Late August/Early September Reads

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

I had a ton of fun reading this while on vacation visiting my sister in New York. We were together for eight days, which is a lot of time to fill, so we spent a good chunk of the week reading near one another and not talking, which is really the ideal way to spend a vacation.

I’ve seen this novel billed online as “The Stand for the Trump Era” and while I usually roll my eyes at the “X but Y” formula for marketing books, this one pretty well nails it. I loved this book. Sometimes I’m not totally sold on books that have a ton of different perspectives since some come out less well developed than others, but the length of the novel is an advantage here, since each perspective character is given a lot of breathing room. I really grew to care about the cast, and I genuinely did not see some of the twists coming, which is pretty rare for me.

This book is physically very large. Definitely not a comfortable read for airplanes or public transit. If you do a lot of reading on the go, this might be a good candidate to pick up as an ebook.

First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones

Did you read the Harry Dresden novels and think “I want this, but with a lady grim reaper instead of a dude wizard”? This is the book for you.

This falls into the category of “I know this book isn’t good, but the audiobook keeps me entertained while I’m driving or doing the dishes.”
Which is one of my favorite categories of book. Definitely going to continue with the series, at least for a little while.

Beware that when I say this is just like the Dresden series, I really mean it. Complete with dorky sense of humor that doesn’t always land, and somewhat less than enlightened comments when it comes to race, religion, gender, sexuality, body type, and ability. The Dresden Files series makes up for it by being narrated by James Marsters. This lacks that redeeming factor. But I’m still enjoying it.

Perfect guilty pleasure read that I know most of my friends and family would hate. 3/5 star

Doll Bones by Holly Black

I don’t read enough middle grade! This was a delight.

Of course, Holly Black is one of the best middle grade and young adult authors active today, so it’s no surprise that this was great. She does a great job of capturing the anxiety and alienation of growing up, especially when you don’t want to.

This is a quick horror/adventure book about a tight knit group of friends who go on a quest to bury a doll and also fix their fracturing friendship. This would make a great present for the precocious elementary school kids in your life.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong was in the tournament of books a couple years ago and received a lot of critical acclaim, especially considering it’s a debut novel. I wish I had more to say about it than I do. I don’t understand the hype.

I liked Goodbye, Vitamin fine. It was a touching narrative about dealing with an ailing loved one, and some moments were genuinely moving. But I’m not going to remember anything about this book three months from now. I can already feel it sliding out of my brain as smoothly as it poured in.

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

I finished this short story collection last night and dear god, this book is a FORCE.

Set on the backdrop of post-dictatorship Argentina, this collection of short stories explores everything from negligent pollution to femicide to poverty and drug use to the horrors of simply being a teenager. Each story has a creeping dread in the background, an uneasy feeling emanating from somewhere just off screen. And Megan McDowell’s translation and end note are excellent.

This is Enriquez’s first collection translated into English, and I hope after the critical reception this received we’ll see more from her.

July/August Reads Part 1

July was a slow month where I spent a lot of time on the couch watching Try Guys videos because it was too hot out to be alive, so I didn’t get as much reading done as I wanted. So I decided to combine my July and August reads into a single blog post.

Then I proceeded to have a fairly good August, so I guess I’ll be doing two parts after all to avoid this getting too long. /shrug

Educated by Tara Westover

It’s hard to describe how much I loved this memoir. I laughed. I cried. The whole gamut of emotions. I’m still thinking about it a month and a half later.

Tara Westover was “homeschooled” by her parents, Mormon fundamentalists who were heavily influenced by Ruby Ridge and tried to live largely outside the influence of mainstream society and especially government. Her memoir is painful and beautiful and I cannot wait to see what Westover does next because this was absolutely breathtaking.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinso

I’ve been working on trying to read genre fiction written by women and nonbinary people that have been nominated for several awards, and Brown Girl in the Ring is up there as one of the most nominated genre novels of the last 20 years.

I listened to Brown Girl in the Ring on audio and while I mostly enjoyed the story, I enjoyed it despite the narration, not because of it. The narrator did a lot of dialect work that I found distracting and just didn’t click with me. It felt almost cartoonish at times.

It was really interesting to read a novel that’s centered on Afro-Caribbean folklore. I really enjoyed that. But each chapter began with a lyric from a children’s song or repeated phrases from children’s stories, and again, I found it distracting and it kicked me out of the narrative. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much in print. I’m excited to pick up more of Nalo Hopkinson’s work, just maybe in a different medium next time.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

It feels a little wrong to say that I like anything that I’ve read by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’ve read several stories from her collection Homesick for Another World and now I’ve listened to this. Her shtick, as far as I can tell, is writing about gross people who do gross things and are unapologetic about it. This sounds like a complaint. It’s not. Moshfegh’s writing is incredibly visceral and engrossing, but it can be a lot to handle. I definitely have to be in a particular mood for Moshfegh, but when I’m in that mood it’s pretty incredible.

I think this is probably a good place to start with her work. It’s compelling, and it doesn’t quite rise to the level of disturbing and offputting that her short stories do. If you like this, there’s a good chance you’ll like her other work. If not, then you’ve learned something valuable about yourself, and books that you might not want to read in the future.

One of the best things about this novel is the impending sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know something is about to go horribly wrong, but you have no idea what. It’s very well done and I thought the pacing and oppressive mood were masterfully crafted.

It also takes place in the dead of winter and would be a great read for inclement weather this winter. I don’t know that I liked it as much during the summer as I might have during, say, a November snowstorm.

Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories by Chavisa Woods

This collection is pure Midwest Gothic through and through. I especially loved the stories “Zombie” and “Take the Way Home That Leads Back to Sullivan Street.” Each of the stories is unapologetically queer and the collection as a whole deals with familiar ideas and themes of the Midwest (isolation, class disparity, incarceration, limited opportunities leading young men into the military, coming home, being an outsider, etc) in fresh, occasionally heartrending ways.

I often have trouble with short story collections – I rarely connect evenly with all the stories equally; they can feel uneven. I had the same issue here. Some of the stories just didn’t grab me, but overall the collection really worked for me.

An aside: I was reading this while at the brunch place a couple blocks from my apartment and the waiter invited himself to sit down on the bench next to me, take the book out of my hands, start flipping through it, and quizzing me on my literary credentials, because books are just “so much deeper than, like, TV, you know?” No, I don’t know. Also, he saw the story title “Zombie” and was like, “ah, genre fiction” in that smug knowing way some guys have, despite “Zombie” being perhaps the least genre inflected story in the collection. I have not been back to that brunch place since, which is a shame because their cinnamon rolls are very good.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

My sister and I listened to this on a road trip moving her stuff from Atlanta to Syracuse at the conclusion of her summer internship. This is a solid courtroom drama that centers on the explosion of a hyperbaric chamber used to pressurize patients and deliver them pure oxygen, billed as a treatment for things ranging from infertility to autism. The explosion resulted in two deaths, and the main action of the story takes place a year afterward, during the trial of a mother of one of the children in treatment for autism, for supposedly causing the explosion with a lit cigarette near the oxygen tanks.

I honestly don’t think I’ll remember much about this novel a couple months from now. It was interesting, but it’s not going to stick with me, and I definitely feel like it took its sweet time getting around to the point. It’s probably best consumed in a binge over a couple of days, because there are a lot of perspectives to keep track of and everyone is lying at some point or another, often even to themselves. I think it would be difficult to follow if you read it over the course of a couple weeks by reading one chapter at a time.

I’m glad I read this, it was fun, but it’s definitely a 3/5 stars kind of book. Fine. Certainly not a knockout.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

I found this book on Libby while commiserating with my sister about my cancelled flight and lamenting the fact that we chose the slowest restaurant in all of New York state to get lunch. I had to make an unexpected drive from Syracuse to Chicago, so instead of finishing up the book I was reading on a quick afternoon flight, I needed to find a compelling audiobook to distract me from the fact that I was pissed about having to drive a huge rental car for twelve hours and would need to take an unexpected day off of work to accommodate the travel.

(It’s fine, my boss was very understanding. I was still miffed at the inconvenience)

In this thriller a young tarot reader is menaced by a loan shark and completely broke. She receives a letter that indicates she might be entitled to some inheritance from her recently deceased grandmother. She’s pretty sure that the letter has gone to the wrong person, but she’s desperate, and hey. What’s a little light fraud between strangers?

This is an excellent road trip book. It’s engaging, and even if you see some of the bits coming, it’s still rewarding watching them play out. The narrator was good, and it has a ~14 hour runtime, so listening to it on 1.5x means it fit pretty perfectly into my impromptu trip. If you’ve liked Ruth Ware’s previous works, you’ll probably like this. If you haven’t read her previous works, think of your typical clockwork mystery with a limited cast and shady old women with secrets, and you’ve got this book. It’s a thumbs up from me.

I’ll get back to you all at the beginning of September with the rest of my August reads!

June Reading

Bit of a slower month this month. June really passed me by without me noticing.

Escaping From Houdini by Kerri Maniscalco

Escaping From Houdini is the third installment in the Stalking Jack the Ripper series, one of the most popular properties of James Patterson’s Little, Brown imprint, jimmy patterson. These YA murder mysteries center on an ahead-of-her-time(TM) young woman, Audrey Rose, studying mortuary sciences and forensic medicine from her eccentric uncle alongside her snarky love interest, Thomas. She runs up against social stigma, since these are not very womanly professions. Also, we hear roughly once a book about how Audrey Rose is 1/4 Indian, but honestly it’s a cop out and doesn’t come into play. She is treated as white for all but one sentence per installment, to the point where it feels a bit odd that this is a part of her backstory. It’s like Maniscalco decided to take a stab at representation and then just went nowhere with it. The supposed feminism of the books is superficial and anachronistic, and the books do little to grapple with the realities of the era. Audrey Rose rejects the trappings of Victorian femininity without examining the underlying social causes or the interiority of other women in the fiction. It’s Cool Girl fiction, but with a protagonist who is also a crime solving mortician.

This particular installment unsuccessfully attempts to launch a love triangle subplot, but undercuts it at every step by having Audrey Rose reassure us that she would never ever ever give up on Thomas. The crimes are given a fun sense of urgency since the entirety of the book takes place on a trans Atlantic cruise liner, so that’s cool. I know that this series’ entire gimmick is inserting historical figures into the crime narrative, but the whole Houdini subplot was just tiring and could have been lifted entirely without impact.

I’m not going to pretend these books are good. They aren’t. They’re empty calories where people die, you get to read about Victorian autopsies, and a good portion of the narrative is devoted to the love story between Audrey Rose and Thomas. At this point I’m committed to the series and I’ll see it out through the fourth and final installment, but I wouldn’t recommend you pick it up if you already haven’t. This is best consumed as mindless background noise. Enjoyable enough to kill some time or help round out a commute. And I’m not about to pretend that I’m in any way above this kind of potato chip entertainment.

A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

A Book of Tongues is the first installment of Gemma Files’s Hexslinger series. It’s a Weird West tale that follows a band of outlaws headed up by a disgraced preacher turned cowboy wizard and his sassy gunslinger whoreson boyfriend. They’re being spied on by a Pinkerton trying to collect scientific data on wizards.

I’m a sucker for the Weird West, and I love a narrative with villain protagonists, so I thought this would be totally up my alley. I think I liked this book(question mark). It was compelling and I will likely pick up the next installment to find out what happens.

However, I think there might have just been too much going on. Also, I listened to it as an audio book and I think that made it a little harder to follow than just reading it on the page might have been.

But seriously. This book.

An incomplete list of things featured:

  • outlaws
  • The Civil War
  • wizards
  • oodles of gay sex
  • violence
  • Pinkertons
  • Aztec gods
  • San Fransisco Chinese brothels
  • WIZARD BATTLE
  • Native American shamans
  • WIZARD PREACHER BATTLE now featuring SCRIPTURE

It was maybe just one too many concepts thrown in. I’m still sussing out exactly how I feel. I would gladly spend one more book in this world to figure out what happens next, but this is the first of a trilogy and for some reason that fills me with a little dread.

Heads up that characters in this book use racial epithets and hold attitudes that are appropriate to the postbellum West. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, but the horrors of Manifest Destiny and the white settlement of the American West are examined and commented upon within the narrative.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I absolutely loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and my best recommendation is to go into it knowing as little as possible before you start. It’s a surprisingly intimate and moving look at life in England from 1910 up through the end of World War II, following the life of Ursula Todd, the middle child of five in an upper middle class English family.

I’ve seen a few friends on Goodreads mention that they couldn’t get past page 50. I will admit that it takes a bit to get into. You really need to spend about 100 pages getting used to what’s going on, and the unconventional flow of the narrative. If you aren’t sold by page 125, then it’s safe to give up. But it does require more of a chance than some books.

While researching subgenres and tags for categorizing this book I learned about the concept of “slipstream” books. From Worlds Without End:

Slipstream deals with “mainstream” themes but contains a speculative element. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a speculative future, for example, but is marketed as a mainstream novel.

http://www.worldswithoutend.com/resources_sub-genres.asp

The more you know!

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

I decided to read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country in advance of the HBO series coming out, which I will definitely be watching.

This book goes down quick and it’s a natural choice for a television adaptation. The structure itself is fairly episodic and the action escalates quickly. It does not rely on the typical horror novel structure of building slowly with uncertainty about the provenance of the evil until the last quarter of the narrative. You’re pretty clear on what (or who) the evil is from the start, and each section is a tale of how our main cast outsmarts and outlasts that evil.

Lovecraft Country exists in the universe of novels that take the cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s works and examines the racism and utterly banal human evil underneath it all. Having read a lot of Lovecraft when I was a teen, I love narratives that recontextualize and expand Lovecraft’s universe to better reflect our own.

Lovecraft Country is a great addition to this literary canon. It’s thoughtful, at times funny, and above all entertaining. A must read for readers interested in the modern expansion of Lovecraftian mythos.

May Reading

Zer0es by Chuck Wendi

I listened to this in the car on the way out to Cleveland for PyCon 2019. This is a fun techno-thriller, perfectly suited for a road trip. If you like thrillers involving computer hackers, you’ll like this book. I appreciate that not all of the assembled hackers are white dudes. However, the diversity of the main cast will likely not change your mind on whether this genre works for you.

Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendi

I listened to this in the car on the way back from PyCon 2019. This had much more of an impact on me, but is also substantially much more upsetting. Which I guess makes sense. It’s about a troubled girl who picks fights with Nazis, and it’s incredibly stressful.

SPOILER FOR ATLANTA BURNS BELOW

I think there’s an argument to be made that Chuck buried his gay in this one, and people will probably dislike this book for that. However, I suspect that Atlanta might be gay as well, based on a couple stray lines here and there. I’m hoping we learn she is in the sequel. Fingers crossed. Also, I think that the murder of the gay kid in this book is sufficiently motivated and necessary, and not just a cheap trick used to provide emotional stress for the straights. YMMV.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

I’ve heard Jaron Lanier on the WeCroak and Ezra Klein podcasts, so I pretty much knew what I was getting into here. I also have been feeling for a while that social media, especially any site with an infinite scroll mechanic, makes me meaner, less attentive, and changes my tolerance threshold for boredom and discomfort. I listened to this on the couch while playing Stardew Valley (one of my favorite pastimes lately) and was basically looking for something to give me permission to nope out of social media.

Quitting social seemed so hard, like I would be missing out on so much. Three or four weeks later I can definitely say that my life has not crashed and burned just because I’m not keeping up with the minute to minute hot takes on Twitter. It’s possible to get news through other sources, even if, like me, you don’t own a television.

Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, Translated by Julia Meitov Herse

I read this as a buddy read with my sister, and I loved this book. It’s harsh and confusing. You definitely feel like you’re accompanying the protagonist on her journey of thinking through mud and not understanding what’s going on. But in a good, interesting way.

HOWEVER. I did not realize until I was about halfway through that this is not a standalone novel, but the first book in a series. The next two books have been published in Russian and are being translated into English, but with no set timeline, and I’m very put out. I am invested now, but I didn’t realize I was getting myself into yet another series with no end in sight. I might have waited on this had I known.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Another book I listened to while playing games on Switch (Celeste and Stardew Valley again) and I was so underwhelmed by this book. I guess it was compelling enough for me to finish, instead of DNFing, but if that’s the best I can say about it then that’s pretty faint praise.

This book hinges on the supposed strength of the marriage at the center of it. But apart from being told that Jason, our protagonist, loves his wife so so so so so so so so much, we don’t really see it. He even admits near the beginning of the book that they both feel like they’re in a bit of a rut, and he doesn’t seem particularly happy. I suppose you could interpret everything that comes after as Jason’s realization that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, or whatever, but the whole thing just fell so incredibly flat. And the whirlwind tour of different dimensions felt tangential and useless. Also, there was an entire Strong Female Character in the middle of this book who could have been lifted straight out of the book and it would have had no substantial impact on either the plot, or the protagonist’s character development, such as it is.

This is probably my least favorite book I’ve read all year. Well, that or Hadriana in All My Dreams. Apples and oranges, I guess.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Looking back it appears that May was a great month for audio books. I listened to more audio books last month than I think I did in all of 2018. I listened to this one while packing to go to Costa Rica for work and finished it right before an eventful karaoke night at my local bar.

We Set the Dark on Fire takes place an alternate reality in which upper class women are sorted into two classes of potential wives, the Primeras (who run the hosuehold) and the Segundas (who have sex with and do emotional labor for the husband). High profile men get a pair of these wives to help prop him up as he enters adulthood. This YA novel is about class struggles, gay feelings, and institutional sexism. It’s perfectly enjoyable. I’ll probably read the sequel when it comes out.

However, it was very confusing to listen to two audio books in a row with prominent characters named Daniela Vargas.

And that’s it for May. Here’s hoping for an equally, if not more productive and satisfying reading month in June.

Movie Review: Ma

Listen, you pretty much already know whether you’re going to like this movie. Octavia Spencer stars in this horror film about a middle aged woman who buys alcohol for teenagers and lets them party in her basement. From the beginning she seems…off, and the situation doesn’t improve from there.

You either read that description and thought that it sounds terrible or, like me, you thought “this combines two of my interests: horror movies and Octavia Spencer.” Nothing that happens in the movie will change your mind based on how you reacted to this premise.

Octavia Spencer is, as always, a gem. Highly enjoyable way to spend a Friday night.

SPOILER below:

I’d give this a 3.5/5. I would have given it a 4/5 but I think the munchausen by proxy story thread was underdeveloped.

Unsolicited Book Recommendation: Tess of the Road

One of the best books I read last year was Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a kind of meandering fantasy story about a girl who is rejected by her family and so she walks through the country. It’s episodic and understated, and a year later it still takes my breath away sometimes when I think about it. I’m quietly heartbroken that it didn’t win the Nebula’s Andre Norton award for YA SF/F.

Tess is given more room to be flawed and interesting and angry and complicated than I feel like many protagonists in young adult literature are. She’s given room to breathe and evolve as she walks the road and accrues new experiences. I think I actually cried a couple times near the end of this book.

One of the best things about this book is that the people in the world around Tess feel as real and fleshed out as she is. Character driven fantasy can sometimes fall into the trap of evolving the main character in a navel-gazey way that flattens the people around that main character. But there is a real sense that the world around Tess would move without her, and that people have their own complicated interests and motivations that are not just there to benefit the protagonist.

Tess of the Road is technically a sequel to the Seraphina Duology also by Rachel Hartman, but it’s not necessary to read that before jumping in here. Seraphina is on my list, but I still haven’t gotten around to it. Rachel Hartman is also working on a sequel called Tess of the Sea. I’m excited for when it comes out, but also a little puzzled as to where it could go. This snapshot of Tess’s emotional journey feels so complete.

I certainly plan on rereading Tess of the Road before the sequel comes out, and maybe a couple more times before that. This book is meditative and heartfelt; I could not recommend it more.

Review: The Merry Spinster

4/5 stars

As with most short story collections, there are a couple I really loved and a couple I could have done without. That’s just the nature of the format, I think.

Ortberg’s strength in all of his writing, both here and online, is his unique talent for creating distinct, believable, voices. Whether it’s the cheeky, omnipotent narrator in “The Daughter Cells” or the un-self-aware self-righteousness in “Cast your Bread upon the Waters,” he does a fantastic job of giving each character a rich texture and inner life that can be difficult to achieve in short fiction.

“The Wedding Party” did the least for me; I wasn’t really familiar with the source material for that story and the meandering conversation left me cold.

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” absolutely broke my heart. I’ve been in that friendship. It absolutely rips you apart, and you can’t even see it happening.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this as the first of Ortberg’s works for someone to read. Start with Texts from Jane Eyre, then read some Objectivist Harry Potter. You’ll know by then whether Ortberg’s work is for you.