true! (And stay tuned for my next audiobook review, which is ALSO a teen book set in a rural area!) Murphy really captured the feeling of living in a small town where you know everyone and kind of feel like you're outgrowing everything, and for Ramona this was especially complicated because of her sister's pregnancy. Hattie's relationships tended to be brief so Ramona had no illusions the father would remain in the picture. And the family had almost nothing - they lost everything in hurricane Katrina when Ramona was five and it took them a long time to get back in a stable place. Ramona has a couple of jobs so she can contribute to the family income, and with a baby on the way, finances are even more strained. It's not hard to see why she thinks college is out of the question.

When the story opens, Ramona is trying to navigate a long-distance relationship with Grace, who came to Eulogy for the summer and is now back at home. Also back at home? Her boyfriend, who she has not broken up with as promised. Ramona is angry at Grace's unwillingness to come out, but Grace clarifies to Ramona, during one of my favorite conversations between the two, that she's still trying to figure things out, saying "that doesn't mean I'm hiding, it means I'm learning." Freddie was having his own trouble with a long-distance relationship he was struggling to keep alive, though it hardly seemed worth fighting for. After admitting defeat, he says to Ramona, "It's sad that sometimes we let ourselves believe that if it's not bad, it must be good."

Ramona and her friends were so much fun to hang out with, and were such great people. Her friends Ruth and Saul were brother and sister, both gay, and they all stood by each other. Hattie was super nice and she and Ramona were pretty devoted to each other despite their many differences. Oh, and they played MASH! There was a good amount of MASH in this book, which I also played a ton of growing up and had totally forgotten about. I also really appreciated that Ramona is one of the few female characters who is allowed to be interested in sex (which I think I've complained about a lot, but, man, it really annoys me!) Ramona says, "I think about sex. Girls think about sex. Sometimes a lot. I hate this idea that boys are thinking about sex nonstop and girls are thinking about, what? Stationary and garden gnomes? No."

Which is not to say, of course, that Ramona is as incredibly clear about everything as she would like to be. When she and Freddie start getting romantic, she is surprised but likes him so much she isn't about to steer clear because she has worn the lesbian label for so long. But she doesn't want to her mother to know. Her mother has for years been telling Ramona that liking girls is just a phase, and as much as Ramona doesn't want to care about what her mother thinks, neither does she want her mother to have the satisfaction of thinking she was right all this time.

The narration was great! I'm honestly not a good judge of whether Therese Plummer's southern accent was real, or sounded genuine, but I do know that I really enjoyed hearing her read this book to me.

Anyone who likes teen books should check this one out, and go back and read Murphy's last book, Dumplin', while you're at it!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

10 Books I've Added To My TBR List Recently

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is 10 Books From X Genre That I've Recently Added To My TBR List, but I've only recently started adding books to my TBR again and in a very limited fashion so I don't have 10 in one genre. There's a lot of crossover with last week's list of anticipated books for the second half of the year, but there are a few I wasn't able to fit on that list, and some that I've heard about since then. I've been putting a few things on my Goodreads To Read list, but more often I've just been requesting them from the library and hoping they don't all come at once.

So, here's 10 books I've added to my TBR (and/or library holds list) recently:

1. The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen by Victoria Alexander
Lady travelers? Scoundrels? SIGN ME UP.

2. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
A coworker posted some snippets of poetry from this book and I couldn't resist requesting it through the library right away. This book is a couple of years old but has had a sudden surge in popularity and I'm not sure why.

3. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen
A forthcoming book about the ways in which female celebrities are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be acceptable.

4. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby
I can't resist the title or cover.

5. Touch by Courtney Maum
This was the one I tagged on at the end of last week's post because I couldn't believe I had forgotten it. A novel about a trend forecaster who sees a shift away from electronics to in-person contact, this sounds super intriguing to me.

6. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
A few years ago there was a big news story about a hermit being arrested for theft after living alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, and this book is based on correspondence and visits with the subject, Christopher Knight.

These others I talked about more on last week's list:

7. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

8. Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

9. Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

10. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

I'm already worried that my TBR is getting out of hand again.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Awakening

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

In this classic novel by Kate Chopin, we are introduced to Edna Pontellier, a young woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage who suddenly realizes her true potential for happiness, though it may be out of her reach. The Pontelliers are vacationing in Grand Isle, Louisiana when Edna meets and befriends Robert, a single man in her social circle. They spend a great deal of time together and she hopes to continue their friendship when they return to town, but he, realizing his feelings for her are far beyond friendship, leaves for Mexico. Deeply upset, Edna tries to carry on and ends up befriending another man. Though the feelings are stronger on his side than hers, she pursues him until Robert returns to town unexpectedly. During this time she also moves out of her house, realizing how much happier she is when she does as she pleases.

I liked the general theme of this novel, which I know is heralded as a feminist classic. The prose was quite beautiful in parts, too. I especially enjoyed this passage, which comes at a pivotal point:

"There were strange, rare odors abroad- a tangle of the sea smell and of weeds and damp, new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near. But the night sat lightly upon the sea and land. There was no weight of darkness; there were no shadows. The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and softness of sleep."

Isn't that lovely?

However, I was never very drawn to the characters, nor did I feel like I knew them well. Even Edna remained a mystery as I felt I only knew part of what was going on with her. She didn't expound on her feelings about her husband or why she married him. Chopin only really scratches the surface of the inner life of her characters.

Since this is a classic I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that it ends tragically, and I don't know that it was necessary. Why couldn't Edna realize the sort of life she envisioned for herself? She had already begun. She stopped waiting around the house on Tuesdays, her day to be called upon by her friends, and she moved into another place and made it her own. There were few consequences to these actions so I don't quite know what was stopping her from continuing on this way. Had something dramatic happened to pull her back into society, or had her husband forced her back, I would have been more convinced.

I had been quite looking forward to reading what I expected to be a feminist novel, but I'm afraid it fell a bit flat for me. If you have other early feminist classics to recommend, let me know in the comments!