Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Backlog: Grist Mill Road

Catching up on the books I read during my long hiatus, I come back to Grist Mill Road, by Christopher J. Yates.

I've been on a long run of thrillers lately--I don't know why, maybe because they're kind of fluffy?  You get a lot of tension without using up a lot of brainpower. The fantasy and sci fi that I enjoy in generally pretty intense in world building and when they're dark, it just seems more significant, somehow.

So: thrillers, suspense, murder.  I got Grist Mill Road from Netgalley for review, because a blogger with dark tastes liked it a lot. She and I don't always agree, but this one was good.  It takes advantage of multiple points of view to tell a twisty story that keeps you guessing without a lot of surprise revelations--just a slow unfolding of perspective.

At the beginning of the book, our narrator is Patrick, looking back on his childhood and telling the story of his friendship with a boy named Matthew--a little older, a lot rougher, getting up to some dangerous games.  A girl named Hannah comes into their lives, and eventually a Big Awful happens.

Later in the book, we get more perspectives--we get information from Hannah and even from Matthew, and we learn about their lives now, years along, as well as more aspects to what happened back then.  We learn where the cracks are in their lives, and we learn more and more about that horrible day.

My favorite part about this book is the ambiguity that it leaves you with.  It starts with a clear story, the kind of story you usually get in a narrative.  And then it muddies the water more and more without changing the facts, until you can't see who could have done what to change things.

Less fluffy (really, is that the word I want?) than what I'm usually going for in my suspense, but worth it, because the twists really illuminate a lot about how the world is.  What more does anyone want in their books?

Monday, September 03, 2018

Everyone Is Horrible

No, wait, that's not the name.  You Were Made For This, that's what it was called, by Michelle Sacks.  Given where I heard about this book (Kelly, who reads mostly grimdark books about creepy rural poverty, found it ridiculously dark), I knew I was in for a rollercoaster of garbage people, and oh em gee did it deliver.

We meet Merry and Sam, who have left behind the hubbub of New York City for the Swedish countryside.  Merry gardens, cooks from scratch, and takes care of their baby son Connor.  Sam travels into the city to build up his new video production business.  They walk in the forest and swim in the lakes and eat nourishing food and take photos of their gorgeous lives. They are perfect.

Maybe there are cracks.  Maybe we wonder why they really left New York, and whether Merry is quite as natural a homemaker as she makes out.  But their life looks pretty perfect.

They hear Frank is coming to visit.  Merry's childhood best friend, Frank is a gorgeous, successful globetrotter whose life is the opposite of Merry's.  She's a consultant with a new boyfriend every season. She's going to spend her sabbatical with Merry and Sam.  It sounds lovely; Merry could use some company, living way out in the country.

I don't even really need to tell you the forms that all of this unraveling will take; it's right there in the setup.  I mean, if this was another kind of book--an intimate examination of characters and life choices--I would still spend the rest of the book waiting for the lives I've described above come crumbling down.  And they do, most spectacularly.

The story is told from all three points of view, which works very well. It doesn't rely on mystery to carry it; there are things you don't know for a while, but you're not relying on the weight of the thing the characters know and you don't to drive the tension.  Flaws start to crack open and what spills out is darker than you even thought, while still remaining entirely in the realm of what you expect from these characters--Merry isn't as tranquil in her role as we thought; Sam isn't just a doting husband and father; Frank doesn't have it all.

If there is anywhere you're wondering if the book will go, yeah, it goes there. It gets ugly, but never in any way that you were not promised from the beginning.  The use of different points of view to paint each character as both real and human while also nasty and cruel is fascinating because it works both ways; you learn both the good and bad about each person not only from their internal story but also from how they see each other.

This is a very specific kind of book; if you're looking for domestic suspense that is very character-driven and not afraid to go ANYWHERE, this is for you.  It wasn't the book of the year by any stretch, but it kept me reading right straight through.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

DNF: Night Film

I wanted to love Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. I'm not sure if my reasons were very pure (The Jennys liked it! It's both scary and highbrow!), but I made it to page 100 (of almost 600) before deciding that I couldn't do it.

I wish I could say that the book is just not for me, but in many ways it is for me.  The narrator is an investigative reporter who has fallen into disgrace due to his weird behavior during an investigation of a reclusive filmmaker.  Now, years later, the filmmaker's daughter is dead of an apparent suicide, and the reporter finds himself looking into the daughter.

This is basically a good and interesting (if overly long) book; I think I would have finished it if it was 400 pages instead of 600. I can list the things that bothered me very precisely, and I tried very hard to put up with them.  But at the rate I was going (that font was small), I was going to spend three or four weeks with this book, and my nitpicks would have driven me bonkers.

Three main problems, from broadest to narrowest.

1) The book really depends on the sense of eeriness that comes from the mysterious filmmaker Cordova.  He never makes public appearances; all of his movies were filmed on his enormous private estate. The movies are so scary that his later ones weren't shown in theaters; there were secret underground (literally, in Paris catacombs) screenings with coded messages about when and where, and people who saw them were never the same again (woo!).

It takes a lot of people to make a movie. And the whole "art so profound it literally drives people mad!" is just too hard to imagine.  I just wasn't convinced by the idea of these movies being supernatural, and if the book wanted to convince me, it needed to show me earlier not just tell.

2) The main character, reporter Scott McGrath, is very much an obnoxious white guy.  If the author had been a man, I would have put it down on page 20 when he comes home 4 hours late without letting the babysitter know, complains about his ex-wife's hobbies, and bullies his way into conversations he wants to have with people who don't want him around.  Because the author's a woman, I gave the book a lot more space, but I only appreciate an unlikable narrator if the book is pretty explicit about the unlikability being deliberate.  While I don't think he's supposed to be likeable, per se, I am not convinced I'm supposed to despise him as much as I do.  (This is very much a "not for me" factor, though; I am very down on entitled men right now.)

3) Finally and possibly most annoyingly, the italics. They are everywhere. Within dialogue or in the narration, any word that's emphasized, even if you would have naturally emphasized in in your head, got the italic treatment anyway.  It was like listening to Holly Golightly talk when she's in prime society girl mode (note that italics are sometimes used to call out phrases, rather than emphasize; still annoying). 

While this is maybe the most shallow of my issues, it's also probably the one that killed me in the end. I think that's because this persistent annoyance in the text really separated my judgement from the author's, which made me not trust her on the other issues.  As I said, I can deal with an unlikable character if I feel like the author and I are in on that together, but the use of italics made me feel antagonistic toward the author--not the narrator, Scott, but the author--and that was the kiss of death.

I might still pick up Special Topics in Calamity Physics to see how different it is and whether I can connect with the author in another context.  But for now, I'm dropping back to something simpler and possibly involving some Crazy Rich Asians.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Things I Can't Even Explain To Myself: Rereading

At a moment when I have 25 books out of the library, a bunch of exciting new releases buzzing around me, and personal recommendations thrust upon me, I am somehow right now doing more rereading than I've done in years. In addition to all the new books I'm in the middle of, I keep picking up old favorites.

I've been meaning to reread The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for probably years. I finally took it off the shelf this weekend when I realized that the movie is available on Netflix.  I've rushed through it and it's as much of a delight as it ever was; Juliet's letters remind me of Helene Hanff's correspondence in 84, Charing Cross Road. I'm a bit suspicious of the movie version, mostly because it's quite clearly a straight-up romance, and I didn't see the romance coming for the first two-thirds of the book the first time I read it.  On reread, I agree with myself; it's not a romance. It's a bigger, more deeply human story than that.

Then, while transcribing an old episode of the Reading the End bookcast, I was reminded of the existence of Sorcery and Cecilia, and so now I'm reading that, too, because Regency! Dresses! Friendship! Sassy narrators are great, but sassy letter writers are something else again.  I wish I could figure out how to tell an epistolary story. I just love the vehicle it gives you for tone of voice, when it's done well.

Finally, somehow, I find on my bedside table my copy of Archangel, by Sharon Shinn. Another romance, this one has a very formal narrative voice, quite the opposite of my other two reads.  I'm finding myself burning with rage on Rachel's behalf, maybe even more than the book intends me to.  Gabriel's a jerk (but I'm only a quarter of the way in). I'm realizing in this read through that some of the "forced to marry" elements here that seemed so romantic before now have me right brassed off.

There's a tag in some fanfic called "dubcon," short for "dubious consent," which means one or more of the characters are on board with shenanigans, but against their better judgement. It's a gray area that covers a lot of plots, and to each his/her own, but I don't like the "forced to do something and, once begun, realizes that maybe it's not that bad."  I don't like that in real life and I don't really like it in my fic. When Rachel is told that she has no choice but to marry Gabriel, it's not okay in the book.  She's been a slave, and her freedom was within her grasp when he takes it away again.  The fact that her new fate ends up being okay does not really detract from it being essentially another form of slavery.  Though, I'll admit, I haven't finished this reread; I'm curious how much nuance this issue gets.

So Archangel is getting away with something when it convinces me to love it.  Also, look at the cover it has to overcome! That might be the worst cover I've ever seen on a book I love.  And it's weirdly...symbolically sexual?  Or something? And yet I love the book.

Looking back over this, I realized that they are not just favorites; they are all three comfort reads.  This makes sense; it's been a bit of a rough month. I didn't realize I was doing it, but this looks suspiciously like self-care.  And yeah, I have a pile of library books to get back on top of, but darn if this isn't a freeing feeling--reading for the known quantity, rather than a battle with the TBR list. I feel nourished.

Good night!

Monday, August 13, 2018

SecUnit of My Heart

I was about to name this post Murderbot of My Heart before I looked back and found out that's what I named the post where I raved about All Systems Red, the first book in Martha Wells' incredible, delightful series about everyone's favorite socially anxious, warmhearted killing machine. I can't think of another title, because "my heart" has to be in the post name, because my feelings are going to overflow.

There have been two more books in the series since that first post, and the fourth and final novella comes out in October, at which point I will be buying it on release day and weeping that there isn't any more.  That's what I did with Artificial Condition, the second in the series.  I literally had "Buy Murderbot" in my calendar for that day, which Brenda (who can see my calendar) assumed meant I was feeling particularly stabby that day. (She is now also a huge fan of Murderbot.)

Artificial Condition was excellent; our beloved SecUnit (who doesn't really refer to itself often by name, and whom I don't like calling Murderbot because I love it and won't let it be down on itself) is investigating the events that led to its former murderous rampage, to try to determine how it happened. To get where it's going, it needs allies--like ART, a superintelligent research transport (who learns to love media)--and work, in the form of a security consulting gig that is pretty much as straightforwardly a terrible idea as it seems.

Along the way, our SecUnit meets nice people, pretends to be human, interacts with other bots whose feelings about autonomy are pretty intense, and has to beat up some bad guys.  And watch some Sanctuary Moon reruns, of course.  (I would very much like to watch Sanctuary Moon; if someone wants to create some sort of fan webcomic or something, I would Kickstart that).  In sum, this was great.

Today, though, I finished Rogue Protocol, which I was fortunate enough to get as an ARC from Netgalley for review (thank you, Tor.com!). Artificial Condition was great, but Rogue Protocol was even better.  Murderbot's investigation has expanded to include GrayCris, the company that tried to kill Dr. Mensah and the rest of the survey party in All Systems Red.  SecUnit is on the trail of proof of larger evildoing by the company, and would like to get evidence to help Dr. Mensah in her legal battle with them. That's how SecUnit ends up with another exploration team, this time investigating a decommissioned terraforming installation that is maybe way more dangerous than it seems.

I love how full of good people these books are.  It might seem kind of sappy sometimes, if there weren't so many bad people, too. But so many competent people are doing the best they can here that you can't help but enjoy watching them all work together. There is another AI character in this one, and watching SecUnit deal with its feelings about Miki--all of those feelings, many of which SecUnit can't quite pin down for itself--is really what makes this all worth it.

I love that this set of books has such a clear character trajectory, as SecUnit really processes what it means to be a free agent in the world--not just that you can choose your friends and causes, but that you almost have to.  It's so clear to the reader that SecUnit is, for some definition of the word, "human" that watching it figure that out for itself is a huge, meaningful adventure to be on.

Also, super competence porn.  I never thought I'd be so excited about armed drones.

However many stars there are to give, this book gets more of them. I will be shoving this book at people for months.  Go read it, please! Now!

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Revenge Fantasy Satisfaction

Jane Doe is a good title, but it's simple and hard to search for.  The book, though--the book is a blast.  Apparently I'm having a moment of loving my non-neurotypical narrators.

Victoria Helen Stone's new novel (she's written many others under a couple of names) is a methodical telling of a woman out for revenge.  It's one of those books that doesn't really have much of an arc, and you're propelled on less by tension than by curiosity--the character sets out to do something and you watch her do it.  You can't look away.  It's competence porn about destroying someone's life.

See, our narrator, Jane, is not like most people.  The word she uses for herself is sociopath, though I'm not sure she meets the clinical definition.  She says that she does feel emotions, but rarely, and not urgently.  She does have the impulse control problems and lack of guilt and shame that might come with sociopathy, but , as she points out, that doesn't make her a murderer.  She has no reason NOT to murder someone--no guilt, no shame--but she doesn't particularly want to, either.

Until, maybe, now.  Because her best-and-only friend was taken from her, and the man responsible needs to pay.  So Jane leaves her high-power job and dyes her hair soft blonde and gets a job as a temp in his office, and waits for him to notice her.

And the wheels are in motion.

This was the book that I wanted the YA book Premediated to be. Watching a master at work is pretty delightful, and honestly, it was just glorious watching a woman move through the world without apology, calling out all bull as she sees it.

Thanks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for steering me right with this one!

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Undead Girl Gang

Because the title is so good that I can't improve upon it.

I wanted this book to be great, because of the title and because of the premise: Mila doesn't believe that her best friend kills herself, so she brings her back from the dead (along with a couple of other girls) to figure out who murdered her.  Creepy, delightful romp!

Undead Girl Gang, by Lily Anderson, has a lot going on--possibly way too much.  I want to start with the fact that the Jennys read this at Reading the End last week, so check out their podcast for an excellent review that covers the good (friendship!), the bad (uniformly stupid adults), and the ugly (really wild misconceptions about suicide).  I agree with their entire review, so I'm going to cover most of this with some quick bullets:
  • The best part was the friendship that grows between Mila and her (resurrected) best friend, Riley, and the two other girls she accidentally brings back as well, Dayton and June.  "The Proper Nouns," as Mila calls them, have been popular bullies for years, but now they have a forced proximity/grudging respect thing going on, which is super charming.
  • The book has wild tonal swings from silly conversations about junk food to huge murder plots, but it skimps on some of the emotions you'd most expect in this situation, namely shock and any kind of existentialism. I don't think there's one conversation about what happens after the girls' seven-day resurrection is over and they go "back."
  • All the adults are horrible.  Mila's family is completely indifferent to who she is as a person, even as she's mourning her best friend. Her wicca mentor shoots up a house containing living people for VERY POORLY DEFINED REASONS. The school councilor seems pretty damned vapid (though I think the book tries to fake you out as though this was a misconceptions; I think it fails at that).
These are all the things that the Jennys lay out very well.  I think what bothered me most, though, was the logical inconsistency--or maybe just the failure of the plot to hold up if you look too close.

Which sounds dumb--I'm sorry, are there holes in your raising the dead plot? But the murder mystery gets extreme short shrift, to the point where you can use the Law of Economy of Characters to figure out who did it. I knew very early on, and I was hoping it was a fake-out, but no, it was just sitting there, right out front.

But going back to the beginning, there are all these moments where Mila figures something out--like "the murderer must be one of our classmates" and the book--neither in-story nor the author--does nothing to dissuade her from that.  Like, if there's a serial killer, it must be one of the students, because all the victims are high school girls.  I...don't think that's how crime works?

Or the wiccans are all "this is very dark magic; mess with the balance and it will turn back on you threefold," but....actually no?  There is (spoiler not spoiler) no actual magical comeuppance for the act of raising the dead.  That's a pretty big omission when a big plot line is about how bad an idea it is to raise the dead.  I mean, it actually goes pretty well, I think?

And without spoiling it any further, I will say that the explanation for why the killer did it failed to fit any kind of psychological profile I can imagine.  It was as though 75% of the book was written and THEN the villain was chosen and an explanation was given.  If you don't think back too hard and you squint your eyes, maybe it makes sense--his motivation makes sense--but nothing about him or his past actions or anything else fits in any way with the final explanation.

I'm sorry to be so moany--I will review a good one next.  And it was a sweet, entertaining book with a likeable but sourpuss main character and some charming friendships.  I was just not able to suspend my disbelief--in the emotional stuff, not the necromancy--enough to call it a good pick for me.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Literally the Best Ever

Romance is one of those categories that I think of as "I don't read much," but really it's more like "I like what I like and am meh on the rest."  I am mostly into historicals and rarely read contemporary. But now that I read Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (because so good), I end up putting the ones they love on my list.

This is how I read Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Date (also Roxane Gay's cover blurb), which was sweet but sadly did not knock my socks off.  And it's how I came to be reading The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang, which may very well be my new FAVORITE ROMANCE EVER.

Big, bold statement, I know. But oh my god, I keep having to put this book down to squee.  I keep telling my husband random things like "No, no, she's not stalking him, please don't think she's stalking him, it's a coincidence!" and "Sexual harassment!  Where is HR?" and "When will they admit it?"  It makes my little heart swell up.

Representation is a lovely and important thing that's going on here, with a half-Vietnamese hero and an autistic heroine, but honestly, that is an intellectual pleasure, and most of my pleasure here was visceral.  The sex (there's a lot) was like reading my favorite fanfic, in that it's both rather explicit and also under a lot of discussion, with a lot of conversations about what people like and what everyone wants. In my experience, fanfic sex is better than published sex, but this is an exception.

What romance needs is a reason for the protagonists to believe they won't end up together, and a reason for them to be together a bunch anyway.  The "fake dating" trope (catnip!) is going strong here, and while there are no reasons for them not to be together, there are believable reasons for them to think they won't end up together--real things that might be obstacles if they weren't both so wonderful.

I am writing this right before reading the end because I am so high on my excitement here that I wanted to talk about it.  I love how Stella's super logical mind works, and that we see her as a whole person--the strengths that autism gives her (her ability to logic her way through a lot of things), the weaknesses (the tendency to not realize she's said something hurtful), and the neutral things that aren't good or bad, but are just her (channeling her emotions into music; knowing what she wants; not being able to handle overstimulating environments).

I love Stella so much more than a lot of the impulsive and emotional characters who don't move through their worlds with enough sense.  Everyone here has so much good sense.  A++, would read again.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Backward Facing

Coming back after so long--well, I've read a lot of books in the past six months or so.  Don't worry, I'm not going to try to get caught up.  I'm going to hit the high notes, maybe a couple of low notes, and try to talk about the ones I got as advance copies, even though those are pretty much all out at this point.

A perfect example is Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, by Elizabeth Greenwood.  This book was published last August, so I've had an advance copy for more than I year; I read it a few months ago, though. 

This book has some great meat with maybe a little more filler than I'd like.  The author is inspired to start looking into faking one's own death after a joke she and her friends made while lamenting their student loan debt.  This is a fine jumping off point, but she kept coming back to the idea throughout--the idea that this is something she's considering, at least on some level.  Any part where she thinks about doing this herself is kind of thin.

That said, the research she does is pretty great.  I was especially interested in the death fraud investigators and the death fraud coach (my term).  The "coach" is someone who helps you live off the grid to whatever extent you want, and who "theoretically" understands how to go further than that.  The insurance investigators have seen the whole deal, though, and I would watch a trashy network show about them tracking people down to small countries in other hemispheres where it's pretty easy to bribe a medical examiner.

There are a few stories of people who got away with faking their own deaths for a while, which is about as close to a success story as you can come (true successes don't ever have their stories leaked).  People who were caught years later after setting up new lives. It appears to really take a sociopathic streak to do this--or a dearth of community ties, I guess, but each of these people left family behind in ways that come across as pretty harsh.

So yeah, a lot of fun stuff in here, with a little more about the author's personal and emotional journey than I wanted in this particular book. Something a little more reporter-style, a bit Mary Roachier, would have been nice, but this is a very solid outing. 

My first review in months!  Feels good.  I need to get my legs under me, though; I could be funnier.  Still, welcome back!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Back from the Brink

Hiatus? What hiatus? I don't know what you're talking about.

Seriously, I'm dusting off the keyboard and we'll see if I have words to say about things. I definitely have a bunch of books that I've read, though--quite a backlog, in fact. My Kindle--a new one!  April's battery ceased charging; my new Kindle bestie is called Protagonist and we're getting along just fine.

I love getting a new Kindle because it comes clean and pristine and I can just put the books I *most urgently* want to read on it.  This works for about a week. I think it's an ADD thing that every book it occurs to me to read is urgent.  Or maybe it's more that I'm afraid I'll forget about them, so every interest becomes an urgent one.  Anyway, we're up around 200 books on Protagonist.

That's what the blog is for! I can't delete the ones I've read till I talk about them!  So let's go through the advance copies that came out last year; the throwaway freebies that I don't actually remember anything about; the books I composed eloquent reviews for but never wrote them down.  Let's revisit.

Also! I work at a library now!  I have 50 books checked out!  It's gonna be a heck of a ride!

Next post Friday; talk soon, chickies!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Trashy True Crime Is Trashy

I have a big ol' soft spot for police procedurals (any kind of procedural, really), and I saw an ad for the new series Mindhunters, so when I saw the book by John Douglas on the library shelf I picked it up.

I mostly picked it up to flip through, and this is the kind of book that rewards that kind of dipping in and out, in that it's episodic with short descriptions of crimes and then how the author/narrator brilliantly solved them.  It's very much like a bunch of less-nonsensical episodes of Criminal Minds (because they took all their terminology from this book). 

So to that extent it's working for me?  I mean, I like watching the puzzle pieces put together, and descriptions of horrible things never really sink in very  much for me. so there you go. 

But the most notable thing about the first half of this book (and half of a 400-page book is a lot of pages) is that it's about the Mindhunter himself--this is a memoir.  We learn about his youth and the hijinks he got into and how he met his wife and the trouble he gave his superiors when he was in the Air Force and and and.  Douglas is fond of his own sense of humor; though he doesn't make jokes in the book, he describes funny incidents or jokes that he made.

And because a lot of it takes place in the '70s in the boys' club of the FBI, a lot of it is INSANELY sexist. Like, he describes his courtship of his wife with only about three anecdotes, and two of them involve him making humiliating sexual jokes about her in public. After dinner with a friend in a hotel restaurant, they're riding the elevator and he and his friend start talking about how much she's going to charge them the next time they're in town and who'll bring the whipped cream.  At their first pre-Cana class, he convinces her priest that they met at a topless bar.  She laughs in both of these anecdotes; I seriously did not.

He is very respectful of victims, witnesses, and survivors when discussing cases, but he describes every woman he dated and female colleague with what a bombshell she is, how attractive and vivacious.  He talks about how working with a female coworker put one of the Mormon guys on his team in a bad spot with his wife. I could go on and on.

Now I'm in the second half, and it's much more what I was expecting: crimes and their solutions, concepts like signatures and stressors, techniques like staging interviews and setting up stings.  All great.  But the sour taste of casual sexism and the super-macho life he's told me all about made me a lot more uncomfortable than all the crime.  Because this is what the good guy looks like.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Something on Sunday, 2/25

Sunday hoorays:

School vacation ends!  Sadly, not tomorrow in our district (THAT is a whole story), but Tuesday! So soon!

Bad Dates. Not, like, actual dates, but the play at the Huntington.  Sometimes you just need to laugh and cheer and feel happy, and darn if this wasn't a feel good play.  I am buoyed by having seen this play. The actress, Haneefa Wood, was a delight. 

I am reading so much!  Not blogging yet, but reading!  All hardbacks, weirdly, but gift horses can't be choosers, as the poet says.

We saw Jo and Tom and Oliver! It had been months.

This past week (and the next two) have been so incredibly full of drama that it's not even worth talking about. Sorry to be vague; it's mostly boring.  I appear to be politically active in my community now and it's kind of exhausting. But I am well and the drama is not going to hurt me, and in two weeks my responsibilities will be over and I will faint dead away. 

Until that day, I remain yours faithfully,
s

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Popular: A Memoir

When Library Amy mentioned Popular, by Maya Van Wagenen, and told me that the YA book club had read it, I thought it sounded super interesting. A teenage girl finds an advice book from the '50s on how to be popular and decides to try to improve her middle school experience. Amy strongly suggested I read it, but with an expression that said it wasn't perfect.

I've taken a peek at old books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and some of those old social guides that Dear Abby used to put out, and they can have decent ideas embedded in some very dated explanations. Make eye contact, ask people about themselves, laugh at least as often as you talk.

Maya starts out talking about her bottom-of-the-ladder, mostly-ignored, sometimes-bothered middle school existence, and it seems like one of those things where basic advice might, surprisingly, make a big difference. She decides to take on one chapter from this advice book each month for the school year, building on her experience as she goes.

So maybe you can imagine my discomfort when we get to the table of contents of Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide and find that every single topic is about getting pretty. We've got diet and figure, posture, skin and makeup, hair, and clothes.  Start off with the notion that these are the ingredients to popularity--not one of which involves what you think, say, or do in your interactions with literally anyone.

When you take these as starting points, the anachronistic nature of the text gets awkward really fast. On weight loss: "As for taunts from your friends--and they will taunt you--keep your chin up and your weight down." On hair: "When it comes to shampooing your hair, plan to save at least one night a week for the job."  On clothes: "For Heaven's sake, have a little pity on others and a lot of pride in yourself; put on a skirt when you're shopping."

The author picks some of these particularly rough quotes to include, so it's pretty clear that she gets what's wrong with this. But she doesn't comment on them, and she continues to follow the instructions. Dressing like a proper 1950s girl (in pearls!) is not what I was expecting her to learn from this.

Having said all that--this book is super enjoyable.  It's basically this girl's diary while she does this project for a year, and Maya is a really good writer. The fun part here is watching her step out of her comfort zone, and spending time with her family and in her community.  Her younger sister is autistic; her father is a college professor; they live in a small Texas town on the border of Mexico where there's a lot of drug-related violence and a great deal of poverty.  The family isn't very well-off, but they get along and seem incredibly sweet.  And if I wanted to smack her father when he teases her ab out a boy she likes--well, that's what it's like to be a teenager with a dad, right?

I'm only halfway through the book, so how I end up feeling will depend a lot on the conclusions Maya draws from these results, and especially on whether or not she calls out some of the really shallow advice the book has.  But whether she comes through for me or not, it will have been worth the read.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Something on Sunday, 1/21

A busy but uneventful week around these parts, except that I actually wrote two reviews for the blog this week! 

The guy from How Did This Get Made? did a solid to the world of romance novels this week.  After he got called out for mocking a cover on Twitter, he decided to read the book. It's a really great apology; check it out. (Also check out the blog this is from, SorryWatch.com, which is worth reading.) I guess when you're the guy who watches bad movies, you learn that there's something to appreciate that's worth looking for in surprising places.

My volunteerism is piling up these days, and my alma mater is having a donation drive they're calling the Teach It Forward Impact Challenge.  My understanding is that I donate money in the next couple of weeks and then a matching donor will multiply my donation by however many hours of charity work I do during a specific week.  Joke's on them--they picked the week when I have a Friends of the Library board meeting, a Friends event I'm working at, working in my son's third grade classroom, and just signed up to help do taxes for low-income people.  That is gonna be a heck of a donation!

Let's see how the rest of the week treats us. Tally-ho!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Murders of Molly Southbourne

It was the cover that sold me on this one, when I saw it on Netgalley.  I didn't even realize when I clicked request that it was from Tor (which is practically an automatic must-read), or even that it was a novella (which I figured out when I was 10% of the way in and shocked at how fast it was going).

Look at that cover.  The Murders of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson, has the title-cover one-two punch going for it.  The starkly pale face with the bright red streak of blood. How many people has she murdered? Is she even the killer?

From the beginning, where the character wakes up chained up in a basement, unsure who she is or where, we are left guessing.  A young woman comes in and says she needs to remember this story, cuts her own arm, and begins to narrate.

The novella is about Molly, who grew up on a small farm in England with her loving parents.  She is homeschooled and lives a solitary but happy life. Her parents guard her carefully, and no harm is allowed to come to her. When she is even slightly hurt--a small cut, a nosebleed--well, strange things happen. More mollies appear, which starts out fun but very quickly becomes dangerous.

My friend Katie once passed on a comment from her writing teacher: a novel talks about the turning point in a story, but a novella talks about the lead-up to that turning point.  In a novella, the end of the book is the Big Moment Where Something Happens. I'm not sure if this is meant to be a global truth (and I think I'm going to email Katie to ask), but I've thought about that a lot, and I think it's often true--good novellas frequently build tension all the way through at a steady pace and break the tension on the very last page.  It's not about the Big Moment happening or about the aftermath, but about the lead up to the Moment itself

I wouldn't have said that while I was reading this book, but in retrospect I think that's true. If it had been any longer, it would have had to be structured completely differently; I would not have been able to tolerate the steadily mounting tension, the difficult progression of Molly's life. 

But as it was, this was perfect; it's a perfect example of a story that takes a premise and spins out the life of the person who lives that premise.  Molly is curious and hard and strange and competent, and she has a life of many, many questions but very few answers. 

A very interesting story; I'm quite looking forward to whatever comes next for Tade Thompson.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Darkest Vision

M.T. Anderson wrote Feed, which is not to be confused with Mira Grant's Feed, but which is widely admired and which appears to have predicted the world of social media, though it was published in 2002.  I still haven't read it, but all those recommendations were what pointed me at his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand.

I got an ARC from Netgalley a while ago, but the format wasn't cooperating with my Kindle, so I ended up reading it when it came out, especially after I saw Librarian Sam reading it she told me how great it was.  I checked it out and started reading, and it is great--incredibly well written and perfectly portrayed. But my GOD, what a downer.

In Feed, Anderson anticipated the overwhelming role of social media in society; Landscape is about poverty, economics, and social stratification.  Basically, an alien race called the vuvv have introduced themselves to Earth, offered cultural and economic exchange, and some have come to live here. Their advanced technology changes everything.

In fact, it almost eliminates the need for a workforce.  Adam is a high school student and aspiring artist; his parents can't find work and everyone in his town is living hand to mouth.  Adam and his girlfriend sign up to be a vuvv reality show, where their dates are televised and translated. Of course, the vuvv's understanding of human culture is based mostly on old TV, so the only way to "authentically" date is to go bowling or for moonlit walks.  And if, at some point, they decide to break up, they might be in breach of contract.

This is a dark story, and it's very much about helplessness, and what you're left with when you not only have nothing, but see avenues closed off to you one by one.  When your health and your finances and your relationships are all collapsing, and there are no resources, and, and, and.  It reminds me of another recent read, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado, which is basically an account of being working-class poor in the US. There are specific points I would argue with that author, but her clear explanations of the logic of poverty just makes me outraged at everyone who fails to see that virtually every person is trying their hardest, and many of them are being screwed by the system.

Capitalism is rough, and a lousy social system. The vuvv treatment of humanity is exactly--precisely--how we treat the poor. The dystopia is that we're all living in the world that we've built for each other, but when we emerge from behind the veil of ignorance, we discover that we've all drawn the short straw that we expected someone else to get.

Well written and engrossing, I can't say it was a pleasure to read.  But it was worth it, and I actually liked the ending.  I couldn't have imagined an ending, happy or sad, that would satisfy me while I was reading it, but in the end it was what I needed. I definitely need to read more MT Anderson, though maybe not all at once.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Something on Sunday, 1/14

I keep thinking I'm going to pick back up with the blog posts and I keep not doing it.  I don't know why my word well is so dry these days. I'm reading good and mediocre and lovely books, ARCs that I want to share and fun kids books that my son is enjoying.

But I'm kind of mentally cocooning right now.  Maybe it's the job change, the change in my day-to-day patterns. I often stop chronicling my life just when I'm busiest living it, which means my journals are often REALLY boring.

Anyway, this week! I got my transcription project off the ground, and I'll link to it when it becomes a Real and True Thing, because I'm excited about that. Stay tuned for details!

I'm technically doing a friend-read of The Stone Sky, which I'm enjoying but SO SLOW about, so I'm the only one who's not done. I am determined to spend fully half of my time tomorrow reading it; I believe I can get close to the end by the end of the day. (And apologies to L and E for falling behind!)

Today is my mom's birthday, which is lovely, though I have not yet gotten her a gift.  I will think of something grand and glorious, make no mistake. She likes to travel; I'll find a way to put something toward her next trip.

I'm going to kick some serious butt in the upcoming week. I'm starting to feel like I have a handle on things, and I expect that I'm going to get some stuff done this week that convinces me I'm right.  Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Something on Sunday, 1/7

Welcome, 2018! Nice to have you here.  I suspect there will be some nutso craziness in store for us, but I'm optimistic that the good people of our world will start to stomp out the garbage fire.

My happiness for the week:

1) I finished a proof-of-concept for a project I offered to do for someone six months ago and then ghosted on.  It's been a busy six months (quit two jobs, etc), but I am determined to put in time every week on it now.  So that's tomorrow's goal: finish the next transcript and send two and a reassurance that I'm still here.

2) A really nice snow day.  Often I feel trapped, but we had a great time.  Baked a pie, rearranged Adam's room, played a new game, read our books, etc. 

3) Sledding AND skating today!  A winter sportstraveganza!

My other goal tomorrow is to write a couple of book reviews and get back on that horse.  New year, new you, right?  Right!

Welcome to 2018, everyone!  I wish you the best.