Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)

I'm really pretty late to this party. This novel came out years ago and was very popular and I don't know why I never read it but it was probably because the title is so twee? But something made me add it to my To Read list recently and I ended up grabbing a copy when I was looking for something historical and cozy.

Just after WWII ends, an author named Juliet is casting about for a book idea when she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams on the island of Guernsey. He came across a used copy of a book that used to belong to Juliet (and had her name and address inside the cover) and wrote to her to ask if she knew what else the author had written. He also mentioned a literary group on Guernsey that started up during the war, which intrigues Juliet so much that she asks for letters and stories from other members of the group and, eventually, goes to Guernsey to meet them all. The novel is told through letters between Juliet and the inhabitants of Guernsey, her friend Sophie, her editor, and various other people.

It was all very charming, though also filled with pain as so many of the characters were at the beginning of recovering from the war. Notably absent was Elizabeth McKenna, a member of the Literary society and mother to a young girl named Kit whose father was a German soldier. Elisabeth was caught harboring a prisoner and taken away and nobody yet knows what happened to her.

The characters were all quite delightful and Juliet quickly came to love them and their home. During the course of the book, before she leaves London for Guernsey, she is courted by a publisher whose name I've already forgotten, but it's clear from the beginning that he's not right for her. He's all about fancy dinners and flowers and parties and is completely uninterested in her newfound interest in the people of Guernsey and their stories. You can guess early on who she's actually going to end up with, which isn't a criticism, but my real criticism is that it came about so abruptly. They pined for each other in silence and then in the course of one page they declared their undying love with no buildup whatsoever.

But the romance wasn't the important part of the book, and I did quite enjoy getting to know all the characters and hoping that Elizabeth would stay there after completing her book research. There were a lot of funny moments and some very sweet ones, and all in all it was satisfying. I don't think I loved it as much as most people (it was a bit twee) but it was fun and a good choice of reading during a weekend when I was sick.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Life's Work

Life's Work by Dr. Willie Parker (2017)

A fundamentalist Christian from the South, Willie Parker became an ob/gyn doctor. For a while he didn't perform abortions, but after being inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s interpretation of the Good Samaritan, he focused his career entirely on providing abortions. His philosophy is that he should be helping women who need it without judging them, and given how few doctors there are in the South who will perform abortions he now spends all his time there, traveling from clinic to clinic.

I was struck by a number of things while reading Dr. Parker's story. One was his complete and utter devotion to his work. Despite being legal and upheld by the Constitution, abortion remains controversial and a target, which means that Dr. Parker is also a target. He has had colleagues who perform abortion and have been murdered for it, or whose families have been threatened. This is one reason, he says, why he has not married or had children. I do wish he had talked a bit more about that because I didn't get a sense of how much of a sacrifice that was. Was he even interested in marriage? Did he avoid dating because of his job? It honestly sounds like he's so busy in his career that he doesn't have time for anything else.

Also, I was struck by his respect for women. He talks about how they know their own lives better than anyone else, and how by the time they get to the clinic (which is not easy, given how far some have to travel, and how hard it can be to scrape together the money) they've spent a lot of time thinking about their choice and he is confident that they're making the best decisions they can for themselves and their families. He doesn't question or judge those decisions.

There are situations, however, in which he will not perform an abortion. He won't do them after 25 weeks, but will refer the woman to someone who will. He won't do one if he thinks the woman doesn't actually want it, if he thinks she's being pressured by her partner or by a parent. Interestingly, he also won't do it if the choice is based on the gender or race of the fetus.

Another surprising thing about this book that I appreciated was that he explained the whole process of an abortion, which is something that nobody ever really talks about specifically. Although something like one third of women have had abortions, I imagine a lot of them go into it not knowing what to expect and for everyone else the whole process remains a mystery. It was good to see it all explained and know what is actually involved.

The book is about more than just his experiences; he also talks about political and societal issues. For instance, he is disappointed that the left has adopted the idea that abortion is always a sad, tragic choice. He feels like it doesn't do the pro-choice movement any good to assign such moral weight to a medical, practical procedure. He also talks about the fetishization of motherhood and children in our culture, and how we so often view birth as a miracle, when in fact it's just an ordinary biological process. This also only serves to fuel the anti-abortion movement. He feels that there's no intrinsic moral value to becoming a mother, or not becoming a mother. I totally agree with all of these views.

I found this whole book very enlightening and thoughtful and thought-provoking. I'm not very interested in religion, but I even found his religious evolution interesting. I can't help but admire Dr. Parker for his respect for women and commitment to justice. Many of us talk the talk about abortion rights, but he is really walking the walk. This is a great complement to another book I read not long ago, Pro by Katha Pollitt.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Heartbreaker

Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey (2018)

So it's 1985 and Pony Darlene Fontaine is the first of three narrators of this novel, the second two being a dog and a teenage boy. Pony lives in a place known as The Territory and nobody there has ever been outside except for Pony's mother, Billie Jean Fontaine, who arrived under mysterious circumstances. The book takes places over just a couple of days when Billie Jean goes missing, but it includes much more story than just two days worth.

The timeline can be hard to follow and it also gets a little difficult to keep everyone's relationships straight because they're all having affairs with each other and are also related to others in unexpected ways because of the affairs and the resulting secrets regarding who is who else's parents. I kept thinking something was happening in the present, but it turns out it was happening during some past event, or vice versa, which definitely affected my understanding of the story.

A lot about this book was confusing. This town was originally settled by a cult, but we don't know much about that cult. The people have some odd traditions and ways of speaking, which I assume is related to that cult that we know very little about. Also...ok, it's kind of a spoiler but it needs to be said: it doesn't actually take place in 1985, which I suspected from the beginning because nobody has contact with the outside world so how would they know about 80s trends and music? But it doesn't explain why they all have failed to keep track of what year it is. I mean, is it ALWAYS 1985? Or did they just restart their calendars in some weird year at some point? This is not explained and it bothers me.

At the same time, it's such a unique, unusual book that I can't help but admire this author's imagination. The traditions of the community are odd and mundane at the same time. The men all have nicknames given to them when they're teenagers or a little older, and those are the names they are always called afterward. Pony's father is known as The Heavy, and some of the other guys are Traps, Supernatural, Neon Dean, and Sexeteria. The girls wear necklaces with their names on it, and they are expected to own two tracksuits: one for inside and one for outside, but even the outside one is just for at home like if you're working in the yard. They always refer to coats as their "outerwear" and pajamas as "nightpants," both of which contribute to how stilted their language sounds sometimes. The teenagers all have to donate blood regularly, which is sold to the outside world and this is how the Territory survives financially. But they don't have any especially colorful beliefs about life, their origins, or the world.

There's tragedy though, so much tragedy. From The Heavy, who was burned badly when he tried in vain to save his parents and sister from their burning house, to the suicide of Pony's best friend's mom, to the death of a baby that is alluded to all through the book and about which we finally learn the truth near the end. Imagine living in a small, insular community where there are (almost) no newcomers and nobody ever leaves. You'll never meet anyone who you haven't always known.

In summary, I don't even know how to summarize my thoughts about this very odd book. I definitely enjoyed reading it, even though I didn't always quite understand what was going on, and it is certainly pretty different from any other book I've read. It's flawed, or maybe the flaws have more to do with my understanding than the book itself. It's hard to say. I'm sure this book is not for everyone, but if you want something really different, you might give this one a try.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway (2017), narrated by Julia Whelan

Robin Benway has really outdone herself and I have no idea why it took me so long to check out this book, given all the enthusiastic reviews I've read of it in the last couple of years.

It begins with Grace, who accidentally became pregnant and gave her baby up for adoption, spurring her to seek out her own birth mother. Instead, her parents put her in touch with her biological sister, Maya, and the two of them find their older biological brother, Joaquin. Grace and Maya were adopted as babies, but Joaquin, now 17, has been in foster care the whole time. His current foster parents want to adopt him, but he's afraid of what might happen based on past experiences. Maya is also having kind of a rough time, dealing with her mother's secret alcoholism and her parents' unhappy marriage. But all three are stronger now that they have the support of their newfound siblings.

I loved everything about this book. All of it. The characters were amazing and imperfect and different from each other, and I loved how the siblings are in totally different family situations but understand one another fundamentally because they were given up by the same mother. It was believable how they all hesitated to share their deepest secrets with each other for fear of rejection. Most of all I loved how they were there for each other when it really mattered.

We started with Grace and I found her story the most painful of all, I think. She was viewed by Maya and Joaquin as a total good girl, and she probably was. She had supportive parents, did well in school, and never got into trouble. But when she became pregnant by her boyfriend Max, his parents made it clear that they wouldn't let her pregnancy - which they viewed as totally Grace's fault - get in the way of his future success. While Grace labored to have their baby, Max was being crowned homecoming king. He had a new girlfriend and everything was perfect for him. Meanwhile, Grace no longer had friends, the other kids called her "baby mama" and a slut. She knew that giving her baby (who she thought of as "Peach") to a more adult, stable couple was the right thing to do, but she also felt guilty and worried so much about what would happen to her. Her desperate need to find her birth mother was partly just so she could let her know that she is ok.

Each one of these kids had a great story, made up of bad luck and misguided decisions, and it was really fantastic to see how they came together and helped each other, and to see their joined story unfold. Julia Whelan is an excellent narrator and I was glad to see her name on this book. If you like teen books or books about sibling relationships I highly recommend this one, and I also suggest you check out Robin Benway's other books because they're all great!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers (2019)

My excitement when I learned that Becky Chambers had a new book out quickly turned to disappointment when I saw that it was a novella. After reading the three thick books that make up the Wayfarers series I was hoping for another big story, and as someone who tends to enjoy short books I don't know why I was afraid it wouldn't be good. Spoiler alert: it was very good.

It opens with a plea to read it to the end. It's from an astronaut, Ariadne O'Neill, who left Earth fifty years ago with her crew. The other three are Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo, and Chikondi Daka. Their mission was to visit four habitable worlds called Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum, and their communique is coming from the last one. What follows is the story of their flight and their experiences on all of those planets, and then at the end you get the explanation for why they are sending this missive, which of course I won't spoil for you but it is not disappointing. It is kind of open-ended, if you care about that kind of thing, and I am already sorta dying to know if there will be a sequel but mostly I just care that Becky Chambers writes more books about something.

I love reading books that contain alien life because it's so fascinating to see what comes of writers' imaginations. There was life of some sort on all the planets they visited, as they suspected, and I loved seeing them described. (Oh, if only there were illustrations!) The characters were great too, which is one of this author's strengths. They are pretty diverse in terms of sexual orientation and race, though it's not actually spelled out and is kind of irrelevant to the plot. Which I like because diversity should just be a thing that exists and not there for the sake of being diverse, if you know what I mean. If you want specifics, there was bi/poly/ace representation, and the racial diversity is obvious from (and only identified by) their names.

Throughout the book I kept wondering what the crisis would be. Like, they were just visiting these planets and making amazing discoveries and as much as I loved reading about this, it's not a story. I kept wondering when the actual plot would start. The conflict comes very late, and it's great!

I hope we don't have to wait very long for another book by Becky Chambers because her books are so imaginative and fun to read. Anyone who likes science fiction in the style of The Martian would probably enjoy Becky Chambers. If you haven't read anything by her, please consider it!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Way Home

The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology by Mark Boyle (2019)

It feels strange to be writing a blog post about a book that is all about stepping away from technology and getting in touch with the actual world, but it's one I want to recommend and if I had to tell everyone in person, it just wouldn't happen.

Mark Boyle moved to a smallholding in Ireland to make a life for himself in a way that was not damaging to the earth or to himself. Rather than working for someone else all day to earn money to buy things for himself, he spends his days working for himself. Gardening, foraging, hunting, chopping firewood, whittling, doing laundry by hand, making everything he needs himself. He's not alone - his girlfriend Kristy lives with him in his cabin and there's also a farmhouse on the property. They have a free hostel where people can come and stay to experience the same sort of life.

The book isn't a straight-up memoir; there are vignettes about the way he lives interspersed with his thoughts about technology, nature, and people. A third element, set apart by italics, is the story of Great Blasket Island, inhabited by people living the old ways until it was evacuated in 1953. He spends a lot of time thinking about how he lives and how he used to live, how everything he does affects the natural world, and how technology affects us. It's very thoughtful and introspective. When I began reading and realized there wasn't really a story, just fragments of story mixed in with thoughts, I thought I might not like it. But it turns out that his thoughts are so compelling and well-expressed, and his life so interesting, that I had no trouble at all. The bits about Great Blasket Island didn't hold my interest quite as well, but even that was fairly interesting.

Doing everything the hard way means that Boyle has thought a lot about the easy way and its cost. There's also a cost for him to do things slowly and painstakingly, but one of the results is that you make time for the things that are really important and don't bother with the rest, a lesson we could all probably stand to take to heart. When he was using social media he was, of course, in touch with people he never saw otherwise, but in his new life he relied on the mail. At first, his mailbox was stuffed and keeping up with it was overwhelming, but over time it dwindled, which was a relief. He says "Inconvenience is a great filter." In terms of producing food and making things that he needs, it also filters out those things which are unnecessary but which we wouldn't think twice about acquiring when it's easy or cheap. But those things have a large cost to the environment and to the people getting paid pennies to produce them.

Sometimes it can sound like he's pining for the "good old days" but he has very good points about where our attention is these days, the number of distractions, and how removed from the natural world we are. This would be a good place to mention the value of some of our modern developments like antibiotics, but we have misused and overused them irresponsibly and I'm allergic to most of them anyway so they don't do me any good. In Boyle's case, he says he hasn't been to a doctor in ten years which I think he's trying to attribute to his healthy lifestyle and I'm sure that helps, but not having health issues is also a privilege that allows him to take on this strenuous self-reliant lifestyle. He also complains a lot about government regulations, some of which I'm sure are ridiculous, but at other times he comes across a bit like he's criticizing something just because he doesn't understand it. This isn't a complaint about the book, just a way of pointing out that although I feel pretty convinced that he's on the right track, he's imperfect like the rest of us.

Surprisingly, my favorite thing about his life is that he doesn't have any clocks and never knows what time it is. I'm a total clock-watcher because, like everyone else in our society, my life is ruled by having to be at work at a certain time which means having to get up a certain time, which means needing to be in bed at a certain time. It's a kind of prison and I have often wondered what my days would be like if I could just go to sleep and get up and eat when I feel like it rather than when my clock dictates. I was so jealous of this part of his life, but I'll probably have to wait until retirement to experience it for myself.

Look, I could probably talk about this book and its related ideas all day. I haven't even touched on the meditative aspects of picking nettles, the way advertising invades our privacy by constantly forcing its way into our heads, or many of the valid criticisms he has about capitalism. There's just too much here. I've always been a little obsessed with old-timey ways of life and people who live off the land, so this is very much up my alley. He's got a nice bibliography at the end of the book and although I'm unlikely to pick up a copy of Deerskins into Buckskins: How to Tan with Natural Materials,  I'd probably be interested in Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, especially since I've already read their memoir The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living and found it quite inspiring. I'm unlikely to go live in the woods and start making my own soap and whittling my own spoons, but I do hope to be more thoughtful about the way I live my life.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Outlander

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

I won this book in a mini-challenge which was part of this year's TBR Pile Challenge. I had my choice of books and picked Outlander because I'm so intrigued by the show but had an idea that I might like the book so I wanted to try it first before watching.

Although I've known about this series for years, I had no idea it involved time travel at all. If you don't know the premise, it begins in 1945 when Claire and her husband, newly married before the war, travel to Scotland for a very belated honeymoon. While there, Claire walks through a mysterious ring of stones and is transported to 1743, beginning a series of adventures that span 8 books so far.

She arrives in the midst of a battle, which she first mistakes for a reenactment of some sort. Next thing she knows, she's a "guest" (more like a prisoner) at a castle, with everyone wanting to know where she came from and not believing her. They think she's a spy, and eventually a witch, and although all she wants is to get back to her own time, it's impossible to get away with everyone watching her. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that she's forced into a marriage for her own protection, and it turns into a genuine romance.

This was a very long book. My edition was around 630 pages, but it read really slowly. It wasn't boring or hard to get through, just slow-moving. And I'm not sure why because it was missing a lot of the introspection I was expecting. Claire spent very little time pining away after her old life with it's cars and flush toilets, and she barely struggled at all to figure out how to live life in 1743. She seemed to fit in easily once she got some appropriate clothing. I would think if I were in that position I'd be bumbling about trying to figure out how to do basic daily tasks, while constantly panicking about the loss of my old life and comparing the two. It seemed like most days she just went about her business with barely a thought about how much she missed her husband or anything else.

So that was a bit strange, but still I mostly liked reading it. Oh, Claire could be a bit stupid, refusing to listen to other people who knew more than she did about living in that time period, but I liked her well enough. Jamie, her sudden husband, took a bit of getting used to but seemed like a decent guy and I liked how their relationship unfolded. Claire also made acquaintance with an interesting woman named Geilie who had some secrets of her own, as it turned out.

There was a great conversation at one point in which Claire has confided in a clergyman and asks for advice regarding her potential to change the future. He responds to her with something I've been thinking about recently after - and I hate to admit this - I saw it in a meme. I don't remember the meme exactly, but it said that when we think about time travel we always worry about how the tiniest action could affect the future in major ways, but we don't think about how in regular life our small actions can also affect the future. The future is the future, whether we've been there already or not. So the clergyman tells Claire basically the same thing, that everybody's actions affect the future and she shouldn't overthink things.

I went into this with the intention of just reading the one book, and I don't know that I loved it enough to read more, but also I'm a bit intrigued. I read the descriptions on Goodreads of the next two books and they sound kind of interesting, but also I'm confused about how the timeline fits together (although there's time travel, so.) At any rate, it was a pretty engrossing and enjoyable book.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Right Swipe

The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (2019), narrated by Summer Morton and Brian Pallino

Rhiannon Hunter was ousted from a dating app company called Swipe after breaking up with one of the executives, and she went on to start a competing company called Crush. Now she's interested in expanding her business by buying Matchmaker, a more traditional old-timey kind of dating company. While attending an industry event, she runs into a guy she hooked up with months ago who ghosted her, and then learns that he works for Matchmaker.

Samson Lima was a pro football player, as was his father and uncle. His father died of CTE, and that is likely also what killed his uncle. Now Samson is working for his aunt, owner of Matchmaker. When he sees Rhiannon for the first time since their night together, he wants nothing more than to apologize and explain what happened, but she won't talk to him.

Rhiannon made a lot of assumptions, which is a thing I find annoying, and she kept doing it right through the end of the book. There were ways in which I could admire her, but I didn't find her interesting. She was an ambitious workaholic who didn't seem to have any interests outside of her business, and I am just not interested in characters whose lives are that empty. Samson was a little more nuanced, I suppose, since he was dealing with the repercussions of how he left his career, the traumatic brain injuries suffered by his father and uncle, and his struggle to figure out what to do with his life next.

The story had some interesting elements: CTE, the harassment Rhiannon experienced at her old company, her decision to make a dating app that is more female-friendly, and the interesting way the owner of Matchmaker decided to let potential new owners make their offers (basically a somewhat mysterious house party.) So I guess it was a solid story, but not especially awesome.

I listened to the audiobook, and both the narrators were good but their voices were almost too different to make it flow easily between their chapters. Brian Pallino's voice was so low and whispery compared to Summer Morton's that I often had to adjust the volume between chapters.

My expectations for this book were set by Alisha Rai's Forbidden Hearts series, which was excellent and made this one disappointing in comparison. This was a totally different book - upbeat and light where that series was  super dark and angsty - so I probably shouldn't compare them but I can't help it. I will continue to love Alisha Rai, but I may just stick with her darker, more serious, books from now on.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Exile From Eden

Exile From Eden by Andrew Smith (2019)

Sixteen years after the events of Grasshopper Jungle, Austin and Shann's son Arek is a teenager and starting to grow attracted to Mel, Robby's younger sister who is close to Arek's age. Austin and Robby often leave the hole together to explore and bring stuff back, but one time they leave and don't come back. Arek can't stand just waiting and decides to go looking for them.

The main story arc is about Arek and Mel leaving the hole to look for Arek's fathers, but discovering what the outside world is really like. They had been told that it was scary and dangerous, and while there were certainly scary and dangerous things out there it was so much more than that. It opened up their world in life-changing ways and neither of them will be able to go back to living in the hole all the time.

Arek's and Mel's story is told in alternating chapters with that of two other characters, Breakfast and Olive. Arek had heard of them because his fathers, during their explorations, had found notes that Breakfast left behind. Breakfast was constantly picking his nose, scratching his balls, farting, and declaring how wild he is, often punctuating his speech with "Ha! Wild!" Olive didn't speak at all but constantly jumped up and down in excitement. That was basically their shtick and it got old really, really fast. I quickly came to dislike reading the chapters about these characters.

The last book ended in a weird spot relationship-wise, and the love triangle between Austin, Robby, and Shann was left unresolved. It was basically the only thing I didn't like about that book. Now sixteen years later, Austin and Robby are a couple though it seems like they hide it from the other adults in the hole. Shann is unhappy and bitter, her mother Wendy a religious nut. But the story is unconcerned with the unhappiness of the women and nothing comes of that. Smith apparently only cares about boys and how all boys want to leave, which he keeps saying, as though nobody female ever got sick of their life and wanted to start fresh. I guess he thinks women are fine with being stuck in a hole and miserable like Shann.

It never explained why Robby and Austin were gone for so long, and I don't understand the title of the book either - doesn't exile mean you are sent away? It is sort of implied that the women made everyone miserable and the guys (and Mel) needed to leave the hole to get away from them. We also never learned how Breakfast and Olive met up. Throughout a lot of the book Breakfast is telling Olive the story of his life before he met her, but he never reaches the part where they met and, knowing what I now know about Olive, I'd like to know how they came to be traveling together.

It was ok enough, not nearly as good as Grasshopper Jungle and as I've mentioned I had a number of specific disappointments. I did like reading about Arek and Mel and their adventures discovering the outside world for the first time. During the course of the story, the Unstoppable Soldiers (the giant praying mantises) that they encountered seemed to be sick or dying, so there is hope that humans may be able to come out of hiding and reclaim the world. I'd like to think Arek and the others would bother to let the rest of the family know it's safe to come out of the hole at that point, but I'm not convinced they would.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Duchess Deal

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1) by Tessa Dare (2017)

I read a book by Tessa Dare several years ago and wasn't impressed. Or rather, I liked it until near the end when everything went kind of stupid. I've shied away from her books since then even though I know a lot of people love them. But recently I heard such good things about The Wallflower Wager that I thought it would be worth trying this series and I wanted to start from the beginning.

Our story begins with Emma Gladstone paying a call to the Duke of Ashbury. She's a seamstress, appearing in a dress commissioned by the Duke's now-ex-fiance. Emma is desperate for payment, though I don't understand why she couldn't simply carry the dress with her. At any rate, the Duke makes her a counter-offer: marriage.

The Duke returned from war with hideous scars covering one side of his face and body, which is the reason his fiance changed her mind about marriage. It was a huge blow to his self-esteem and he's a bitter, brooding man. But he still needs an heir so he offers Emma a way out of poverty. The deal is that as soon as she gets pregnant, he'll give her a house in the country and she'll never have to see him again. This has an appeal to Emma because, in addition to wanting financial security, she has just learned that one of her unmarried friends is pregnant and needs a place to go during the final months of her pregnancy.

Emma is fairly attracted to the Duke early on, and all the sex they're having to try and produce an heir only increases that attraction. The Duke, though he tries very hard to retain his cynical outer shell, also begins falling for Emma. But he's not convinced he's worth loving, and his former fiance isn't entirely out of the picture, plus Emma's plans to hide away her pregnant friend begin to complicate things. It was a pretty good story that I was invested in from the start. I love a marriage of convenience, and a hero or heroine who has a physical or mental disability (not that his scars disable him, exactly.) Additionally, the Duke's staff really wanted him to fall in love with Emma and they would contrive situations to throw them together and it was kind of hilarious and cute.

There was a lot of humor actually, which seems to be the case with most romances I end up reading - are they all that way? Emma doesn't know what to call her new husband, refusing to call him the Duke, or Ash, or his real first name, George, because it's her father's name. So she resorts to making up silly little nicknames which he hates, but she is fond of torturing him in this way. I liked some of their wry observations about society too. For instance, when Emma insists on using her seamstress skills to make her own clothing, the Duke will not hear of it. She tries to reason with him, saying that ladies are supposed to do needlework. His response is "Fine ladies make useless things, like wretched pillows, and samplers no one wants, and disturbing covers for the commode. They don't use their skills to perform common labor."

Which brings me to one of the things I liked most about this hero. He was very conscientious about how his decisions affected others. So when he shows Emma her house in the country and tells her to hire people to fix it up and she insists it's perfect the way it is, he tells her how that doesn't matter because the important thing is giving work to people who need jobs. That is something she understands.

What he did that I didn't like was threaten Emma's father on her behalf and without her consent. When the Duke learned why Emma was so poor, that her father had thrown her out of the house and let her make her own way (starving and freezing and even losing a toe) he was outraged. He snuck away, found her father's house, and slipped into the guy's bedroom in the middle of the night to threatened that he'd go to hell. I appreciate the gesture, but I hate when men act like their female partners are helpless and need protecting and don't even ask before seeking out those who have wronged them. Maybe she wants you to stay the hell out of it.

I liked Emma too. She was clever and resourceful and didn't take shit from anyone. She was down-to-earth and forgiving and could see the good in people even when it was hard for others to. I also like the women she befriends, who are all unconventional and interesting, and who I think are the subjects of the other books in this series, which I now want to continue reading.

This was a fun story about an unlikely match and I was happy that I liked it a lot more than the last book by Tessa Dare that I read. I was really in the mood for something light and escapist, and this really fit the bill.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Mother of All Questions

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit (2017)

I impulsively borrowed this from a friend when I was at his house, despite having plenty to read and only moments before refusing his offer to borrow "anything I'd like" when he saw me browsing his shelves. But Rebecca Solnit is so smart and I so enjoyed Men Explain Things To Me that I couldn't pass up this book.

It actually took me a while to get through the first essay, "A Short History of Silence," which at 50-something pages is a pretty substantial chunk of the book. It was also probably the most abstract, and abstract is not something I am good at. It was about the many ways in which people (and more specifically, women) are silenced and even though it was a bit long and may be too broad and all-emcompassing for me, there were still passages I noted. One example is when she talks about how films primarily featuring men are just films, while those with primarily female characters are considered girls' or womens' films. She says "Men are not expected to engage in the empathic extension of identifying with a different gender, just as white people are not asked, the way people of color are, to identify with other races. Being dominant means seeing yourself and not seeing others; privilege often limits or obstructs imagination."

After this lengthy essay, which took me a few days to read, I read the rest of the book in probably a 24-hour period. As expected, having read Solnit's essays before, I was worked up into a rage, but also couldn't help smile at how clever, erudite, and articulate she is. I'm not great at expressing my thoughts and it's so satisfying to read the words of someone who can pinpoint exactly what it is about something that is so unjust or infuriating.

These essays examine events like the O.J. Simpson murders, Gamergate, and sexual harassment by men from Bill Cosby to Jian Ghomeshi. She talks about how women who have already been treated poorly by men are further harassed, often receiving rape and death threats online. She says "...the plethora of men attacking women and anyone who stands up for women in order to prove that women are not under attack and feminism has no basis in reality are apparently unaware that they're handily proving the opposite."  She always provides interesting statistics, such as that 38% of women murdered are killed by their partners, a sad but unsurprising fact.

In "Men Explain Lolita To Me," Solnit discusses the Esquire article "80 Books Every Man Should Read" (79 of which were written by men) and posits the merits of learning about others through reading, an idea that seems to upset some men. She says "Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don't know it. They just think you're wrong and sometimes also evil." (In that same essay she discusses the way that magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan feel the need to constantly instruct how to be your gender. "Maybe it says a lot about the fragility of gender that instructions on being the two main ones have been issued monthly for so long.") She points out the way that white men are forever talking about other people who can't take a joke or need to be coddled, when in fact they are the ones who react to jokes about themselves with rage and threats, and respond to criticisms about, say, male video game culture by threatening rape, death, doxxing, and bombs to the women who dare voice this criticism.

Rebecca Solnit gets at so many ideas in surprisingly few pages, and puts voice to things that are dancing on the periphery of my vision that I can't quite express. She's a lot smarter than I am, and I'm grateful that she shares her brilliance with the world. I was interested to learn from one of her essays that she has written a book about the history of walking, called Wanderlust, which I'd like to think I will read someday.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Peace Is Every Step

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness In Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh (1990)

This slim volume is basically a collection of short essays about finding peace, compassion, and harmony in everyday life by slowing down and living mindfully. It's divided into three sections. "Breathe! You Are Alive" is very much about the everyday: how to live in the moment and focus on the little things like breathing, walking, eating, or even doing the dishes. "Transformation and Healing" applies these principles to dealing with difficult emotions like anger and transforming them into more productive ones. It talks a lot about dealing with other people, such as parents or romantic partners, and emphasizes the importance of community. "Peace Is Every Step" takes this philosophy even farther outside of ourselves to look at world problems with a lens of kindness, compassion, peace and justice.

 At this point I've read a few things about mindfulness and about Buddhism and it's starting to get interesting to see how they complement or contradict each other. For instance, one thing that has stuck with me from The Wise Heart is noticing your feelings but realizing that they are not part of you, and will come and go like the weather. Here, in a piece called "Mindfulness of Anger" Nhat Hanh says "When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress it or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self." He compares it to garbage and compost: you can take something unwanted and transform it into something useful and nurturing. I'm not sure that the two perspectives are actually contradictory in terms of what Buddhism is about because the important thing, I think, is being aware of your emotions and recognizing that some of them are not helpful. Perhaps whether you wait for them to pass or transform them is not important.

He uses garbage in his writing a lot actually. Another passage I liked is about how if you want to live peacefully with a person you need to recognize the whole person. He says "We do not expect a person always to be a flower. We have to understand his or her garbage as well."

I also like how he talks about engaging with the world. Buddhism isn't all about staying inside your own head all the time, despite the emphasis on meditation. Meditation is to help with focus and clarity and should help you see the world. Once you see it, you need to act on what you see. And he sees us as all interdependent. In a passage entitled "Flowers and Garbage" (I told you he likes garbage!) he writes about prostitution and how we look down on prostitutes and how prostitutes may feel badly when they compare themselves to "good girls" from good family. Nhat Hanh says that the prostitute is the way she is because others are the way they are and asks "How can a 'good girl,' belonging to a good family, be proud? Because the 'good family's' way of life is the way it is, the prostitute has to live as a prostitute. No one among us has clean hands." The same is true with wealth and poverty.

He talks about war and peace and the environment. He talks about writing positive letters to our congressional representatives, letters they will want to read and not just throw away, and he acknowledges the need for understanding the constraints of doing their jobs. He talks about all the little ways that what we do every day affects the world; the way we speak to people, what we throw in the trash. He talks about looking at people who do bad things - like pirates who rape young girls - and considering what conditions in the world contributed to them becoming how they are; he thinks that if he had faced the same conditions in his life, perhaps he would also have ended up a pirate.

Thich Nhat Hanh is very well-known and popular for his views and his writing, and this book feels like one it would be good to own and turn to now and again to try and soak up more of his advice. It's the first book by Nhat Hanh that I've read but I am interested in reading more as I really like how he views the world, and the way he writes about it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Toil & Trouble

Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft edited by Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe (2018)


I am feeling very pleased with myself about actually reading this book at a somewhat seasonal time! This is a teen anthology of stories about witchy girls, and there's a lot of diversity as I have come to expect from Jessica Spotswood's anthologies. They're a mix of contemporary and historical with characters of different backgrounds, but always strong females and a lot of sisterhood.

Of course I had a few favorites. "Afterbirth" by Andrea Cremer was a chilling tale about midwives in Puritan New England. A young apprentice assists with an unusual birth that turns tragic, and the midwife is held responsible. "The Heart In Her Hands" by Tess Sharpe is set in a world where a sort of magical tattoo appears on young women, telling them the first words that will be spoken to them by their soulmate. But Brenna already has a soulmate, a girl, and she refuses the boy who speaks the prophetic words to her. "The Truth About Queenie" by Brandy Colbert is about a young witch who wants to keep her powers secret; also secret is that she's in love with her best friend, Webb. When he brings home a girlfriend for her to meet, her hopes are crushed. This story made me want more, in a good way. There's enough here about Queenie and Webb's friendship, and Queenie's powers and her family, for a full-length novel and I would definitely read it. "The Legend of Stone Mary" by Robin Talley was a creepy small-town legend about a mysterious statue that is said to come to life under the right circumstances, and a teenaged girl who is a descendant of the subject of the statue.

Now I'm realizing I have too many favorites to relate them all in details, but others include "The One Who Stayed" by Nova Ren Suma, "Divine Are the Stars" by Zoraida Cordova, "Daughters of Baba Yaga" by Brenna Yovanoff, "The Well Witch" by Kate Hart, "Beware of Girls With Crooked Mouths," by Jessica Spotswood, and "Love Spell" by Anna-Marie McLemore. There were really only a few stories I wasn't really into, and in a couple of those cases I think I just shouldn't have started a story when I was already tired. It takes some focus to get into a new story and that's one of the difficulties of reading a short story collection.

All in all, I really enjoyed this collection and recommend it if you're looking for some witchy-themed fall reading!

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019)

Margaret Atwood's long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by three women: Aunt Lydia, the daughter of a Commander, and a young woman in Canada. The events take place fifteen years after the first book and give us much more insight into parts of Gilead we didn't see before. We've gotten some of it from the show, but there is still more to discover here.

Aunt Lydia's chapters are written in secret and hidden in a book to be discovered at some later time. She speculates about whether she'll be dead then, or if their discovery will lead to her death or downfall because of her explosive secrets. Agnes Jemima is the Commander's daughter and if you watch the show you will recognize her as Offred/June's daughter, originally called Hannah. Her chapters are labeled Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A. Our third character's story is told through Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B, and she is a sixteen-year-old named Daisy, living in Canada with her parents Neil and Melanie, and in her opening story she is just learning, through a tragic event, that much of what she knew about herself is a lie. The stories of all three of these characters come to intersect in important ways that may change Gilead forever.

Even though I've been watching the show, there is a lot to learn here about Gilead. A Commander's daughter provides an enlightening perspective on how the privileged live and view their world. Although the show does follow some characters who have escaped to Canada, that's different than this viewpoint of a teenager for whom Gilead has been a neighbor her whole life, and has grown up hearing about Baby Nicole, baby of legend, stolen from Gilead and hidden in Canada. And of course Aunt Lydia's writings reveal a great deal about the inner workings of those who set up this society and keep it running, plus the details of how her life changed when the American government fell and how she became an Aunt.

Especially interesting to me is how the characters view the handmaids. In The Handmaid's Tale we have only 's Offred's perspective, and therefore believe that the handmaids are revered because they produce babies, the society's most precious commodity. Imagine my surprise when I began reading and heard the way people talked about the handmaids as sluts who are good for nothing else. Well! That was something I didn't expect from such a pious, baby-centric society. This novel was pretty eye-opening, to say the least.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, of course, so I'll just summarize my experience by saying that it was very satisfying. Throughout the show I have been dying to know just how evil Aunt Lydia is - there have been times that I could swear I see glimmers of a good person hidden in there, especially when she protects the handmaids or forces them to behave in ways that will be safer for them in the long run. But then she would do something awful and I would think that no, in fact, she is all for Gilead's way of life, a true believer. This book finally gives me the answers I have sought about her character. A fun discovery was that part of the book takes place on Campobello Island, which is a tiny Canadian island connected by a bridge to my hometown and where I spent a great deal of time when I was growing up.

Of course I can't help but think about the present atmosphere in the United States, with an authoritarian president, an election system that's not currently as free and fair as it should be, and the distinct possibility of political instability. Atwood has been very open about how everything in Gilead has existed somewhere at some time in the real world. As she says late in this novel "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." It left me with a lot to think about.

I had only read one review of this book before reading it because I knew I would read it no matter what - that review was from Kirkus and was predictably Kirkus-like (it said something to the effect that the book was good but unnecessary, whatever the heck that means.) Of course I thought it was great, and I am trying to figure out the trajectory of the show given that this takes place several years later and I don't know how many seasons they have planned. But no matter: I'm happy to have this story now!

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.