Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Catfishing on CatNet

The first thing I need to acknowledge is that the title and cover of this book are pretty awful. I would have had ZERO urge to pick this up based on either of those, and they do not really give you any hint of the facts or feeling of the story you're getting into.


Ignore that.

I book talked this one so aggressively at work that all the YA librarians have read it and are spreading the gospel of Naomi Kritzer's Catfishing on CatNet. This is a book for people who love heartwarming stories about finding friends and family who will take care of you when the world gets scary.

You might have heard of Naomi Kritzer recently because she wrote a pandemic story a few years ago that was so prescient it's been getting a lot of notice--"So Much Cooking." But what I first read by her was the story "Cat Pictures Please," which is the story on which this novel is based. Go ahead and read it first, if you want--it doesn't give anything away. It's just about the character; the book introduces a bunch of people and problems.

The main character and heart of the story is a sentient AI that knows all about you. It knows everything about everyone--it is basically comprised of all the information on the internet. Mostly what it loves and wants are cat pictures, so it started a chat room for people to post cute animal pictures. It acts as a mod and calls itself CheshireCat, and it chats with friends, reposts pics, and studies human nature.

One of CheshireCat's friends is Steph, a teenager on the chatroom. Steph and her mom live a life in hiding, running from her scary dad. She's finally making IRL friends in the new town they've come to, though, so she'd really like to not have to run again. But when Steph's problems start getting bigger, the AI and her friends might need to save Steph from IRL dangers that might be over their heads.

Ugh, I'm not a blurb writer. Two big selling points here: one, everyone in this story is lovely. Well, not everyone. There are bad guys. But the big group of online friends and friends at Steph's new school are just all great. The show up for each other, and trust and respect and believe in each other. They roll with each others' weird home situations, changing pronouns, romantic confusions, and new attempts to understand humanity. Some of the bad guys are scary, and those bad guys come after them, but this story is full of people taking good care of each other, without being perfect.

Point two: watching an AI figure out how people work will never not be fun. CheshireCat is sweet and well-meaning, but only knows the internet parts of life--which is a lot, but not everything. Watching it navigate interactions with a combination of expertise and bafflement is just so heartwarming and charming and funny.

I loved this book. And the Amazon page says there will be more CatNet books, about which I am super excited. So please ignore the cover and give it a try.

(Welcome to post 2 of my dreck writing. I apologize. I make no quality promises for at least a month.)

Thank you Netgalley for sending me an advance review copy of this book before it came out months and months ago.

Monday, May 11, 2020

New Kindle, New You

I have a full dozen unposted drafts, because I haven't written in so long that everything I write is dreck. See this? This is dreck.

But the only way out is through, so from now on I'm posting a tiny bit of dreck all the dang time. I've got a backlog of reviews to do (literally years of neglected ARCs) so let's make this happen.

So the book I currently haven't quite finished is called Nothing Can Hurt You, by Nicola Maye Goldberg. I was expecting a straight-up standard thriller or mystery--you've got a murdered girl in the woods outside a small college town and her loving boyfriend, high on LSD and mood stabilizers. Is it open and shut but-we-were-wrong? Is it going to be a courtroom drama, where the clever defense attorney will put the police to the test? Will the other serial killer arrested just a few weeks before in the same town be related?

Whatever I thought I was getting, this is not it. This whole novel is a series of vignettes, barely interconnected, all about people tangential to the events. It's very well written, and I'm enjoying it a lot, but it's such a strange beast of a book that I am having trouble imagining its market.

The book opens introducing a woman who moved to the small town because of a strange medical condition, whose marriage is on the rocks. We follow her through entertaining her husband's coworker, a fight with her husband, an angry walk in the woods--when she finds a body--Sara's.

Next we meet a totally different character a thousand miles away. We get to know her in rehab, and why she's there, and about her life and personality. We get a little invested in her rehab, and are concerned about the crush she develops on a fellow patient, who is rumored to have killed his girlfriend. Which he admits to; he was high on LSD.

And then we jump forward. We flash around, meeting the dead girl's half-sister, who barely remembers her, 15 years later. A reporter covering the murder trial, whose section is mostly about her fraught relationship with her mother. A teenager who Sara used to babysit for, whose lonely high school life leads her, in a sideways fashion, to a correspondence to the other murderer who was active in the town at that time. The guilty boyfriend's nanny, many years later when he has children of his own.

There's no mystery here; we know who did what and when. We even know why, because mental illness and contraindicated drugs leave it pretty obvious. We're not angry, necessarily, but we are maybe as befuddled as all these people who are trying to make sense of a world that has such a horrible crime in it.

I liked this book very much--which is impressive for a book that is carried so heavily on its writing. Each section is a really thoughtful dive into a character, sympathetic and clear-eyed. There are no bad guys here; everyone's doing their best, although some of their bests aren't very good.

But it's so far from what I expected when I picked it up, and from what I think most people expect when they look at a book about a murdered girl in a small town, I worry that it'll have a hard time finding its audience. This is a book for people who know that a murder like this isn't something that disappears after the show ends in an hour--it changes everyone around it, in every kind of way, for the rest of their lives.

Thank you to Netgalley for a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Returned

Hi, guys! Miss me?

Been reading a bunch, of course; lots of stuff to talk about. Also realizing as I open Blogger for the first time in over a year that I'm not sure I remember how to put words together to form thoughts and say...things...with them. So let's see how this goes.

Here and now, I just finished The Return, by Rachel Harrison, which, whatever its literary merit (read: lack thereof), absolutely sucked me and would not let go.

But I don't know if I can properly review it. See, going in, I only knew what the cover copy told me: Julie went missing two years ago, and by now she's presumed dead by everyone except her best friend Elise. So Elise is the only one who's not surprised when Julie turns up on her own front porch with no memory of where she's been for the past two years.

Now Elise and Julie and their other two best friends, Molly and Mae, are getting together at a Catskills hotel for a girls' weekend, to get to know each other again and maybe try to figure out what really happened to Julie.

That was all the info I had. Somehow, I had it painted in my mind as a domestic-thriller type of book, where it's probably the gorgeous and sweet-seeming husband hiding a dark secret, and probably all these women are various flavors of rich suburban white ladies.

I was very wrong.

I don't think it's a spoiler to get more specific, because I've seen other reviewers doing it, but if you would like to go in blind, here's the spoiler-free version:

the book is about a bunch of 20-something post-college women who are not very good at being emotionally mature people. While each one was definitely a trope (Molly wears no makeup and takes no bullshit; Mae is a rich personal stylist in NYC wearing weird, fashionable clothes and always sweet as candy; Elise has a dead end job and can't keep her life together), and they were all seriously not emotionally healthy.

I have rarely felt so much affection and hope for characters just like this. I generally have no use for 20-somethings who are aimless and whiny and not so much bad at self-examination as unaware that it exists. People who are miserable and not trying to fix it; people who are only into appearances and feel hollow; people who are prickly and rude and treat it like a badge of honor. These are my nemeses.

But what the author captures here in such an amazing way is their friendship. The kind of friendship that is most like a good sibling relationship--where you can doubt each other and lie to each other but still love each other, still always come back to each other. A friendship based on living as one organism with four bodies for the crazy, charmed years of college, so you know each other's strengths and weaknesses as well as your own. A friendship where years may pass but your new, older selves click right into place together.

So: portrait of a friendship, not what I expected. Not great literature, but very readable.

Now for the spoilers.

You are warned.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

This is actually a horror novel. There's some haunted house tropes, some standard hotel-in-the-woods stuff, but in the end it comes down to body horror, and BOY HOWDY is it horrifying.

For so much of the book you mostly get hints. Heavy hints--like, it's really damned obvious hints, but the characters don't know they're in a horror novel, so maybe it's just the lighting that makes her hair seem thinner last night than today? Probably that's rusty condensation dripping from that vent, not some...other red stuff. Your suitcase totally didn't move by itself; you're remembering wrong. REALLY IT'S FINE.

Friends, it is not fine. And while, looking back on the book, there are many unexplained weirdnesses, many hints dropped that in the end don't actually go anywhere, by god I don't care. I spent most of the book looking up every half hour saying, "vampire? zombie? werewolf?" I finally came up with "wendigo," which is also not quite right but closer than anything else.

If your idea of fun is sitting in a hotel room with your besties, reality TV in the background, pouring liquor into half-full soda cans and knowing that you are the funniest, snarkiest, people you'll ever meet...and you don't mind the rattling in the walls or the occasional spurting gouts of blood....this one's for you.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book-A-Day May: Results

As expected, I did not read a book a day in May. Not even close, really. But I do think it worked as a proof of concept, and that I could do it next year with a little planning.

1) Stockpile novellas. I ran out of novellas I was excited about, but they fit the bill very nicely.

2) Earmark time.  The best part of this plan was that I actually spent a couple of afternoons reading for hours instead of puttering around getting not much done. It was motivating! And productive! It worked really well for that and I want to harness it sometime.

3) Stockpile comics and kids books. Adam thrust several books upon me in the past week that would have been great book-a-day reads.

[Very Important Aside: My kid is now spontaneously coming up to me sometimes and saying, "Mom this is a really good book. You should read it." PARENTING ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: 1,000,000 POINTS!!!!]

4) Plan end-of-April reading to trail off into May.  I counted books I finished in May, even if started in April. For the longer stuff, start it in April, to make a dent.

So this May I actually read 6 novellas, 5 graphic novels, and 4 novels, totaling 15 books, for the purpose of this experiment.  And this was during a month that included a Friends of the Library book sale, which is about my busiest week all year, and some intense volunteer commitments.

So look out next May, I'm planning ahead this time!

Stand-out book from the month: Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, by Mira Jacob. It's the graphic memoir of a Southeast Asian American woman, framed around her trying to answer her young biracial son's questions about racism and Donald Trump near the election of 2016. The story spans the author's life, and it covers everything from being a child of immigrants to her marriage to a white Jewish man and relationships with her in laws, to goofy parent stories and trying to make it as a writer in New York.

It's a wonderful book about the experience of being brown in America and how that's changed over the past 40 years, and about being a parent and trying to make sense of a world that doesn't actually make sense, and then break it down into words a six-year-old can understand--especially when the six-year-old alternates between being scared of racism and pretending he's Spider-Man.

This was such a great, relatable, warm-hearted book, and I really loved getting to know Mira Jacob. Highly recommend.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Book-A-Day May

I had this brilliant idea, because I finished two books in the first five days of May.  News flash: the math does not work out.

BUT! But I love the way it sounds, so I'm going to dream for the next couple of weeks. I figure if I keep plugging away I might get halfway there, which a) will still be an amazing reading month for me, and b) will set me up to make this A Thing and maybe really read 30 books in a month next May! (Or are there 31 days in May?)

This just might work because anything counts. I've read graphic novels and novellas. I counted a Kindle single. I'm counting books I started in April and finished in May. It's about courting success! I'm only not counting the picture book I read, because that would be just too easy; I could be done in a day.

And we're doing it by averages. I don't have to actually finish one book a day--three one day offsets a couple of days plugging through something longer.

So, without further ado: Book-A-Day May so far!

 1) Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell. A Tor.com novella and an ARC I received; full review to come, but generally a neat little mystery with touches of horro.

2) In the Thrill of the Night, by Candice Hern. The anachronistic pun title alone brought me out, along with what I assume was a good review on SBTB, because I live there now and read all the romance and I'm not sorry. I liked the romance in this story very much, but I was very grossed out by a lot of the hero's behavior when he got jealous. There was a lot of lying in this book, and he thinks he's doing it for a good reason but it turned me off of him entirely for a chunk. I forgave him, but I wish there'd been more comeuppance. Still, charming.

3) I'm a Therapist and my Patient is Going to be the Next School Shooter, by Dr. Harper. This is on Amazon as an ebook so I'm counting it, though I read it on the author's website. Don't be fooled; it's not even pretending to be an account of therapy; I'd love to read a fictional account of good therapy. It's a kind of horror/thriller in which a horrible therapist does a bunch of things that I think I'm supposed to find heroic but maybe not? And a bunch of weird stuff happens and it doesn't make much sense. It's all conspiracy and terrible therapy, and by the end I think that the author knows this and is kind of critiquing the main character, but mostly not. Mostly it's salacious stuff that I wouldn't believe on an episode of Criminal Minds.

4) Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, by Mira Jacob. Indian American author Mira Jacob addresses what it's like to be a daughter of immigrants and a brown woman in the U.S. The framework is trying to explain things to her son--a boy who looks like his Southeast Asian mother more than his White Jewish father--in the time leading up to the election in 2016. The true and nuanced answers she and her husband try to give to the boy's difficult questions just felt so important and relatable to me. How can you explain to your child how messed up and awful the world is without scaring him too much or letting him be callous about it? How do you address his real fears about who the good guys and bad guys are?

And the parts about her relationship with her in laws--who have been lovely and welcoming for years, but who are still Republicans--and with her husband--who is entirely on her side but still moves through the world as a White man--are just so moving and complicated. Basically, this story takes some incredibly complicated, messy issues and lays them out in such personal, honest, and nuanced ways.  I want everyone to go out and read this book.

5) Penric's Mission, by Lois McMaster Bujold. How have I not finished the Penric novellas yet? Dopn't worry, I'll be done with the rest by the end of May. As always, this one is delightful and charming and I loved it.  Penric is clever and humble and Desdemona is brilliant and sassy and they have dangerous adventures and are incredibly competent and meet a lovely woman.  Five stars, will read more ASAP.

6) Permafrost, by Alastair Reynolds. Another Tor.com original and my first Alastair Reynolds book. This was great. It's a time travel story, and the mechanisms and rules behind the time travel are, I think particularly well thought out and explained.  It's about paradoxes and saving the world (naturally), or at least about giving the world a sliver of hope.  What I found especially interesting was how the narrative dealt with changes to the narrator's memories. It seems like it shouldn't have worked with such a straightforward first person laying out of changes, but it really did.

I found that parts of the revelation were kind of glossed over, or rather infodumped near the end, but before that I had been admiring how well the story dealt with imperfect knowledge and the fact that we know that history might be changing, that a lot of the things we're finding out are secondhand, and that Valentina does not have perfect knowledge of the situation at the times when she has to make choices.  In the end, we learn all the things she didn't know so that we can evaluate everything from a distance, but I rather liked how she pushed through in the thick of it, trusting who she trusted and believing in the mission.

7) By Night, Volume 1, by John Allison, Christine Larsen, & Sarah Stern. I picked this up because John Allison writes Giant Days, which is the best thing in the world. This has the same flavor in dialogue as Giant Days, but it hasn't quite found itself yet. The premise involves two former best friends living in a down-and-out town exploring an abandoned industrial complex and finding a portal to another world.  They decide to make a documentary about it; Heather's coworker and Jane's dad join them on the adventure.

There's a lot of charm here and the dialogue is snappy, but I don't fully get the characters yet. I feel like Heather's irritation and Jane's urgency don't always make sense. I do love their green horned tour guide, though, and I'm really looking forward to seeing where it goes. It'll be interesting to see how John Allison's plotting skills are; Giant Days is very character-driven, which he clearly does well, but this promises to be a big adventure, and it'll be interesting to see how that works.

So, that's May so far! Aren't you proud of me? Aren't I accomplished? If I squish in a bunch of comics and a couple more novellas, I might just make a good showing in Book-A-Day May!

Read Good Talk. Seriously.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

On Finding Romance

I feel like I'm finally figuring out what I like in a romance novel and how to pick one that might appeal to me.  At the very least, I know that Christina Lauren is my favorite contemporary romance author and that I will always read what she writes, forever and ever amen.

I was so excited to get The Unhoneymooners from Netgalley, and I was right to be, because it was deeee-lightful. The premise is very simple: Olive's twin sister won a fabulous all expenses paid honeymoon, but food poisoning put her, the groom, and almost everyone else at the wedding in a position where no one could go on the trip.  But Olive's allergic to shellfish and the groom's brother, Ethan, doesn't trust buffets, so they're healthy and the bride insists that someone is going to use the nontransferable honeymoon tickets.  So off go Olive and Ethan, who don't really like each other, to Maui for ten days.

Can you guess what happens? Yeah, that's what happens. Their arguing has always looked a little like flirting, but it gradually gets more flirty and less fighty and so on. The thing that makes this book--and most Christina Lauren books, I think--is the flirting. It's the part where two clever people are being clever and charming at each other and they're having fun and you're having fun with them and everything is just right with the world.

So that's about half the book--just falling in love in Maui, like you do. Part of that plot revolves around how bad Olive is at lying, and the fact that the vacation is firmly non-transferable. So to a certain extent, Ethan and Olive have to pretend to be married.  There are some comical scrapes this issue--running into exes and bosses and such--and those just shot my anxiety level through the roof. I don't always hate lying, but I hated it here, I think because Olive hated it so much. Luckily, these bits were short; there were never extended periods where you had to squirm waiting for chapters/days to see how awkward things would get. 

Then we depart Hawaii, returning to normal life in the bleak, frozen northlands of the Twin Cities, where there are complications that are real and realistic and that I liked a *lot*.  It's nothing melodramatic, all very realistic and normal, but there are a bunch of little moments that feel very relevant and important--misunderstandings based around "oh, you must have misinterpreted him" and "you are putting the worst possible spin on" an experience that is pretty cut and dried if you were there but is hard to describe.  It's a perfect depiction of this kind of thing, and while it's fairly small, I loved it a lot.

Just the best. Witty and charming and sexy and real. I have been reading Christina Lauren for a while, but it's time for me to catch up on the ones I haven't gotten to yet. They're very much worth it.

Review copy received from Netgalley; the book will be published on May 14, 2019.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Dooce Treatment

Remember dooce.com? The LA party girl blogger turned mommy blogger turned blogging industry? I followed her for years, mostly writing about parenting and her struggles with mental illness. She's a really good writer, and I enjoyed the blog a lot.

Her name is Heather Armstrong and her new book is called The Valedictorian of Being Dead. It's about an experimental treatment for depression that she underwent--experimental as in she was patient #3 in the trial--after an 18-month depressive episode that nothing else could touch.

It's really hard for me to review this book apart from my feelings about Heather herself--isn't that always the case with a memoir? I have fairly strong opinions about her work, and it's kind of hard not to have strong opinions about her life, too, when you've read years and years of detailed accounts about it. 

One of the pivot points of my reaction to dooce is the idea of honesty, straightforwardness, and self awareness in a personal blog. Just because you write a blog about your life doesn't mean you owe your readers any particular details. I don't have any right to know more about the facts that fall in the gaps I see in her storytelling, the places where I want more detail. I want it, but I'm not entitled to it, and I know that.

But am I entitled to the truth about the parts she does write about? Nobody promised me nonfiction, did they? And then again, what is "the truth" when you're telling your life story? There are plenty of stories I tell myself and mostly believe until I don't and I realize they were never true.

Take the divorce. That's about when I stopped reading the blog; that's about when I realized that the people I thought I was reading about were personas. (It's reality TV. No one believes reality TV, right?) I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure that pictures of her on a date with someone else (selfies, not any kind of blogger-paparazzi shots) showed up on her Instagram just a couple of days after the separation was announced. What that said to me was either a) cheating, or b) a long-term rift that there had been no hint of in the storytelling. To the point where, in my memory, there was a "my husband is the best husband" blog posts fairly current before the split was announced.

The specter of her ex-husband, Jon, hangs over the book. He doesn't appear, having moved to New York since the split, but one of the driving factors in the book is her fear that if he finds out about the severity of her depression, he'll take the kids away.

I have complicated feelings about that, too. She spent 18 months very, very depressed. Hiding in the closing crying on the phone to her mother about wanting to be dead. Weeping and leaving the room because the fight to make her daughter practice piano was too much. I have felt this--the tyranny of the neverending list of things that need to be done that she describes so, so poignantly. Her ability to explain the feelings of depression is amazing.

But also, maybe she wasn't doing her kids any favors by plowing through this? Not that her ex was the solution--he appears to be a "two weeks in summer and one holiday a year" kind of parent, which, eugh. Who is that guy, and who was the guy I knew on the blog? So no, I don't necessarily think he should have taken her kids. But maybe someone should have been looking at whether they were okay through this?

Ugh, I don't want to dump on her. I really don't; this is a great, interesting memoir of this particular treatment, and it does an excellent job with almost everything it's trying to do--her relationship with her mother and stepfather, her father and her siblings, the family history of mental illness, the experience of the treatment, the nature of her depression, all incredibly well-painted. 

I guess it's more that I don't entirely trust her to be an authentic reporter of her own life. Whether it's for reality TV reasons (in service of the story), or for standard memoir reasons (to protect the real people who are out there in the world living this life), or because her tragic flaw is the need to be the valedictorian of everything, including memoirs, and so everything is cured and sewed up into a neat little package--when I read her book, I am very aware of everything that must be there but is not being said.

One thing that gave me pleasure, though, was how, as the treatment starts to work and she starts to reconstruct her life, she realizes that she has to build it in such a way as to not trigger her anxiety. This is something I have learned myself in the past few years--that part of keeping myself emotionally healthy and strong is to build a life that does not press on the places where I am weakest. There are things that are harder for me than they are for other people--it is not weakness to work around those things instead of trying to do them anyway because I "should." Having a job that you can do competently without getting panic attacks is more important than having a prestigious job; I've learned that, and I am only, endlessly glad that Heather did, too.

I guess that's the other part of reading this book, the good part. In spite of my doubts about whether I'm getting a whole and accurate picture of this person's life, the story she is telling--her suffering, her family's support, her hope--all resonated with me, and I was rooting for her all the way.

Missed you, dooce.  Best of luck with everything.