Tuesday, December 6, 2016

As Far As You Can Go-Lesley Glaister

As Far as You Can Go-Lesley Glaister

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 327
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2004
novel

An English couple answer a newspaper ad and find themselves in the Australian outback.


I don't know. I didn't quite engage with this novel. It's supposed to be a psychological thriller but it was one of those occasions when you're like, are these people stupid? Who thought this could be a good idea?! Like a horror film where you're like OF course, you died, you idiot, you went into the dark room where there was screaming without a weapon.
Problem 1: Answering a newspaper ad to go to a geographically isolated place WITHOUT meeting the only other people there. Of course, a meeting doesn't always raise alarm bells but in this case, due to their first meeting, it would have.
Problem 2: Your relationship is in trouble. Let's go to a place where you can't escape each other and try to "fix" the other person. Never. ever. going. to. work. It's like when a couple first moves in with each other and suddenly end up arguing every day about which way the toilet roll should unroll but instead of being able to go and rant to your friends, you just have...the outback. And, I'm sorry, no one can 'fix' another person if that person doesn't want to be fixed-and it's rare.
So, as a result, the first half of this book felt interminable as Glaister forms the characters in this relationship. Don't get me wrong, the characters are strongly imagined and well developed but the pacing was soooo slow for someone like me who felt like she'd sized up the relationship from the first 20 pages. 50+ pages later, finally, they're realizing that they should be leaving and any suspense for me was gone.
However, what Glaister really does well is the creation of the setting. My god, the outback, the heat, the insects, and the landscape were like their own characters. I'm glad to have read this book for the setting at the very least.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Girls Will be Girls-Emer O'Toole

Girls Will Be Girls-Emer O'Toole

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 277
gender: F
nationality: Ireland
year: 2015
non fiction-gender studies

Emer O'Toole engages with feminist theory about the performance of gender.


O'Toole covers most of the accustomed bases of feminist theory and makes an entertainingly convincing argument for examining your own life. Why do you, as a woman, do the things you do to be a woman? We, women, are all of us aware of the differences in our lives from those of men. Men shave their faces but nothing else, women may shave everything else. Men don't wear makeup, women may wear 'too much' or 'too little'. What O'Toole does best is asking the reader to think about why. She does so by connecting the dense theory, the abstract and often labyrinth ideas, to her own life. And so we learn of her upbringing in an Irish Catholic family with a strong emphasis on a binary view of life. I enjoyed her exploration of the home-a contentious sphere for feminists- which juxtapositions the teaching of the equal sexes with a practice that highlights inequality. O'Toole writes accessibly-this barely feels non-fiction- and with wry humor. I found myself smiling at her jokes.

What I, however, cannot forgive O'Toole for is her discussion of sexuality. She completely dismisses bisexuality essentially because she doesn't believe in it since it's only a societal construct. There's no real warning before this dismissal-she just kind of launches into it and heavily implies that bisexuality is a performance in of itself. There's a sort of contradiction going on in her thinking-we're free to define ourselves as feminists but in the sphere of sexuality, it's the other person who defines what you are. She has more thinking, more growing to do I guess, which is the theme of the book in a way. After all, she has gone through all these experiments and costumes, talks about her discomfort, but there is still some dissonance going on here. She never really discusses how she learned to feel comfortable in her own skin. Has she? This is kind of what I feel the limits of the performance of gender theory are. If gender is performance, what does that mean for your default performance? Sure it's a societal construct but where is the comfort in that? Can we live our lives without that basic comfort?

I will end with the fact that I was likely not actually the target. My academically gender studies credentials are advanced-born from a women's college education, trans-activism, and a long time interest which had me reading Butler as a teenager...the same time O'Toole is just beginning to "experiment" with what costumes she could change. Thus, I already have a series of critiques I can level against the performance of gender (for instance, this was an entirely cis-centric tome with an inadequate consideration of transgender persons). I tried to put them aside for this review since this book is likely meant for people who are on the fence about feminism or people who have not read any of the actual theory.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

All the Missing Girls-Megan Miranda

All the Missing Girls-Megan Miranda

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Nic returns to her hometown that she had left behind after her friend disappeared. Her father is unwell and a new disappearance of another girl who had been connected to Nic's family throws her into a tizzy.

Listen, this book could be a causality of my trope-to-kinda-hate of the moment: dangerous white teenage girls but I didn't really enjoy this book. I want to start with the observation that Miranda writes her narrator very credibly. As a character, she is following a clearly established logic and value system. But for the reader, Nic is incredibly frustrating. She's so off putting that it kind of boggles my mind. The structure of the book doesn't particularly help her case as Miranda hides so much from the reader that you essentially are treated to pages and pages of hysterical hypocrisy. Nic is nosy and self-involved-a combination that is common enough but when you add in the hypocrisy of her actions, makes for a potent cocktail of unpleasantness. "TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW" she cries over and over again while stampeding through people's lives, hiding her own knowledge, and tampering with evidence in an open investigation. That last bit particularly irked me because, I'm sorry, you either tamper with evidence and redirect the investigation away from what you know to be true OR demand they investigate and find out what you know to be true. You can't have it both ways Nic!
I was particularly frustrated because with a different sort of narrator this could have been such a different book with some very interesting points to make. Instead Miranda's points are buried underneath Nic's hysteria. But see, Miranda made me think and care about her character anyway.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wolf in the Attic-Paul Kearney

The Wolf in the Attic-Paul Kearney

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

Anna is stranded in strange cold England with her father, both refugees from the Greco-Turkish population exchange chaos. She has only her doll for company but then she meets Luca, a strange amber eyed boy. She later finds him in her attic and her whole life changes.

I am ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, I really really enjoyed it. The way Kearney uses myths and twists them about into a fascinating blend was what kept me reading it. I enjoyed reading this rather strange account of the utterly lonely Anna. It is evocatively written and the pacing is quick and decisive.
Then I put my reviewer's hat on and my goodness, there's a lot to say that sounds so negative. But I enjoyed this book! Ok, so to start, there's a fair bit that seems almost unnecessary (like the short-lived Tolkien/Lewis plotline) but that's excusable-it did set the scene and time. The ending is both pat and obscure-on the one hand, it's a happy ending but also what on earth happened?! But I guess what I liked least were the more ethnic aspects. When Kearney stuck to the more British folklore and myths, that's when this story shone. His use of the British landscape and the vagueness of his sources kept me going along and enjoying myself.  But I think it's endlessly lazy to  paint the Roma as exotic manipulative villains. Really now. And then there was the very heavy dose of Anti-Turkish sentiment in Anna's (a Pontian Greek) backstory. In my experience, knowing many Pontic Greeks and reading dry historical accounts, the stories told about this (horrific episode in history) tend to be different in tone-a strange-to-convey balance of love for their land, the betrayal of their neighbors but also their own culpability in a way. Children in particular tend to express such pasts in a different way so Kearney's approach was a little too heavy handed and a bit too "adult". I do wonder that were I not so familiar with the situation, would this have been a problem? Probably not but it did destroy my suspension of belief especially along with the manipulative charismatic Roma.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Kaminsky Cure-Christopher New

The Kaminsky Cure-Christopher New

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

A novel about a family of a Lutheran Reverend classified as half Jewish in Nazi Austria.


This was a deceptively hilarious account of being 'other' in Nazi Austria. The title refers to the tactic of holding a mouthful of water in order to stop from saying what you will regret. The converted-to-Christianity-Jew in this novel, Gabi, is forced to frequently employ this tactic. This is a tragicomedy. It shouldn't be funny but it is with the utter surrealities and ironies of life delivered with perfect timing. And like any good improv sketch, there are call-backs and repetitions that make it even funnier. But New is never taking his subject lightly. It is hard and difficult to be a half-Jew born to a Lutheran true party believer during the World Wars in Austria. The family characters are well developed from the thoroughly unpalatable Reverand Willibald to the ill-in-the-body Jewish Gabi fighting to educate her ungrateful half-Jewish family any way she can to the self-hatred of Ilse and the heartrendingly sad Sara who grows up too fast. Martin is the least developed, leaving him as a kid blind to the fact that he is not the best nor could he ever be a fighter in the German army. The child's viewpoint actually works here (part of the surrealism comes from the child's vantage) and matures accordingly to his age and circumstances-a rarity when done without jumps in time. A rewarding read-entertaining but never shying away from the horrors of the fight for humanity.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning-Alan Sillitoe

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning-Alan Sillitoe

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 192
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1951
novel (rerelease)

Arthur is a lathe worker who has little care for authority all day and spends his nights drinking in the moment.


I lived in Sheffield for a number of years and though I knew mostly educated non-steelworkers, the industry and its people were a very proud legacy. Though Sillitoe is writing about Birmingham, I feel like this working class experience was shared across the industrial Northern cities as it tied together so much of the facts of the industry of the 19-20th centuries with the folk bravado remaining in the songs and drinking habits and gave it a human face. Our Arthur is surprisingly likable despite his self-centeredness and really not giving a flying f--- about other people. He is the typical young industrial worker-binge drinking his paycheck away and out to cheat the world before it cheats him. But Arthur is not dull or an idiot, he is simply a young man of his time. He muses on his father (a rather sad figure), the future that awaits him and says nope, and lives as much in the present as possible with whoever he can. Yet there's also an inevitability, he knows the future will catch up to him, he'll find the girl to settle down with and marry and maybe it'll be alright anyway. Much of his anger seems to stem from the inevitability of his life. He's proud of his work and good at it but keeps himself down because it's not like his paycheck will be better or he'll be able to rise through the ranks. He spends his paycheck on drinking because who knows if saving it would actually mean he could buy what he wants/needs. He uses people because he's used all week anyway. This is angry young (white) man lit for sure with a proto-punk unconsciousness but Sillitoe writes it well. The voice of Arthur is enjoyable and the pacing suits the novel. Perhaps not much actually happens but Arthur is a different person anyway.
I heartily recommend it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

High Mountains of Portugal-Yann Martel

The High Mountains of Portugal-Yann Martel

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 332
gender: M
nationality: Spain
year: 2016
novel

Tomás goes into the High Mountains on his few days off in search of a strange artifact to be found in a tiny village. Years later, his story intersects with a pathologist who is visited by an inhabitant of that village. Many years later, a Canadian senator seeks refuge in that same village, bringing a chimpanzee as his companion.

This is an inventive and compelling novel about grief. That´s what the three disparate plotlines are really about. I'm aware that is likely to be labeled as magical realism since the setting is mostly reality with a few "magical" or unexplainable aspects (all related to faith I might point out) and it's a favored label for Luso-Hispanic texts but I find myself wondering whether it's actual magic or simply the things grief does to our sense of reality. All of the magical elements are related, in part, to faith-the acceptance of the irrational. Things that are presented as one thing become something different all the time in this novel and sometimes it's overtly implied that it's simply a manifestation of the narrator's grief but when it is one of the threads linking the three main characters together, Martel just lets them go. Grief, the village setting, and the artifact all link the three main characters so I really don't think the magic must be real and it is actually a much more interesting novel if you consider the cultural notions that would manifest similar grief symptoms. Martel even has some of those overtly in this novel, the oldest story becomes almost a myth, a legend and aspects that were a singular experience morph into tradition without an origin story. These are all the almost subconscious collective memory of culture that underpin some of the more irrational seeming aspects of lives. Martel is a skilled storyteller and handles the various connecting threads well giving both overt and subtle links between the three stories. At times, he veers into too much detail which makes some parts feel repetitive (I'm looking at you, 3 instances of starting up the automobile on 2 pages!) but overall, this is a gentle novel to read.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Wild Ones-Jon Mooallem

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America-Jon Mooallem

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 334
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2013
non fiction

Jon Mooallem travels in the world of animal conservation groups after realizing how many fake animals we surround our children with and asking what are we doing about the real ones?

That subtitle says it all, doesn't it? This book really delivers on its long promise. I was indeed, sometimes dismayed, often reassured despite myself by the stories Mooallem shares. Mooallem writes in a charming and self-conscious manner about what his journey talking to various kinds of animal conservationists. There are many references as to why he was doing this and those reasons changed along the way. His choice of the central stories were well done. There's the super trendy and controversial polar bear. The 'sexy' image of conservation campaigns. The stories sometimes took on surreal aspects (Martha Stewart shows up) as Mooallem discusses the disconnect between the under-researched public's demands versus what the scientists think would be the right thing to do. The polar bear also demonstrates a central issue-our emotional reactions to the plight of animals. His second was the unknown and more endangered Lange's metalmark butterfly whose survival depends on the constant maintenance of its last known habitat which has been so studied that the studies themselves endangered what they were studying. This is a great demonstration of the issues of what is "natural" and "saving" as well as a great historical lesson on the well-meaning actions of the past which time has shown to be so harmful. Finally, the book goes onto the discussion of Whooping Cranes. This is also an often not-funny but also funny journey into the people teaching the cranes to migrate. The disconnect between what the people want (the cranes to be like the historical cranes) and what the cranes actually do is an excellent depiction of when reality clashes with romanticism and how we really can't control what the animals we "conserve" do. It is also heart warming in that these people really give up a lot in order to do something with so little overt reward-shepherding for 6 months or so, a flock of willful giant birds while simultaneously doing everything they can to minimize the cranes' identification of them as human.
Mooallem really won my heart as he never gives into moralizing nor does he romanticize the "wild" but rather presents these stories as three case studies of what it means to be in a broken world and what we can do, what we try to do, and the indignities people endure in order to attempt to make it a little less broken. I'm left not with a sense of animal conservationist groups are unilaterally amazing nor with a sense of critiquing the efforts of various groups but rather with a deeper understanding of the immensity of the problem and a deeper appreciation for what people are out there attempting to do. I'm simultaneously a little more depressed and a little more hopeful and also still fascinated.

Oh, by the way, if you doubt this book's relevance or interest for non-USians, this book was literally handed to me by a British lady and a German man who had bought each other a copy as presents for Christmas.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tell the Wind and Fire-Sarah Rees Brennan

Tell the Wind and Fire-Sarah Rees Brennan

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 560
gender: F
nationality: Ireland
year: 2016
novel

A fantasy-dystopic novel about a city split into Light and Dark according to their magical abilities. Lucie has everything she wants in the Light but only due to careful secret hoarding. Yet the Dark side draws her back in.

Honestly, I almost didn't finish this book which would have been a pity. I loved the ending. This is such a rare thing that I have to lead this review with that fact-I liked the ending more than the rest of book. And not in that cruel, "glad it ended" way. Nor in that, oh, that was a charming happy ending. No, it was the way it suited the novel, the feelings it engendered and the way that is ended up making me cry even though I nearly didn't even get to the ending.
Well done Brennan.
But to get there, it's a little difficult. This is not an easy world to transition into-there's a lot that contradicts each other and the narrator's, Lucie's, refusal to engage with the realities of her world means that a lot of the world building was almost done in the periphery. You only got information just as it affected the plot. As such, coherency was difficult to achieve and it lacked the 'sinking into this world' feeling so essential to feeling like you understand what the setting is. And then, there's Lucie herself. Since she hides so much from everyone around her, the reader, herself, she's hard to like or recognize as a well-developed character. I fear that I still don't really understand why all this happened to her (especially given how much she fought being involved in any way).
Yet I'm glad I continued reading so perhaps it was just me, my mood, my own stresses that made this almost a DNF.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Shelter-Jung Yun

Shelter-Jung Yun

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 336
gender: F
nationality: S. Korea
year: 2016
novel

After a truly violent home invasion, Mae and Jin (and their housekeeper Marina) move in with their son, Kyung and his family. Their family relationship is the center of the novel and it is dysfunctional.

This was so hard to read. Not because of Yun's prose (razor sharp) or pacing (thriller-style) but because the main character, Kyung, is such an angry, damaged, insecure (emotionally and financially) individual. There are reasons for this-his strained relationship with his father is visceral but it did make his every action so grudging that it was difficult to actually feel for Kyung. You sense that he's happy with nothing, anxious, and when he rejects kindness, makes obvious mistakes and just generally walks around like he's blind to anyone other than himself (though, he's not?), you don't find yourself rooting for him precisely. Yun however, handles him masterfully because you never root against him either. He's a nuanced and well developed character which is sadly rarer for an Asian-American character. There's the standard tropes of culture clash but he's also clearly American in his struggles. Then there's Mae, his mother, she's both victim and victimizer and she's a complex character in of herself. I honestly can't process what I think of Mae. Her attempts to escape, her lashing out, her baffling about-faces are so confusing that I can't even begin that I sympathize with Kyung's attempts to weather her storms.

I feel like I'm not selling it right. None of these characters are particularly likable but Yun makes you care about them. The pace keeps you going. The story is intense and it lingers for quite a while past the last pages of the novel. I can't believe this is her first novel because the execution of all these difficult tasks-making a reader care about such damaged family dynamics, incorporating the complexities of multiple cultures, and allowing the reader to parse all this information in the context of such an overwhelmingly violent first scene while never giving into the easier path-is near perfect.

This is reread material.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac-Ethan Canin

A Doubter's Almanac-Ethan Canin

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 558
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Milo Andret is a mathematician. Is he a genius? He is certainly haunted by his rival and the woman he met as an undergraduate even as he lives his life in the present with his wife and children.

This is an surprisingly engaging portrait of a truly difficult man. Milo is obsessive and selfish as well as egotistical in a way that isolates himself from everyone in his life. Canin makes his early life so lyrical and beautiful-the maths in the woods and the carvings Milo can make but things quickly really begin to derail as an undergraduate. Milo's lyrical view of the world narrows to a tunnel of math and poison-his rival who stole the woman he sort of but not really was involved with. He never moves from this and this poisons and ruins his family dynamics. Since parts of the novel are narrated from the viewpoint of his son, Hans, you get this portrait of a bristly utterly unapproachable man married to a saint. Hans is unflinching in his own drive to understand Milo though he too forgives Milo for a lot (too much) in my opinion. Having this angry, failure, alcoholic of a man (Milo) dominate this book really is quite a risk and it doesn't always pay off-parts of this 500+ tome really really dragged for me. Hans was more interesting as he negotiated his own mathematical promise and I really did like the character of his mother but they really don't get enough exposure over these pages compared to Milo's character.
What did get a lot of exposure was the maths. Thankfully there are few equations and numbers involved since Canin spends a lot of time translating mathematical concepts into his own flowing prose but personally wrapping my head around the particular distinctions within the mathematical world and Maslosz's conjecture was hard going. It felt like whole chapters of this book were the working out of...phrases of maths which I found difficult to follow. I am, however, of a decidedly non-mathematical type of mind so I assume all responsibility for it since Canin does his best to translate the numbers into words.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Name is Leon-Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon-Kit de Waal

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 254
gender: F
nationality: UK, of color
year: 2016
novel

Carol has not taken the birth of her new child, Leon's perfect baby brother, well. After Leon attempts to run the household at age 10, social services comes into play. And the brothers will not be staying together.

A gut punch to your crying gland is how I'd describe this book. I tend to find child narrators off putting and Leon seems simultaneously a bit young for his age and a bit too precocious but de Waal kept me there-breaking my heart. The foster system in any country is a heartbreaking place but it's certainly worse for kids of color. Leon clearly lacks the privilege of his beloved baby brother in far too many ways-as a white infant, his brother could be adopted out right away (especially in the UK) while Leon is a brown skinned older child well on his way to becoming the "threatening black man" who haunts our media though he has no consciousness of his 'otherness'. Thus, as a novel about the system, unlikely guardians, racial injustice, and grief, de Waal has tackled a lot of very heavy topics in a way that really hurts. Leon's grief, the well-meaning administrators and the very presence of hope if he could recognize it are all the heavy center of the novel and are well-done. The ending is a charming happy ending in which, finally, someone appreciates Leon for who he is-not as he is perceived to be.
However, the more peripheral section/second half of the novel in which Leon meets random men at the allotments is a little more obscure and confusing. What we are supposed to think about these men? The incorporation of the 60s racial unrest seemed a little clunky since Leon's viewpoint is so self-centered.  There was something just a bit off about Leon's characterization (the hoarding for the future vs the utter childlike inability to judge the intent of others) as well as the not-so-well developed new characters which threatened the novel's cohesion.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Girls-Emma Cline

The Girls-Emma Cline

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 355
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Summer of '69, Evie Boyd is jolted out of the stupor of her adolescence by the shining Suzanne who pulls her into the sphere of a cult.


Everyone has read this novel* and it is yet another of the dangerous young girls trope so popular lately. I'll sum up my feelings about that trope as follows: overdone and usually poorly concluded. Here it's coupled with my absolute least favorite decade. I'm aware that I have an almost knee jerk revulsion to the 60s-70s and it's very unhealthy for my blood pressure so if you like the 60s-70s, please don't continue reading because you will not agree with me about anything-I don't even like the Brady Bunch. I primarily despise the exaltation of what is a very toxic patriarchal masculinity that permeates so much of what is written/filmed about these decades. Ok, so this deep felt hatred for the 60s in my case actually is sustained by this book. Here Cline almost seems to agree with me. All the men in this book are universally obscene-sexually permeate asides to the real heart of the book, the girls-which is kind exactly how I feel about the decades...I also liked Cline's prose. The language is strange at times and bluntly crude in description but it works (as well as contributing to the overall obscenity of the men's actions).
I honestly am unsure about why I finished this book. I, like every morbid teenage girl, know quite a bit about the Manson murders (the reason I picked this book up) so I knew, immediately, what was going on and what was going to happen so maybe part of what spurred me on was the tension filled build to the conclusion I was expecting. But this in part was broken by the odd narrative structure of the 60s Evie who is busy being swept up into something super weird by her obsession with Suzanne and the aimless adult Evie who is dealing with a stranger girl teenager in thrall to a boy teenager and is reminiscing about the worst thing she ever did. (This is what annoys me so.much. about this dangerous young girls trope.) Adult Evie is ineffectual and I feel like Cline could've removed her except that of course not, because the lesson is that teenage girls can make such bad mistakes, in the 60s as well as nowadays. (Barf.) 60s Evie was much more evocative and compelling (or maybe it was Suzanne who was).
But still, many points to Cline for her prose which was not floaty in the least but in your face and kept me reading despite all the things I hated about what she was talking about.

*I want to link to a spectacular review which interpreted the Girls from a more race-centric view. I found it fascinating and considering that this book about the 60s, a turbulent decade for American race culture, is so white-centric, it's a necessary read.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Course of Love-Alain de Botton

The Course of Love-Alain de Botton

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 240
gender: M
nationality: Switzerland
year: 2016
novel

Alain de Botton trains his philosophy on the arch of a romantic relationship between Rabih and Kristen.


I so, so, so, so wanted to love this novel. I adored On Love/Essays on Love and that kind of was my gateway drug to the sometimes strange and iffy but always accessible philosophy of de Botton and friends. It's so rare that a novel will get you to read non fiction but that is what Essays on Love did for me. The Course of Love would not have done that. I don't even really fully understand why. I mean, this is a premise I can really get behind: love, relationships take a lot of work and you'll actually never get to know another person fully. So I recognized much of what de Botton is saying as true. I guess, part of it was the format? de Botton writes about Rabih and Kristen with a sort of clinical distance. They were merely a case study being discussed as part of a pedantic conference paper. Like you could replace Rabih and Kristen with pieces of pottery, add some concepts like "signalling" or whatever and you wouldn't lose any warmth and humanity. (I actually did this for some passages because I was procrastinating actually writing a conference paper...and it worked.) So, I felt like it was written in a way that was so alienating. There was also a bit of a lack of attention to the two cultures in questions-the differences in culture were relegated to asides (deeply pedantically anthropological in tone-I know from experience) and that detracted from an excellent point. Despite their disparate geographical origins, they were both damaged but love, reflection, and work brought them together.
I finished this novel disappointed-a victim to my high expectations and nostalgia. High scores for the message, let down by the delivery.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Abundance-Annie Dillard

The Abundance-Annie Dillard

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 304
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
narrative non fiction

A collection (both old and new) of essays and narrative non fiction from Pulitzer winner Annie Dillard.


There're quite a lot of different topics in here-seemingly the main thread connecting them is Dillard herself. The only other thread might be landscapes as many of the essays involved nature/landscape imagery. As a collection, this is not cohesive, at all. I've actually never read Dillard's writing (that I remember) and I suspect this was not the best introduction I could have sought. My overall feeling is that of ambivalence. On the one hand, the prose is amazing-rich and evocative and heartfelt- but on the other hand many of the essays were...maybe they were too metaphysical. I got a sense that there was such an effort being expended on making them metaphysical that it was too much for me and thus it never 'spoke' to me. Other essays had very overt Christian themes and imagery which is not for me personally. Overall, I ended up feeling like there was no need to deconstruct anything as fully as Dillard does. I am in a minority opinion here....
And then there are the one or two essays that I found to be amazing. I was upset they were short and Dillard wasn't lavishing her prose further on this topic. Not surprising to me, they were mostly ones that were more memoir-like than the rest so I feel like I'd mostly enjoy a Dillard memoir.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Not Working-Lisa Owens

Not Working-Lisa Owens

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 256
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

Claire has quit her office job in order to get a job she genuinely likes. This is not too easy.


Well, listen. Claire is not a lovable character. She has a singular lack of self-awareness and really needs to face up to her privilege. Seriously, she needs to check herself here. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book as a bit of light-hearted humor. This is written mostly like "chick-lit"-the perfect boyfriend, the parents, the general stable upper middle-class lifestyle, quirky/awkward narrator etc. But Owens handles this well with a wit and humor that resonated with me. Many of the things that Claire goes through, I also went through during the period of unemployment in my life so that probably contributes to my enjoyment of the book. Reading her fall into some of the same pitfalls and obstacles (and fail) was admittedly quite enjoyable. The style was also unusual for the genre-short and sweet anecdotes ranging in topics and never too long before we jump to anything else. If I were reading this for character development or whatever, this style wouldn't have been good but I found it perfect for my attention span and the character. Had they been longer I likely would have spent a lot more time despising Claire rather than the time I spent laughing at/with her. Not too bad for a quick, effortless read.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper-Phaedra Patrick

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper-Phaedra Patrick

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 331
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

Widowed Arthur Pepper discovers a charm bracelet that leads him on an adventure through the life of his late wife before she married him.


So, it turns out I'm a sucker for charming (/pun), vaguely outlandish novels with unexpected protagonists. Arthur Pepper is the kind of dull older man you'd expect him to be. He likes his routine, dislikes change, and is quite isolated especially since his wife died. Quite frankly, we've all met Arthur Peppers before-men who seem older than they are because they're quite stuck. Patrick, however, writes characters that you love anyway. His neighbors, normal people, all become lovable characters with Patrick's prose. And then, the premise, the mystery of it all, what was Miriam actually like? The abrupt but self-propelled jerk out of his comfort zone that brings Arthur walking on the side of the road to go to a ranch with tame tigers, at an art school, etc, all locations Arthur would not have been to on his own but rather is drawn to by his love for his wife. Heart-warming defines this novel perfectly. How did this vivacious adventurous woman end up married to him? Arthur Pepper ends up wondering and the answers are varied and utterly endearing. If you can read this novel without a smile ending up on your face, I suspect you don't have emotions. I'm sitting here writing this review with a pleased smile on my face just thinking of all the things Arthur went through. A perfect read for those grim weeks of overwork.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Shadow Hour-Kate Riordan

Shadow Hour-Kate Riordan

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 525
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

At the behest of her grandmother, Grace goes to Fenix House to also be a governess to the Pembertons. However, not all is how she expected nor how it seems.

An enjoying atmospheric historical fiction to curl up with. Riordan has an enjoyable prose style and manages to rope in the period specific movements (like suffrage) despite the rural/manor setting in a way that felt quite natural. The novel is a bit darker than I expected at its start-it's not just that Grace discovers that her grandmother embroidered the truth, it's the truth that ends up being quite fascinating. The ending was well handled but hits on a pet peeve of mine. I will not be sharing it as it is a spoiler but despite my personal annoyance at it, it suits the book and so I wouldn't actually change it. My main issue with this book however is the sheer amount of coincidences and the utterly slow pace in the middle. The beginning and ending are well paced but for a 500 page book, the middle was tough going sometimes.

Then there was the utterly nagging deja vu feeling I felt while reading it. I actually, during the dragging bits in the middle, got sidetracked into researching exactly who Kate Riordan was, whether I'd read anything by her before, and I learned that yes. I had. The Girl in the Photograph. I was not imagining the similarities. If you liked Girl in the Photograph, you might enjoy Shadow Hour or you may, like me, find yourself comparing them. I felt that the dual narrative style worked better in the Girl in the Photograph because Shadow Hour had far too many coincidences (the pet peeve I have about dual narratives) but the atmosphere of Shadow Hour is just as good.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Girls on Fire-Robin Wasserman

Girls on Fire-Robin Wasserman

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 368
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Hannah doesn't have many friends until Lacey comes to town and they bond over how much they hate the queen bee Nikki who is dealing with the suicide of her boyfriend Craig.

Sometimes I fear that reading new releases all in a row makes me into a hypercritical reader. The industry tends to have thematic groupings. There was the season of cults, the season of couples taking trips to nice places and now, the season of dangerous teenage girls. The first time I read this theme, I loved the premise. Usually teenage girls are either without agency or they're obsessed with popularity and/or boys. This season's teenage girls are instead those on the fringes, pretty much stuck there, and mostly pass the Bechdel test. They're mostly good girls who are just uncomfortable by the realization that eventually they have be women but there's always one or two 'dangerous' girls. Here is where the trope annoys me when in bulk.  The bad egg is almost always a new girl on the scene, someone from elsewhere, 8 times out of 10 they come from a broken family, and they are always platonically seductive. In this case, Lacey draws Hannah in by renaming her Dex. This is not actually the worst problem-the problem to me is that these stories are always end with the good girl staying good, that this was a misstep that'll haunt her forever, but in the end, life goes on and she is just like how she started but now won't make this mistake again. I'm not disputing life goes on, it does. What I'm disputing is this easy division of Hannah and Dex and post-Dex Hannah. There's an implication that Hannah will now grow up and consider this to be a small episode in her life as she is at heart a good girl. This really annoys me because these girls are me and I am who I am because I made mistakeS, because I expanded my horizons far beyond the boring suburb and got to know the damage the world creates early and while I could still recover. All of my friends are these girls and they are now bamf who are at home in their own skins because of our collective mistakes. We've got our scars but personally, I'd do them again to become the person I am.

I don't want to pick on this book but this was like the 8th "dangerous teen girls" book I read in the space of 2 months so I couldn't really enjoy it too much. Which is quite the shame because Wasserman really creates a great atmosphere here. There's almost a little bit of the mystery novel feel because what actually happened in the woods with Lacey and Craig. Why is Craig dead? The suspense building to the climax really sets this book apart. The 90s setting is great-Kurt Cobain and parental panics over devil worshipping feel authentic while not falling into the trap of feeling like a set piece. Equally authentic is the self-centric world of teenagehood-you hate this person and it genuinely feels like they are singling you personally to bully. At the same time, Nikki was a bit of a stereotype of the "dead inside" popular girl type which also annoys me. So on the one hand, you get most of the book from Hannah/Dex's narration which I liked but you also had this twisted plot line with Nikki and the occasional viewpoint from the parents which I found condescending.

But really, this is such a harsh feeling review because of the pervasive nature of this trope lately. I'm almost certain that had I read this book some other year, I'dve ended up loving it. The prose is great, the suspense and pacing is well handled and it felt authentic in an undefinable way.

In conclusion:
The soundtrack to my own adolescent years and also to Lacey's if she'd realize there were other bands than Nirvana and to Dex.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Not From Here-Allan G. Johnson

Not From Here-Allan G. Johnson

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 176
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2015
memoir

Johnson explores what home and identity really mean.



I was so pleasantly surprised by this book. At first, when I looked closer at the blurb after picking it up properly, I was a bit disappointed-a straight white male struggling with identity? Really? Isn’t that like…culture? This was a knee jerk reaction from a person classified as ‘other’ with regularity. I’m aware that Johnson was unaware of me judging him so quickly but I want to apologize anyway.

This is a well crafted and extremely thoughtful memoir. Johnson doesn’t shy away from the hard aspects of being identified as white (i.e. the complicated feelings about immigrants who made a life on land that was cleared for them) but doesn’t rely solely on the white man’s burden. He is, throughout the memoir, clearly making strange decisions through grief and the writing meanders and goes off into tangents but his main struggle is a relatable one-how can we truly understand another human being, history? His search for a place to place his father is his attempt at this and along the way, he learns more about himself. Johnson writes well and emotionally while refusing to accept simple explanations or reasons for anything. He is always examining concepts and feelings from multiple angles-fully embracing the complexity of lived experience and the ways that the dead and the living are interconnected.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Plucked: a history of hair removal-Rebecca M. Herzig

Plucked: a history of hair removal-Rebecca M. Herzig

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 280
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2015
non fiction

An exploration of attitudes and methods of hair removal in North America.



As a Western female, I have been told all sorts of stories about my hairiness and why the ‘unsightly’ hair must be removed. It should come as no surprise that many of these stories have been wildly contradictory and/or told to me by people who are naturally far less hairy than me and/or men. Not all the messages have been bad but the overwhelming majority of messages about body hair is to have just the right amount. So, when I saw this book, I picked it up because I like to intellectualize my problems. I was hoping to get a better measure of why these attitudes to body hair exist and Herzig delivers, detailing how attitudes have changed and situates attitudes towards hair removal within social contexts. This is not a self-help or how-to guide but a very well researched academic treatise talking about attitudes towards body hair. The more modern chapters were things I already knew but the earlier chapters were fascinating though be forewarned-this is hair removal in North America. Herzig is not out to entertain but she is also not needlessly pedantic or bogging the reader down in details and often allows herself some dry wit so this is very readable. She stays on the objective side of research until her concluding chapter which made me want to go hang out with her. I was pleasantly surprised by this book and I feel better having read it-history can be academic AND fun.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Room-Jonas Karlsson

The Room-Jonas Karlsson



the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 128
gender: M
nationality: Sweden
year: 
novella in translation

Björn finds a room at his office but no one else seems to see it.



I have only ever worked in the traditional office environment for a grand total of six weeks. By the end of those six weeks, I was ready to never see a cubicle again. It was an experience I’d describe as uncomfortable, surreal, and incredibly dull (though I didn’t actually dislike any of my coworkers). This book instantly put me back there but with a (very welcome) sense of humor.
This is such a short book and the language is sparse, clean, and cleaned of any extraneous details. Minimalist writing is not usually my jam-I like details and atmosphere. Yet, you get the sense that you could reread this book and each time read a different story. Masterful writing. This is a satire so there’s definitely humor in almost every scene but what it is exactly a satire of is a bit more nebulous. Is Björn crazy and/or a victim of office bullying? What exactly is Björn so efficient at? Does the room actually exist?  Is the problem the room or that Björn works alone? I’ve reread it three times now and each time tried to see it a different way and the writing still works out beautifully (so kudos to the translator too!). I mean, Björn is…an amalgamation of those three co-workers you’ve hated working with the most-he’s self-involved, arrogant, suspicious/paranoid, and socially inept. I enjoyed his predicament-Authority liked him, his coworkers were disturbing him, and no one believes him when he says the room is real.

I will be waiting for more of Karlsson’s work to be translated because this was an unforgettable piece of writing.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Breeder-K.B. Hoyle

Breeder-K.B. Hoyle

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 379
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
YA series

Seventeen is genetically perfect and living in a lab where her life is also perfect. Except it's not and a man named Pax shows her that.


I’m doing something I really shouldn’t do. I’m reviewing the first in a series while reading the second. Why am I breaking my own self-imposed rule? Because I really can’t believe I didn’t immediately review this book!
It’s easy to feel burnt out by the glut of YA dystopian books/series that are now out on the market even for a dystopia fan like myself. The blurb for this one sounded like the setting was heavily borrowed from Atwood but the plot promised seemed interesting so I gave it a chance.

Good thing I did. This is such a well done plot. There are twists and turns and unreliable sources of information and you speed along enjoying the ride. It gets very fast at the end and then leaves you teetering at the edge of a cliff, priming you for the second book, but I can’t hold that against this book somehow. Pria is a strong heroine but not superhuman, she remains human. Pax can seem a bit ‘too good’ at times but Hoyle writes her characters in a way that they are not peripheral to the plot. Sure there is a lot of action but the novel still reads like a character study. Delightfully, there is no “insta-love”. And yet, Hoyle also doesn’t skimp on the world building. There is real science mixed in there and a realistic feeling world to go along with the strong characterization and riveting plot. Basically, I consider this to be the whole package in terms of YA dystopias.

The second book, Criminal, releases soon so better read Breeder to get ready!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Girl in the Photograph/Fiercombe Manor-Kate Riordan

The Girl in the Photograph/Fiercombe Manor-Kate Riordan

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 448
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

Upon finding herself in trouble in the 1920s, Alice is sent to a manor in the countryside where she seeks to find out what happened to the previous mistress of the manor, Elizabeth. 

I know it’s right there in the publisher’s blurb but I just loved the atmosphere of this novel. There’s something not quite creepy but strange and discomforting atmosphere that Riordan builds up though it can feel a little sluggish at times. Nevertheless, the handling of the  intertwining of the twin narratives is well done-not all the parallels are obvious nor are they ‘reaches’ nor do they ‘collide’. Furthermore, I commend Riordan for not using narrator switches as a tension device but rather letting the two stories unfold organically and using other methods to create the atmosphere. By setting the two narratives both in historical fiction, Riordan can explore details which alternatively hide and expose the secrets Alice seeks to clarify. The two heroines, Alice and Elizabeth, are products of their time, at the mercy of the attitudes towards pregnancy and mental health, and they are true to their context. As such, they are not anachronistic while still evoking an impressively strong array of emotions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When Mystical Creatures Attack!-Kathleen Founds

When Mystical Creatures Attack!-Kathleen Founds

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 206
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel, experimental style

Mrs. Freedman is trying to teach a class of kids who have no respect for her.



I have to say I enjoyed reading this. The format is very quirky and seems culled from a variety of sources like student essays, forms, notes, and reports. It is experimental and Founds handles it well. The pace is quick and so this is a fast read. This is both its strength and weakness as a book. The voices are at times too various and the segments too short-by the time you comprehend what is going on, the book moves on. What is the book about? A somewhat inappropriate relationship between a teacher and her students. I don’t know, there was something of the tall tale teller in here-stories that are fun to listen to (some proper, real life laugh out louds happened!) but just a smidge too far over the line to be believed/to allow suspension of belief. The teens are fun people with teenage appropriate voices but they are too many to really make an individual impact on me. The combination of the voices and their actions also often contradicted themselves in ways that made some of the stories feel like caricatures. Mrs. Freedman meanwhile is not given closure and is, beyond her relationship with her students, a deeply problematic characterization. Her mental illness is portrayed one-dimensionally, almost a punchline, relying on tired and outdated tropes.
It was really quite a shame-I really enjoyed the format and the humor is very present (a rarity-humor being one of the hardest things to write!) but the characterization and stories were disappointing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Gracefully Grayson-Ami Polansky

Gracefully Grayson-Ami Polansky

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 250
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2015
Middle Grade

With the help of a play, Grayson is finally allowed to be herself.



Well, Polansky has certainly written a charming character in Grayson. She is alone and different, sustaining herself through fantasy and imagination. Polansky writes her with dignity and respect. Though the book does follow a very familiar narrative arc for the writing about young transgender protagonists, it does so in a...soft way. I can't really describe it to be honest but I have read a lot of novels about transgendered people and it is handled particularly delicately by Polansky. This is great for a book aimed for the younger set. For adults, this book might be a bit too light, a bit 'been there' and goodness, there was no attempt to challenge feminine stereotypes but for its intended audience? This is a lovely book in that it shows that even though your outside doesn't match your inside, there are people who will accept the inside. A reminder all too infrequently demonstrated and yes, sometimes, they are even adults AND children your own age! I also loved the portrayal of the play. The teacher was totally in Grayson's corner and the end result was beautiful for all of the pitfalls in the journey.

I think this is one of those books that for those at the end of their journeys and adults, it will seem too twee, too light, too conventional but it's so easy to forget how it is when you're young and you've never known this narrative could exist. And also, how the first step to challenging the gender you're supposed to represent is usually a somewhat naive sprint to the stereotypes surrounding the 'other gender'. This is not a book written for adult YA readers but rather for the middle school kids themselves.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Misdiagnosed-Jody Berger

Misdiagnosed: One Woman's Tour and Escape from Healthcareland -Jody Berger

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 280
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2015
memoir

Rejecting her diagnosis of MS, Berger explores her options.



I caught a glimpse of another review that snarked that the subtitle could be "one woman's search for a diagnosis she wanted". I agree, completely. Don't get me wrong. I actually kind of enjoyed the book. It's a healthcare odyssey I'd never take myself (see Trick or Treatment, an examination of alternative medicine). Not least because I do not have the kind of money that would allow me to explore all sorts of alternate medical options but primarily too because I would not really consider alternative medicine until I'd found a Federal board-certified specialist who I felt like took a good look at my scan. See, this is really my problem, Berger considers that her original doctor didn't take the time to look at the scan so she bangs her head a couple of times against that same wall and then runs off to juice cleanses and IV chelation. Why not find a different specialist whose bedside manner felt more comfortable to her? The other problem I had is Berger's claim that she was always healthy. But the way that she describes her childhood...in my opinion, that is when she was first misdiagnosed and it takes her a little too long to see what I thought immediately; her mother's reaction to her childhood is why she took this super long journey to find a different diagnosis.

Nevertheless, this book's strength, the actual core message is that you should not just accept what doctors tell you. You should take command of your own healthcare (though with a grain of salt, I visibly winced when the alternative doctor gave her statistics...and then she compared them to the peer-reviewed medical ones...), demand the time you deserve (you deserve it no matter what), and advocate for yourself (ask questions!). This is what I firmly believe. I've had chronic illness since I was born and I've seen so many doctors over the years-been lucky to find some great ones but also met my fair share of those who have been dismissive. For those who are lucky enough not to have so much intimate experience of the healthcare system, this is the best message this book could give.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Conjurer-Cordelia Frances Biddle

The Conjurer-Cordelia Frances Biddle

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 320
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel, series

When Lemuel Beale is missing, his newly orphaned daughter, Martha, works with the detective in charge of investigating his disappearance in 1842 Philadelphia.


To be honest, I did not expect much from this novel. I wanted something light, unassuming, and forgettable. The cover (so blue?) and blurb along with the author's name which sounds like a romantic pen name  (no way that's her real name, I said to myself) all made me judge the book before actually reading it.
I was wrong. I showed myself up for the judgmental elitist I am. And that's her real name-she's actually a member of the Philadelphia Biddle family.
Sorry.

Okay I admit it. Martha took awhile to turn into the kind of character I'd keep reading about (strangely fragmented as a person) but somehow I didn't think Martha was actually Biddle's focus so much as a way to discuss the position of women. Instead, what we get is a fascinating portrait of a Philadelphia in the 1800s. The challenges of being a woman (Martha is an old maid at 26...), the strange character of the city, the society of the day were all done wonderfully. I felt pulled into this story, into this place, and with every twist of the mystery I wanted, nay, demanded more. This is plot driven with such a well-done mystery that I could not guess at. And it's such a strange mystery and the way that Biddle writes 1842 Philadelphia, it could not have occurred anywhere else (or anytime else) which is kind of my favorite type of mystery. Having spent some time in Philadelphia and visited the Eastern State Penitentiary I was perhaps also fascinated out of a personal connection with the city but I also think that it's written well enough to appeal to those who've never been to Fairmount.

Really, the sense of place, I cannot stress it enough, is just astonishing and shows that Biddle is a historian as well as novelist (and Main Line heiress).

I'm sold. I shall be following this series!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

My Salinger Year-Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger Year-Joanna Rakoff

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 352
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
memoir

Rakoff writes of the year she worked at the agency that represented J.D. Salinger.


Delightful. I mean, Rakoff is not in a good phase of her life for this book. Plagued by debt, a terrible boyfriend, isolation, a domineering boss, and using a typewriter in the 1990s, she really doesn't know what she's doing but she knows that this is probably not it. That's the beauty of this memoir, it is so intensely relatable. She comes into the literary world full of optimism and idealism and finds herself in a world unlike what she had hoped. And Rakoff brings you into her struggles, her little attempts to lift herself out (responding to Salinger fan letters-a move that backfires), and in the end into something that is much more true to herself as a person. She sheds the crutch of a bad boyfriend, stops hiding and 'comes of age'. There is such growth and charm throughout the memoir-Rakoff strikes such a good balance between bitter, sweet, nostalgia, and detail. Her prose is eloquent and brings alive New York on the cusp of the digital age. The humor shows up in the farcical surreality of life. I was charmed and amazed by how well done the authenticity of a 23 year old's view of life was. Sustained through changes and growths, this is not going to be the last of Rakoff I read. She found her literary voice through Salinger and has clearly become an accomplished writer in her own right-a understated conclusion underlining the whole mess of that year.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Night School-Richard Wiseman

Night School:Wake Up to the Power of Sleep-Richard Wiseman

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 352
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2014
non-fiction, popular science

Wiseman pulls together the various sciences of sleep.


Set up in a sort of self-help way, this is meant to help you sleep better. I am a habitual insomniac with a sleep cycle that in no way can be called consistent except for the almost rule of "can be found asleep at 5am" (exceptions abound). So I guess I am the target for this book. Why the "I guess"? Well, I am also an over-intellectualizer and have been in various doctor's offices so I kind of know a lot about sleep science as a layperson. I cannot quote specific studies and researchers like Wiseman can but let's be honest, there's actually so much that we do not know about sleep. The advice I've heard over the course of my life all pretty much sounds the same. Avoid stress, establish a routine, lay off the coffee, make the bedroom someplace really nice (invest in your linens and mattress), keep the temperatures low, avoid screen time, etc. Wiseman delves deep into all of the reasons why this advice is given, outlines the experiments and untangles much of the conclusions into clear unconfusing prose. His tone is sometimes a bit too jolly (I cringed at many of the 'dad jokes') but he sticks to common sense which is fairly refreshing compared to some sleep self-help texts. I did, however, get the sense of sometimes he is aggregating all of the information he could possibly find, without really considering how it works together and whether the work/research was valid. I understand this somewhat, as a desire to be as objective as possible means not injecting your value judgments, but at times, I craved criticism.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Blood Med- Jason Webster

Blood Med-Jason Webster

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 368
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel

An American girl is found dead and Cámara finds himself embroiled in corruption during his investigations.


Set in Valencia in post-financial meltdown Spain, this is not an optimistic book. Sure, there's some procedural stuff in here, a crime is being investigated and someone died but really this is more of a book detailing the decline of a society. Spain in this book is disintegrating and the characters talk politics almost more than they speak of the murder. Fascism is on the rise and really I almost felt like I was not so much reading a mystery book but rather a book written by the doomsayers. I live in Greece, during financial meltdown (which is nowhere as quick as the meltdown in this book), and there were so many parallels that I must admit I became a bit depressed. I felt the same sense of helplessness as when I talk about Greek politics with the people I know and I finished the book much the same way I finish most of these real-life discussions, helpless and doomed.

Maybe I don't drink enough.

I think Webster's flaws for me are that his book was too timely and too intense.
Strengths for most readers but not for me at this time.

Furthermore, I don't know but something about Cámara was too well-done. None of the dangers he found himself in made him change as a person and none of them really seemed to be truly dangerous-of course he'd survive! No, most of the (life-changing) violence in the novel occurs to the women.
Le Sigh.

I still rank it was three stars on sites like goodreads though since it is intensely written, gritty in the expected ways, and there's a definite affinity for Valencia woven throughout all this doom and gloom.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Visionist-Rachel Urquhart

The Visionist-Rachel Urquhart

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 352
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel

Set during the era of Mother Ann's work, a young woman finds a place among the Shakers but when the other young girls begin to see visions, things unravel.


I don't actually know that much about the Shakers. Like many others I suspect, I primarily knew of them through their furniture and as an attempt at a model Utopia. Urquhart, however, does know a lot about them and her research is visible through the novel but in a non-showy way. Instead, her research simply sets the stage for the plot. The plot itself seems to explore primarily the concept of 'The Way'. By integrating her outsider, Polly, into this strict society, Urquhart shows how multiple aspects of the community serve both material motives (the cynics amongst us are not surprised) and spiritual motives. But interestingly, through Charity, Urquhart also offers a variety of views within the Shaker community thus adding nuance and depth to the more typical depictions of closed communities. I really enjoyed Urquhart's view of the Shakers-not idealistic but also not entirely cynical. I, however, probably enjoyed even more the outside world of New England with the fire inspector Pryor who is neither villain or hero but something of both. Pryor in his plotline really drives the book forward showing the passing of time that a novel focused on the Shakers probably would have lacked (as it was, sometimes the monotony of the community dragged the book down). I spent my time rooting for Polly but as a character she actually grew the least-I'd say Charity developed more with time. Nevertheless, all of the characters in the novel grew and changed believably which is a major strength.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Stasi Child-David Young

Stasi Child-David Young

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 416
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

Thriller set in the GDR involving Karin Müller, a police detective, members of the Stasi, and children.

I wonder sometimes if I'm simply very cynical for thrillers. Oh no! The higher echelon is corrupt the book cries and I am simply unsurprised. I almost feel like if politicians, police (secret or overt), etc so often corrupt in thrillers ended up being innocent, I'd then be totally surprised. But no, likely I'd just decry it as unrealistic and idealistic.
Anyhow, Young has written a fairly straight forward thriller but one set in the GDR which has its own interesting tensions and power dynamics. The lignite smog of the GDR hangs over the novel though the atmosphere is mostly built through the plot and character of Karin herself. I really liked Karin. I liked her unflinching feminism, her missteps are in the right vein, and her position as smack dab in the middle makes her so realistic. She is in the middle and so she is both with power and powerless-like most of us in our jobs. She acts rationally while being driven. Unfortunately, this is so rare for female characters. I was a bit annoyed by the 'lust' angle but I guess it illustrated the air of mutual mistrust so I'll excuse it. I was a bit thrown by the end. It's very open? The motive is less believable than anything that came before it? Then I figured out that this is part of a series. I will be reading the next installment since Young managed to pull off one of my often-disliked plot devices, the split screen, i.e. two plotlines that appear to be unrelated (but an astute reader knows they are) that join. Except Young maintains the split screen without changing narrative voices even as plotlines join and diverge. Challenging and successful.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

House on Cold Hill-Peter James

House on Cold Hill-Peter James

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 310
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

A ghost story about a house, its ghosts, and a family who buys the house.

I'm not in the habit of reading ghost stories-I really can't remember the last one I've read. I prefer them in movies where there are certain tropes and shock tactics that a seasoned movie watcher knows are coming that makes them a pleasure. I'm not really easy to properly scare-I was always the person who ended in the front of the group of friends in fright houses at Halloween.
James does use some of these tropes we are all familiar with. It's kind of hard to write about houses and ghosts that do not owe a lot to its predecessors but James does it particularly well. I can't go into detail without ruining them but there were points where I was actually particularly creeped out. No mean feat considering that I'm the sort of person found the 'haunted' levels of the university library to be the best place to work, easily shrugging off the occasional electrical malfunctions, inexplicable sounds, and occasional vibrations. So good job James! I also really enjoyed the more modern intellectualized touches (using physics!) as Ollie tries desperately to understand what on earth is going on.
In the end though, the motive of the ghost was unsatisfactory and really, I was not sold on the horror. I suspect though that I am simply not the correct audience for such a novel is all as it is well-paced, believable and interesting.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Genesis-Eduardo Galeano

Genesis:Memory of Fire-Eduardo Galeano

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 336
gender: M
nationality: Uruguay
year: 1982
non-fiction (narrative)

A collection of the origins of Latin America from the various origin stories of the tribes to the arrival of the Spanish.

This took me well over a year to read. The chapters are short, the language precise, and it starts out innocuously enough. For the first 30-40%, Galeano is retelling the numerous origin stories of numerous tribes and I was really enjoying myself. I would read a few chapters and head to the internet to find out what tribe had which origin myth to read more about them, the myths and the people. I was really enjoying the rich tapestry of worlds and beginnings as well as learning a lot.
And then, with you barely noticing it, that precise language begins to burn. The Spanish show up and the violence, the smoke of worlds burning overwhelms. By the end, I found it nigh unbearable. I was reading it in dribbles of two pages because the emotional impact was far too strong, an interior spring of dread and horror flooding my body, my mind. Galeano does not hold your hand and the voices are no less varied and yet they are all screaming and you can barely distinguish the tribes from one another.
I had to finish the book though. Not out of a stubborn sense of finish-this-book like I usually mean it but rather I felt like I owed it to myself to not flinch, to face it-my history, a subjective but wholly valid version of my birthrights.

I had read Open Veins of Latin America but I was not prepared.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Furiously Happy-Jenny Lawson

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things-Jenny Lawson

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 329
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
memoir

A memoir about mental illness.


I have never heard of Jenny Lawson. I've never read her blog and had no idea that she had multiple books. I was simply intrigued by "an uplifting memoir about depression."
Well, I was unprepared.
Lawson writes like someone who speaks a million words a minute and this energy pretty much bounces out of the page as she discusses lots of taxidermy and recounts lots of dialog and anecdotes that really made me kind of wonder about the true state of her marriage. This does read like a blog-a strong personal voice and irreverent adherence to rules of narrative. I enjoyed it. In the end, I did wonder whether it was all written from the manic side of depression. Though Lawson does confront her depression directly, the taxidermy raccoon got more screen time for a memoir ostensibly about mental illness. I do get it though, Lawson's point is that even though depression does drag you down, that simply means you have to make sure your ups are very up, very full of joy. Zany joy in Lawson's case. The hyperbole got to me sometimes as did the "crazy" and the "disorders have disorders" thing. But that didn't really matter so much because Lawson is so true to herself, she grabs your metaphorical hand and gets you to run along with her.

Even though I'd probably be hanging out with Victor, her too-serious husband, in real life despite my own anxieties.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Little Red Chairs-Edna O'Brien

The Little Red Chairs-Edna O'Brien

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 256
gender: F
nationality: Ireland
year: 2016
novel

A woman discovers that the foreigner she thinks will redeem her life is a notorious war criminal.

I really wanted to enjoy this and really wanted to give it a chance but I think it was a bit too heavy handed from the beginning. The title is such a dead giveaway as well as the blurb so the bottom fell out of the trope of 'mysterious stranger shows up in a village' at the very start. You're never really given a chance to see 'Vlad' from the viewpoint of Fidelma because I at once immediately wondered whether this was Karadzic or Mladic. Maybe I simply came into this novel far more informed about the Yugoslav wars than O'Brien gave me credit? I don't know but so there's this kind of immediate disconnect, I wanted to skip this part to what would surely be a more interesting second half but then O'Brien throws in some violence which was abrupt and fairly unnecessary feeling. Okay, I thought-onwards? Finally at the end I was intrigued by Fidelma's confrontation of the banality of evil but it feels superficial...not the least because it was only like ten pages of the novel. There's so much potential in exploring the banality of evil using Karadzic but O'Brien doesn't take the opportunity. Meanwhile, the prose is drifting here and there like it's a little drunk or maybe with the dream sequences, it simply has taken some pills. 
This is a hard review because on the one hand, it was an interestingly crafted novel but in the end I felt it let itself down. Maybe my expectations were simply higher than they ought to have been.