Sunday, September 15, 2019

Red Sister

Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1) by Mark Lawrence (2017)

Eight-year-old Nona is set to hang for murder, but at the last minute she is saved by Abbess Glass, who takes her away to the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Here she is to train in fighting, poisons, and the faith of the Ancestor. However, the family of the man she tried (unsuccessfully) to kill have not forgotten her and will do anything to stop her.

In this world there are special bloodlines, and Nona is hunska, which means that she is extremely fast. Gerants are giants, including the man she tried to kill. Quantals and marjals are able to tap into various types of magic. At Sweet Mercy, Nona learns of a prophecy about a Chosen One with multiple of these bloodlines, and a Shield who is destined to protect the Chosen One.

This all takes place in what appears to be an extended ice age, only a small part of the world habitable. Past civilizations have been lost, but people have manipulated the sun (and/or moon? the details are fuzzy to me now) so it focuses and keeps the Corridor open and habitable. But the sun is dying so they know they don't have a ton of time left. It's a desperate time, many people are starving, and Nona is grateful for the luxuries she finds at Sweet Mercy: a soft bed, hot water, plenty of food at every meal.

At some point, each girl will decide on her focus: Red Sisters are fighters; Grey specialize in espionage, stealth, and poisons; Holy Sisters focus on the faith; and Mystic Witches are those gifted in magic. Each year of training focuses on one of these areas, and during this book Nona is in the Red Class where they learn fighting. There are three books in the series, but I don't know if it's complete.

I found the setting and story pretty fascinating. I'm always drawn to books set in cold climates, and I like stories about someone being taken from their crappy life and set off to train in a special school. It suddenly sounds a lot like Harry Potter, now that I describe it that way! I admired all the young women in this story for their strength, bravery, and loyalty to each other. It wasn't the easiest book to get through, taking me close to two weeks. I don't know if that's just because of how my life was in those two weeks, or if it's actually because of the book. It's fairly dense and doesn't move super fast, but I have no real criticisms about it. The world-building and plot were compelling, and there were passages I re-read because of the beauty and cleverness of the writing. Part of me does want to continue this series so I can find out what happens and learn more about this world, but right now I just need to read some shorter, easier books for a bit.

Red Sister was the final book for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Everything Buddhism Book

The Everything Buddhism Book by Arnie Kozak (2010)

I started this while re-reading The Wise Heart, but luckily they're two very different books so I should be able to keep them straight. I've been meditating for a few years now (I mean, not continuously!) and I'm trying to integrate Buddhist principles into my life more because I'm really starting to think that guy was onto something. Somebody I follow on Twitter was getting suggestions for books to read about Buddhism and this was one that was mentioned.

This really is a little bit of everything about Buddhism. It covers Buddha's life, his teachings, the spread of Buddhism, different types of Buddhism, specific practices, art, and various other topics. Unsurprisingly, there were chapters that I found much more relevant to my interests than other chapters, some I found boring, and some that I didn't really understand. So I read parts of it more intently than other parts.

I've read other books that go over the basics of the philosophy (The Wise HeartBuddhism Without Beliefs) but at this point I still really need to be reminded so it was totally fine to read about that again. I also really liked reading about different types of meditation, art and architecture, tea ceremonies, social activism, and applying Buddhism to daily life. It really helped give me a broad, holistic view of how Buddhism applies to various facets of a person's life and the world. I tend to be pretty socially conscious so I was happy to read the chapter about how beneficial this philosophy can be in terms of environment issues, politics, leadership, and other aspects of social life. The chapter on karma and what it actually means was not only enlightening but very familiar. It's not a magical property whereby if you are mean to somebody you will later be struck by lightning; rather it's more like if you're mean to somebody, you're hurting your relationship with that person and that's going to be bad for you as well.

Chapters I struggled with were those that really delved into the nuances of the different schools of Buddhism, because I had a tough time thoroughly understanding it. Some of the history was also a bit dry for me, especially the overview of how Buddhism spread throughout Asia, with short chapters on each country covered. But it's good information and it made sense to be there.

It took me a while to get through this book, but I found it very helpful and also came away with lots of suggestions for further reading. I feel like a lot of this is going to fall out of my head almost immediately because I'm terrible at retaining information, but hopefully if I read enough on the subject it will really start to stick.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Barracoon

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston (2018)

In 1927, author Zora Neale Hurston interviewed the last person alive who was brought from Africa on a slave ship, but the story wasn't published until last year. Cudjo Lewis was 86 when Hurston interviewed him, and he had experienced a lot in his lifetime. His village was destroyed by another group of African who captured the survivors and held them prisoner until they were sold to white men and brought to America. Lewis then worked as a slave for 5 years or so until he was freed. Life continued to be a struggle for him and his family.

His story is only around 100 pages; the rest of the book contains multiple introductions, prefaces, an afterward, an appendix, glossary, notes, etc. I don't have very much to say about it. I learned a little more about the role other Africans played in the slave trade, at least in this particular instance. I didn't learn much more about slavery, which I had hoped to - I thought I would get more of a first-hand story about the experience but he didn't talk about it much at all.

Hurston let him tell his own story, and I understand and respect that decision. However, he just told the story in a very simple way and that's what we got. Most books show rather than tell, but this one was definitely telling which made it difficult to really get into the story and get much out of it. Even when Lewis told about the deaths of all his children and his wife, it didn't pack the emotional punch it could have had we gotten the opportunity to get to know them first. I hate to criticize this book for not being, essentially, a novel. I do think it's an important story and I'm glad that Hurston was able to capture it. It's an interesting story, but I just didn't get a whole lot out of it.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Red, White and Royal Blue

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (2019), narrated by Ramon de Ocampo

It's 2020 and the son of the first female U.S. President falls in love with the Prince of Wales. Alex Claremont-Diaz has long loathed Prince Henry, but when they get into a scuffle at a royal wedding and spectacularly knock over the wedding cake, it's a PR nightmare that can only be solved by a fake friendship. The two  young men must pretend to be good friends, but soon they find they are becoming actual friends, and then more.

There is no way I can do justice to this book. I can't convey how charming both Alex and Henry are, or how much I adored Alex's close friendship with his sister June and the VP's daughter, Nora. Or how much I loved the opportunity to live, even briefly, in a world in which a woman had won the 2016 presidential election and did not incite the rise of white nationalism. I was even able to laugh at the storyline that involved the compromise of a private email server.

Even once Alex and Henry figured out that they were attracted to each other, there were still hurdles. On Alex's end, that was his mother's bid for re-election and the potential scandal of his relationship with the Prince. On Henry's end, it was his role as potential heir to the throne, responsibility to provide more heirs, and the deeply conservative tradition of the royal family. It's a romance so you know they'll get through it, and there's a lot of fun in seeing how that will happen.

Ramon de Ocampo expertly narrated the story, infusing personality and heart and humor. Early on when their friendship was still fake, Alex added Henry to his phone contacts as HRH Prince Dickhead [poop emoji] and it was hilarious hearing that read during every text conversation, even after they fell in love. Alex never changed it and so the narrator continued reading texts that began with "HRH Prince Dickhead poop emoji" which cracked me up. There were so many little details like that.

The biggest problem with this book is the lack of a comma in the title after "White." Other than that, it's pretty much perfect. It is adorable and life-affirming and uplifting and funny and sweet. I picked it up because I heard so much about it and was looking for more books similar to those by Becky Albertalli - this was a great one to fill that need. Now I just need to find more like it!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Mrs. Everything

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (2019)

This decades-long family saga opens in 2015, with just a couple of pages letting you know that Jo's breast cancer is back and it's probably not good this time. You learn little else, except that she has a wife who isn't named, and a few daughters, who are. After the opening, it begins again in the 50s when Jo is a kid living with her parents and sister, Bethie. Jo is the difficult one who doesn't quite fit in and wants to be a writer rather than a wife and mother. Bethie is practically perfect in every way, always behaving the way her parents expect her to.

We go through formative events in both sisters' lives, and watch how it changes them and the resulting directions their lives take. They both have complicated relationships with their mother, Sarah, whose own life appears very confined. Jo wrestles with her sexuality and Bethie struggles with the effects of sexual assault, neither of which are easy to deal with, especially in the time period in which they first come about. Both women have relationships that are unconventional in some way, and of which their mother is not supportive.

As the novel spans decades we see various cultural movements and trends, including hippie flower children and the proliferation of 1980s home exercise videos. Some criticize the timing of certain styles and other cultural references, saying they weren't showing up at the right time, but I didn't notice that and I'd be surprised if Weiner didn't research styles and trends while writing this. Another criticism was the inconsistencies - for example, early in the book the girls' father worked for Ford and bought the latest model every year, but later in the book when this is referred to, it says Chevrolet. There were a couple of things of this nature, but this is about the editing not the writing so they felt pretty minor.

Overall, it was a pretty engrossing family saga and I was fascinated by the twists and turns that Bethie's and Jo's lives took and how their relationship changed and grew over time. Despite complications and fights and setbacks, the sisters really took care of each other. One of my favorite things was how, when they were growing up, Jo would tell Bethie fairy tales in which Bethie was the heroine and it gave her self-confidence that she was able to draw on later when she really needed it. I just felt like there was a lot of thought put into this book and in turn it gave me a lot to think about.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Wolves of Winter

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson (2018)

After nuclear war and a widespread deadly flu, Lynn lives in the Yukon with what's left of her family. She's in her early 20s, great with a bow and arrow, and pretty fearless. She misses her dad a lot and is kind of tired of being cold all the time and eating nothing but potatoes, carrots, and whatever they manage to kill. Now, after years of seeing no other humans but those in their makeshift settlement, a stranger appears and changes everything.

Jax arrives with little explanation, obviously hiding something, yet he seems trustworthy. It's not surprising though that where there's one newcomer, others will follow. Soon Lynn and her family feel like they are in serious danger from a world they thought they had escaped.

I was concerned about reading this immediately after another post-apocalyptic novel, The Lightest Object in the Universe, but it's very different story. I'm happy to say that they're both ultimately hopeful though. But The Wolves of Winter took place in an isolated area, so there's no rebuilding of society - in fact, there was an avoidance of society. Lynn's family moved from Chicago to Eagle, Alaska to the Yukon Territory to get away from everything when the world started going wrong. The nuclear wars were devastating enough, but it was the flu that really drive them out into the wilderness. They had no connection with any civilization and they were happy that way. Well, Lynn always knew she would end up leaving - she wanted to go find out where there were people and what was happening in the world. However, it turns out that there's a lot she doesn't know about the reasons her family left the city in the first place.

This was on my list for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. Now I realize it shouldn't have qualified because it was published in 2018, but it had been on my TBR list for more than a year because I added it pre-publication. Well, in my own head it counts. As a post-apocalyptic novel and one that takes place in a cold climate, it hits a couple of marks for me and I'd be very interested in a sequel.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Lightest Object in the Universe

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele (2019)

Hooray! A new post-apocalyptic novel! I first heard about this one from Kirkus Reviews, which said this about it:

"...given the current state of our deeply divided, heavily armed nation, it takes a stretch to imagine that, in the event of total international disaster, so much of the population would cheerfully turn to manual labor and generosity. It’s pretty to think that a global economic, political, and technological collapse could be solved by bike co-ops, backyard chickens, and a radio show about a homegrown superhero, plus a little true love, but this novel just doesn’t make it plausible."

My reaction? Sign me up! I'm happy to read a book about the collapse of civilization that has people rebuilding and helping each other rather than tearing each other apart. I've had enough of our deeply divided, heavily armed nation. Bring on the backyard chickens!

There are two primary characters: Carson, a teacher on the East Coast, and Beatrix, an activist and organizer on the West Coast. As things were getting dire, Carson promised Beatrix that if everything collapsed he would make his way to her. Then things collapse, and he set out on the road. Meanwhile, Beatrix had just returned from a stint in Central America and is putting her community organizing skills to work in her own neighborhood. There's this religious leader named Jonathan Blue broadcasting over the airwaves to attract people to the Center, where he promises all sorts of abundance. He's the only thing on the radio and Beatrix wants to counter his rhetoric with helpful information about growing vegetables, fixing things, raising chickens, canning, etc so she sets out to start her own radio station.

I love post-apocalyptic novels of all kinds, and this one felt to me like a cross between The Dog Stars and Station Eleven. That's really saying a lot, and I don't want you think it's necessarily as wonderful as either of those because I don't think it's quite as magical as either of them but it's a pretty solid 4 stars for me. It's not perfect - for instance, there are a lot of homeless people and I don't understand why. A lot of people were killed off by flu and a lot of other people left for elsewhere so surely there are empty houses and apartments? No need to live in your car! It also could have used a proof reader as there were a few noticeable errors. But it was a compelling story about the different ways people handle the collapse of society, and the hope that brings so many of them together to build a better future.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Body in the Wake

The Body in the Wake by Katherine Hall Page (2019)

In May I attended the Massachusetts Library Conference where I went to a panel presented by three mystery writers. I totally went because of Peter Swanson, but I ended up getting books from the other two authors as well, Growing Things by Paul Tremblay and this newest book by Katherine Hall Page. I only grabbed it at the end after hearing her speak, because it turns out that the story takes place in my home state of Maine and touched a bit on the opioid crisis. I was intrigued.

Faith Fairchild has apparently investigated a lot of mysteries in this series, and this time she's really not trying to get involved but just happens to keep being around when bodies turn up. The first one in this book is a person unknown in the community, but who has been seen around town recently. Faith and her friend Sophie are out swimming when they find his body. He has a distinct tattoo, shared by the second body that turns up.

One thing that was confusing right out of the gate was the number of characters in the story and how they related to each other. This book is barely over 200 pages, yet in addition to the murder mystery is a storyline about Faith's friend Pix's new neighbors clear-cutting their land and the animosity surrounding that, the upcoming wedding of Pix's daughter Samantha and the arrival of her mother-in-law-to-be who is a ridiculous, snobby woman who wants to re-plan the wedding, AND a writing retreat at which Faith's daughter Amy works assisting the chef. There is actually a whole lot going on here. I was introduced to a lot of these characters in the first few pages and keeping them all straight seemed hopeless, so I just kind of let it go, figuring I'd get to know them and their relationships better later. That's pretty much what happened, so the confusion was kept to a minimum.

Her characters reminded me of some of the phrases Mainers use, like one character who commented on a meal "That is some good." I was less pleased about the gender stereotypes, like when after dinner one evening, the men and women separated to different areas to talk about things that wouldn't interest the others - I don't know if this was an attempt to captured some old-timey-ness that still exists in rural areas of what, but that kind of thing always rubs me the wrong way. I was also a bit annoyed when she referred to lobster fishing as a "lucrative operation" which tells me she hasn't done much research into what the fisherman are actually paid. (Very little - lobster is always an expensive menu item, but that money certainly doesn't go to the people who catch it.) But these were minor annoyances.

I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. I'll admit that part of it is because of my moving-back-to-Maine fantasy that is based on Maine summers, not the reality of the seemingly10-month long winters which I know well since I did live there for the first 22 years of my life. But this took place in an area I know, and everybody was so friendly in their little community, knowing everyone else's business and looking out for each other. Also they all had lovely houses with back porches that were apparently impervious to mosquitoes, and it was beautiful weather all the time. It's very obviously fiction, but I found it surprisingly pleasant to read.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

What If It's Us

What If It's Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera (2018), narrated by Noah Galvin and Froy Gutierrez

Arthur is from Georgia but is spending the summer in New York, interning at his mom's law firm. One day he's on a coffee run and in front of the post office he sees a super cute boy carrying a box. Following him into the post office, they end up talking briefly but then are interrupted by a flash mob. Arthur can't find the mysterious boy, but now he's obsessed! He didn't even catch the guy's name, and only knows that he was there to mail a box of stuff to his ex-boyfriend.

The mysterious boy is Ben, and although he's not looking for a new boyfriend already, he IS kind of intrigued by Arthur. But how are they to find each other again?

Well, it's not easy but they do, and what transpires after that is just adorable and fun and super cute, which is not surprising coming from Becky Albertalli. Both of these characters were the exact right combination of appealing and flawed to make the story angsty enough to be a story, and one that I just listened to obsessively until it was over.

Compared to Ben, Arthur is totally inexperienced when it comes to romance so he had a lot of anxiety, and he is a talker so he has this tendency to keep talking even when he shouldn't. Everything in his head just comes out of his mouth. He is jealous of Ben's ex-boyfriend Hudson, which causes a little friction since Ben and Hudson are in summer school together. Ben is self-conscious about being in summer school since Arthur is so smart and apparently bound for Yale after his senior year. Although Ben isn't academically strong, he's creative and talented and he's writing a fantasy novel, which he shares with Arthur. They sort of bumble their way through this relationship totally awkwardly. I loved every moment of it.

A big part of the story is their friends. Ever since Arthur came out to his friends Ethan and Jessie, Ethan has avoided him, only texting in the group text with the three of them. Ben's best friend Dylan is far cooler with Ben being gay, and they are super close like brothers. Except that Dylan has a new girlfriend he's obsessed with, so he's spending all his time with her. But I loved their friends, and I loved that they eventually met each other. I even liked their parents and Arthur's coworkers. Everything about this book was so great.

The narrators were fantastic. One of them is Noah Galvin, who I totally LOVE. He read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and he's amazing because he doesn't sound like he's reading, he sounds like he's just telling you a story. (Also, he's in the movie Booksmart, which I just saw and which you should also see.) Froy Gutierrez is new to me, but I had to look him up because he sounds just like Leo from Veronica Mars, but it's not him. He is also a great narrator and I loved the two together.

I think my favorite Becky Albertalli book before this was Leah On the Offbeat, and I can't decide if I like this one the same or even more. I guess it doesn't matter. What does matter is that I've now run out of Becky Albertalli books and that makes me very sad. Luckily I work with a teen librarian and I got some good recommendations from them so I've got some options. Still, I hope she releases another book soon!

Monday, August 12, 2019

Version Control

Version Control by Dexter Palmer (2016)

After a tragedy claimed their son, Rebecca and Philip got their lives back together. Rebecca has stopped drinking and has a job a Lovability, the dating site through which she and Philip met. But everything seems off to her, just a little bit wrong. Philip doesn't seem to share the feeling, buried deep in his work. He's a physicist working on something called a causality violation device - essentially, a time machine.

This is kind of a hard one to talk about without spoiling it, but I'll spoil one thing that should be obvious anyhow, which is that the device works and there is time travel. But Palmer has taken some of our usual assumptions about how that would work and what the rules are and changed them in a way that still makes sense but is different from anything I've read or seen about time travel before.

It's the kind of book that leaves me with questions, so many questions. After I finished I went to bed but kept thinking about it and was thinking about it when I got up. I immediately went back to the book and re-read a number of passages to make sense of everything. It does make sense, it's just that of course I didn't remember everything by the time I finished.

The story is about more than just Rebecca and Philip, though I liked their story a lot, especially how they first met through the dating site and Rebecca was put off by Philip's dry, logical messages to her. We also get to meet some of Philip's coworkers at the lab, Alicia and Carson. Rebecca's good friend Kate dates Carson for a time. Rebecca's father is a minister and enjoys having philosophical conversations with Philip - there's a good amount of philosophy in this book actually, which is not surprising given that the work of the scientists is so largely theoretical. Physics and philosophy seem fairly intertwined from the little I know about each of them.

It's set in the near future, and there are some things that are different from our own reality. The president, for instance, is always just barging in on people's tvs or phones or computers to talk to them individually. Super creepy. The country is on the verge of a Civil War as the Dakotas are trying to secede from the Union. There are cars that drive themselves, and the $20-bill has Ronald Reagan on it. It was kind of fun to see all the ways that things are different in their world.

I read this for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge and what made me put it off for so long, I think, is that it's 500 pages long. But surprisingly, it goes fast. Unlike a lot of science fiction, this one is pretty character-driven which is something that makes any book easier for me to read. Also, once I got into it, I just couldn't put it down. I spent most of a beautiful summer weekend immersed in this book (some of that outside on my back porch, at least.) I'm glad I know a couple of people who have also read it because it's definitely the kind of book you want to talk about when you finish it!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Costalegre

Costalegre by Courtney Maum (2019)

I wish I could adequately convey to you how satisfying I find the physical aspect of this book. It's smaller than your typical hardcover, and the cover art - which is gorgeous - is directly on the actual cover. There's no jacket. So ok, this isn't great for libraries because all our stupid stickers won't adhere directly to the cover, but from a tactile perspective, it's wonderful.

The story inside is based loosely on art collector Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter Pegeen, and I know very little about them so I can't speak to how closely it mirrors reality. Leonora is an American heiress who put a bunch of art and artists on a ship from Europe during the rise of fascism in the late 30s, with the plan to meet them at a house in the Mexican jungle. She and her daughter Lara, along with several other artists, are there awaiting the ship's arrival. The story is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Lara.

Mostly it is about the relationships between all the people staying in this house. Leonora had married one artist just to get him out of Europe, but he is in love with a writer who is staying with them. Some of the characters are insufferable and annoying to everyone, while others are beloved. Lara has a crush on an artist, Jack, and she is mostly ignored by her mother. Because we get the story from Lara's point of view there is a lot that we don't actually see. She's not sure what her mother's relationship is, or was, with some of the men. She's also not sure what has become of her father and brother who were left behind in Europe. Does her mother know more about where they are and if they'll also be coming to Mexico? Maybe. But her mother just kind of pretends that nothing bad is happening and focuses on art and parties. It's a very bohemian lifestyle they're living as they await the ship from Europe, and it's unclear what will happen when it eventually arrives.

There's probably more I could have gleaned from the story because I suspect we're supposed to read between the lines a bit, but to be honest I think the book is a bit too literary for me. I'm not sure I get the point or the message and not a lot actually happens. But it was fairly entertaining to read and it's so short that by the time I realized there wasn't a lot I was getting out of it, it was over. I will say, though, that Lara's narrative voice was strong and distinct and I probably won't forget it soon.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sisterland

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (2013)

I love Curtis Sittenfeld, but when this book came out I was skeptical because it's about twin sisters with psychic powers. I don't believe in that and didn't think I could stomach a book in which I had to suspend that disbelief. But recently I came across it again, and I reminded myself that not long ago I read a book about a woman who flies through space in a giant shrimp and I thought surely I can manage a book with a little ESP. It turns out I needn't have worried about the psychic aspects, but there were plenty of things about this book I didn't like.

The premise is this: Daisy (who as an adult is called Kate) and her twin sister Violet have always had psychic abilities. In middle school Daisy was more open about it, but there were consequences to letting everyone know you could predict the future. As they grew up, Kate avoided using her senses and didn't tell people about them while Vi embraced hers and even started a career as a psychic medium. In 2009, Vi publicly predicted a serious earthquake and went on the news, creating a media firestorm. This caused a little friction for Kate because her husband and his colleague, Courtney were geologists. Courtney and Hank were also neighbors and the two couples were good friends since they both had little kids. They all thought that Vi was crazy.

So basically nothing happens for oh, another 200 pages, except for revisiting Kate and Vi's childhoods and Kate's really boring relationships pre-Jeremy. Why were we subjected to all of this? I have no idea. Also, we get a LOT of minutiae about Kate's day-to-day life as a stay-at-home mom to two little kids, which I absolutely could have done without. Then in the last hundred pages or so a bunch of stuff happens that I will spoil for you now: Kate has sex with Courtney's husband, the stay-at-home-dad she spends a lot of time with. This happens totally out of the blue without any thought for her husband, the fact that their marriage is actually pretty damn good, or birth control. She becomes pregnant, but also had sex with Jeremy around that time so she needs to figure out who is the father. This is important because Hank is black and if she has a black baby it will be pretty obvious that it's not Jeremy's. She didn't even consider an abortion (she is allegedly pro-choice, but was super judgey about Courtney having an abortion, so now SHE can't.) Anyhow, it's Hank's baby but she doesn't tell him; it is all handled stupidly and ridiculously and this WILL come back to haunt them someday, mark my words. Or it would if the book didn't end with them just suddenly moving to another part of the country.

Honest to god, Jeremy is too good for this woman. She was so uninteresting and wishy-washy about everything and really into judging other people when she is actually the terrible one. Maybe her sister Violet dropped out of college and wasn't great with money or whatever, but at least she's pretty honest and doesn't treat people so horribly. And I don't think the author actually intends for Kate to be seen as a bad person, but I can't find many redeeming qualities about her, and she doesn't learn or grow at all during the book. [Edited to add: She is also homophobic; and at one point says that Courtney is "more like a man" because she doesn't express her feelings. Gross.] Hearing so much about the day-to-day aspects of having two little kids, I couldn't imagine why she was happy to have a third kids. If anything ever made me feel good about my choices to not have kids, it's this book.

I mean, it wasn't horrible. I wouldn't have made it through if it was. Sittenfeld is a great writer and she created a whole cast of characters who felt real and it was fairly immersive for a while. But about halfway through I started questioning whether anything was ever going to happen and why the book was so damn long, and that went on for a while before all the stuff at the end started happening. So I guess pacing was a big problem. That and a main character I couldn't stand.

Anyhow, lots of people loved this book and maybe you would too. But it's by far my least favorite book by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

June/July Wrap-Up and Plans for August



About a week into July I realized that I had completely forgotten to do a monthly wrap-up for June. Usually I start the post about halfway through the month and just add to it until it's done, but I hadn't even started one. Things had been busy, and the previous weekend, the end of June, I had been unusually exhausted. (Which may have been Lyme disease, and not just laziness as I had initially assumed.) All this to say that I'm combining both months here!

Reading and Listening


Probably my favorites of the last couple of months were All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Stepsister, and City of Girls.

Did very little reading on this vacation.
I listened to both audiobooks of the Veronica Mars books in preparation for the tv show, and otherwise my listening was all podcasts. I've been listening to a lot of Pantsuit Politics (well, they just have a lot of episodes) and it's great but now that I'm freshly back from vacation I think one of the things that made it so relaxing is that I didn't think about news or politics at all. Now I'm struggling with how to maintain that relaxation without ignoring things that are happening. I need to be an engaged citizen, but also need to not be angry and stressed all the time.

I finished one book for my TBR Pile Challenge, which was My One and Only by Kristan Higgins. It was pretty good! Possibly even my favorite of hers, although some of the Blue Heron books are really good. I only have 3 books left for my challenge for the year and I'm hoping to read one of them in August.

Watching


I'm caught up with The Great British Baking Show, which is unfortunate because I really like it and want to watch more!

Jessica Jones season 3 is out so I've been watching episodes. I'm kind of over her shtick of being angry and bitter and drinking all the time, but still find the show oddly compelling

Another thing I might be over is Handmaid's Tale. I finished the season but ugh. I don't know if I can go on. I heard a rumor that it might run for 10 seasons, which is way too much. Gilead needs to not last that long. I thought this season might be the beginning of the end, but then it took a weird turn and now seems to be going nowhere.

Finally, I watched the new season of Veronica Mars that just dropped, and we will not speak of it ever again. It was just not great, and they made a decision that was stupid and reckless and a major character died who did not deserve to die and I don't think I can get past that.

In summary, please just make enough more of Great British Baking Show to satisfy all my tv needs because apparently everything else sucks.


Cooking


Not a ton, really. Mostly some Mediterranean-style salads. I did try a new quesadilla recipe that was quite good, from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It's got chiles and beans and was easy and delicious.

I made a few things from Ottolenghi's new cookbook, Simple, and they were quite delicious. Lima Bean Mash with Muhammara (picture at right), which is basically two dip/spreads that go really well together. The muhammara involves roasting red peppers, but it's still pretty easy. Then one day at the farmer's market I panicked and bought a lot of zucchini, which I don't even really like, because I can't shop that way. I need to go into a store with a list based on a meal plan, not just go blindly to a farmer's market, not knowing what they'll have. But the Ottolenghi book saved me - I made delicious stuffed zucchini with pine nut salsa, and also a Zucchini, Thyme and Walnut Salad from which I learned that raw, thinly-shaved zucchini is delicious. I guess I don't dislike zucchini after all!


Doing


Stalactites!
We went camping over my birthday weekend at the beginning of June, and took the dog (man, that feels so long ago now!) Possibly got Lyme disease, as mentioned above, but it's uncertain because no medical person I saw was actually willing to test me for it, for reasons I still don't understand. I was exhausted for a couple of weeks but I'm fine now.

I finally visited the Royall House and Slave Quarters. I just heard about this place a year or so ago and didn't manage to visit last summer, but made it a priority this year. It was very interesting! I also follow them on Facebook and they post a lot of fascinating articles about black history - I definitely recommend following them.

In July I went on a cruise to Bermuda with my niece (a replay of our 2017 trip) It was so incredibly relaxing. I didn't realize how exhausted I was, even before the possible Lyme disease, but now I see how much I needed that vacation. We're not beachy people, but we did check out Horseshoe Bay Beach, which we missed last time because it poured that day (photo is at the top of the post.) We picked the best day to go (for us) because it was only partly sunny. We stayed for over AN HOUR. The next day we went to Crystal Cave, which was the inspiration for Fraggle Rock. It was very cool!

Plans for August


Nothing in particular, really. Some doctor's appointments and a haircut.

How were your June and July?



Monday, July 29, 2019

The Goodbye Summer

The Goodbye Summer by Sarah Van Name (2019)

Caroline is spending her summer working at the gift shop in the local aquarium, but come fall she'll be seventeen and she plans to skip town with her boyfriend and go start a new life together. Of course it's a big secret, so all summer her parents and her new friend Georgia from the aquarium are trying to talk to her about college applications. It's very awkward but she knows what she wants, and that's to spend the rest of her life with Jake.

Jake is out of school already, working in a grocery store. The two of them are saving up, and making plans, trying to decide where they want to go. A bit much is made of Jake being "older" - he's literally two years older, and we all knows boys are less mature than girls, so they may as well be the same age. To the reader it's clear that the right choice would be not running away with Jake. Their plans are uncertain and dropping out of high school just isn't generally a great idea. I really appreciate, though, that Van Name chose to make Jake a good guy. It's not one of those heavy-handed situations where you want the person totally out of the relationship. It's easy to see why Caroline would want to be with him. He's a decent person who generally treats her well. I also appreciate that they have sex. Too many teen books like to pretend that teenagers are rational about sex and want to hold off until they're "ready," and of course everyone acts like it's a huge big deal. Caroline and Jake have sex and they are responsible about it and nothing bad comes of it. Thank you, Sarah Van Name, for acknowledging that possibility.

Much of the reason why Caroline begins to reconsider her plans with Jake relates to her new friendship with Georgia. She had been growing apart from her other friends, primarily because of the time she was spending with Jake, but since Georgia is a coworker they began hanging out a lot during their lunch breaks and then also in the evenings. Georgia isn't very happy with her home life and never wants Caroline to come over, so they usually hang out at Caroline's house. Georgia's parents are ok, but they just pressure her a lot. For instance, she has to spend every single Sunday taking a four-hour practice SAT test. Georgia is very focused on college applications, which puts even more pressure on Caroline. Their friendship is fairly intense, and Caroline doesn't like the idea of leaving her new friend behind.

I liked that this addresses the idea of having a relationship get a bit too intense when you're pretty young, without turning it into something dark and abusive. Obviously those kinds of relationships are all too real, but so is this and I don't see it represented a lot. This young woman is really wrapped up in her boyfriend to the point that she's not putting her life first. I get that she doesn't know what she wants to do with her life (who does at 17?) but she's considering throwing away some opportunities for a vague dream of married life. It's hard for her to see why it's not a great idea. I thought the author did a good job of capturing the nuances of the situation.

If I had to criticize anything, it's that Caroline doesn't ever eat. There was a point when on a Monday morning she realized she hadn't eaten since Saturday night. First of all, I hate that there are so many female characters who just "forget" to eat all the time, or every time they're upset they can't possibly eat. I think it's safe to say that most of us actually eat our feelings, right? But she also just hardly ever ate lunch, for no apparent reason, and this unhealthy behavior wasn't addressed at all. And oh, I was also annoyed that one of the tour guides at the aquarium just made up random stuff about the sea creatures because he didn't actually know anything about them. (But I'm a librarian and I hate seeing misinformation spread by idiots.) But these are minor annoyances that didn't really impact my enjoyment of the book.

Altogether, I found this a quick easy read. It was a fun book for summer, entertaining but with real thought-provoking aspects.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Commonwealth

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016)

Bert Cousins attends a christening party uninvited, bringing with him a bottle of gin as a gift, and after really getting the party going he ends up kissing the mother of the party's honoree. This sets in motion the breakup of both their marriages and reforms the families. Bert's four kids and Beverly's two are now step-siblings and the new relationships changes the paths of all their lives. One of those lives is cut short, and the others hide what really happened that day for decades. Then one of them tells the story to a writer, and their secrets are published in a bestselling novel.

The biggest hurdle with this book is the number of characters and their complicated relationships. There are six kids and four parents, and I kept forgetting which kids belonged to which parents and which parents were married to who, or used to be married to who. Granted, I began this book the day before leaving on vacation and was just reading bits here and there throughout most of my vacation but I think it would have still been confusing.

Otherwise it was a good story and the characters we really got to know were compelling. Franny Keating was the baby newly christened in the opening pages of the book, and as an adult she was a cocktail waitress trying to figure out what to do with her life. She meets an author she admires a lot and ends up in a relationship with him. Her sister Caroline is a lawyer, though we don't get her full story. They are still close with their step-siblings, Albie being the most interesting (in my opinion) of them. He was the youngest and played a key role in the tragedy that occurred in their childhood. Mostly because he was so annoying and the other kids were always trying to get rid of him, which they did by giving him Benadryl so he'd fall asleep.

I liked how they all tried to take care of each other their whole lives, even those who weren't really related. For instance, Caroline and Franny helped out their stepfather's ex-wife when she needed it. She was their step-siblings' mother after all, and therefore they did not even think of not helping her, even though they didn't really know her. More than anything, this was a novel about the meaning of family and all the forms that families can take.

It took me a while to read since, as I mentioned, I was reading bits here and there on vacation. But at a certain point I had more free time and really sat down with it for bigger chunks of time, which I think was much better because of the number of characters and the jumping back and forth in time. Ann Patchett's writing is always a pleasure to read, and this novel was no exception.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

I Love You So Mochi

I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn (2019)

Kimi is super obsessed with clothes - looking at them, designing them, making them. She was also, until recently, a budding artist. But now that she's all set to go to art school in the fall, she hasn't really been painting. Her heart just isn't in it anymore. Instead she's been distracting herself with fashion. When an invitation comes to spend spring break in Japan with grandparents she's never met, Kimi takes the opportunity, hoping it will help her sort out her life and figure out what she wants in her future. It is there that she meets Akira, dancing around in a giant mochi costume. When he finds out that Kimi is doing some soul-searching on her trip, he volunteers to help her out while also showing her the sights around Kyoto.

The first thing I read about this was how it ignored the possibility of a career in fashion, so I need to address this first. It's true. Through much of the book Kimi is basically saying "I need to figure out what I want to do with my life, but all I can think about is designing clothes IF ONLY I COULD UNDERSTAND WHAT MY PASSION IS." I mean, it's ridiculous. I know she's feeling pressure from her mother to be an artist, but it's not like those situations where a parent wants the kid to do something practical and the kid wants to do something creative that is hard to make a living at. Fashion design is probably more practical than painting. So none of this makes sense.

But otherwise it is a very cute and fun story! What hooked me when I first heard about it was just that it was someone going to another country to visit. I love travel and seeing new places, and that's exactly the kind of story I want to experience. And the romance! And the mochi! And the fashion! There are so many great trappings here - just the sensory experiences make this worth reading.

In addition to that though are the family relationships between Kimi and her mom and her grandparents. Kimi and her mom have a huge fight before the trip (it's kind of what spurs her decision to accept the invitation) when her mom shows up to meet her at her Advanced Art class, only to learn that she had dropped the class. It is here that Kimi finally admits she's not really interested in painting anymore. Going to Japan to visit her grandparents is a big deal not just because she's never met them, but because they are pretty estranged from her mom. They talk occasionally, but haven't seen each other since her mother left Japan twenty years ago. It was not a happy parting. So arriving there is a little bit awkward, but I loved seeing her form new relationships with both of her Japanese grandparents. I loved her grandpa's sweet tooth, and her grandmother's own love for fashion design.

Everything about this story was fun and sweet and I kind of already wanted to go to Japan, but now I really, really do.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

City of Girls

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

When Vivian Morris was kicked out of Vassar in 1940, her parents didn't know what to do with her, so they sent her to live with her Aunt Peg in New York. Peg owned a theater and lived above it, so Vivian was instantly thrust into a world very different from what she had known. Sewing costumes by day and partying with showgirls every night, her innocent eyes were opened and she embraced this new life. Until, that is, she makes a stupid mistake that destroys everything. The story is told from her perspective as an old woman to someone named Angela who wanted to know about the nature of her father's relationship with Vivian. Needless to say, it's a pretty long answer.

Through most of the book I had no clue who Angela's father was, and I began to fear that most of the story was completely unrelated to the relationship between him and Vivian, but actually it was all pretty relevant even though she didn't really know him during most of the significant parts. It still made sense, and it was satisfying. Even if it had been unnecessary to relate the whole tale to Angela it still would have been fascinating. Vivian's coming-of-age and subsequent scandal, and the long road of recovering from it, would have been enough without this outer story in which she explains it all to Angela, but that was like the extra icing on the cake.

One of my favorite aspects of this story was all of the unconventional relationships. A lot of them come late in the book so I won't ruin the story by being specific, but there is an intense platonic friendship between a man and a woman, and two women who choose to live and work together and, when one of them finds herself accidentally pregnant, to raise a child together. I love stories in which people chose their own families.

Vivian, although off to a very shaky start, became unconventional in a way I couldn't help but admire. She was unapologetically promiscuous and has no regrets about remaining single all her life. After screwing up so young, she really figured out how to live her best life while not hurting anyone. (Her youthful transgression caused a lot of hurt, and she never forgot it.) Seeing her grow and learn throughout her life was the real heart of this book.

This is only my second Elizabeth Gilbert book (after Big Magic) and I was unsurprised at how much I liked it. She really has a way with words and imagery!

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (2015)

In truth, I put this book about octopuses on my To Read list after hearing a couple of co-workers talk about how good it was, but I didn't think I'd ever actually read it. Recently though, I impulsively picked it up at the library and actually read it.

It's not just a book about octopuses, but rather a memoir about one person's experiences with octopuses. This made it much more readable, though maybe not as informative. Sy Montgomery began visiting with octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston, hanging out with the staff there and getting good quality time up close and personal with the octopuses. She also learned to scuba dive so that she could observe octopuses in the wild. Along the way she learned a lot about the creatures and formed attachments, which made it pretty painful when they died, sometimes unexpectedly.

The book lacked some basic information that would have been helpful. Like she refers to them as mollusks and as cephalopods, but doesn't ever explain how those two categories relate to each other (cephalopods are a class of mollusk, but I had to google that.) She also doesn't go over basic anatomy, just making a reference to the head and body not being where we expect, or something along those lines, and says that the beak is in the armpit - these are confusing concepts and a basic diagram would have helped. Again, I just googled.

What bothered me the most - and almost caused me to abandon the book - is that she talks about how intelligent and complex and emotional octopuses are while not acknowledging the cruelty of removing them from the wild and keeping them in captivity for the education and enjoyment of people like her. In one case, an octopus was kept in a small, dark pickle barrel for around 7 months, with little access to mental stimulation aside from visits from humans. She kept talking about the octopuses trying to escape, saying they were "uncooperative" or "mischievous" when in fact they were basically imprisoned and just wanted to get out and go home.

But I stuck with it anyhow because it was interesting and I find sea creatures fascinating. Ultimately I'm glad I did read the whole thing. There was actually a point where another person in the book spoke to the idea of keeping the octopuses in captivity, saying that this is how people learn about these animals and, in turn, come to care about protecting them and the oceans they live in. Which, ok, I've mulled this over in relation to zoos too, and I'm not completely on board but I do kind of get it.

The most immediate affect of the book is that it gave me an overwhelming desire to watch Finding Nemo again (we own a copy and have watched it about 47 times and no, we don't have kids) and I immediately did so the very evening I finished reading the book. Man I love that movie. I also want to read more books about ocean life, so if you know of another easy-to-read book along these lines, please let me know.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Mr. Kiss and Tell

Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars #2) by Rob Thomas (2015), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

A young woman, close to death, was found in a field after being raped and beaten. She had been a guest at the Neptune Grand and when she regained part of her memory she accused a staff person from the hotel of the crime. The hotel hired Veronica Mars to investigate the claim, which is especially difficult since the afore-mentioned staff person has already been deported so Veronica can't talk to him. The victim herself, someone Veronica knows from her past, also isn't speaking much, refusing to tell Veronica who she was meeting at the hotel that night. With so few witnesses and a victim who won't talk, it's a tough case to crack, but of course we know that Veronica will get to the bottom of it.

The victim is Grace Manning, younger sister of Meg who died after the bus accident in season 2, leaving behind a newborn fathered by Veronica's ex-boyfriend Duncan Kane. Veronica remembers finding Grace as a child locked in a closet in her house by her religious fundamentalist parents. Now Grace is a young woman, an aspiring actress, and she won't say who her mysterious boyfriend is so that Veronica can talk to him about the parts of the evening that Grace can't remember.

Veronica enlists the help of her friend Mac and they spend a lot of time with security footage and hotel guest lists until they come up with a likely suspect. The tricky thing is that the person smuggled the unconscious Grace out of the hotel without it being on any of the footage, but these are smart women so they have a pretty good theory about how it happened. The hard part is finding evidence to support that theory, and as usual Veronica encounters a lot of surprises along the way and ends up in some fairly dangerous situations.

Meanwhile, Logan is on leave from the Navy and they are enjoying their time together. But when a tragedy occurs aboard his ship, he may be called back early and this causes some stress in their relationship. I fear it will never be smooth sailing for this couple, but at least this situation didn't have the drama that their early relationship did. Oh, and they got a puppy! That was a fun part of the story.

I thought this was a little better than the first book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. It was a more interesting mystery with a more satisfying conclusion and I think the plot was better crafted. Rebecca Lowman is one of my very favorite narrators and I'm always happy to listen to her. Some people who reviewed this on Audible seem to hate her and it's true that she reads very differently than Kristen Bell, but she's still great. And it didn't have the awkward feeling that Veronica Mars is talking about herself in third person. All in all, this was a very fun and satisfying book to listen to and now I feel prepared to watched the new season of Veronica Mars when it comes out later this month.

Monday, July 8, 2019

My One and Only

My One and Only by Kristan Higgins (2011)

Harper James is a divorce attorney who is skeptical about love. She's never gotten over her youthful failed marriage to Nick Lowery, and now she spends her days urging people to get their "hearts to accept what their heads already know." Suddenly her younger stepsister Willa is getting married to a guy she just met and Harper has to leave her home in Martha's Vineyard to attend the wedding in Montana. And it turns out that Willa's groom-to-be  is none other than Chris Lowery, Nick's brother.

Harper, along with her dog Coco and her boyfriend Dennis, heads to the wedding, dreading running into her ex-husband. Especially now that Dennis has so recently turned down her marriage proposal. She's also very upset that Willa is getting married for a third impulsive time. By the end of the weekend, Harper and Dennis have broken up and Harper finds herself unwillingly on a road trip with Nick who is just as attractive as he ever was.

I'm already a fan of Kristan Higgins, having read my way through the Blue Heron series and the more recent (non-romance) Good Luck With That. This is an older stand-alone romance that I picked up at a used book store ages ago, and I kept putting it off because I was afraid it wouldn't hold up to Blue Heron. (I had cause for concern as I tried reading Just One of the Guys from 2008 and couldn't get through it.) I needn't have worried. This novel was not only as good as my other favorites of hers, it may have been even better.

This story is complex. We have Harper's history with Nick, their passionate young relationship and disastrously short marriage, which has left them both a mess emotionally. Harper's problems go even deeper, back to her mother walking out on the family on Harper's 13th birthday. This story is a big part of the novel too, coinciding with marital troubles between Harper's dad and his wife BeverLee. Not to mention Harper's current relationship with Dennis, a sweet firefighter who she wants to marry only because it seems practical somehow, having long ago lost any romantic notions about true love. Dennis sports a rattail and calls her "dude," but she is grudgingly willing to overlook these details. He's really not a bad guy at all, and honestly deserves somebody who loves him more than Harper does.

I like how unusual the premise of this story is: it's a romance between people who used to be married, and when the story begins one of them is still in another relationship. Their (half- and step-) siblings are marrying each other, and Harper disapproves. When they meet at the wedding, she and Nick immediately start bickering with each other, volleying insults that were, frankly, kind of hilarious. Plus she lives in Massachusetts and he lives in New York so they have that whole Red Sox vs. Yankees thing going on. But also there's all this interesting family stuff, like with Harper's mother - who she ends up seeing for the first time in decades during this story - and her stepmother. BeverLee is from the south and she's very bubbly and chipper and uses a ton of hairspray and is super excited that her daughter is getting married, even though she barely knows the guy. But she's also loving and loyal and, as Harper eventually realizes, more of a mother to her than her biological mother ever was.

I just loved all of this - the emotional depth, the difficulty of these relationships, the acknowledgement of how hard you need to work to make relationships last. Nick and Harper have a whole painful history they need to grapple with, and even that is not enough because if they're going to start up again they have to figure out how to make it different this time. When they were married, Nick worked all the time, leaving Harper feeling alone and neglected. She, in turn, made a life for herself that was very separate, not even telling her new friends that she was married. They need to make sure they won't fall into the same patterns.

Other elements that added to the story were the beautiful descriptions of Montana and Harper's comparisons between its natural beauty and that of Martha's Vineyard, and Higgins's trademark humor. I could have used a few less instances of the word "boobage" (zero would be perfect), but her funny zings and quips more than make up for it. This is probably one of the better romances I've read, and I highly recommend it.

As I said, I've had this paperback sitting around for a while, so I put it on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. Amazingly, I only have 3 more books to read for the challenge this year.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Growing Things

Growing Things by Paul Tremblay (2019)

I've never read Paul Tremblay before, but saw him speak on a panel at the Massachusetts Library Association Conference in May. I went to the panel because Peter Swanson was on it, but also enjoyed hearing from Paul Tremblay and Katherine Hall Page, and grabbed copies of all their recent/upcoming books. Tremblay's Growing Things was just released this week.

The collection begins with the title story, in which two girls and their father are holed up in their house while some sort of out-of-control plant seems to be taking over the world. We don't get a lot about the bigger picture since we're just hearing from the girls' perspective, but of course that makes it all the more creepy and mysterious. And as I look back at it now, I realize the characters have the same names - Merry and Marjorie - as those in the final story in the collection, "The Thirteenth Temple." I can't immediately see how they're related, but I understand from the notes at the end of the book that Tremblay often writes stories set in worlds he has created previously.

"Growing Things" isn't the only story with an apocalyptic feel. In "Where We All Will Be," Zane is troubled by his father's suddenly odd behavior and compulsion to get in the car and drive towards...something. Everyone else seems to be doing the same thing, but Zane seems to be immune, perhaps because his brain is somehow different from other people's as they learned when he was a kid. "It's Against the Law to Feed the Ducks" is about a family on vacation, told from the perspective of a young child who can see that something very strange is happening, and we can tell it's some sort of doomsday scenario, but what? In a way, I'd love to know more about what is actually going on in this stories, but I don't think any explanation could improve upon the feels of uncertainty and apprehension Tremblay cultivates.

While those may be my favorites in the collection (I do love a good apocalypse) there are others that were also especially...effective. I can't say I love them since they make me so uncomfortable but they certainly do what they set out to do and I have a great appreciation for that. "------------" (which is an annoying title for a story) begins with a man enjoying a day at the beach with his kids. A woman shows up, acting super familiar like they know each other. He tries to figure out where he knows her from, feeling a little uncomfortable as she acts more and more like they are close, and he kinda wishes his wife was there. She also acts familiar with the kids, like she's their mom, and as the guys packs up to leave, she's all like "wait! don't leave me behind!" and gets in the car with them. All this time he's asking himself who this woman is and why she's acting like he should know her. It's so very unsettling.

A few of the stories are pretty experimental in form. "A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken" is told like a choose-your-own-adventure, and "Further Questions for the Somnambulist" is pages and pages of three columns of questions and I don't quite understand it. "Notes for 'The Barn in the Wild'" reminded me a bit of House of Leaves, with its diary format and footnotes and underlined and crossed out sentences, like you're hearing the story in real-time, a stream of consciousness, complete with tangents and asides.

Some of the stories worked more for me than others, as is always the case with a collection of short stories, but I could almost always at least appreciate it on some level. I read the collection fairly slowly over a couple of weeks and was very unsure how to rate it on Goodreads, which is also generally a problem with short story collections. But now as I look back and remind myself about everything that I read, it seems clear to me that it's a pretty solid 4 stars. I think it's worth pointing out that Tremblay is a high school math teacher when he's not writing, and I love that his day job is so incredibly different - English teacher we'd expect, but math? He's most well known for The Cabin at the End of the World which recently won the Bram Stoker award, and which I should probably consider reading. He's clearly a very talented horror writer and I'm sorry I missed him up until now. I'm glad I impulsively grabbed a copy of his book!

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Big Rewind

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore (2016)

Jett Bennett opens her mail one day to find a mix tape addressed to her neighbor, KitKat. When she goes downstairs to deliver the misdirected package, she finds KitKat dead on the floor in a pool of blood. Her boyfriend is the first suspect, of course, but Jett is convinced the mysterious mix tape is a clue so she decides to try and solve the case herself.

This neighborhood and all its inhabitants seem to be super retro hipster, and at first I was a bit put off by the vibe. But that changed pretty quickly as I got into the story. Music is a big theme here so there are lots of artists and songs mentioned, some of which I even recognized. (I am not nearly as cool as Jett and her friends.) Jett listened to Warren Zevon a lot actually, which really takes me back.

Although Jett moved to New York because she wanted to be a music journalist, she was temping as a proofreader (and sometimes a purchaser and launderer of women's lingerie for a guy who wanted discretion regarding his choice of undergarments.) She was BFFs with a guy named Sid who falls in love with a stripper just as Jett starts to realize she is falling for him. So, little bit of murder mystery, little bit of angsty love, lots of fun.

Interestingly, Jett's proofreading job is for a PI firm, and she occasionally tries to get some advice from one of her coworkers about the case. Mostly she was on her own though, following the path of a mysterious song on a mix tape, hoping it will bring her closer to KitKat's murderer. I liked how this story shaped up, and how I didn't expect it to end up where it did. I also like that it didn't have the suspenseful tone of other mystery stories I've read. It was a fun enjoyable novel that happened to be a mystery.

Jett was easy to like, totally relatable in that young person figuring themselves out kind of way, and a witty observer. At one point she describes "one of those boutiques that carries only four items, none of which are in your size." She also mentions being stressed out and trying to calm herself with breathing exercises she learned in a yoga class in college. "I got a B in that class. Who gets a B in yoga? Someone who can't calm down, that's who." At other times I felt like she might be a different species, like when she described a "tall, skinny blond guy with combed-back sharkfin ridges and rimless cheaters." I think she's talking about his hair and glasses? But suddenly I feel like I'm about 90 years old. I was surprised at one point to realize she's actually in her 30s, because she felt so far from me. I guess it's just because she's so hip.

I've had this book sitting around for a while - it was a gift I was planning to read last summer. Then recently I saw a blogger post about how much she liked it and it reminded me that I had a copy. It was a quick read, fairly light, fun, and refreshing.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Farm

The Farm by Joanne Ramos (2019)

Jane is a young divorced Filipina mother bouncing from job to job until her cousin Ate finds an unusual opportunity for her. She'll go to a fancy resort-like place called Golden Oaks and be a surrogate mother. The only catch is that she can't see her family, including her daughter, while she's at the heavily controlled and monitored facility. Jane leaves Amalia with Ate and checks into Golden Oaks, embryo safely implanted and cooking away. It's a luxurious place, but of course there's a lot the highly-paid Hosts don't know and Jane struggles with being away from her daughter for so long without even a visit.

The girls all get paid for being there and then will receive bonuses when they deliver, the amounts dependent on the wealth of the clients. Not every woman knows who their client is, but it becomes known that one of the girls will be receiving a life-changing billion dollars upon delivery. The Hosts are speculating about their potentially changed life circumstances, but also trying to get through each day, pushing the limits at Golden Oaks and trying not to get caught breaking the rules.

When I first read about this book I thought it was going to be some Handmaid's Tale-style dystopia, but that's not it at all. This is something that could easily exist already - a very special residential home for surrogate mothers to the extremely wealthy. Run by the ambitious Mae Yu, Hosts sign strict contracts and although they're very well taken care of, their lives are also quite restricted and regimented. If they don't abide by all the rules, they are punished however Mae Yu sees fit.

Mae isn't a villain though. She's a young woman focused on her career and her impending marriage, who just wants to build more business for Golden Oaks. Her job means balancing some pretty strong personalities and entitled people. She lies to the young Hosts carrying the babies, but she's not a monster, just a little ethically questionable.

Jane is a high school dropout who has made some bad decisions, including marrying Amalia's father, but she wants to make a better life for herself and her daughter. She's not very assertive and is easily influenced by others, like her new friends Reagan and Lisa at Golden Oaks.

I picked this up on a whim and liked it, although it somehow lacks momentum. There wasn't a mystery I was dying to have solved or a situation I was nervous about the resolution of. I did want to know how Jane fared in the end but there wasn't something compelling really pulling me through. Still, I obviously kept with it and that's because I didn't know what was coming and wanted to find out, and I found it interesting to spend time with Jane, Reagan, Mae, and Ate. I liked reading it, but there were no real surprises.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Daisy Jones & The Six

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019)

Daisy Jones & The Six were a hugely popular rock band in the 70s until they broke up at the height of their career. Daisy Jones was a striking young woman really into the party scene, and who also had a fantastic voice and a flair for songwriting. The Six were a band fronted by Billy Dunne, also a talented singer and songwriter. Their first tour began just after Billy found out his girlfriend was pregnant and they got married. He went totally wild on tour. After the tour when he was getting himself cleaned up and trying to strengthen his marriage, the band was looking for what to do next. The answer was teaming up with new performer Daisy Jones, in a combination that was going to result in a phenomenal new album.

This book, the latest from one of my new favorites, Taylor Jenkins Reid, is unusual in that it's told in interview style. There aren't descriptions or anything like that, just the story told years later by the people who were there. It's kind of like reading the transcript of a documentary. A lot of people really love this style and think it worked fantastically well; I'm not actually a huge fan of it. It worked, but just wasn't really my style.

It's a good story though. A behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall of a 70s supergroup is pretty compelling, especially when it's populated by such a volatile combination of characters. Billy Dunne gets into booze and drugs early on, and goes to rehab. It's after this that they team up with Daisy Jones, a big drug user herself. Much of the band's problems are from Billy and Daisy's relationship, which is kind of doomed from the start since it's not healthy for Billy to be around her so much. His relationship with his wife and kids is also a big part of this book and made me like him a lot. Camila was a total rock, and hearing her talk about her love for Billy and her loyalty to him, juxtaposed with the way he talked about the importance of his family was pretty great. There was also a secret relationship between two of the band members, and some jealousy and hard feelings from those in the band who felt like their voices were never heard. There was a lot going on with these people and it was fascinating to watch.

The 70s aren't a decade I like to immerse myself in and I don't like much of the music. Oh, that was another thing about this book - so much of it was about the music but I have no idea what it's supposed to sound like! Anyway, it's not my ideal time period or storytelling style, so consequently it's not one of my favorites of Reid's books, but it's still pretty solid. I read it in just a couple of days because, despite its drawbacks for me, it's still a pretty compelling story. If you're more into the narrative style and time period than I am, you might love it as much as everyone else seems to.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy (Reluctant Royals #2.5) by Alyssa Cole (2019)

Back in A Princess in Theory, Prince Thabiso had an assistant named Lakotsi who I liked a LOT and now she has her own story. It's just a 120-page novella but I'll take it. During the events of A Princess in Theory, Lakotsi spent a weekend with a woman named Fabiola while in the US, knowing that it was just a fling because she'd be returning to her home of Thesolo. But during that short time she fell for Fabiola, and was hurt on the last night they were supposed to get together when Fab sent her a text just cutting her off. Now, back in New York again, she runs into Fab by chance on the train.

The story shifts back and forth from their first weekend together to the present day, and we get both Lakotsi and Fab's perspective. We know that the reason Fabiola cut contact with Lakotsi had to do with a family situation that arose suddenly, but that story comes out slowly over the course of the novella. In the present day, Fab convinces Lakotsi to go to brunch with her, and then do a couple of other fun things, all the while evading answering the obvious question of why she ended things so abruptly. Lakotsi still wants answers but she goes along with the activities, warning up to Fab again as she remembers why she fell so hard for her in the first place.

Lakotsi is very dapper and suave, always impeccably dressed, and her practice has always been to hook up with women in her free time, wherever in the world she happens to be. She's very dedicated to her work and considers her long-standing job as Prince Thabiso's assistant to be a lifetime career. She's really good at anticipating the needs of others, which she needs for her job, but which also serves her personally. I love her and was so glad she got a book of her own. Initially I was disappointed that it's just a novella, but the length was right for this particular story.

Fabiola is a jewelry designer trying to build her craft into a career, but now she has the added pressures of her current family situation to contend with. I won't spoil it, but will just say that she has become responsible for caring for a family member, which is a huge change for this young single woman. Her artistic and spontaneous personality comes through in this novel, as she leads Lakotsi around the city doing different interesting and fun activities, but she's clearly not flighty or irresponsible as one may be led to believe based on the last time she and Lakotsi were together.

This was short enough that I didn't get as invested as I would had it been a full-length novel where you can really get to know the characters and their histories more and have a slow build-up of the relationship. But for what it is, I thought it worked well - it was fun, had an interesting story that I wanted to know more about, and I really wanted things to work out for Lakotsi and Fabiola because they're both great people who deserve love. It's a romance novel, so of course it had a happy ending. All in all, it was a win! I'm actually behind on this series, having read only A Princess in Theory and this one, and I think there are two more full length novels now and another novella. This was a great reminder to get back to this series!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Stepsister

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly (2019)

I heard of this book quite recently, just before publication, and immediately requested it through my library system. I don't read many fairy tale retellings but I'm very intrigued by them and Jennifer Donnelly is a fantastic author. She wrote The Tea RoseThe Winter Rose, and The Wild Rose, and the teen novel A Northern Light, which I loved before I had this blog or Goodreads. So when I heard she was releasing a book about one of Cinderella's ugly stepsisters, WELL.

So, Isabelle cut off her toes so her foot would fit in the glass slipper, and she almost got away with it. But it's just as well that she didn't because she's not interested in the prince. She's interested in things like sword-fighting and a boy named Felix who she lost long ago. She has disappointed her mother because she's not pretty enough or feminine enough or demure enough. Now her stepsister Ella has left to marry the prince, and Isabelle and her sister Octavia are left at home with their mother.

The whole town has turned against them now that they know how the family treated Ella. Both stepsisters and their mother are harassed and ostracized, and ultimately they lose their house and must depend on a stranger who is pressured into taking them in. The conditions are inhumane, but the girls do their best to take care of themselves and their mother, whose health is failing. This all could have made them more bitter, but they recognize that they brought a lot of this on themselves with their unfair treatment of Ella.

Isabelle feels like things would go much better for her if she were pretty. Pretty girls are always given the benefit of the doubt, seen as having more value than girls who aren't pretty, and liked by everyone. One day Isabelle encounters a fairy queen who promises to grant her wish to be pretty, but Isabelle has to first find the missing pieces of her heart. Meanwhile, there are others who are trying to control her path. Fate has drawn a map of her life, which will soon end in bloodshed. Chance has stolen the map and is trying to alter the path. Both Fate and Chance have now come to the village of St. Michel to try and alter her life, but perhaps Isabelle will wrest control and determine her own destiny.

I loved this take on what happened after the events of Cinderella, and the new dimensions of Ella's stepsisters. There was adventure, magic, and love. Isabella and Octavia dealt with their former mistreatment of Ella and I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the three girls came together for a reckoning. Isabelle grew so much as a human being during the course of this story, which was incredibly empowering. I loved her trajectory! Even Octavia, who wasn't the focus of the story, came through as a real person here, one who is completely uninterested in romance (with the prince or anyone else) but is devoted to math and science. Neither of these girls fit in with what was expected of young ladies, nor were they taken seriously by anyone around them, but ultimately they grew into confident young women, sure of themselves and demanding to be respected. It was incredibly satisfying!