Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Read: 10 December, 2016

As I believe I’ve mentioned here before, I listen to audiobooks as I fall asleep to help keep the creeping anxiety at bay. It works wonders! Not only does it mean getting a little extra reading time in at the end of the day, it also means having something to focus on other than my own varied and myriad shortcomings as I try to lose consciousness. Win win!

This book did not work.

I knew I was in trouble as soon as Lawson’s first joke had me laughing at loud. Her voice (the audiobook is narrated by its author) is upbeat, and she tends to begin each chapter with a (rather loud) song.One of these woke my spouse and, after about 20 minutes of the bed shaking because we were both laughing so hard, I realised that this was not going to work as a bedtime book. Instead, it became my doing-the-dishes book.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever laughed so hard while doing the dishes.

Lawson’s reading style is very casual – she sounds like someone rather excitable telling anecdotes at a party. She gets caught up in her stories, occasionally even adding asides that I’m pretty sure aren’t in the text, and she is always careful to put the appropriate emphasis on words like “vagina.”

As much as I enjoyed the book, the narrative style was uneven. The stories of Lawson’s childhood – mostly found in the first half of the book – were great, but then a number of chapters in the second half sounded as though she had just reproduced posts from her blog without much editing. So while the book begins as a memoir, it then becomes a random assortment of vignettes – having a sleepover with friends, a collection of post-it notes left for her husband, that sort of thing. Each of these chapters is a whole unto itself, with a kind of thesis that is explained and resolved by the end, but that doesn’t fit with the larger themes of the book. Most of these chapters were absolutely fine, and I enjoyed them, but they felt out of place. Honestly, they read like filler – like Lawson wrote this book about her family, realised that it was too short, and padded it with blog posts.

Despite this one flaw, I really enjoyed the book. It’s not something that I would read again, but it was funny and entertaining and it made doing the dishes a whole lot of fun.

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    William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

    Read: 8 December, 2016

    As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

    These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

    At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

    But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

    The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

      The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

      Read: 5 December, 2016

      Immortal Life is a fantastic book about the HeLa cell line – immortal cells that kick started many fields of modern medical science.

      But the story goes beyond the clinical, exploring the life of Henrietta herself, her husband, her children, her many descendants. Much of the story focuses on Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her search to learn about the mother she couldn’t remember.

      It’s a heartbreakingly human tale of horrific medical abuse, crushing poverty, child abuse, Old Timey medical research ethics. It personalizes what have for so long been thought of as nothing more than a collection of cells in a test tube.

      The issues raised about ethical medical research are important ones, and Skloot gives us few easy answers. But they are things that we all should know about and consider.

      Even more important is the history of medical abuses towards black patients and those with mental illnesses. So much of the modern medical science we depend on today was developed through horrific experimentation on vulnerable populations. For that alone, this book should be required reading for all teens.

      I was aware of most of the issues brought up in the book, but getting to know Deborah and the Lacks family made it all so much more viscerally real.

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        The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

        Read: 16 November, 2016

        Casual Vacancy was a big depart from Harry Potter. Aside from being geared toward an adult readership, it’s a completely different genre – “slice of life” rather than fantasy. It tells the story of Pagford, a small town in the English countryside, in the wake of a city council member’s death. All stories come back, in one way or another, to that empty council seat and what it means to the lives of the town’s residents – from its wealthier members right down to the poorest.

        A big part of the magic of Harry Potter was the way in which Rowling created a world of stereotype characters – easily grasped and understood at a glance – then remained in their space until they started to come alive. And yet, strangely, they remained stereotypes, just stereotypes that we came to know and to care for.

        In Casual Vacancy, she does the same thing. We have the lower class girl with the turbulent home life, and we have the teen obsessed with living “authentically”, the over-achieving “tiger mom” immigrant who had a sort of arranged marriage, the social worker struggling with professional boundaries, the bored housewife fantasising about a singer in her daughter’s favourite boy band, etc.

        Each of these characters is and remains a stock. Rarely do they have traits that are not perfectly in keeping with their “type.” And, yet, we stay with them, we watch them, and over 500 pages, sheer time and care fills them out and makes them whole.

        It’s a remarkable process.

        Harry Potter had its horror and tragedy, but Casual Vacancy lacks its hope. The characters are petty and locked into their own experiences. They are hurt, and they respond by lashing out in a great web of misery. Worse, there is little resolution. Most characters end in the same position – or worse – as they started, or have only just set a course for possible change that is well beyond the scope of this book. It doesn’t revel in the pain, and it does have its moments of levity, but it’s easy to see how this might be a difficult read for some.

        One similarity between the two works that interested me is how both Harry Potter and Casual Vacancy work as representations of tyrants and how people deal with/react to them. In Harry Potter, the theme is placed in a fantasy setting, and the tyrant is defeated through valiance and friendship. In Casual Vacancy, however, things are a little bleaker. (SPOILER: And while the tyrant is eventually defeated, it is through the failure of his own body – a realistic fluke that offers that dim ray of hope to the town.)

        I doubt that I would have picked up this book if not for the author, and it’s easy to see why so many people were disappointed with it. It’s clearly Rowling’s writing, but this is something completely different, and marketing the book as “by the author of Harry Potter” does it a disservice. That said, it’s a solid piece of writing. Rowling did a great job showing us the complex web of small town life, and navigating between such a large cast of characters in a way that kept it interesting (in the sense that adult “slice of life” fiction is interesting – obviously not a genre for everyone!).

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          Old Man’s War #2: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

          Read: 7 November, 2016

          Like Old Man’s War, this sequel has a strong flavour of Starship Troopers. But it’s all the good Troopers and none of the bad. It’s what I wish Troopers had been – a fun read, compelling characters, mind-blowing future tech, with just a dash of “makes you think” philosophy. You know, without a bunch of self-stroking moralizing about how crime rates are so bad these days because parents don’t beat their kids like they used to.

          In this book, we leave John Perry behind and instead delve into the Ghost Brigade – a branch of the military comprised of the clones of people who signed up to join the Colonial Union, but died before they reached the correct age. These special forces soldiers begin their conscious lives as adults, they know no life outside of the Colonial Union.

          Unlike the regular soldiers, the special forces are created to be soldiers, and are never given a choice. This provides some very fertile ground to explore the idea of free will and choice – particularly the difference between choices and meaningful choices.

          Old Man’s War did a great job introducing the universe, and Ghost Brigades does an excellent job introducing the overarching plot. I see, now, how the story can be sustained over many more books, and I’m excited to read them.

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            Star Wars: Shattered Empire by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Marco Checchetto, Angel Unzueta, and Emilio Laiso

            Read: 27 October, 2016

            Taking place in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, this graphic novel features Shara Bey, mother of Force Awaken‘s Poe Dameron, as she meets a number of the Star Wars universe’s big names.

            I really can’t say that I loved Shattered Empire. The dialogue writing was passable, but not great. The artwork was fine, albeit a little showy, and lacked character. The plot writing was unfocused.

            The artwork felt a little too polished, and it bordered on the uncanny valley with the characters from the movies – trying too hard to make them recognisable. In some portions, it actually looked like the scenes were made with 3D models and then sketched over. There’s a certain stiffness, an inorganic Barbie doll-ness, to that art style that kept popping up. I also found that the action sequences lacked clarity, so that I had to skip ahead to figure out what I was supposed to be seeing.

            For the plot, each section of the book has Bey going off on a different adventure, each time with a different original cast member from the movies. The adventures themselves are interesting enough, but nothing ties them together, they don’t build toward anything.

            My last complaint – and this is with the Star Wars universe more broadly – is with the focus on parentage. I would have enjoyed Shara Bey just fine as a character without her being the parent of another character. I could have enjoyed Poe Dameron just fine as a character without finding out that his parents were important people who got to meet Luke and Leia.

            The parentage theme works with Anakin and Luke because that’s the story, “the sins of the father” and so forth. But there’s no reason to take it any further than that. We don’t need to find out that Anakin is actually the one who built C3PO, or that fan favourite Boba Fett’s father was actually the genetic pattern used for the clone army, or whatever is going on with Rey. These characters are all lovely and important on their own, without the need for intricate breeding certifications.

            What I loved about this book, and about the expanding universe in general, is how diverse they make the universe feel. And by retconning women and POCs back into the events of the original trilogy, they let me feel, for the first time, like characters who look like me can really matter in this epic story. I’ve always loved Star Wars, but the new canon is the first time I’ve ever felt loved back by the franchise.

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              The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

              Read: 25 October, 2016

              This is the story of the Grace children. After their parent’s separation, they move into their great aunt Lucinda’s old home – a house that has stood empty for years, ever since Lucinda went to live in a mental health facility. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur…

              The kid and I read the box set edition of this story, which combines all five books. Reading them all together like this, it’s hard to imagine how the series would even work as separate books. The first book stands alone all right, but the rest only really have a shared macro arc. They start, plot happens, and they end suddenly, without proper arcs of their own. Even the first book only works as a stand alone because it’s focus is on the initial discovery of the mythical creatures. My most generous guess is that the publishers didn’t want the whole story to look too daunting for emergent readers, but my cynical guess is that it was an attempt to cash in on the series format that’s been so popular with children’s books since Harry Potter.

              Taken as a whole, the story lacks a certain focus. There’s an excellent build in the first book, but then it starts to break apart. Things happen, but the atmospheric building is lost. Occasional references are made to the Big Bad, Mulgarath, but he doesn’t really feel like a threatening presence until the final book. It would have been better if his influence were felt more palpably throughout. As it was, the big boss showdown didn’t seem all that much more threatening than the smaller boss showdowns we’d been getting throughout the story. I wanted to give my kid a good scare, but Mulgarath just didn’t cut it.

              The strength of the series is in the characters. Every character, human and non, has a unique voice that made reading this aloud both easy and fun. I knew, even before I got to the dialogue tags, whether it was Jared speaking or his brother or a goblin. I also liked the way that each child character was special in their own way – Simon is the animal lover and Mallory is the fighter (and isn’t it wonderful for the girl to be the fighter?). Even Jared, who is your standard Gryffindor reader-insert hero character, begins to emerge as the artist as the story wears on.

              The series starts very strong, but loses focus. That’s not to say that books 2-5 are bad, but rather that they just kinda happen, and I think the kid and I were both getting a bit bored with the series toward the end. The awe of discovery of the first book was gone, and there wasn’t enough else there to sustain our interest.

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                The Magicians #2: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

                Read: 25 October, 2016

                Ever in search of his next adventure, Quentin sails out to Fillory’s far reaches to collect back taxes – a simple enough task that lands him back on earth with no way to return.

                In the last book, the narrative followed Quentin fairly closely. Here, however, our time is split between the present, where Quentin & co quest to save magic in the multiverse, and filling in Julia’s doings between Quentin leaving for Brakebills and their reunion.

                The back-and-forthing is an annoying narrative style and I hate it. I’m not sure what Grossman might have done differently, given the important information that Julia’s storyline gives us, but it’s irritating to start getting into the groove of one storyline only to be ripped out of it at every chapter end. I was enjoying both, but the transition pain was just too frequent.

                Julia’s story is an interesting one. It’s much more rushed than Quentin’s in the first book, but it resonated for me in a lot of ways. It certainly wasn’t an easy read, though, as it’s clearly modelled on addiction (and includes symptomatic behaviours and great heapings of depression). Unfortunately, it goes even further and includes rape. (SPOILERS: Why was the rape necessary? In similar positions, rape was never on the table for Quentin, so why did Julia’s ‘price to be paid’ have to be this? Grossman could have done anything to Julia to bring her to her lowest, and he chose the easy route of having her raped. I’m quickly losing patience for rape being the default bad thing that can happen to a female character, especially when male characters in identical situations are almost never raped.)

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                  The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

                  Read: 23 October, 2016

                  The Rabbi’s Cat is a slow, meandering snapshot of life in an Algerian rabbi’s household, as narrated by his pet cat. The cat begins to speak, and so the rabbi must prepare him for his bar mitzvah. The family gets a visit from cousin Malka and his pet lion. The rabbi must pass a dictation test to determine his rabbinical placement. The rabbi’s daughter marries, and the whole household goes to Paris to meet her new in-laws. Things happen, the characters talk and feel and live, and issues are resolved after a fashion, enough to make way for the next. I wouldn’t be surprised if each chapter had originally been published serially.

                  I picked this book out at the library, knowing absolutely nothing about it, because the cover looked interesting. Unlike the last time I did this, this time was actually a very pleasant surprise.

                  The artwork is beautiful. It has a lot of character, and it shifts with mood to enhance the storytelling. As I’ve been trying to read some more superhero comics, which tend to favour a more “realistic” style (albeit with idealised bodies), this kind of expressive artwork has been missing.

                  I also found that the style reminded me a lot of the French comic books that I used to read as a child. I felt very vindicated when I found out that the artist does, in fact, belong to the French graphic novel tradition!

                  The story itself is delightful. Most of the characters are fairly archetypal, but we spend a lot of time getting into the rabbi’s head. He’s a complicated person who is seen wrestling with his faith. In the beginning, it’s more intellectual, as he tries to teach the cat in preparation for his bar mitzvah and they argue theology. Later, when his daughter marries and he feels abandoned, it brings his grief over his deceased wife back to the forefront. It’s very touching, often funny, and so very human.

                  The novel had a somewhat mythic feel to it, particularly where the animals were involved. It read a bit like a parable, making its Jewishness all the more palpable.

                  I really enjoyed this one. It was cute, and heartwarming, and entertaining. The cat was amusing, and the storytelling was very well adapted to its medium.

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                    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

                    Read: 16 October, 2016

                    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, as you might imagine, a bit gimmicky. It’s the kind of book that looks great on the shelf and will never fail to elicit some titters. It’s a book that makes a great novelty gift, but that I can’t see too many people buying for themselves.

                    Because it really is a gimmick. Grahame-Smith adds fairly little to Austen’s original work. What does get added is a bit clunky. The writing doesn’t match Austen’s style very well, zombies notwithstanding.

                    The strength of Grahame-Smith’s version is in the world building – how a different era might respond to a zombie crisis, how such a hierarchical society might encoroporate zombie fighting training as another measure of class (the wealthiest are trained in Japan, while the lower echelons of wealth train in China). Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith is so bound by Austen’s writing that he doesn’t really go far enough with it.

                    I enjoyed the story, but mostly as an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Austen novels. What Grahame-Smith adds is a little weak, but still fun. There’s a joy in seeing Lizzie Bennett slaughtering zombies!

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